by Peter Jackson
India is suffering its third tiger crisis. Once again there is fear that the largest surviving national tiger population could face decimation, even extinction. Estimates in the late 1960s and early 70s that the tiger population had fallen to about 2,000, or less, was the first crisis, and it prompted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to launch Project Tiger 1973 and to ban hunting and export of skins.
Project Tiger was a success. It was clear that the tiger population was recovering, and it led to widespread complacency until, in the early 1990s, tigers disappeared in the famous Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. A raid on a Tibetan house in Delhi uncovered 400 kg of tiger bones (possibly from some 30 tigers) ready for despatch to China for medicinal use. That was the second crisis. Action to control poaching was strengthened, and again the tiger population recovered.
Now the third crisis. Tigers are again missing from Ranthambhore, and have completely disappeared from the nearby Sariska reserve since mid-2004. A research scientist has declared that 30 tigers have disappeared from the Panna reserve, a claim denounced by Project Tiger officials.
The crisis has prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call on the Central Bureau of Investigation to take action and to summon a meeting of the Indian Board for Wild Life.
The tiger bone trade has overshadowed the high toll on leopards; and it is now clear that skins of both big cats are in high demand in China. In October 2003, Chinese customs officers stopped a truck heading for Lhasa with the skins of 31 tigers, 581 leopards and 778 otters. Last year, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) listed 29 seizures from July 1999 to July 2004 in which 80 tiger skins, 20,000 tiger claws, and 1,200 leopard skins were recovered. Most seizures were in India, four in Nepal, and five in China. (see Cat News 41).
Exactly how many tigers there are in India is not known. Official statistics from tiger pugmark censuses put the number at 3,600 in 2001-02. But Indian tiger experts, including a former Director of Project Tiger, believe there are many fewer, perhaps only about 2,000 –as when Project Tiger was launched in 1973.
The tiger population is fragmented across India like an archipelago. According to official figures, only Corbett, Kanha and the Sundarban, out of the 27 Project Tiger reserves, have over 100 tigers. Nine reserves have 50-100 tigers; and the rest fewer than 50, one in the north-east reporting only four. But these estimates are based on Project Tiger’s pugmark censuses, which scientists have declared unreliable and with exaggerated results.
It is not only poaching that threatens the tiger, leopard and much other wildlife in India. The human population has topped one billion – nearly twice as many people as when Project Tiger was launched. The population continues to increase leading to heavy pressure on protected areas and other wild habitats for living space and development.
In booming India industrialisation rules; the senior official in the Ministry of Environment and Forests has declared that environment legislation and processes are causing risks for investors and need reforming. Senior judges have said that environmental protection is only incidental in industrial development.
Many Indian reserves contain rich mineral deposits and there is pressure to exploit them; mining, often illegal, has already been encroaching on reserves. Central and state governments have a growing interest in promoting “eco-tourism” centres or theme parks at popular reserves. Ranthambhore’s director has complained that he faces constant demands from tourist organisations to increase the already excessive number of vehicles daily entering its small area.
Fortunately the Supreme Court has been supportive of conservation and has even appointed a Central Empowered Committee, including leading conservationists, to advise it; the committee has already issued instructions on protection to state governments.
The future of the tiger looks bleak, but it can be improved by serious action. The tiger can recover quickly from low numbers because it is highly reproductive. To give it that opportunity it is essential that the government of India and all authorities involved, demonstrate political will and take effective action to save the tiger. And not only India; that applies to all other tiger range countries. The tiger is part of their heritage and the flagship of wildlife conservation; its extinction would bode ill for the natural world.