Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An Ode for The Tiger.

Tigers are facing extinction. And with it also our chances of future survival. Over the years the number of tigers have dwindled down dramatically. Poaching has already erased it from some sanctuaries like Sariska and in the rest where they remain, they are fighting a constant battle to survive against the rampaging forces of man. What is most disheartening here is that a government initiative like the Project Tiger has done but little to save the tiger from facing a slow extinction. While the government continues to make tall claims about the achievements of the Project, statistics and naturalists have painted a different picture altogether. And this has raised the alarm among conservationists because poaching is on an all time rise. And along with it fears have risen that our coming generations might not get to see this magnificent beast.

The Project Tiger was the Indian government’s mammoth attempt to put tiger conservation under the official scanner of the government. Launched in 1973-74, the project aimed at tiger conservation in specially constituted ‘tiger reserves’, which are representatives of various bio-geographical regions falling within our country. Under the Project Tiger, various tiger reserves were created in the country on a ‘core-buffer’ strategy. The core areas were freed of all sorts of human activities and the buffer areas were subjected to ‘conservation oriented land use.’ Nine tiger reserves were established in different states during the period 1973-74, by pooling the resources available with the Central and State governments. The WWF also gave an assistance of US $1 million in the form of equipments, expertise and literature.

Over the years, the government has made long claims of huge success in this area. But recent statistics and suggestions by naturalists have formed a different picture altogether. Poaching has steadily risen with Sariska, one of the reserves under Project Tiger, being left with no tiger at all! The situation had become so bad that tigers had to be imported from the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve to Sariska. And the situation is still is not going well because out the three tigers (one male and two females) that had been brought to Sariska, the male has refused to adjust to its new surroundings. Now the situation has become such that one can only speculate if Sariska will ever see tigers flourish in its jungles again. Corruption in the beaurucratic system has infected the efficient functioning of the Project with the evidence of the rise in poaching in recent years. There have been several cases of poaching reported this year from sanctuaries like Manas and Kaziranga in Assam. And the brunt of poaching has fallen on other endangered species too like the One-horned Rhinoceros.

Ask tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar what he thinks about the prospects of the tiger’s survival in the near future, and he gives you a dismal picture. For him, it is the worst wildlife crisis that India had faced post-independence. And Sariska proved to be the national embarrassment in this case! Certainly, Thapar speaks from a position of authority. He has been tracking tigers for nearly three decades, keeping a keen eye on the cats, spending hours shooting them with his camera as well as watching them hunt, sleep and play. He has campaigned for their protection and fought to preserve their habitats. He insists that today the poachers have finally gained the upper hand and are mercilessly laying traps for the great cats. What’s more, the forest protection machinery seems to have collapsed completely.

Thapar heard the warning bells in early March when a census conducted in Sariska by the Forest Department, which was supervised by the empowered committee set up by the Supreme Court revealed that the park had been wiped clean of its tiger population by poachers. The tiger count in June 2004 stood at 16, but, according to the survey, the tigers had vanished entirely by October. One person who has responded swiftly to the conservationists is Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Soon after the Sariska report, he called a meeting of the National Board for Wildlife of which Thapar is a member and also agreed to create a National Wildlife Crime Prevention Bureau. The Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court is an administrative body which looks into environmental cases which come before the court. It also began an inquiry into the crisis. Thapar is also a member of the committee. Then, the CBI’s recently formed wildlife squad instituted an inquiry and backed the finding that Sariska’s tigers have vanished.

Today the beast is under grave threat in reserves across the country. According to Thapar, the solutions lie in setting institutions right. At the meeting of the National Board for Wildlife, Thapar pushed for the splitting up of the Ministry of Environment and Forest. He’s pushing for an environment ministry that deals only with issues like pollution, CNG and urban environmental problems. Then, he argues, there should be a separate forests and wildlife ministry. But only time will tell if any of these suggestions will ever be implemented. Plus, one is also forced to think how much of reforms in the institutions will give positive results after analysing the results of a government initiative like the Project Tiger. People like Thapar will continue to stand by the tiger in this testing time, but the fact is also that how much aware can the people get regarding the preservation of this magnificent beast. Poaching and trading in tiger parts are the biggest threats to the tiger today. Unitl the government comes up with some proper alternatives to quell them, there can be no hope for the tiger. Especially in countries like China, where officialisation of tiger trading has jeopardised the chances of the tiger’s survival there.

Therefore, it is now very essential that a ‘preservationist’ approach is taken towards the conservation of the tiger. Otherwise the day is not far when our coming generations will get to see the tiger only in pictures!

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