Tale of The Indian Tiger

Nikita Gupta

At the turn of the twentieth century the world of wilderness was intact and thriving. Its supreme predator securely occupied its pinnacle. The roaring population of a hundred thousand tigers crashed and fell to a shocking and scarce figure of around three to four thousand.

The English poet William Blake has written of the fierce beauty and dominion glaze of the animal.

“What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry”

Yet its fierceness and prowess have not only been ‘framed’ but also mutilated, defiled and sold-over to a horrid business of cruelty and crime against nature. Abducted from its natural habitat, the tiger population of the world has landed into greedy plates, ghastly medicine bottles, crude adornments and nasty trophies of status. Before its fall, the tiger prowled the world in nine robust subtypes or forms, three of which, the Javan, Bali and Sumatran, have become completely extinct now. Today their little number is distributed over India in the West to Southeast China, with Russia as its Northern end, spread over 13 Asian countries. The census of 1972 revealed the dwindling number of tiger population of India in the wild to have reached an all time low of 1827. With that the Wildlife Protection Act came into being and so did the all-pervasive Project Tiger; a complete ban on Tiger hunting was imposed. But despite these security measures the number further shrunk to an apparently irredeemable 1411.

What implication does the disappearance of Tiger has for the fauna?

The tiger is the apex predator of the food chain feeding on ungulates and its absence disturbs the natural organization of wild beings disturbing effectively the whole system. Other species are also threatened thus.

What has led to their downfall?

Massive increase in population in India has led to a shrinking of space for the beast, with reduction in forest coverage for expansion of roadways, rail tracks, and other development projects invading its natural home. Their habitat has reduced by 93 percent from the historic range leading also to a loss of prey. This expansion has also brought about unwanted man-animal conflict situations, where if the animal attacks the people or their cattle they retaliate by killing it.

“When a man wants to murder a Tiger he calls it sport; when a Tiger wants to murder him he calls it ferocity.” George Bernard Shaw

Poaching the majestic animal for display of power and as a status symbol remains the most destructive agency to the Tiger’s existence- Their annihilation during the age of British viceroys and Indian kings for sport laying grounds for their existential abyss.

China’s lethal hand

One over shadowing giant guileless cause for the tiger’s disappearance from its natural habitat is a constant and huge demand for tiger skin and other body parts in China.

The country’s uncanny interest in the tiger as a commodity has forged its widespread trade, smuggling and illegal hunting channels. The tiger is said to be walking gold for the crudely enormous value its various body parts hold in the black market, a look through a list of which is enough to disturb anyone with the slightest degree of sympathy for fellow creatures. Each part of the poor animal’s body is ‘utilized’ in traditional Chinese medicine and also devoured as delicious and empowering meat.

The crude trade and killings

Wildlife trade is the fourth largest illegal occupation in the world. A leader in wildlife protection in India, Belinda Wright assumed the identity of a buyer in Madhya Pradesh and was offered ‘fresh’ tiger skin in all cities, big or small. Hunters have extensive knowledge of their terrain and of the tiger’s behaviorñ they kill with deftness and are seldom caught.

If the horror of the act is not apparent yet then consider thisñ the hunters use a steel trap, prepared by local blacksmiths. These traps are placed with strategic accuracy. If a tiger walks over one of these, its paw is caught with a snap in the trap with small metal spikes. It is so strong that it is impossible for any tiger to escape from this. Once the tiger is so caught, the brutal hunter spears its neck to silence it. And then it is cruelly beaten to death with clubs. Or the iron trap holding the animal immobile, it dies without food and water while a stick is forced down its neck to stifle it. A criminal recently nabbed in Bijnor admitted to have poached tigers using ‘poisoned pills’, the consumption of which kills the tiger. Bullets leave a hole and the skin is damaged, becoming ‘worthless’ for sellers.

Conservation and the government

With the Wildlife Protection Act in place and under Project Tiger, large forest covers were secured as Tiger Habitats. Corridors were developed, across different regions, to enable free roaming and intermingling of tigers in a wide landscape ensuring health and genetic diversity. Besides, tigers are solitary creatures and tend to wander long distances in search of prey, and their strongly territorial nature demands the freedom and mobility. Reserves were classified into core and buffer with the core forming the essential tiger territory with no human interruptions. Village communities were relocated to buffer areas or further out and so regulated as to avoid conflicts. The Tiger Census report of 2008 listed tigers inhabited forests into seven central domains – Shivalik-Gangetic Plains, Central Indian Landscape Complex, Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats, North-Eastern Hills, Brahmaputra Plains, and Sunder bans. There are a total of 41 Tiger Reserves in India.

Hope for the Tigers!

While tiger population in the rest of the world continues to dwindle, Indian Tiger population figures made a hopeful ascent. The Tiger census report released in January this year stated a surprising 30% increase. While there were a total of 1,706 in 2010, the number climbed to 2,226 in this report with persistent and sincere conservation efforts and upkeep, awareness programmes by the government, respective forest department, NGOs and wildlife protection organizations. Significantly, this number constitutes 70% of the world’s total, placing also a certain responsibility now to sustain the glorious legacy.

Closer home

The cross-national Terai arc encompassing Tiger Habitats across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and Nepal forms an essential functional artery. The major Tiger conservatories in Uttar Pradesh, covering a total area of 2381 kilometers, are Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in Bahraich, Dudhwa National Park and Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Lakhimpur Kheri District, all part of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. Corbett National Park falling into Uttarakhand, the conservationists and government of Uttar Pradesh made a move towards securing Pilibhit as a reserve, so the region’s tiger population could enjoy the protected status with all the ensuing benefits. Last year it successfully attained the status of a Tiger reserve; the largest in U.P. while formerly it was a prominent timber yielding forest division. It is connected with the Terai-Bhabar forests of the Surai range in the Northwest, and with Kishanpur Wild Life Sanctuary in the Southeast. It also provides connectivity to Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, and with Kishanpur, through the Lagga-Bagga forest block, and Tatarganj area of North Kheri, that are all the prominent forests and wildlife domains. All of these afford modest tourism activities, and are host to healthy, promising populace. However, the narrow forest cover of Katerniaghat sanctuary has been restricted by railway and road tracks. Pilibhit still bear marks of the timber trade with roads forming networks like planned city. The forest was also transformed to facilitate timber growth, wild vegetation having been removed. In the area around the reserve 3,34,000 people live in villages. Avoiding man-animal conflict becomes a major issue here, so does ensuring the rights of the forest communities. The Pilibhit Tiger population has thrived in the past with minimal support or privileges of a protected area, but the decline in numbers in recent reports has raised concerns.

The means of Tiger estimation

Earlier the pugmark technique was used to count the number of tigers in an area- each tiger leaves a unique one. Today though the more fool proof and technological methods are used. Cameras have been installed in all major corridors, reserves extensively. The camera trap technique involves the use of motion sensing cameras. Each tiger has a unique pattern of stripes, much like human fingerprints, that are used to identify and estimate. Monitoring is made easier by this method. In Pilibhit reserve itself camera trapping and line transect survey are used to figure prey density for Tiger. The pugmark indications establish a counting of 32 tigers for the year 2013; Year 2007 pugmark counting ñ 36 tigers; 40 in 2010. Also the camera trapping gave the figure of more than 23 tigers in 2013, nine of them being females, thirteen males and one young tiger. The World Wildlife Fund has been greatly influential in bringing about improvements and large-scale prominent changes in India’s tiger conservation scene. A special study done by WWF in Pilibhit reserve in 2013 that employed more than 2810 camera traps for night, more than 70 camera trap stations used yielding the result as Density of Tiger per 100sqkm in the forest being 4, covering an area 1200 sq. km.

Tiger deaths in recent years have been caused by multiple reasons. The data provided by Akhtar Mian Khan, President of Turquoise Wildlife Conservation Society, lays out the following: one male died in a territorial fight, one suffered from canine distemper virus while a female was poached in 2013. Poisoning by pesticides like DDT has caused the deaths of five tigers in recent years in the reserve. Forest officers suspect that poachers may be behind third or it may be that the villagers retaliate due to the threat posed to their lives and cattle by the animals.

Threats to Tigers

In January this year, nine poachers were arrested from Pilibhit Tiger reserve while more were recently captured from Bijnor. It is an unsafe zone for tigers due to its proximity to Indo-Nepal border through which they find an easy escape. Despite alerts by conservationist organizations the forest authorities and police failed to act. Locals, mainly the herd-raising tribes called `gaddis’ who are led by poachers in Uttarakhand, kill Pilibhit Tigers. Organized groups, many of whose members are repeat offenders, commit the crime. A two-three year imprisonment and fine is not as effective deterrents in the face of profits and little probability of getting caught. A major road development project along the Nepal border has cast a limiting shadow over the tigers’ existing habitat.

Technology is more reliable than people

Even though GPS tracking and radio transmitters that are placed in the animals for surveillance greatly aid their protection from poachers, monitoring their whereabouts and behavior, they are at the same time very penetrative and the use of tranquilizer shots is harsh.

It is not part of a true culture to tame Tigers, any more than it is to make sheep ferocious.
– Henry David Thoreau

Even as posts flood across social media protesting and urging to denounce the Yulin’s dog meat eating festival, tiger farms in China breed the fearless powerful predator in dingy crowded spaces as a commercial unit doomed to impotency. These animals are incapable of surviving in the wild. Many suffer and die of contagious diseases. The ghastly pitiable conditions of the animals in these farms have aroused anger and a worldwide cry to put an end to them. In one appalling incident a celebration at the house of a wealthy official had the guests killing tigers and then eating them. It has become an abominable symbol of prosperity for the Chinese high class. As long as the demand for tiger in China continues, the animal in the wild is never safe.

World Tiger Day

The practice was started in 2010 to raise awareness about the conservation of this charismatic magnificent beast. It is observed on 29th July. The national animal of India, it has commanded certain awe and respect, a religious and cultural symbol through ages. Its been voted the world’s favourite animal. Are its inspiring ferocity, power and enigma to remain elusive to the coming generations? Its vigor, life and beauty doomed to rest in images only? Penetrating the rigid governmental frameworks is not easy. They do not allow welcome newcomers as they elicit a level of unwanted transparency for them. Many national-international organizations are behind India’s conservation movement. TRAFFIC, WWF, the National Geographic Big Cats Campaign are some forums one can align with to do their bit.

In a contrasting couple of events, as people are asked to be responsible and aware about the issue, a political leader recently disrupted and violated the rules and harmony of the Pilibhit Reserve, asserting his VIP status, misbehaving and fighting with the staff over lodgings in the famous ‘chuka’ spot, Pilibhit.

While yet officially unaccounted but expected to be present in further numbers, around eight new cubs were spotted in the reserve on cameras lifting the despair lent by the earlier reports of decline. Even as we struggle to find good governance and are promised the tide of ‘better days’ that is to ascertain the silent citizens of the wild are accounted for.

The being: Tiger trivia

The largest member of the cat family with its power and strength it dominates the jungle and is known to take prey animals twice its size.

A descendant of the sabre tooth cat, Tigers depend heavily on their sharp canines. Old Tigers that have lost them sometimes become man-eaters failing to take prey of their choice or starve to death.

The Tiger does not harm humans otherwise. Though his territorial urge may only assert you leave his turf. They are solitary creatures and aggressively scent marks their domain to ward off rivals.

They are nocturnal beings and travel long distances to find a prey. A Bengal Tiger can eat 21kg of meat in a night and can kill the equivalent of 30 buffaloes a year; its majestic roar can travel as far as two kilometers.

The most feared predator it relies on stealth taking its prey by surprise.

Tigers never fight over a kill with others of its kind, they gently wait turns at eating and the females and cubs are allowed to lead.

The tigress raises the cubs by herself looking after, fiercely guarding and feeding them till maturity for some two years when they separate.

Writer is a student and her passion is painting

(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 2 Issue 16, Dated 05 July 2015)

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