Poachers driving Indian tigers into oblivion

by Gautaman Bhaskaran

CHENNAI, India — Recently it was found that the Panna National Park in central India, one of the most prestigious tiger reserves, was bereft of the big cat. Only four years ago the park had 35 tigers. By mid-2008, only one male tiger was seen there, and two female cats introduced into Panna from neighboring national parks to increase the feline population had vanished. In 2006, Sariska National Park in western India lost all its 26 tigers.

India’s tiger tale is written in the blood spilled from these majestic creatures. In the early 1900s, India had 40,000 tigers roaming its wilds. Now there may not even be a thousand left. With one big cat killed every day by poachers — who sell the body parts for dubious medicinal remedies — it may not be long before tigers in India are seen only in zoos.

In 1999 the illegal wildlife trade became organized, efficient and ruthless; before that it had been haphazard and opportunistic. India, with its huge tiger population and vast practically unguarded forests, became a haven for criminal gangs who killed and dismembered tigers, then sold their skin and other parts for a variety of purposes, including so-called aphrodisiac qualities. China was a huge market followed by Southeast Asia, where tiger penis soup was touted as the closest to offering sexual nirvana.

Making poaching almost kids’ play was India’s grossly callous and inefficient forest patrol. Often, guards live in utter poverty and can be easily bought off by poaching gangs. For as little as $100, guards can be silenced, and perhaps for an additional $100 the villages surrounding a national park can be pressured into accommodating a dangerous game of maiming, killing and stripping the cat.

In a densely populated country such as India, poachers could not have had a free run for almost two decades without the active connivance of villagers, forest guards and perhaps even middle-ranking officers. Besides, the number of men entrusted with the task of protecting a national treasure was woefully inadequate. The few among them who were honest found themselves vastly outmatched and outwitted by poachers with sophisticated firearms, ruggedly superior vehicles, state-of-the-art mobile phones and night-vision glasses. Forest guards usually had no weapons, no vehicles and sometimes not even suitable footwear to crisscross the wild terrain.

Poaching can be effectively tackled with political will, something that has been lacking in India since the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1980s. There has not been another tiger-friendly Indian leader. It was during her tenure that Project Tiger was established to protect the animal.

There are only a handful of poachers and they can be easily brought to justice; but the Indian judicial system is extremely time-consuming with a huge backlog of cases pending in the courts. Obviously, convictions are rare and bail is easily available. Poachers use this time to carry on with their nefarious activities.

Speeding up the legal process may alone be not enough. An intelligence- driven professional enforcement agency is the first step to halting the illegal wildlife trade. A crime bureau dedicated to preventing poaching is imperative as is a complete revamp of the forest guard setup. Unless their wages are hiked to realistic levels and they are given arms and vehicles, forest guards will not only fight a losing battle with poachers but will also be tempted to accept bribes and look the other way when a tiger is butchered.

These steps, however, will become meaningless if tiger habitats themselves are allowed to be destroyed by human activities. The tiger cannot coexist with humans as do peacocks and nilgai, which live on grains that people feed them. Moreover, the tiger will kill milch cattle and, if other food sources are not available, will turn man-eater. With human encroachments growing and spreading into tiger territory, clashes become imminent.

Tigers largely disappeared in South Korea, Java, Bali and the Caspian after they came into conflict with expanding human populations. Human settlements on the periphery of a tiger reserve actually help poachers, who use the villages as their base of operations.

Sadly, the government and even some conservationists have little idea of how to go about saving the big cat. The little knowledge that does exist is not matched by the will to apply it. The result is that the Indian tiger now lies in a coffin waiting for the last nail to be driven in.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India-based journalist who writes for several newspapers across the world.