A seven-point plan that can bring the big cat back from the brink of extinction

India was once the only home to the world’s “big four” cats — the lion, tiger, cheetah and leopard. It also played host to over 13 per cent of global avian species, an impressive number of mammalians and an enviable presence of Lepidopterans (a large order of insects that includes moths and butterflies).

However, once the Mughals, the British bureaucracy and India’s feudal aristocracy established the hunting of animals to be the ultimate symbol of manhood and nobility, it was only a matter of time before several species became extinct. The earliest recorded extinction was that of the Himalayan Mountain Quail in 1876, followed by the cheetah, when the Rajah of Korwai in northern Madhya Pradesh shot the last three (a mother and her two cubs) on November 24, 1947. Today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, nearly 84 bird species are endangered while among mammals, the tiger is teetering on the brink of extinction.

The common Indian is least concerned whether the tiger survives or perishes. Nor does he care about the consequences of global warming or the diminishing green gene pool and biodiversity, which are the key to human survival. It is elected governments that have to be bothered about this but they seem equally untouched. The one person who had foreseen this apathy by both the common man and the politician in India towards natural habitats in general and our wildlife in particular, was Field Marshal Archibald Percival Wavell, the Viceroy of India.

In his Personal Journal, after dinner with the famous Jim Corbett in December 1946, he once wrote: “His (sic; Jim Corbett) talk on tigers and jungle life is of extraordinary interest and wish I could have had more of it. He has rather pessimistic views on the future of tigers....and that in many parts of India, tigers will become extinct in the next 10 to 15 years... his Chief reason is that Indian politicians are no sportsmen and tigers have no votes, while the right to gun licence will go with a vote.”

Revival audit

In our post-Independence milieu, what a damning and a prophetic bit of crystal-gazing that was.

By 1963, an international gathering of conservationists accepted Indian naturalist E.P. Gee’s conservative estimate that India had only about 4,000 surviving tigers. A decade later, most experts believed that the tiger had crossed the threshold of a viable population comfort-zone and set about encouraging and monetarily supporting WWF International to launch “Project Tiger.” As many as 2,000 delegates from 177 nations are gathered in Bangkok since March 3 under the aegis of CITES to help stamp out international trade in endangered species, their main focus understandably being on the tiger. A lot has been spoken at the gathering and more will appear in print but that is as far as the world community will go. Having said that and admitting that India boasts of being home to about 70 per cent of surviving tigers in the world, do I have a feasible plan of action for the species assured survival?

Yes, and here it goes:

(a) through an ordinance, place all tiger reserves and contiguous sanctuaries and protected/notified forests in the country, together with all their current administrative assets and liabilities, under the existing National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for a decade. Offset the loss of revenue to States arising from this ordinance for the period of its operation, through special budgetary allocations.

(b) concurrently, bring the NTCA under the Prime Minister’s Office.

(c) hold an annual “tiger revival audit” by an independent body of three to five experts, drawn from within and outside the country. Induct 30 per cent new members to the audit team each year and retire an equal number from the previous team.

(d) the Prime Minister must take the annual audit findings as fresh inputs, for mandatory implementation and to keep Parliament informed.

(e) place a moratorium on de-notifications and or alteration of boundaries of existing national parks, tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and notified forests both by Parliament and by State legislatures, through the same ordinance.

(f) enact stringent legislation to deal with poaching

(g) create a “save the tiger caucus” (in the phraseology and practice of the U.S. Capitol Hill) in both Houses of Parliament and State Legislatures, to regularly monitor results and progress on recommendations of the revival audit and insist on midcourse correction when circumstances so demand.

Emperor Ashoka chose the Asiatic Lion as the symbol of India’s nationhood. Twenty-two centuries later, the Democratic Republic of India placed the Royal Bengal Tiger on a similar pedestal as the national animal. Let us arise to save both.

Let all Indians be fired up by the optimism of Dame Jane Goodall, the British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and U.N. Messenger of Peace, who, when asked by an interviewer in September 2009 if she believed there was “hope for animals and their world,” said: “At one time (the 1980s) there were just 12 Californian Condors [the largest North American land bird and on the verge of extinction] in the wild and one in captivity. Now there are 300. This bird would have gone but for a small group of people who would not give up. As long as we have people like that, there’s hope for the future.”

That spirit alone can assure the tiger’s passage into the 22nd century.

(Baljit Singh is a retired Lieutenant General of the Indian Army.)