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The Tiger Summit and the Indian "Tiger State"

With as few as 3200 tigers in the wilds of the world as many as thirteen tiger-range countries met in November 2010 in Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg in an effort to save the species.  They committed around $300 million during the next five years towards doubling the current world population of the species by 2022. Hosted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, governments concerned capped a year-long political process with new funding to support the plan, known as the Global Tiger Recovery Programme

“Too often, conservation efforts languish for lack of political will,” said WWF Director General Jim Leape. “At the Forum here in St. Petersburg we have seen political will at the highest level - heads of government committing themselves to saving the tiger, and laying out concrete plans to turn those commitments into action on the ground... We have never before seen this kind of political support to save a single species,” Leape said. “We now have the strategy needed to double tiger numbers and real political momentum.” Putin in course of a conversation even quoted Mahatma Gandhi who, according to him, had said “A country which is good for the tiger is good for everybody”.

While concern for the tiger was perceptible the world over, the same was somewhat missing in India, the country that hosts almost 40% of the species. Not only the Indian delegation to the Summit was lightweight and even the political will that Leape talked about seemed to be wanting in India. For instance, the Prime Minister, who is the chairperson of the National Board of Wildlife, summoned its meeting in March 2010 after a lapse of almost two years. Likewise, barring the honourable exceptions of the chief ministers of Rajasthan and Gujarat (which has Asiatic lions), other chief ministers are as uncommitted towards conservation of wildlife. No wonder, a prominent conservationist, Belinda Wright, moaned that unless the chief ministers were on board it would be difficult to save the tiger. She was apparently, right as some, like the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (MP), appear to be not quite friendly towards the campaign for saving the tiger.

This was exemplified by his recent alarming articulation. That he was not in favour of creating a buffer zone as mandated by the Central Wildlife Protection Act and as directed by the Prime Minister in his letter of April 2010, especially in the Panna Reserve, has been well known as some of his political cronies have mining interests within the proposed buffer area. A buffer zone, unlike the core area of a reserve, is not inviolate, is protected from major changes in land use and people living in it are provided alternative livelihood options. Mining operations, certainly cannot take place in it. What was alarming was that, siding with his political cronies, he asserted that he could not “sacrifice Panna for the sake of survival of the tigers” as humans were more important than tigers (even in a tiger reserve). The uproar that his statement caused made him back off. Nonetheless, his disinclination towards tiger conservation became evident by his reluctance to talk at some length to the movie icon Amitabh Bacchan during the recent finale of New Delhi Television’s “Save the tiger” campaign. No wonder, he has now opposed the centrally approved conversion of Ratapani Sanctuary into a tiger reserve.

Besides, his government is fighting tooth and nail the pending case filed in the MP High Court by “Prayatna”, an environmental advocacy group, regarding banning of tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Indian Tiger Conservation Authority. Soon after the petition was filed his Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wild Life) exhorted all the tourism players, hoteliers, tour operators, etc to oppose the case. This he did in defiance of the specific directions given by the Prime Minister in his letter to the chief minister referred to above. That unrestricted tourism has been a bane for the tiger reserves in the state has been acknowledged by many tiger experts.  What the state promotes is a vicious kind of uncontrolled tourism with its infamous “tiger shows” that corral tigers with dozens of vehicles and elephants loaded with tourists who are hardly wildlife enthusiasts – something which “irresponsible tourism”.

The state had a study conducted in 2003 for determining the carrying capacity of tourists in its tiger reserves. Mentioning excessive tourism pressure in the reserves, the report made detailed recommendations hardly any of which have been implemented. In its affidavit against the pending petition the government has mentioned that tourism, inter alia, effectively protects tigers and provides employment to locals. These are hypocritical statements as despite uncontrolled tourism in the Panna Reserve all its tigers were poached between 2005 and 2009. “The best model for wilderness is no visitors at all” and, if they must come, better to have “high price and low numbers” says the South African safari pioneer, Colin Bell. And, instead of being made stake holders, the locals are given only menial jobs, if at all. Their knowledge of the forests’ biodiversity is never made use of.

The state’s forest department is trying to relocate tigers to the same Panna Tiger Reserve from where all its tigers were poached between 2005 and 2009. Nothing much has changed since then to warrant an effort to repopulate the Tiger Reserve. Even post-2009 for want of adequate care by the foresters a couple of cubs (out of four) born to a relocated tigress went missing and were later presumed to be dead. A relocated male developed its homing instinct soon after relocation and moved out of the Reserve unnoticed by the foresters and travelled tens of kilometres over hills and valleys, across rivers, farms and urban habitation towards its home in Pench Tiger Reserve at great risk to itself.

Again, earlier this month the Department had to abandon its plans to relocate two tigresses from the Kanha Tiger Reserve which were brought up in an enclosure having been orphaned early in their life. Though they are said to be about six years old they are, perhaps, not yet mature enough. Initially they were kept in a small enclosure which was later expanded to comprise an area of about five hectares. Not nurtured under parental guidance, their ability to fend for themselves and hunt on their own in a strange habitat is, therefore, questionable. In the unchanged circumstances in the Reserve they would be sitting ducks for poachers. This is no way of perpetuating a species.

While the Government of India’s Ministry of Forests and Environment is trying to do its best to save the tigers but Madhya Pradesh, the Tiger State, is not quite on board. The state has been steadily losing its tigers. Tourism occupies centre stage but not enough is being done to protect the tigers – forgetting that once the tigers disappear tiger-tourism would simply collapse. The forest guards are far too few, far too old and are not fighting-fit to pose a challenge to those who stalk the tigers in the forests. The Tiger Protection Force, approved by the Prime Minister in 2007 is nowhere sight.

Clearly, the attitude of state government and its forest officials is out of sync with the worldwide concern for the depleting numbers of this ecologically vital species.  From what is happening in the state, it looks like the prognosis of the Tiger Summit that tigers were likely to become extinct by 2022 may well come true, at least, in Madhya Pradesh, if not elsewhere.

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