Broken Tigers

July 29, 2010

The official report is so clinical and impersonal that one might be tempted to skim it and move on. That would be a mistake. Behind the dry words of the official report is the heart-rending tale of a monumental tragedy.

Dr Rajesh Gopal is the Member-Secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. His report of 1 June 2010 on the death of the Jhurjhura tigress in Bandhavgarh is a profoundly distressing dossier. On 18 May, three government vehicles entered the park in the late afternoon. One turned back shortly after. Of the other two, one was 'outsourced' (read privately procured) by the CEO of the Zilla Panchayat. The occupants included the CEO, the Range Officer, Dr KK Pandey, a Veterinary Assistant Surgeon, relatives of the CEO and three children. These two vehicles remained in the park after it closed. They also went off-route. Both are illegal. Barrelling around, one of them hit the Jhurjhura tigress, the mother of three six-month old cubs.

Early next morning, visitors spotted the wounded tigress in evident distress. The Field Director immediately ordered the area cordoned off.

By 9.20 am, the tigress was dead. Post-mortem reports show that she died of massive internal haemorrhaging. Dr Gopal has recommended an urgent CBI probe. It has yet to happen. The three orphaned cubs have had to be moved to a zoo in Bhopal.

We're down four more tigers in the wild. And this is the third report of a tiger being hit by a vehicle in Bandhavgarh.

Less than a month later, the Pioneer newspaper in New Delhi broke even more ghastly news. The head of a local environmental committee was caught carrying the paws of a six-month tiger cub, one of a litter of three. This worthy gent and four chowkidars sawed off the cub's paws — as an offering to a local tantric for a customized puja.

In Maharashtra, the Melghat Tiger Reserve, once the flagship of Project Tiger, is still under threat. Years ago, the State Government decided that the best way to protect the tigers of Melghat was to take away a third of their home, and denotified 500 sq kms of the reserve's 1500 sq kms. Of course, nobody bothered to tell the tiger.

Coincidentally, the predominant tree species here is teak.

Timely intervention by the High Court in Nagpur has ensured that that area is still part of the reserve but it is greatly degraded with a far lower tiger density. Dr Gopal concedes that there are hardly any tigers outside Protected Areas and that the only tiger-protection success stories are within tiger reserves. The Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) has seen a resurgence of its tiger population, but without an increase in the reserve area. Merely increasing tiger numbers doesn't help. In the wild one tiger has a range of about 20 sq kms. Not in TATR: there the range seems to have been reduced to about 3 sq kms. And their habitats are constantly shrinking.

Official commitment to tiger conservation is questionable at best. In the seven months from November 2008, Maharashtra lost ten tigers, including four cubs; only one died a natural death. In a nine-year period, Assam lost 12 tigers. Orissa lost 40. Madhya Pradesh recently cleared a proposal for a segment of NH7 — a huge multi-lane high-speed expressway — right through the Kanha-Pench corridor; and, for good measure, a tourist resort.

Now we have the proposed amendments to the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLP): principally increased fines and jail sentences. Nice figures, but that's all they are. Poaching needs a more severe deterrent. Fines don't address the problem. Protecting tigers is essential, and expensive. It also involves improving wildlife habitat, and the lot of humans in the vicinity.

One news report says that in Arunachal Pradesh, a tiger skin is worth about 5 kgs of rice. Meanwhile, our governments spend thousands of crores on airports and the Commonwealth Games and golf courses on mangroves. But money to spend on a planned and humane relocation of villages, on strengthening security in our tiger reserves, on improved protection, on larger buffer areas, on dealing with the poor who live in the vicinity of these areas? How could these ever be a priority?

Buildings and bridges and expressways can be built and rebuilt. When the last tiger dies, what have we left? We are not defined by things we can replace, but how we care for the things we cannot.

PostScript: In Bandhavgarh, the enquiry is on, the report awaited. The orphaned cubs are now in a special enclosure in the park, not in a zoo, being well cared for. Routes B & C in the park are closed. Mr Akshay Kumar Singh, the CEO of the Zilla Panchayat, has been transfered to a small town in Dhar district, Jabua. KK Pandey, the Assistant Vet has been suspended until the inquiry is over. Six people have been suspended so far. The Tiger Heaven resort is sealed.

This article was first published in the Mumbai Mirror and Bangalore Mirror on Friday, 9 July 2010, under different titles.

Just another fella with strong views
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