Let the Stripes Burn

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“The forest that has tigers should never be cut, nor should the tigers be chased away from the forest. Not living in the forest is death to the tiger, and in the absence of the tiger, the forest is annihilated. The tiger protects the forest and the forest nurtures the tiger.”

-Mahabharata, 400 BCE (from “Saving Wild India” by ValmikThapar)

The tiger. Awe-inspiring and charismatic like perhaps no other animal that roams the earth. In the Sunderban mangrove landscape, it is believed that the tiger always sees you before you can see him. With the aura of an enigma, and woven intricately into India’s history, religion and folklore, this magnificent striped beast is feared as much as it is revered.

An often repeated tale I have heard from my mother is about a tigress with two cubs blocking the ghat roads of Koraput, and our car having to stop and wait for a good two hours or more in the densely forested ghat road at night, until the tigress decided to move away. This was fifty years ago. I was a few months old then. Another tale she told us was about a tiger experience in her childhood. Some tribals gave a pair of tiger cubs to her grandfather who was a famous lawyer at Bhadrak. Apparently, all efforts to rear the cubs went in vain and the pair died in a few days.

I recently had the divine fortune of cradling a rescued tiger cub in my arms. The feeling of elation is of course indescribable in words. But as the playful cub clung to my arm and tried to dig her teeth in, I was overcome with a feeling of extreme sadness at the huge peril which this apex species, so fundamental to the well-being of the ecosystem, faces today.

So why is the survival of the tiger so critical? And what happened to the tigers in India?

The tiger is one of the apex species of animals that plays a pivotal role in maintaining ecological balance. It’s prey base consists of ungulates. If the growth of ungulate herbivores remains unchecked, then the earth would be wiped out of all vegetation. The tiger therefore maintains the balance between its prey base and forest vegetation, thereby making its presence as a top predator, integral to the well-being and existence of the forest.

It is believed that between 50,000 to 1,00,000 tigers roamed the Indian subcontinent when Rudyard Kipling penned his ‘Jungle Book’ at the turn of the nineteenth century. By 1971, only about 1800 tigers remained, a shocking statement of how tigers were being decimated by trophy hunting. The Tiger Task Force predicted that at this rate of decimation, tigers would be extinct by the turn of the century. Taking cognizance of this, Delhi High Court banned tiger hunting in 1971.

The tiger has been a favourite hunt since the days of Mughal emperor Akbar, during whose reign elaborate ‘shikars’ were organized, a trend that continued in the reign of successive Mughal rulers until the dynasty fell in 1857. Game-hunting was also a favourite pastime for the British who came in with guns,  shot tigers and other wild beasts, recklessly. In 1911, soon after his ascension, King George V went to Nepal with a hunting party, shooting 39 tigers in ten days. The kings of Rewa in Central India considered it auspicious to bring down 109 tigers after their coronation. The Maharaja of Sarguja, in a letter to wildlife biologist George Schaller, mentioned that by 1965, he alone had killed more than 1100  tigers. There are numerous such bloody stories of hunting, smearing the tiger history of India, drastically reducing the numbers of tigers in the wild by thousands. According to historian Mahesh Rangarajan, over 80,000 tigers were killed between 1875 to 1925, a span of fifty years. Killing of tigers for skin was motivated by the huge demand for tiger skin to make fur coats when the craze for fur overtook Hollywood and high society in the USA and Europe.

While the British pursued trophy hunting by killing wild beasts, health care facilities introduced by them in India led to rapid growth of population, which meant that vast tracts of forests were cleared for human settlements. The darkest period for conservation in India was between 1940 and 1970 when large-scale development projects necessitated huge tracts of land, due to which clearing of forests and killing of wild animals went on unabated for years.

All these mindless killing of tigers finally led to a total ban on tiger hunting, promulgation of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, and finally, the birth of Project Tiger in 1973. Infact, it was former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a wildlife lover and conservationist by heart, who actually spearheaded a movement against killing of tigers way back in 1966 when she first took over as Prime Minister. In 1969, Indira Gandhi outlawed the export of tiger skins, followed by setting up the Tiger Task Force in 1971, and finally launching Project Tiger in 1973. Project Tiger is considered to be the world’s most comprehensive tiger conservation programme. Under the programme, radical changes were introduced to safeguard the existence of tigers in the forests, like, establishment of nine tiger reserves and moving out human establishments beyond the perimeters of these reserves, and setting up a forest patrol to monitor and control encroachments in forests. It is said that in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, the number of Indian tigers stood at more than 4000. Belinda Wright, director of Wildlife Protection Society of India had famously remarked at that time that “tigers flourished beyond our wildest dreams.”

However the euphoria of change towards better was short-lived. Towards the last years of the 1980’s, there was a rapid fall in the number of tigers. The menace of poaching for tiger body parts had reared its ugly head and assumed unimaginable proportions. Demand from China, where tiger parts were used for traditional chinese medicine was the single biggest reason for wild tigers being poisoned or shot in the forests by poachers. In 2008, a tiger census by Wildlife Institute of India and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) based on camera trap images reported only 1411 tigers in the wild in India, a shocking revealation of the rapid declining numbers of the species, and nullifying inflated numbers given over decades based on the outdated pugmark technique. While the dwindling numbers of tigers has led to strengthening of Project Tiger in the last two decades, yet, the story is far from perfect as far as the protection of our national animal is concerned.

As someone who loves and lives the wilderness, I’m already devastated by the thought of the predicted extinction of the Great Indian Bustard. Shamefully, we are living in sad times when we are facing the probability of extinction of yet another species, the tiger. Inspite of the increase in protected areas and tiger reserves, killing of tigers by poachers is a blatantly continuing affair. Experts have said that Indian tigers are the best hope for survival of the species worldwide. But inspite of the alarm bells ringing, and concerned conservationists doing all they can to keep the spotlight on tiger conservation, governments and policy makers have not shown the required stringency in translating protection policies into action. Policy implementation has to be in a more aggressive mode in order to protect tigers and their prey base and conserve our forests.

Protection capabilities of frontline forest staff has to be augmented through provision of modern tracking equipment, metal detectors, construction of anti-poaching camps and watch towers, etc. This will lead to more stringent monitoring and protection for tigers and their prey base against poachers. Capacity building of frontline staff has to be a continuous process through training programmes that include lessons in efficient patrolling methods, combat techniques and tiger tracking & communication techniques through use of latest technologies like GPS etc. Sincere steps, short-term and long-term, have to be taken to mitigate human-tiger conflicts. Along with compensatory measures for relocation outside core areas, local communities have to be strongly woven into the conservation strategy through awareness programmes, and reducing their dependence on forest by engaging them in alternate sustainable livelihoods. Very crucial is the larger context of educating local communities, stakeholders, and civil society about the criticalities facing tiger conservation and making them aware of how they can be involved and contribute.

The future of the tiger rests on the will of the next generation. Children have to be sensitized to the issue so that they can be the best advocates for this species and demand that the species be protected. Towards this end, eminent conservationist and environment activist, Bittu Sahgal, editor, Sanctuary Asia, has launched ‘Kids for Tigers,’ a movement that engages school-going children in conservation. The idea was to influence these children to fall in love with nature and tigers, and to teach them that tigers cannot be saved if their homes (forests) are not saved. Kids across India now march in the streets calling for tiger protection by petitioning government departments and officials. More than 25,000 school children participated in a ‘Kids for Tigers’ rally in New Delhi, even petitioning Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Simultaneously, ‘Teachers for Tigers’ programme was also introduced to pull in the weight of influence of the education community. As Bittu Sahgal says, “so we have teachers on our side, we have kids on our side, we have parents on our side, we have the media on our side. All we need now is to get a few politicians on our side so that they don’t destroy these forests before the kids take over the steering wheel.”

My generation of odias is gloriously stripe-marked for posterity by the legendary tigress ‘Khairi’ of the Similipal forests, and the almost difficult-to-believe bond, between her and her foster human parents. But those were the days when forest officers like Late Saroj Ray Choudhury, Khairi’s foster father, and one of the most respected foresters of India, literally breathed and lived for the forests and their denizens. Odisha, a state which is a rich biodiversity repository, with thick and pristine forest cover, has two tiger reserves, Similipal and Satkosia. However there is nothing much to write about as far as its tiger population is concerned, save for the fact that Similipal is the only tiger habitat in the world to have a population of melanistic tigers. Inbreeding could be a cause of melanistic tiger population being on the rise. Experts say that long-term effects of inbreeding are lower fertility and higher cub mortality rates, and melanistic tigers could be an indication of increasing threat to the orange tiger population. In the last week, two tigers from the tiger reserves of Madhya Pradesh (Kanha & Bandhavgarh), a male and a female, have been brought to Satkosia Tiger Reserve, which has a reported population of only two tigers now. All eyes are set on this relocation, with the fervent hope that the tigers will acclimatize well and breed successfully. The third habitat, waiting for tiger reserve status is Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary. Conservationist, researcher and author Satyesh Naik is extremely upbeat about this habitat. Inspite of presence of Maoists, Satyesh has been working in the Sunabeda-Khariar forests relentlessly through his organization ‘The Corridor Foundation’.  The foundation believes that creating awareness among local communities, especially children, is the most vital step towards saving the Sunabeda-Khariar forests and its tiger residents. Orientation programmes are being conducted by them in partnership with various schools in the region. However Satyesh is extremely disappointed by lack of initiatives on the part of the authorities in safeguarding this precious forest which hold immense promise as a tiger habitat and feels that we are losing time. He fears that like the uncertain status of ‘hard-ground Barasingha,’  a species endemic to the Sunabeda plateau, the status of the Sunabeda-Khariar tigers might soon be clouded.

Over the years, conservationists have argued that the tiger eats up the bulk of the country’s conservation budget, thus leading to neglect of other species. What is needed to be understood is that conservation efforts made towards saving a flagship species like the tiger, or any top predator, also benefit the thousands of life-forms that share the tiger’s habitat, the forest. The entire forest ecosystem is thereby preserved. Infact, tiger conservation has helped to recover habitats across the country that were under threat, like the Sundarban mangroves, Terai foothills in the Himalayas, rainforests of Western Ghats and Assam grasslands.

29th July is International Tiger Day.  Saving the tiger is not about saving just a charismatic species. It’s about securing the future of our children by conserving resources that are fundamental to their existence. On International Tiger Day, therefore, let us understand and empathise about this magnificent animal and what its conservation means to the continuity of planet earth and its inhabitants. Only then will the future generations comprehend the meaning of those classic lines:

“Tiger Tiger burning bright

In the forest of the night

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

By  Panchami  Manoo  Ukil. Photographs By:  Ashutosh Khemka & Aditya Vardhan Khemka

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