`Tiger state' rescue plan loses its way

THE STATE of Madhya Pradesh is India's Great Outdoors: the geographical heart of the country, where you can drive for hours through sparsely populated and relatively unspoiled wilderness.

In the middle of the state is the 1,000sq km Kanha National Park, where Kipling set the Jungle Book. And Shere Khan's descendants are still numerous here: the state has more than 900 tigers in the wild, about one-third of the Indian total and perhaps one-fifth of all the remaining wild tigers in the world.

But according to a report released yesterday in Delhi by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a London-based non-governmental organisation, that heritage is being frittered away at a terrifying rate.

The enemies are the tiger's usual adversaries: poachers supplying the oriental medicine trade in the Far East; industrialists building plants to strip out what remain of the state's natural resources; corrupt officials, winking at large-scale illegal logging.

This is the sad tale not only across India but also in the other "range states" where tigers survive in the wild, including Sumatra, Thailand and Russian Siberia. But the EIA chose to highlight Madhya Pradesh because in 1994 the state government, prompted by a vigorous minister of the environment with a constituency here, decided to name it "the Tiger State". The animal would be a symbol of efforts to conserve the natural resources.

At the outset much was promised. A "tiger state committee" was set up to improve the performance of the wildlife wardens. A "tiger cell" headed by a highly motivated inspector of police, Mr Rajgopal, cracked down on poachers and traders. Mr Rajgopal believed one tiger per week was being killed in the state, and one leopard per day.

Five years on, however, the EIA judgement is that "what started as a positive and enthusiastic initiative has been exposed as nothing more than a public-relations exercise". The state government, according to the report's authors, is "bent on exploiting its remaining natural resources to the detriment of the tiger, the forests, and the people who depend on them".

The bold initiatives have run into the sand. Inspector Rajgopal, too effective for his own good, has been transferred. The only recommendation of the tiger committee to have been implemented was putting a fax machine into the wildlife wardens' office. The fund-raising Tiger State Foundation Society has amassed a grand total of 35,000 rupees - about pounds 500. The report says: "It is not known what this money has been used for."

Meanwhile, the abuses flourish. A diamond mine operated by the national government near the border of Panna Tiger Reserve pumps solid waste and slurry from the mine intostreams. A natural corridor between two reserves, vital for the tigers' genetic resilience, has been put at risk by a huge timber fraud: 300,000 apparently healthy sal trees have been felled after it was claimed that a beetle epidemic was raging. Tigers continue to be poached, supplying a trade which, the report says, "is more organised than ever before".

Amidst the gloom, Dave Currie, founding director of the EIA, identified one chink of light: there has been a change of attitude at the level of the Indian central government. "There is now utter acceptance at central government level of the seriousness of the crisis. That is a very major change, and the first step towards addressing it," he said.

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