When the Tiger Task Force hands over its report to the Prime Minister on Friday evening, Dr Manmohan Singh might like to ponder over the fact that in the past year, India has lost at least 60 tigers. And that too going by Government records covering only seven protected areas. There are an additional 25 tiger reserves and 75 protected areas across the country where the plight of tigers is equally pitiful.
Fresh evidence shows that at least 22 tigers were killed in protected areas after the whistle was blown on poaching in Sariska in January this year. What this means is that even after it became public knowledge that poaching had decimated the tiger population of Sariska, Ranthambhore and Panna, forcing the Prime Minister to step in, the killings have continued with impunity.
According to data available with the Wildlife Protection Society of India, between January and July 31 this year, 22 tiger skins, 68 kg of tiger bones, 60 claws and 38 pairs of canines were seized. Besides, on January 31, a raid on notorious wildlife criminal Sansar Chand's warehouse yielded 10 tiger jaws, 60 kg of tiger and leopard paws, three kg claws and 14 pairs of canines.
Experts say that all this adds up to a loss of 100 tigers in the first half of this year. And, this is a conservative estimate. Was it consistent denial by the Ministry of Environment and Forests that has pushed tigers to the brink of extinction? Would timely action have saved the tigers? The answer to both questions is a resounding yes.
Here are four examples of how the Ministry of Environment and Forests, State Governments and Project Tiger responded with callousness to early warnings by NGOs, scientists and even officers from within the department:
In May 2004, the Director of Sariska Tiger Reserve wrote to the Chief Wildlife Warden asking for help from experts to examine evidence that the tiger numbers were troubling. No help came. By 2005 there were no tigers in Sariska.
In the monsoon of 2004, a local NGO, Tiger Watch, sent a report to the Rajasthan Government, claiming that 18 tigers were suspected to be missing from Ranthambhore. No action was taken for more than eight months. On February 24, the Additional Director-General (wildlife) and the Director of Project Tiger visited the reserve, but in their report said the NGO's report was misleading and untrue. A census in May showed at least 21 tigers were missing from Ranthambhore.
In Panna tiger reserve, the Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court said in its 2004 report that pugmarks and other signs of tigers had declined alarmingly. In its second report in February 2005, the committee called for urgent action because Panna was showing signs of going the Sariska way.
However, the Principal Secretary, Forests, of Madhya Pradesh dismissed the warning, noting: "To compare Panna with Sariska is unwarranted and unduly alarmist. The observation by CEC that tiger population has crashed due to poaching is not backed by evidence." The Madhya Pradesh Government still believes there are 34 tigers in Panna. But a poacher recently picked up by the police said he had killed five tigers there in the last two years.
In West Bengal's Buxa tiger reserve, local NGOs alerted officials that none of the 27 Royal Bengal tigers had been seen in the past year. Field Director LG Lepcha, asked for his response, wrote to Project Tiger: "... most of the 27 Royal Bengal tigers in Buxa have abandoned the sanctuary and left for forests in Bhutan."
Who will protect the tiger in India? The Ministry of Environment and Forests. But tops posts in the Ministry, crucial to protect tigers from extinction in India, have been lying vacant. Here are three slots that need to be filled immediately: Director-General of Forests, DIG (wildlife), IG (forest conservation). Reading the report will not be enough, the Prime Minister must act.
Protected Area------- 2004------ 2005------- Less
Sariska Tiger Reserve 16-18----- 0-----------16-18
Ranthambhore National Park-39----- 21-26----13-18
Kiala Devi sanctuary 6--------- 0---------- 6
Sawai ManSingh sanctuary-1--------0----------1
Palpur Kuno sanctuary-7-----------0---------- 7
Rani Durgavati sanctuary--6------- 0---------- 6
Panna TR-------------- 30-34----30-34----34 (the census remains stable but a poacher claims to have killed five tigers in the past 2 years)
Total -------------------------------------- At least 57 tigers dead