Thursday, September 13, 2012

An Eye on the Tiger

Yesterday, I read a piece on Facebook on tiger conservation. One of the links had an interesting line, as part of the Save the Tiger initiative. “Humans encroaching on tiger habitat”.  Wow! There’s some MasterPlan to life, that I haven’t seen, that clearly demarcates territorial rights to different species, and human beings seem to be the perpetual runner-up in a choice between any other species and them (I’d have said Andy Murray-like, but he killed that quip recently – I’m happy for him).

Its really nice being out in the jungle, mountains, beaches,  and the Hard Rock Café when there’s a live band.  There’s something beautiful about nature (I include music in this list) that’s calming and breath-taking simultaneously. But this one’s about the jungle and the rock star of the jungle – the tiger.  In our context,  very Indian, this beautiful and unique, cat.  I wanted to quote William Blake’s tiger poem, except William Blake is the inspiration for the psycho in “Red Dragon”.  For those who missed out, that was the first Hannibal Lecter book by Thomas Harris – Bill Graham seeks Hannibal’s help in tracking down the Red Dragon.

I love tigers in the jungle. My natural instinct in a zoo has always been to gravitate first to the tiger pen, even though it’s a bit like watching Samson in chains with a hair cut.  But watching them loose in the jungle it the real deal.

Above are two photographs taken on my last visit to Ranthambhore (2008).  I’d gone on work to meet the Chief Warden to discuss some stuff and as we leaving at dusk, this tigress walks across the car park (the picture on top) about 5 yards in front of us. We followed her in the Warden’s jeep. At some point she turned and ran towards us. We backed the jeep up….she was running to be with her cubs who were somewhere behind us. She was about 4 yards across the road when I took the picture beneath. Both were taken on the phone camera. I didn't have much time to react, so they aren’t great photos.

The million dollar poser is – how come after all the millions of dollars, equipment, public pressure and dedicated conservationists, the tiger is still a much threatened species vis-à-vis extinction?
Let’s safely assume that :

  1. the Chinese (and many other Asians, so I’m now politically correct) aren’t going to stop believing in the mythical properties of the tiger’s anatomy. The Chinese are creating a run on the elephants as well (recent article on organized crime tusker deaths in Africa). Maybe its time to campaign there about the mystique of rabbits instead, to save the tiger and the elephant. “Millennium of the Rabbit”.  (There’s another school of thought on commercially farming tigers, elephants for such needs – like we do with cows and chicken – but I won’t dwell on that here). 
  2. Human beings are naturally greedy – it’s their animal instinct.

Here’s how things work in the save the tiger campaign – simple version:
  • .           A National Park is declared
  • .       No industry is allowed to be established within a 100 km (it could be more) of a zone like this. Passive smoking from industrial pollutants ain’t good for animals – never mind if the trees thrive on carbon dioxide through the day.
  • .       Human encroachments in the zone are evicted (there’s some new law that’s slowed this process down a bit, but the net result is the same – Resettlement - except the likes of Ms Patkar won’t be fasting in protest for these guys.)  There are some settlements around the main sanctuary. In Ranthambhore, this effectively means just across the road from the boundary.
  • 4.        Forest guards then patrol the jungle to ensure the safety of animals

What happens next?

Protection zones created by law
  •           interfere with the ability of the residents in these villages to graze cattle and collect firewood;
  •    There is a no industry zone within the radius around the park, so alternative jobs aren’t available in the vicinity, the young people migrate to Jaipur at the first opportunity and then live in slum there. So their direct economic life is affected - screwed on what used to be normal life  + fewer jobs in the neighbourhood.  Why? Because of the tiger.
  •    Plans afoot to relocate these communities from the Park and its immediate vicinity. You see there’s pressure now for resources in the jungle, so the humans have to find their food elsewhere.

Result: Economic deprivation for the already marginally earning,  no jobs in the neighbourhood (no industry allowed) – go elsewhere is the push.
  1.       All revenues from the Parks go the Consolidated Fund of India or some central govt kitty.
  2. Private sector hotels/tourism employ skilled workers from elsewhere. Ranthambhore is a classic case in point.  The forty plus larger hotels in the vicinity largely employ skilled people from elsewhere. The drivers of the authorized park jeeps that take you around are also from elsewhere. It takes about two months to learn how to drive a car, and clearly local villagers can’t make the transition from bullock-cart to car….er, that seems to the visible outcome.

Result: The now "criminal" population (they’re illegal human encroachers on tiger habitat)  gains jacksh## from the tiger reserve plus has their daily life disrupted. (step out a little distance from Ranthambhore and there isn't much to graze at, so the forest it is).

Enter Sansar Chand (he’s the brigand that got caught) and buddies. He says, " Mate, game bajana hai, uska. Rokhda milega". (Need to hunt, will give you money). Deal struck.  The locals, who’ve lived in the jungle, probably know the tiger’s daily routine best (why aren’t they the forest officers?).

Exit tiger, locals make some money at last. Locals understand the forest better than anyone else so they're damn good at what they do. Tiger poaching earns them something while Mr Touchy Feely "save the tiger" rules, propagated by a large chunk of conservationists and enacted by govt, screws them. If the tiger vanishes, they may hope, at least their life could go back to normal. Plus they made some money in the process.

Net result: The Tiger Vanishes! Headlines! More Forest Patrol needed! Rehabilitation of forest people sucks, blah blah blah, some more international conferences (they will be held in Singapore and London, not at Kanha National Park),  pledges of millions of dollars of funding for meaningful things like satellite tracking, electronic collars, better guns and training for forest guards etc.  If I were poaching a tiger with an electronic collar, I’d just remove the collar and put in on another animal, so the blokes on the backroom (some BPO outfit in Bengaluru or Gurgaon) still thinks its on the prowl.

So what’s the alternative?
The King Kong (I'm using a pop phrase here, no disrespect intended) Gorillas in Uganda actually grew in population when....surprise, surprise...a direct toll fee per visitor went directly to in-forest communities. Suddenly, making sure King Kong Lives helped find resources for these guys to better their lives. Costa Rica, South Africa - I gather have similar win-win policies that are directly helping.

Ranthambhore gets about 125,000 visitors per season, that’s the park capacity. They’re all wildlife enthusiasts who’ll wake up every morning on a winter’s day at 5 am to make sure they get to the park at dawn and spend the whole day in the Park barring the lunch break…that’s for the blokes who run the Park, not the tigers. So there are typically a few daylight hours not available for viewing due to working hours constraints…..anyone hear of a shift change?  A typical three day visit (that’s normal) would set back an average visitor at least about Rs 5000 per day.  A small royalty to communities won’t dent the budget of this crowd.  It could means hell of a lot to the communities in and around the park.

In case you’re not convinced yet, let me pose this situation to you.

I wanna reclaim precious species that grow where your house is in - Malabar Hill,  Defence Colony, Manhattan, Mayfair Gardens, Monte Carlo (tick appropriate box). All visitor fees are mine.'s some money, please relocate to Johnston Atoll and learn fishing.  Johnston Atoll may have welcoming hosts like Marine La Pen, Geert Wilders or Raj Thackeray.

What's your reaction in such a context? “If the species is extinct, my life is safe” or “hey, I helped preserve beauty on this planet”?

My case rests. 

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