India is now home to about 60 per cent of the world’s tiger population, and the increase has been a reason to celebrate. But with that, the danger has increased as well—India saw a huge jump in tiger deaths in 2016. Compared to 80 tiger deaths in 2015, 120 were recorded last year. Poaching isn’t the sole reason for the deaths; poisoning, natural deaths and territorial infighting are the others.
At the turn of the 20th century, 50,000 to 1 lakh tigers walked in the wilderness. By 2008, only 1,411 tigers—India’s national animal—were alive. The number rose to 2,226 by 2014. An unusually high 32 tiger deaths was reported from Madhya Pradesh, home to second-largest population of big cats after Uttarakhand. Last year saw a massive hike in the seizure of tiger parts—22 across the country.
There is an increasing demand for tiger parts in international markets, especially China and Southeast Asia, but what is worrying is that the big cats are falling prey to black magic. In Central India, cases have been reported where locals killed tigers for their right paw, which is supposed to bring luck and money. It is believed wearing a tiger claw encased in gold provides wealth and power.
“In the last two years, we have noticed tigers being killed for their claws, whiskers and skin for black magic and other rituals,” says Dr Shekhar Kumar Niraj, head of TRAFFIC India, a wildlife trade monitoring network that works with state and the Central governments.
Poaching continues to pose a big threat to tigers, and people involved in it have a well-organised global network. On the other hand, Central and state authorities lack the will, modern weapons, latest communication technology and workforce to match the organised crime, which runs into hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
The lackadaisical approach of authorities was visible in the case of tiger Jai in Nagpur’s Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary. The 250-kg cat went missing in April 2016 and 10 months later, authorities still don’t know what happened to it.
On January 12 this year, four poachers were convicted for killing a tiger in Maharashtra’s Melghat Tiger Reserve and selling its parts in Nagpur. On Ocetober 1, 2016, two poachers were convicted for killing a tiger in Melghat and selling its skin.
Authorities have decided to use Belgian Malinois dogs, which guard the US White House and were part of the SEAL team that eliminated Osama bin Laden, for wildlife protection and anti-poaching operations in Kanha and Pench tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh.
Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (Independent Charge), Anil Madhav Dave agrees that authorities need to find a solution to address poaching. “We have the world’s largest population of tigers, and a tiger’s territory spans 100 square kilometres. We are looking at ways to combat poaching,” Dave said.
Human encroachment and man-animal conflict is another problem for the existence of tigers. In Madhya Pradesh, National Highway 7 passes through Pench Tiger Reserve, which has one of the highest movement of tigers in central India. There have also been reservations against the country’s first river interlinking project of the Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh, which will submerge a large portion of Panna Tiger Reserve and lead to high tiger mortality in years to come.
“Shrinking and fragmenting of tiger habitat is a very serious issue. Infrastructure projects, mining and other projects have impinged into tiger reserves and habitats. National Highway 7 is the most prolific example as it splits the crucial linkage between Kanha and Pench reserves,” said Prerna Bindra, conservationist and former member of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife. “Tiger numbers have shown an increase, but that shouldn’t breed complacency. Protecting tigers and securing their habitats is crucial for their long-term survival.”
There is also an urgent need to mark tiger corridors to ensure their protection outside tiger reserves.
At the global level, illegal wildlife trade has never been India’s agenda and wildlife crime has never been discussed at any extradition policy with neighbouring countries even when evidence shows that tiger trade takes place through porous international borders with Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.
“Those involved in tiger trade are highly organised. India needs to invest in protecting and managing tiger reserves close to international borders, such as Valmiki National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Bihar, Dhudhwa Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh and Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam,” said Niraj.
Lack of cooperation and networking between agencies such as the forest department, wildlife crime control bureau, state police, intelligence agencies and Central authorities is also affecting the surveillance and investigation.
The number of tiger reserves has increased to 50 in the last few years, but the strength of forest guards has dwindled by 70-80 per cent. Other issues that need urgent attention include an aging and ill-equipped workforce, which lacks special skills and training to take on highly organised poachers. Unchecked development and hotels around reserves is encroaching the natural habitat of wild cats, leading to human-animal conflict.
The apathy and lack of will of authorities may well lead to the Royal Bengal Tiger’s roar turning into a whimper in the wild.