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The following article appeared in the Indian Express on 13 February 2005.

The disappearance of tigers in Sariska rang the alarm bells.
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 and accountability.

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 the slaughter.

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 live ones.

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 no patrolling.

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 with Gambia.

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 quills.

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 have.

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 of India

© 2005: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. All rights reserved throughout the world.






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