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22 August 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

Tail of the missing tigers

India must give its villagers a stake in saving the world's most endangered big cat

By Salil Tripathi

There is no tiger left in Sariska, the famous sanctuary where in 1985 the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi took his ministers to spur new thinking. Tiger populations are declining everywhere; Sariska, which had 22 tigers in 2002, is no exception. In Ranthambhore, 18 tigers are missing. Indian scientists question the census methods: in Panna, the same tiger may have been counted nine times. Belinda Wright, who heads the Wildlife Protection Society of India, calls it an international scandal.

On 5 August, a task force set up by the prime minister presented its findings, calling for thousands of villagers to be relocated from forests – some 250 communities live within India’s 28 national parks – and the setting up of a wildlife crime bureau to tackle rampant poaching.

Poaching is not new; 80,000 tigers were killed between 1875 and 1925. By 1973, only 1,827 tigers were left. That year the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, launched Project Tiger. The Gandhis were passionate about wildlife, and the tiger population rose. Now they are gone. Officially, India has 3,600 tigers, but an ongoing census may reveal shocks.

Even as India acts like a tiger economy, its pursuit of that metaphor is endangering the real tiger. Forests are cut for timber or to dig mines or build roads. As commu-nities encroach, eroding buffer zones, they reduce the animals’ habitat. Valmik Thapar, member of the National Board of Wildlife and the author of Battling for Survival: India’s wilderness over two centuries, blames the obsession with economic growth for the change in the relationship between the people who live around forests and the animals within.

In one recent case, one community demanded “traditional” fishing rights in an artificial reservoir which a dam had created barely 15 years ago. The government acquiesced, bringing the community closer to a sanctuary. Thapar says: “There must be political will to reconcile the needs of communities with those of wildlife.” In his novel The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh movingly described this symbiotic relationship through Fokir, the silent boatman in the Sundarbans. But people around forests don’t share Fokir’s reverence; they see tigers as commodities, not deities.

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China’s insatiable appetite for tiger products for use in traditional medicines has created a huge incentive for Indian poachers to disregard the law and kill tigers for their claws, teeth, brains, eyeballs, whiskers, tails and penises because they supposedly cure sleeplessness, fever, laziness, malaria, epilepsy and toothache, as well as giving courage and enhancing virility. In October 2003, police stopped a truck heading for Lhasa and made an astonishing haul of 31 tigerskins. A dead tiger fetches £23,500; villagers work for poachers for £30, capturing tigers with iron traps or electric cables.

India has strong laws but weak implementation: 400 cases have been registered, but fewer than 5 per cent have produced convictions. One notorious poacher, now in custody and implicated in more than 20 cases, has avoided jail for 30 years.

Environmentalists want rigorous enforcement of the boundary between animals and people. Fencing forests is difficult, but you can change incentives by encouraging tourism. A more radical alternative, currently illegal, is tiger farming. Barun Mitra, director of Liberty Institute, a Delhi-based think-tank, says communities gain nothing from living close to tigers; they are dangerous for them and their livestock. Poachers exploit this conflict. Farming can remove the incentive to kill tigers. It has worked for the American bison, he says.

Not so fast, says Nirmal Ghosh, a wildlife writer and photographer. Farming won’t work because traditional medicine users want the mystique of a wild tiger.

It is difficult to find people like Fokir, Amitav Ghosh’s boatman, who can live harmoniously with animals. But the state can change incentives, so that communities see greater value in a prancing tiger than in its skin and bones. As for the Chinese? Let them have Viagra.

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