Monday, 9 April 2012

What hope for tigers?

                                                Tiger by Anne-Marie Kalus

Of late on this blog there has been much talk of tigers, but there’s been little mention of the crisis the tiger faces. It’s time we talked.

These three quotations, from books written over the past century, illustrate the catastrophic decline of the tiger, and all the wildlife and wild places associated with it, in just one hundred years. The first was published in the 1920s, the second in 1944 and the third in 2006.

Of course, the big cats are a nuisance. There are too many tigers and leopards in the jungle – so many, indeed, that the few which are shot make scarcely any impression on their numbers.

J. H. Williams
Elephant Bill

There is, however, one point on which I am convinced that all sportsmen – no matter whether their viewpoint has been a platform on a tree, the back of an elephant or their own feet – will agree with me, and that is, that a tiger is a large hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated – as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support – India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna. 

Jim Corbett
Man-Eaters of Kumaon

I now know that India is living with her last tigers and there is little hope for the future.

Valmik Thapar
The Last Tiger

Read the last one again. It was written by an energetic, charismatic man who has devoted his life to the tiger and to his tidal-wave commitment to saving it. Valmik Thapar is no quitter; but in these soul-strangling words he accepts that there is no hope for the tiger. I read his book in Nagpur in October 2008, fighting back tears, tears of shame that I belong to a generation that is letting the tiger disappear from our forests forever.

Why then has Valmik Thapar given up? His book was written in the mid-noughties, when poaching had reached a new peak, smuggling to China was rampant, India's tiger population was crashing again and in two tiger parks, Panna and Sariska, the tiger had been wholly wiped out. This was a worse time even than today. Perhaps.

But the roots of the tiger crisis lie deeper by far, in the latter part of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. At this time India, largely under the British Empire, was engaged in a tremendous spasm of deforestation and a conscious policy of driving out wildlife, such as the tiger, which came into conflict with human interests. It is suggested that in 1900 at least 40,000 tigers walked the forests and grasslands of India alone. Today, the world population is considered to be 3,200 and the most optimistic estimates place India’s population at 1,500. From 40,000 to 1,500 in 110 years. It's chilling.

This catastrophic loss of tigers is where the real problem lies. Or rather, this catastrophic loss of tiger habitat and tiger prey. It’s a fundamental of ecology that predators cannot survive without healthy stocks of their food. And in the case of the tiger, the food is large and requires great areas of grazing and browsing.

If we say, for the sake of argument, that an Indian tiger, most conservatively, requires two chital per week, then a single adult tiger would need the equivalent of 104 chital per year. If today’s tiger population in India were to eat only chital (an impossible assumption as many of the tigers live in the northeast where there are no chital), this would mean 156,000 chital were killed in India by tigers each year. Not to mention the needs of mothers raising cubs (young cubs are not included in population estimates), nor the needs of leopards, wolves, lions and other Indian predators. Extrapolated to the estimated tiger population in India in 1900, this would mean 4,160,000 hypothetical chital killed by tigers alone in India each year at that time.

                        Chital in Pench National Park, India, by Anne-Marie Kalus.

Four million chital, or thereabouts, or indeed their equivalent in sambar, hog deer, wild boar, barking deer, barasingha and gaur, require unimaginably huge areas of forest and grassland to survive. Unimaginably huge, that is, in today’s world. And of course for every chital, barking deer or gaur killed, there have to be numberless others which survive to breed if the tigers are to have prey in the future. The fundamental problem then is human population, our demand for land to feed ourselves, and the consequent massive-scale loss of habitat for the tiger’s prey and the tiger. This habitat loss has occurred on a vast scale and continues today. All around India’s tiger parks, mining projects are approved, ground-waters are drained, roads and railways are built or upgraded and habitat is degraded. This is the fundamental, chronic problem, though there are others, more acute and more prominent in news headlines.

Don’t think I’m moralising or – certainly not – sneering at cultures in the developing world. In Britain we did our massive-scale deforesting in the Bronze Age and we drove out our top post-Ice-Age land predators – lynx, wolf, bear – hundreds of years ago. We have no right at all to look at India, or any other country in the developing world, and shake our heads self-righteously, not least in the case of India because we were the instigators of deforestation there. Nonetheless, it’s important, in any discussion of the tiger to understand that the fundamental problem is the landscape-scale loss of habitat. Simply put: tigers today are restricted to minute fragments of their once-widespread habitat and the rest of the landscape of Asia is utterly hostile to them.

Concomitant with this apocalyptic loss of habitat is the terrible truth that the tiger’s biology and ours don’t rub along very well. Almost everywhere in the world humans live – and we live almost everywhere – we have traditionally grazed livestock. We have been doing this for thousands of years and throughout this time we have taken a dim view of other animals wanting our livestock for themselves. So for thousands of years we have systematically driven predators, and there is no predator more perfect or more powerful than the tiger, from the land we perceive as ours, which is everywhere. It’s easy in the developed world to look down on this practice as primitive. This is naive. In the UK we have extinguished wolves and bears and harried wild cats, polecats and pine martens to bleak corners of their once extensive ranges. We must remember too that we in the developed world have not recently been poor. In our generation we do not understand what it means for all our wealth to be sunk in a single buffalo, nor the devastation of that buffalo being taken by a tiger. For literal millions of people in India, and all over the world, this is reality. A single buffalo alone stands between your family and destitution. The tiger in this equation is a legitimate foe.

And it is all too easy to dispense of a tiger. The tiger’s biology – tragically – means there is a tendency for young animals, especially young males, to wander in search of habitat at around two years of age. Dominant male tigers do not tolerate the presence of young males which consequently are pushed out of their mothers’ ranges and forced to carve lives for themselves elsewhere. Only there is no elsewhere. Remember, we’ve chopped down all the forest, we’ve converted it to farmland, we’ve forced the tiger and its prey into minute fragments of habitat. Where then do our hypothetical young males go? They leave the forest – they have no choice – and enter human-inhabited areas where their only possible prey is livestock.

As I said above, it’s all too easy to dispense of a tiger. A tiger in the wild will kill a large animal, a sambar or a gaur, and stay by it for the two-three-four-five days it takes to eat, returning generally by night to feast. If a tiger kills your cow, perhaps your second cow, of only three, to be lost this way in your village on the edge of a park where the rich and the privileged say we ought to be saving the tiger, in desperation you lace the cow’s carcase with poison, knowing that the tiger is nearby and will return for his kill in the night. Thus many a young tiger dies, lost to the breeding population through this tangle of catastrophic habitat loss, human inequity, and the tiger’s biology.

Finally, there is the ghastly problem everybody knows about: poaching. In theory this is a tiny, superficial issue compared to the cataclysmic loss of tiger habitat and the perfectly legal hunting of tigers over the past century; yet it may well be the straw that breaks the tiger’s back. In the mid-noughties it looked as though the loss of the tiger from India altogether were a real possibility. Tiger skins and body parts were smuggled out of India to Tibet and China in staggering quantity and India was losing her tigers by the hour. Tigers became locally extinct in Sariska and Panna, their numbers were halved in Ranthambore, and at least a quarter of all the tigers in the country were probably lost. Happily now tigers have been reintroduced to Panna, where they have begun to breed, and to Sariska. Poaching, I was told last month in both Tadoba and Kanha, is momentarily in abeyance, and there are many cubs in these parks and in Pench. But there is no time or space for complacency. The tiger numbers only 1,500 in India and 3,200 in the world. To put these numbers in context, the London 2012 Olympic Stadium alone will seat 80,000 people. A concerted effort on the part of poachers will remove tigers from the wild altogether in five years.

What then can we do? What can the rich, distant, privileged do in the developed world to save the tiger in the remaining scraps of forest in its Asian range? Our first duty is to inform ourselves, engage our minds with the issue, become campaigners for the tiger and for all the wildlife and the people with whom the tiger shares its forest. Two excellent sources of information on tigers, their habitats and the crisis they face are the Wildlife Protection Society of India, founded and directed by the energetic Belinda Wright, and Tiger Time, which is led by the legendary wildlife artist David Shepherd. These organisations’ websites give details of campaigns and projects in which they are involved, including WPSI projects in partnership with Indian authorities, tiger reserves, and villages around them. Tiger Time is also the host of an urgent petition to persuade the Chinese government to ban all tiger trade in their country. This would not only shut down the abhorrent farming of tigers in China; it would also remove the blanket under which trade in wild tigers continues freely across India and Nepal's porous borders. On both websites there are opportunities to donate money to the conservation of the tiger in the field. Acting now is critical, if the tiger is to be saved.

We can save the tiger, to the extent that tigers can still roam small, highly-managed stretches of forest and grassland in India and elsewhere. We must. In a world with no wild tigers, I see no hope for us.

Munna, the dominant male in much of Kanha National Park, photographed in November 2008 by Anne-Marie Kalus. Munna is laid-back, charismatic and readily identified by having CAT written across his forehead.
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.
Dr Seuss
The Lorax

No comments:

Post a Comment