The last of our tigers, says BBC Wildlife, might end up as trimming on a nouveau rich Tibetan’s choupa or as bottled tonic in a traditional Chinese medicine store. Doomsday prophecies about the tiger’s extinction have been doing the rounds ever since 1973, when Project Tiger was launched to try and save the Indian tiger population that had dropped from tens of thousands to less than 2,000 tigers. Today, numbers have fallen below 1,500 and even as you read these words, a tiger is being skinned by a poacher in at least one of India’s ‘sanctuaries’. Every few months, a poaching gets reported, disturbs the dust gathering on the Tiger Task Force’s files and before you know it, the dust would’ve settled and the wind would’ve died without a pug-mark to show for all the whistling and whirling. Last year in May, Sariska – the first sanctuary to be listed under Project Tiger – lost its last tiger. Dr. Manmohan Singh landed in Ranthambore to express solidarity and commitment for the cause of the tiger. Since his visit, another seven tigers have gone ‘missing’(an increasingly popular euphemism with forest officials) in Ranthambore.
But really, shouldn’t that be the least of India’s worries? With a government that is juggling votes between suicidal farmers on one hand and suicidal bombers on the other, does it really matter if the only big cats that remain in the country happen to be the ones that get chased by the neighbourhood dog every afternoon? Well Gandhi once said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” but its impossible to build a case for an endangered ecology by invoking an extinct ideology. And so what if I were to remind a billion busy Indians that the tiger isn’t just a big striped cat that prowls in the dappled light of a jungle trail but a regal emblem of our natural heritage that is being pimped away by a lethargic and corrupt officialdom. If we let the last tiger die, with it too might perish all that we cherish in each other – courage, dignity, grace… and perhaps even that most definitive of human virtues – compassion.
But what would a poor cow herd make of dignity and compassion when he has lost his cows to the tiger and his grazing grounds to the national park. Sitting by the roadside, selling what he can, he sees tourists by the Gypsy-full drive past his crumbling hut, the hungry cries of his children drowned by the busy chatter of weekend wildlifers. The fancy hotels get their ‘fat’ clients and the tourists get their stories and ‘shots’. Everyone is happy and the cowherd is forgotten. With nothing to gain and everything lost, when presented with the opportunity to make a year’s wages from a day’s ‘bloody’ work, not many in the cowherd’s shoes would let their traditional animistic beliefs stand in the way of a little profit. Thus a poacher is born who for less than a thousand rupees would kill a tiger by poisoning, shooting or electrocuting it. The same tiger, could be worth Rs 60 lakhs or more by the time it reaches the end of the distribution chain. Skins, bones and blood, all destined for one market – China, and while diplomacy, education and awareness programmes will do what it can, the faultline lies closer home. Unless local communities have a stake in the forests and their fauna and a share of the commercial proceeds through tourism, either through market mechanism or a co-operative system, the tiger and its neighbours would always be at loggerheads. But once involved as stakeholders, the forest communities would look upon the tiger as an ally who can transform their lives and that of their children and thus fight tooth and nail to defend it against poachers and habitat loss. And really, it doesn’t take much to ensure a tiger is worth more alive than dead, because the going rate for slaughtering a tiger is a mere $15. South Africa, with half of India’s ecological wealth, receives 10 times the number of tourists and earns almost twice as much through eco-tourism. All it’ll take is a little commitment from the powers that be to ensure a trickle down effect to the satisfaction of all parties concerned. There is hope yet for the tiger as long as we keep doing our bit, reminding the government of its responsibility toward both the tiger and the people it shares its domain with. May beyond lore and legend, echo the tiger’s roar/forever etched in heart and mind, and the forest floor...
Short takes on the big 3
India is bursting at the seams with its billion strong demographics. Forests become farmland and rivers get dammed – on the anvil of development, environment and ecology be damned. India’s threatened wildlife is not only a valuable natural resource but an invaluable heritage that needs to be protected for the world and its generations.
Tiger tiger... where? One glimpse of the royal beast is what they desire, when they trek in from the farthest corners of the globe. Its majestic bearings inspiring a swell in the soul unlike any other, this magnificent beast has been at the receiving end of a dastardly trade in its organs and parts. Thanks to conservationists and appeals by community leaders, the decimation might yet stop. India’s parks like Ranthambhore and Corbett could suffer a fate similar to Sariska’s if nothing is done, and fast. If the tiger goes so would our forests, its denizens and life too would follow.
A Tusker’s Travails: Both revered and reviled. Worshipped as an incarnation of Ganesha and slaughtered brutally for its tusks, the elephant in India has come into conflict with man as its traditional migratory routes have given way to farms and plantations. The so-called wildlife sanctuaries – Puranakote, and Kuldiha forests – of Orissa have witnessed the slaughter of nearly 10 elephants in recent months.
Horn Please: The horned snout of the largest of the Asian species of rhinos, the Great One Horned Rhinoceros, was cause for merciless mayhem in Kaziranga until a few years back. But with the courage and commitment of the rangers and co-operation from the proud locals – which ought to be a lesson to be taken home – the population of Rhinoceros unicornis is well on its trudge back.