Tiger, a magnificent creature, is one of the most culturally important and beautiful animals on earth. The big cats - most important constituent of the ecosystem - are facing the threat of extinction due to unabated hunting for the greed of money, despite global conservation efforts. Many say by hunting tigers humans are doing nothing but digging their own grave.
India, once home to 40,000 tigers, now has just 1,498 big cats left, according to a 2008 report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
In an exclusive interview, Belinda Wright, one of India`s leading wildlife conservationists, shares her views with Biplob Ghosal of Zeenews.com on several issues ranging from Project Tiger’s incapability to adapt to the changed scenario to illegal trade and poaching of tigers.
Belinda Wright founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India in 1994. The organisation helps avert India`s wildlife crises by providing support and information to combat poaching and the escalating illegal wildlife trade.
Biplob: The last Census revealed a significant decline in the number of tigers. How do you rate the Project Tiger launched by the government three decades back? Can India still save the tiger or is it already too late?
Belinda Wright: When it was launched in April 1973 – which is nearly four decades ago - Project Tiger was considered one of the most ambitious wildlife conservation projects in the world. As a result of Project Tiger, huge tracts of forests were declared protected areas and received special funding. The tiger was the focus but all the other species in its domain also benefitted.
There is no doubt that Project Tiger is one of the main reasons why wild tigers still survive in our forests today. Unfortunately, in the past couple of decades, Project Tiger did not adapt to or even acknowledge the changing scenario and consequently, it did not take timely action to stem the growing problem of poaching and human-tiger conflict. Ground-level protection and enforcement and implementation of The Wild Life (Protection) Act were also very lax and this resulted in tiger numbers declining, once again.
But it is certainly not too late. If we can curb tiger poaching and the poaching of the tiger`s prey species, if we can stem tiger-human conflict and if we can stop the encroachment of tiger habitat, then yes, the tiger can be saved. It is not difficult for this species to make a comeback; if tigers are given enough space, food and water, they breed well and multiply quickly.
Biplob: What steps should the government take to save the magnificent creature? Should the shoot-at-sight orders in place in Kaziranga be implemented across the country’s reserves?
Belinda Wright: The Central government finally started to wake up to the fact that the tiger was in dire straits in 2006. The combination of the loss of all Sariska’s tigers in 2004, the August 2005 expose of the tiger skin trade in Tibet by WPSI (Wildlife Protection Society of India) and EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency), the August 2006 CAG report on the management of tiger reserves, and the August 2007 preliminary report of the government-sponsored tiger Census, all came as a shocking wake-up call.
The government has now greatly increased funding and is making a sincere effort to be proactive. Various steps are being taken to improve the protection and management of our tiger reserves, and to secure their boundaries. What we need now is the same acceptance and political will from the state governments. Unfortunately, the states are still more driven towards projects aimed at financial gain, rather than tiger conservation.
The shoot-at-sight orders in Kaziranga have proven to be very effective in curbing the poaching of both tigers and rhinos. However, before similar efforts can be made in other parts of the country, the field staff needs to be mandated to use arms, and they need to be trained, equipped and motivated.
Biplob: Illegal trading of tiger parts is rampant in India. Can you throw some light on this illegal business for our readers?
Belinda Wright: The illegal trade in tiger parts is indeed widespread in India, and no wild tiger is really safe from this menace. What we must keep in mind is that almost all this trade is fuelled by a demand for tiger parts from outside India’s borders; i.e. from other countries such as China.
Analysis of information in WPSI’s wildlife crime database reveals an alarming scenario. Although some poaching incidents are one-off or driven by human-tiger conflict, many are part of large organised networks of poachers, traders and smugglers. These networks are controlled by city-based masterminds who are seldom linked directly to the illicit goods.
The severity of the problem was first brought to light when investigations carried out in 1993-94, led to the seizures of 36 tiger skins and 667 kg of tiger bones in northern India. The illegal trade has now spread its tentacles throughout the country and is in the hands of ruthless, sophisticated operators.
A tiger can be killed for as little as Rs 40 for the cost of poison, or by using a reusable, inexpensive steel spring trap. Much of the tiger poaching is done or assisted by tribal people who know their forests well, and their hunting talents and knowledge are often exploited by others. Although poachers are now paid well, it is the middlemen and traders who make the most profits from the illegal trade in tiger parts.
Biplob: Will the Green India Mission, meant to enhance forest cover, benefit in conserving the tigers?
Belinda Wright: Tigers are hardy animals and good breeders. If they are given enough undisturbed space, and if we can stop the encroachment of tiger habitat, then we will be a step closer to saving the tiger.
If the Green India Mission can successfully enhance India’s forest cover in areas around protected areas, then this will benefit India’s tiger conservation efforts. But more important than additional forested areas, we must first ensure the effective protection and management of our current protected areas.
Biplob: How can wildlife tourism co-exist with tiger conservation programme?
Belinda Wright: Wildlife tourism should be seen as one of the tools through which effective conservation can be undertaken. There are many reasons for this. Apart from providing livelihoods and income for local communities, the presence of tourists acts as a major motivation force and a monitor for management and protection measures being implemented by the forest department. It is also a fact that in areas that have no or low tourism, poaching cases are higher as poachers can roam freely through these protected areas without fear of being spotted or caught. By default and because of poor enforcement, tourism is currently playing an important role as a protector of wild tigers.
However, it is imperative that wildlife tourism is also managed and closely monitored. Visitor numbers must be limited and wildlife resorts must be made to practice responsible wildlife tourism and conform to environment-friendly norms. In some areas wildlife resorts are already blocking wildlife corridors, depleting water resources, purchasing illegal head-loads of wood, and creating noise and rubbish.
The resorts are there because of the wildlife, and wildlife conservation and the well-being of the protected areas must always be paramount.