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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)
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)

STEPHANIE NOLEN

The failing fight to save India's tigers Add to ...

"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.

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