Shooting Human, Saving Tiger

India’s Maharashtra state government recently issued shoot at sight orders -- not to put an end to a murderous communal riot or against terrorists but against poachers who have driven the Royal Bengal Tiger, one of the world’s most magnificent animals, to near extinction.

Over the last few weeks, two tigers and three leopards have been found killed in Maharashtra’s four tiger reserves. The government said it has received intelligence inputs that poachers have been given contracts to kill 25 tigers in the state.

“The death caused by preventive shooting will not be treated as offense under the Indian Penal Code. We have made a legal provision to safeguard our staff from any excesses by so-called human right activists,” Maharashtra’s forest minister Patangrao Kadam said.

The shoot-to-kill order highlights a desperate situation and follows a similar measure in Assam that is fighting to save the one-horned rhino, another severely threatened species. Thankfully, the rhino population has made a comeback, a bit of the success attributed to strong-arm tactics.

Today, not more than 1500 tigers remain in the wild in India, in highly protected pockets in Uttaranchal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. The beast is under severe threat of being exterminated due to human greed.

Tiger parts are valued more than gold, an already very expensive commodity, in the international market for medicinal properties, aphrodisiac and other superstitious beliefs, particularly as rising middle classes in Asia outside India’s borders, particularly in China, can afford traditional remedies despite the fact that there is no medical evidence that there is any health benefit whatsoever. According to the protective organization Tigers in Crisis, “The annual consumption of traditional remedies made of tiger bone, bear gall bladder, rhinoceros horn, dried geckoes and a plethora of other animal parts is of phenomenal proportions. It is believed that today at least 60 per cent of China's billion-plus inhabitants use medicines of this type.”

The international trade in wildlife products has soared to an estimated $6 billion-a-year business, according to the organization. In many places in China, tiger parts are a delicacy that is served at special private banquets. The use of endangered tiger products and their medicines is seen as a symbol of high status and wealth, according to Tigers in Crisis. “Some remedies list tiger parts as an ingredient, but the real animal parts are so expensive that often the medicines may have only trace elements; but even this is enough to promote the continued slaughter of the tiger.”

In the past, thousands of tigers in India have been hunted down for sport by erstwhile Maharajas, the rich and the British who ruled India. Today, killing a tiger is illegal and invites stiff penalties.

Still, not a week goes by without reports of tiger carcasses found under mysterious circumstances that raises concern --- valuable body parts chopped off, poisoned or trapped in poachers’ snares that result in the poor animal slowly bleeding to death. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, 14 tigers have been killed by poachers in India so far this year, already one more than the entire year of 2011. An alarmed National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) last week asked forest departments to treat every death of a big cat as case of poaching, unless proved otherwise.

On a recent visit to the Ranthambhor National Park in Rajasthan, where the endangered tiger population still thrives, this writer found that the survival of India’s big cats will depend on the sustainability of a complex eco-system that needs support at multiple levels.

There is immense pressure from various lobbies to encroach on forest land – the mining mafia, timber smugglers and high-income dairy farmers seeking forage for their cattle. In many instances political bosses and authorities established to protect forests are prone to give in to the lure of easy money in exchange of the illegal activities.

The national and international spotlight on the presence of the tiger in designated reserve areas creates pressure to protect the animals and associated biodiversity.

Thus, saving the tiger is crucially linked to the existence and proliferation forests, green cover and inter-linked corridors that engenders healthy gene pools.

Thus health for the tiger ensures the survival of the slightly less glamorous but equally important wild life such as deer, wild buffalo, crocodiles, elephants, varieties of birds and more. Support of local populations that have survived on the forest land for centuries is equally important. They form a critical cog in efforts to save the tiger.

No amount of funds, forest guards or technology can save the tiger if the people who reside inside and in the vicinity of the forests find themselves sidelined due to efforts to protect the big cat. Such has been the case at the Sariska sanctuary that adjoins Ranthambhor, where the tiger population was reduced to zero. A part of the blame rests on villagers associated with the very lucrative dairy industry in the area.

Prized cattle were under threat due to the presence of the tiger. The farmers feared that they would be deprived of their forest rights if tiger numbers swelled in the area. Poachers, always on the lookout for such local angst, managed to easily infiltrate the Sariska forest and kill the tigers. By the time the attacksleaked to the larger world, it was already too late.

Tiger conservationists say that it is always difficult for poachers to operate if the locals see self-interest in the presence of the tiger. This can be possible by ensuring livelihoods linked to the associated tiger tourism industry, adequate compensation for loss of forest rights, relief and rehabilitation and employment opportunities. There is still a long way to go before the Indian tiger can roar freely again. Hopefully, it is not already too late.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com.)