STEPHANIE NOLEN

The failing fight to save India's tigers

RANTHAMBHORE NATIONAL PARK, INDIA — The Globe and Mail

A 'Royal Bengal Tiger' gestures inside its enclosure at Alipore zoo in Kolkata, on June 10, 2008. The World Bank launched a joint project with conservation groups and Hollywood to help reverse the dramatic decline of wild tigers in Asia, in what is seen as the single most important act to save the Big Cat. (DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images)

Fateh Singh Rathore's body lay on ice in the great room of his house at the edge of this park on the day he died a few weeks back, and streams of people poured in to pay emotional respects to a father figure, one of the giants of India's conservation movement.

The house grew calm only late in the night, when the grieving family at last lay down to rest for a few hours before the cremation. But the quiet was shattered before dawn.

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A tiger crept from the jungle to within 50 metres of the house, and let loose three bone-shaking roars. "It was a heart-moving farewell his animals were trying to give him," Mr. Rathore's son Goverdhan said wistfully the next morning.

Well might the tigers lament, for with the passing of Mr. Rathore, they have lost a dedicated champion at a time when their own future is ever more imperilled.

Mr. Rathore ran this park for decades, and turned it into India's showpiece tiger reserve. But eventually his relations with government soured over what he saw as a failure to do enough to protect tigers, and he left the Forest Service to start his own organization, Tiger Watch. When, in 2004, they blew the whistle on systematic poaching in Ranthambhore, an enraged Forest Service banned Mr. Rathore from his beloved park.

He was permitted back only two days before he died. That morning, he and his son came upon a pair of courting tigers, throaty in their mutual interest, each of them at least 120 kilograms of rippling muscle and tawny fur.

Mr. Rathore's battle for this park is, in many ways, a writ-small version of all that is wrong with India's tiger conservation effort: a story of good intentions pitted against a fiercely protective but incompetent and incapable bureaucracy.

The tiger, of course, is one of the planet's most endangered animals. Three of its nine species have been wiped out, a fourth exists only in zoos. India is ostensibly home to nearly half the world's remaining population of some 3,200 animals. Here the tiger is the subject of a thousand years of scroll paintings, epic poems, sculpture and classical dance. They are dreaded as "man eaters" for their brutally swift ability to drag off unsuspecting farmers, but have proven little match for poisoned carcasses left out by fearful villagers, or poachers.

A century ago, when Rudyard Kipling created the scheming tiger Shere Khan, who stalked a jungle much like this one, there were an estimated 40,000 tigers in India's forests. The government announced Monday the results of a new population estimation: 1,706 tigers. That was a gain of 12 per cent over the population counted in the same area in 2006, and included a further couple hundred tigers found in areas that had not been surveyed previously.

A jocular Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment and Forests, announced the new numbers to a hall packed with international delegates from all the tiger-range countries, environmentalists and conservation funders such as the World Bank. "We have reason to feel satisfied with what we have done," he said.

But even the government's own experts expressed alarm as they announced the figures. While they say they found more tigers (through camera-trapping, radio tracking and other means) in the most sophisticated and extensive such exercise ever undertaken in the world, the amount of the country where tigers were found was found to have declined dramatically the past four years. "Tiger occupancy areas declined from 93,000 to 72,800 square kilometres and this is extremely alarming," said Y.V. Jhala, a biologist who co-directed the census.

Also troubling: fully a third of the tigers counted are living outside the country's 39 tiger reserves - many of them in regions with high population density - which makes it critically difficult to protect them.

While Mr. Jhala described an impressive process of forest "sampling" in nearly 30,000 different spots, the improved tiger count raised some eyebrows in the conservation community. Most of the country's independent conservationists say the true tiger population figure is likely no higher than 1,000. "The minister and the Forest Service needed some good news today, they needed good numbers," one environmentalist said with a shrug after the announcement. But the continual reports of tiger deaths, disappearances and clashes with humans mean the population can only be declining, these experts say.

"We have no indication that wild tigers are any safer than they were in the past by any stretch of the imagination," said Belinda Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, who has worked on tiger protection for 40 years.

India's intense population pressure, and the hunger for land and resources, make conservation much more difficult than in, for example, southern Africa. The country's tiger reserves are largely empty of cats, but full of people - 50,000 families live within them. The National Tiger Conservation Authority has a scheme to move them out, returning habitat to the tigers, but relocation is voluntary, and only 3,000 families, according to government (or 91, according to Ms. Wright and other environmentalists) have taken the government up on a relatively lucrative relocation package in the past three years.

In the heart of Ranthambhore's tiger zone there is a Hindu temple that draws more than 300,000 pilgrims a year - many of whom walk or even crawl to it through the park, as an act of devotion. Local women stroll out of the forest with huge bundles of illegally harvested firewood on their heads, past forest wardens lounging on chairs playing cards. The tigers draw international tour groups, and domestic tourism is exploding - more than 90 per cent of visitors to Ranthambhore are Indian - and the result is that when a tiger does venture out of the jungle cover, it must thread its way through a huge tangle of safari vehicles and near-hysterical amateur photographers. (Perversely, though, these are the safest tigers: poachers avoid the heavily-travelled tourist circuits.) The country's booming economy means this is unlikely to change. "For state governments, tiger conservation is not a priority, it's an inconvenience - it gets in the way of mining, industry and development," Ms. Wright said. "There is a general resistance to declare and protect critical wildlife areas because these are the last bastions of natural resources."

Last month, for example, the chief minister in this state, Rajasthan, announced 60 new mining licences around the Sariska Tiger Reserve, where five tigers were recently relocated after the resident population was poached to extinction. He said there would be no "buffer zone" around the reserve - in violation of federal law. That, conservationists say, makes it impossible to protect "corridors" that would allow tigers - which range widely across individual territories - to travel between their isolated patches of protected land.

Even within the existing reserves, tigers face critical threats. Foremost is construction, according to biologist Dharmendra Khandal, who now runs Tiger Watch in Ranthambhore. The Forest Service has become an enthusiastic builder. Here, for example, they are putting in dams, buildings and roads. Dr. Khandal says they don't know or don't care how they are damaging the fragile ecosystem, but he has no doubt why they are building. "Construction makes them money - if it costs 10 rupees to build something, they charge for 20 rupees."

Other conservation figures echo this charge: While tiger tourism brings in plenty of cash, it is much more difficult for corrupt officials to skim money off of tourism dollars than it is large-scale infrastructure projects or development deals.

Forest officers are meant to be the first line of defence against poachers. Government and critics agree the service is vastly under-resourced - with just 10,000 officers for 39 different reserves, and 3,000 unfilled posts. In 2008, the central government allotted $11-million (U.S.) for a special Tiger Protection Force - but state governments have yet to hire anyone.

The market for tiger parts, meanwhile (most of it in China, where tiger bones and organs are used in tonics or aphrodisiacs), grows only more lucrative as tigers become more scarce. Prices have tripled in the past three years, Ms. Wright said. A single tiger can be sold, in parts, for up to $50,000.

But the Forest Service has a desperately poor record on poaching. Consider Panna National Park, which in 2002 had an estimated 35 tigers. Local biologists and whistleblowers warned of increasing poaching; park management insisted the tiger population was booming - and laid increasingly bizarre charges against the critics. In 2009, the truth came out: not a single tiger was left in the reserve. It was a national scandal - but the park director in charge while Panna's tigers were exterminated was promoted to oversee wildlife for the state.

"Just look at the official record of Panna, you won't ask why India can't save the tiger," said Valmik Thapar, a natural historian who has written a dozen works on tigers and advises government on policy. "There is not one iota of accountability."

Rarely caught, poachers are even more rarely convicted by India's weak judicial system. Between 2000 and 2010, 882 people were accused of tiger poaching, and 18 were convicted, in six court cases.

India is also plagued by growing tiger-human conflict, when villagers poison tigers who prey on their livestock, or when hungry people poach tigers' prey species. "Prices of food have gone up so much that people are looking to this 'supermarket' in the forest - and forest wardens don't take prey species poaching seriously even if they do take the poaching of tigers seriously," Ms. Wright said.

Tiger Watch now maintains a network of paid informants in the poor communities that assist professional poachers, or hunt for food. Dr. Khandal regularly gets tips on who is hunting in the park, or who has the pelt of a newly caught cat. But, he said, wildlife wardens won't take his calls. "They feel it makes them look bad." Instead, he calls local police; they have used tips from his moles to make 61 arrests of men caught with skins, whiskers and claws in the past six years.

The Forest Service, meanwhile, has lately proved itself inept at tiger management. Conservationists have endless stories. One tiger was struck and killed last year by game wardens taking VIPs on a joyride through a park. Another was kept away from a female with whom he had mated, supposedly to protect her cubs, but (predictably, biologists say) he then did not bond with them, killing them as soon as he encountered them. After the dominant female tiger from Ranthambhore was relocated a few months ago, the remaining tigers began fighting. "Tigers live in societies just like human beings - you create huge disturbances when you relocate," Mr. Thapar said. "Any book on cats would tell you this would happen. It shows you the wildlife illiteracy of the service. They get no training in wildlife."

S.K. Yadav, deputy inspector general of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, dismissed these criticisms, insisting Forest Service staff is fully up to date on wildlife management, and, particularly, tigers. Those who criticize, he said, are "pseudo environmentalists" who have interest in tourism operations that pit them against the forest service. "Now in India there are more tiger experts than tigers."

Environmentalists say the Forest Service systematically refuses outside advice, and resists attempts at change. "They are corrupt and incompetent and convinced they are superheroes," Mr. Thapar said.

"The conservation community moved heaven and earth to reform the Forest Service and have a wildlife service and it is the Forest Service itself that has stopped it," Ms. Wright said.

The great pity, she said, is the gulf between the level of expertise and engagement on display at the conference in the capital Monday and the reality in the field, where forest guards her organization trains don't even know what a tiger trap looks like. "Unfortunately, there are no tigers in Delhi," she sighed.

Many long-time tiger conservationists were saluted at the Delhi event Monday, but no mention was made of the recent death of Mr. Rathore - an ostracized government critic even in death. But Ms. Wright and others of his protégés looked for hope in the new figures, drawing on something he taught them.

"Tigers are extremely resilient, tolerate and adaptable animals," she said. "Give them an inch of conservation, and they'll take a mile of benefit."

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