Tigers fall to the skin trade

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The Independent Online
THE famed tigers of Ranthambhor - Genghis, Noon, Laxmi, Nur Jehan - are dead. They probably adorn the wall or floor of some millionaire's house, or their bones have been crushed into aphrodisiac concoctions.

It is feared that as many as 25 tigers in the Indian wildlife park - more than half the population - have fallen prey to hunters. In a poaching racket under investigation by the police, some have been caught in deadly traps and then shot at point-blank range; others have been killed at their water-holes.

The numbers of other animals killed adds up to a veritable slaughter. Deer, hares, jackals, foxes and crocodiles have been killed in the hundreds. Venison is widely available in the town of Sawai Madhopur, close to the park. It has been open season for skin traders living in the many villages that ring the forest.

The Ranthambhor National Park in Rajasthan, India, has been the subject of scores of books, hundreds of articles and many natural history films. By the mid-Eighties the tigers were recognisable by name, so widespread was their fame. A decade of dedicated work had made Ranthambhor a leading destination for wildlife seekers. European aristocracy, Hollywood stars, and Indian yuppies flocked to see the tigers in the sprawling ruins of Ranthambhor fort.

One of the earliest conservation efforts in the world, 'Project Tiger', set up in 1973, came to symbolise man's determination to protect wildlife. Prince Bernhardt of the Netherlands, chairman of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), was its international chairman, and the former Maharaja of Kashmir, Karan Singh, headed the Indian effort. Money poured in and, from a mere four to five thousand tigers spread across India, Nepal, China, Indonesia, Siberia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, a slow resurgence of the tiger population began.

But almost 20 years later, the precarious nature of this 'success story' is all too plain. In just four years the number of tigers in Ranthambhor has tumbled from around 44 to 15. The fall coincides with the world demand for exotica - rhino horn, elephant tusks, musk from the deer. China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have become destination points for this 'produce'.

How the other 17 Project Tiger parks in India are faring is not hard to imagine. Apart from the problems of poaching and dwindling forest lands due to the pressures of human proliferation, some parks have been overrun by terrorists, 'Naxalites' (a revolutionary left-wing group), or tribesmen agitating for their own states. The official figure of around 4,600 tigers in India is probably wildly inflated. Tiger watchers think the real figure could be as little as half that number.

'Billy' Arjan Singh - who featured in Anglia's Survival films on re-introducing the leopard, and is author of Tiger, Tigercenti, and several other books - estimates the number of tigers in the Dudhwa National Park, in Uttar Pradesh state, another Project Tiger park on the India-Nepal border, at 'around 30 against the official claim of 1,041'. 'We must have a separate Wildlife Service (from the Forest Department, which currently oversees wildlife), if we are to save our animals,' he says. 'There are just too many people in India,' he adds sadly.

Another outspoken critic is the now retired founder-director of Project Tiger in India, Kailash Sankhala. Living in Jaipur, only a few hours from Ranthambhor, Mr Sankhala has watched the situation deteriorate steadily. 'It's a cold-blooded massacre,' he says.

Reactions from the villagers who ring this fragile 400 sq km (154 sq miles) park were equally critical. Jagan, the headman of Kailashpuri, a village relocated outside the park under Project Tiger about 10 years ago, is a dejected man. 'Our sacrifice in the cause of the tiger was a joke,' he says. 'They (the Forest Department) could not take care of us, the animals, or the forest itself, so what right do they have to be employed?'

Other villagers are not as reasonable, and hostility against the park and the forest staff is acute. A 90-year-old teacher in Gopalpura asks: 'The tiger is the vehicle of the Devi (Goddess). How could anyone kill it? Perhaps this drought is a consequence.'

Poaching, mismanagement, corruption, unplanned tourism, the exclusion of people from the forest and its produce, overpopulation (both of people and livestock), illiteracy, and people living on the edge of survival have put a big question mark over the future of the tiger and the Ranthambhore National Park.

Most forest areas in India face these pressures, for which solutions are not forthcoming. India has no Green party or green politicians. Despite all efforts to raise environmental consciousness, the tiger is still endangered in its native land.

(Photographs omitted)