Poaching and Population Threaten India's Tigers
Development, New Law on Tribal Rights Add to Pressure

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

PHALODI QUARRY, India -- With homemade muskets, Lakhan and his brothers tracked one of India's endangered Bengal tigers as it slunk along the forested trails and lakes of Ranthambhore National Park, not far from Lakhan's village. Then, under cover of night, one of them fired a bullet into the chest of the howling cat.

"Hunger," said the wiry Lakhan, pointing to his concave stomach, which was covered by a white lungi, or skirt-like wrap. "That's why I did it. That scenario hasn't changed much. My heart pounds when we kill a tiger. But we have pressures."

Lakhan has killed three tigers in recent years and has been in jail on and off for selling their thick yellow-and-black striped coats, as well as their bones, whiskers and even their glowing amber eyes. Each tiger has fetched him more money than he can earn in six months of farming sesame for its seeds. Lakhan is from the Mogya community, a poaching tribe whose people have hunted the giant felines for centuries here in the northern desert state of Rajasthan.

But just as poaching ensures the Mogyas' survival, it might also ensure the tigers' extinction.

In the past 100 years, tiger populations around the world have declined by 95 percent. In India, home to at least half of the world's tigers, only an estimated 1,500 remain, a decline of more than 50 percent since 2001, according to the government-run National Tiger Conservation Authority. In the past six years, it is believed, tigers have been killed at a rate of nearly one a day.

Over the next 20 years, the tiger population could "disappear in many places, or shrink to the point of ecological extinction," according to a 2006 report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington.

Several factors have contributed to the decline in India, including a growing human population. There is also a demand for tiger parts from places such as China, where tiger skins priced at $12,000 and more are used for luxury clothes and wall hangings, and where equally pricey tiger bones are used in traditional medicines. Compounding the problem, wildlife activists say, is a pro-development Indian government more concerned with the economy than the environment.

The tiger is India's national symbol, and on omnipresent tourism posters, the elegant and supple cat is shown strutting toward the camera like a supermodel. But in India there are already several tiger reserves with no tigers, leading some conservationists to wonder whether a booming nation and its tigers can coexist.

Even in the woods of Ranthambhore, known as the best place in the world to spot the elusive cat, the tiger population has dwindled to just 35. Meanwhile, the number of people living next to the park has more than tripled, from 70,000 in 1980 to 250,000 today. The new arrivals have brought construction, logging and nearly 1 million grazing livestock.

"But all the government cares about now is call centers, shopping malls and apartments. That leaves the tiger situation in a miserable mess," said Valmik Thapar, known as India's "tiger man" for his conservation work. "So why save the tigers? Because saving the tiger means saving every insect in the forest, and the forest itself, and that's important not to just India, but to the world."

In a country with 1.1 billion people, where open land is becoming increasingly crowded, Parliament recently passed legislation that will provide tribal communities with land and building rights in wildlife reserves, an opportunity that could push tigers out of their sanctuaries. Thapar worries that the legislation will also give free rein to timber and tiger poachers, who could hire poverty-stricken forest dwellers to do the work.

In July, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, saying it was alarmed about India's inability to stop the illegal tiger trade.

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."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company