Former United States president Bill Clinton once quipped: “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it; and those who have not seen the Taj and love it.’’ For well over past three decades now, I have been an inveterate ‘ghumakkad’ — wonderer in the wild and untamed landscapes of India. And I can safely report that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have seen a tiger in the forest and love it, and those who have not seen a tiger in the forest and love it still.
Let me push the envelope a bit further. I strongly believe tiger is the only real celebrity in India, and everything and everybody fades before its majestic presence. But unfortunately, this large -hearted gentleman of Jim Corbett is now stranded at perilous crossroads of existence. And its fate lies in the hands of us humans. Not a reassuring prospect, I must confess, to depend on humans when they cannot even guarantee the survival of their own race! An ideal scenario would allow a tiger to depend on nobody, but on itself for its survival. But, we are not living in the ideal times, nor are the tigers. A case in point is the recent rumblings in the Supreme Court where a coterie of so-called wildlife experts have opined that keeping the tourists away from National Parks and sanctuaries is the best way to ensure a tiger’s longevity.
I do not fall in this camp. What the heck, I do not even claim to be a wildlife expert. But I know for sure that keeping people away from tiger would bring its doom sooner than later. Let me pull out an old page from my jungle diaries. It was way back in May, 1985 when, as a tourist, I came across a dead tiger in the Dhaulkhand range of Uttarakhand’s Rajaji National Park. The poor animal lay before me, obviously poisoned. At first, the forest authorities went into predictable denial mode. But a series of correspondences which I had with the top authorities of the day ensured that the matter was properly investigated. A few weeks later, I was duly informed that it indeed was a case of poaching.
I shudder to think what would have happened if, at that time, the area was closed to the tourists. In many cases of tiger poaching, it’s the tourists who first press the alarm bell. They do it because, like me, most of them are true ambassadors of this king of the Indian jungles.
Another example: two years ago, the famous Jhurjhura tigress of Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh was knocked down dead by a vehicle inside the park. Now, she was a celebrity tigress, darling of wildlife photographers who would troop down to Bandhavgarh from all over the world with just one fervent wish: to capture Jhurjhura tigress in their cameras. I myself came across her several times; and each encounter is firmly etched in the memory.
The sudden death of Jhurjhura tigress — proud mother of three new-born cubs — caused a furore which continues to this day. (Lest you think I have had something stronger than a cigarette, please do a Google-search on Jhurjhura tigress and see the results for yourself). The point is, if the tourists and guides at Bandhavgarh had not raised the ruckus over the tigress’ death, who would have? Forest authorities? Your guess is as good as mine. Although I must add that my good friend and a true lover of wildlife, C K Patil — he was then the field director of Bandhavgarh — left no stone unturned to nab the culprits. It was because of his untiring efforts that the Madhya Pradesh government ordered a CID probe into the matter.
But then, I have come across very few forest officers of Patil’s calibre. When Sariska and Panna National Parks lost their tigers, the entire forest staff, from the top to the bottom, was found napping. It was the media and the tourists who alerted the country to these twin tragedies. It is safe to assume that the tigers in Sariska and Panna were not wiped out in a single day. Given the elusive nature of tigers, a well-coordinated poaching operation would take weeks, if not months, to achieve the objective. My humble query is: What was the all-powerful National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) doing during this crucial period?
Tens of thousands of families today depend on tiger for their livelihood. Be it a lowly-paid guide in Corbett, or a canter driver in Ranthambore, or a large number of people working in resorts and hotels around the National Park... their kitchen fires are burning because of the tiger. I am afraid, if tourism is banned in the tiger reserves, many of these people would vent their anger on tigers out of frustration. How prepared is the government machinery to tackle it?
Is it any coincidence that tigers have emerged stronger in all those places which attract large numbers of tourists? The evidence is irrefutable in Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Ranthambore and Tadoba. In the words of formidable tiger expert, the late Billi Arjan Singh — who could have said it better, once a tiger moves out of the protected area it becomes a “forgotten tiger.” It then becomes an easy mark for any passing gun.
True, untrammeled tourism in tiger reserves is also a problem; and at times, a grave one. A tiger needs much more than breathing space; being a territorial animal, it requires large tracks of undisturbed land to live without hassles. And therefore, a prudent tourism policy, where picnickers can be separated from wildlife enthusiasts, would be a welcome first step.
In February 1998, I moved a writ petition in the Supreme Court, urging for protection and preservation of tigers in India. Since then, and after numerous hearings which saw representations from almost all the tiger-inhabited states as well as the NTCA, things did start moving in the right direction.
My petition paved the way for several landmark rulings and directions by the Supreme Court. But tom-tomming my own efforts is farthest from my mind; what we require is more such efforts from many like-minded people.
Jim Corbett hit the nail perfectly when he remarked over half a century ago: “The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and when he is exterminated — as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support — India will be poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.’’
A lot of water has passed since the days of Colonel Corbett. Thanks to Mrs Indira Gandhi’s initiative, which led to the setting-up of Project Tiger in the early 70s, we did manage to pull the tiger back from the brink of extinction. But, a bigger battle is at hands now. It will indeed be an unparalleled tragedy if the tiger breathes his last in a forgotten, silent corner of a forest where a ‘No entry’ board greets the tourists… And no one rallies to his support.
Navin M Raheja, the Chairman & Managing Director of Raheja Developers Ltd, is a wildlife enthusiast and a passionate photographer. In the past 35 years, he made several contributions in the field of conservation at various levels. A former member of Project Tiger’s Steering Committee, under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, he worked persistently to ensure that the big cats survived in India. He is also Chairman, Wildlife Conservation Society of India.