Save Our Tigers

Credit: Baiju PatilSanctuary Cover Story: After assessing the tiger’s fate and evaluating steps being taken by the Indian government to bring Panthera tigris back from the brink Bittu Sahgal and Lakshmy Raman conclude that it does not look good for tigers. Very elementary steps taken by the Prime Minister, his cabinet and the Chief Ministers of India’s 17 tiger states, could, however, make a dramatic difference to the future of the cat the world loves.

* Interpol estimate of the illegal trade in wildlife products: US$12 billion a year.
* Tigers killed in India 2009: 85, leopards: 290
* Tigers killed in India in 2010 (January to March): 18, leopards: 103

The statistics tell the story. India’s big cat population is sinking. The trade in illegal tiger and leopard body parts is rising. Poaching networks are active wherever wild tigers are available for slaughter. 

Paying a pittance in rupees, Chinese traders make a killing – literally and figuratively – by obtaining wild tiger parts from Indian suppliers at one-tenth the U.S. $ 20,000 or more that a farmed (illegal) tiger would cost. And with an upwardly mobile, expanding customer base, the demand is insatiable. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) sources, approximately 60 per cent of tiger parts – bones, nails, claws and skin – find their way to China, with Nepal, Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand supplementing this demand. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says the tiger occupies the top spot on Nature’s list of species most at threat of extinction.

As the Aircel campaign so forcefully reminds us, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) study puts the median figure for living wild tigers in India at 1,411. Those in the know say the new tally that will soon emerge might reveal a figure under 1,000.

The Central Government, meanwhile, makes all the right noises but has been unable yet to make all the right changes on the ground. The special tiger force announced more than a year ago with such fanfare is still dysfunctional. The stalemate between state and central governments shows no sign of being resolved, with many states virtually refusing to notify buffer areas for protection, around our most critical tiger habitats and corridors.

January 05, 2010. Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand – The Corbett
 FoundationNevertheless, on March 18, 2010, when the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) met in New Delhi, the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, urged on by a passionate appeal by Valmik Thapar, finally agreed to launch a separate Department of Forests and Wildlife within the Ministry of Environment and Forests (see page 26), something lying pending for almost a decade. While those who know how critical this step is for wildlife work furiously to give shape to the decision… tigers, leopards, elephants and rhinos slip faster towards oblivion. Other NBWL decisions include identifying and warding off threats from power projects and highways and the creation of “no go zones” for mining and other heavy industries. 

Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment and Forests, has also invoked the Forest Rights Act, asking that its provisions be satisfied before any industrial project is cleared. He has also asked India’s Planning Commission to release funds for the NBWL decision to resettle the over 77,000 families that reside in Protected Areas. Much to the chagrin of other powerful ministries, the NBWL has also instructed that: “Wildlife habitats will be secured and consolidated by evolving guidelines to mitigate the growing impact of linear intrusions such as roads, pipelines, transmission lines and mining projects. Project authorities would be actively encouraged to provide alternative alignments to bypass Protected Areas.”

The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) also awaits funds and political support for very basic requirements including tools to tap suspect cell phone numbers, augmenting staff, regional offices, forensic laboratories and training for officials. A special financial allocation has recently been proposed to meet half the salary cost of frontline staff working in critical habitats in India’s 17 tiger states.

Meanwhile, any hope that the world might actually come to the aid of vanishing tigers disappeared when the Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation involving 13 Asian countries failed to find financial support to protect tigers. Field protection must therefore continue to wait for handouts from benefactors or dribbles from carbon financing and even compensation money from infrastructure projects that destroy vital biodiversity. The ministers next meet at Vladivostock, Russia in September 2010, but no one is holding their breath waiting for anything meaningful to emerge.


While the global crescendo to save the tiger grows ever louder, the forest rug is literally being pulled from under the tiger’s paws by state governments, most of which indulge in tokenism.

January 06, 2010. North Kheri Division, Uttar Pradesh – Sanctuary 
Photo LibraryPoliticians egged on by small and big time businessmen are working 24x7 to fragment tiger habitats. Why? Because they want the billions of dollars in cash and millions of votes that are theirs for the asking, if they are allowed to rip up the earth on which tigers walk. Mines, dams, roads, chemical complexes and nuclear reactors are all planned inside, or within impact range of tiger habitats.

This is why more than half of all tiger habitats that enjoyed good health on the day that Project Tiger was launched in 1973 have vanished. This is why we are currently debating whether there  are just 1,411 tigers left alive, or under 1,000 perhaps. A decade ago, the debate was 3,000 tigers or 2,000?

Pointing to the recent slew of 40 or so projects in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, Jairam Ramesh, famously ratified our worst fears: “Protected Areas are under acute pressure. The delay in notification is not sheer laziness… It is not accidental. It is deliberate to allow an easier approval process. The non-notification of buffer zones has led to a proliferation of projects with grave environmental consequences which threaten biodiversity.” This has hardly gone down well with other Ministers, including Kamal Nath (Minister, Surface Transport, who wants to run highways through national parks), Praful Patel (Minister, Aviation, who wants to build new airports on mangroves in Mumbai) and Sharad Pawar (Minister, Agriculture, who wanted gene-tampered brinjal (see page 64) to be cleared even without being sure it was safe).

Dr. Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary, NTCA, has a thankless job. Conservationists accuse him of doing too little. Social activists say he wants to displace people and politicians say he is coming in the way of their commercial projects. But what is the reality? Will the clear mandate given by the Prime Minister to protect India’s tigers and their habitats work? Will we ever be able to restore our damaged water regimes and moderate climate?

Rajesh Gopal believes we will: “India still has its source population of tigers and is better placed in this regard. We now need to address the ‘source-sink’ dynamics of tigers in their landscapes, which are afflicted by unsustainable land use, and extremism in some areas. But we are encouraged by civil society initiatives including Kids for Tigers and I am confident that increased awareness will help us fulfill our collective responsibility.”

He is right, but it will not be an easy ride. In spite of Forest Departments and Field Directors of tiger reserves signing tripartite MoUs with the Central Government, we see few real signs that funds will be more effectively used. And there is no real indication that many critical tiger states will start recruiting younger field staff anytime soon. In our view, perhaps the time has come to hold Chief Ministers personally responsible – by name. Civil society should follow their track record and openly recognise both the good and the negative impact they have on tigers and wildlife.


Environmental groups are acutely aware of the forces ranged against Ramesh. They have dealt with hopelessly insensitive politicians in the MoEF for over a decade. They understand that mining in forest  areas enriches people such as Madhu Koda, Chief Minister of Jharkhand from 2006 to 2008, and is a major source of slush funds to fight elections in India.

March 07, 2010. Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan – Aditya 
SinghIn Karnataka, Home Minister V.S. Acharya claimed that he had consulted the Environment Ministry before opening up a massive 11,620 sq. km. area, in 14 blocks in the Bellary, Shimoga and Mysore districts. Jairam Ramesh categorically denied that any such clearance had been granted. Ramesh is doing battle with them all. The Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa would probably have to stand in a queue behind Nath, Patel and Pawar, to complain to the ‘high command’ about Jairam Ramesh taking his job of protecting the environment more seriously than they want. When Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal complained about delayed forest clearances and land acquisition hurdles as being the biggest challenges facing the coal sector, Ramesh calmly replied: “The mistake lies in allotting coal blocks in sensitive areas in the first place. For example, if we had been part of the process, there would not have been any allocation near the Tadoba Tiger Reserve, and there would not have been any problem or delays at all.”

It’s not only the big boys. Small time local politicians too are dependent on slush funds from timber and mineral mafias. Some even stand accused of profiting from wildlife mafias, including big fish such as Sansar Chand. Chief Ministers pay heed to demands from the smallest cogs in the wheels of power in the states; often more so than either the law, or the exhortations of environmentalists.

Consider the case of Jai Prakash Dabral who waged a steady battle against the felling of 90,000 trees by the Powergrid Corporation in Tadkeshwar at Rudraprayag in 2007. After moving the Supreme Court, Dabral started receiving death threats from the local timber mafia in Tehri. In his words: “The average value of each tree is around Rs. 30,000. For 90,000 trees, the value would have been Rs. 270 crore. Who knows how high the corruption trail leads, or what path it follows?” Dabral’s dedication in combination with media exposure ended up saving a significant number of the threatened trees, but hundreds of such ‘mutinies’ against India’s ecological security are launched each day and they are taking a deadly toll on our people and their life support systems.

Clearly, Jairam Ramesh has a tough job to do. “While India still continues to have the largest tiger population amongst tiger range countries,” he says, “protecting our tigers is not easy for several reasons. We are also faced with the challenge of balancing competing economic interests, without compromising the integrity of our reserves and sanctuaries. Publications like Sanctuary Asia need to sensitise people to the fact that our collective appetite for economic prosperity comes at a cost to our wildlife.”


But the common refrain is that India is a densely-populated country and therefore the destruction of forests and the loss of species are inevitable. The efforts of the best known individuals and organisations to protect India’s ecological security are thus met with sympathetic clucks and wistful shakes of the head, as though we are engaged in some noble but lost cause. This is off- the-wall wrong. If we do not succeed in restoring at least half of all of India’s natural ecosystems (coasts, corals, grasslands, deserts, wetlands, forests and mountains) to health, the subcontinent’s water, food and economic security will vanish as though under an ecological tsunami. This will not take hundreds of years. The early impacts of climate change have begun to be felt and every passing day is likely to deliver larger impacts. A few rock concerts might even save the people of the Maldives when ecological push comes to shove – but no one will even try to sing for India when the big slide takes place.

The Wild Foundation (see Interview with Vance Martin) puts it thus:

The escalating global ecological crisis – characterised by loss of natural habitat and ecosystem services, increasing species extinctions, and rapid warming of the planet – has demonstrated that conservation efforts to date have not been sufficient to sustain life on earth. While this has been happening, our ecological knowledge has also increased dramatically, especially concerning how much land and water we must protect to support life on Earth. Many assessments over the last 20 years have typically determined that nature needs at least half of a given eco-region to be protected, and needs to be interconnected with other such areas, in order to maintain its full range of life-supporting, ecological and evolutionary processes, the long term survival of the species that live there, and to ensure the system’s resilience in the face of environmental change. Some ecosystems will require more than half.

This is not to suggest that humans would need to relocate or be displaced from half of the land mass of India. On the contrary people living around natural ecosystems would need to become caretakers. Fisherfolk must be paid to protect mudflats, mangroves, corals, lakes and rivers, rather than accept money from prawn farmers, port builders and other commerce peddlers who steal their land. Forest dwellers must be paid to protect forests, not to act as conduits for the removal of timber, tendu leaves, forest produce and minerals to distant markets (see Sanctuary, Last Word, Vol. XXIX No. 4, August 2009). Undoubtedly, however, some degree of human relocation will take place. But this should be voluntary. If wildlife is to be saved then villages living inside critical wildlife habitats, who wish to avail of urban comforts must be encouraged to move closer to markets, not bring markets closer to the forest.

In Melghat, Kishor Rithe and his team at the Satpuda Foundation and the Nature Conservation Society Amravati worked with the state government and three villages did move out of the core area, though social activists tried their level best to dissuade them. Within months, the degraded forests bounced back to life and tigers and their prey species moved into the vacated lands. Ironically, no social activists accompany Rithe as he continues to work diligently for the welfare of the relocated villages.


The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, calls Maoists: “The biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country.” He might be right. After all, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, are all in the grip of internal insurgency from Maoists, Naxals et al. This comes as no surprise to Sanctuary. Why? Because we have been consistently highlighting the fact that leaving forests unprotected ends up financing insurrectionists and terrorists for over a decade (See Tigers and Terrorism, Sanctuary Vol. XIX No. 3 May/June 1999).

March 11, 2010. Valmiki Tiger Reserve, Bihar – Samir Kumar SinhaIn 2009, a Naxal-led attack on the Similipal Tiger Reserve left the forest and its tigers and elephants open to attack from poachers. Tiger reserves including Indravati and Palamau and other Protected Areas in West Bengal and Assam have also borne the brunt of violence. Insurgency in roughly one-third of the country’s forests is feeding off the illegal trade in wild species. Understandably this makes it next to impossible for unarmed researchers and officials to monitor or protect such forests, which are said to be ‘out of control’. And, contrary to the romantic notions put forward by some, the forests with heavy Naxalite presence, or other armed gangs, are amongst the worst impacted in terms of habitat degradation and wildlife population declines. No, they are not yet targeting tigers, but by targeting the tiger’s protectors they offer poaching syndicates an open invitation to enter and do their worst. Which they did in Dachigam – Kashmir, Manas – Assam, North Telengana – Andhra Pradesh and Satyamangalam – Tamil Nadu, for instance, and still do across our vast ‘out-of-control’ forests.

Reports on how the tiger trade is funding terrorist groups are no longer denied by the ‘system’ but the system is simply not doing anything to staunch this aspect of the terror tap.

In January 2010, a full grown tiger was hunted by villagers of Numuk in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Siang district (where scientists said there were no tigers at all!) and locals consumed the meat. The skin was believed to have been sold to an Assamese businessman for Rs. 1.5 lakh. By the time that skin from an unprotected tiger habitat reaches a Chinese, French or American millionaire, the asking price would be 10 times that amount. And much of the profit would probably be used to bring the Indian state to its knees. We might as well leave the vaults of the Reserve Bank open to allow all manner of criminals to steal currency notes to buy guns and bombs to kill us. Wildlife experts like Belinda Wright, Valmik Thapar, Brijendra Singh and Dr. Ullas Karanth – all Members of India’s National Board for Wildlife – have known this for years. Whether the tiger lives or dies now depends on whether the Prime Minister believes them, or whether his promises to save the tiger fall in the area of soft political correctness. Certainly his decision to start a separate Department of Forests and Wildlife is a huge step in the right direction (see page 26), but only if he solidly backs this new institution with funds and steely political will.

In September 1996, Valmik Thapar and Bittu Sahgal wrote in Sanctuary: “The tiger has no more time to tolerate paper pushers, file movers, committee watchers or administrative restrictions. A handpicked and motivated team of people with a clear cut mandate from the Prime Minister’s office must be instructed to work within a time-bound framework. Within 36 months – l,000 days – this team must cut across 17 states to network men and resources to form an armour of protection for the tiger and all that live under its umbrella.”

Hopefully, none of us will have to suffer the pain of repeating the comments, again, in 2020.


According to several newspaper reports published on March 27, 2010, Dr. Manmohan Singh intends to set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) to ensure that all pending projects stalled by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) are put on fast track. This was following a cabinet meeting in which Jairam Ramesh had categorically stressed on the need to carefully consider environmental clearances for projects in critical wildlife habitats. This statement was subsequently denied by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.  Ironically, most popular dailies including the Times of India, Indian Express and Hindustan Times have attacked the MoEF for delayed clearances for infrastructure – read highways, iron and coal mining and power – projects.


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