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    South Asia
     Apr 8, 2011

Claws are out over India's tiger resurgence
By Gautaman Bhaskaran

CHENNAI - The Indian tiger is burning bright. Or, so says the latest census released in March. According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority and Wildlife Institute of India, numbers of the national animal have grown by 12%.

The 2006 census put the population at 1,411, while the 2010 survey estimates that there are now 1,706 of these majestic creatures living in the wild, though this include a hitherto uncounted 70 animals in West Bengal's riverine Sundarbans.

Tiger enthusiasts are jubilant that the big cat is thriving, against seemingly insurmountable odds. But some experts are

unconvinced over the government's methodology.

A double sampling process was used - first, data were collected by using standardized protocols, including pug marks, the availability of prey, the condition of habitats and so on. Later, cameras were used, but only in 5% of the total area investigated.

Y V Jhala, a scientist from the Wildlife Institute of India who coordinated the census, said 800 cameras were installed for about 50 days, and 615 tigers were photographed and identified by their unique stripe patterns. "The camera trap intensity of one per 4 square kilometers is the highest in the world. The extrapolation from 615 photographed tigers to an estimate of 1,706 was based on peer-reviewed methodology standardized in the 2006 census", Jhala added.

However, Ullas Karanth, the renowned scientist-conservationist heading the Center for Wildlife Studies in Bangalore, laments that "the full process of how these tiger numbers are generated for individual tiger populations and landscapes has not been made public in a scientifically acceptable manner".

He feels that there are "serious deficiencies" in the methodologies used, leaving him unconvinced about the rise in the tiger population, particularly in the face of the animal's devastatingly rapid decimation in the past.

Karanth may be quite right to wonder how these felines could have multiplied in these four years since many of the dangers they face are still present.

At the end of the 19th century, 40,000 tigers roamed the length and breadth of India. But hunting for sport, and later for commerce saw most of them die. In 1972, when it was found that there were less than 2,000 of these animals left in the wild, prime minister Indira Gandhi established Project Tiger. Special reserves were created out of existing national parks and forests, and new laws were enacted to save the tiger, and in the next 15 years, its population is believed to have risen.

However, the next two decades saw intense neglect of the nation's wildlife. Tigers were driven to near extinction, with international specialists issuing one warning after another. Among them was the renowned tiger specialist Peter Jackson, who ticked off the Indian administration by saying that one tiger was being killed everyday by poachers.

Some officials, smug in their bureaucratic positions, dismissed Jackson's words as hollow rhetoric, typical of a white man's limited vision of the Orient. Until, an explosive revelation came in 2004. A journalist broke the news that the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, claiming to be home to about 18 cats, had, in fact, none at all. Earlier, the Rajasthan Forest Department dismissed persistent rumors of tiger poaching in the Reserve, and said that the animals had merely migrated and would come back after the rains. The Project Tiger, now renamed the National Tiger Conservation Authority, endorsed this view. True, true, it agreed without batting an eyelid.

The media expose, when it came, shook the country, and a quick check confirmed the worst fears. Not one tiger at Sariska had lived to tell the tale of murderous men who had systematically butchered just about every big cat there - and sold its parts for a fortune. The government turned red with embarrassment and had to admit that poaching was to blame. It was a national shame repeated in other reportedly well-protected reserves.

The causes for this are well known, but often glossed over or denied. The demand for tiger skins, bones, penises and other parts has been touted as a cure in Chinese traditional medicine for a number of ailments, sexual impotency included. With China's tigers completely gone, poachers turned their attention to India, where poverty and ineffective implementation of laws made it a cakewalk for them. They really had a free run.

India's exploding population and industrial growth led to human encroachments of forest land, and the tiger found itself with insufficient prey. (An adult tiger needs one deer every week.) So, it began to sneak into villages - on the periphery of forests and sometimes well within them - and take away cattle. Faced with economic losses arising out of such livestock destruction, villagers first tried poisoning the tigers, but later understood the rewards to be gained helping poachers, who were perfectly willing to share a small part of their booty with the poverty stricken rural masses.

Forest guards, some of whom were honest enough not to abet the crime, were a complete mismatch for poachers, who had sophisticated vehicles and weapons, night-vision glasses and pockets full of cash. The guards, often armed with just sticks, and trekking barefoot in hostile terrain, were bullied into total submission.

Yet, despite Sonia Gandhi - the real power behind the present coalition government led by the Congress party - not having the kind of power her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, wielded to protect the tiger, the government does not want the animal to disappear from the face of India. No country would want its national emblem to go extinct, and though worried about the votes of those poor citizens who have been making a killing out of the tiger, New Delhi is taking action.

Yes, the battle is not going to be easy, particularly in India, where 75% of the people are poor, living on 25 rupees (US$0.56) a day, and where land is terribly scarce. Can the tiger hope to win?

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, writer, columnist and film critic based in Chennai.

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