Racing to save India’s tigers (2)

Problems faced by both country and cat stem from poverty, illiteracy and overpopulation. But, writes Gethin Chamberlain, complacency is not endemic and volunteers are defending woodland habitats from poachers and loggers.

Tiger Watch’s approach to poaching is clearly having an effect, but that has not been enough to save it from the wrath of the authorities whose indolence it has exposed. Not long after the group revealed that poaching had reduced tiger numbers in Ranthambhore national park to just 18 in 2004, officials turned up at the office of its founder, Fateh Singh Rathore, and demolished it. His daughter’s shop and their restaurant were also flattened, ostensibly for operating without the correct permissions, though others in a similar situation were left untouched. It was a warning.

Fateh Singh is now 75. He was the government’s field director at Ranthambhore from 1977 to 1996 and is regarded as one of India’s foremost tiger experts. Sitting in his rebuilt office, he picks up a newspaper and stares at the large WWF advertisement on the front page, with its warning that there are only 1,411 tigers left in India. He shakes his head; the true figure is probably closer to 800, he says. “They are always saying that the numbers are on the increase, but there is no proper scientific research. They are lying to save their skins. If they have a problem they should declare it. The authorities like only praise.”

He doubts there are more than 20 tigers left in Ranthambhore.

“The field directors are responsible. They are not trying. They are too busy showing VIPs around to spend time on protection. All the popular parks are suffering from the same disease. They know they are posted for two years and then they will go somewhere else. No one is being punished for the tigers that are being lost.”

Still, he says, while there are still some tigers, there is a chance. “I am still optimistic because I feel the tiger has a lust for life. It can survive if it gets protection, but you have to be very strict if you want to protect the tiger.”

The system, however, is simply not geared up to deter the hunters. There were 72 arrests for tiger poaching in India last year, but the only two convictions were for cases dating back more than 10 years.

It is hardly a deterrent. Tiger poaching is a lucrative business for some – though not necessarily the poachers, who may have to share the 100,000 rupees [US$2,200] they will get for one tiger between 10 gang members – and there are plenty of people with an interest in turning a blind eye.

When Tiger Watch and the Rajasthan police went after one of the biggest poachers in the region, Devi Singh, they had to sneak across the state border into Madhya Pradesh to snatch him from his village without alerting the local authorities because, Khandal explains, had they revealed their true intentions, someone would have tipped Singh off. When they got him back to Rajasthan, Singh confessed to killing five tigers in the park, in a period when no poaching was officially recorded.

The last full tiger census in India – which claimed 3,642 tigers – was carried out in 2001, based largely on pugmarks, a hopelessly unreliable method of counting. Satya Prakash Yadav, deputy inspector general of the National Tiger Conservation Authority in Delhi, admits it was “seriously flawed” and “not scientifically correct”. For the latest study, he says, officials switched methods, using a mixture of camera trap results and a survey of the habitat and prey base to produce an estimate of how many tigers might conceivably have survived. But he admits that problems remain. (Yadav did not have any figures for the number of tigers actually recorded in the camera traps. There are no data for this in the latest report and repeated requests for the vital statistic drew a blank.)

Many of those reserves are already on the brink. The greatest threat to the safety of the park officials comes from the Naxalites, Maoist guerrillas who have been described as the greatest threat to India’s internal security. They have seized control of vast swaths of the country, ostensibly in the name of tribal peoples who they say have been oppressed. They have a particular loathing for forestry officials, whom they regard as the stick with which the state beats the tribal people, extracting money and goods from them in return for the use of the forests on which they rely for their livelihoods. At least six of the parks are overrun by Naxalites and are inaccessible to the forest department. There is simply no way of knowing how many tigers remain there and certainly no way to install camera traps.

It is hardly surprising that the latest update lists 16 of the 37 reserves as being in a “poor” state. It is possible, Yadav concedes, that there are no tigers there.

“We have classified some reserves as poor where there is no population of tiger or where the tiger may go extinct. Despite our various milestone initiatives, the situation may go out of control in certain tiger reserves.”

Simlipal reserve, in Orissa – the fourth largest in India – provides an insight into just how problematic the official figures are. A 2004 report, based on pugmarks, said there were 101 tigers in the reserve. Last year, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, conceded that 40 tigers had been poached from the reserve over the previous five years, but insisted there were still 61 tigers alive and well in Simlipal alone. Yet the government’s own figures say there are only 45 tigers in the whole of Orissa state, which also includes those in the Satkosia reserve. Again, something does not add up.

Then there is Panna. The latest report claimed that there were approximately 24 tigers in the 974-square-kilometre reserve. Last year, it was found that there were none. And this was three years after the government had announced a complete overhaul of the system, after the Sariska reserve was also found to be empty.

Luckily for the tiger, complacency is not endemic. In the Periyar tiger reserve in Kerala, a small group of women has been mounting their own fight-back. Every day, members of the Vasanta Sena (Green Army) venture unpaid and unarmed into the forest, in search of poachers. There are 76 of them, living around the edges of the park, mostly from poor families, each taking one day a week off from jobs and looking after their homes to seek out intruders. One aim is to stop the destruction of the tigers’ habitat, the forest itself. The sandalwoods are prized by illegal loggers for their oil, which is used in medicines and cosmetics. One kilogramme of the wood can fetch 5,000 rupees [US$100].

The forest is lush and green, a gentle breeze rustling the leaves of the sandalwoods and the swaying stands of giant bamboos arcing overhead. A small stream runs beneath a roughly made wooden bridge. The women pick their way among the trees. At the front is Gracykutty, 39. She is married to a mason and has two daughters. She has been doing this for seven years.

“Here we breathe the best air in the world and we are dedicated to protecting it,” she says. “I think if there is only one tiger left in the world in the end, it will be here.”

Her colleague Jiji, 35, says they know that if the forest goes, so too will the tiger, destroying the tourist industry on which their economy depends.

“We keep a look out for trees that have been cut or signs that people have been in the forest. It is important because if the forest is cut then there is less space for the animals, and if the forest goes and the tigers go, then it will be terrible for everyone who lives around here. We understand this and that is why we are doing this. It is not just for ourselves; it is for our children too, so they can enjoy the forest like we do.”

How many tigers remain in Periyar is a matter of conjecture. Sanjayan, the range officer, says the park has about 34 tigers, maybe 36. He says camera traps have identified 24 and the rest have been calculated using the unreliable pugmark method. But his boss, Bastian Joseph, the assistant field director, cites the official figure of 46 tigers.

Many conservationists fear that without drastic action, the only place the tiger will soon be found in India is in its zoos.

Inside the royal Bengal tiger pen at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai, the woman who looks after the tigers, spins a metal wheel on the wall to slide open the internal cage door. Padma, the zoo’s 15-year-old female, has been growing increasingly restless. Now she pads through the open door, lets out a roar and launches herself at the thick metal grille with a shuddering crash. She lands and turns away, pacing around the cage before repeating her assault several times, roaring her displeasure. Eventually, she settles on the floor and sits watching warily, emitting a low growl. Up close, it is easy to understand why the poachers are so keen to make sure their prey is securely trapped before they approach.

The zoo’s director, PL Ananthasamy, argues that the answer to the tiger’s decline lies in a captive-breeding programme. “The basic game is conservation and in due course of time to take these species back to their home and release them,” he says.

Tigers breed well in captivity, but releasing them into the wild is another matter entirely and most experts agree that it is fraught with difficulties, which may explain why there do not appear to be any examples of successful reintroduction of tigers.

Ananthasamy disagrees: “It is possible to release captive-bred animals. We must do it gradually and ensure that the animal can survive by itself. We have not yet reached the stage where the tiger cannot breed in the wild, but the pressure is such around the sanctuaries that the numbers are coming down. There is enough prey base for the animals to survive, but the problem is the encroachers and poaching.”

Aditya Singh, 43, conservationist and tiger expert, worries that time is running out. Singh runs a lodge on the edge of the Ranthambhore reserve park and spends much of his time inside the park. “I think the numbers have gone down. I think there are about 1,000 now,” he says.

What will finish off the tiger as a viable species, he says, is the final destruction of the remaining corridors of forest that link the parks together. “There are still connections between the reserves, but in five years they won’t be there. I think the tigers have five years. They will stay in isolated pockets, but they will have reached an evolutionary dead-end.

“There is a view here that the forest belongs to the foreigners. For an average villager living outside the park, they don’t see it as an asset. They used to be able to go in for wood, but now they cannot. The problems for the tiger are poverty, illiteracy and overpopulation. The big problems that India has are the problems the tiger has.”

Copyright Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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