One of India’s greatest natural assets is wasting away. Or, to be more precise, it is being killed off because of political and bureaucratic corruption and inertia. That asset is the tiger, India’s national animal and the grandest of creatures living in the wild. Figures produced by the government yesterday estimate that there are only about 1,400 tigers left in India, down 60% from an official figure of 3,500 in 2002. If that rate of decimation continues, there will only be a couple hundred left in ten years time, so urgent action is needed.
Why am I writing about tigers on a Fortune magazine blog that focuses on business and, occasionally, politics? Mainly because their future is one of many ecological and environmental problems that are being ignored in a greedy rush for wealth and growth, and partly because it demonstrates how ineffective the Indian government can be when faced with vested interested at home and abroad. If the government cannot get to grips with this issue, then it seems unlikely to protect other parts of India’s heritage, and much of the country’s magic and culture will gradually vanish.
There is money to be made by poaching tigers and transporting them out of India, usually to China, where their bones and other body parts are used for traditional medicine, and their skins for trophies and (until recently) to adorn coats worn by officials and herdsmen on the Tibetan plateau. The Indian poacher makes relatively little (though their price is going up), but on the international market an animal can account for tens of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile politicians and bureaucrats grow rich on the kickbacks that are paid for them to facilitate, or at least ignore, the poachers and traders.
Conservationists have been warning for at least three years that India’s tiger population was down to 1,400-1,800, but this was not accepted by the government. But yesterday’s report, based on a new census, puts the figure at 1,411 (plus maybe another 80 in two states not included). It admits that the margin of error means the real total could be anywhere between 1,165 and 1,657. The government is trying to reduce the shock of the 60% loss by saying its 2002 figure was over-estimated. It is also trying to soften the blow by claiming that tigers living in protected areas are doing well and only those elsewhere are being killed, which conservationists say is wrong.
The government has, however, made some important statements. For the first time the report accepts that tigers are being lost because of encroachment into forest areas for wood-cutting, animal grazing and even mining, which means both loss of habitat and prey. It recognizes that “it is essential to set aside inviolate areas devoid of human presence” for tigers and other wild animals and adds: “Tigers are a conservation dependent species requiring large contiguous forests with fair interspersion of undisturbed breeding areas.”
The report also accepts the wider picture, explaining why the tiger is more than just a tourist attraction. “[The] tiger is not only a flag bearer of conservation but also an umbrella species for majority of eco-regions in the Indian subcontinent. Its role as a top predator is vital in regulating and perpetuating ecological processes and systems.” Put more simply, if India makes a real effort to save the tiger, it will at the same time be saving areas where other animals can live and where rivers can flow naturally. If such areas are deforested , they are lost to nature – forests are cut down, animals vanish, rivers are diverted, and the ecological balance is upset with consequential siltation and floods.
Sadly few people see that link, and the tiger does not grab the sort of widespread public admiration in India that it has abroad, even though it has a place in the Hindu religion with the goddess Durga being worshipped riding a tigress. So it is easy for the government to issue reports and then do little. What it should be doing is revamping its grossly under-staffed and unmotivated forest guard service, and strengthening enforcement and prosecution of poachers and traders.
But the problem will never be solved by tackling the supply side. This is a demand-driven trade and the only really effective way to protect tigers is to persuade China fully to implement – and continue – a ban on the use of their skins and body parts. “If India wants wild tigers, it not only has to improve enforcement but stem the demand by talking forcefully to China,” says Belinda Wright, one of India’s leading tiger conservationists.
India however seems scared of tackling China on this issue, probably because it has sensitive border differences with its large neighbor that defeated it in a war in 1962.