Page 2 of 2   <      

Poaching and Population Threaten India's Tigers

Above, Lakhan, a poacher, sends his sons to a school that helps instill a love of wildlife. Rajendra, 16, left, says he wants to be a park ranger and protect tigers. At left wearing hat, Fateh Singh Rathore, 73, for whom the school is named, and his son, Goverdhan Singh Rathore, 42, work to end poaching through education and employment efforts.
Above, Lakhan, a poacher, sends his sons to a school that helps instill a love of wildlife. Rajendra, 16, left, says he wants to be a park ranger and protect tigers. At left wearing hat, Fateh Singh Rathore, 73, for whom the school is named, and his son, Goverdhan Singh Rathore, 42, work to end poaching through education and employment efforts. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)

But some government leaders say the needs of people must be considered. They say the new legislation simply recognizes the rights of traditional tribes over forest land they have occupied for generations. Tribal activists say that India's 700 million desperately impoverished people should be more important than parks visited largely by wealthy tourists from overseas. In some areas just outside the park, they point out, fewer than 3 percent of girls can read, and treatable diseases are still a major cause of death.

Singh this year asked local governments to create a development agency for each tiger reserve. The goal is to increase participation in conservation by encouraging hotels and parks to hire local residents and by hosting more school trips to parks.

"Wherever the local population has come into the picture, the tigers are safer," Rajesh Gopal, member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, has frequently said.

A prominent Rajasthani family in Ranthambhore is trying to counter the idea that parks are just gardens for the rich by ensuring that benefits reach the local population. Along with his son and other relatives, Fateh Singh Rathore, 73, India's most iconic tiger conservationist, operates Tiger Watch, an internationally funded nongovernmental organization that is luring communities out of the forest with schools and hospitals. Its work is credited with saving the small number of tigers that are left.

Rathore, who is never seen without an olive-colored safari hat and tiger-print silk cravat, was the park's first game warden. In the late 1970s, he relocated 12 villages, or about 10,000 families, because of concerns that they were encroaching on tigers.

"Later I thought, instead of making villains out of the poachers, let's talk to them and try and reform them," Rathore said, reclining on tiger-print throw pillows in his home near the park.

The wives of arrested poachers receive training in handicrafts, making tiger-print pajamas and tiger pugmark, or footprint, soap dishes out of clay. The items are popular with tourists.

"If we lock them in jail, we have to find a way for the family to go on," Rathore said. "A son should not be punished for a father's action. Through education, we can help turn the poachers into the protectors of the park."

Rathore's son, Goverdhan Singh Rathore, 42, has started similar outreach programs, opening one of the best rural hospitals in India, along with a large, airy school named for his father.

The Fateh School also encourages family planning, offering a tuition scholarship to families who have only two children.

"While the population in India is exploding, the forest is staying the same size," Goverdhan said. "It's not elitist to save the tiger. The larger issue here is how do we stop poverty and save the tiger."

It often takes several days to spot a tiger from the open-topped tourist jeeps that roar up and down the park's jungle tracks. Most tourists are told there is a 30 percent chance of seeing one.

Ranthambhore's hilly thorn forest is home to soaring eagles, sambar deer with fairy-tale-like antlers, and sunbathing crocodiles. Indian peacocks wander in the wide shade of the banyan tree, its gray branches flowing like wild, curly hair over the forest floor. But the tiger is the most majestic, walking like royalty, prancing on leaves and waving its long tail.

It's the next generation of the Mogya tribe that Fateh Singh Rathore hopes he can educate. On a recent day, Lakhan visited his son at the school. His boys are the first in his family to receive a formal education, and he was thrilled that they were learning to read and write, and that they were eating eggs and fruit, a better diet than their meals at home of chapati, or flat bread, and red chilies.

The principal also talked to Lakhan about a program to have the reformed poachers earn money by giving camel rides to tourists. Lakhan was skeptical of the idea but said there was a need to have a permanent occupation of some sort.

His 16-year-old son, Rajendra, said he wants to be a park ranger and protect tigers. He even jokes with his father about his line of work.

"If my father becomes a nuisance," he said, looking up at Lakhan, "I will have to read him my nature lessons: The tiger is our national pride."


<       2

© 2007 The Washington Post Company