Thursday, March 31, 2011


There’s no joy in being a killjoy so forgive me for what I’m about to say, but say it I must. So tell the trumpets to trumpet no more, if at least for a while. Pull down the streamers from the walls and stop not to mourn for the king, for his naked corpse still lies in the forest, and his crown and skin and bones in a bag, waiting to be traded.

Perhaps we are celebrating the return of the tiger a little too soon.

Tuesday morning saw us waking up to some very good news in a very long time. Newspaper stories about the environment in the last decade or so have only perpetuated a sense of gloom and doom. But this Tuesday was different. Tiger numbers across the country, claimed the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority which replaced the much maligned Project Tiger), have gone up by a robust 12 per cent. On the face of it, this is definitely good news and perhaps the nation ought to congratulate one of our most involved environment ministers in a long time.

And yet there are a few questions that need to be asked. Firstly, in the absence of absolute transparency with respect to the census methodology, can one really be sure that the suggested numbers are truly indicative of stability and growth or are the new numbers a result of statistical extrapolations and manipulations?

Secondly, it is an undeniable fact that camera traps are an improvement over the traditional method of counting pug-marks. But have these new methods undergone tamper-proofing checks? Thirdly, how credible is the assumption that tiger numbers have gone up almost across the board when these same tigers have in fact lost almost two million hectares of prime habitat over the same four year period?

And with investigative and enforcement agencies all along the tiger range countries insisting that there has been an increase in cases of tigers being poached, of tiger bones and skins being smuggled and the like, the head seems reluctant to go along with the heart and joining in the celebrations.

All this cynicism might even be a little unfair to Minister Jairam Ramesh but faith in the claims of the government agencies in this country has been reduced to a bad habit kicked long and hard for most Indians. Credibility can only be earned back if occasions like the census are an annual affair instead of the ‘once in four’ affair of Olympic proportions that it currently happens to be. And the ministry’s methods have to be open to scrutiny and should be endorsed by non-governmental experts and agencies.

But my concerns don’t stop at that…

I was driving through a small forest just outside the Ranthambhore National Park some months ago with a local Meena guide and he told me a startling story. He said that villagers around Ranthambhore oft en supplement their diet and garnish their celebrations with wild venison and wild pork. Instead of hunting down deer and wild boar with their traditional bows and arrows, these poachers prepare food-baits with grains and molasses and then place small home-made bombs in them. When the poor animal bites the bait, the bomb goes off and in most cases kills the animal instantaneously. However, if the animal is unlucky, it might only lose a jaw or the muzzle. A slow painful death through blood loss and starvation would follow.

And this happens within the precincts of one of India’s most popular wildlife parks, which gets more attention than most from tourists and conservationists from all over the world as well as from the media and for these reasons is a priority even for enforcement and conservation agencies. And yet, the impunity with which these animals are poached underscores how vulnerable the forests and its denizens are and how toothless and impotent the protection mechanism.

After the fall of Sariska, India’s rusty conservation machinery creaked into motion yet again and with some degree of concerted and focused effort, has hopefully pulled back the tiger from its descent into the abyss, but we cannot afford to focus on the tiger at the cost of being oblivious to the plight of others. Following is a shortlist of endangered animals that have been forgotten in the din of the battle to save India’s tigers…

The Common Leopard

The leopard’s hardly common anymore. When the smuggling of tiger parts became a little more difficult than it used to be, poachers and traders started hunting down leopards. Leopard bones and organs are a steady substitute for the tiger in most markets. Reports say that for each tiger killed, six leopards have been skinned to keep up with the demand.

The Tibetan Antelope

The Tibetan Antelope or Chiru is an extremely endangered animal that wanders the frozen slopes in North Kashmir. The fine pelt of this graceful animal is woven into the finest shahtoosh shawls and scarves. And three to four chiru have to be slaughtered to make one shawl.

Once upon a time, Kashmiri weavers were renowned for their skill in weaving the most exquisite shahtoosh shawls. Aft er the ban on shahtoosh, the same weavers shift ed their focus toward pashmina. But in the volatile powder keg of Kashmiri politics, a former chief minister attempted to throw the fat in the fire by suggesting that the government ought to lift the ban on shahtoosh because it was essential for the economy of the state. But it did not occur to the good minister that with less than a 100 of these antelopes left in the state, the economy couldn’t hope to go too far on the back of 24 shahtoosh shawls.

The Sloth Bear

The famous dancing bears of India have been freed from the noose that forced them to dance but there’s a new threat that looms. The demand for bear bile and fat for traditional medicines in South- East Asia has led to widespread poaching of Sloth bears in the country. And tiny bear-cubs are battered to death because their paws are a vital ingredient in exotic soups in the same region.

The list goes on and on and on. Water Buffalo, Asiatic Lions, Elephants, The Great Indian Bustard, The Gangetic River Dolphin, The Rock Python and the Barasingha are all as highly endangered animals that are still hunted down for greed and sport. The state has pledged to protect them and owes them as much protection as the tiger but we are reluctant to learn our lessons until it is too late.

Sariska was a wake up call for the tiger. But most other species can’t afford a Sariska.

If the tiger indeed has returned then celebrations are surely in order, but as we cheer the big cat on, let us not leave the rest of them feeling like street urchins waiting for hand-outs at the end of the party.


No comments:

Post a Comment