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Missing Tigers
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Indian Tiger — An Indian tiger in Bandhavgarh in the state of Madhya Pradesh, a tiger reserve established in 1982. Until recently it was a hunting preserve for the royal family of Rewa.This is where the famous Rewa white tigers were discovered.Courtesy

The Tiger is India's national pride, and a national shame. Termed the country's National Animal, the Tiger has ceased to be the hunter in this day and age. Hunted down ruthlessly and butchered by poachers in some of India's most prestigious tiger reserves, this majestic creature now faces extinction.

In the beginning of the 20th century, there were literally tens of thousands of tigers in India's jungles. Their numbers began to fall when tiger hunts by Indian kings and nobles, as well as the ruling British elite became an outrageously popular sport. People flaunted their tiger skins and stuffed heads as a mark of their 'Shikar' prowess.

It was not until Jim Corbett, the legendary-hunter-turned-conservationist, made an impassioned plea to save the tiger, a challenge later taken up by India's late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that a semblance of realisation dawned on a nation oblivious to the importance of a national treasure such as the tiger.

Gandhi helped create a number of Project Tiger Reserves in 1973, a year after the Wildlife Act came into force that banned the killing of many endangered animal, reptile and bird species. As a consequence the tiger multiplied during the first decade of its special protection. Today, India has 28 Project Tiger Reserves, but park rangers and conservationists are now finding it increasingly difficult to stop the alarming decline of the cat population largely because of poaching for the animal's organs. These organs are then sold to 'herbalists' who prepare medicines for a ravenous Asian market.

About five years ago, international tiger specialists warned that India was losing one tiger every day to poachers, who sold the animal parts to China and Southeast Asian countries to be used as medicinal elixir. Tiger bones, claws and penis are touted to cure — though scientifically rubbished — particularly problems of male erection and boost physical vitality. The
economic development of these regions boosted the demand for these tiger organs, which apart from being the raw material for drugs became dining-table delicacies.

I still remember finding concoctions made from tiger parts in New York's Chinatown a few of years ago, and they were being sold with brazen openness indicating a thriving illegal trade which invariably originated in India.

The reason India is the focal point of the trade is not dificult to discern as wild tiger populations have been more or less depleted in most other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, India appears to be doing precious little to check the decimation of its wildlife, and instances of large-scale poaching have been coming to light with sickening regularity. Late last year, the Sariska Project Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan reported that not one of its 26 big cats there could be traced. Early this year, another Project Tiger Reserve, Ranthambhore, also in Rajasthan, faced a similar crisis: the reserve's figure of 47 tigers has been disputed by wildlife experts, who said that the number could not be more than 15.

It has become quite clear then that poaching continues with utter impunity. Raghuvir Singh Shekhawat, Deputy Field Director at Ranthambore, admitted that they had found three series of traps last December.

Wildlife activist Valmik Thapar said that Ranthambhore did not offer the worst-case scenario. There were at least 12 other Project Tiger Reserves where this majestic beast was being slaughtered. For example, the Buxa Project Tiger Reserve in West Bengal was supposed to have 27 cats, but a
recent probe could not find even a single faecal trail or pugmark. "The picture is grim all right," Thapar admitted.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs. A Tiger Task Force, appointed by the Government of India, recently submitted its report, which was illuminating. There is a big shortage of field staff in the Project Tiger Reserves, and the guards are often ill equipped to tackle the evils of poaching. While poachers use sophisticated vehicles, weapons and night-vision glasses, the forest guards find themselves without even proper footwear, let alone firearms.

Even more serious, the conviction rate for wildlife crime in India is abysmally low, hardly ever beyond two percent. The classic case of Bollywood star, Salman Khan, caught killing an endangered black buck — though not a tiger — for amusement and food — though not for commerce — makes an interesting study of India's legal system. Khan committed the crime some five years ago, and was sentenced by a lower court to five years' rigorous imprisonment. But he is now out on bail after being incarcerated for just two nights. He has the right to appeal to a higher court. The question is, will Khan serve time in jail at all?

Another celebrity case was that of India's cricket legend, Nawab of Pataudi, who was, a few months ago, caught hunting for sport a deer, also on the list of endangered animals. The case is still ongoing.

Although no Indian celebrity has yet been found hunting a tiger, men such as Khan and Nawab not only make a mockery of Indian laws, but also appear to be pushing hardcore poachers into believing that the law is ineffective, and even more so its implementation.

As things stand now it sems that poaching thrives, and the poor tiger continues to find itself landing in someone's medicine chest or on some rich and unscrupulous person's dining table.

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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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