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India's National Symbol Becoming More Difficult to Spot

The tiger is India's national symbol, but it is getting more difficult to spot the animal in its native habitat. The country now finds itself in the embarrassing position of having tiger reserves without any tigers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi on the state of the Indian tiger and a controversial plan to relocate some of the big cats.

It is a sighting that is becoming more infrequent in India – tigers in their natural habitat. in the state of Rajasthan is one of the best places to see the tigers.

And that has made it a popular tourist attraction bringing much-needed revenue to the rural area.

Other tiger reserves are not so lucky. In the , also in Rajasthan, the tourists have vanished because no tigers have been spotted there since November 2004. Humans are blamed for wiping out Sarika's tiger population.

In response, the Ministry of Environment and Forests plans to take some of these tigers from Ranthambhore to repopulate Sariska.

The head of the Ministry's Project Tiger, Rajesh Gopal, endorses the idea. "We can very well afford to trans-locate a few spillover tiger cubs in the prime age group from geographically distant areas within the tiger reserve itself, Ranthambhore itself, for Sariska. We can do that."

But many conservationists oppose the plan.

They argue that 10,000 people live inside the Sariska Park. And they include villagers who see the tiger as a threat, and poachers who sell tiger skins and other body parts on the thriving black market across the border in Nepal and China. Tiger products are believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac powers.

One of India's best known tiger lovers, conservationist Valmik Thapar, says the plan to relocate a few of the park's villages will not save the endangered animal. "If they don't want to go and none of them leave then you cannot relocate tigers because tigers and people don't co-exist. The tiger salivates when it looks at the four-legged creatures that people in villages have, which are cows and buffaloes. There is conflict then between man and tigers – always has been for centuries."

Tiger conservationists lament that no one in India's government seems to have the fierce commitment to saving the animal, as did former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

She cracked down on tiger hunting and the fur trade and initiated the first nine reserves under Project Tiger. The current overseer of Project Tiger refutes the critics. He says Mrs. Gandhi's legacy lives and is cherished by the current prime minister.

"The Tiger Task Force came up with a set of urgent recommendations which are being implemented upon, says Gopal. “These are being monitored at the highest level of the government. So I don't see in any manner that the interest has diminished or the efforts have been reduced."

But the numbers demonstrate otherwise. When Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, there were an estimated 4,000 tigers across India.

Now the official number is about 3500, and some conservationists claim the actual total may be half that.

"There's a complete failure of governance,” conservationist Thapar says. “The key is nobody wants to govern the sector efficiently. They're allowing it to fade away and the tiger will end up being, in another three to four years, it'll be down to a population of maybe 500 to 600. And then the world will start to shout - a bit late in the day."

Those who are supposed to protect the tiger find themselves literally outgunned by poachers. The guards are not in a position to threaten the poachers; there are too few of them to adequately patrol the vast expanses and they do not carry guns.

A former forestry official, Sujoy Banerjee, directs the species conservation program in India for the WWF. He says policy should focus on apprehending the kingpins of the organized tiger trade.

"There is a need for more concerted action against the big poachers rather than actually the small ones because the small ones will eventually die out themselves because they won't have a market, they won't be able to sell."

India is a major source for the trade, with Interpol estimating that illegal wildlife products generate $12 billion a year worldwide.

With that sort of money in play, conservationists say India's tigers remain in serious danger.