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Updated: January 14, 2014 04:08 IST

Ensuring that the tiger lives on

B. Aravind Kumar
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BONES OF THE TIGER — Of Man-eating Tigers and Tiger-eating Men by Hemanta Mishra with Jim Ottaway Jr
Special Arrangement BONES OF THE TIGER — Of Man-eating Tigers and Tiger-eating Men by Hemanta Mishra with Jim Ottaway Jr

Somewhere in the book, there is a theory — or is it just an argument? — that China’s introduction of free market economy could be decimating the Asian tiger population. The creation of a new wealthy class in a socialist state created a huge demand for the wild tigers and their body parts illegally trafficked through a well oiled network of poachers and traders in tiger range countries in South Asia and South East Asia where the number of the striped big cats is estimated at over 3,000.

The book also talks about the emergence of Tiger Farms in China where tigers are bred in captivity and whose numbers are estimated to be around 5,000 with about 800 newborns annually and a section of scientists espousing the theory of ‘eat-it-to-save-it’. That is if captive tigers can take care of commercial interests, the tigers in the wild will automatically be safe. The question is, how would you know if a soup or wine or a powder is made out of a captive tiger or a wild tiger?

The Tiger-wallahs, that is, veteran conservationists who have worked so hard in the field combining science and common sense, to keep the tigers alive for some six decades now, are grappling with answers. The answers seem to be everywhere. Yet, the tiger is still walking towards extinction.

The tiger nations and global funding agencies all thought their perfect strategies had saved the tiger in the wild till India found in 2004, to the world’s shock, that the tiger was long gone from Sariska, a designated tiger reserve. Unlike in the 20th century when the Maharajahs and colonial masters mindlessly killed thousands of tigers for vain pride, it is the pressure of population and the poverty around the tiger sanctuaries leading to habitat destruction and poaching that pose the primary threat.

The author, Hemanta Mishra, a forest officer in Nepal, and a tiger conservationist himself, admits candidly. “Being right is not good enough. Being smart delivers results on the ground to the real people. Saving the tiger is a kind of war. It is a war on poverty and hunger…”

Who will win the war for the tigers? The foot soldiers on the field — the guards and foresters. So poorly paid and looked after by governments. Political will is still the most important factor — as demonstrated by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s and a few monarchs in Nepal.

Lack of funding by the government will always be an eternal grudge. Faced with feeding and taking care of millions of impoverished citizens, the developing nations, where the tigers thrive, continue to neglect conservation. In such a scenario, targeted funding, which produces results on the ground, could bolster conservation.

It is interesting to read how international relations played a role in the making of the author into a tiger conservationist. As the Indians had no trust in the Americans, the Smithsonian Tiger Ecology Project had to be launched in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.

There are quite a few emotionally wrenching yet enchanting tales of capturing the man-eaters on the prowl. Here, the author apart from giving an engaging narration, reveals the deep dilemma faced by a conservationist at heart at the possibility of killing a tiger.

There is some insightful analysis on what goes into the making of a man-eater, with injury to the animal, old age topping the reasons. And in places like the Sundarbans, there is a history of man-eaters as the tigers here have been feeding on corpses for centuries.

A brief chapter throws light on the history of tigers: how they came into existence and how they are being portrayed in Asian culture in the tiger nations. Ironically, a revered animal happens to be a hunted beast as well.

May be, no one will ever be able to explain why there is so much joy in people when a man-eater is killed.

Man-eating tigers will continue to haunt those fringe villages in tiger territories. What’s more worrying and troubling is the tiger-eating men. Even insurgencies can play spoilsport, if not kill them in thousands, during the blood sport of an infamous past. Terai Arc Landscape, Nepal’s most ambitious programme launched in 2001, could have saved the tigers for at least another 100 years. Then, the insurgency led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) climaxed in 2003. Terai suffered the most.

Successful stories here and there, where the needs of wildlife conservation and the needs of local population are intricately balanced, keep alive the eternal hope that the most ferocious animal in the jungle, even if it can’t make big strides, will live on. All that the tigers need is prey, some space to hide, and water. Still, the tigers that numbered 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century have come down to 3,200. How long will they survive?

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