The disastrous fall in the tiger population highlighted in the latest census report, State of Tiger, Co-Predators and Prey in India, is hardly surprising. Since the last census in 2001-02, their number has fallen from 3,642 to 1,411.
Given a continental geographical area with a diversity of issues, it’s not easy to cite one determining factor for this abysmal state of affairs. The one factor that does come close to such a description is the criminal behaviour of wildlife officials. India has a plethora of laws and rules to preserve forests and wildlife. Yet, each of these is violated more than they are implemented. Where they are “implemented,” it is often to harass the poor on flimsy grounds. Poachers, of course, are above the law.
Unlike other laws, where violations can be taken to court, breakdown in forest laws attracts little judicial attention. The domain of laws such as the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, covers the far-flung and remote areas of the country. Therefore, corrupt officers of the forest departments can go about colluding with poachers with impunity. At the same time, as with other laws, there are inbuilt mechanisms that can subvert the best legislative intentions.
For example, the proceeds from the sale of tiger parts are much more than the annual salary of any forest officer. For poachers, it’s easy to part with substantial amounts to keep this trade going. With forest officers having a monopoly in observation, control and enforcement over wildlife issues, conflict of interest is a foregone conclusion.
This is obvious from the trend in the depletion of the tiger population across the country. While the numbers vary and factors such as forest cover contribute to the problem, the fall in numbers across the country (the steepest being Madhya Pradesh, 410 tigers less than the 2001-02 census) suggests similar factors at work.
There may not be any easy solutions left; legislation has not worked. Those in charge of executing the Acts could not care less and community forest control is not an answer either. When calls are made for “focused attention”, it must be remembered that it will only empower the foresters who created the problem in the first place.
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