Having seen the pugmarks of the elusive tigers at Royal Chitwan National Park [Nepal], Periyar Sanctuary and the Corbett National Parks [India] had whetted my appetite to actually see the majestic animals. So I decided to visit Kanha and Panna National Parks in Madhya Pradesh; I was told that here I would definitely catch a glimpse of the tiger in his natural habitat.
Cut to Kanha
At Kanha, I took off on a game drive immediately after checking in to my resort. The naturalist and guide from the forest department had identified several pugmarks; there was a tigress in the vicinity with her two cubs, and two tigers and another tigress. These were the cats we were tracking. As our jeep slowed on a muddy track, my heart skipped a beat as a tigress crossed the road right in front of us. I was awe struck by the sight.
My second sighting was a bit more purposeful than the first. Alerted by the alarm calls of the langurs [monkeys] and the deer, we stopped our jeep. And then I saw him—a large tiger strolling through the trees moving towards the water.
The next day while we were on elephant back, we saw another tiger resting after a meal. The naturalist decided not to follow the tracks of the fiercely protective mother so as to not disturb the nurturing space of the family.
A restless night
While discussing the tiger population at Kanha and the much talked-about poaching menace, the naturalist mentioned that Panna, our next destination, had lost its entire tiger population to poachers. Therefore, the forest department had transported a tiger and two tigresses from Kanha and Bandhavgarh to Panna.
The same night as I switched on the TV, I heard about the skeletal remains of 12 tigers that were recovered from within Panna. I had already heard about the Sariska scandal a few years ago as well as Panna more recently.
It troubled me to think about how despite the measures taken by the government [including the Prime Minister of India himself] for protecting tigers, our national animal was still in danger of becoming extinct.
Images of my encounters with the two tigers and the tigress kept flashing through my mind. I slept with a heavy heart wondering how this majestic animal at the top of the food chain, could be saved from extinction.
Panna got me thinking
On reaching Panna, I was thrilled to see a tigress that was pregnant. My forest guide informed that she would probably deliver in the next two months.
Incidentally, the same night I saw the 'Save Our Tigers' campaign on television. The advertisement showed a cub waiting for the mother's return and the sound of a gunshot followed by a voice saying that the mother would probably never return to the cub. It was a heart-wrenching statement. My heart reached out to the cub on the TV screen. Images of the pregnant tigress at Panna flashed across my mind coupled with the news of the skeletal remains found within Panna. Were the yet to be born cubs doomed even before their birth? Is this going to be the fate of every tiger till there are no more tigers left on this earth?
Are we truly so helpless against the poacher's gun? Only 1411 tigers remain in India! The actual number could be much lower and dwindling rapidly, says the Environment Minister. Is there no way to turn this around? The social psychologist in me started reflecting on the various reasons for the current situation and the possible solutions for the same...
We are losing our tigers because
- Tiger parts are used as aphrodisiacs in Far Eastern cultures and in Chinese medicine.
- Tiger skin is worn in Tibetan ceremonies to proclaim bravery and prosperity.
- Corrupt individuals in the forest department collude with poachers to smuggle high-value tiger parts and tiger skin.
- There's insufficient surveillance by forest rangers due to lack of sophisticated systems of tracking and counting of tigers.
- There's lack of accountability in the forest department officials overseeing the national parks.
- There is poverty and illiteracy in villages around the national parks and tiger reserves, which the poachers exploit.
- There's a lack of awareness programmes that appeal to the sensibility of the villagers.
Why projects fail
Basic need: The anti-poaching campaign has failed because the need to protect an 'animal' does not appeal to a poor and illiterate 'human' who has to struggle to feed his family. Especially when killing that animal [our national animal in this case] can give him money to feed his family. So appealing to such a person to save the tiger is much like appealing to a suicide bomber who agrees to kill thousands in exchange for money for his family. Besides, the bomber is also convinced that he is eliminating an irreligious and thus inferior species.
Low personal appeal: Moreover, projects like the Project Tiger are very impersonal; they fail to create personal involvement in the wellbeing of every tiger. It is difficult to feel passionately about an idea. For success in the project, strong, passionate and personal involvement is necessary by the people. This is much like all Garibi Hatao [Eradicate Poverty] projects, which do not bring about change because they are after all, just an idea. As opposed to this, wherever there is personal involvement by a citizen in the wellbeing of a street child or anyone from any part of the disempowered population, a success story usually follows.
Inadequate punishment: The punishment by law for smuggling of tiger parts is also probably not severe enough to be a deterrent. And even if it is, corruption and loopholes in the legal system do not allow law to take its course.
Poor technology: There also seems to be inadequate funds for sophisticated equipment to monitor tigers, and surveillance of all entry points to the park. Guides are still relying on ineffective and obsolete systems like the waterhole or pugmark system to monitor tigers. This resulted in the Sariska and Panna disasters; rangers and forest officials relied on it and used it to escape accountability.
What we can do
Some suggestions that came to my mind.
- Offer positive reinforcement: In ancient China, the doctor of the Emperor was paid not to treat illnesses but to prevent them from occurring. His remuneration was directly dependent on how well he preserved the health and wellbeing of the Emperor. Emphasis was thus on preventive medicine. This is the principal that must reflect in the remuneration system adopted in our national parks. Since positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement, huge incentives should be announced to all employees of the park if not a single poaching incident takes place in a year.
- Reward villagers: Huge monetary rewards should be announced for any information given by the villagers that could prevent poaching activity. The informants should additionally be promised anonymity and protection.
- Use latest technology: Tigers can be radio-collared to track them in the park. Rangers should give daily reports of their location and wellbeing with their signatures on that report. CCTV cameras and multi-layered surveillance can be put up in strategic locations to avoid escaping accountability.
- Enforce stringent laws: All loopholes in anti-poaching and anti-smuggling laws must be plugged. Any infringement of law should get the severest punishment.
- Educate the public: The claimed aphrodisiac properties in tiger parts must be denounced by modern medicine and by the W.H.O vehemently as they are not backed by scientific trials and studies. Major campaigns educating people about their inefficacy should be launched so that they abstain from buying products that make such claims.
- Appeal to the Lama: The Dalai Lama should be requested to insist that all Tibetans abstain from the use of tiger skin in their ceremonies.
- Involve the villagers: Children in village schools surrounding national parks, as well as members of those village committees should be involved actively by the forest department by making them symbolically adopt and name the big cats to help them recognise the unique design of their stripes. This would create a personal involvement and generate strong feelings of protection in them. The involvement could continue in the form of following the activities, growth and health status of the adopted tigers in collaboration with park rangers.
I do not know whether my reflections will reach the right people and if they will lead to positive change. I only know that till the tiger is just a statistic of an endangered species, nothing will change. Only when hearts are moved and public opinion is mobilized that people will impress upon those in authority, the dire need to 'Save Our Tigers'.
We need Tigers
The human race is supposed to be the most evolved species on this planet with the ability to discern and reason and therefore the one who must preserve the eco-system and thus save this planet. Our own survival and wellbeing is intertwined with the wellbeing of all species and each species has its necessary and thus rightful place in our eco-system. In the wellbeing of the tiger lies the wellbeing of the eco-system, and thus the wellbeing of man.
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