Tigers in a tight spot

Tigers in a tight spot

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has expressed concern about the fate of the tiger in India. He should be concerned. Lopsided incentives at the state level, ever-increasing hunger for land and viewing the majestic animal as a menace have contributed to the present mess.

Last year 60, tigers perished in the country, almost double the figure in the year before. This year alone, six tigers have died, three of them in sanctuaries. By one estimate, only 1,411 tigers are alive in India. Far from being the lord of the jungle, the tiger needs protection—protection that is not forthcoming.

This is a difficult task. Though India has natural reserves where human habitation is banned, much of this ban is observed in violation. The will to police these areas at the desired effort level is weak. For politicians, it makes sense to allow local communities to enter and exit these parts without let or hindrance. From this flows the logic that these communities be allowed to participate in conservation efforts.

There is, however, a life beyond everyday logic. Local communities are often very poor and live at the subsistence margin. For them, a tiger’s tail is more valuable than a living tiger. It is also unfair to expect them to do much on this front.

To compound these problems, governments often fail to think clearly. The forest rights Act that allows forest dwelling communities land titles is a case in point. The law was badly needed: Forest dwellers had been subjected to injustice for long. But the law is in conflict with conservation efforts. It is mistake to believe that tigers and humans can occupy the same space and thrive happily. The Union government did not think this matter through.

Because the stakes are so loaded against the big cat, coercion alone will not work. Tiger conservation needs smart economics. The Prime Minister could offer state governments willing to protect tigers monetary incentives, say X amount per tiger saved. The higher the number of tigers saved, the larger the value of X. For these cash- strapped governments (Rajasthan and Uttarakhand being prime candidates), the colour of money holds more promise than mere phone calls from the Prime Minister’s Office.

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