By Sandip Roy
After years of bad news there’s good news on the tiger front. Tiger, tiger burning if not bright, at least a little brighter in India’s forests.
The latest tiger count reported a 30 percent rise from the 2010 numbers.
"We have now 2,226 tigers presently in 47 tiger reserves. This is a great achievement," said Prakash Javadekar, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests.
Acchey din for tigers? Yes and no.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, noted conservationist Valmik Thapar, said the news was “exciting” but it did not mean India can let down its guards. And we should not led the macro picture distract us from the micro picture. The devil as always lies in the details.
While the overall number of tigers is up, there are a lot of worrying declines, even local extinctions.
“The great tiger states of central India have come down,” pointed out Thapar. Buxa in West Bengal seems to have just three tigers left. Even more worrying, said Thapar is the state government’s response.
According to The Telegraph, West Bengal forest secretary Chandan Sinha said he did not think the situation in Buxa was “particularly bad” and there was “an issue of migration.” Thapar said he had warned twenty years ago there was nothing in Buxa and the government had retorted “the tigers had gone to Bhutan for a holiday.” For decades the government had boasted there were 300 tigers in the Sunderbans. The census shows only 76.
In other words, Thapar said noone has learned the lessons of Panna and Sariska. The wildlife conservation community was shocked when those famous reserves were declared empty of tigers. Until that final declaration government officials had stubbornly pooh poohed all the warnings by conservationists as worrymongering and exaggeration.
Thapar said that to this day noone has been held accountable for the disappearance of all the tigers of Panna and Sarika between 2005 and 2010. In fact, he said ruefully, they all got promoted.
“In Sariska case most people don’t know the field director had been crying for help when he was counting. He was saying I cant find my tigers. Something has gone wrong. They put his papers in a file here in Jaipur. Those things are unforgiveable.”
Sariska’s lessons did not even extend to Panna.
“We warned the Madhya Pradesh government about Panna going the Sariska way. We were laughed at and told we were exaggerating by the Madhya Pradesh government until the last tiger walked in Panna,” said Thapar.
Poachers can get seven years in jail but the negligent official gets no punishment. “The government servant must be punished for his negligence. His negligence has killed the animal. Accountability and answerability are very important,” said Thapar.
In fact that might be the downside of the good numbers in the latest tiger count. There will be even more of a tendency to let bygones be bygones. “That’s exactly what happened in Panna because no one was held accountable. They got a good forest officer who said forget about the past, repopulate the area with tigers from other national parks and it’s done well. No one is thinking a bout the past. They are thinking of their success story.”
Except in the tiger euphoria it’s worth remembering that the “increase” in some areas is thanks to repopulating it with tigers from different areas. That does not diminish the warning bells tolling in Buxa or the North East and other places where the tiger population is going down.
“The future has to be in accountability and assessment and monitored by a third party. When we talk of a green audit we need them audited by someone who is non-government.”
The report does not mean in any way the tiger’s future is secure in India. India holds 70 percent of the world’s tiger population but that’s more of a sobering responsibility than a bragging right. The pressure on land will continue to increase. Thapar, who is working on a people-centered conservation programme with the Rajasthan government, said the only thing that can work are partnerships between government and other actors which might be an NGO or just a villager interested in the forest.
“If you create good partnership instead of losing 8 percent of your forest land you will lose 4%. You can minimize damage. You cannot end damage.”
Instead of just rejoicing over the numbers, Thapar said we have to take away some lessons from them. One is that methodology matters. Though Dr. Ullas Karanth has raised some questions about this report, his method of camera trapping has finally percolated through the forestry departments across India. His ExtractCompare software that tallies tigers by their stripes has been revolutionary. “In the south particularly, Karnataka, Tamilnadu and Kerala where there has been a hug scientific non governmental intervention in monitoring tigers we have had huge population spurts. So we have 760 tigers just in these last 3 states.”
It’s also worth noting for whatever reason poaching is not at the levels it was between 2005 and 2010. Thapar said the reasons for that need to be probed. “At least they are not obsessed with killing tigers. Someone suggested they have got obsessed in killing pangolins,” observed Thapar.
But he said there was still a huge need to put the pressure on China for its role in the trade of illegal animal products. “I think in every meet international festival you have to have a session of what China did,” said Thapar bluntly. “China should know how angry people are. I go to Africa for a month year. People are really upset with Chinese intervention. Poaching has increased. They have found illegal animal products in homes of those Chinese contractors. It’s shocking. There is nothing like humiliation and embarassment for someone who thinks they are on top of the world’s economy. Government to government talks will go nowhere.”
Unless the reasons for the increase in tigers in India are studied the feel-good effect could be shortlived warned Thapar. He predicted a “yo-yo” effect where one census would show an increase in 30% in tiger populations and the next census could show a decrease in 40%. And the tiger is too important and too vulnerable for that.
This is not to dismiss the good news. For now, Thapar is happy to count his blessings but cautiously. Thapar remembered how back in 1983-84 after 7-8 years of following tigers he had his first glimpse of a tiger with three month-old cubs. “They were cuddling her and was licking them. The early morning sun was out and I had tears rolling down my eyes,” said Thapar. Two decades later, Thapar was at Ranthambore. “I must have seen 200 wild tigers by now. But I just saw a tigress with three eight-month old cubs, teaching them to swim across a lake infested with crocodiles. It’s a sight which is so joyous yet strong, your eyes just get moist. I get emotional.”