The reconstitution of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) earlier this month, within three years of its being set up, suggests that the government is unsure of how to fulfil this mandate. Actually, the solutions exist, and have been demonstrated on the ground; they need replication. For although there are no firm estimates of how far the tiger population has diminished since Project Tiger began in 1972 — the “pug mark” census method used then has been widely discredited — it is easy to see that tigers are disappearing from India’s jungles. Conserving the approximately 1,650-odd Royal Bengal tigers that India now has is essentially a question of institutional reform.
Radical proposals to develop farms that breed and release tigers in the wild have been discussed occasionally. The concept is attractive in theory but has proved a failure in practice in China — the biggest market for tiger parts. This is because of local beliefs that the most potent tiger bones — a standard ingredient in aphrodisiacs and treatments for rheumatic ailments — come from animals in the wild. In other words, tiger farms would actually raise the premium on wild tiger parts. India, being the largest source for the tiger parts market, would therefore suffer a sharper diminution in such an event. India has an additional problem in that no zoo has a proper stud book. The result is that several tigers in Indian zoos are of mixed species — some, in fact, are half-Siberian. Third, no one has yet discovered a way of viably replicating the unique parental training for preparing an animal for the wild — Billy Arjan Singh’s experiment is considered too individualistic to be applied to large tiger populations.
In truth, there is little that is wrong with the concept of national parks that were set up under Project Tiger and there are easily remedied reasons for their sub-optimal functioning. First, conservation is a concurrent subject, so misalignments between central and state efforts are inevitable. Sariska is a case in point where central and state forest bureaucracies used each other as alibis for inaction, leading to the extinction of the big cat there. Some states have not recruited forest guards since the 1980s, so the current ageing cadres, who are also unarmed, can scarcely be expected to police well-armed poachers. Conversely, the states that have taken conservation seriously like Assam (Kaziranga) and Karnataka (Nagarhole) have seen healthy increases in tiger populations. It would, thus, be useful if the NTCA explored ways of rewarding states that function effectively, and getting others to learn from the successful ones. Promoting responsible tourism is another effective conservation method because it provides a viable eco-system for land-losers to national parks, in addition to providing valuable local-level funding. Today, much of the revenues from the national parks go into a centralised state kitty, and the funds earmarked for parks vanish under administrative heads and leakages. Redirecting such income for reinvestment would go a long way in making parks more financially self-sufficient.