Roar, but do more

Tiger Tale

Countries choose their ‘national animal’ with great care and after intense deliberation. Until 1973, ours was the lion. It was replaced by the Royal Bengal tiger when Project Tiger was started in 1973. The tiger symbolises strength, agility and power.

Since 2010, both India and China have been rescuing and conserving their national animals – the tiger and the giant panda, respectively -- after a long period of neglect, resulting in alarming reductions in their populations.

India and China got the wake-up call in 2006 and 2004, respectively. China realised that the number of giant pandas had slipped to 1,596; tiger population in India had hit an all-time low of 1,411. Loss of habitats was the primary cause behind the drop in the numbers. China plunged into saving the giant panda. By 2016, the country had a bloated population of pandas. The giant panda, a global icon, had been moved from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

China invested not just massively but also strategically in panda conservation. New reserves were set up, existing panda habitats were expanded, and bamboo forests recreated and repopulated. Bamboo makes up 99% of the panda’s diet. China also established and promoted several panda research centres to breed pandas, educate people about protecting them. The government introduced draconian laws and severe penalties to protect the ‘national treasure’ of China from hunting and smuggling.

The tiger numbers in census 2018 were encouraging, after a difficult 2006. Census 2010 showed the rise in tiger deaths in Sariska, Buxa and Panna national parks. Thanks to the efforts since then, tiger numbers had risen to over 2,200 by 2014. International Tiger Day 2019 has brought us more good news: India is now home to 2,967 tigers, despite countless poaching activities, loss of habitat and other setbacks. 

There were 1,411 tigers in 93,700 sq km as per census 2006, 2,226 tigers in 89,164 sq km in 2014. The 2,967 tigers have been recorded over 88,958 sq km. We need to invest in sustainable forest corridors, infrastructure and manpower. Tigers may not successfully breed in smaller territories and under unsustainable conservation practices. We must stop going overboard with the claim of doubling tigers ahead of target. Our pride and chest-thumping on doubling the tiger population will prove to be short-lived if we do not lay down the law. Did we increase the tiger habitat land?

The paper tiger laws in India serve up little to no penalties for poachers and the tiger mafia. Laws against general offence under the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972, have been drastically weakened in the past decades.

Under the WPA, laying traps is a general offence which attracts a fine upto Rs 25,000 or a maximum sentence of three years or both. An offence involving a tiger, listed in Schedule I and II of WPA, committed within a sanctuary or natural park, attracts a mandatory fine of at least Rs 10,000, a prison term of three years which may extend to seven. The mandatory fine is at least Rs 25,000 in case of a subsequent offence, but no change in the prison term; prison terms between three to seven years, along with a fine between Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh apply if committed inside a tiger reserve. 

Unfortunately, tigers are still being beaten to death by villagers across the country. The latest incident took place two days before International Tiger Day, in a protected zone of the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve. Many tigers choke to death due to wire snares which are used by poachers to catch rabbits, deer and other protected species. More than 150 tigers have been poached every year in the past decade. The poached tiger, dead or alive, is worth 50 lakh in the illegal market. At this rate, will the tiger triple its population or nosedive to its pre-2006 levels? 

Check poaching

The Roman poet Decimus Luvenalis famously said, “Who will guard the guards?” Weak policies, lack of machinery, shortage of staff, a few corrupt forest officials, and the lack of zeal to enforce laws reduces the law to a glorified paper tiger. Poachers are working hand in glove with forest officials. Media, volunteers and NGOs put in laborious efforts to unearth poaching and catch the mafia kingpins. The forest officials watch in dismay as the criminals and poachers are either released on bails, even worse, let scot-free. Conviction rate for wildlife crimes is abysmally low.

The forest ministry must make regulation stricter and make it harder for poachers and wildlife traffickers to get bail from courts. Forest department staff must pledge to make no deals with poachers. The legal fraternity in the country must take a stand that they will not defend repeat wildlife offenders irrespective of their stature, political or economic clout.

Most instances of tiger poaching and illegal wildlife trade in India take place to meet the high demand in China and Southeast Asia. To make a bad situation worse, the Chinese government last year lifted a ban on tiger bones and rhino horns, which are used in their traditional medicine. Assam, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttaranchal witness the maximum number of tiger poaching incidents that cater to the illegal international wildlife trafficking demand.

China even stayed away from the tiger range countries’ third stocktaking conference in New Delhi. The Indo-Nepal border, Indonesia-China, Russia-China and Mekong-China are the known notorious borders for illegal trade in tiger parts. It is becoming increasingly difficult for India to control cross-border wildlife trade due to lack of data, international cooperation and machinery. 

While we have achieved doubling of wild tigers, can we pledge not to let a single tiger die? Can we put in a serious effort to increase public awareness of our national animal’s protected status?

(The author was formerly with National Geographic)

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