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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

More at stake than just the tiger

In protecting the big cat, we protect the forest and all those that live within it. We protect our rivers and the groundwater. We protect the life-cycle of this planet itself. If we can’t do that, we can write off our future, and the future of coming generations Forty years after the inception of Project Tiger, the population graph of the big cat looks more like a graph at the daily stock exchange! Somehow, in spite of the best intentions and efforts from the Government, non-Government organisations and even individuals, the tiger’s future still remains a question mark, with more than a few opinions out there predicting total extinction within the next 10 to 20 years. This is of course, after all, only an opinion, but one which could become frighteningly true. It’s not really a matter of getting the date right of when the tiger will go extinct, but the fact that it will be wiped out eventually — unless we do something now. With hugely popular campaigns that went viral like Save the Tiger, the word most certainly is ‘out’ there, but that’s just it — word out there. The action is missing still. Thanks to years of constant broadcasting of the issue, the challenges of tiger conservation are public knowledge. Poaching, habitat destruction, poisoning are what we’ve all heard quite often. Awareness is at an all time high and everyone knows the Jungle bachao, sher bachao (save the forest, save the tiger) chant. But there still remains that elusive gap between information and action. Since the last tiger census in 2011, India has already lost over a 100 tigers to poaching. Maharashtra, which has 169 resident tigers (2011 census), went on high alert earlier this year when a tip-off of a poaching contract was received. There was literally a price put on the head of 25 tigers and many lakh rupees had exchanged hands as advance payment. The scale and the audacity just goes to show what the tiger is up against. Just a few months ago, a tigress was poached in the Itanagar zoo. The poachers tranquilised her and then hacked her to pieces. What is even more shocking is that this not the first incident in the zoo. In 2006, three tigers and a leopard were poisoned. One tiger died, while the other two other animals survived. A special tiger task force, shoot on sight orders and a Schedule I status for the tiger have not been a good enough deterrent. (Schedule I is the highest protected status for an animal in India under the Wildlife protection act of 1972.) The ‘value’ of an apex predator like the tiger goes far beyond what is obvious to our eye. Sure, we’ve all had the life- cycle image from our school textbooks imprinted on our brains, but what is so simply illustrated is multi-layered and complex. The water cycle is at the very centre of all of this. Without it, everything as it is would cease to exist. As humans, we’ve taken far beyond our fair share of the planet, and the delicate balance of nature we often speak about won’t just tip — it will spiral. We’ve already witnessed three sub-species of the tiger lost to extinction; others are on the brink. In 2010, I had the opportunity to attend the Tiger Summit in St Petersburg ,and it was really a coming together of all the tiger nations. Ministers, tiger experts, celebrities and individuals who cared or worked for the tiger, were there. Each country made a presentation and announced its commitment to doubling the tiger population by 2020. It was a huge event covered internationally, with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio adding glitter to it. It was at this event where I met a local activist who was campaigning to save the forests in Russia that were threatened by logging, mining and oil exploration. She was desperate to get this information to President Vladimir Putin, and kept saying: “It’s not only the tiger, we have to save the forest”. She is right. We need to save the forest to save the tiger. It’s a beautifully simple plan that will take all the positive intention on the planet to execute. Unfortunately, we already have examples of what happens when the tiger disappears. The island of Bali, which was home to the Balinese Tiger, stands as evidence. Being an island, Bali only had a local population of tigers with no migrating animals coming in or going out. The last recorded tiger was shot in September 1937, and after that Bali lost its forests to agriculture. All that remains now are fields and an economy that is floating on tourism. Fresh water is a huge issue in Bali. Extensive deforestation and over-consumption of water by huge resorts have drained the fresh water resources of the island. With the majority of the forests gone, the rivers and the groundwater are drying up. This has happened to many small islands and isolated communities in human history and the most well-known example is that of Easter Island in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean. The forests of Easter Island were almost completely deforested by its people. What followed was complete destruction and degradation of the eco-system over a period of time. Agriculture was reduced because of soil erosion and fishing wasn’t possible as there weren’t any large trees left to build boats. The lessons of history are quite clear in what we can expect if things continue the way they are. To protect the forests and all those that live within it, it is crucial for a ‘happy human buffer’ to exist around such forests. Communities that live close to the forests have to be given special benefits and the support to move beyond the basic levels of existence. With a huge tourism industry around the ‘tiger’, (which we witnessed recently when tourism was banned in all tiger national parks), the benefits of this economy barely trickle down. There are people and NGOs who are doing great work at the ground level and have made a difference. These have been important but small victories, with individuals and groups doing the best they can, and quite often being driven by their own passion and their own resources. The crisis of the vanishing tigers is far from over, and it will need a change in perspective and the collective will of the entire nation to turn the situation around. That’s not impossible by any means, but it’s still a task that needs to become our mission. This is an excerpt from the Mahabharata, which was written around 400 BC: “Do not cut down the forest with its tigers and do not banish the tigers from the forest. The tiger perishes without the forest and the forest perishes without its tigers. Therefore, the tigers should stand guard over the forest and the forest should protect all its tigers.” Are we paying any heed to the advice. Unfortunately, the answer is a big “No”.

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