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Tailing man's most admired enemy...

Tigers have long stimulated human fascination with their majestic beauty and valour. But the big cat is now on the brink of extinction. Coming out with an informative book on the endangered carnivore, renowned wildlife conservationist Ullas Karanth reasons that the animal can still be saved through community-based action. SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY writes... .

A TIGER'S HEART: Dr. K. Ullas Karanth (right) at the release of the book, "The Way of the Tiger" in New Delhi.

SITTING QUIETLY in a corner, Dr Ullas Karanth has a deceptive air about him. No way would his unassuming countenance give away a hint of his impressive work profile on ecology and wildlife across the world and his long-term deep research to facilitate conservation of the man's most admired enemy - tigers - till he decides to speak in his area of expertise. And, when he speaks, he minces no words in telling you why the big cats need to be saved.

"We often stumble upon stock-taking questions like why should we save tigers when so many other urgent human problems demand our attention. Saving wild tigers in an overpopulated world means locking up productive farmland in wildlife reserves, and suffering occasional depredations by the big cat on livestock and even human beings. Yet, for over a quarter century now, we have kept up the efforts to save wild tigers. Is this rational? But, a little study would reveal that the plant and animal communities that share our planet contribute to the stability and functioning of biological and chemical cycles that make life possible for us on the earth," says the wildlife biologist.

Coming out recently with a book on the endangered carnivore - `The Way of the Tiger' - the conservation scientist with the century-old New York-based premier institution Wildlife Conservation Society, quotes an example given by well-known population biologist Paul Ehrlich to illustrate the danger of potential species losses: "the ecosystem is like an airplane in which we are passengers. We can go on removing the rivets that hold the plane's wings up, one by one, for quite a while. While no single rivet may determine when we will crash, ultimately one particular rivet surely will. Each species that becomes extinct is like one more rivet pulled out from our plane."

Though tiger poaching has been generally considered a major cause for tiger extinction, this fellow of the Zoological Society of London, however, pleads the world community to concentrate on the big cat's prey base. "Poaching is also one of the causes threatening conservation of tiger but, substantiating the animal's prey base is more important. For, without food, they are bound to die," he says.

Karanth wants to defy a much-circulated quote that "the largest contiguous wild tiger population in the world today survives in the Sundarbans delta in India and Bangladesh".

"In fact, mangrove forest is a poor-quality tiger habitat, with apparently low-prey densities. Recent studies suggest that the high tiger numbers reported are more likely to be the result of poor counting methods," states this Smithsonian Institution alumnus. Though he has seen the biggest tiger so far in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, he says, the Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra belt in the Western Ghats has perhaps the largest number of tigers in India.

Karanth also wants to sail clear of another belief that white tiger is a rare variety and hence needs to be conserved. "Actually, white tigers are genetic mutants derived by repeatedly crossbreeding the progeny derived from a single wild-caught ancestor. While white tigers are undoubtedly rather cute oddities, they have little conservation value," he adds.

Rooting for a scientific method to conserve tigers, he says, "In this book, I've tied to explain the methods that scientists use to study tigers. Rigorous methods and evaluation of the results are what set tiger science clearly apart from tiger lore, legend and hunters' tales." Karanth says, understanding the tiger's biological needs through application of science so that we can accommodate them to the extent we can in our vastly complicated agenda for human progress is a crucial part of the conservation enterprise.

The biologist calls for a desired change in human attitudes at several levels to save the big cat. "First and foremost, attitudes must change among people who live in and around tiger habitats, whose interests often directly clash with those of tigers. After the local scale, a change in attitude is required in people who control tiger habitats by foregoing lucrative exploitative practices to focus on unpleasant tasks like law enforcement and protection. Also, those Government officials whose job is to implement development projects in tiger habitats, men in business and industry must too change. Finally, those millions of consumers of products that come from the tiger habitats. They have to be aware of even things remotely associated with the conservation of tigers," he reasons. He rings these levels of attitude change by sharing what he experienced while working for his Ph.D on studying predator-prey relationships in Nagarhole National Park in his home State Karnataka in the `80s. "At Nagarhole, I had worked closely with K.M. Chinnappa, a ranger in the forestry department, who had played a dominant role in resurrecting the park during the `70s by confronting local poachers, timer thieves, squatters and illegal grazers. Even as prey and tiger populations recovered, deep antagonism had built up between the park staff and local people. Instigated by criminal elements, in 1992, this culminated into a major riot, leading to burning of forests, assault of forest staff and resignation of Chinnappa," he recalls.

In a bid to better the situation, the Wildlife Conservation Society with support from Save the Tiger Fund, carried out projects to educate the locals on the issue. The result was a success story of voluntary involvement of local youths to save the big cat. "There is ample proof that we do not need big money for tiger conservation but a community-based programme leading to mass awareness and zeal to work for the cause. Otherwise, every other thing is a waste," says the wildlife scientist. Perhaps those not living on the periphery of tiger reserves can contribute by buying a copy of Karanth's book, for the author says, every purchase of it will contribute to tiger conservation projects in India.

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