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So, why can't we save the tiger?

Prerna Singh Bindra
Saturday, August 14, 2010
[Also a column in the Sunday Guardian, August 15, 2010)

At a recent ‘tiger talk’ that I gave at a school I was questioned by a little girl of about ten: So why can’t we save the tiger? Don’t we care? Why then, is it our national animal? Out of the mouth of babes… I don’t know what I mumbled in reply, but that night two weeks ago, I couldn’t sleep, and somewhere way past midnight, I jotted down why I think the tiger—and other wildlife—continues to be in this precarious position inspite of all the ado about tiger conservation. Here it is, ad verbatim:

Because - and this I consider is our biggest error - we do neither recognise nor understand how crucial forests are, that saving the tiger is about saving the ecosystem that keeps us alive. Saving tigers is not a luxury, no, not even for a populated country like India. We need to understand that the loss of a tiger is not just the loss of a tiger. It is the unfurling of yet another strand of the ecosystem on which we depend, on which a large majority of our billions depend. It is about water…no less than 600 rivers and streams flow out of the tiger’s forests in India. The ancients understood it- in many cultures tiger is revered as the Water God. The forest protects us from a warming climate- neutralising over 11 percent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions
It is not about us saving the tiger, it is about the tiger saving us.

Because our indifference, and doublespeak, are evident in the fact that we consider it national pride (never mind that it is now our national shame) to hold the Common Wealth games, and allocate over 30,000 crores for it, while the total amount budgeted for Project Tiger since its inception in 1973 is barely 700 crores.

Because we do not hold their habitat sacrosanct. Protected areas cover barely five per cent of India’s land and barely one per cent is tiger reserves. Even this tiny domain we want to pillage and destroy with mines, super-highways, dams. There are many examples-of a dam that threatens to submerge part of Tadoba Tiger Reserve, the mines that eat into the this crucial tiger habitat, of highways that cut through Sariska, railway lines and canals that slice through Dudhwa and Rajaji national parks…and the pressures only increase.

Because even within these reserves, decisions taken are populist or self-serving. Like the recent decision to allow tourists to patrol tiger reserves. Poaching, and wildlife trade is a billion dollar crime second only to arms and narcotics. There is on ongoing battle that governments recognise the gravity of the crime - and have a comprehensive strategy to tackle it. It is not to be trifled with, even by well-meaning tourists. Would the government, for instance, consider taking tourists when patrolling a highly sensitive narcotics area? That apart, what if a tiger or bear, disturbed at the intrusion or defensive when with their cubs, attack?. The tourist knows the risks he takes, but the blame and consequences will be borne by the tiger.

Because we fail to support good, committed officers who do well for the park against all odds; and refuse to hold those who fail in their duty, as in the case of Panna - where all tigers went extinct - accountable.

Because the condition of the frontline staff is abysmal. The average guard is untrained, unfit, unequipped. He mans the forest alone with a lathi-fighting timber mafias, some of which are even known to have links with the underworld, or in naxal areas. All for a pittance, with the payment delayed for months, especially in the case of daily wagers who make up the bulk of the frontline staff.

Because we let crucial tiger habitats wither, and die. Endless examples again, lets take two: Suhelwa a jewel of a sanctuary along the Terai belt in UP is being destroyed - trees hacked, ‘game’ hunted, overrun by cattle, almost to the point of no return. Hazaribagh - the land of a thousand tigers - has been gouged by mines, and neglect. Forget the tiger, you would be lucky to spot a deer here.

Because there is no outrage at the destruction. Because we imagine the issue is far removed from us. Saving our forests and tigers might inspire us to wear batches or blog, but that is not enough. It must be a collective concern. Preserving our ecosystem must be a mainstream issue - a preoccupation as much as a galloping economy - simply because on it rests our future. There can be no economic security without ecological security.

@prerna singh bindra



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