I recall a passionate debate that I was witness to sometime last year in India. A young man couldn’t understand the fuss about tigers and the need to “save” our national animal. In his opinion, all we had to do was “just choose another another national animal”. The solution was supposedly as simple, or should I say as simplistic as that. Agreed the human construct of a ‘national animal’ needs better scrutiny but the ease with which he spoke of animal extinctions makes me shudder. My very first blog was about animals on the brink of extinctions. The animal chart my friend and I made doesn’t even begin to cover the number of species that are imperilled. I wonder what is it that makes us so smug about being humans? Is it sheer callousness or just deep ignorance? What makes many of us believe humans will survive long after our ecosystem crashes into oblivion? A shallow way of thinking can paradoxically be deep seated sometimes. Humans are just another species that are part of an ecosystem or in simple words as Disney put it, a ‘circle of life’. Break one critical link and pretty soon, the entire circle comes unraveled. This problem has been creatively articulated by Free Range Studios through a spoof of a popular movie. Free Range Studios does a fantastic job with every video they make. Truly creativity with a conscience!
So coming back to the Tiger,what is the status on India’s ‘national animal’?
The Government of India recently announced an increase in tiger numbers. One may rejoice at the increase until one sees these lines in the article. “For the first time, tiger numbers for the Sundarbans has been released. The estimate has been put at 70, while it has been maintained all these years that it’s above 200.” Another gnawing cause for concern is ” though the tiger number is up, the tiger occupancy area has come down by as much 20,000 sq km.”
Noted Tiger expert Dr. Ullas Karanth makes some extremely valid and critical points as he says “The result of the national tiger estimation exercise conducted over the past couple of years has been released on 28-3-2011. It reports an increase in adult tiger numbers to 1636 (1706 including Sunderbans), up from the previous estimate of 1411 tigers in 2007. This is an increase of 16% compounded over 4 years, suggesting that the previous decline of tigers has been reversed. However, since full details are not yet available as to how these tiger numbers have been arrived at, it is not possible to give an expert opinion about the new numbers. However, since various threats faced by tigers do not appear to have diminished in last four years, it is difficult to explain the claimed reversal of the decline of tigers.”(Emphasis added) Read more here. Dr. Karanth is so right in the points he makes. How would it be if the house were on fire and the fire brigade came in every 4 days to check how the house was doing? It seems to me that the same logic is operating here. For a country that exports complex and fascinating technology to the outside world, it is a crying shame if we have to still rely on monitoring of tracks by forest guards to identify individual tigers and I am flabbergasted that even this procedure is carried out once in four years instead of monitoring it year-after-year!
While I’m highly appreciative that a private company stepped in to create awareness about something so crucial, I’d hate it if it were only an advertising gimmick. I’d also find it unacceptable if the Government of India (GoI) doesn’t do what it must. What is worse is if you and I become mere mute spectators to a charade. Project Tiger is supposed to be a flagship conservation project of the country. But comparing these two websites, one that belongs to the GoI and the other set up by Aircell in partnership with WWF, would immediately give you a sense of ambition and entrepreneurship in one and bureaucracy in the other.
How can we expect our forest guards to protect anything when they are equipped with slippers and lathis (canes) while the poachers are equipped with guns and vehicles and high-profile lawyers to fight their cases? Most importantly, how can we expect them to be efficient if their wages are not paid on time? I assume that most of their wages would already be pegged at subsistence level and if even those wages are not given to them, I can’t see how they can be expected to protect themselves, let alone protect the Tiger. If you haven’t already watched this brilliant movie ‘The Truth about Tigers‘ by Shekhar Dattatri, you simply MUST. It is a no-nonsense take on the issue that not only is brutally honest but also tells us what you and I can do about the situation. Also watch this chilling video of an investigation of trade in skin and organs of big cats by EIA and WPSI in 2005:
Here is another article on this trade. How can any animal survive such onslaught? What has the government done to address all these concerns? With no information on the aforementioned, how is the public expected to believe the statistics?
As always, the point of this blog is not government bashing but to take a fresh look at the situation and see if we can find ways to take action. To explore how we can avoid turning a blind eye to something that is on the brink of disaster. Let’s then take inspiration from the maker of film ‘The Truth about Tigers’ Shekhar Dattatri.
He is highly acclaimed in his field, yet he chose to step back and look at the big picture. In his own words: “In 2000, after producing and shooting yet another ‘blue chip’* natural history film for television, I began to question where I was going with my work. I had achieved my ambition of becoming a wildlife filmmaker, and loved every minute of it. But, after 15 years in the business, it was becoming more and more difficult to ignore the fact that, all around me, wild India was wilting under tremendous pressure. Globalization, corruption, ignorance and a lack of political will for conservation are all taking an enormous toll on the country’s last wild spaces. Today, less than 4% of India’s vast landscape is protected as National Parks and Sanctuaries, and even these tiny enclaves are under constant threat. I began to wonder whether, with all the beautifully crafted films I was producing for television, I was doing anything other than documenting disappearing wildlife and landscapes. Sure, some of the films had conservation messages in them, but were they making any impact on a predominantly passive television audience?
So what were the alternatives? Did I want to make gloom and doom films instead? Would anybody watch them? More important, would anybody fund or air them? Television was getting less serious, not more, and with an incredible amount of choice available, the average viewer wasn’t going to sit in front of the TV to be told that the world was going to hell in a basket.
If I wanted to make a difference I had to do something different…” Read more
Powerful words there. Words that speak volumes of the tumult he must have faced while making a decision to dedicate one full year to the making of this film. Thereafter he has been relentlessly travelling from one place to another spreading the word on the urgent need to act now. His movie has been made available freely to all those who can get access though the internet, through DVDs etc. His passion for this magnificent animal and the forests is contagious. He is currently hard at work forming a youth movement for conservation and is expected to launch it in a couple of months. India desperately needs direction from such gurus.
But as Shekhar himself points out, it is not enough to wait for one person to change the world. Each of us is called to action in our own little ways. Each of us needs to step back from the rat race and try and find innovative ways to contribute. At the very least, it is critical that we find conservation organizations and support them with our time and/or money. Will share more information in forthcoming posts. For now, this site is a good starting point…