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Bracing up to save the tiger

Sep 18, 2008

In the wake of India's poor tiger count, V.B. Savarkar outlines new steps being taken to protect tigers and their habitats. The former Director of the Wildlife Institute of India also calls for giving more teeth to existing laws to bring poachers to book.

In 1995, the tiger population of the world was estimated between 5,000 and 7,000, with India sheltering around 50% of the endangered animal. Five years ago, India's tiger count went down to 3,500. Today, it is barely 1,411.


These comprise only full grown adult tigers and if the cubs were included the count would be around 2,500. But even this figure, says V.B. Savarkar, former Director of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), is nothing to cheer about.

Savarkar was also a member of the Expert Committee on Evaluation and Monitoring of Tiger Reserves. In this interview to OneWorld South Asia during his visit to Pune, Savarkar outlines the steps that have been taken to arrest the declining number of tigers and what needs to be done ahead.

Here are the excerpts:

OWSA: Can we recall the tiger crisis that hit India a few years ago?

VBS: In 2005, it came to be realised that the entire tiger population had been wiped out from the Sariska Tiger Reserve while 18 known individuals had disappeared from the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and nine known individual breeding tigers were found missing from the Panna Tiger Reserve.

If this was the case with high profile tiger reserves, one wondered what had happened in inaccessible tiger reserves like Indravati and Palamau, or in the forests outside of India's protected area system.

Unfortunately, the underlying reason for this crisis, the third in 35 years, was the collapse in the system of governance. It was a matter of shame that government officials, even at the height of the crisis, refused to admit that poaching was the main cause of it.

The ensuing media buzz prompted the chief minister of Rajasthan to respond to the crisis in Sariska and Ranthambore by constituting a Special Task Force to conduct a post-mortem of events.

Members included Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India and Valmik Thapar, noted author and environmentalist. The Task Force reported that early warnings about tiger poaching from local NGOs and community representatives fell on deaf bureaucratic ears.

The members of senior management of Sariska Tiger Reserve were not posted onsite and therefore weren't around to ensure that the park was being patrolled. The Task Force also unearthed detailed information on poaching gangs operating in Sariska. One such gang admitted to killing 10 tigers in Sariska.

OWSA: What has been happening after the crisis?

VBS: The crisis led to some developments on the legal front. The current tiger census is an effort spanning the last two and a half years. Tigers are found in 17 Indian States spread across an average area of 164,000 sq kms. The census study gave rise to several questions regarding tiger reserves and areas beyond the protected wild.

With the help of statistical data, we did extensive forest-mapping, studied the density of trees and prey bases of tigers, the risk factors of involved, the kind of road network in place, and the network of farms, dams, canals and other infrastructure in these areas. Eventually, all this will help in creating better habitats for tigers to be protected and grow in number.

OWSA: Are the latest research techniques being used?

VBS: We have done radio-collaring of the animals through GPS (global positioning system), camera-trapping and permanent line-transits in the forests. We have even consulted international wildlife experts to suggest better ways.

OWSA: How will new tiger habitats be defined?

VBS: Marking critical tiger habitat areas all over India is happening in right earnest now. These will be areas that will have tigers within 500 to 1,000 sq kms. These have been marked as sensitive areas where tigers will breed freely. Corridors between two jungles have also been treated as critical tiger habitat areas.

Here, the primary concern is the rehabilitation of people who are currently residing in these areas. The government has decided to pay Rs 10 lakh per family.

Around 273 towns in India have been identified for rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the WII has started training military and paramilitary forces and the police are also being briefed about the procedural aspects of wildlife conservation and protection.

OWSA: How has the tiger crisis helped strengthen the legal process?

VBS: There is a move to establish fast track courts to dispose off poaching cases. Meanwhile, a special cadre of wildlife managers is being trained to prevent any more poaching.

There is a centralised Wildlife Crime Bureau in Delhi and that will have regional nodes in each of the 17 States. They will be equipped to carry out proper supervision and evaluation.

The focus will be on areas like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh which reported the maximum killing of tigers between 2003 and 2005. Also, amendments done to the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act in 2006 and 2007 have led to providing more teeth to bring poachers to book. In consideration is the controversial Tribal Forest Rights Act, 2006, which is important for the tribals.

The Act enables traditional forest dwellers to stay in forest legally, provided they have been staying there for 75 years, i.e. three generations prior to December 13, 2005, and are dependent on forest produce for their livelihood. Wildlife conservationists have been up in arms against this Act, claiming that it would ring the death knell for tigers and other wild species.

OWSA: What about poaching by China?

VBS: Traditional Chinese medicine, which uses body parts of the tiger, brought down the number of tigers in China. By 1980, Chinese poachers started to find opportunities in northern India.

Killings escalated between 1980 and 1984. To avoid a repetition of such a situation, continuous bilateral talks between India and China are necessary.

OWSA: What next?

VBS: A steering committee, which will have chief ministers of each state, will be formed to monitor wildlife activity across the country. This will help apply the right amount of pressure to prevent a recurrence of what happened in 2005.

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