By Amita Singh
Tigers always fascinated me, but an understanding of tigers as a phenomenon of country’s health was accidental learning. It was a morning of October 1981 at the Sawai Madhopur railway station where I chanced to meet a person whose photograph I had seen in a newspaper two days ago.
It was Fateh Singh Rathore, the well-known tiger conservationist and the first Indian Forest Service Officer who was selected to head the Project Tiger and later received the prestigious Tiger Conservation Award.
Having found a cemented place to sit on the bench, we started discussing talking about tigers at the Ranthambore National Park. He talked so fondly about the tigers as if they were his pet cats and dogs. I did not realize then that the knowledge gained that day about the Tiger would transform my way of looking at animals in the wild.
More than thirty years later I can say that tigers do not need charity, compassion or sympathy of the policy makers, but a recognition of their primordial right to live outside their familiar habitat.
The magnificent Tiger is a victim of gruesome butchery and insatiable human desire for chivalry, heroism, and game. The species that adorns India’s tropical forests is up against the cruelest and barbaric form of human violence. It is a common knowledge that forests are safe as long as there are tigers in it. Tigers are the multifaced ‘protector of wildlife’, ‘King of the Jungle’, ‘Chariot of Goddess Durga’ and ‘symbol of ecological resilience’ conserving a deep holistic significance for India’s diversity. That is why, Tiger is called India’s national animal. Tiger is indeed the icon of India’s unique philosophy of co-existence and nature’s resilience which we refer to as ‘Panchtatva’.
Wildlife becoming extinct in the land of Shiva
Ironically, this is happening in the land of Shiva, the God, who rules the forests and preserves its wildlife. The King of the jungle is not even safe in its home where it is cordoned, drugged and hunted. The erstwhile Maharajas, Nawabs, Mughal Emperors and British Lords treated tigers as the ultimate trophies and proof of their machoism. They sole aim and mission was to see the dead Tiger in their drawing rooms instead of a live Tiger in the jungle.
Tiger hunt was a favourite pass time for the Mughal and British. Emperor Akbar was passionately fond of hunting and is known to have carried mindless raids inside jungles for large-scale hunting of tigers. His son Jehangir described Tiger as an ‘obnoxious creature’. His wife Nur Jahan loved to accompany him on hunting expeditions and is known to have killed four tigers with six bullets. Even the British pursued hunting to keep their sons “fit for duty as soldiers” From the George V to the outgoing Maharajas, the violence against the tiger is beyond anyone’s comprehension. Anne Wright’s heart-rending account of tigers reflects upon the unequal fight between the two kings (the human and the non-human) and the ultimate annihilation of the non-human species through human conspiracy.
Even the best of the hunters knew that tigers were the real invincible Kings of the jungle, and yet the Maharajas took every step to drive them to extinction. This powerful gene pool is now almost extinct as most of the Asiatic tiger species have disappeared.
The period preceding independence and a few years after that, called an interregnum of the great transfer of power, had been the worst phase of bloodshed for tigers. The Nawabs and Maharajas of 576 independent kingdoms wanted to declare themselves independent nations. They so insecure of their future that they organised hunting expeditions to get close to the British officials and gain their confidence.
For a long period kingdoms were without a central administration. Those regions that were in the bordering towns between East Pakistan and West Bengal were without governance for many months. It was very disturbing for the people, but it was devastating for tigers as they became easy prey for everyone. New travel and tourist game companies surfaced from nowhere to lead tourists inside the homes of the unprotected tigers. This period in history saw the bloodiest battle for existence for the King of the Jungle.
Documented evidence of tiger killings
There are written records to confirm that many kings with their outgoing British friends killed as many as a thousand or more tigers on an average every month. Many wildlife biologists and conservationists from the West travelled through Central India, Sundarbans and Nepal, which were rich hubs of the royal cat to record their extinction due to undeclared criminality and gruesomeness. They found that there was an organized vilification and demonization of this innocent creature to muffle the public opinion for ban on hunting.
Mahesh Rangarajan, a conservationist historian who found records of the killings of 80,000 tigers by 1925, highlights the dangerous propaganda against the poor creature. According to him, the propaganda, motivated the army officers, civil officials and traders to go for the kill. Even the administration went out of its way and facilitated hunts. A number of tiger trophies on the walls of Army Officers’ Messes are a proof of this vengeance.
By 1969 many of these bloodthirsty tales of tiger, killings started coming into public discourse, and there was an uproar in society about this treatment of the national animal. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shocked to find this and decided to bring the majestic roar back to the jungle. She banned exports of all tiger parts in 1969 and announced Project Tiger a Tiger Task Force to prevent and penalize poachers and hunters involved in the killing of tigers.
However, the story remains pathetic. After 40 years since the launch of ‘Project Tiger’, there are less than 3000 tigers left in the wild and less than 1500 remain in India’s protected reserves. Their dwindling numbers reveal the unstoppable and ravenous human urge to continue the killings despite the law.
None of the Prime Ministers after Indira Gandhi has been able to match her passion and commitment towards preserving Indian wildlife and tiger habitats. Poaching continues unabated. The poachers are better armed than forest guards and protected by politicians who share the benefits of the illegal trade.
Big cities big markets for tiger products
The largest market of tiger products functions resplendently from politically powerful towns of Lucknow to Ghaziabad and Nagpur to Khaga near Allahabad. Many raids conducted by the World Wildlife Fund for Conservation have revealed the Tiger parts from the nearby cities and towns reach Delhi. It is from here that they are smuggled to Kathmandu and Burma and reach Sangsang and Ruili the bordering towns of China.
Wildlife experts have reasons to believe that the local police, district administration, local politicians are aware of the storage and transportation of banned wildlife products. In the last few years many unlicensed, pet shops dealing in wild animal parts, exotic birds and rare reptiles have mushroomed across the Delhi-NCR region. Patparganj and Mayur Vihar in East Delhi are haven for illegally acquired wildlife products. All this is despite, animal activists crying hoarse about the trader’s high-level political connections.
The insensitive political clan and lack of governance in UP and West Bengal have undermined the goals of Project Tiger. The government’s projected land requirement in protected reserved forests would further shrink an already strained and vulnerable tiger habitat. Curiously PM Modi’s constituency Varanasi is the abode of Lord Shiva – also known as ‘Pashupatinath’ or protector of all animals.
It is time for the New Government at the Centre to streamline and reinstate a committed and holistic tiger conservation policy in India. Let’s do it now, while we still can.
Prof. Amita Singh is Chairperson and Head of the Centre for study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She is a non-compromising animal and environmental activist heading the People’s Alliance for Animal Rights and Ecological Ethics, a registered NGO to link all dispersed struggles of campaigners for animal rights and planetary justice.