By Bittu Sahgal and Valmik Thapar
As we approach the landmark half-century of our Independence it is important that we record for posterity the manner in which our government has virtually escorted the tiger and its associated wild animals towards extinction. The crisis of the tiger is not unknown to our nation. We were engulfed by it in 1972-73 and responded admirably then by launching Project Tiger and by passing the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 through Parliament. The tiger then had political support. Much has changed in the intervening 24 years. Now only economic issues seem capable of drawing the attention of Prime Ministers, not ecological ones. What is worse, those who make the law themselves find the most creative ways of breaking it.
The Tiger Crisis Cell and the Steering Committee of Project Tiger have alerted the government to the impending extinction of the tiger. They have asked that India set an example to other tiger range countries by initiating early measures to coordinate protection with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. A series of cross-border meetings have been mooted. Forest density and distribution maps to determine corridor status have been requisitioned. Enhancement of penal provisions for tiger and leopard poachers have been recommended along with stepped up anti-poaching and enforcement measures. All these, together with a clutch of detailed reports, action plans and hard evidence of the tiger’s decline sit gathering mould in government files. Meanwhile, the tiger keeps sliding closer to the edge. This then is an archival record of government irresponsibility and policy makers’ culpability... which a widening circle of touts have taken advantage of to the detriment of the tiger.
As we go to press constituents of Tiger Link, a forum launched in February 1995 in defence of the tiger, have decided to escalate their battle by taking it to the people. This may well prove to be the last hope for the species because the voice of many tribal groups and leaders such as Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and Dr. B. D. Sharma, ex-Commissioner Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes, has been joined to that of socially conscious wildlifers in defence of natural India and the tiger itself. To succeed, however, these groups will have to climb the wall built by powerful but visionless men guided by the light emanating from the World Bank. The outcome of this battle will be determined by the ability of very diverse groups to get together in joint purpose. Saving the tiger amounts to saving forest cultures which are in retreat even faster than the tiger itself.
In any event, in the name of sanity, we charge the people of India with the responsibility of saving the tiger before the turn of the century. We have but 1,000 days in which to accomplish our task.
We followed her pug marks on foot for over a kilometre through dusty paths and damp rivulets. The trail suggested that her two cubs, despite a myriad distractions, never drifted more than a few metres from the protective reach of their mother. By the side of the road, obscured from view, we saw fresh droppings where the feline had stopped to defecate, scratching the earth to leave a momentary, “I was here” message in the distinctive manner of tigers. Did the stiff brown bristles belong to a now-departed sambar? Or a wild boar perhaps? Only laboratory analysis would provide a conclusive answer, but for the moment we were pleased enough to know that despite all our failures the tiger had managed to survive in yet another forest.
Above us the canopy closed in a dense tangle only visible where humans are not. A bushy-tailed male giant squirrel caught our eye where he sat spot-lit by the sun in the branch of a large jamun tree. In the silence we could hear the crunch of rodent teeth whittling forest fruit. There were many more squirrels about. Did the whistles and clicks suggest amourous advances... or territorial battles? Whatever, no biologist could ask for a more definitive manifestation of forest health than giant squirrels above and tigers below. For a while we forgot the tiger crisis and basked in the comfort of nature’s harmony.
We were in the Churna Sanctuary, in December 1995, walking through a little-known, inaccessible section of Madhya Pradesh’s fast-vanishing tigerland. We had driven from Pachmahri and Bori, through deep ravines and gorges which easily rivalled some of the world’s most celebrated natural monuments. Less than an hour ago, we stopped at an impressive rock shelter where we gazed in wonderment at works of art left for posterity by a community of forest-dwellers more than 10,000 years ago. Like an awning, a massive rock overhang protected tigers, elephants, deer, snakes and langurs, all etched indelibly on an ancient 30-metre-long stone canvas. A melancholic thought haunted us as we pondered the fact that future Indians would probably be able to view this gallery 20 years from now... but not its star subject, the tiger.
Despite an endless stream of rhetoric and lip service, the tiger continues to die. Masters of paper policy, we cannot implement anything on the ground. The time-lag between intent and action must pass a bureaucratic mine field where tiger games are continuously played by those who damage the animal they are employed to protect.
The tiger has no more time to tolerate paper pushers, file movers, committee watchers or administrative restrictions. A handpicked and motivated team of people with a clear cut mandate from the Prime Minister’s office must be instructed to work within a time-bound framework. Within 36 months – l ,000 days – this team must cut across 17 states to network men and resources to form an armour of protection for the tiger and all that live under its umbrella. No national purpose could be better served than by undertaking this one crucial step because, little known to most economists, the tiger is a symbol of India’s water security. Its forests are the source of our most reliable water supplies. If these go, India goes.
Because nearly 25 per cent of all tigers in India live in the forests of Madhya Pradesh we decided to focus our attention here as a first step towards preventing the tiger’s extinction. In Bhopal, we had heard of ominous plans to connect the Churna and Bori forests via a bridge with an island in the Tawa Reservoir. A hotel and casino had been mooted where cardsharps and bartenders were to be set the meaningful task of siphoning money from the rich and famous... ostensibly for the ‘development’ of a tribal region! So much destruction has been fobbed off as development in India that no one is any longer surprised at the ludicrous lengths to which well-connected people are prepared to go to justify their avarice!
The forests of Bori have only now begun to recover from past forestry blunders. Monocultures of teak which foresters had tried in vain to exploit were in the process of being reclaimed by nature. More recently, Bori and Churna were subject to still worse tragedies. Lakhs of trees were destroyed and thousands of people displaced when the reservoir of the controversial Tawa Dam began to fill. The waters eventually consumed homes, fields... and some of the best tiger forests in the world. No assessment was ever conducted on the social or ecological impact of the dam. The damage has not been tabulated to date. There is more. So as to avoid the complication which arise from the abuse of legally protected forests, we discovered very recently that some notified sanctuaries may not even be listed by state governments which thus continue to allow mines and other such projects in these valuable forests. One example is the Gangau Sanctuary which abuts the Panna National Park. Gangau is a crucial tiger habitat and serves to accomodate the spill-over population of tigers from Panna. Yet, over 40 Forest Conservation Act violations have been observed here, largely by mines seeking access to stocks of white sandstone.
The list of human offences against the tiger grows by the minute: Mining in a clutch of crucial forests including Sariska, Ranthambhor, Bhadra, Madhav, Palamau, Balphakram and Simlipal. Mega-dams in Palamau and Indravati. Five-star tourism in Nagarhole and Gir. Temple expansions in Periyar. Timber extraction in Melghat and in the surrounds of almost every known tiger habitat. Insurgency in Manas. Mangrove destruction in the Sundarbans. Flooding in Kaziranga. Hundreds of fishing licenses issued in Pench. On top of all this, a sum of $68 million had been canvassed and granted for a project which threatens the stability of the best of our tiger reserves. Labelled Biodiversity Conservation through Ecodevelopment, the project sought to introduce economic development into the surrounds of tiger reserves and thus alter the very nature of local communities. This project was tagged on to the World Bank Forestry Projects, using the same consultants, executing agencies and strategies. Project Tiger Steering Committee Members unanimously opposed this step, advising the government to proceed with caution and at least undertake an environment impact analysis before implementing the project. But the MoEF went ahead, preferring to follow the advise of sociologists from the Indian Institute of Public Administration, some of whom had never stepped into a tiger reserve till they were called upon to work on the ecodevelopment project.
This penchant of forest officers and NGOs to enter the hypnotic world of consultancies and foreign travel has become yet another threat to the tiger. The distant shores to which they travel, mainly Washington, quickly replace their own country as the prime source of instruction and inspiration (and loyalty?). Meanwhile natural India disappears. All too often apparently generous ‘grants’ from lending agencies such as the World Bank are the thin edge of the wedge behind which larger loans and development projects hide. The same World Bank which put out a pittance for an ill-conceived ecodevelopment exercise in the Palamau Tiger Reserve also financed a dam to drown forests in the core area!
Wrapped in silken cocoons of obedience, not one forest officer or NGO-consultant protested this calumny. “But very strict terms and conditions have been imposed” such turncoats respond weakly, trying in vain to justify their unholy involvement with the World Bank. They know that over 90 per cent of all River Valley Projects constructed in India have violated the ‘terms’ on which they were cleared. But they also know that the cost of dissent is high and that acquiescence brings rich rewards. Such people help exploiters hive great slices off the tiger’s home.
Meanwhile, senior administrators and foresters negotiate lucrative post-retirement consultancies while supporting forest-consuming projects. These involve huge loans which can only be repaid by further commercially exploiting our fragile forests. The tiger seems safe nowhere, not even in areas specifically set aside for its protection.
Outside such protected areas we knew that extremity – extinctions were at an advanced stage. The corridors connecting Bandhavgarh and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh, and Corbett and Rajaji in Uttar Pradesh were all but gone. We had become used to saying that 60 per cent of all tigers lived outside Project Tiger Reserves. This is no longer true. It is open season on tigers these days much to the joy of poachers. India has probably lost half of all the tigers that were alive in our forests as few as ten years ago.
Our concern at this juncture however, centers around an equally crucial matter. Over 3,650 seizures of all descriptions of wildlife, representing the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg, had been made across India in the past three years. The tiger was the worst sufferer of this assault because its bones and other body parts had begun to command very high prices in the international market. We suspect that this is a prime reason that a smear campaign has been launched against leopards. Estimates suggest, for instance, that more than 400 leopards were shot or trapped in Uttar Pradesh in the past 12 months on the pretext of their being cattle lifters or man eaters. Himachal Pradesh is another state in which the leopard seems about to be wiped out. Leopard bones and parts also go towards feeding the ungodly trade. The game seems so starkly simple: first cut down the forests and then when carnivores are forced to stray outside in search of survival, mow them down. If this continues much longer the leopard will fast follow the tiger down the road to extinction.
A vibrant and fiercely independent press, consistently reported such events. This pressure began to show some results when, on January 13, 1994 a special Tiger Crisis Cell was created within the MoEF in response to the many alarms and criticisms which were doing the rounds. After several meetings and futile attempts to get the Ministry to act, a disappointed Billy Arjan Singh resigned from the Cell on August 25, 1994. Meanwhile, through a judicious mix of bowing and scraping before politicians and threatening (with exposure) closed-minded officials, the rest of us cajoled a sluggish system into stirring from its stupor. Trying to make the system actually work was another matter altogether. Apart from the extraordinary effort of some officers who seemed even more motivated than we were, department after government department responded to the tiger crisis by trotting out lame excuses to justify inaction. In our discussions with key forest officers it seemed painfully obvious that they had no stomach for the battle we wanted them to fight for the tiger. Sadly, they seemed more interested in the World Bank Forestry Project and GEF Ecodevelopment assignments, trips to Washington and petty politics. Not for than the dirt and dust of the tiger trail. The fashions of Indian foresters had changed. Billy Arjan Singh had seen many such betrayals of the tiger before and had no time for anymore. He chose to focus his attention on the field in Dudhwa where his fight against poachers, timber mafias and government apathy continues. In the last 30 months he and his team seized over 20 tiger skins from poachers. They would have much preferred preventing the deaths, but even they are not authorised to launch armed anti-poaching patrols. This is the prerogative of the Forest Department.
Alarmed at the sheer pace of increased poaching incidents, but helpless in light of the fact that it is no more than an ‘advisory body’ the Tiger Crisis Cell began to place on record at the ministerial and administrative level all the facts it was able to glean from files, consultations and investigations. One particularly crucial document titled the Subramiam Report (commissioned by the MoEF) had provided endless recommendations to counter tiger poaching but none of its sage advice was ever implemented. Mountains of such advice litter government offices at the Centre and the States. The advice of the Tiger Crisis Cell suffered the same fate. We became aware of the fact that the government’s intentions were suspect as far back as December 1994 after the MoEF had repeatedly refused to take cognisance of our advice and had reneged on very clear commitments.
On January 11, 1995, an anguished three-page letter was therefore addressed to the then Environment Minister on behalf of all the members of the Tiger Crisis Cell. Extacts read as follows:
Even this communication was stonewalled, as were scores of private meetings, appeals, newspaper reports and exhortations. Meanwhile, the demand from China, Japan, Thailand, Korea and Vietnam for tiger bones, bear gall bladders, rhino horns and what have you, began to outstrip that of furs and trophies from countries such as the USA, France, Italy, Germany, and the U.K. The wildlife trade had become almost as lucrative to global crime syndicates as drugs and armaments. Deciding to work with whatever limitations existed, members of the Tiger Crisis Cell travelled to the far corners of the country to see how the defence of tigerland could be shored up with the help of existing infrastructure and to prepare a shopping list for future protection. The effort met with some success, notably in Madhya Pradesh where the head of the Tiger Cell actually nabbed a senior politician red-handed and even recovered two tiger skins from the house of one of his relatives. But the Crisis Cell’s effort were by no means successful enough. Particularly when you consider that India happens to be among the world’s softest targets for the global wildlife trade. The tragedy, we discovered, was that only a tiny minority of officials cared whether the tiger lived or died.
From the poacher’s point of view institutionalised corruption and red tape in India present ideal conditions in which to make a killing (pun intended). Apart from ports, airports and unprotected borders, even the postal service is used to transport ivory from Cochin to Bombay... from where the foreign post office readily redistributed consignments! That this was a country-wide strategy became obvious when tiger bones were seized from inside the General Post Office in New Delhi! These facts were reported in the press, even in mainline papers like the Economic Times (March 28, 1993). But the authorities remained unmoved. Unfortunately, because of the way wildlife laws are structured in India private initiatives to prevent or apprehend wildlife offenders are difficult if not impossible to implement. And, as we discovered, apparently powerful bodies such as the Steering Committee of Project Tiger could easily be thwarted by the simple expedient of stymieing it in the crossfire of bureaucratic red tape and cold refusal to follow its advice.
Inevitably, however, the many press reports which appeared caused international attention to be drawn to the fate of the tiger. Several credible wildlife organisations from around the world sent its representatives to India to establish what the reality was on the ground. They confirmed what the Tiger Crisis Cell had stated all along. Telegrams of concern and hundreds of appeals to save the tiger poured into the country. But to date even this has not resulted in ground action in defence of the tiger. Nevertheless there are some signs that a government which is so openly enamoured of foreign collaborations and dollars may still bow to international public opinion, though it continues to display little respect for the sentiments of its own people outside of an election year.
It is commonly known that poachers and traders have successfully infiltrated both the police and forest departments. An officer of one of the nation’s premier investigative agencies was actually discovered to be working with wildlife traders! Little wonder then that we were losing a tiger each day to the deadly trade. But perhaps nothing illustrates the failure of tiger protection in India more than the presentation of a paper by the ex-Director of Project Tiger, at an historic Tiger Crisis Cell meeting in 1995. The paper suggested that only one tiger had been killed that year by poachers! It seems that tiger deaths were never reported on time to the Project Tiger Directorate. Moreover, the Director took the position that seizures of bones and skins be delinked from poaching unless they were freshly caught (the logic still eludes us). While evidence including police reports and press cuttings confirming tiger deaths mounted and the tiger crisis had virtually engulfed all who were concerned at the threat to the species, the Director of Project Tiger was, preoccupied with World Bank related ecodevelopment issues in distant Washington. Content perhaps with the position that the birth of cubs in the forest somewhat countered the impact of poaching, he frankly admitted: “I am not a tiger watcher or wildlifer. This is not my interest.” His superiors were often worse. In January 1995 a letter from a senior MoEF wildlife official to the Madhya Pradesh government provided creative suggestions on how to use (misuse?) the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 to allow fishing inside the core area of the Pench Tiger Reserve. In May this year, based on that advice, 305 licences were issued in blatant contravention of the law. This raised a storm of protest and the threat of law suits. The very same officer then wrote to the Madhya Pradesh government in July asking for an explanation as to how and why the licences were issued. The harassed Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh was forced to remind the MoEF in writing that he was virtually compelled to create new ‘fishing rights’ by the selfsame Central Government officer. Political pressure obviously had reared its head in this sad episode, leading otherwise sincere officers to contradict and compromise themselves. This is the key tragedy of the tiger. Caught between Centre and State relations across the board in India, the tiger is wilting. Scores of misdeeds, even more alarming than the example quoted above have become the order of the day. Some stories are so bizarre that one wonders whether the rule of law is even at work in India. Orders, counter-orders and violations of the law by the enforcers of the law does little for the morale of protection staff who must weigh the consequences of risking life and limb in remote forests against the open pillage of the forests in their charge by their own superiors through ‘official channels’. Perhaps, as seems to be the case in so many other sectors, the fate of the tiger will vest in the uprightness and moral authority of the Supreme Court alone.
The whole business of grabbing land for private profit is destabilising the protected area network. No government officer or committee is permitted to release land for any purpose whatsoever from a notified sanctuary or national park. This power vests solely with Parliament or the Legislative Assemblies. As we go to press, however we learn of several instances where sanctuary lands are about to be released for irrigation or tank projects. If the concerned state government forest departments do not act to prevent this, perhaps an individual or NGO might be forced to take further legal recourse to challenge Chief Wildlife Wardens who have given written assurances that such releases would actually improve the habitat for fish, birds and even tigers! There seems to be no bottom to the tiger illiteracy vat.
In defence of their stances, such officers normally take the view that the media sensationalises issues, or that individuals tend to play up the tiger crisis to promote themselves! Bureaucratic talents against the interests of the tiger seem to have come out of their closets. This serves the politicians of the day only too well as it protects them from public censure and allows them to twist laws to favour their own political ends. Such conniving will bury the tiger. The decline of the tiger was no sudden event. With such games being played for a full five years, the striped predator slipped to its lowest ebb in India. The crossfire between poaching and land-alteration for mines, power plants, dams was just too much for the cat. The leadership drift within Project Tiger could not have come at a worse time. The doomsday clock for Panthera tigris’ has begun to tick.
Confronted with government’s virtual refusal to act, several hundred people from all walks of life, (including many government officers), decided to coalesce in defence of the tiger. On February 17, 1995 a forum called Tiger Link was formed when people from around the country met in New Delhi to defend Panthera tigris. The first task was to prepare a list of individuals in India and around the world who could be relied upon to act. They were then provided with information and each was linked by way of a directory of contact numbers and addresses. Quarterly communications led to many decentralised initiatives and news from obscure tiger habitats began filtering in to complete the picture of the fate of the tiger. While some good news came in about new habitats and secure tiger populations, by and large the reality of the crisis turned out to be even more harsh than we had anticipated. Tiger poaching incidents used to go virtually unreported, but now they were being tabulated in a bloody list which no one could refute.
To reverse the slide Tiger Link constituents took it upon themselves to motivate field staff. This included the distribution of several Tiger Link awards to hitherto ignored field workers. Additionally, power boats, four-wheel-drive vehicles, wireless equipment, sweaters, shoes and even rations for elephants in Kaziranga were rushed to vulnerable hot spots. At last count, the NGO network working through Tiger Link delivered an unprecedented sum exceeding five million rupees worth of assistance in kind directly to park managements.
But such efforts can hardly be expected to replace the muscle which the Planning Commission and Finance Ministry could and should have pumped into the vital wildlife sector. When you consider that 22 per cent of our country’s land mass is in the charge of the Indian Forest Service, it defies reason that it should be so openly sidelined and starved of funds. In Madhya Pradesh alone over Rs. 650 crores is taken from the forest as revenue each year, yet the state allocates less than two crore rupees to protect its forest wealth. In this scenario, timber and poaching mafias are having a field day. And despite all denials one tiger continues to lose its life almost every day while thousands of hectares of tiger habitat are lost to commerce in Madhya Pradesh each year.
A hurtful dilemma confronts those of us who still possess the strength to search for and defend obscure wildernesses across the length and breadth of the nation. Should we savour what remains... or mourn the passage of what we see being lost? And how are we to convince a nation of dollar-seekers that wildlife has an intrinsic worth? That the tiger is the very soul of the Indian subcontinent? That the jungle has been and always will remain the inspiration for our civilisation? And that without the forest, the economic backbone of our nation would crack... to the harsh accompaniment of drought, soil sterility, starvation and disease?
Fortunately nature is extremely resilient. For all our assaults it is still not too late to save the tiger and its home. We therefore call upon the Prime Minister to immediately convene a meeting to which the Chief Ministers of India’s tiger-range states should be invited. The fact that we have less than 1,000 days to save the tiger can still be driven home and we have no reason to believe that such leaders will continue to refuse to act in the face of direct evidence that the tiger will be lost to the nation. The fact that the tiger habitats are also our finest water catchments and that hundreds of forest cultures would automatically be protected in tiger habitats, cannot but help our case. With the help of wakened leaders it is still possible to jump-start a dying protection force and mollify antagonistic local communities which once protected the forests.
This is, however, the last and final call to save the tiger. Apathy, procrastination or politicking among the main players at this stage will drive the final nail into the coffin of what is arguably the world’s most charismatic animal. One of the first steps that requires to be taken is to bifurcate the Ministry of Environment and Forests so as to protect the nation’s ecological interests which are consistently being sacrificed inside the MoEF by officers whose loyalties seem to fall on the side of economics. This divide exists even within the Forest Department, with the wildlife wing being given insultingly step-motherly treatment at every stage. The Environment Impact section of the MoEF is badly in need of orientation and training. It is staffed by officers whose perspectives are seriously lacking in ecological insights. And those officers who do display such insights are generally sent into professional oblivion because they ‘do not toe the line’. It is such fractured policies and biases which are in control of the ‘assembly line for clearances’ in the MoEF. The tiger is only the most visible victim of such a tragedy. In truth every single Indian suffers as a consequence of this one ministry not being taken to task for failing the nation.
To conclude, it may be worthwhile to recap the circumstances surrounding the exploding tiger crisis: The failure of the bureaucracy and the wildlife wing was not on account of any lack of warning about the tiger crisis. Alarmed at having uncovered the largest seizure of tiger bones in the history of free India in 1993, Project Tiger Steering Committee members prompted a series meetings, seminars, and discussions between knowledgeable scientists, naturalists and institutions. The graphic picture which emerged suggested a reversal of most gains made over the past 20 years. But the Project Tiger Directorate, through which the government had to act, turned a blind eye to the crisis. Just when the tiger most needed charismatic champions it found itself deserted by officialdom. Men such as the late Kailash Sankhala, the first Director of Project Tiger, had been replaced by officers who looked for instruction from ecologically illiterate national and international agencies (such as the World Bank).
One might have hoped that well-funded environmental organisations would have stepped into the breach, but they too carried unweildy bureaucracies of their own, virtually supported by government grants and largesse. More often than not, therefore, the larger NGOs chose to look the other way when they were asked to criticise government or ministers openly. Large donations, nevertheless, poured into such agencies from the international community over the years in the name of the tiger. No amount of wriggling now can obliterate the fact that these badly needed funds remained unutilised for years as poachers ran riot through tigerland. Meanwhile, the gigantic green enterprises wrapped themselves up in self-wovenwebs of rhetoric and petty-foggery. Instead of heeding the advice of those who routinely dirtied their feet in the field, such organisations placed a premium on individuals with the ability to produce a good turn of phrase and, of course, money and still more money.
Looking back over the past two decades, it seems clear as day that after the late Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, wild animals and their habitats have meant little to successive Indian Prime Ministers. Caught in a web of dollars and cents they continue to squander a fabled heritage. With new information coming to light each day, it appears that the damage done to natural India in the last ten years may well rival that which was inflicted by the British in their last hundred years of colonial occupation. Not even the wealth of Crocus will bring back what we have lost. Local extinctions of animals as diverse as frogs, sarus cranes, elephants, rhinos and tigers have been taking place such purposeful regularity that one might be forgiven for believing that this was a part and parcel of our national policy.
We cannot help but believe that somewhere all of us have failed the tiger. A tiny bunch of us may have decided not to give up hope, but we are fighting in the eye of the storm and already, well-entrenched forces have begun to work against us. To prevail, many others must enjoin our battle. Media people, tribal activists, lawyers, politicians and even industry associations... all who care about the fabric of India must form part of a network in defence of our wilderness which is the tiger’s home. Without this there is little hope.