It will be a shame on us if the tiger survives only as folklore
When William Blake penned his famous poem ‘Tyger’ and wondered ‘what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry’, little did he realise that in not too distant a future the mortal hand of humans would be enough not only to frame the fearful symmetry of the tiger but also to push it to the brink of extinction. Amidst the deepening gloom on all major frontiers of tiger conservation, comes the further depressing news of the court order to ban tourism in core tiger areas. While the apex court’s concern rightly focuses on the dwindling number of tigers, tourism can hardly be blamed for it. Local wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, tourists and guides provide what can be termed as ‘RTI in continuity’. In addition to increasing the accountability of forest officials they also serve as extra eyes and ears in the forest and are quick to raise an alarm if a particular tiger is not seen for a few days. Online projects like www.tigernation.org that load photos of all tiger sightings are immensely helpful in keeping a watch on the survival of tigers. ‘Ban poachers, not tourists’ should be the motto of our policy on tiger conservation.
The reasons for the tiger’s dwindling numbers lie in our inability to empathise with this marvelous animal, hunted in vast numbers in the pursuit of mindless pleasure by rajas, nawabs, our erstwhile colonial masters and by anybody having pretensions of royalty. Thankfully, all that has stopped but now the poacher has taken over. Will we be able to make amends or are we destined to lose him? The answer lies in whether we take really hard, even unpopular measures, as if our own existence depended on them or whether we would continue to trudge along non-chalantly, mouthing platitudes and lip-sympathies and treating this as just another issue.
When the results of the 2010 Tiger Census were announced in 2011 – 1706 tigers in the country, up from 1411 in 2006 – there was an almost audible sigh of relief followed by much back-patting, as if the war itself had been won. However, you do not have to be a ‘wild-life specialist’ to realize that this was just a good patch, assisted of course by some good work done by our forest staff, but the war certainly had not been won because major areas of concern had still not been plugged. Take a trip to any tiger reserve in the country and you will realize how porous the jungle is, how easy it is for well-equipped poachers to operate, and how difficult it is for the forest staff to catch them, ill-equipped as they are with infrastructure and technology that the state considers sufficient and modern but which are anachronistic and ineffective in tackling the menace of poaching.
During the last six months more than 25 adult tigers are believed to have died in the tiger reserves across the country and a few outside the reserves. Not a week goes without the news of some tiger death in a sanctuary. Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh, Tadoba in Maharashtra, Bandipur in Karnataka – the list is growing. Apart from deaths due to poaching, tigers are also reported to have died as a result of electrocution, being hit by a speeding vehicle, poisoning and forest fire. A few days back four tiger cubs were burnt to death in a forest fire in the jungles of Aampokhara near Hempur area of Nainital District in Uttarakhand. Alarmed by this sudden spurt the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is believed to have asked the forest departments of all state governments to treat the death of a big cat as poaching, unless proved otherwise. This feeling of alarm is good and welcome but it is not enough. The centre and the states together must declare an all-out war against poachers.
How can this be done? Some analysts have correctly suggested that the economic roots of this menace be destroyed by mounting a diplomatic offensive against trade in tiger parts. India must follow up on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) and the St. Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation to check the threat of demand in tiger body parts from China and Vietnam. However, efforts at the international/diplomatic level cannot be substitutes for domestic policy, law and enforcement. The three – policy, law and enforcement – must make poaching a high-risk low-return venture. The policy is moving in the right direction but policy is only a statement of intent and objectives. Ultimately it is law and enforcement that determine the success or failure of a policy. Unfortunately, both the extant law as well as its enforcement are acutely deficient as far as poaching is concerned.
In most states and tiger reserves the machinery of protection/enforcement consists of watchers, forest guards, deputy rangers and rangers or range officers. There exists, of course, a hierarchy above the level of range officers right up to the level of Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) but for field level surveillance watchers, forest guards, deputy rangers and rangers constitute the core of the protection/enforcement staff. Watchers are local villagers employed as daily wage earners. Governments have now equipped the regular forest staff with 4x4 jeeps, motor-bikes and walkie-talkie sets and they are now able to reach any particular spot fairly quickly. However, most tiger reserve forests are not plain grasslands but are either hilly or of undulating terrain.
This makes surveillance difficult and poachers can hide or flee with comparative ease. In spite of superior facilities at their disposal the forest staff lacks two competencies – the ability to surprise potential poachers and the ability to deter. The result is that the forest staff is not in a position to prevent poaching by well-organized poachers and in most cases it reaches the spot either after the poacher has fled along with his kill or after the tiger has died due to trap/snare/electrocution. A third ability – collecting evidence for the trial of a poacher – is also missing. It is a no-brainer but it beats me as to why hidden cameras are not used in providing crucial intelligence to the forest staff, the kind of input that will give them the ability to surprise potential poachers.
India provides software services to the entire world. It should not be difficult for us to have the combination of a network of hidden cameras and intelligent software that can provide real time intelligence to the forest staff. As far as deterrence is concerned it comes from fear – fear of being injured or killed and the fear of a law that prescribes stringent and exemplary punishment. Assam and recently Maharashtra have given shoot-at-sight orders to their forest staff. This is needed throughout the country, not just in tiger reserves but in buffer areas also, but it is not an easy task. The forest staff needs not only to be trained in fire arms, they also have to be protected from possible prosecution. It is here that the requirement of raising Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) assumes significance. However, apart from Karnataka hardly anything has been done by any state in this direction so far. The centre’s budget for STPFs is not only meager but is a one-time grant and the states do not want to raise a wing that becomes their liability. The spate of tiger deaths in the past few months should spur the centre to increase the budget provision for STPFs and the states to quickly raise and train STPF and station them in tiger reserves. The NTCA must use every influence at its disposal to cajole and push the states to position STPFs in all tiger reserves within the next six months.
The STPF needs also to be trained in the collection of evidence and unless this is done trials of poachers caught will not end in conviction. The STPF also needs to be invested with police powers, including the authority to injure or kill a poacher, inside a protected forest.
Let us now talk about the ‘law’ part of deterrence. As the law stands today, outside a tiger reserve, any offence related to a schedule 1 animal (e.g., tiger) is punishable with a minimum imprisonment of three years and a maximum imprisonment of seven years, along with a fine of Rs. 10,000/-. Inside a tiger reserve, such an offence, if a first offence, is punishable by imprisonment for a term ranging from a minimum of three years to a maximum of seven years, along with a fine ranging between Rs. 50,000/- to 200,000/-. A second such offence inside a tiger reserves invites an imprisonment term of not less than 7 years along with a fine ranging between Rs. 500,000/- to 5000,000/-. There are obvious problems with this ‘law’. First, a tiger knows or respects no boundaries. So, why should there be a difference in treatments between a tiger poached outside a tiger reserve and one poached inside a tiger reserve?
And, second, why should a first offence invite lesser punishment? Are we legislating on juvenile offences? Third, given the almost non-existent expertise in collection of evidence, the threat of a near improbable three year prison term is no deterrence at all. There is an urgent need to scale up the penalties prescribed in the Wildlife Protection Act to take care of these concerns adequately. The difference in the treatment of offences relating to schedule 1 animals inside a tiger reserve and outside should be done away with and there should be no such thing as a ‘first’ offence. The penalty for killing a tiger or a big cat should not be less severe than that for murder in the IPC and should in no case be less than imprisonment for life. This is not an over-the-top prescription! Poachers are wildlife terrorists and should be dealt with as terrorists. 1700 is no great number and without maximum possible deterrence we will not be able to save the tiger and other big cats. Relocating the African cheetah in India is a great idea but what is the use if we cannot protect and save them from poachers.
Why should we save the tiger? Forget diversity, forget tourism and forget other such socio-economic reasons. The tiger represents qualities fast disappearing from men in our own society – power, agility, intelligence, fearlessness and beauty. To those who have seen a tiger in a jungle, his beauty is a joy forever. Unfortunately, today he is hunted because his body parts are supposed to invest the user with the same qualities. The tiger is not a commodity. It will be a shame if he survives only as folklore or relic. Let us save him so that he continues as a living embodiment of these qualities.