SOS 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. 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.
Okay. So now you know who the real culprits are. And who should be the main targets of Mowgli’s mission. But, folks, there is one more issue, a pretty serious one too, that he will have to tackle if he has to vanquish the Enemies No 1 forever. He has to make sure that the king has the domain that he needs to survive.
Every individual tiger marks out an area for itself, which is called its range. A tigress needs about 10 to 15 square kilometres, and the male’s range covers the territory of two or three females. But now human beings have invaded the tiger’s domain. Highways, townships, dams — the habitat of the king is slowly being taken over...
Starving to death?
Tigers can survive in coniferous woodlands, deciduous forests, mangroves and peat swamps. It’s not really fussy about its habitat. But it does require a steady supply of food to live and to reproduce. Its favourite diet consists of ungulates or hoofed animals such as gaur, nilgai, chinkara, wild goats, wild pigs and, of course, different species of deer (moose, elk, sambar, barsingha). A full grown male needs 2,200-2,500 kilograms of meat in a year — that is, about 40 to 50 animals. A female, with cubs to raise, requires more — 60 to 70.
A prey base of about 400 is required to keep a single tiger alive. Again, a tiger can hunt only about eight to 10 per cent of the total number of hoofed creatures that are found in its habitat. Now with the disappearing forest cover, the prey base, too, has shrunk. Leaving the tiger hungering for more...
Tigers, forests... undermined!
Indian law strictly prohibits mining inside reserves. What’s more, it states that no mining operation can be carried out within 10 kilometres of the boundary of any protected area. But illegal mining is a roaring business in and around most reserves. Take the much-in-the news Sariska for instance.
The Aravalli hills around it are mined for granite and sand. Talc or soapstone, which forms the basis of the cosmetic and detergent industries, is also mined here. There are as many as 145 of these illegal mines in Sariska and the adjacent Jamwa Ramgarh reserve.
Project Tiger: A rescue mission
Mowgli will certainly not be India’s first tiger crusader. Attempts have been made in the past to protect the royal beast. In fact, around 1970, some concerned wild life specialists began to sound the alarm bell pretty vigorously. In 1972, the first ever all India tiger census was conducted and the experts were aghast to find that only 1827 animals remained of the 40,000-strong population recorded in early 1900s! In 1970, a national ban on tiger hunting was imposed and in 1972 the Wildlife Protection Act came into force.
A 'Task Force' was then set up to formulate a project for tiger conservation “with an ecological approach”. And the Project Tiger was launched in 1973. Then it had nine reserves under it, and was entirely funded by the Union government in New Delhi. Now it is spread over 27 parks and its expenses are shared equally by the centre and the states in which these reserves are located. For a while, it looked as if Shere Khan and his tribe were on a comeback trail. The tiger population, here, bounced back, even while the Javan, Caspian and Bali sub-species were gradually disappearing from the face of the earth.
But then something, somewhere, began to go wrong. Horribly. Tiger Census conducted by state forest departments every year started recording a frightening dip in head count. Then the Sariska National Park, that was included in the Project Tiger network way back in 1978, brought everything to a boil. Despite desperate attempts made by forest officials to trace the big cat, not a single one could be found!
And what was really scary was that the entire tiger clan seemed to have simply vanished into thin air! Surely if they had all died due to some natural cause (unlikely story!) at least the carcasses would have remained! The stunned nation was not left with any such illusion…clearly the poachers had been on a rampage in Sariska.
Now we are haunted by a terrifying possibility—have the other reserves turned into empty graveyards as well?
Leaving locals out... a no-win strategy
The question that is really worrying the tiger-watchers is how did the villains get into these protected zones? Especially when Project Tiger is built on the Western concept of the ‘core-buffer’ strategy — which means that the entire forest area in a Project Tiger location was cleared of ‘human interference’!
This included the local communities which had, for generations, used this area for earning their livelihood. The answer lies in the strategy itself! In India, unlike in most western countries — forests cannot be separated from human beings, because they depend on each other for survival. Do you know that thanks to this ‘exclusion’ drive of the government more than four million people living in and around the fringes of the protected areas have lost their right to enter the forests?
And to collect mahua flowers, sal and tendu leaves, resin, lac, and fuel wood —and a hundred other things that provided their daily meal? So the villagers who used to rush to douse a forest fire, and beat up outsiders who dared to hunt down wild animals, cannot care less now. Worse still, many have grown actively hostile to the tigers, who they hold directly responsible for their own sorry state.
Instead of driving them out, the local people who have intimate, invaluable knowledge of the jungle, actually lead the poachers into a tiger’s den. At least, they are ensured a reward for this! By leaving the locals out, the government has created deadly enemies out of those who once were the tiger’s most valiant allies! What a pity, and what a waste…
Card board soldiers
Now, all powers and all responsibilities of managing the reserve forests are in the hands of a huge body of government officials— some who are posted in New Delhi and others who work in the various state forest departments. Some are truly committed but most are not. Let’s take stock of how the reserves have been ‘managed’ till now:
Money game: There is plenty of money but no one to manage it! In the 10th Plan Five Year Plan alone Rs. 150 crore has been allocated to the Project. But every year the funds remain unutilised because the various state governments do not release their share. Take Tamil Nadu as an example. Thanks to halted cash flow even the day-to-day functioning of the Kalakkad-Mundanthuria reserve– the Project Tiger site –becomes a challenge.
No staff: Though most of the tiger reserves are seriously understaffed and need additional hands urgently, the state forest departments have not made any recruitments since the mid 1980’s.
A ragtag band: The current troop of forest guards who are supposed to be manning the tiger domain, are a tired, dejected lot. Why?
In October, 2001, the staff of the Valmiki tiger reserve in Bihar staged a walk out leaving the 43 tigers in the park unguarded. ‘Irresponsible’ did you say? Maybe, but they had not been paid for 15 months!
But hold on…not all sanctuaries are in such a dismal state. The Periyar Tiger Reserve, spread over 777 square kilometres in the
Till some of the Kerala Forest Department officials decided to offer them friendship. A unique eco-tourism project, the Periyar Tiger Trail programme, was launched in 1998. And 21 hard core ‘eco offenders’ were taken in as eco tour guides! The aim of these wise government officers was to provide these men, who till now were social outcasts, an opportunity to return to normal life. What they got in return was the skill, intelligence and loyalty of the ex-offenders who were intimately familiar with the forests and the animals. Quite a bargain, don’t you agree?
The authorities give Rs. 2 lakhs to the Eco Development Committee of which 70 per cent is equally distributed to the members, 10 per cent goes as government revenue and 10 per cent is put in the welfare fund. Everyone benefits. Most of all, the big cat. Cases of poaching has reduced dramatically in the Periyar reserve. The eco-tour guides keep a constant vigil to make sure the tigers are safe. And obviously they are doing a great job.
So, our Mowgli will not fight a losing battle. Nor will he be a lone crusader. If he takes the local people — ultimate protectors of the king of all beasts— along with him, his ‘save-tiger-drive’ is bound to be a Mission Possible…