The tiger in India: 'There is a war going on'

Valmik ThaparValmik Thapar, conservationist, author and dissenting member of the Tiger Task Force of 2005 fears that India's tigers may not survive the ongoing poaching crisis without the Prime Minister's personal stewardship of a statutory conservation authority. He spoke to Anant in Chennai recently, when his new book, 'The Last Tiger' was launched.

What is the status of the implementation of the Tiger Task Force report?
As far as I am concerned, this report is going to collect dust. The first recommendation of the Task Force was to create a conservation Authority and give it statutory powers so that it has some impact on the States. The Prime Minister had agreed to chair it. We hear that he is not going to do it and that the Minister for Environment and Forests will head the Authority. This is a blow to the tiger. 

I think there are simple things that need to be done that are not part of this report. Poachers are flushing out various sanctuaries of their tigers, and it is not just Sariska. Sariska's tigers are extinct. Half the tigers of Ranthambore are gone and there are clear indications that poachers killed over 20 animals. We know the same (is true) for Panna. We are hearing that in Namdapha where the official number is 62, there is one left. In Dampa in Mizoram there are no tigers left. In Buxa (West Bengal), there may be two or three tigers roaming around as strays out of the official figure of around 30.

You have made it so easy for these forests to be plundered. Nature is a treasure house and if you have 50 year-old forest guards and 30 per cent vacancies with no recruitment for 18 or 20 years, how on earth can you save tigers, forests and sandalwood? I think we have a brainless school of thought, which says 'co-exist with tribals, cuddle tigers, bring forest dwellers in'...how? Without policing, you can't even start to work with tribals.

You have been speaking about tribals, but there are others who do the buying and the trafficking. Have we made progress there?
No. I don't think we made any progress since 1992, when there was a crisis about the impact of China and the trade in bones and derivatives. I was on the steering committee of Project Tiger and the Tiger Crisis Cell. I was on the Subramanian Committee to look at wildlife crime and illegal trade. None of the recommendations have been implemented. Thirteen years have gone by and the problems of forests and tigers have got worse. I would expect the Prime Minister to ask the Chief Ministers to post armed commandos in the Park. That is a do-able.

There is the view that people in the forests have not been resettled satisfactorily...
Till the Gandhis were in power, that is Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, you had the maximum resettlement. From 1992 when recommendations came in from various committees - including Project Tiger steering committees - there was full focus on resettlement but no Government was ready to do it. There was no political will. 

So it is absence of political will more than lack of funds?
At the moment I don't look at lack of money at all. Things have gone so bad that we need a proper Commission for rehabilitation. We require much bigger action for resettlement. I think the Planning Commission today would grant what you want for resettlement. A new scheme which was started with the Central Empowered Committee and the Supreme Court called CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority) has more than Rs.2,000 crores. This has not gone into one account because it has not been opened. This money is available for forest protection and every year, money will accrue because for every hectare of forest diverted, in whichever category, a price has to be remitted. There will be enough money to rehabilitate everybody. I don't think the figure of 1600 villages (in the TTF report) is correct... the villages that need to be rehabilitated come to 400 or 500 nationally. 

You have said (in the dissent note) in the TTF report that there is a critical area of 20,000 sq. km. where there are breeding populations of tigers. Would saving that be the first priority?
The first thing to do is to post armed commandos in the right places. Till that is in place you cannot think further. There is an emergency. When you have a riot in a state capital, you fill planes with the Rapid Action Force and send them there. We have a war going on between those who plunder and those who are trying to defend. The defenders are 50 and they are not fit. There are no recruitments...that war is being lost so they need reinforcements. First pick which 40 or 50 areas that you want to save and send people into them. Put the fear of god into poachers and timber mafias. When people see uniforms and guns...even though there are dangers with these things...they understand. If there is 35,000 sq km of Project Tiger today, there are no tigers in 10,000 sq km. So let's assume that even with 25,000 sq km, you add 10,000 sq km or go up to 50,000 sq km, just make sure it is safe. 

They have done nothing much about Project Tiger.
Today, they have done something. They have started a tiger conservation Authority. If the Prime Minister is in the Chair and it is made a statutory Authority with amendments to the Wildlife Act, it could have a greater say in the States. As long as Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi headed the National Board of Wildlife or Project Tiger, or Karan Singh was Chairman, the states listened. They listened because the Prime Minister was trying to find out the state of wildlife twenty times in a month. Later Prime Ministers have not bothered to find out even once a year.

Is it also not true that there was a failure to convince the wider community that it has a long-term stake in the protection of forests?
The entire 1990s was spent in efforts with the wider community. Some may agree with those efforts, some may not. Don't forget we had eco-development. We had 75 to 85 million dollars thrown at eight protected areas which became seven of which six were Project Tiger areas. So eco-development started on a huge scale, where everyone said that this is for the local communities, that they will become independent, beholden to the forest...I was against this from the beginning. This would be a channel for corruption. New eco-development staff was to be hired but that was never done. Forest staff was taken away from protection for eco-development. India is a country with its nose heading to modernity and its rear in the middle ages. Why has the Prime Minister decided not to chair the tiger authority of India? Somebody must have told him not to chair it...that there will be too much criticism. It doesn't make sense to me. 

Project Tiger got off lightly after Sariska and the local extinctions.
Yes, in Indravathi, Palpurkuno...everywhere. Our systems are neither accountable nor answerable for anything they do. The bureaucrats have found a way to protect themselves in a masterful way. They never talk of failure. They talk only of success. They never hang their head in shame and say, 'My God, that is my failure'. I say today that my 30-year mission has been a failure. I am going to sixth gear because we have an abnormal situation. How is it that those in government, with all tigers wiped out from one reserve, half the tigers gone from Ranthambore, very great problems in Indravathi where there could be zero tigers and naxalites, very few tigers and naxalite problems in Nagarjunasagar, landmines in Palamau, smugglers camping within Valmiki, cannot hang their head in shame and say, 'somewhere we failed'? The Central Government has a responsibility. It releases Rs.20 crores towards Project Tiger. Collective failures have to be acknowledged. 

The scientific community did not demand a change at Project Tiger, that it should be scrutinized...
It is exceedingly difficult as an individual out of Government, when you are dependent on it for your permissions, for your clearances, for your entry into parks, to actually confront it in a very honest way because the government then stabs you in the back. We have seen that happen to senior scientists. Two of them who work with tigers both have criminal cases against them, Dr.Raghunandan Chundawat in Madhya Pradesh and Dr.Ullas Karanth in Karnataka...it is not that they are both part of a mafia. Both cases are being looked at by the Supreme Court now. Younger scientists are going to be wary and in fear of the system.

Tiger - The Ultimate Guide, by Valmik Thapar, Oxford University Press, 2005
The Last Tiger, by Valmik Thapar, Oxford University Press, 2005.