A brief history of the tiger in India
An estimated 2,967 tigers live in India. But there are more tigers living in terrible conditions in roadside zoos in the US and bred as commodities for body parts in China’s tiger farms.
India’s fourth tiger census, conducted with camera traps in 26,838 locations over 1,21,337 square kilometres, has entered the Guinness Book of World Records for conducting “the largest camera trap wildlife survey”. An estimated 2,967 tigers live in India. But there are more tigers living in terrible conditions in roadside zoos in the US and bred as commodities for body parts in China’s tiger farms.
Around 40,000 tigers were estimated in 1947. Hunting and habitat destruction decimated their population. The first-ever all-India tiger census conducted in 1972 revealed the existence of only 1,827 tigers. Mrs Indira Gandhi promulgated the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 and 29 tiger reserves were created. Project Tiger took the population up to 3,500 in the 1990s, but the numbers suffered a setback thereafter, due to habitat destruction and large-scale poaching. Tigers were wiped out of Sariska, Rajasthan. Of the 2,967 tigers counted in 2018-19, over half are found in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.
Once upon a time, tigers roamed freely all over India. They appear on the seals of the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation, now a region of urbanisation and agriculture. Chennai’s original name was Puliyur, or tiger town. Tigers were found in Bombay in 1929. They lived along the Yamuna, near Delhi and Agra. The Royal Bengal tiger of the Sundarbans was a legend. The Arthashastra of Kautilya mentions the vyaala (tiger) vana, reserved for tigers and wildlife, protected by royal command. Ashoka eschewed the hunt. The tiger is associated with Shakti or Goddess Durga; Ayyappa of Sabarimala and the planet Rahu ride the tiger; Vaghdeo or Vaghoba of Maharashtra and Huliraya of Karnataka are tiger deities. Bon Bibi of Bengal, riding a tiger, is the guardian spirit of the Sundarbans. Indian tradition venerated and protected this beautiful animal.
The tiger’s end began with the Mughals: one animal against an army. Akbar introduced trophy hunting on an elephant or the shikar. Jehangir killed 86 tigers and lions in his first 12 years as ruler. A Mughal meal included 36 to 40 meat dishes, including wildlife meats. Large-scale killing started with the British. After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British offered special rewards for any tiger killed. In 1770, a severe famine in eastern India resulted in the reversal of farmland to jungle: by eliminating wildlife, revenue land was increased.
Hunting was standard recreation for the British officials. Every army man participated in the hunt, hiding on a tree, while the tiger was brought out of its hiding place by ‘beaters’ and killed with a rifle. District level administrations facilitated hunts, local maharajas and zamindars lent their elephants, while peasants were employed as beaters (on foot) and were often mauled or killed by tigers: their lives were cheap, expendable. The sahibs took photographs with their kill, posing with the dead animal, gun in hand and one leg on the carcass, although generally finding and even killing the animal was accomplished by the natives. Poisoning, tying live baits to lure them or shooting from elephants—practices that break every ethical canon—were necessary in the larger British project of ridding the countryside of ‘dangerous predators’.
The ‘howdah’ shikar borrowed from the Mughals was restricted to high-ranking officials. The tigers were driven towards the elephants and the ‘first shot’ had the right to the skin. Each viceroy had to shoot a record number of tigers. After his coronation in 1911, King George V and his retinue killed 39 tigers in 10 days in Nepal. Wild animals were hunted to ‘civilise’ a wild landscape, an attitude based on the Biblical concept of an unproductive ‘wilderness’ that has haunted Western thought and action, and remove all impediments to settled agriculture. Animals like tigers, snakes, elephants, birds, etc., which challenged revenue land, had to be eliminated. The shyness of the tiger was described as its ‘depraved nature’, justifying elimination.
The tiger was declared as vermin and a bounty of `25 was paid for every predator killed. Bounty-killing tipped populations wherever habitat was under pressure. The cheetah was eliminated; lions survived in Gir alone, thanks to the Nawab of Junagadh. Over 80,000 tigers were slaughtered between 1875 and 1925. The tiger’s range was restricted to hills and forests, inaccessible lands with abundant prey. Indian maharajas outdid the British. The Maharaja of Kotah outfitted a Rolls Royce Phantom with spotlights for night hunting, mounted a machine gun and a Lantaka cannon for tiger safaris. Rewa kings in Central India had to kill 109 tigers after their coronation. The late Maharaja of Mysore and his guests shot over a hundred tigers between 1945 and 1967. The Maharaja of Udaipur and Raja of Gauripur shot 500 tigers each, the Nawab of Tonk 600, Ramanuj Saran Singh Deo of Sarguja 1,100 tigers, and Colonel Kesri Singh of Jaipur 1,000. This does not include the other wildlife they killed.
Habitat loss, poaching for pelts and for components for traditional Chinese medicine are major threats to the tiger’s survival. Farmers blame tigers for killing cattle and shoot or poison them. The recent clearance for projects in forests and the new Environment Impact Assessment draft are threatening the animal’s survival. The growing human and cattle population, increasing demand for “development” in forest areas, open-cast mines, highways, railways and resorts keep up the pressure on the animal. Avni, a tigress in Maharashtra, was killed to accommodate a hunter, leaving two cubs to fend for themselves. The government does not care. Yet the tiger is our national animal. The health of the tiger is the last hope for our ecology, biodiversity conservation and combating climate change. Covid-19 should teach us the importance of nature. We claim to follow the writ of ancient India, but we behave like alien Englishmen, destroying forests and killing their inhabitants. Unfortunately, political will has been replaced by greed.
Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai