The Big Cat’s story

Updated: Dec 13, 2010, 16:50 PM IST

Deepak Nagpal

A recent incident left the Central and a state government, as well as green activists and wildlife enthusiasts, worried in India. The incident – one of the five trans-located tigers at Sariska Tiger Reserve was found dead.

The feline was a male and believed to have been poisoned. The death of one unit of any animal species would normally be of very little concern across anywhere in the world. However, when tigers are the centre-point of any latest development it is serious news, and of great concern.

This is simply because very few tigers are left on this planet, and the world has finally taken note of that.

This can be gauged from the fact that the international community held its very first tiger summit at St Petersburg in Russia recently where the participating nations and individuals pledged a total of USD 330 million to protect tigers.

While there are usual doubts that the summit would result in any positive developments, but it still is a step forward in conserving the big cats, considering the warning that the tigers – arguably the most magnificent creature on Earth – could go extinct in another 12 years.

In India too, the issue of tiger conservation is among the top priorities of the government. A census in 2007 revealed that only 1,411 tigers were left in the country’s 39 reserves. The population of tigers in India is nearly half of the total number (about 3,000) left in the wild on Earth.

The Sariska reserve in Rajasthan had lost all its tigers by 2004-05. The prime reason behind tiger deaths across the world is poaching, which is a lucrative business for either those who have no or very little regard for Nature and its constituents, or those who are impoverished.

It is believed that a poached tiger fetches somewhere between USD 25,000 and USD 50,000 for the carcass, penis and bones, in the international market.

Another reason for the dwindling tiger population is the shrinking habitat. Human population is encroaching upon most of the land ‘owned’ by tigers, for farming, mining and other so-called ‘development’ activities.

Following the Sariska tragedy, the government in 2008 decided to translocate five tigers, two of them males, to revive the population there.

However, so far there has been no encouragement for the wildlife enthusiasts. The park is yet to get its first litter after tigers vanished here.

But recent developments at the park, which coincided with the death of the translocated tiger, have at least given birth to hopes. A tiger couple has been spotted together and is also believed to have mated, creating excitement among those closely monitoring the tiger revival programme at the reserve.

Translocated tigers at the park have mated earlier too, but without giving birth to cubs. Officials and experts are hopeful that the present contact between the couple will result in birth of the cubs.

While there are hopes in Sariska, the Panna sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh has already brought smiles on the faces of wildlife enthusiasts. The translocation programme at Panna has shown results with two tigresses giving birth to cubs recently. The two cubs join another three who were born not long ago, rejuvenating the nationwide enthusiasm for conserving tigers through the translocation experiment.

While translocation is one way of checking the dwindling number of tigers, a more aggressive approach of taking the poachers head on is paying dividends in the eastern part of the country – in Kaziranga.

The recent news which revealed that the Kaziranga National Park, in Assam, has the highest-density of tigers in the world is a testament of the fact. The latest population survey revealed that about 33 tigers live per 100 square kilometres in Kaziranga.

Kaziranga is also the only protected area in the country with shoot-on-sight orders for poachers, and shootouts are a very common sight there.

The state government has played the role of a catalyst by arming the forest guards and allowing them to see an eye-to-eye with poachers, who get a bullet in return for every bullet they fire. In short, the protectors of tigers at Kaziranga have got the ‘license to kill (poachers)’ with legal immunity.

And Kaziranga’s is a success story which leaves the most optimistic surprised, because the park was originally instituted to protect the highly-endangered Indian one-horned rhino. However, in the noble process the aggressive tactics at Kaziranga scripted another success story, as to how to conserve tigers.

The Kaziranga success story is not much different from that of Russia. It is believed that Russia is the only country where tiger numbers are showing an increase.

But there’s a long history behind that. In the winter of 1939-40, Lev Kaplanov – a Russian biologist – had carried out the world’s first tiger census along the country’s Pacific coast. The results were alarming – only 30 Amur tigers were alive.

He recommended a complete ban on tiger hunting to check the fall. Seven years later, in 1947, Russia became the first nation to declare tigers an endangered species and a total ban on their hunting. The move started showing results and by the late 1960s, the population of Amur tigers had risen to about 100. And today, nearly 500 Amur tigers live in Russia’s wild.

The highly-successful Kaziranga and Russia experiments show there is a way in conserving tigers if we humans are willing to follow that.

The Indian government is set to announce the preliminary results of the latest tiger census this month, and there is hope that when the numbers are out they will bring cheer.

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