Racing to save India’s tigers (1)

As conservationists argue over the number of the country’s big cats still living in the wild, radical steps are needed if the species is to survive. Gethin Chamberlain reports.

The poachers perch on the rough platforms they have built in the trees about five metres above the forest floor, waiting patiently for the tiger to come. They have been searching the forests of India’s Ranthambhore reserve for days, following the pugmarks and other tell-tale signs. When they found the fresh kill, they knew it would only be a matter of time before the tiger returned to eat. Working quickly, they placed their traps on the path, scattering small stones across the dry sandy soil, knowing that tigers hate to walk on them and will pick their way around if they can.

The tiger pads forward, guided by the stones into the trap, which springs shut with a snap. The poachers have fashioned the device from old car suspension plates; there are no teeth, because a damaged pelt will fetch less money. In pain and desperate to free itself, the tiger thrashes around. Another foot catches in another trap, then a third.

The poachers watch to make sure it cannot free itself, then edge down to the ground, still cautious, because a male Bengal tiger can weigh up to 230 kilogrammes and a female 140 kilogrammes and a single blow from those claws could kill a man. One man carries a bamboo stick into which he has poured molten lead to give it more weight. The other has a spear on the end of a three-metre pole. As the tiger opens its mouth, the poacher with the spear lunges forward, stabbing between its open jaws. As the blood starts to flow, he stabs again and again. His colleague smashes the tiger over the head with the stick.

When it is over, they draw their heavy iron knives and set to work to skin it. They leave the paws intact; they are too fiddly to waste time on out in the open. Half an hour later, they are gone, melting away unchallenged into the jungle, once more eluding the forest guards.

It is always the same, says Dharmendra Khandal, toying with a skinning knife as he recounts the story. Khandal is sitting in the offices of Tiger Watch on the edge of the national park, one of the most popular tiger reserves in India. He spreads his palms in frustration. The government’s forestry department is always the last to act, he says, though it is its job to protect the tigers.

Tiger Watch was established in Rajasthan 12 years ago as an independent, privately funded organisation trying to stem the decline of the wildlife population in the Ranthambhore reserve. In the last five years, it has helped police arrest 47 alleged poachers from the Moghiya tribe, many in possession of tiger skins and other body parts, guns and traps. By their own admission, the poachers have killed more than 20 tigers. Yet in the same period, the authorities in the park did not record a single incidence of poaching. Something does not add up.

At the turn of the last century, there were an estimated 45,000 tigers living wild in India’s forests. By the time hunting was banned in 1972, their numbers were down to 2,000. In January, the environmental group WWF placed the animal on its list of 10 key creatures facing extinction, warning that while counting tigers is notoriously difficult, there might only be 3,200 left in the wild worldwide.

The WWF has just launched a Year of the Tiger campaign to coincide with the start of the Chinese year of the tiger. The organisation is working with world leaders towards the goal of doubling wild tiger numbers by 2022 and there will be a summit in Vladivostok, Russia, in September attended by the heads of government from the tiger-range countries. Nowhere will the challenge be greater than in India, home to that symbol of the country, the royal Bengal tiger.

The Indian government claims 1,411 tigers are still alive inside its borders. Few experts believe this figure. When a tiger skin can sell for US$20,000 in neighbouring China, poaching remains a serious problem. Last year was the worst since 2002 for tiger deaths and even India’s ministry of environment and forests concedes that its way of counting tigers is so vague that there may be as few as 1,165. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh now admits the figure of 1,411 was "an exaggeration".

Either deliberately, to hide the true scale of the animal’s decline, or accidentally, through flawed methodology, it is now clear that the numbers are wrong. Some conservationists believe the true number of tigers left in India may be little more than half the official tally and that at the present rate of decline, the tiger will cease to be a viable wild species in India within as little as five years. If poaching and habitat loss continue unabated, those reserves that still have tigers will be little more than open-air zoos.

According to the ministry, there are 16 reserves (just under half the total) where there may be no tigers at all or where the tiger is in danger of becoming extinct. Part of the problem is that the presence of tigers is a matter of pride, both for states and individual reserves. No one wants to admit that their tigers have been poached. And still the forests are vanishing as India’s burgeoning population places increasing demands on limited space.

Ranthambhore is one of the better parks, one of the few places visitors have a realistic chance of seeing a tiger in the wild. Even here, the number of tigers left is in dispute.

According to Khandal, Tiger Watch’s field biologist, there are two schools of poachers: the professionals who tend to come in from Haryana and use only leg traps and the local Moghiya tribe who fire on the tiger from close range with homemade guns. “The Moghiyas are criminals,” says Khandal. “They are one of the most brutal communities in India.”

In an attempt to stem the tide, Tiger Watch has started working with the Moghiya, hiring informants for 3,500 rupees [US$77] a month, while setting some of the women to work producing handicrafts and providing education for their children.

“It’s a risky job,” says Khandal. “We have four regular paid informants from this community and we give them money in return for information. The community knows who the informants are. Some of them are resisting but there are cracks in the society now. Some of them are asking why they should live in such a primitive state.”

Kesra, 45, is one of the former Moghiya poachers who have been turned. By his own admission, he has killed at least five tigers. He describes roaming the forests looking for pugmarks and then taking up position in the trees to wait for the tiger to come, working at night and returning in the morning to skin the tigers. He says they never had any trouble with the forest guards, a common refrain. He was arrested as a result of a Tiger Watch raid and is awaiting trial. He insists he is now reformed. “I never had much education. My forefathers were doing hunting, but now times have changed. We are different people,” he says.

His wife, Sanwali, also 45, earns about 3,000 rupees [US$66] a month from making baskets for Tiger Watch. They have five sons and two daughters to support. She says that, like the tigers, they have become the hunted.

“We are not willing to live in an atmosphere where the police are always coming after us,” she says. “We had to move from here to there. Our forefathers were involved in poaching, but we don’t want to be involved in this trade anymore.”

It is a view echoed by 26-year-old Asanti. Her family are notorious tiger poachers and she is married to a former small-time poacher, Deshraj, 30. The couple, who married when Asanti was 10, have an eight-year-old daughter, Puja, and say they don’t want her to grow up like they did, shunned by the rest of society. They provide information on what is happening in the tribe and in return receive money and a chance to start afresh.

“We want our children to be educated. We want to learn more. We want a regular source of income,” says Asanti. “Hunting is not a regular source of income. Times have changed and our community is scattered. Now we want to live respectably.”

NEXT: Tiger reserves on the brink

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

Homepage image from WWF