The public is not aware of what they are losing. If you do not know what you have, you cannot fight to save it,” says Wright. Tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar agrees: “We Indians do not deserve the tiger because we do not care for it.”
The legendary Billy Arjan Singh offers no solace either. The Honorary Tiger, as he has been fondly christened for his lifelong efforts to save the tiger, is not optimistic about the fate of his counterparts in the wild. “There are no protective staff and there is complete disinterest on part of (forest) officials in looking after the welfare of wildlife. How can you save tiger when it has no votes? Absence of political will is making things much more difficult.”
Tiger expert Raghunandan Singh Chundawat is known for his efforts to conduct a tiger census in the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh by radio-collaring tigers. (The project was aborted because of interference by forest department officials.) He squarely lays the blame for the tiger’s plight on the government. “Their interest (government) lies mainly in 9 percent gdp growth. NGOs and their interests are seen only as an obstacle in this path. Tigers, dams, river-linking and other environmental issues are seen as anti-development and the proponents accused of having vested interests,” he says.
Acclaimed wildlife photographer Joanna Van Gruisen blames the government’s approach to forest management. “The fact remains that the forest department system has changed little since the days of the Raj, when growing timber for the railways was their primary objective. There has been little creativity or any new thinking,” she says. Chundawat agrees: “The Forest Department has not changed since Independence: it is autocratic, imperialistic and opaque and has therefore not evolved into a more efficient conservation organisation from its earlier commercial forest objective. It has become little more than a civil engineering department, where 60-70 percent of its time and money goes on civil construction: bridges, roads etc. Unfortunately the system is such that saving their own skins has taken prominence over saving the tiger’s skin.”
The 2006 CAG report on ‘Conservation and Protection of Tiger and Tiger Reserves’ concurs with the wildlife activists’ gloomy prognosis on tiger conservation efforts. The report states in its conclusion: “…there is a lack of focussed approach to the conservation in the tiger reserves in the absence of committed personnel and cooperation of the concerned state governments, besides the weakness… in the Project Tiger Directorate to provide efficient monitoring. As a result, poaching and unnatural deaths of tigers outnumbered natural deaths. The conservation effort in tiger reserves by and large remained ineffective.”
Wright admits that the NGO sector itself must share in the blame. “I can tell you that I am not at all proud to be an NGO person… You go into NGO meetings and it is all egos. At the end of the day, you wonder whether the NGOs are working for a greater cause or they are fighting for themselves or their organization.”
A senior Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) official says that the ongoing debate about the rights of tribals who live in or near protected wildlife areas versus the need to save the nation’s fast dwindling wildlife, has helped the forest department duck accountability. “Politicising the whole issue, reacting to the crisis by initiating tribal versus tiger debate has actually helped forest department to hide their own failings in the conservation work,” he says.
“I think the bottom line is that the tribal has a vote, and the tiger does not. I have lived for many years with tribals and some of them have great love for the forest. Tribal bill is not going to solve their problem. What it will do is that it will kill Indian wildlife,” says Wright.
Kartick Satyanarayan, head of Wildlife sos, has engaged in anti-poaching operations all over the country. He finds the whole tiger versus tribal debate dubious. “I have worked with tribals all over India. I know for sure that no one wants to live in forests given a choice. They want to join the mainstream. Government should integrate them to the mainstream, and not take power and infrastructure to the forests to settle them there. Only 3 percent land area is required for the tigers, why can’t the tigers be just left alone.”
“Let there be no doubt, tiger and tribal cannot coexist. If tiger and people are forced to exist there is bound to be a conflict. Tiger needs 50 cow-sized animals to survive, if you put them among cows and people the conflict will be perennial, and of course tiger will lose. Sariska is a standing example,” says Valmik Thapar. Thapar is referring to the “extinction” of tigers from the Sariska National Park in Rajasthan which was widely reported in 2005.
“It is a fact that the wildlife crime is not possible without the connivance of the tribal. Not only tigers, it is true for illegal trade of ivory, bear, snake, otters and others. The reason behind this it is that government has completely failed to provide them with any alternative means of livelihood,” says Satyanarayan.
“There are many tribes in India that survive only on hunting. They are so poor that they have to kill to survive. It is a way of life to them. As long as they are in the forest they will hunt,” says Nitin Desai, the Nagpur-based WPSI coordinator for Central India. “To give you an example we arrested three tribals a couple of days back when we seized from them a truckload of snares and tiger traps. When we were leaving, the women folk implored that we can take their men but not ‘Devi’ or goddess; they meant the snares. They consider them gods as they are the source of their livelihood.”
As if all this was not enough, after a year and half of deliberations, the government has amended the Wildlife Protection Act. The intent behind the amendment was to strengthen the act. However “last minute changes were made in the bills at the behest of cpm MP Brinda Karat which has made the act a lame duck,” says an MoEF official. The act will create a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WLCB) to check wildlife crimes like poaching. But senior officials in the MoEF say that WLCB will have no teeth because of the riders incorporated in the bill at Karat’s insistence.
The amendment to the act includes the following provisos: no direction from WLCB can interfere or affect the rights of the people, especially scheduled tribes (ST); core areas have to be kept inviolate without affecting the rights of the STs and other forest dwellers; except for voluntary relocation, no ST or forest dwellers shall be resettled. The reallocation would be allowed only in cases of “irreversible damage” or where the option of coexistence is not available. The right to draw the boundaries of the core-buffer zone has been given to the Gram Sabha.
“It is partially true that I intervened,” maintains Karat. “First of all let me make it clear that nothing was done in secret. I have had wide ranging consultations with the ministers concerned and with the chairman of the Tiger Task Force, Sunita Narain. It is my duty to ensure that the bill is as per the Joint Parliamentary Commission recommendations because I am member of it. And therefore I made sure that discrepancies are removed… Tribal and tigers have lived for ages together, nothing happened to either of them.”
Thapar scoffs at this argument. “Brinda should be asked this question. Tigers can’t live with people because they kill people, example are many like Sunderbans, Dudhwa. How can you keep the relationship between the two going that never existed? She can go to all tribal gravesides where they worship tiger, but that’s where they buried their family killed by tiger. They worship the tiger because they feared it. I gave up in the beginning of this year, nothing can be done,” says Thapar.
Karat however feels that a lot of lament for the vanishing tiger is nothing but thinly disguised self-interest. She minces no words: “Those who are crying hoarse have their vested commercial interests in forests. Eco-tourism. And they want forest and wildlife to be their exclusive domain. How can people be thrown out who have lived there for ages? It is not tribal but the raja-maharaja they represent that killed tigers and are responsible for the present situation.”
By the same token, Wright finds something dubious in the politicians’ concern for tribals. “Why did the same set of people not speak a word when thousands of tribals were dislocated by the Narmada Dam Project, mining and other so called ‘development projects’. Tigers do not have votes, but it is our heritage, national animal.”
While the tribal vs. tiger, politician vs. conservationist debates rage on - the ground reality is grim. Three decades after the government of India embarked on a mission to save the tiger, India’s national animal is on the brink of extinction. A senior official in Maharashtra Wildlife Department says that the number of tribals in Nagarhole National Park has increased from two to six thousand over the last 20 years and tiger population has been in decline. This holds true across India.
“In the present scenario I do not think there is a case for tigers in India. There is not a single leader who can stand up as Indira Gandhi did in 1970s. And she succeeded. If she had been still alive, she would have dealt with this problem of poaching. I see the death of a vision - the vision of Indira Gandhi. What is sad is that it is happening in the hands of the Congress government,” says Wright.