The 2010 tiger census report says that there are 1,700 of the animals in the wild, compared with the 1,400 in 2004-5.
Much like India’s cricketing ‘Tiger’, Nawab of Pataudi, who ruled the pitch with his classy knocks and impeccably gentlemanly behaviour, the nation’s national animal once majestically lorded over the wilds.
Till, hunting for royal sport in the early years of 1900s began to decimate tigers faster than the species’ ability to breed.
After independence, hunting the tiger and other wild animals as a sport was gradually replaced by hunting for money.
The maharajas went, and in came the new hunters, poachers or gangs of criminals, who ruthlessly went for the kill to a make a quick buck, a big buck. They killed tigers for their skin and other body parts.
If the skin adorned the drawing rooms of the rich, the animal’s organs were marketed as medicines for various ailments. But they were more sought after as aphrodisiacs, though scientifically there is no proof of tiger parts curing anything at all, let alone sexual impotency in men.
But, the masses, especially in China and Southeast Asia, could not care less. Going by hearsay, they relished among other food dishes, tiger penis soup, hoping that the bowl of broth would turn them into the most macho of studs.
Also, tiger bones were touted as the “cure” for a number of diseases in Chinese medicine
The highly organised fraternity of criminals which butchered tigers and fooled people, made its millions, aided and abetted by a lax Indian administration and a country of poverty stricken people.
If government forest guards were ill-paid, ill-equipped (often carrying lathis as weapons) and even ill-dressed (no shoes!), their opponents were armed to the teeth (sophisticated guns, night-vision glasses and modern vehicles). The battle was lost even before it could begin.
On the other hand, most villagers, burdened with debts and weak with hunger, saw poaching as a quick means to easy money. Poachers were only too willing to share a part, though a small part, of their loot with villagers. After all, tiger parts fetched millions of dollars in the international market.
The animal, driven to desperation by a shrinking habitat (with forests being cleared for food cultivation and factories) and, hence, dwindling prey, was forced to sneak into human settlements in search of domestic cattle.
Loss of livestock meant a huge blow to a villager, and though the government was compensating for this, red-tape was a hassle. It also meant bribing the man in charge of doling out cattle-loss compensation and being left with crumbs.
So, villagers either poisoned tigers themselves or helped poachers finish off the animals.
Ultimately, a time came in 1972, when there were roughly 1500 tigers in Indian forests, and what a drop from the 40,000 that roamed the wilds at the beginning of the 20thth century.
It was then that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to establish Project Tiger, by creating special reserves for the majestic cat, and by enacting new laws to save it.
In the next 15 years, the tiger population is said to have risen.
But this was a glory short lived. Once Gandhi died in 1984, the tiger was once again pushed dangerously close to extinction. Poachers returned with renewed vigour, and renowned cat specialists like Peter Jackson warned New Delhi that one Indian tiger was being butchered every day.
Though tiger conservationists have welcomed this, they feel that the jump in the figures can be partly attributed to better counting methods and the inclusion of newer areas for the census.
Tito Joseph, programme director at the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said “the latest census included some of the areas they left out last time because of problems accessing the terrain, like the Sunderbans in West Bengal” which is home to hundreds of tigers.
“They have also set up more tiger reserves. In 2004 there were only 28-33 tiger reserves, now there are 39 reserves, so that’s obviously helped,” he added.
With most of the world’s wild tigers now concentrated in India (in China the entire population was wiped out), the country has even greater responsibility to keep this majestic feline creature safe.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.