Save people, not tigers

The tiger population of the Jim Corbett National Park in India is growing so rapidly that the authorities are expanding the reserve's size. This may sound like good news, but it's not all good.

Increasing the size of the park will mean further encroaching on the land of local people already suffering hardship. In addition, the normal conservation methods are just not working. Tiger numbers across India are still in decline and the park is doing nothing but managing that decline. If we care so much for these charismatic creatures then more radical ideas are needed, and we should not make locals pay the price for our love of the tiger.

In India, more than three million people live inside the country's 500 national parks, reserves and sanctuaries. It's estimated that around 300,000 live in the 28 tiger reserves. While researching the plight of 40,000 indigenous people in Gujarat who found themselves virtual prisoners in a wildlife sanctuary designed for animals rather than people.

Some of the most stringent wildlife laws anywhere in the world are to be found in India. The Forest Department police who control these sanctuaries and reserves are armed, and empowered by wildlife protection laws to enforce restrictions in the protected areas. Indigenous people must not hunt, enter the sanctuary with weapons, or light fires without permission. They must not hurt or frighten wildlife, poach, damage trees, mine, collect forest produce, fish, trap animals, or clear land for cultivation.

Local people living on the edge of the Jim Corbett Park who, already excluded from their land, are now threatened with further punishment with the creation of an 18-mile wide extension to the park. Not only will they lose land but also they will see further attacks on their livestock who are regularly killed by tigers and leopards. The creation of a tourist attraction is no replacement for the loss of land and livelihoods.

The imminent extinction of the tiger is a key shibboleth of wildlife conservation. In 1995 the International Union for Conservation of Nature claimed that tigers would be virtually extinct in the wild by 1999 "unless India and the other range states declare open war on poachers and illegal traders".

The survival of the tiger has been the subject of countless conservation campaigns, public appeals and militarised anti-poaching activities. In 1994, even the cuddly WWF used the slogan in its recruitment campaign: "He's destroying his own rainforest. To stop him do you send in the army or an anthropologist?" Tigers are protected by international law through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It provides for a total prohibition on hunting and trade in tiger parts.

Yet, India's policy of isolating wildlife in reserves, curtailing human activity, and demanding further prohibitions on hunting and trade is simply not working. numbers of wild tigers have declined markedly to less than 1,400. Whether for food, fashion or medicine, demand for tigers and tiger parts has not declined but steadily increased.

India should adopt the Chinese approach. Numbers of wild tigers in China have also declined but the numbers of tigers bred in captivity, in the 14 registered tiger farms has increased. There are more than 5,000 tigers in captivity in China. Plans are under way to log the genetic profile of all the tigers held so that the numbers of pure subspecies can be documented and increased. This will aid the breeding of some of the rare subspecies such as the Bengal and Siberian tigers.

The cost of these centres is very high, and not helped by the 14-year ban on domestic and international trade in tigers, enforced by CITES. However if the tigers were bred for market, for their parts as well as for sale to zoos and circuses, these enterprises would become self-sufficient. It could also have the effect of undercutting the illegal trade in tiger parts by supplying a steady stream to the market.

Tiger stir-fry and tiger-blood wine may not be on everyone's menu. Most of us would not know what to do with a tiger penis if it flopped in front of us. However, the Chinese are already using some of the revenue from these farms to re-introduce tigers back into the wild in South Africa, and are planning the same for a designated reserve in China.

Maybe this free market will destroy the tiger of William Blake's imagination. Its majesty as a predator is lost in circuses and zoos (if animal rights activists haven't banned them yet). It will not burn bright in tiger farms. Nevertheless, the commercial farming of tigers and captive breeding programmes should be taken seriously, until the next Green Revolution in agriculture, when less land is needed for food, and indigenous people are truly living, and not just surviving on subsistence agriculture. We can then set aside land for tigers.

We can romanticise the tiger if we wish, but we should re-enchant ourselves with humanity. If we are so intent on saving the tiger then I'd propose farms for tigers and not prisons for indigenous people.

Tuesday, December 2nd 2008

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