The cry of the tiger

TIGERS ARE BEING butchered in India. Often, one a day. But the Government had all along, except perhaps for some years during Indira Gandhi's prime ministership, dismissed the whole business of poaching as the exaggerated and alarmist view of foreign organisations. In what is seen as a brutally frank charge, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency has held the Indian Prime Minister's Office responsible for the slaughter of the big cats. It says that at least 100 of them have been reportedly killed this year alone, and the Union Government's failure (or, call it sheer disinterest) to establish a specialised unit to combat wildlife crime has emboldened poachers. The Agency is right. The Indian Board for Wildlife, headed by the Prime Minister, has not met since 1998. The reports of several committees, instituted by the Government, advocating a clear strategy to tackle this growing menace have been gathering dust, while the mayhem continues in those very areas that were carved out some quarter century ago to protect the country's national pride.

If estimates are to be believed, there are less than 2,000 tigers in the Indian jungles today. There are reservations about this number because the administration still relies on an invalidated method called pugmark census (rather than on the modern ``camera trap'' system). But one suspects that the reluctance to adopt a more scientific procedure points to the forest officials' tendency to connive with poachers and also doctor the figures. In any case, the officials can hardly be expected to perform earnestly given the terrible conditions they have to work in. They earn a pittance as salary, and are hence easily lured into corruption. Worse, even those scrupulously honest are handicapped: they have mostly lathis and outdated vehicles to chase poachers, who sport sophistry in just about every aspect, powerful cars and deadly guns included.

But, poaching cannot end unless there is a determined bid to look at the problem in a holistic way. Disappearing forests have brought man-animal conflict into sharper focus. Tigers, for instance, enter villages and prey on cattle, because they cannot find food in their shrinking habitat. Men angered by such losses are known to have poisoned these feline creatures. Admittedly, there is now a scheme to compensate rural folks, but a more permanent solution lies in stopping the almost systematic destruction of our green belts. And, ultimately, the Environmental Investigation Agency and others abroad must understand that if an animal is shot in a sanctuary or skinned alive in a zoo (one wonders what happened to the Hyderabad Zoo report?), it has the tacit support of the international community. Tiger bones and organs are still touted as the elixir of youth and virility in China and some regions of Southeast Asia. No Indian operation against poaching, however committed it may be, can be entirely successful unless there is a global effort to educate people against such myths, close down such business and punish traders who keep alive the massacre in India's wild. Combating elephant poaching, for instance, enjoyed a greater degree of success only because there was a united move - by the affected states and more so by those where a flourishing trade in ivory existed - to end such savagery. The tiger will stop vanishing into someone's bowl of soup only if the world sits up and takes note. But that also calls for some active concern on New Delhi's part.