No quick fix answers for tiger conservation

Tiger Task Force holds first set of consultations with experts. Finds Indian tiger faces huge challenges: extensive, highly organised international poaching networks, lack of professional law enforcement to break through international crime, abysmally low conviction rate for poaching offenders and most importantly, increasing hostility of local communities who share the tiger's habitat because of years of mismanagement and conservation policies that exclude people from protected areas. It is clear that the tiger crisis needs serious and considered response. No quick fix solution will work agree experts and members.

New Delhi, May 19, 2005: Tiger conservation strategies have failed on fronts - from setting up enforcement networks capable of breaking organised wildlife crime to creating conditions, which involve people in wildlife conservation without which there is increased conflict and anger around all our tiger reserves. All these factors have all made the protection of the species and its habitat increasingly difficult pointed out experts at the consultation organised Tiger Task Force, set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, to review tiger conservation in the country.

The consultations, held on May 18 and 19, in New Delhi were attended by leading wildlife experts, scientists and environmental activists and environment experts from around the country. The five-member task force, set up after the alarming disclosure that tigers had disappeared from the Sariska reserve in Rajasthan, has been charged with reviewing programmes to protect the tiger so that it can suggest a new paradigm of conservation that shares the concern of species protection with people.

The consultations highlighted the following issues:

The recent Ministry of Environment and Forests ruling, "all rights and concessions (traditional rights to collect minor forest product) cannot be enjoyed in protected areas" has increased man-animal conflict enormously. Under this direction, roughly 3.5-4 million people living inside and at the fringes of protected areas have lost all sources of livelihood and revenue, which has exacerbated destitution and in turn their anger against the tiger.

It was pointed out that the in spite of the organised investigations and professional law enforcement, sandalwood smuggler Veerappan had the run of the land for many years, because of the support he received from local communities who had been denied access to benefits of forests. This was the case in tiger conservation as well. The exclusion of the communities in management of forest and wildlife resources affects the gathering of intelligence and information, which is critical to preventing poaching, an expert commented.

Illegal trade in tiger parts is highly organised agree experts. They say that events in Sariska reveal that the killed tigers are part of this organised international trade, which moves via Nepal to Tibet and China. In recent years the tiger skin trade is back in fashion and investigations have tracked tiger furs in markets of Tibet, where it is used as traditional clothing. The increased economic affluence in Tibet and China is clearly spurring this trade comment national and international experts.

They also say that this highly skilled and organised international crime needs a highly coordinated and skilled response to combat it. They point out that current systems to undertake criminal investigations and enforcement are inadequate. What is needed urgently is to set up a multi-disciplinary and professional task force for wildlife law enforcement, which will be charged to follow up the investigations across borders and in major city markets of the country.
But experts also voiced their disquiet over the current proposal of the government to set up such a wildlife crime bureau on the lines of the narcotic bureau. It will be noted that the government has for many year agreed to set up this mechanism. The proposal that is currently being discussed by government authorities will require setting up a multi-agency unit, staffed with 285 people, with budget of Rs 163 crore spread over 5 years. Experts said, that while the bureau was necessary, the size was not needed. They instead suggested a 'lean and mean' organisational structure, which could track crime, manage databases and follow through on investigations. The agency needed to build strong networks with the local law enforcement and forest officials so that they could gather intelligence and investigate offences. They pointed to the urgency of setting up this facility and urged the task force to look into its provisions. 

The current database of poaching data - both official and non-official of seizures show increasing trends, but all agree that this reporting is the tip of the ice berg. The fact is that seizures cannot be translated easily into tiger mortality, as they include parts of tigers, which cannot be used as estimates for deaths. The official database reveals 114 tiger deaths due to poaching in five years between 1999-2003 and 238 items of tiger parts seized in 211 cases in the same period. The unofficial database reveals higher estimates. But it is difficult to analyse the exact difference because of varying systems of classification and categorisation in the different database. The problem experts point out is that there is no coordinated and corroborated database of the seizures, which can be used for further investigation.

It is also clear that wildlife offenders have long criminal records and are well practiced in this art. Experts argue that investigations carried out based on the long term offenders will crack many cases and can effectively destroy the networks, which are today out to wipe out our wildlife species.   

But this will also require legal reforms to ensure that people who are arrested in wildlife crime are tried and convicted speedily. It was agreed that the low rate of convictions in wildlife crime needs to be looked at urgently. It was noted that although hundreds of wildlife crime cases have been filed only a handful convictions have actually taken place over the past several years therefore prosecution had not worked as a deterrent for poachers.  Lacunae in the existing laws where small petty poaches are treated at par with organised wildlife crime lords was also highlighted. Provisions like pre-charge evidence, has given wildlife criminals the run of the land, they said. They pointed out that the case against a key accused, caught in 1993, in a major wildlife bust is still in the pre-charge evidence stage after 12 years. The experts concurred that a serious overhaul of forest 0and wildlife management mechanisms in the country is required to control the menace of poaching.

How many tigers do we have? The fact is that unless we have ways to count the tigers in the wild, which are reliable and scientifically verifiable, we really do not know. The consultation included brainstorming with key scientists who are engaged in developing census methodologies to count animals in the wild. Experts agreed that there was a need to change the current "pug-mark" system, in which the pug prints of animals are tracked and cast to estimate numbers. A number of different methodologies are now being developed and all the top experts, working in the field made presentations to the task force, pointing to the advantages and disadvantages of the different systems. The task force will review the different options to suggest what should be done and in particular, how data on tiger conservation can be made transparent and put in the public domain.

The Indian tiger is the flagship species and must be saved. But what is clear is that saving the tiger will need much more than guns and guards. It will need a serious revamp of the current paradigm of conservation, which makes people criminals in their own land. The task force will continue its deliberations with experts and local people. It also plans, during this three-month period, to visit key protected areas in the country in its search for answers.

The following experts, wildlife conservationists and environmentalists were consulted over the two days:

B K Sharma, head of the special investigation team, Central Bureau of Investigation, Belinda Wright, Wildlife Protection Society, John Sellers, CITES secretariat, Debbie banks, Environment Investigation Agency, A K Mukherjee, former Director General Forests, Manoj Mishra, Peace Foundation, Madhu Sarin, environmentalist, Harsh Vardhan, conservationist, P K Sen, Director WWF-India, Ashok Kumar, Director, Wildlife Trust of India, B S Bonal, Director, National Zoological Park, Y V Jhala and Qamar Qureshi, Wildlife Institute of India, Ullhas Karanth, Wildlife Conservation Society, Raghu Chundawat, Ravi Chellam, UNDP, Vasant Sabarwal, Ford Foundation.

For terms of reference of the task force and other details.

Please contact CSE at 9810098124, 29955124, 29955125, 29956401, 29956394.