The death of 66 tigers since January 1 this year (or about one every four days) is testimony to the continuing decline in the population of this endangered species of big cats, despite the government committing huge chunks of forest land for their safe dwelling and spending crores of rupees annually on Project Tiger. Beginning with a tiger count of 1,827 in 1970, a number that was considered dangerously low and which, therefore, led to the launching of this wildlife conservation project, the tiger population has plummeted instead of growing, reaching 1,411 by 2006 when the last tiger census was held. That number is believed to have dwindled further now, to below 1,300. After the scandalous Sariska and Panna tiger reserves, both which have become tiger-less and required the re-location of tigers from elsewhere, seven more national parks have been put on high alert as the striped cats have not been spotted there for quite some time. The situation is not much better in most of the other sanctuaries, barring a few in Karnataka and Kerala.
Contrary to the popular notion, poaching is not the only reason for the disappearance of tigers, though it remains an important factor. Of the 66 big cats that have died this year, 23 are believed to be the victims of illegal hunters; the others died on account of in-fighting because of diminishing prey, tiger-human conflict, poor health cover and old age. This apart, the forest guards, who are meant to protect the tigers from their killers, remain inadequate in numbers and still lack appropriate equipment and training (all issues that were pointed out five years ago, when Sariska lost its last tiger). These guards, wielding sticks and archaic guns, and moving about in rickety vehicles, are out-smarted by poachers who are said to be armed quite often with automatic weapons. Moreover, there has been no fresh recruitment of guards for over a decade. As a result, the average age of forest guards has risen to around 50 years. Besides, most staff in the sanctuaries lack scientific knowledge of resource and habitat management.
The green cover of the forests, as also herbivorous animals, which carnivores like tigers prey on, are fast dwindling in most sanctuaries. This apart, the passage of the Tribal Rights Bill, which gave tribals legal rights to forest land, has made it more difficult to rid the protected areas of superfluous human habitations. In fact, many tribals have moved into these zones after the enactment of this law. All this has increased human-tiger conflict.
Several well-conceived tiger safety measures have been mooted by expert panels, but there has been little by way of follow-up action. These include the recommendations of the Subramanian committee for the prevention of illegal trade in wildlife (1994) and the Tiger Task Force (2005). Only a few tiger parks have put in place well-equipped intelligence network to facilitate pro-active preventive action against poachers and tiger part traders. Smuggling of these high-priced parts to China and, to a lesser extent, neighbouring East Asian countries is going on unhindered.
Showing the way on how to tackle the problem, the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala has hired former and potential poachers as forest guards and raised a ‘Vasantha Sena’ (spring force) of poor women who live around the forests, to ward off poaching. This has worked. There seems to be a lesson in this for the others to learn. But effective policing is once again only a part of the solution. Improvement in the habitat environment, including rejuvenation of the green cover to facilitate growth in prey population, is the real imperative.