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South Asia Monitor
The Tragic Tale of the Indian Tiger
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Tigers in India.

It is a national shame for India that its national animal is being driven to oblivion. Recently, it was found that the Panna National Park in Central India, one of the most prestigious tiger reserves, was bereft of the big cat. Only four years ago, the park had 35 tigers. In mid-2008, only one male tiger was seen there, and two female cats from neighbouring national parks were introduced into Panna to try and increase the feline population. But these females vanished as well. In 2006, another important national park, Sariska, in western India lost all its 26 tigers.

India's tiger tale is tragic and is written with the blood spilled from these majestic creatures. In the early 1900s, India had 40,000 tigers roaming its wilds. Today, one is not even sure that there are a thousand left. And with one big cat being killed every day by poachers – who continue to sell the body parts for highly dubious medicinal value – it may not be long before tigers in India can be seen only in zoos.

It is only in 1999 that illegal wildlife trade became organized, efficient and ruthless. Before that it was haphazard and opportunistic. And India with its huge tiger population and vast open forests that were practically unguarded became a haven for criminal gangs, who killed the animal, dismembered it and sold its skin and other parts for a variety of purposes, including so-called aphrodisiac qualities. China was a huge market, followed by South-east Asia, where tiger penis soup came closest to offering sexual nirvana.

Making poaching an almost kid's play was India's grossly callous and inefficient forest patrol. Often, guards live in utter poverty, and can be easily lured by the moneyed poaching gangs. For as less as $ 100, guards can be silenced, and perhaps for an additional $ 100 the villages surrounding a national park can be pressured into playing accomplices in a dangerous game of maim, kill and strip the cat. In a densely populated country such as India, poachers could not have had a free run for almost two decades without the active connivance of villagers, forest guards and perhaps even middle-rank officers. Besides, the number of men entrusted with the task of protecting a national treasure was woefully inadequate, and the very few among them who were honest found themselves vastly outmatched and outwitted by poachers, who had sophisticated firearms, ruggedly superior vehicles, state-of-the-art mobile phones and night vision glasses. On the other hand, forest guards presented a pathetic picture with usually no weapons, no vehicles and sometimes not even suitable footwear to crisscross wild terrains.

Despite all this, poaching can be effectively tackled with political will, something that has been lacking in India since the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1980s. There has not been another tiger friendly Indian leader. It was during her tenure that the Project Tiger was established to protect the animal, and the numbers actually shot up.

There are but only a handful of poachers and they can be easily brought to justice. But the Indian judicial system is extremely time consuming with a huge backlog of cases pending in courts. Obviously convictions are rare and bails are easily available. Poachers use this time to carry on with their nefarious activities.

Speeding up the legal process may alone be not enough. An intelligence-driven professional enforcement agency is by far the first step to check illegal wildlife trade. A crime bureau dedicated to check poaching is imperative. So too a complete revamp of the forest guard set-up. Unless their wages are hiked to realistic levels and they are given arms and vehicles, they would not only fight a losing battle with poachers but would also be tempted to accept bribes and look the other way when a tiger is butchered.

However, all these steps would be meaningless if the tiger habitat is allowed to be destroyed through human intervention or interference. The tiger is a species that cannot coexist with humans. Peacocks and Nilgai, for example, can, for they live on grains that people would feed them. The tiger, on the other hand, would kill milch cattle, and if it is not available the animal will turn maneater. This brings the tiger in direct conflict with man. And with human encroachments growing and spreading into tiger territory, the clash becomes imminent. Tigers disappeared in South Korea, Java, Bali and the Caspian largely because they came into conflict with an expanding human population. Also, human settlements on the periphery of a tiger reserve actually help poachers. They use villages as their bases for their deadly operations.

Sadly, the government and even some conservationists have little idea of how to go about saving the big cat. And the little knowledge that exists is not matched by will, with the result that the Indian tiger now lies in a coffin waiting for the last nail to be driven. The tragedy of the tiger is heart-rending.

END



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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