Thursday, April 12, 2012


Ram Bhil must have been in his fifties, of middle height and a slim wiry frame that must’ve known some strength in its youth, and a child-like smile that suggested a rather simple view of the world. His brothers were soldiers, and he believed he was a soldier too. But unlike his brothers in Siachen and Manipur, he did not prepare for battle believing he would win, and unlike them, he wasn’t prepared to die for a lost cause either.

He believed his ancestors had fought against the Mughals, alongside the indomitable Ranas of Mewar. “It isn’t in my blood to give up and run away from a battle… I would lose honour and my family, even my children would be ashamed of me. But this is not a fair fight… I am too old, too weak… I have nothing but a stick, or an old rusty rifle with a round or two to spare if I’m lucky… there is no plan, no teamwork, no coordination and very little reward, remuneration or recognition… what do I fight for? What will I fight with?”

Sariska had lost the last of its tigers and had just received a gift of a breeding pair from Ranthambhore when I went there looking for traces and pictures. It was during the rains of 2010 and the park was supposedly closed to tourists. But I knew I would be allowed inside anyway. Two days a week, Sariska opens her gates to all comers who pummel into her heart on tractor trailers, buses and truck-beds in a cacophonic cavalcade of men, women and children, ostensibly on a pilgrimage to the temples inside the forest. But huddled amongst those pilgrims would be poachers and their scouts, reconnoitering, prospecting… Perhaps one of them would be carrying a pouch of aldrin crystals. Lace a deer carcass with a handful of those and you would’ve gotten yourself a tiger, dead enough to be dried and skinned and carved for clients as far away as Lhasa, Kathmandu and Shanghai.

While checking at the gate is rudimentary, the pilgrims are only one amongst a horde of other threats to the tigers and the forests. Ram Bhil is at the forefront of the battle to save the tiger. He has been a forest guard in Sariska for a long long time. He has driven out a poacher or two in his time. But they were after wild boars and sambhar, not leopards and tigers. Once, an unarmed Ram Bhil out patrolling the forest stumbled upon an armed poacher and tried to catch him but he had to run for cover after he was shot at. On another occasion, he chanced upon a group of villagers who were carrying spears, axes and country made muzzle-loaders. He challenged them and asked them to surrender their weapons but the group roughed him up and he believes would have killed him if he hadn’t escaped. He knew they were up to no good but when he reported the matter to his seniors, nothing was done about it. When he asked for reinforcements or modern weapons and communication equipment and radio sets, he was told there was no budgetfor it. “Bees saal se koi nayee bharthi nahin hui hai sahib. All the guards here are like me… just too old to put up a fight. These tigers are doomed and there is little I can do about it.”

Since that chat with Ram Bhil, two more tigers have been transferred to Sariska from Ranthambhore and one of them was found dead. Killed! Poisoned! Maybe it was one of those guys sitting in the tractor trailer with a pouch of aldrin in his hands. Or maybe it was one of those villagers from the two villages inside the park. Who knows? Surely no one from the understaffed and clueless park administration. The guards will give you names under conditions of anonymity and some of the villagers at the Hanuman temple inside the park will nod at the mention of those names, but that’s about as far as it goes.

And what happens in Sariska is a microcosm of what ails most tiger sanctuaries in this country. They are all fragmented islands of wilderness surrounded by an ocean of cities and towns and megapolises. Ringing these pockets of forests are tribal forest communities which have been disfranchised by new conservation laws that have taken their traditional way of life from them. These communities resent the tourism-economy built up around what had traditionally been their resource – the forest. And the economic fruits of what was once their forest almost never reach them. This is why some of these foresters feel they are morally justified when they become poachers. They believe they are only reclaiming what was theirs and had been denied them.

In the cities and towns that ring these villages prowl people who know they can exploit this angst. They know of the hundreds and thousands of dollars that people in lands far away are willing to pay for a piece of the tiger, the leopard, the elephant or an otter or a rhino. And so the chain of events are set in motion that lead to a tiger or a leopard or an otter being killed every few months in one or the other of India’s ‘protected’ national parks.

I have always maintained that the solution to conservation of and more importantly, a reclamation of territory and rights for India’s forests and its wildlife is educating communities that form the market for wildlife products and at the same time sharing the fruits of India’s eco-tourism economy with those whose lives are intertwined with the forests that sustain that economy.

But what is increasingly likely is the possibility that by the time the education spreads and changes the buying behavior of the next generation and by the time mechanisms are in place that will integrate forest communities with various eco-tourism ventures, it might be too late for most of India’s tigers and other wild denizens.

If we are to save the tiger we need to go beyond just education and profit sharing. Tigers are unfortunately a commercially valuable commodity for all concerned. From hotels and travel operators and wildlife photographers and film-makers to poachers and trophy hunters and TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) stores from China to San Francisco, everybody has a stake in the tiger. Unfortunately for the tiger, those who want the tiger dead and dried in a packet are far more efficient, far better coordinated, and much better equipped to kill a tiger than those who want to keep it alive and thriving in our forests.

Ram Bhil and his fellow long in the tooth and short on ammo forest guards have given up the fight and it really isn’t their fault. And fighting for the tiger on facebook or through signature campaigns would be too little even if not too late. The need of the hour is a well funded, well trained and well equipped set of protection units and intelligence units that work in cohesion to prevent instances of poaching.

Once in a while, you would read in the papers about a consignment of skins being apprehended in transit. But when was the last time you read about poachers getting caught or shot in a forest before or even as they were about to trap or kill a tiger. Until the day you read that in your papers, you would know that the tiger is fighting a losing battle.

The good news is that around the world there have been such crack units that have been set up and for a while all has been good. Poachers are apprehended, some even killed, middle-men are arrested and skins and bones confiscated. But the disturbing fact is, it doesn’t last long. Next issue, in the last episode of this tiger trilogy, we will explore the viability of such units in a dysfunctional democracy like ours and yes, like I promised, I would tell you what you could do for the big cats if you care enough, beyond just sharing your angst over social networks. Until then, keep ‘roaring for the tiger’ like you care… even if the tigers can’t hear you, we believe you!


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