|What’s Behind the Decline in India’s Tiger Population - and What Can Be Done About It?
Rhishja Larson, 9th August, 2009
tiger conservation efforts have suffered a multitude of major setbacks,
and threats from inside and outside the country may lead to extinction
of the wild tiger. Can the tiger be saved?
When Project Tiger
was launched in 1973, India reported a tiger population of 1,827 tigers
- a decline from 40,000 tigers in India at the turn of the century.
Now, the tiger population in India is only approximately 1,400. The
Indian public is outraged, and recently held a rally in support of
saving its tigers.
It has now become clear that the almost four
decade old Project Tiger has not been able to do much in stabilizing,
let alone enhancing the tiger population in India. Its recent
successor, the National Tiger Conservation Authority is said to be, for
lack of better words, without teeth. And the tiger, perhaps unaware
that so much is happening in its name is fast losing the battle to
How did the tiger population in India get to such a sorry state?
Poaching driven by increasing demand for tiger parts
of most deadly threats facing the tiger in India poaching for tiger
parts. According to the Times of India, a single tiger “ground down and
separated into various medicines” brings in around $50,000. Belinda
Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India said in the article
that poachers use Nepal to move between India and China, where
increasing demand for tiger parts is driven by rising affluence:
It’s the traditional Chinese medicine market that’s driving demand.
This assessment is confirmed by the Wildlife Protection Society of India WPSI).
undercover investigations by the Wildlife Protection Society of India
(WPSI) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) revealed that
the trade in tiger and leopard body parts in China continues to thrive,
operating without any hindrance from the Chinese government whilst
driving India’s wild tigers closer towards extinction.
market for tiger parts is, in fact, so pervasive in China that the
country has tried (so far, unsuccessfully) to get the ban on trade in
tiger parts lifted in hopes of legalizing its commercial tiger farms,
where tigers are bred and raised for slaughter. The “tiger farms” -
government-sanctioned animal abuse and cruelty - are flourishing in
China. And Chinese demand for elephant ivory (for making decorative
trinkets and displaying wealth) and rhino horn (for medicinal “potions”
to cure fever and other common ailments) is also behind the
industrial-scale poaching of elephants and rhinos - which is escalating
along with China’s new affluence.
No more room for tigers?
WPSI reports that mining and other development projects are reducing tiger habitat.
development projects, such as mining and hydroelectric dams, are also
taking their toll on the tiger’s habitat. In the past ten years,
thousands of square kilometers of forest land have been diverted and
destroyed to facilitate such projects. Though mostly outside the
protected network, the loss of this vital habitat will have serious
repercussions on tiger conservation in India.
And despite the
recent good news of a sighting of two tiger cubs in Valmiki Tiger
Reserve, mining activities are apparently getting in the way of
identifying core critical habitat for tigers in the area.
and humans were pitted against each other again in 2006 when India
passed a controversial new law giving forest-dwelling tribes and other
traditional residents rights to occupy and cultivate land that they and
their ancestors have lived on for generations.
Known as the
Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of
Forest Rights) Act, the law applies to families that have lived in the
forest for at least three generations.
However, the act happens
to include “pristine wildlife habitat”, and it may prove over time to
be a setback to much of India’s wildlife conservation efforts.
Kumar, a senior advisor and trustee to Delhi’s Wildlife Trust of India,
criticized the act in a National Geographic article.
opinion this law is eco-suicide. It would pockmark the heart of tiger
country and there simply won’t be any forest anymore.
Kumar’s opinion was seconded by Sejal Worah, program director of conservation WWF-India.
areas of high biodiversity value constitute only 4 percent of India’s
land, so this law should really have another mechanism for the people
within these areas.
As part of the new act, scientific
assessment and identification of “critical wildlife habitats” is
allowed. And if relocation for forest dwellers is deemed necessary to
preserve habitat, relocation can be done - as long as forest dwellers
are involved in every stage of the process and are offered viable
However, outspoken critics like Prashanta
Kumar Sen, former director of the government-run Wildlife Institute of
India, say that the rules are unclear, and the resulting ambiguity is
likely to stall the process indefinitely.
By the time critical
wildlife habitats are actually identified—which could take one year or
ten years—forests will have already gone down the drain.
Tiger protectors outgunned - literally
have the means to acquire the latest in assault weaponry, and
apparently have no problems attracting new recruits. Sadly, this is in
stark contract to those tasked with protecting tigers, as Askok Kumar
recently revealed that forest guards, wielding lathis or .315 rifles,
have to take on poachers armed with automatics.
There are huge
vacancies in their ranks and most of them are old since there has been
no recruitment for 20 years. They are not well-versed in legal
procedures and 90% of the cases against poachers fail to stand up in
Furthermore, according to WPSI, while new protective strategies have been proposed, they have yet to be implemented.
conservation efforts are not geared towards, nor have they adequately
addressed, the new threats with new protection strategies ie. better
law enforcement, training and support. Excellent new tiger protection
measures (such as the recommendations of the (Subramanian Committee for
the Prevention of Illegal Trade in Wildlife, 1994 and Tiger Task Force,
2005) have been proposed but not implemented and little effective
action has been taken in the field. Few of the tiger reserves have an
established intelligence network and nearly 80% of our tiger reserves
do not have an armed strike force or basic infrastructure and equipment
to combat poaching. The forest guards are often out-gunned and
out-manned by poachers. In December 1998, three forest staff were
murdered in Manas Tiger Reserve and several cases of murder and serious
assault on forest guards have been reported since.
Wright of WPSI also told TOI that in the case of Panna Tiger Reserve
losing its last 24 tigers, lack of coordination between centers and
states resulted in tragedy: She stated that the Central team ignored
warnings by the Madya Pradesh authorities.
Will the latest public outcries save India’s tigers?
Fortunately, the public has taken notice of tigers in crisis and organized a tiger rally in New Delhi.
school children and several civil society groups in the Indian capital
city of New Delhi are coming together to demand the basic right of the
tiger – a Right to Survival. And in that, ensuring the survival of the
entire human race. The Rally that follows a tiger consultation will
also be a shift from all that has been done to all that needs to be
The Rally was deemed a success at raising awareness and
bringing the public’s outrage over the crisis to the attention of
The event, that took place amidst a major tiger
crisis, was one of the first attempts at reaching out to urban India
and raise awareness about the inter-connectedness between the tiger and
human survival and make the public move the politicians. The initial
dent has been made, the follow up is what will now determine the fate
of the tiger and of our future generations.