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How the return of poaching threatens India’s tiger success story

50 Years of Project Tiger: India’s wildlife authorities insist poaching is not happening at an ‘alarming’ rate, but campaigners and local rangers say grim incidents of dead tigers being found without claws, whiskers and teeth are part of a bigger and growing problem. Arpan Rai reports from Madhya Pradesh, India

Sunday 18 June 2023 13:35 BST
A tiger yawns at Ranthambore National Park in January 2004
A tiger yawns at Ranthambore National Park in January 2004 (AFP via Getty Images)

The poachers who killed T32 in India’s Madhya Pradesh had a simple plan, and executed it at night. Running wire through a field and applying a strong current, they electrocuted the tigress as she patrolled her territory, beating her to death after she lost consciousness. They then pulled out her canines, whiskers and claws before dumping the body in a village well, weighted down by a stone.

T32 was declared missing by rangers, until three days later the stone gave way and her remains floated up to the surface of the well. The grim image of the tigress’s mutilated body floating in the water sent ripples of outrage through the conservation community.

Here in the dense forests in the heart of central India, the reserves of Madhya Pradesh are playing a crucial role in what the government says is the success story of Project Tiger. Launched 50 years ago, the country’s flagship conservation programme has seen tiger numbers rise from 2,967 to 3,167 as of the latest census released by prime minister Narendra Modi this April.

Yet while this figure was lauded as “an achievement not only for India, but for the entire world” by Modi and celebrated by the country as a whole, conservationists say this actually represents the smallest increase in tiger numbers for a five-year period going back at least two decades.

Another number, they say, should be getting more attention – the 324 tiger deaths India has seen in just the last 29 months, equivalent to the loss of one tiger every three days. At least 87 tigers have already died this year alone.

Some deaths must inevitably be the result of old age, sickness or natural competition between these fearsome and territorial predators. But poaching is also a major factor, one which is rarely acknowledged, let alone debated, in the official conversation around India’s tiger success story.

The last time tiger poaching got out of control in India it had a devastating impact on the overall population of the animals: official figures show that between 2002 and 2006, the country lost a total of more than 2,200 tigers.

A return to those days is many conservationists’ worst nightmare, and there are concerns that Madhya Pradesh is emerging as a new hotspot for poachers, accounting for more than 90 of the deaths between 2021 and April 2023.

Besides the way the body had been disposed of, the fact that T32 was found with claws, whiskers and canines missing is an unmistakable indicator that she was poached, says Vincent Rahim, who was the top forest official at Bandhavgarh national park at the time.

During Rahim’s tenure another star tigress also died in suspicious circumstances. Solo was seen as the park’s friendliest tiger and a tourist’s delight, undisturbed by the noise of jeeps and canter vans and always happy to put on a display.

In October 2020 she was found dead alongside her cub, and while no official reason has ever been given for her death, officials and locals believe she was poisoned. “Some traces of poison were found in her stomach in the autopsy,” says Rahim, adding that mystery remains over why she was targeted.

One theory is that Solo was poisoned by villagers, possibly angered by the threat she and other tigers pose to their livestock. Villagers have been known to use commonly available pesticides as a reliable method of killing big cats, says Kuldeep Chaturvedi, a member of the tiger protection force in Bandhavgarh tiger reserve.

Rahim describes Solo’s death as a “huge loss for the park”, and as sad as it was shocking. But the cause of death was not a surprise, recognised as one of the two most common ways in which tigers are deliberately killed in India.

“[This is] how tigers die – either they are poisoned out of vengeance or they are electrocuted,” the tiger reserve’s current sub-divisional officer Sudhir Mishra tells The Independent. “You cannot rule out poaching, it is not going away, ever,” he adds.

Officials monitor the carcass of a tiger allegedly killed due to electrocution in July 2022 in Madhya Pradesh’s Umaria (Sourced/ The Independent)

Some poaching of tiger parts is most likely opportunistic – villagers kill an animal who was threatening their farms, and then try to sell some of the remains knowing they will fetch large prices on the black market. Poached tiger parts can go for anywhere between £1,000 and £100,000 in Nepal and China, officials told The Independent.

Such amounts draw organised criminals as well, as was suspected to be the case in Tamil Nadu earlier this year when a group of men and women travelled from northern India to seek employment as labourers in the Nilgiris tiger reserve in order to hunt the big cats at night, police say. They were caught during one such poaching attempt and arrested in February.

“The modus operandi was simple, they would trap a tiger, skin it and sell it along with the bones and canines,” says a top forest official in Nilgiris who was directly involved in the arrest.

The official says they are now investigating the poachers’ possible connections in other parts of the country, as well as the established logistics network that transports the tiger parts via train to port cities like Chennai, and from there to Bangladesh, Nepal and China.

It means the rangers in Madhya Pradesh are always on the lookout for both the poachers and their support networks – keeping one eye on the forest inside the reserve, and the other on key railway junctions like Katni which connects central India to major ports.

While the most lucrative black markets for tiger parts are in traditional medicine abroad, there are also plenty of superstitions and occult practices around the animals in India that create local demand for parts.

“If you mix tigers’ whiskers in your enemy’s food, be assured that the person will die within a month and a half. No medicine in the world can stop it,” one villager employed in the national parks tells The Independent.

Tackling such views and creating a sense of pride in tiger protection among locals is one of the most important and challenging tasks for forest officials. There are more than 5,000 people living within Bandhavgarh tiger reserve, with small pockets of villages having schools, pharmacies, local grocery stores and even grounds for holding social functions within the protected area.

It is the perfect set-up for human-animal conflict. Gudda, a 50-year-old villager who was attacked by a tiger in February this year while grazing his cattle, says the attack occurred at a time when tigers are normally not active – around 1pm in the afternoon.

Gudda tells The Independent he had no warning before the attack apart from the gentlest rustling of nearby leaves. He turned and saw nothing, but then was slammed off his feet by a force that felt like a hurricane.

He landed face-to-face with a snarling fully-grown tiger, a dominant male well-known to those who live in the village which he counts as his territory alongside a fellow tigress and their cubs.

The tiger looked Gudda in the eye and then went for his face. The cattle-herder reacted instinctively by raising his right forearm, offering it to the tiger instead. “I wanted to stop the tiger from eating my face,” he says.

Cattle-herder Gudda shows stitched marks from his injuries after a dominant tiger in the area attacked him (Arpan Rai/ The Independent)

Gudda howled for help, screaming “come running, save me, I am being eaten alive”, but with the nearest houses still far away he had little hope of rescue. “I knew I was going to die just like hundreds of other villagers who previously succumbed to tiger attacks,” he tells The Independent.

Then suddenly, almost as if he changed his mind, the tiger walked off.

Chaturvedi says this part of Madhya Pradesh sees between 10 and 15 such instances a year of tigers charging villagers while they graze their cattle, and that deaths are also not uncommon. Persuading these same villagers to help protect tigers from poachers is not always easy.

Many of the villagers living around or in tiger reserves consist of tribal communities long associated with tigers, like the Baheliyas – which is also the Hindi word for hunter. Though big cats are no longer on the menu for these groups, many continue to survive on bushmeat from spotted deer and peacocks – and tigers are inevitably caught in their traps from time to time. Traps are also laid as a protective measure by farmers, to keep grazers off their agricultural land.

SP Yadav, a top official with India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the additional director general of Project Tiger, suggests these kinds of incidents are more likely than deliberate poaching of tigers for their parts.

“There have been a few instances of electrocution of tigers and poisoning happening in Madhya Pradesh,” he admits. “Sometimes the electric fence which is used by farmers for protecting their crops has unintended consequences when a tiger strays into the field.”

He says the Indian government is working hard to prevent these accidental deaths. “Now no new [power] transmission line is permitted in protected areas [of the tiger reserve] without insulating them or bushing them,” Yadav tells The Independent.

This year, authorities have found just one case of a tiger’s skin being poached in Madhya Pradesh, he says. “In the current year, though there are 55 tiger deaths reported so far (nationally, up to March) only four cases pertain to seizure of skin, which can be attributed directly to poaching,” he says.

The Modi administration, he says, is “very well aware about the real threat posed by the trans-national poaching syndicates”.

Yadav says the NTCA maintains a national repository of camera trap photographs of tigers. “So in case of seizure of tiger skin, it is matched against the databases of the park as well as the national database to identify the origin of the skin.

“Poaching of prey and sometimes tiger cannot be ruled out, but it is not at an alarming rate,” he says.

Prominent wildlife activist Ajay Dubey disagrees, claiming that the only difference in the 50 years since Project Tiger was launched in 1973 is that hunting the animals has become illegal – but only on paper.

“Poor conviction rates along with zero tightening of legal provisions on the state level has led to the decimation of the tiger population in India,” he says, calling on the government to release state-by-state figures of the tiger population so it can be verified by local experts.

Dubey alleges that the claims made by the NTCA of rising tiger numbers on a national level do not tally with what he and other campaigners are seeing on the ground, adding that the tiger reserves of India are failing in conflict management between humans and tigers.

Mishra says his forest department in Bandhavgarh is putting the majority of its resources towards protecting wildlife and averting poaching, rather than boosting tourism or other logistical requirements, as the park is, if anything, facing a problem of plenty.

He says there are more than 150 tigers vying for space and their own territory in the reserve, with some inevitably forced to the periphery where they risk running into humans.

“Mark my words: there is a population explosion among tigers, much beyond what our existing capacity permits,” he says.

Rahim, Bandhavgarh’s former head, says reserves in Madhya Pradesh “are reaching their saturation point. Of course there will be violence and natural selection.”

Does that imply more deaths among tigers and villagers to come? “Nature and the wild will take care of it,” he says.

For the first part in our series on 50 Years of Project Tiger, read here about how a decorative shrub introduced by the British to India is now threatening tiger habitats.

In the second part of the series, read here about how traditional communities are coping with a rise in tiger attacks and deaths in the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans.

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