| TOO LITTLE
TOO LATE ?
article appeared in the Indian Express on 13 February
The disappearance of tigers in Sariska rang the alarm
But India’s tiger reserves have been mauled for
years writes Belinda Wright.
THE first sign of alarm about large-scale poaching
of tigers dates back to August 1993, when 400 kg of
tiger bones, eight tiger skins, and 59 leopard skins
were seized in Delhi. The horrific size of the haul
confirmed that organised wildlife crime had come of
age in India. Since then, NGOs have documented poaching
of tigers, habitat destruction and mismanagement time
and again. But to little effect. Both the Central and
the state governments have, for the most part, remained
silent spectators to the carnage, hiding behind excuses,
endless committees, and a ludicrous lack of transparency
More often than not, a tiger’s death is veiled
in secrecy. And woe betide the manager of a protected
area if he reports poaching or declares a decline in
tiger population: All that will result most probably
is his transfer.
In fact, managers are actively discouraged from showing
a hands-on interest in anti-poaching efforts. Last month,
a senior forest officer in central India refused to
cooperate in a raid involving two tiger skins. He was
expecting a promotion and didn’t want ‘‘trouble
in my area’’. And thus, in the world of
officialdom, tiger figures rarely diminish. What a wonderful
bluff it has all been.
Over the past decade, I have been involved in hundreds
of seizures of tiger and leopard parts. Pictures flash
through my mind: Stinking piles of bones and skins;
a trader in central India pulling out a crumbling tiger
skin in the back of a moving car; five tiger skeletons
packed in sacks; criminals like Sansar Chand (who has
been convicted twice and has about 20 cases pending
against him in five states) walking free from courtrooms
and, yes, of officials and politicians conniving in
After 35 years of being involved, professionally and
passionately, with these breathtaking animals, I can
now say with despair that I have held the skins and
bones of more dead tigers in my hands, than I have watched
Our wildlife criminals are bold and ruthless. And why
shouldn’t they be? Nobody seems particularly interested
in catching them. The tigers of Sariska must have been
a piece of cake for poachers to finish off last monsoon,
when there were no tourists in the park and virtually
The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), which
I head, has documented the illegal killing of 719 tigers
and 2,474 leopards between 1994 and 2004. Included in
the total are 16 tigers killed by electrocution (a method
now popular with poachers) over the past four years.
Not included are mixed bags of claws, which would add
further to the gruesome tally. Each dead tiger represents
the loss of an extraordinary legacy and asset for India,
like a chip off the Taj Mahal.
Way back in July 1995, WPSI put forward a detailed
proposal to the government for a Directorate of Enforcement
for Wildlife Crimes. Despite numerous representations,
the only step forward in these 10 years is a name change;
what is now being discussed in those unfathomable corridors
is a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. In September 1998,
the then Home Minister assured us that it would be done.
In January 2000, he again said, "It will be done!’’
We are still waiting...
AND so is the world. Thousands of letters have been
written to the government and at least two world leaders
(Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) have brought up the issue
of tiger protection being a matter of international
concern during official meetings. But to no avail.
India recently proved that it does not care about international
concerns. Exasperated by India’s sluggishness
in enacting appropriate legislation, the Convention
on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITE,
the largest wildlife treaty in the world) suspended
India from the Convention on December 22, 2004, along
Meanwhile, the government spends huge sums on "‘tiger
protection’’, money that is spent largely
on infrastructure and salaries for the 4,960 front-line
forest staff in the 28 tiger reserves in 17 states.
Officially, there are 1,576 tigers in these reserves,
so there are more than three guardians per tiger. The
current annual budget (2003-3004) for Project Tiger
is Rs 30.67 crore. That comes to an astonishing account
of Rs 2 lakh per tiger.
So why are these tiger reserves so vulnerable to poachers?
Clearly, the money is not being spent effectively. The
lack of accountability and independent audit are glaring
lacunas. It is widely known that state governments are
not releasing funds, nor are they filling posts or thoroughly
investigating tiger deaths.
In Delhi, there are more wildlife cases pending in
the courts than in any other city; it is the base of
known wildlife criminals such as Sansar Chand and remains
the hub of the illegal wildlife trade.
On January 31 this year came another shocking case,
when Delhi police seized 39 leopard skins, two tiger
skins, 42 otter skins, 60 kg of tiger and leopard paws,
three kg of tiger claws, 14 tiger canines, 10 tiger
jaws and other bones, and about 135 kg of porcupine
Four people were arrested, all related to or employed
by Sansar Chand. What further evidence do we need that
wildlife traders are operating with impunity?
We have excellent wildlife laws, but they are not effectively
enforced. Only a handful of people have ever been convicted
for killing a tiger or trading in its parts, despite
hundreds of pending cases. Even the big case of August
1993 in Delhi is still languishing in the courts.
Another major concern is the widespread encroachment
of tiger and other wild habitat. Less than five per
cent of India has been set aside for protection and
only a little over one per cent comes under National
Park protection. Many of these areas have no long-term
management plan and independent research is actively
discouraged, to the extent that we do not even have
a clear idea of the natural treasures that we still
To further erode these vital watersheds and banks of
biodiversity is sheer lunacy. Ultimately it is the poorest
communities that suffer when our natural defences are
exploited. It is imperative that we achieve our development
goals without further pilfering our forest cover.
Belinda Wright, tiger conservationist and campaigner,
is executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society
© 2005: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.
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