Last chance for the big cat

  • 14/05/1994

Last chance for the big cat WHEN undercover agents from the Indian branch of Trade Record Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC) captured 475 kg of tiger bone and 13 pelts in 1993, they exposed more than an international poaching operation. There, for the entire world to see, lay the shattered truth about Project Tiger, India's largest conservation effort. The shocking number of seizures in just one year pulled the rug from under the feet of conservationists who were blissfully complacent in the delusion that India's tiger population had risen from 1,827 in 1972 to 4,334 in 1989.

Not so. The crisis has been building up since 1988. After virtually wiping out the tiger in central and southeast Asia, traders supplying tiger parts to countries like China, Taiwan and South Korea -- where they are valued as traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs -- shifted their attention to India, the last bastion of the beast. For several years, they butchered India's tigers. Tiger bones, whiskers, eyeballs, noses and bile continue to find their way from India to China and the Far East through transit points in Jammu and Kashmir, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. The Cat Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union puts India's tiger population at as low as 2,500.

Though tiger bones are sold in India for between Rs 3,000 ($100) and Rs 5,000 ($165) a kg, traders in China sell them for anything between $130 and $225 per kg. In Taiwan, retailers sell finished and powdered bone for up to $500 per 100 grams. Tiger penises bring $1,700 a piece, eyes $170 a pair and a bottle of its blood brings $57. The cause of the tiger today is pitted against one billion potential customers of tiger medicines.

Global action
These developments -- brought to the fore by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and TRAFFIC -- have spurred a global effort to save the feline.

The US cracked down and imposed trade sanctions on Taiwan -- the first time such restrictions have been enforced for the cause of wildlife. Last November, the US was pressured by more than 20 environmental groups to invoke the Pelly Amendment of 1978 and impose sanctions on both China and Taiwan for continuing to trade and consume tiger products and undermining the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. "These sanctions would not affect commerce and trade, but would merely target wildlife products," said Courtney Stark of the Earth Island Institute, USA. "They would serve as a political and symbolic reprimand, providing the incentive to continue their progress towards the ending of this trade."

The sanctions against Taiwan will affect only $25 million of the $25 billion trade between the two countries. The ban prohibits US imports of products such as coral and mollusc shell products and jewellery as well as shoes and other goods made of snake, lizard and crocodile skins.

However, restrictions were not slapped on China because the White House felt it had shown progress in eliminating tiger trade. Critics, however, felt the Clinton administration had stalled action under the Pelly Amendment ever since it started wooing China.

But some tiger range countries are wary of trade bans. "We don't know whether they are imposing the sanctions only for the cause of the tiger," said Russian deputy minister for environment A M V Amirkhanov.

In India, the one-year-old Global Tiger Forum, with 11 tiger range countries and international NGOs as members, met in March this year and formulated a mission statement that recognised the escalating demand for tiger products as the primary cause for vanishing tiger populations.

However, China, South Korea and Taiwan, the countries responsible for the trade, were not present at the meeting. Though China was invited, it stayed away because "they were afraid of being pilloried", said Peter Jackson, chairperson of the Cat Specialist Group. The ministry of environment and forests (MEF), which organised the meeting with funding from the United Nations Environment Programme, did not invite Taiwan or South Korea "because they have no tiger populations".

The Forum asked each of the 11 tiger range countries to prepare a Tiger Action Plan. However, two-thirds of the world's tigers ramble through jungles in India and many experts feel that if at all the tiger can be saved, it can be saved here.

The MEF sees the Forum as Project Tiger Phase 2. Many of the project's goals, like the formation of protected areas for the tiger, have been reiterated in the mission statement. But setting up protected areas are fraught with inherent difficulties and saving the tiger will require other hurdles to be overcome as well.

Insufficient protection
In the 20 years of Project Tiger, India has set up 75 national parks, including 19 tiger reserves, and 421 wildlife sanctuaries. But 60 per cent of India's tigers still roam free, outside the protected areas. And, 61 of the 584 poaching incidents between 1989 and 1993 took place within the protected areas, where none should have occurred at all.

The managements of reserves are far too weak to counter poaching or even tree-felling. An assessment by the Forest Survey of India in 1993 showed that a large part of the green cover in the tiger reserves has disappeared. Dense forest cover has declined by almost half between 1983 and 1989 and scrub forests have declined by 35 per cent.

The formation of protected areas has not been without controversy, either. About 600,000 tribals and forest dwellers were displaced in the past two decades and not even compensated adequately. Other local populations have turned bitter because their needs are now superseded by those of the tiger. The Wildlife (Protection) Act's restrictions on resources from protected areas deprived the people of basic necessities and created tensions with the managers of protected areas.

Most of these so-called protected areas are also succumbing to development pressures: the Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary and the Marine National Park in Gujarat are threatened by a cement factory and an oil refinery; Palamau Tiger Reserve in Bihar by an army firing range; Ranthambore Tiger Reserve by poaching; Kaziranga in Assam by rhino poaching and floods; Manas in Assam and Dachigam in Jammu and Kashmir by militants, and Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra by potential denotification.

Many representatives of international NGOs at the Forum felt the first step towards saving the tiger would be to elevate the status of forest guards and park rangers. Right now, they are paid poorly and lack basic equipment. It is also important to ensure that the guards and rangers are recruited from the local population because they can relate to the area and will not antagonise the people.

Any tiger conservation effort that decreases the dependency of local people on forests will have to incorporate alternative sources of biomass and incomes. "Only when villagers equate tiger conservation with individual self-interest can the future of the tiger be secured," says Robin Pellew of WWF International. He suggests that eco-development programmes be accelerated and the benefits accruing from such development be linked to the conservation message in the minds of the villagers.

But so far, "eco-development" efforts launched by the government and conservationists have achieved little. These programmes are technocratic to the extreme and have barely anything to do with people's interests. There is no people's participation in the formulation of these programmes.

What is needed is for the people to manage both tiger and habitat, with an actual vested interest in its survival. This includes profits from tourism and forest produce. Unless they can directly link the well-being of the forest to their own well-being, trying to educate them to preserve the forests for the future is futile.

Pellew also suggests that cash rewards be introduced to control wildlife trade. "Cash rewards for apprehending poachers should be introduced, including a reward of a proportion, say 10 per cent, of the market value of the seized contraband. Such schemes have been effectively used in protecting rhinos in southern Africa."

The Forum's mission statement recognises the need for research, an area in which precious little has been done. There are many aspects of wildlife management that rely on good research, most importantly -- with regard to the tiger -- census methods. Though the government touted mounting figures as an index of Project Tiger's success, at no stage did the statistics even hint at the alarming and simultaneous rise in poaching. Even after TRAFFIC-India busted the tiger trade nexus, officials continued to claim that all was hunky-dory with the tiger.

Was this a deliberate attempt to pass off the project as successful? Or was this the result of a shortage of specialised humanpower to conduct censuses? Probably both, combined with the fact that there are really very few census methods that can be trusted to give accurate results. The pug method has been the most commonly used so far. But its effectiveness by and large depends on soil conditions and there is immense scope for error.

The unreliability of censuses is best illustrated by the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve figures. Ranthambore had been upheld as a shining example of the accomplishment of Project Tiger. But in 1991, the official claim that there were 44 tigers in the sanctuary was challenged and a subsequent census, involving conservationists and NGOs, found only 17 tigers in the reserve.

Keeping track of tiger numbers is a problem in all the range countries. Very few counts have been carried out in southeast Asia and even estimates are extremely vague and diverse. Last year, Jackson got figures that ranged between 800 and 1,400. "They are not really using any method," said Jackson. "These numbers are mostly estimates from impression people get."

An important aspect that needs to be monitored carefully through research is the genetic viability of tiger populations in the various sanctuaries. According to Jackson, for long-term conservation, there have to be at least 500 tigers in a population to ensure a healthy progeny with no genetic defects. Only about 40 per cent of this will form the "effective" or breeding population.

But most Indian reserves have very small numbers of the big cats. Tigers cannot be lifted from one sanctuary and relocated to another simply because the beasts are fiercely territorial and newcomers will most likely be killed. The option of artificial insemination is extremely difficult -- it will involve identifying a female in heat and capturing it.

Disastrous inbreeding
The disastrous effects of inbreeding are already manifest in another member of the cat family, the Florida panther in the US. The very few Florida panthers that exist today suffer heart murmur and a reproductive disorder, which will be passed on to future generations. These defects could lead to finish off this line of panthers unless fresh blood from another subspecies is introduced. So now, the choice is really between losing the Florida panther or the Florida panther losing its sub-species status altogether.

The same fate could await the tiger, says Ajay Desai, a researcher with the Bombay Natural History Society, unless measures for its long-term conservation are taken.

This is the second time a large-scale effort to save the tiger is being launched. Unless forest officials and conservationists derive lessons from the first effort and monitor every step carefully, there can be no hope for the tiger.

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