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     Gobar Times: Environment for Beginners

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C O V E R  S T O R Y

S H E R E   K H A N   C A L L I N G

SHERE KHANsos from
shere khan

Folks, you know what….it is time to rewrite the Jungle Book. And remake the awesome Walt Disney cartoon film that was made out of it. Because it’s pretty obvious that the planet that Rudyard Kipling lived in was very different from the one that you and I inhabit, today. Remember Shere Khan, the deadly villain who struck terror in the heart of little Mowgli, the man cub, and the rest of his animal friends? The king of the jungle, who reigned supreme over his territory and his subjects? Well, all that has changed. The villain is now the victim. The modern-day Mowgli, need no longer protect his friends from Shere Khan. In fact, his prime mission will be to save Khan from a new set of terminators…far more deadly ones… human beings.

But before I tell you more about them, lets consider just how seriously threatened is the tiger… Here are some figures. At the beginning of the 20th century there were more than 100,000 tigers in the world. Now only 5000 – 7500 remain. India, as you must already know, has the largest tiger population. In the early 1900s more than 40,000 of them roamed in the forests of Punjab, Haryana, Jammu, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra. Now, as per the 2002 tiger census, a mere 3,500 can be traced. Experts believe, that in reality not more than 2000 are actually alive.

Now do you see why we need a valiant champion for the royal beast?

The counting game
But a huge problem looms in front of Mowgli even before he can begin to chalk out the rescue strategy. Does he know how many tigers remain to be rescued? Not really. Yes, tiger census is conducted every year in most of the reserves by state forest departments. And a head count registered. But experts feel that these figures cannot be relied on. Because the method used by the government now, of counting ‘pug-marks’, is not a foolproof system. You see, what is done now is that a big team of ‘counters’ is fanned out across the jungles, who search for tiger tracks. Once they are traced, plaster casts are taken of the left hind paw. These pugmarks are then collected and compared to identify individual tigers.

This system can work in areas which have a hard soil layer, laid with fine dust or sand. But in the Western Ghats or in the north-eastern hills, pugmark census cannot come up with the right number! Also, there is a huge scope for basic errors—the same paw may be counted several times, for instance. Result? "One naar (tiger), is turned into five," says Parvati Devi, who lives in the fringes of Sariska. So official census is not to be trusted.

Isn’t there a more scientific way to count tigers?Of course there is.Like fixing camera traps in forest paths that capture stripe patterns which are unique; or collecting tiger droppings—another way of detecting whether the royal tribe is on the rise or wane. Many wildlife researchers are all set to use these methods to track tigers.

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But guess who is blocking their way? Forest department officials — who often refuse to allow researchers from ‘outside’ to work inside the reserves! Why? Difficult to say, but may be because they fear that their ‘fudged’ figures will now be questioned...

So it is upto Mowgli now to check out the various census methods that modern science offers.

And make sure that the right ones are applied on the ground.

Once this is sorted out, he can then focus on the real issue..Why is the big cat dying?

It’s a business of killing
In India, at least one tiger is felled each day by ‘tiger traders’ … of the illegal kind! And in the recent years this trade seems to have got a tremendous boost.

Poachers are highly organised and have a strong international network. It moves via Nepal, up north, to the tiger product markets of Tibet and China. It works like an efficient supply chain. Local poachers hunt, kill and then and sell the body parts (skin, bones and various organs) to the middlemen. The middlemen then sell these to international syndicate members.

And it’s booming
Tiger = money: Ten grammes of tiger bones is sold for US$24.25 at the China-Vietnam border. That works out to more than Rs. 1 lakh per kilogram. Did you know that Wildlife trade is the second largest illegal trade in the world, closely following the business of selling narcotics? It is valued at more than six billion dollars by the Interpol, the international criminal police organisation.

Who buys?
In the past couple of decades people living in certain parts of Southeast Asia—mainly China—have become more affluent. Personal incomes of at least a certain section of the population has grown. Result? Demand for expensive traditional medicines and other luxury products has skyrocketed. And here is how this trend affects the king of the jungle...

Bone collectors
The traditional Chinese medicine industry has use for practically every part of a tiger — and more than 60 per cent of China’s gigantic population uses its products! Whiskers for toothaches, claws as sedative, eyes for malaria and tail to treat skin diseases. But tiger bone, used to treat rheumatism, is most in demand.

Skin trade
Tiger skin is a valued trophy — a status symbol. The ‘really rich’ in Tibet use it as trimming in their clothing. Want to know how high the demand for it is? In October 2003 alone, custom officials intercepted 31 tiger skins and 581 leopard skins. The clients are mostly Chinese or Tibetan — also Europeans.

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