Tiger killings: are new guidelines enough to stop them?

New Delhi: Worried over 82 tiger deaths this year in India, the highest in a decade, the environment ministry is finalising a standard operating procedure (SOP) that for the first time will give forest officials clear guidelines on investigating such deaths. But tiger conservators feel it may be too little and too late.

The procedure is awaiting the approval of Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, who is in agreement with it. “At present, there is no set procedure about what needs to be done in case a tiger death is reported. There is no clarity about the line of investigation, paper work and other formalities required,” a senior environment ministry official confessed, but requested for anonymity.

“What exist are only a few instructions which are not clear,” the offical added.

The official said the new procedure will remove the ambiguity in handling tiger deaths, thus empowering forest guards with a clear process to follow during investigations.

Bengal tiger – Photo by Wifred

The latest figure of tiger mortality available with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) shows that 82 tigers have died till Dec 3.

The alarming part is that 53 of these fell prey to poachers, mostly reported in Maharashtra and Karnataka, where 10 tigers each were poached. Madhya Pradesh followed with eight deaths. The remaining 29 were reported as natural deaths. The figure stands far ahead of 56 tiger deaths in 2011, 53 in 2010 and 66 in 2009.

India is home to the world’s largest tiger population, with 1,706 living in the wild across 41 tiger reserves. But the figure is almost a tenth of what it was say half a century ago.

The increasing number of tiger deaths due to poaching has left the authorities worried as, despite increased vigilance, more funding for tiger conservation and other measures, they have not able to check it.

Continuing its efforts to save the big cats, the official said the environment ministry, along with NTCA, had drawn up the guidelines.
In May, the NTCA had asked forest department officials to treat death of a big cat as a case of poaching, unless proved otherwise.

There has been a tendency among forest department officials to describe the death of a tiger probably from poisoning or other reasons as a natural death without examining the possibility of poaching.

Tiger conservationists, however, find the government’s effort of saving tigers unplanned and badly managed.

“You lay down 100 procedures, but they are only limited to paper and nothing happens on the ground. Our biggest problem in failing to protect tigers is that we require a whole new system and methodology to protect big cats,” renowned tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar says.

Thapar, who has been involved with tiger conservation for over the last three decades, felt that better training and a new approach to tackle the problem was needed.

Echoing similar concerns, Raghu Chundawat, a tiger scientist, expressed the view that a more professional management system was required.

“Killing of tigers despite several efforts points to a fact that management needs to recognize that whatever they are doing is working for something but not for tigers,” said Chundawat, the whistleblower on the missing tigers of Panna reserve in Madhya Pradesh.

“We need to do things differently to save tigers. We need a strategy that will not only save the tiger’s habitat and its prey but also tigers. Unfortunately the present management mainly continues to do the same thing it has been doing for decades with very little effect,” he added.

Tiger conservation in India began in 1973 with the launch of Project Tiger by the central government. Considering the urgency of the situation, Project Tiger was converted into NTCA, a statutory authority, in 2006 with more power and separate funding.

The main achievements of Project Tiger are excellent recovery of the habitat and consequent increase in the tiger population in the reserve areas, from a mere 268 in nine reserves in 1972 to 1,706 in 41 tiger reserves in 2012.

by Richa Sharma (IANS)

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