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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 ...

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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