Set up by the British Raj to exploit vast timber resources, India’s Forest Service needs to reinvent itself if the tiger is to be saved.
WHEN THE Prime Minister set up the Tiger Task Force two years ago, there were high hopes that sorely needed reforms would finally be initiated in the way our tiger reserves and other protected areas are managed. Unfortunately, there has been little action on the ground, and the fate of the tiger has become more precarious. Even so, it is not too late to save our national animal. What it requires is the discarding of old mindsets, and the ushering in of a new spirit of transparency and determination. India’s conservation record during the last decade has been appalling, and unless there are some fundamental reforms in the functioning of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in Delhi, and the Forest Departments in the States, it is hard to see how things can improve. It is time for these agencies to shed their autocratic style of functioning and take the people of the country into confidence. From a biological standpoint, there is no reason for the Indian tiger to go extinct, for it is a species that can thrive in an extraordinary range of habitats — from the cool foothills of the Himalayas, to the hot and arid forests of Rajasthan; from the forested mountain slopes of the Western Ghats to the steamy mangroves of the Sunderbans. Add to this the other factor in the tiger’s favour: it’s a prolific breeder. A female can start breeding at the age of three and can raise several litters of three to four cubs in her lifetime. To save the species, all that we need to do is ensure protection of its habitat, and control the poaching of not just the tiger but also its prey. This should not be difficult, given that most of the important tiger habitats in India are already in the protected area network. The problem is that the missionary zeal with which Project Tiger was implemented in its early years has given way to complacency and indifference, both at the political and administrative levels. When India was hit by a surging demand for tiger skins, bones, and body parts from China and elsewhere, protection in all but a handful of tiger reserves had deteriorated to an extent where poachers could simply walk in, establish camps in the jungle, and systematically trap tigers. When confronted with evidence, the government machinery responded time and again with denial and dithering. Instead of coming down on poachers, officials invariably took the easier step of penalising the messengers — scientists and NGOs — by withholding research permits and foisting false cases.
At the same time, tigers were conjured out of thin air using the notoriously unreliable pug mark method of counting the animals. Ignoring reliable scientific methods that have been developed, highly inflated figures were put out year after year, painting a patently false picture. It took the total extinction of tigers in Sariska for this charade to be widely exposed. The damage caused has been enormous, and it is now emerging that many more reserves may have lost most of their tigers. Had there been a better, more transparent system in place, corrective action could have been taken earlier. Sadly, few of those responsible have been taken to task, and most continue in their jobs with impunity.
To make matters worse for the tiger, a concept called eco-development emerged in the 1990s ostensibly to wean away villages exerting pressure on forests by providing them with socio-economic services. Funded by international agencies such as the World Bank, vast sums of money are pumped into ill-conceived schemes that produce little or no tangible benefit for the parks or the tigers. In fact, the opposite has been true in many cases, where these ‘lucrative’ projects have diverted the attention of park managers away from their primary job of wildlife protection, leaving the field wide open to poachers. Under these schemes, the very park managers who should be resisting unnecessary development in the wilderness are put in charge of, and encouraged to go on, development sprees that have nothing ‘eco’ about them. The result has often been new roads that fragment fragile habitats, new rest houses where none are needed, and the haphazard distribution of sops to outlying villages. Meanwhile, the ‘jawans’ of the forest, the humble but crucially important forest guards, continue to languish without adequate facilities and pay. Despite the huge sums of money available under eco-development budgets, only a very small percentage is actually allocated to protection, equipment, and staff welfare. It often still falls to NGOs to provide succour to the guards, in the form of uniforms, boots, wireless equipment, and even insurance.
Today, except in a handful of reserves, our protection system is in tatters. Thousands of posts of forest guard remain vacant in all the States, leaving our treasure troves of biodiversity open round the clock to looters. Most of the guards are in their Fifties, and lack the stamina required for this tough job. Compounding this is a huge crisis of leadership. Barring some exceptions, most forest officers have no expertise in anti-poaching operations and little inclination to lead their men in the field. The poachers, on the other hand, have become ever more organised and sophisticated, operating with code names, communicating with cell phones, and retaining top lawyers for their defence.
If some parks still hold tigers in good numbers, it is because of protection systems that were established and institutionalised by visionary officers in the past, and continued by a few dedicated individuals. These officers too usually have a frustrating time, trapped in a system that offers little encouragement or support to those who toil with sincerity. As a ‘reward’ for their exemplary service, they can expect to be shunted to some useless post during the next round of transfers and, often, have all their good work undone by an indifferent successor.
The way forward
In this era of increasing pressures of every kind, a few dedicated officers here and there are not enough to stem the rot that has set in over decades. To save what is left, we need a radical revamp of the old system, starting with a separate ‘Wildlife Cadre,’ which only recruits those who want to work for the cause of conservation. For decades we have had an unfortunate system where officials are randomly reshuffled across disciplines, commonly resulting in situations where an officer who has expertise primarily in raising eucalyptus plantations is posted as warden at a wildlife sanctuary or vice versa. And, forest guards are rarely recruited from forest-dwelling communities who know the terrain intimately. In fact, they are actively filtered out through archaic rules that stipulate certain educational qualifications or height requirements for the job. Most damaging of all is the very attitude of the Forest Service, which is that of a feudal landlord. Barring a few enlightened individuals within the system, the culture of the Service is to treat citizens as either supplicants or irritants. Independent scientists or dedicated conservation organisations that have developed an expertise in various aspects of conservation are rarely consulted while drawing up management plans of sanctuaries and tiger reserves, and their access to the forests is tightly controlled.
While many government departments have reinvented themselves during the last few years, the Ministry of Environment and Forests in Delhi and the Forest Departments of the States remain deeply entrenched in an authoritarian mindset, and are distrusted by virtually all sections of society that have to deal with them. It is imperative that senior officers wake up to this reality and give their institutions a much-needed makeover. It is not only the fate of tiger that they hold in their hands, but the ecological health of the entire nation. This is a sacred responsibility that must be discharged with great diligence.
Given the urgency of our present situation, we cannot afford to leave matters as they are. India’s incredible forest and wildlife wealth deserves to be managed by progressive and well-trained professionals who truly care. Our protection systems must be revitalised, and funds that are at present squandered away on needless ‘developmental’ activities must be re-allocated to where it really counts.
Saving the tiger is not merely about saving a charismatic national icon. The tiger is the lynchpin that holds the ecological apple cart of the country together. If we allow it to go extinct, it will be the beginning of the end for our entire wild heritage, in addition to our water and food security. The tiger and its habitat received a fresh lease of life when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi established Project Tiger more than 30 years ago. Today, conservation needs another shot in the arm from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
(The writer is a wildlife filmmaker and conservationist.)