Tiger, Tiger Running Out?

According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority, at the turn of the 20th century, India was home to 40,000 tigers. Today their number in the wild does not exceed 4,000. This story echoes that of other animals, such as one-horned rhinos whose population declined to fewer than 2,400 in India. The fate of some domesticated species is equally worrisome. For example, the camel population has decreased from 600,000 to 250,000 in the past few decades due to wanton slaughter for meat. The situation is akin to a “silent holocaust,” which, continuing at the same pace, will leave India with no more than 10,000 camels.

Tigers, rhinos, camels and other animals are facing the threat of extinction in India. Let me speak about tigers, which, but for a gargantuan government effort, would have vanished long ago.

I have been an animal lover since childhood, and it was only natural for me as an adult to become a wildlife activist. Tigers have fascinated me all of my life and my crowning glory moment occurred in August 2013, when I bid for and adopted a young yet-to-be-named Royal Bengal tigress at the Alipore Zoological Garden in Kolkata, the capital of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, home to the world’s second largest species of the big cats.

What began as a hobby, over the years, evolved into a matter of grave concern for the very existence of these animals. No informed wildlife preservationist in India can rest in peace in the wake of media reports and troubling statistics that allude to an enormous conservation task at hand.

In September 2013, I learned from the news that one of the largest and strongest net works of poachers in India was busted with the arrest of a notorious 65-year-old tiger parts trader, Surajpal alias Chacha, who, along with his nephew Sarju, is said to have killed 300 tigers in the past 30 years and smuggled hides, bones and skulls out of the country, particularly to China, while making millions of dollars.

This revelation was an eye-opener.  While I was always aware of a poaching problem in India, like many others I had no idea of the enormity of the crisis. Police recovered 18 kilogrammes of tiger bones, nails and skulls at Surajpal’s, who ran his operations from Delhi. The authorities also confiscated 50 million Indian rupees in cash (approximately US $100,000).

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), top investigation agency in India, and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau had been searching for Chacha since 2005, when they learned about his activities with the arrest of another infamous poacher Sansar Chand Gujjar, who is said to have traded in animal parts, having killed over 250 tigers, 2,000 leopards, 5,000 otters, 20,000 wild cats and 20,000 foxes, according to an investigative report by the Indian magazine Tehelka.

During a 2006 CBI interrogation, Chand admitted selling 470 tiger skins and 2,130 leopard skins to just four clients from Nepal and Tibet. His statement revealed a saga of wildlife genocide. For preservationists, the report read like a horror story about poachers on the prowl.

Newspaper reports further stated that Surajpal had earlier worked with Chand, earning a reputation as the best supplier of tiger skins and bones. Surajpal’s modus operandi was simple and deadly: trying to make it look like the tigers had died of natural causes, he poisoned them. The reports indicated that the poacher’s network operated across India as a syndicate, targeting forests and reserves, almost always staying one step a head of the law.

The case of Surajpal recalls memories of India’s legendary brigand from the south, Veerappan, whose legacy lives on across the country and in wildlife sanctuaries such as Jim Corbett National Park, Rajaji National Park, Sariska Tiger Reserve, Ranthambore National Park, Pench National Park, Bandhavgarh National Park, Simlipal National Park, Melghat Tiger Reserve, and the Kaziranga National Park, among others.

Surajpal set up a network of poachers, smugglers and brigands across India. According to the 2010 national tiger census, the population of Indian tigers, which was estimated at 1,706, would have been 2,500 plus, but for the illegal activities of poachers such as Surajpal. I believe that poachers like Surajpal and Chand should be tried for “wildlife genocide” and severely punished. Chand, who was terminally ill, died in March 2014 at a hospital in Jaipur, Rajasthan, while undergoing trial.

In 2013, I organized a panel in Kolkata, featuring my book The Safari: A Diary on Ranthambore. The panel was comprised of two prominent Indian wildlife conservationists, Belinda Wright, Executive Director of the Wild Protection Society of India (WPSI), and Nitin Desai, Director of WPSI Central India bureau. We discussed the dwindling tiger population in India and talked about needed conservation measures. Mr. Desai shared some counter-poaching strategies, including the Secret information reward scheme adopted by his organization and other conservation groups. The scheme involves taking into confidence and rewarding villagers and local residents for sharing information on poachers. Establishing networks of mukhbirs, or informants, from among villagers, members of various tribes and forest dwellers has already begun to pay off.

A day after our panel, Ms. Wright, Mr. Desai and myself visited the Sundarbans, the land of the Bengal tiger.  The Sundarbans National Park, Tiger and Biosphere Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is situated in the Sundarbans delta between India and Bangladesh, occupying 36,000 hectares. The Park is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, one of the most elusive creatures on Earth.

Through various community services and school activities, Ms. Wright and Mr. Desai have educated the local population about the importance of confronting poaching. Providing information about poachers is perhaps the most important aspect in tiger conservation effort in a region that is among the most in hospitable mangrove habitats in the world. Winning the hearts of local residents appears to be the most effective weapon for tiger protection.

India has made great strides in its recent conservation efforts, but there is no room for complacency. Although challenges remain immense, with the energies and abilities of conservationists like Mr. Desai and Ms. Wright, environmental activist and writer Bittu Sahgal and many others, we still have hope. I have come to realize the efficacy of community participation in such conservation programmes.

There is growing public awareness of human rights violations around the world. It is high time that we should have ‘animal rights’ on a par with human rights under the purview of law.