Thursday, September 6, 2012

TIME FOR THE TIGER

I love tigers. I want them to survive, claw their way over the cliff, make lots of cute cubs, and walk forests without fear, the way evolution intended them to. I can sit and read all day about the tiger’s power and grace, and tales from the forest from foresters of yore. But, frankly, I’m sick of reading about politically motivated policy makers, publicity-mongering fame seekers and profit-hungry corporations pawning the cat’s future for their 15 minutes of fame.

Some like the social network fuelled campaign ‘roar for the tiger’ is just a useless waste of well meaning effort and some like the recent interim ban on tiger tourism is thoughtlessly elitist at best and potentially lethal to the tiger’s future. The tiger needs us to get involved with its life and see it through to safety, not leave it unprotected and vulnerable in isolation.

When I first read about the proposed ban, I personally felt violated. The forests are my forests too, aren’t they? My presence there can be regulated but can it, should it, ought it, be dismissed? A little more research revealed that the matter was still being debated and the apex court had only passed an interim judgement.

Though I’m sure the Honourable Supreme Court bench has the best interests of the tiger at heart, I would beg to differ from the court’s perspective on the matter and present my argument on the matter at hand.

The court’s current stand on the matter, that core zones in tiger sanctuaries should be off limits to tourists has been triggered by a public interest litigation filed by Prayatna, a Madhya Pradesh-based NGO. The man in the eye of this storm is Prayatna’s frontman, Ajay Dubey, a social activist who has previously campaigned against illegal mining and plastic waste. The jury is out on the intentions of the man – is he just another publicity- hungry activist, desperate to ignite a media circus that has effectively catapulted him and his NGO into national prominence? Or is he genuinely, even if misguidedly, trying to do all he can to ensure the tiger’s future?

Either way though, Ajay Dubey’s campaign will endanger the tiger’s future far more than a highway running through the heart of the park could have ever done, unless the apex court can be urged to drop this directive.

Tourists don’t kill tigers. Period! And nor are tigers poached during the hours when tourist jeeps are scurrying about the park with their gaggle of tourists

We might be an audio-visual eye-sore with our bright and shiny lounge-bar outfits and Ek Th a Tiger jokes, but tiger poachers we are not. In parks like Ranthambore and Kanha, there might be a case for regulating tourist inflow because some experts believe that tourist pressure might stress the great beasts. But having said that, one shouldn’t forget that in all parks, tourists are confined to a handful of trails running along the periphery of a tiger’s home range, which could be anything from 20 to about a 100 square kilometres. The tiger could easily disappear from plain view and into thick brush, and resurface in a clearing a kilometre away, far from the prying eyes of goggleeyed tourists and the whirring of their furiously fluttering shiny new SLRs. The tiger is seen only when it wants to be seen.

Pictures, photographs or words, nothing can quite capture the primal majesty of a wild tiger the way seeing one in the wild can. I remember once in Jim Corbett National Park, we had tracked this large male over rough ground for half-an-hour before we saw him break cover and bound across a clearing before disappearing into the brush. We had our cameras ready and trained on the spot but as the tiger emerged through the leaves and the mist, like a flame leaping through the forest, not a finger moved, not a breath escaped as steely muscles rippled under that striped coat and just as suddenly as it had appeared, the tiger vanished, leaving a trail of scorched mist, dust and dry leaves in its wake. The cacophony of alarm calls from the forest denizens had gone quiet. All we could hear were our breaths and that loud thumping in our chests. It was a sublime moment.

So why would Ajay Dubey want to take moments such as these away from us. On the face of it, Dubey’s petition seems to suggest that tourism makes the tiger vulnerable to poaching and therefore should be regulated or even restricted.

But even rudimentary investigations would reveal that poaching of tigers is usually done by disgruntled locals, and in secluded zones that are far removed from the prying eyes of us nosy tourists. So what’s Dubey aiming at?

In one of the interviews in the aftermath of the court’s ban, Dubey came down heavily on the resorts protesting the ban by saying that their business practices were exploitative. And here one’s got to agree… the man has a point. Tiger tourism is a ‘million dollar business’ but little from those millions ever reaches the local population or benefits the tiger. The state governments and the corporations grow fat on the tourist cream while the tiger and the local forest tribes squabble over their share of the forest. This impoverished state of neglect and conflict makes it easy for interest groups to make willing poachers out of regular villagers and setting of this cycle of destruction. And the blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of the government and resort owners.

For what it’s worth, here’s my two bit for the Honourable Supreme Court’s kind perusal in the interests of securing the tiger’s future…

i) Bolster park security

India’s wildlife warriors at the frontline, the foresters and forest guards, armed with just a staff and an ancient rifle if they are lucky, who man our forests and are expected to protect our tigers from poachers equipped with sophisticated weaponry, are ageing. Their average age is steadily, creeping towards fift y. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many parks haven’t recruited a fresh pair of legs in more than a decade.

The court would do well to impress upon state governments the need to fill up all vacancies in the forest department. Just as important is the urgent need to equip these protectors of our tigers with state-of-the art weaponry, communication sets and nightvision tools. Without these two precautions, you could ban tourism all you want, but the undefended tigers are still going to disappear.

ii) Resorts and their responsibilities

Although they might not see it this way today, it is in the interests of a business to conserve and invest in the source of its revenues. Hotels and lodges and all businesses in general that depend on tiger tourism out to plough back a certain predetermined percentage of their profits back into conservation projects of their choice and local community development.

Secondly, at least 35-40 per cent of the workforce in these resorts and lodges should necessarily be drawn from local communities. That is the only way to engage those vulnerable individuals and groups who currently feel like they have been isolated and dispossessed by the various conservation measures in and around the park.

Only when the tiger is worth more alive than dead to the local communities would we be able to assure a modicum of security to the tiger and its future.

iii) Last but not the least, let tourists be…

It is an unfortunate fact of our times that nothing seems to have the right to exist for its own shake. Even tigers have to earn their keep by drawing in tourists who in turn become the dynamo of the local economy. Even a temporary ban on tourism would destroy the local economy. The poor would grow poorer and more desperate. The parks, now empty of tourists, would remain porous to trespassers and the temptation and the opportunities to kill a tiger would be greater than ever before.

Tourism is the ace in the tiger’s pack. It gives people with means a reason to sweat a thought, and who knows, may be even a little action for the sake of the tiger and the revenues it rings in.

Even more significant is the profound manner in which seeing a tiger in the wild can transform the psyche of a person. And any man, woman or child who has witnessed the formidable form of a tiger in the wild will return home a conservationist for life.

The tiger’s future hangs precariously in the balance and if ever there was a time to act, it is now. Ajay Dubey, through his misguided crusade, has shown us the ‘power of one’. It is time we believed in that power, and took a step to try and make a difference… to try and find a voice! Roar for the tiger now if you care… if you dare…!

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