Tiger Troubles

18 02 2008

tiger litho

For the first time in a large number of years, I will not be attempting to participate in any animal censuses this spring/summer. The reasons are mostly personal, but I am still feeling very bad about my nonparticipation as this is a critical year for India’s overall conservation effort.

It had became obvious a couple of years ago (especially after the IUCN study) that India’s forests had reached a crisis point. Our top predator, the Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris) was at a population nadir. The known numbers of tigers had been suddenly found to be less than half of what it should be. Even more frighteningly, in certain important tiger zones like Sariska, the tiger has completely disappeared. The extinction of our tigers stares us in the face.

The government has come up with various ‘explanations’ including increased poaching, but the most disingenuous reason put forward for the sudden dearth is that the tigers were never there in the first place! The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and their minions in “Project Tiger” now wants us to believe that poor counting technique is to blame for an earlier “inflated” statistic. They argue that now that proper camera traps have been placed, and things are being done in a “more scientific” manner, we should all acknowledge that the tiger popultion has not actually fallen much – that the population always was less than half of what we had projected…

I say that this is disingenuous (i.e. bullshit) for a couple of reasons.

1) Long term forest dwellers, the tribals and the Forest Department personnel themselves in each forest, get to know their animals very well indeed. Larger animals like the elephants or bisons and certainly both the leopards and the tigers in each of our forests are easily recognisable and identifiable as individuals.

2) The census methods used in the past, though rough and ready, are yet certainly scientific enough. When censuses are based on physical evidence such as scats and the plaster casts of paw prints, then there is absolutely no way that someone can claim that the populations so determined are inferior to that of phototrapping. I would argue that in fact the phototrap is a ridiculously unscientific way to determine absolute populations when compared to the older methods!

In fact we are left to surmise that if one takes the trouble to go through the physical evidence that had been gathered over so many years of painstaking censusing, our tiger populations have long been declining – steadily and now quite drastically. The problem then lies with the MOEF/state Forest Departments’ perennial habit of inflating the actual counts in order to satisfy the powers that be, and in order to pacify the many and vociferous critics of the government’s very many inadequacies in this regard.

In other words they have been cheating on the numbers for quite some time, and quite systematically too, and now that they have finally been caught out, the easiest recourse has been to point the finger at the supposedly faulty methodology of the past.

But why has the tiger declined and is it only the tiger that is in trouble?

The short answer is  NO! It’s not only the tiger that has troubles. The forests as a whole have been grossly overexploited.

A case in point in the present instance is the debate on allowing forest dwellers to continue to occupy their niches within the confines of the many forests of our land. Persuasive voices say that here is a major factor in the degredation of our prime habitats. I personally believe that it is not the tribals themselves who are to blame. Many have found it easy to manipulate and utilise the unique rights that tribal forest dwellers have, to indirectly reach into and steal the forests’ wealth. Well there is little left to steal now and the tribals are left holding the bag on having to live in forests that can no longer sustain their needs.

There are many other factors too. Take a look at the great number of private estates that sit squarely within our forest areas. They are certainly doing their bit to destroy the forests around them for one thing, with their use of fertilizers and pesticides and for another the exploitation, contamination, and pollution of the forests’ precious water resources are all having a disastrous impact. Then we have our MOEF’s penchant for suddenly granting mining and even forage/fodder licenses in our few remaining forest areas. They will then even come up with environmental clearances for these absolutely destructive projects and all in the name of ‘development’!

But these issues, though important, are not yet the worst of the culprits. The forests as a whole are under great threat due to lopsided and simplistic mismanagement over many decades. We know that our hardwood fig “strangling”trees are being poached along with our sandalwood. Trees such as the rosewood and mahogany are simply never seen within our ‘Reserve’ or National Park Forests. If we can’t protect these huge trees that are so difficult to transport out (where the take per tree is less than 200,000 rupees now for the illegal logger) , then where is the question of our being able to protect our leopards and tigers? A tiger will earn a poacher not less than a million rupees and all that it takes is a well placed wire trap or some poisoned bait – and a buyer.

In other words, if we can not protect our trees, there’s no way that we can claim to be adequately protecting our precious tigers. Combine the losses to poaching with the ridiculously bioinverse policy of planting large tracts of monocultures of “economically important” species such as teak or bamboo – and of course these then have to be harvested – and you do indeed begin to have the recipe for the disaster that we have been cooking up.

Once the forest’s precious tree diversity is gone, the forest itself gets degraded and becomes a poorer and poorer habitat that will soon not be able to support top predators like the tiger. Biodiversity is undermined at all levels. Other critical large-animal populations, notably the elephants, leaopards and bison, will then have to start wandering out of the ‘protected’ zones in search of food and water, and that will lead to increasing incidences of man-animal conflicts in the forest’s surroundings.

One final point for today’s debate: The earmarked, and presently “protected”, territory is very inadequate. Tigers roam over huge areas of range (as indeed do elephants). They spread out so that they do not much have to encounter one another. I have twice seen wild tigers while hiking in scrub jungle, well outside the confines of the nearest reserve forest. Clearly we need to expand the buffer zones around the “core areas” of our remaining tiger populations. We also have to eventually find the funding to fence the forests and forest denizens in (and the poachers out).  Ever thought about what it would take to fence-in an elephant?

In the meantime, if we can start by adequately expanding the buffer areas and perhaps even provide linking corridors between nearly contiguous stretches of forest, this in itself will start to make a fantastic difference!

Environmentalists and forest watchers who care and who have raised their voices of protest have been silenced by committees of armchair scientists, most of whom have never even seen a real live wild tiger to speak of. It’s up to us now, the common folks of this great land of the erstwhile Royal Bengal Tiger, to keep the issues alive and to make the careless of officialdom accountable for the precious heritage that they are allowing to be destroyed before our very eyes.


Let your voice be heard.forest strata

Make the protection of our forests a major issue of national importance.

Teach your children well, for the future is in their hands.

Publicise (write to the editor or to an investigative journalist of your local paper), document, and protest each and every incident of forest abuse that you see or find out about. Keep a weather eye out for stuff like this!

Get personally involved; participate in animal censuses, take up projects to help forest tribals become independent of the forests, talk to your friends about the plight of our forests and encourage one another to become activists for the sake of saving the little that still remains.

Let’s not leave our kids with just this:tiger rug

Let us instead come together to fight to preserve what we still do have left!


Tiger, TIGER!

13 10 2006

On an animal survey, four of us (3 volunteers and one tribal guide) were trekking in the Top Slip National Park three years ago. We had started early, around 5.30 a.m., just as dawn was starting to break with a slight greying of the sky. It was still quite dark as we enterred the scrub jungle on the outskirts of the forest proper. As we walked the sun rose and filled the atmosphere with a golden glow. it was a glorious way to begin our hike.

Very early on there were indications that this was to be an exceptional morning. We had hardly started when we almost ran into a solitary, large, sloth bear (Melursus ursinus). He had been digging for juicy roots and the ground was littered with fresh piles of upturned earth.

Around ten, we had covered 5 km of fairly easy walking when the distinctive smell of slightly decaying flesh brought us to a grinding halt. We cast around and finally located a fairly recently killed Sambhar Deer (Cervicus unicolor) hidden under a thorn thicket. Studying the ground, our guide (an excellent tracker) showed us where the deer had been ambushed and pointed out the rear hoofs digging deep into the earth where a tiger had landed on his haunches, where he fell, and how after a brief struggle on the ground he was dragged under the bushes where the tiger completed a meal of the shoulder portions. The deer was a large male and it would have taken a tiger in its prime to bring him down.

Unfortunately we could get no very clear pug marks to help identify which of the 42 bengal tigers known to frequent that forest this one was. There was rising ground some 3 km off and as tigers prefer to go to a vantage point from which to sleep off a meal we thought (without any real hope) that we would give it a try. Soon we were toiling up a dry stream bed and seemingly going straight up. The surrounding scrub was too thick and thorny to break through.

We were in single file with our guide in front. he kept exclaiming at this or that sign, shushing us and commanding that we walk quietly and I was sure that it was the usual hype – “Sir, the tiger definitely passed this way this morning…”

We stopped and bunched up when we came to a series of rocks that would have made a lively waterfall in the rainy season. Broad flat rocks that almost seemed to be a series of made-to-purpose steps. At the top there was one long step and three of us took that step almost simultaneously and FROZE. There, not ten feet from us, was a huge male tiger in repose. He jumped to his feet, tail slightly twitching and stared at us. We were well and truly horrified, I know I was holding my breath. Each of us carried a camera but that was completely forgotten. The tableau held for an instant or two and then – a reddish streak, he went vertical, springing effortlessly up fifteen feet onto a big boulder, another huge leap and he disappeared into the scrub.

After a few still moments, we slowly, very slowly looked around and then, in silent excitement, cautiously came back down to the plain. Only when safely out of the deep scrub did we start jumping up and down in excitement and talked and talked about those fantastic, incredible few moments, and then we talked all the way back to the camp.

I know people that have lived in these jungles for years and never seen a tiger! It was an incredible bit of luck – and a truly blessed few moments!

I was in this same forest recently and traced out our tribal guide to see if he had seen any further signs of our handsome young man (estimated age then around 4 years, about ten feet from toe to tail) and the word was that he had been spotted, even bigger, in a completely different zone of the forest, a couple months earlier.

Well, the Bengal Tiger is highly endangered. The census that year (2003, 3 years back) identified 42 tigers. Now the count is down to 36. The population is not sustaining itself and the major reason is poaching. A tiger skin is reported to fetch upwards of 400,000 Rupees (about 10 years wage) in the local market. Other parts of the tiger are also considered very valuable and if a tiger is ‘judiciously disposed of’, the total for the poacher will be a million Rupees or more.

So, you will forgive me for not identifying our trekking route or the area of the forest any more clearly than I have. I have also deliberately not named my companions or our guide and they will understand.