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Messing It Up For Hobbes: On The Mighty Feline In Sariska

More from Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar

By Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar:

Recently, the Thanagazi fort near the Sariska Tiger Reserve went under the hammer and was bought by Ramesh Meena, a property dealer, for 7 crores. Though, in today’s world of frequent and stupendous acquisitions (EPL with Abrahmovich and Co.), the event may not stand out as anything out of the ordinary, especially for those not too interested in the history of Kachwaha Rajputs or Rajasthan Tourism, it was another link in the chain of events that could influence an oft-highlighted element of the Alwar region, the wildlife. Only a week earlier, Sansar Chand, the notorious poacher, had been let off, for technical reasons, from facing charges under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) by a Delhi Court. Incidentally, the said individual hails from Thanagazi as well, and is known for being responsible for poaching around 200 Tigers and being involved in the trade of Tiger skin and body-parts over many years. He has also hunted down endangered animals in a number of states. However, since Chand was the man responsible for wiping out 25 of Sariska’s tigers (probably the last of the Sariska tigers), it will be the fate of the mighty felines that is now tipped towards a more uncertain end, even as poachers continue to plague the national park today.

Tiger

Tigers are said to have evolved in northern China and other parts of East Asia, before migrating south and ‘invading’ the lion-infested South Asian subcontinent. The correlation between the two species and their coexistence is a matter of debate among a few wildlife enthusiasts, especially since the invading force, the tiger in this case, was the stronger and larger of the two cats, and incidentally displaced the lion as the National Animal as well! Concerns have been lately raised with the plans to move a few Gir lions to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, which has a tiger population as well. Sariska’s is a very interesting case with regards to tigers. The place is among the last to be inhabited by the tigers in their westward movement over the Indian plains. The entire Sariska – Ranthambore belt is said to have been one large tiger-corridor historically, before being broken up by human settlements and agriculture. This is often seen as a reason for the Ranthambore tigers being close to their Sariska counterparts, with regard to a historically shared gene-pool, and the driving theory in the relocation of the Ranthambore tigers in Sariska after the complete annihilation of the tiger population of Sariska in 2005, as reported famously by Jay Mazoomdaar in The Indian Express. Imagine the amount of environmental and external pressure imposed on the indigenous tiger population to lead to such an extinction, barely a year after the official census put the count at around 16.

Today, Sariska Tiger Reserve is in a sorry state. The last time I went to the Reserve was when the first tigers were being relocated from Ranthambore. Being the closest tiger reserve to Delhi, Sariska was a natural choice for someone who’s crazy about tigers in the wild. And I highlight that to denote the importance of the matter. With 1706 tigers left in the wild, as per the 2011 Census, the emergency bells should be tolling loud and clear. The one image I recall time and again when the subject of the Sariska tiger is raised, unfortunately, is that of the subject of a taxidermist’s experiments: a stuffed tiger in the Alwar State Museum. And it is often seen that in the absence of a being or an event, one often tends to try and reconstruct it using the limited knowledge of its times that one has at one’s disposal. Same was the case here. Having heard that the Sariska Tiger was an inch or two larger than the Ranthambore tigers, I tried picturing the magnificent stripes cutting across the dry, deciduous forest. It was like the times when Calvin finds Hobbes going from the piece of stuffed cloth that he is to being a dynamic, agile living tiger. Having lived in this reverie, the bitter truth was all too apparent, we had lost a precious part of our bio-system. Most importantly, since the tiger is an important part of the food-chain in those parts (that is one of the many reasons for the conservation of Tigers) and the tiger, in itself, is something we will probably never like to consign to a museum, the time’s come for taking definitive action. One needs to look at the various factors affecting the tiger-population.

First among equals is the problem of human settlements near and in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Sariska, unfortunately, has a road cutting across the reserve that goes to a certain temple inside the reserve itself. One also has had various villages dotting the fringes of the reserve, many of which have been successfully relocated. One needs to involve the remaining communities in conserving the animal population by presenting to them models and incentives that will help them in their lives as well. Incidentally, often poachers take the help of the local people for their pursuits by promising money and other benefits to them in return.

Secondly, the whole idea of relocation needs to be analyzed a little. For one, one does not need inbreeding and a limited gene-pool. I am reminded of X-Men here where Colonel Striker aims at building Weapon X by pooling in the characteristics of all X-Men. Similarly, to survive the onslaught of the aforementioned pressures at Sariska and emerge as a strong group of felines, one needs to avoid bringing in tigers restricted to a gene-pool to Sariska. If this were not done, one may face the imminent danger of a catastrophic extinction that the Gir Lion faces today.

Lastly, one needs to enhance the capacity of the authorities at Sariska to tackle problems and to even take down poachers, if needed. For instance, it is suspected that during the monsoon season of 2004, when roads are mostly closed and the park is off-bounds for tourists, the poachers carried out a mass poaching exercise, and the park-authorities, who till 2005 had only five guns, two revolvers, three jeeps and four motorcyles to patrol the entire forest, were arguably unable to do much about it with their limited resources. Even when poachers are caught, legal procedures often lead to their acquittal on technical grounds or for the absence of stricter laws. Though we do have an Anti-Poaching Act it is a ‘toothless act’, according to the media. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 also has its share of problems.

The roar that reverberates through the forests of Sariska today is probably the lament of a larger populace, which is on its last straw. We have to work together to stop the tiger from ending up as only Calvin’s rag-doll (sans its vitality) or in a taxidermist’s prize collection!

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  1. Raj

    Why not allow private entities to own and breed tigers and other endangered species?

    1. MjGM

      Private entities ‘owning’ a tiger goes against the basic principles of conservation! How is it that we are conserving a being in its natural environs. More importantly, do we really want a second China here, in terms of privately owned tigers? Are tigers meant to be ‘conserved’ only to be culled for all kinds of products: be it for the skin, bones for medicines, etc.?

    2. Raj

      The issue is much deeper than you think, it involves the notion of animal rights, human rights and the Govt.’s role in such matters.
      And what is wrong if they are bred and killed for their skin etc. ? We do that for so many other animals like poultry, hogs, bovines etc. and yet we rarely hear about them being on the verge of extinction. Because private entities think long-term when they own things and they protect their things. Yet the opposite is seen when you have public property; everyone tries to grab it first and nobody thinks long term.
      This is true for any resource, including say mangoes. If you have a mango tree growing on public unenforced land, don’t people start picking the fruit when its far from being ripe, because they are afraid somebody else will pick it first. Yet on private mango farms, the farmer will wait till the mango is ripe enough to taste the best it can. If every mango tree was similarly in the public domain, free for all, then we would probably never be able to eat even a single ripe mango.

    3. MjGM

      ‘The issue is much deeper than you think’? That is just assuming stuff and that always pre-empts a debate. There is only so much you can highlight in a piece. I am open to a discussion on this whenever I have the time.

      I would like to ask you a few words long question: is it ethical? I don’t think you got the gist of the debate at all. I understand the urgent need to bring forth decisive steps for ‘conservation’ (I don’t see how this helps in conservation strictly though). But this may not be needed or be in the best interests of tigers. You speak of the issue being deeper: I will give you another angle to this. You may have heard of the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act (S1381) in the United States. It highlights two things: the deplorable conditions of these privately owned tiger havens (and you can only do so much for auditing or reviewing them) and the threat it poses to the public. Secondly the problem of illegal international trading may not be solved by this method. Lastly, and most importantly, it is the wild that needs the tiger (and here I talk of bio-systems) often more than the tiger needs the wild. The one reason Sariska nearly lost its natural balance was because of the absence of the apex predator. Leopards and other secondary predators started to come into the core and would often be involved in skirmishes. And that is just one of the problems faced.

    4. Raj

      I said that not in order to be condescending but because it does indeed have a lot of difficult questions that need to be answered. And I don’t have the answers. I have read your comment and have included them in my questions below :

      – Is a tiger really different from a human perspective than a chicken or a goat in the sense that chicken and goats can be bred, killed, mistreated etc. ? Do some mammals and avians deserve less “rights” than tigers? Mistreatment of animals is there and I condemn it. But are tigers special?

      – Who decided that chicken, goats, dogs, cats can be owned by humans but tigers can’t be? What was the reasoning? Shouldn’t people “enslave” any animal they see fit, as long is it doesn’t harm others?

      – Humans have far more rights than animals including tigers. Human slavery is outlawed pretty much everywhere. Not so for animals.

      – Why are tigers being poached? Because there is a demand for their products. They are no longer being killed for public safety reasons. The point is for whatever stupid reasons (like aphrodisiacs etc.), there is a demand for it. No denying that.

      – What do you mean by “illegal trade” ? Why is the trade of tigers and tiger-related things illegal? Who made it illegal?

      – Most of the damage to a tigers habitat(and thus the tiger population) comes from agriculture and lesser from mining, dams etc.. If the choice has to be made between tigers and agriculture/industry (and thus human lives that depend on it), which choice to take? This is actually a much larger question which concerns human life and progress vs environment.

      – I am not advocating the removal of tiger reserves, but rather in addition allow some tigers to be bred as livestock. It would allow legal ways to satisfy a demand for such products.

      – Coming to the bio-systems part, is it ethical for humans to decide which plants and animals must live and which must die? I am talking about agriculture and animal-husbandry. Should we ban these also?

      – Also can it be argued that humans are a part of nature and we are the new apex predators and we are changing the balance point of eco-system i.e. just as dinosaurs once roamed and dominated the world, we are now the dominant species with our technology. And this is just evolution playing along its natural course; we’ve gotten ahead of the other species. Of course we too may go extinct, that’s another point.

    5. MjGM

      I accept your views and understand some of the points. But some seem to be a little vague.

      – The more fundamental point that needs to be asked probably is what are the so-called ‘rights’ of an animal that you speak of here. And the ‘should man decide on these rights’ question is exactly the ethical angle that I spoke of in the aforementioned comment. I, for one, am against ‘enslaving’ animals altogether. And here one needs to clarify a point. Predatory activities involve killing an animal for various needs (especially food), which is seen as ‘natural’ since they are carried out by the higher strata of the food pyramid in nature. However, keeping an animal and making it live in certain conditions as per our designs seems to be what should irk us. But then the whole idea of rearing of animals, being carried out since ancient times, comes into the picture. This does raise an interesting point to discuss.

      – I never denied that it is the demand for tiger-parts that drives the killing. But the act I mentioned, has been moved in the United States, with a clause or reference to the public safety angle. Hence, I was talking on facts there. Besides this, it is ‘illegal’ obviously by human-constructs i.e. the human laws. We have decided on some benchmarks to evaluate the ‘legality’ of the trade of tiger-parts in the form of laws and acts. What that essentially means is that it is the ‘unaccounted-for’ trade being carried out. Subtly hidden is the overseer status given to the states to monitor this trade.

      – ‘Most of the damage to a tigers habitat (and thus the tiger population) comes from agriculture and lesser from mining, dams etc.’…what is your factual evidence for that. Am asking more out of interest than as a challenging statement in itself. ‘If the choice has to be made between tigers and agriculture/industry (and thus human lives that depend on it), which choice to take?’ That problem has driven us to consider various hybrid-solutions. One has had the idea of green-zones and wildlife corridors (especially the buffer zones of reserves) cutting across human settlements, with regularized movement of humans, economic goods, etc.

      – ‘I am not advocating the removal of tiger reserves, but rather in addition allow some tigers to be bred as livestock. It would allow legal ways to satisfy a demand for such products.’ Are tiger parts used for essential commodities? There again one needs to decide on factual, scientific understanding what one needs to have, and for what. You may say that will not stop the tiger-trade. I agree. But if the discourse is constrained to a certain way of going about with it (since it happens, let’s make it official), it is not the best way to go about with it.

      – ‘Also can it be argued that humans are a part of nature and we are the new apex predators and we are changing the balance point of eco-system i.e. just as dinosaurs once roamed and dominated the world, we are now the dominant species with our technology. And this is just evolution playing along its natural course; we’ve gotten ahead of the other species. Of course we too may go extinct, that’s another point.’ I don’t see how that whole para is for anything I said earlier. If it was with reference to the fact that tigers are essential to the Bio-system thing, it has more to do with actual biological balances that have been altered in Sariska. Was not talking speculatively. I am sure you have heard about the predator-secondary p.-tertiary p. etc. chain. On the ground, in Sariska, the Sambars and Nilgais have grown without being hunted. That has led to a strain on the strata just below it. And I say that as per the accounts related by a resource-person IN Sariska.

      Good luck.

    6. Raj

      Thanks for your response. My views pointwise

      – But should humans kill animals for food? Or for other reasons like self-defense? Should humans be allowed to breed them? And if we don’t allow humans to breed animals, they would have certainly gone extinct by now. But breeding in captivity is altering the way we keep the animal alive.
      Also what about milk? Isn’t that enslaving animals for their milk?
      And of course, animals as slave labour, although this has sharply fallen thanks to machines

      – I understood the illegal part in that sense but what I was saying is that aren’t other animal parts like beef, chicken, leather etc. freely traded? Why is tiger so special in this respect?

      – My evidence is simple. See the land-use stats before the green revolution and today. Clearly the land under agriculture has vastly grown but it isn’t like India has acquired new land. It has come at the cost of severely reduced forest cover. Poor people cut down vast tracts of forests which are naturally fertile and well-irrigated (else the forest wouldn’t have come up in the first place) and practice agriculture. They don’t have the resources nor the technology to bring wasteland under cultivation like Israel has done.
      I agree with the hybrid solution. But who draws the line and where? That’s the question. How much forest cover is needed, how many dams are needed etc.

      – Who are you or I to decide what is essential? I think fireworks are useless, but does that give me the right to ban fireworks? No. But I would be seriously opposed if the Govt. tried to subsidize fireworks with my money. If people want to waste money on fireworks, let them do it at their own expense.

      – Last one was a broader philosophical question i.e. should humans care about “maintaining the balance” . This question pre-supposes that humans are destroying the balance. I’m saying that perhaps we are shifting the balance and that it is inevitable. Conservation is a tiny corrective measure. But our real “destruction” to that balance has come from the fact that we do agriculture and animal husbandry. If we are really serious about maintaining the old balance i.e. remove human intervention from our biosphere, we must stop agriculture and animal husbandry first,
      This may not be far fetched. It is possible that in a few centuries we may gain energy from fuel cells rather than ingesting organic matter. Also we may move to other worlds. Both would definitely allow us to leave the biosphere relatively alone.

    7. MjGM

      Will answer you but presently am a little pre-occupied. Will address each of your points soon.

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