“It’s not another tiger crisis, it’s the final one,” says Belinda Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, in reference to the dwindling population of tigers worldwide. This decline is most serious in India which is home to 40% of the world’s tigers, with 23 tiger reserves in 17 states. Last year was the worst year for tiger deaths since 2002. It seems apparent current measures taken towards preserving the species are ineffectual and that the situation has reached crisis point. Decisions made by the Indian government in the next few years will determine whether the tiger, the National Animal of India and a symbol of strength, intelligence and endurance, will continue to exist in the wild.
At the turn of the last century, there were an estimated 45,000 tigers in India. Due to excessive and extravagant hunting among India’s elite and the destruction of habitat throughout the 20th century, by the time the Wildlife Protection Act was introduced in 1972, the number of tigers in India had dwindled to approximately 1,800. The challenge was a daunting one. However, there was hope for the tiger. The Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi launched Project Tiger and forests were set apart where tigers could live under special protection. Numbers started to rise but urbanisation, business exploitation of the forests, tourism and – most seriously – poaching have prevented substantial recovery and now threaten to bring about the extinction of tigers in the Indian wilderness.
Tigers are poached for their body parts; the skins are prized in fashion and their bones are used in Chinese medicines. Poaching is a lucrative business. Tiger pelts can fetch up to $12,500 on the Chinese market. Because of the incentives for poaching, it is imperative that there are strong deterrents against such activity and that the tiger sanctuaries are tightly secured. Unfortunately, this is not the case. According to Dharmendra Khandal, the Field Biologist for Tiger Watch, the authorities are always the last to act and poachers can easily elude the guards. The forest security suffers from inefficiency and complacency; Fateh Singh claims the authorities are too preoccupied with tourism and VIP outings to spend adequate time on protection.
The failure of the authorities to put a stop to poaching is an embarrassment for individual reserves and a blow to the national image. Subsequently, the figures of tigers in India’s reserves are often exaggerated and incidents of poaching are not reported. “They are always saying that the numbers are on the increase, but there is no proper scientific research. They are lying to save their skins. If they have a problem they should declare it. The authorities like only praise,” says Fateh Singh, the founder of Tiger Watch. Furthermore, the figures are distorted by ineffectual and unreliable methods of counting based on pug marks. New camera techniques have been introduced and recent reports place the tiger population in India at 1,411. However, few experts believe this figure and some conservationists have estimated a count as low as 800.
Clearly, the government lacks the drive and efficiency to protect their tiger population. Luckily there are non-government organisations and groups who have taken it upon themselves to protect tigers and their habitat. One of these groups is Tiger Watch. Tiger Watch is a privately-funded organisation set up 12 years ago to curb the decline of wildlife in the Ranthambhore reserve, one of India’s most popular tiger reserves. Having worked closely with the police to tackle the most serious threat to tiger security in the reserve – poachers from the Moghiya tribe – Tiger Watch has helped the police arrest 47 alleged poachers from the tribe. The association has also worked with the Moghiya tribe, providing education and jobs for the women as well as employing informers in an attempt to change the culture and perception of these tiger-hunting people.
Another active group exists in the Periyar tiger reserve in Kerala, where 76 women have taken protection of the tiger into their own hands. Known as the Vasanta Sena (Green Army), they venture into the forest every day to patrol for poachers. Each woman takes one day off work a week to volunteer. One such woman is Gracycutty. “Here we breathe the best air in the world and we are dedicated to protecting it,” she says. “I think if there is only one tiger left in the world in the end, it will be here.”
Such efforts are admirable but the threat faced by the tiger is too serious to be solved by individual organisations; a complete reform of the system and an active interest on the part of the government are necessary in order to preserve the tiger population. However, the instability of the Indian political climate makes this very difficult. Maoist guerillas or Naxalites, who have been singled out as the greatest threat to Indian security have overrun at least six of the parks. Under these circumstances research and preservation are impossible for the forest department.
So what hope exists for the tiger? Some think a captive breeding system will ensure the continuation of the population but tigers bred in captivity have yet to integrate into the wild. Furthermore, this measure would only work if the tigers’ habitats are sustained. Fateh Singh is hopeful in the tiger’s capacity to endure. However conservationist and tiger expert Aditya Singh is not so sure. He believes that once the connections between the reserves break down, there will be no hope for the tiger. “There are still connections between the reserves, but in five years they won’t be there,” he says. “I think the tigers have five years. They will stay in isolated pockets, but they will have reached an evolutionary dead end.” The issues affecting the tiger reflect larger problems faced by the country.
The tiger is a victim of overpopulation, illiteracy, poverty, inefficiency and insurgency. Solving these issues is essential for the fate of the tiger but also for the Indian nation.
All species of panthera tigris are classified as endangered-to-critically endangered.
There are only an estimated 5,000–7,000 tigers in the wild of all subspecies.
There are six sub-species: Amur, Bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, South China and Sumatran.
The other three known sub-species– Bali, Caspian and Javan– became extinct during the course of the twentieth century.
The Amur tiger was almost hunted to extinction in the 1940s, when it was estimated only 40 or so individuals remained in the wild. Today there are an estimated 500.