Last days of the tiger?

Last days of the tiger?

Gethin Chamberlain for the South China Morning Post , 21 February 2011

WHEN he found the bull the tiger had killed, Mangya Moghiya set to work quickly. The wily old poacher knew the tiger would be back soon, and he wished to stack the odds in his favour.

He began digging a series of holes and inserted the inverted T-shaped metal plates attached by chains to his leg traps before stamping the soil back down. Then he retired to the safety of a tree and waited.

Mangya was 55, extraordinarily thin, bald and almost deaf, but he had a lifetime of experience killing tigers in Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore tiger reserve, one of 37 national parks set up by the Indian government to protect the critically endangered animals. He knew the animal would return.

It did not take long. With a snap, the trap sprang shut around one of its paws. The animal howled and jerked backwards violently, desperate to free itself. To Mangya’s horror, the chain snapped. But instead of attacking, the tiger limped back into the forest.

It was 1am when Mangya caught up with it. He had followed the tracks to the mouth of a small valley, but was reluctant to pursue it into such a confined space.

Instead, he sought out the local farmers and demanded they send their buffaloes in to flush the tiger out. A little while later, the tiger emerged and Mangya finished it off.

The hunt had lasted for hours, in an area patrolled by forest guards employed specifically to protect the tigers. Not one tried to stop him.

Dharmendra Khandal sits in the offices of Tiger Watch, toying with a heavy iron skinning knife like the one Mangya used, as he recounts the story. He spreads his palms in frustration. This is the problem they face, he says.

Tiger Watch was established 12 years ago to stem the decline of Ranthambhore’s wildlife. In the last five years, it has helped police arrest 47 alleged poachers from the Moghiya tribe, many in possession of tiger skins and other body parts, guns and traps.  By their own admission, the poachers had killed more than 20 tigers. Yet in the same period, the authorities in the park did not record a single case of poaching.   Mangya was arrested following a tip off from a forest guard. Tellingly, he alerted Tiger Watch rather than his own department. There is a reason for this.

At the turn of the last century, there were an estimated 45,000 tigers living wild in India’s forests. By the time hunting was banned in 1972, their numbers were down to 2,000.

Last month, as China prepared to enter the Year of the Tiger, the WWF placed the animal at the top of its list of 10 key creatures facing extinction, warning there were only 3,200 left in the wild worldwide.  That figure included the 1,411 the Indian government claims are still alive inside its borders.

Few experts believe that number is true. When a tiger skin can sell for $20,000 in China, poaching remains a serious problem. Last year was the worst since 2002 for tiger deaths and even India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests admits that its way of counting tigers is so vague there may be as few as 1,165.

Either deliberately, to hide the true scale of the animal’s decline, or accidentally, through flawed methodology, even that figure appears to have been inflated.  Some conservationists believe the true number may be little more than half the official tally and that at the present rate of decline, the tiger will cease to be a viable wild species in India within as little as five years.  The reserves which still have tigers will be little more than open-air zoos. Many of those reserves are already the brink. At least six have been overrun by extremists; there are no forest guards and it is impossible to carry out any realistic count. According to the forest department,there are 16 reserves where there may be no tigers at all or the tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.

Part of the problem is that the presence of tigers is a matter of pride, both for states and individual reserves. Park directors stay for only two years, then move on, and none wants to be seen to have failed. And still the forests are vanishing as India’s burgeoning population places increasing demands on limited space.

According to Khandal, Tiger Watch’s field biologist, there are two schools of poachers: the professionals who tend to come in from Haryana and use only leg traps, and the local Moghiya tribe who prefer to wait in the trees and fire on the tiger from close range with home made guns. “The Moghiyas are criminals,” says Khandal. “They are one of the most brutal communities in India. A month ago, some of them cut off a woman’s feet just to steal her ankle ornaments. She bled to death.”

The master poachers are no less ruthless.

“They will place four or six leg traps on the route the tiger will take to reach its kill. Then they scatter small stones around them to direct the tiger into the trap, because a tiger will try to avoid small stones,” says Khandal.

“First one leg is trapped, then the tiger moves and another leg is caught too. The tiger is in pain, so it sits down.

“They have a spear on a long stick, about 10ft long. When the tiger opens its mouth to roar they thrust the spear into the mouth and the tiger starts to bleed. They do it many times. Other times they hit it on the head with a stick they have strengthened by pouring lead into the end. Everything they do not to damage the skin. Sometimes they will blind the tiger to make it easier to approach it to finish it off.”

There were 72 arrests for tiger poaching in India last year, but the only convictions (two) were for cases dating back more than 10 years. It is hardly a deterrent to poachers who may be paid as much as 20,000 rupees for one tiger.

In an attempt to stem the tide, Tiger Watch is working with the Moghiya, hiring informants for 3,500 rupees a month, setting the women to work producing handicrafts and providing education for their children

“It’s a risky job,” says Khandal. “We have four regular paid informants from this community and we give them money in return for information. The community knows who the informants are. Some of them are resisting but there are cracks in the society now. Some of them are asking why they should live in such a primitive state.”

Kesra, 45, is one of them. By his own admission, he has killed at least five tigers. He says they never had any trouble with the forest guards, a common refrain. He was arrested as a result of a Tiger Watch raid and is awaiting trial. He insists he is now reformed.

“I never had much education. My forefathers were doing hunting but now times have changed. If the tiger is gone then the forest will also be gone. The forest is only protected because of the tiger.”

His wife Sanwali, also 45, earns about 3,000 rupees a month from making baskets. She says that like the tigers, they have become the hunted.

“We are not willing to live in an atmosphere where the police are always coming after us. We had to move from here to there. Now we wish to set an example to others that this path is good and this is the path for the future.”

The Indian authorities have been unimpressed. Not long after the group revealed that tiger numbers had fallen to just 18 in 2004, officials turned up at the office of its founder, Fateh Singh Rathore and demolished it. His daughter’s shop and their restaurant were also flattened, ostensibly for operating without correct permissions, though others nearby left untouched. It was a warning.

Fateh Singh is now 75. He was the government’s field director at Ranthambhore from 1977 to 1996 and is regarded as one of India’s foremost tiger experts.

Sitting in his rebuilt office, he picks up a newspaper and stares at the WWF advert on the front which quotes the 1,411 figure.

“The numbers come from the government,” he says, shaking his head. “Maybe three or four years ago that was the number, but I think it is about 800 now.”

“They are always saying that the numbers are on the increase but they are lying to save their skins. They should tell the truth. If they have a problem they should declare it. The authorities like only praise.”

He doubts there are more than 20 tigers left in Ranthambhore.

“The field directors are responsible. They are not trying. They are too busy showing VIPs around than spending time on protection. All the popular parks are suffering from the same disease. They know they are posted for two years and then they will go somewhere else. No-one is being punished for the tigers that are being lost. Tiger Watch has caught 47 people but in that time there was not a single case of poaching reported. How could that be?

Still, he says, while there are still some tigers, there is a chance. “I am still optimistic because I feel the tiger has a lust for life. It can survive if it gets protection but you have to be very strict if you want to protect the tiger.”

The last full tiger census – which claimed 3,642 tigers – was carried out in 2001, based largely on pugmarks, a hopelessly unreliable method of counting. Satya Prakash Yadav, deputy Inspector General of the national Tiger Conservation Authority, admits it was “seriously flawed” and “not scientifically correct”.

Yadav sits behind a file-strewn desk in his Delhi office. Pictures of tigers dot the walls. There is a tie from a New York-based hunting outfitters on the bookcase, a souvenir from a conference, he explains.

For the 2008 study, he says, officials switched methods, using a mixture of camera trap results and a survey of the habitat and prey base to produce an estimate of how many tigers might conceivably have survived. But he admits problems remain.

Sixteen of the 37 reserves are listed as being in a “poor” state. It is possible, Yadav concedes, that there are no tigers there.

“We have classified some reserves as poor where there is no population of tiger or where the tiger may go extinct. It is very complex and nobody can guarantee. Despite our various milestone initiatives…the situation may go out of control in certain tiger reserves.”

Simlipal reserve, in Orissa – the fourth largest in India – is one of those.

A 2004 report, based on pugmarks, claimed that there were 101 tigers in the reserve, which surprised wildlife experts and regular visitors to the park, who reported that tigers were never to be seen. When the new figures were published last year, they showed only 45 tigers in the whole of Orissa state, which also includes those in the Satkosia reserve. Yet although the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, conceded that 40 tigers had been poached from the reserve over the previous five years, he still maintained that there 61 tigers alive and well in Simlipal alone. Something does not add up. And last year the park guards abandoned their posts in the face of repeated attacks by Maoist guerillas, leaving the tigers completely unprotected.

Then there is Panna. The 2008 report claimed that there were approximately 24 tigers in the 974km reserve. Last year it was found that there were none. And this was three years after the government had announce a complete overhaul of the system after the Sariska reserve was also found to be empty.

Despite this, Yadav says he is confident the next survey of tiger numbers will show that the population has risen to 1,500.

Luckily for the tiger, complacency is not endemic.

In the Periyar tiger reserve in Kerala, a small group of women, members of the Vasanta Sena (Green Army), venture unpaid and unarmed into the forest, determined to make life as difficult as possible for the poachers.

There are 76 of them mostly from poor families. One of their main aims is to stop the destruction of the tigers’ habitat. The sandalwoods in particular are prized by illegal loggers for their oil, which is used in medicines and cosmetics. One kilogramme of the wood can fetch 5,000 rupees.

The forest is lush and green, a gentle breeze rustling the leaves of the sandalwoods and the swaying, creaking stands of giant bamboos arcing overhead. The women pick their way among the trees. At the front is Gracykutty, 39. She has been doing this for seven years.

“We live on the fringe of the tiger reserve and we decided to protect it for future generations,” she says. “Here we breathe the best air in the world and we are dedicated to protecting it. I think if there is only one tiger left in the world in the end, it will be here.”

“If we protect the sambar and the barking deer, we are protecting the food chain and so we are protecting the tigers. If there is any damage to the tiger reserve, the tourism would be destroyed and if that happens, there will be very bad poverty here.”

How many tigers remain in Periyar is a matter of conjecture. Sanjayan, the local range officer, says there are 34, maybe 36. He says camera traps have identified 24 of them and the rest have been calculated from pugmarks. His boss, Bastian Joseph, the assistant field director, cities the official figure of 46 tigers.

Many conservationists fear that without drastic action soon, the only place the tiger will soon be found in India is in its zoos.

Inside the Royal Bengal Tiger pen at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai, Nagammal, the woman who looks after the tigers, spins a metal wheel on the wall to slide open the internal cage door. Padma, the zoo’s 15-year-old female pads through the open door, then lets out a roar and launches herself at the thick metal grille with a shuddering crash. She repeats her assault several times, roaring her displeasure. This close, it is easy to understand why the poachers are so keen to make sure their prey is securely trapped before they approach.

The zoo’s director, P.L. Ananthasamy, believes that the answer to the tiger’s decline lies in captive breeding.

“The basic game is conservation and and due course of time to take these species back to their home and release them,” he says.

Tigers breed well in captivity, but releasing them into the wild is another matter entirely and most experts agree it is fraught with difficulties.

Ananthasamy disagrees: “It is possible to release captive bred animals. We must do it gradually and ensure that the animal can survive by itself.

“We have not yet reached the stage where the tiger cannot breed in the wild but the pressure is such around the sanctuaries that the numbers are coming down. There is enough prey base for the animals to survive but the problem is the encroachers and poaching.”

Aditya Singh, 43, conservationist and tiger expert, worries that it may already be too late. Singh runs a lodge on the edge of the Ranthambhore reserve park and spends much of his time inside the park.

“I think the numbers have gone down. I think there are about 1,000 now,” he says.

What will finish off the tiger as a viable species, he says, is the final destruction of the remaining corridors of forest which link the parks together.

“There are still connections between the reserves, but in five years they won’t be there. I think the tigers have five years. They will stay in isolated pockets but they will have reached an evolutionary dead end.

“There is a view here that the forest belongs to the foreigners. For an average villager living outside the park they don’t see it as an asset. They used to be able to go in for wood but now they cannot.

“The problems for the tiger are poverty, illiteracy and overpopulation. The big problems that India has are the problems the tiger has.”

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