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The beleaguered big cat

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G. ANANTHAKRISHNAN

An authoritative book about a powerful predator that is today threatened by plain human greed

THE LAST TIGER - Struggling for Survival: Valmik Thapar; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110 001. Rs. 595.This book has been launched at a time when people everywhere are in shock over the disappearance of tigers from natural reserves. The feeling of gloom is greater because Valmik Thapar, who has been tracking them for a long time, says he does not believe they can survive in the wild much longer without serious intervention. As a consequence, this may be his 'last book' on the troubled cat. In the past year, he says, the procrastination of the nation's leaders has killed nearly 400 tigers. Bureaucrats are unwilling to act citing an ongoing - and questionable - census to be completed in 2006 and this is threatening another 400 tigers. The national animal is fast losing its habitat - between 2001-03, 24,000 sq. km. of dense forest has disappeared.In an era when forest and wildlife laws are being tinkered with to enable speedy environmental clearances for 'development' projects, many would see tigers as a liability. They need large forest spaces and a prey base that can sustain them through the year. They also respond poorly to intrusion from humans. Most worryingly, tigers occupy natural spaces that are a goldmine, holding ores and minerals waiting to be extracted for profit. Yet, the tiger also has a big constituency of supporters who are working with greater vigour today for its survival. The highest court in the land is aware of its beleaguered condition and very sympathetic.

Story of survival

It is safe, therefore, to assume that The Last Tiger is not Valmik Thapar's last book. It will go down as his 14th work on a charismatic cat that has teetered on the brink of extinction but miraculously escaped the fate of the unsung Indian cheetah. The story of the tiger's survival that Thapar narrates is a remarkable one. It recalls the large scale destruction of the forest in the colonial period (dealt with in greater detail in his previous work, Battling for Survival: India's Wilderness Over Two Centuries), the first legal curbs on hunting and tree felling, and the crisis after Independence. The unravelling of forest protection is faster after the death of the nature-loving Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The author provides an insider's account that evokes surprise, shock and anger, at wild treasures left in the hands of custodians who have allowed systematic plunder. But for the intervention of the Supreme Court, far fewer tigers would have survived into the 21st century.

Failed initiatives

The Last Tiger is not a book with pretty pictures and a romantic view. It is a meticulously constructed indictment of official policy. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is severely indicted, as are official bodies entrusted with wildlife protection that did not even hold meetings for a couple of years. There are embarrassing moments when some Prime Ministers, Thapar says, dozed off at these rare meetings. These depressing scenes stand in contrast to the highpoint of protection when Indira Gandhi was in charge. She created the first strong laws to protect forests and wildlife. When she launched 'Project Tiger' in 1973, there were an estimated 1,800 wild tigers. "I believe nearly thirty years later there are about the same number alive - maybe a few hundred more," writes Thapar. So what did the project achieve?He provides the answer to this question in a critique of the failed initiatives of the MoEF. His arguments are unimpeachable because they rest on the outspoken views of Indira Gandhi. She prophetically cautioned Project Tiger in her inaugural message against letting "human intrusion, commercial forestry and cattle grazing" ruin the programme. She wanted inviolate areas for tigers. There is ample evidence here to show that except for creating a few islands of protection, Project Tiger failed to live up to her expectations. Sariska, where tigers are extinct, and Ranthambore, where over 20 tigers may have been killed, are reserves besieged by a huge population of humans and livestock. These parks are symbols of the botched programme to relocate and rehabilitate people away from national parks and sanctuaries.

State of the tiger

Through this long and sad saga, the book traces the acts of a Janus-faced forest bureaucracy. It speaks a politically correct language but tacitly allows the exploitation of forests. It is allergic to independent science but does not have a wildlife service of its own. Four decades ago, George Schaller, the American scientist who wrote The Deer and the Tiger based on his pioneering work in Kanha was blacklisted; in more recent times senior researchers such as Ullas Karanth and Raghu Chundawat have had their permission to pursue science in protected areas withdrawn for long periods. Young scientists are shown even less regard by the Ministry.Is there hope for the tiger if the country's leaders do not intervene? Thapar writes that his hopes soared when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seemed visibly happy at the sight of tigress Machli in Ranthambore in 2005. (The Prime Minister, who listened to his presentation elsewhere on the state of the tiger, intervened to get him a place on the reconstituted National Board of Wildlife.)Thapar also notes the anguish of Sonia Gandhi at new evidence of tiger and leopard skins being hawked in Tibet. He warns of an impending disaster for tigers and wildlife from any Tribal Bill that will alienate land in forests and highlights the flawed logic of a coexistence theory for people and tigers. The Last Tiger is an authoritative book about a powerful predator that is today threatened by plain human greed.


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