A century ago more than 80,000 tigers roamed Asia. Because of trophy hunting and habitat loss fewer than 4500 exist today. The newest threat is poaching. Ironically, with economic success and prosperity in Asia, the demand for traditional oriental "tonics" and "remedies" using body parts of endangered species has skyrocketed. A live tiger is precious and priceless, but to them a dead tiger is worth $100,000. The Chinese revere the strength and power of the tiger, but are "revering the tiger to death."
According to the Fall 1997 Western Canada Wilderness Committee newsletter, "China has hunted the South China tiger from an estimated population of 4,000 in the 1960s down to a pitiful 20 today." Pressure has switched to the Bengal tiger, whose numbers have dropped from 30,000 after World War II to less than 3,000 today. It is estimated that China is importing 300-400 poached Bengal tigers a year from India, and Korea another 200-300 from India and elsewhere. The situation is indeed alarming and the sooner remedial measures are found the better it is.
Why save tigers ?
The Tiger is a beautiful animal. But that is not the only reason we should save it. It is time to realise that when you save the Tiger, you save the forest and in turn secure your food and water security. The Tiger cannot live in places where trees have vanished. In such places, the rain becomes a flood, killing people and destroying homes. It takes away the precious soil, leaving behind a wasteland. The soil jams up our lakes and dams, reducing their ability to store water. By destroying the Tigers' home, we not only harm Tigers, but also ourselves.
There is a very direct link between saving Tigers and saving ourselves. The Tiger thus is the symbol for the protection of all species on our earth, from the tiniest mosquito to the largest elephant, from birds and flowers to crocodiles and frogs. This is why we call the Tiger an apex predator, an indicator of our ecosystem's health.
When the British left India, it left behind a Forest Service which looked after the huge forest areas of India. Every politician of independent India made this service subservient to the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service. According to well known Tiger expert Valmik Thapar, "As far as dedication and commitment by forest officers to protection is concerned, they require a political clout, the political assurance that someone is interested in them. That is going to happen only when there is a dedicated Ministry and a dedicated Police force."
Before Project Tiger was launched in 1972 there was no effective mechanism in India to govern wildlife and forests. Project Tiger is a project of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. This project survived and was successful because we had people like Indira Gandhi and Dr.Karan Singh spearheading. They believed it was important to save India's forests and Tigers and they had political clout. If something happened in a national park or to a tiger, there would be a flurry of phone calls from the Prime Minister or Cabinet minister. So that era witnessed a success in terms of the Project. \
Today, the Project has no power over state governments. It has become akin to a Bank, it disperses money and that's all. The Panning Commission allocated Rs.16 crores ( USD 4 million) to Project Tiger at last count. This money goes to 27 Project Tiger Reserves. The Director of Project Tiger passes cheques after examining proposals from the states. He can advise but he has no powers. " Project Tiger needs to be reformed and restructured in the 21st century" says Valmik Thapar.
Meanwhile, many organisations and well meaning people have come forward and are working dedicatedly to save the big cats. Consider the case of Anthony Marr, a Canadian who is working with WCWC . With a grant from CIDA, Marr is helping Kanha National Park in India safeguard its tiger reserve. In a land where women must walk several kilometres to collect firewood, 90,000 villagers living in the buffer zone surrounding this park eye its potential fuel and grazing land with envy.
"The park is like a feast laid out on a table surrounded by hungry people who are forbidden to touch," says Marr.
The solution? Look after the people so that they will look after the tigers. Partnered with Tiger Trust India, the project is setting up free medical clinics and schools, building community bio-gas plants to show a practical alternative to firewood, and developing training and education programs for park guides and visitors, as well as village teachers, students and their families. "The result will be more than just a change in local people's attitudes towards tigers and parks. It will include a changed, more sustainable way of life. "Marr believes that no one should have the privilege of lack of responsibility. "What excuse will we give our children if we stand by, do nothing, and watch the wild tigers go extinct?"
Today in India we have people of the stature of Valmik Thapar, Kailash Shankala and Billy Arjan Singh all of whom have single-handedly championed the cause of saving the big cats. No one has done more for the Indian Tiger than Valmik Thapar. Thapar has provided new glimpses into the striped animal's obscure behaviour. Holding the distinction of being the first Indian to present a documentary on the BBC on Tigers, Thapar has spent more than 25 years tracking tigers and trying to preserve their population. Director of Ranthambhore Foundation, Thapar is also on the committees of many organisations.
Tiger Tracking :
Tracking Tigers is not all fun and excitement; often it is about as thrilling as land surveying - painstaking map and compass work. But there are rewards for entering the secret world of Tigers. Adult tigers are solitary animals that establish their territories in areas with enough prey, cover and water to support them. The difficulty of locating prey in tiger habitat makes it more efficient for tigers to hunt alone. As a result, they do not tend to form social groups like lions. A female tiger and her cubs are the exception to this, and will form a family group for 2 to 3 years, until the cubs are able to fend for themselves.
The territory of a tiger usually ranges in size from about 10 to 30 square miles (26-78 sq. km). The size of a tiger's territory depends on the amount of prey available. Tiger territories are not exclusive. Several tigers may follow the same trails at different times, and a male's territory usually overlaps those of several females.
Both male and female tigers spray bushes and trees along their route with a mixture of urine and scent gland secretions. This is a way of declaring their territory. They also leave scratch marks on trees, and urinate or leave droppings in prominent places.
Even in areas of prey abundance, the tiger has to work hard for its food since all its prey species have highly evolved systems of self-preservation which the tiger must beat. The regulates, the hoofed herbivores, which constitute the main food of the tiger, have a highly developed sense of smell and reasonably keen senses of sight and sound. Whether living singly (as a sambar does) or in herds (like the chital, nilgai and gaur), they are constantly vigilant as they move, forage or rest. Herd security and leadership is provided by the matriarchs who keep a close watch while the herd is foraging or resting. They constantly shift their muzzle to face the breeze in order to catch scents and funnel their ears in different directions to catch sounds. On apprehension of danger, the first alarm is signaled by stamping a forefoot. If on further assessment, the danger seems real and imminent, a vocal alarms is sounded. Finally, the matriarch provides the lead and the herd drifts, scampers or bolts.
It is true that there are many problems facing forests India. Saving the Tiger involves making difficult decisions, decisions we have been putting off for 20 years. It also means relocating forest - dwelling peoples in a more humane fashion and abolishing timber and other forest product exploitation from critical Tiger habitats.It may be a dream, but I hope some day India will have an exclusive service fashioned after the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. This is a formidable force supported by a fleet of vehicles including helicopters for patrolling. They have all the necessary surveillance equipment, weaponry and most important, the funds to support their activities.
If we act rationally and deploy our resources wisely, there is still time to save the Tiger.