It is hardly surprising that International Tiger Day, today – September 28, has almost passed by without even a purr. Few know about it, still fewer remember. In all likelihood that is what is going to happen to the tiger too – it will disappear sans even a protesting growl. Its howls, when trapped or killed mercilessly, are never heard anyway. For a nation that cannot even remember its own national animal on International Tiger Day, perhaps that is the fate that starkly awaits the royal beast. Our Prime Minister is too busy getting ready to sleep himself cosy with George W Bush in Washington. Our political leaders back home are too busy tarnishing each other with communal brushes. Our media is too busy writing about them. And in this din, the tiger can hardly make its voice heard.
It would be a cliched understatement to say that the tiger in India stands endangered. From roughly 40,000 tigers at the beginning of the 20th century, their number dipped to 4,334 in 1989, dropped to around 3,750 in 1993, and dwindled further down to 1,411 (minus those in the Sunderbans) in 2008. But the way anthropogenic pressures on tiger habitats are multiplying and the rate at which tiger poachers get away with impunity, tigers will disappear from India earlier than estimated to. Look at the dismal scenario in the backdrop of the so-called tribal bill, and you will give it fewer days in the wild.
To save the tiger, you need to both shelter it from poachers and protect its habitat at the same time. Let’s concentrate on the latter for first.
By protecting tiger habitats, you eventually safeguard the catchment areas of rivers and enable recharging of groundwater sources. There are 35 Tiger Reserves (both existing and proposed) in India. These are sources of 20 major Indian rivers, including Tapti, Narmada, Mahanadi and Ramganga. Besides, there are hundreds of streams and rivulets in these wild lands. These rivers cumulatively and individually, directly and indirectly, shore up the livelihoods of millions of people far removed from these protected areas. So when you save tiger habitats, you do more than just maintaining the pristineness of the tiger homelands at face value. Much more.
The other major threat to tigers comes from illegal trade and poaching. The number of poachers who are nabbed are too few for comfort. The conviction rate is abysmal and the kingpins always escape from the arms of the law. Worse still, most of the hunters who are caught often happen to be hapless villagers who are coerced into the occupation because of lack of alternative means of livelihoods around the Tiger Reserves.
The tiger, you have to agree, cannot be saved in isolation. You need the support of communities who live in and around Tiger Reserves. But the so-called tribal bill, in its present form, is not the right way to go about it. It does, in no way, seek to ameliorate human-wildlife conflict; in fact, the forest rights bill will only exacerbate the problem to an extent that at the end of the day we will neither have wildlife left and nor forests. You will have people everywhere. And they will no longer have the natural resources at their disposal that have been providing them with sustenance all these years.
Without the active support of the common people, who have not been able to make a dime while India has been shining, the tiger does not have much of a bright future. They can not only salvage the habitat, they can stave off poachers too. But for that, these people must be made stakeholders in the survival of the tiger. Treating them like pariahs and jettisoning them away from the tiger hinterlands in a country which has a dubious track in rehablitating oustees, would only make matters worse. Declaring the areas around Tiger Reserves as community reserves should be the first and safest way to get started. The Indian government is well within its rights to do that. But what it is doing right now is playing populist politics in the name of tribals and forest-dwellers.
Then again, to save the tiger you need a lot of money. As of now, something like Rs 10 crore are spent by wildlife organisations on tiger conservation. But that is something of a hand-to-mouth existence. You probably need around Rs 25 crore to do a decent and effective job of it. The chances are that you are aware of this. But what you probably don’t know is that something like 90 per cent of this money comes in from outside. Right, non-Indians not living in this country are probably more concerned about saving the tiger for us. The scope for Indian corporations to donate to the tiger cause is phenomenal. Yet, you don’t see that happening. Don’t ask me why.
Every other day, we are told by all and sundry how inordinately rich we are, how many Indians have made it to the different Forbes lists, and all that. The corporate honchos subsequently blabber to us how proud they are to be Indians, and all that. But their nationalistic pride cannot make them spare even a penny for their national animal. The tiger indeed is unfortunate to exist in a country whose high net worth individuals (HNWI) denizens don’t want to pay for its survival. You think I am growling for the hell of it? If you think I am, you can go back to seeing your favourite reality show on TV.
Well, three of the eight sub-species of the tiger are extinct in the ranges that they existed. One totters on the brink of extinction. The Indian one (Bengal tiger –Panthera tigris tigris) too might soon join its non-existent cousins sooner than later. With that last roar that you are equally unlikely to hear.