Jul 10, 2008
World - A flying tiger
India relaunches its effort to save tigers
ON JUNE 30th a doped five-year-old tiger flew 300km by helicopter, from a small Indian national park replete with tigers, Ranthambore, to a bigger park, Sariska, which had none. This was the first attempt to relocate wild tigers in India since the 1930s—and an indication of how desperate the species’ plight has become.
According to the best recent estimate, released in February by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), a government-funded research body, India has about 1,400 tigers. This figure—equivalent to just under half the world’s tigers—was much lower than official estimates. It represented a 60% decline in India’s tiger population over five years. Sadly, this was not surprising.
Demand for tiger skins, as well as bones, penises and other parts used in Chinese traditional medicine, has boomed, pegged to China’s rapid economic growth. At the same time, conservation efforts in India have fallen from woeful to worse. The forest service, which looks after areas where tigers roam, is a portly shadow of its 1970s self, when Indira Gandhi launched her celebrated feline rescue plan, Project Tiger.
In the way of Indian public servants, many forestry officials have grown fat, old and corrupt. This makes them ill-suited to vigorous patrolling. Moreover, many are complacent, at best, in the face of lean and sophisticated poaching gangs. These typically pay forest-dwellers—members of India’s most marginalised tribal communities—to slaughter tigers to order, and then cart the carcasses north of the Himalayas, where they may fetch tens of thousands of dollars each.
Until recently, India’s government denied that a slaughter was taking place. And Sariska, the flying tiger’s new home, was an emblem of this. According to a 2004 government estimate, the park had 16-18 tigers. Yet the following year WII confirmed what many had claimed: that the park had in fact been emptied of tigers.
The tigers’ lot is not unlike that in 1972, when Project Tiger began. Then, tiger numbers had for the first time dropped below 2,000—down from an estimated 40,000 at the end of the 19th century. In a flurry of autocratic activity—producing new legal protections for tigers and new kit for its custodians—Mrs Gandhi reversed that decline; the tiger population may have doubled over the following 15 years.
Yet, even if she wanted to, India’s current supremo, Mrs Gandhi’s daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, has less license to fight tooth-and-claw for the big cat. She presides, from the wings, over a weak and unstable coalition, led by her Congress party. Attracting the votes of the many poor people who live in tiger habitat has been a more pressing concern for her government than preserving the lives of unenfranchised tigers.
But no government wants to see the tiger, an emblem of India, go extinct on its watch. So, the government is taking some action, of which the relocation to Sariska was an important sign. The pioneer five-year-old was joined on July 4th by a young female from Ranthambore. Another female is scheduled to make the same journey shortly.
To boost their chances of survival, the Rajasthan government has uprooted a village away from the release site and has plans to move three more. The affected villagers are being resettled outside the park, with compensation promised at up to $25,000 per family. This will be paid by India’s central government, which allocated $153m to tiger protection in February.
This pot should enable state governments to move up to 200,000 people from 27 current tiger sanctuaries, and another eight promised sanctuaries. It may also cover the cost of a plan to create “green corridors” between tiger habitats, allowing the cats to cross-fertilise their isolated gene pools. After its quiet decline, this is a hopeful time for the Royal Bengal tiger.
But sustaining the momentum will be difficult—for all the reasons why Project Tiger petered out into failure. Where there is poverty, people and tigers cannot easily co-exist. And in India, an agrarian country with a billion-plus people, land is dreadfully scarce.
So, too is efficiency in government. By Congress's own rule of thumb-attributed to Rajiv Gandhi, a former leader, in the 1980s and since echoed by many activists and politicians-85% of welfare spending fails to reach its intended recipients. In the long-run, as Project Tiger showed, that may also be the fate of conservation spending.
Given these long odds—even as Sariska’s new apex predator sniffs out its range—there are some who think the tiger’s survival too unlikely to waste time and money on. After all, India also has some 600m people to save from poverty. And, moreover, there are numerous less glamorous species, of beetles and birds, which might be saved with conservation cash expended on tigers.
But, had these critics actually seen a tiger, they might say different.
Posted by SZri at 6:44 PM