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Is India selling out its tigers?

In the New York Times, journalist and co-author of Tigers Forever Sharon Guynup asks the question — and lists the reasons why the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’.

But the Modi government’s aggressive focus on development threatens both the cats’ future and the nation’s environment. India is razing forests and flooding them with dams, giving the go-ahead for new mines and pushing rapid industrialization. The 2015 budget cut funding for the environment ministry by 25 percent and support for tiger protection by 15 percent.

Toward that end, the government is moving swiftly and systematically to alter environmental regulations. Last August, a high level government committee was given the impossible task of reviewing the country’s major environmental laws and suggesting overhauls, all within a few months. Most of the committee members lacked environmental expertise, recommendations were not reviewed by independent authorities and most outside input was “invited.”

It is, argues Guynup, a perfect storm. Laws are being changed to permit large-scale deforestation; dams are coming up in job lots that will wipe out large sections of forest land, including reserves; sane voices from the outside, that could warn of the dangers, are being deliberately shut out of the process…

“Maybe I’m exaggerating,” said Ashok Khosla, the first director of India’s Office of Environmental Planning and Coordination, “but it sounds to me as if we have a cliff ahead of us and we have our foot on the accelerator.”

More on these lines here.

Yeah! THAT’ll do it.

India, says this news report, lost more 41 tigers this year till date, thus continuing a process of attrition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is deeply interested in the environment in general, and tigers in particular. So of course the concerned department is concerned, and hell bent on doing something constructive about it. Like, so:

Vikas Kharge, secretary Revenue and Forest Department (Forests), told TOI that choosing actor Amitabh Bachchan as the ambassador for its tiger conservation projects is likely to have a positive outcome for conservation measures.

“We are yet to finalise the modalities and a meeting with the actor will soon take place. He is a tiger lover and his involvement in the project will have a unique appeal for the masses,” he said.

Because, having already gutted the funds for Project Tiger, what we now need to do is spend most of the little that remains on signing up a costly “ambassador”.

Irony wept bitter tears.

PS: More on our tigers



Clear and present danger

News item: Supreme Court puts on hold decisions taken by the National Body for Wildlife, reconstituted by — and chaired by — Prime Minister Narendra Modi

News item: In the wake of the SC ruling, Modi decides to reconstitute the NBW as per the statutory requirements he had earlier ignored

News item (This just in): NBW okays 81 development proposals — including nine right in the middle of protected tiger reserves.

News item (This, too, just in): The NBW led by Modi’s Minister for Environment Prakash Javadekar cleared at least six projects, three of them in wildlife reserves, before carrying out the mandatory inspections. In other words, the “inspections”, mandated by law and the courts, are now merely a formality.

As PM Narendra Modi said earlier, our tigers, and our environment generally, are in good hands:

Prime Minister, who was presented a report on the status of tigers in India, expressed satisfaction at the reported increase in the country’s tiger population, and said it was an illustration of India’s commitment to respect for nature.


Prime Minister said the people of India have been the protectors and devotees of nature. He said we need to project this fact properly, so that the world realizes that India cannot be questioned in this regard.

It is, after all, about projection, not reality. Modi understands that. As does Javadekar, who recently instructed his officials to use the right language.

An intra-ministry communication issued on July 16 by Javadekar’s private secretary Vinay Srivastava stated: “Hon’ble minister has desired that henceforth in all communication the word ‘Clearance’ should be replaced by ‘Approval with Adequate Environmental Safeguards’ and the word ‘Diversion’ should be replaced by ‘Reforestation’.”

As the minister — who, to his credit, is a master at the use of language sans intent — said, in words that cannot be improved upon:

“This is all about thinking positive, and using the right expression”

But it doesn’t matter, really, if your heart is in the right place. As for instance:

The proposal for the widening of NH17 passing through Karnala Bird Sanctuary was earlier rejected twice by the NBWL in its 17th and 29th meetings. In both instances, the proposal was opposed due to the availability of an alternative alignment.

However, the standing committee in the 34th meeting concluded that, “widening within the sanctuary will smoothen the traffic and reduce the foul emissions from recurring traffic jams, which are harmful for the birds and other wildlife”.

See? We build broader roads through protected areas so traffic can flow smoothly and the emissions from jammed vehicles don’t give the birds a coughing fit.

Population zero

When a report recently declared that there were no tigers left at the Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal, it sent alarm bells ringing. On May 18 and 19, officials from the reserve got together with representatives of the Wildlife Institute of India, the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the West Bengal Forest Department to chart a plan to reintroduce the national animal there.

The reported count was particularly vexing because just three years earlier, the same reserve had announced the presence of 20 tigers. How did the tiger population of a reserve go down from 20 to none in under four years?

The most likely explanation is that those 20 tigers might never have been there.

The mystery of the missing tigers, via Scroll (to whom credit also goes for the lead image)

Words, words, mere words…

…no matter from the heart.” Shakespeare could have been commenting on governments everywhere.

Guernica recently featured a Carly Nairn piece that made one central point: The rhino is poached for its horn, each of which can be worth up to $300,000. The conservationist is rapidly losing the war against the poacher, so perhaps the only option left is to domesticate this quintessential animal of the wild, and ‘benignly’ de-horn it so there is no reason for the poacher to kill. That is what the discourse around anti-poaching efforts has been reduced to — tame what we cannot protect.

Earlier this week, meanwhile, two poachers who killed a one-horned rhino in Assam’s Orang National Park have been found guilty — using, for the first time ever, evidence from camera traps — and sentenced to two years and a Rs 25,000 fine apiece. Good enough, as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go very far. The point of deterrence — and prescribed punishment is essentially about deterrence — is to deter. Compare the risk (two years in jail, and a penny-ante fine) against the reward (a potential $300,000 windfall), and it is apparent that the punishment — even on those rare occasions when a culprit is actually captured, brought to trial, and convicted — is nowhere near harsh enough to make the risk unacceptable.

Add official apathy to the mix, and you get the perfect storm. During an official visit to the Kaziranga sanctuary in Assam last year, Minister for Environment Prakash Javadekar announced a plan: the state government would create a Rhino Protection Force to patrol the 800-plus sq km park housing a rhino population of over 2400, and the Center would fund it. Submit a proposal, the minister told the state government.

And then, the sorry sequel: The Assam government estimated that it could recruit 1000 young men as the nucleus of the RPF, and submitted a proposal to that effect. You can have 100 people tops, Javadekar’s ministry has responded, and no more. Besides, the ministry has given the state no assurance that the Center will bless any future expansion.

“Undertaking piecemeal measures will not yield results,” Assam’s environment minister Atuwa Munda told The Telegraph.

Munda said Dispur has written to Delhi saying it would go ahead with the plan only if the Centre agrees to recruit a thousand personnel.

He hoped the Centre would reconsider its decision, going by the concern it has shown over rhino poaching.

Saying cheese (Image courtesy Indian Express)

Which brings you right back to Shakespeare. ‘Expressing concern’ costs nothing and buys cheap headlines, photo ops, and favorable media mentions.

But as he did with tigers recently, Javadekar seems only too happy to claim credit for ‘good news’ that had nothing to do with his ministry’s efforts, and move on to the next photo op and self-serving statement. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground worsens, as RTI activists discovered.

Javadekar maintains that the significant increase in the rhino population is an example of the “good success of conservation efforts”. The minister argues that while there were 20-odd rhino poaching cases, some 30-odd poachers were killed in encounters. However, to look for the silver lining in the incidents of rhino poaching in Kaziranga would be a terrible mistake, according to wildlife activists and experts.

The CAG’s performance audit on the Kaziranga National Park is categorical in its indictment of the manner in which the threat of poaching has been handled. While the audit highlights a number of good practices, it states that “most important aspect of wildlife management, that is the management of habitats, took a back seat”.

But hey — we have a Rhino Protection Force, no?

Elsewhere — remember the earlier post about money for tiger conservation in Karnataka’s forest reserves? Here’s an update from the MoE, who was responding to a Rajya Sabha question on the death of over 40 big cats in Gujarat over a two-month span:

He said that special tiger protection forces has been raised, armed and deployed in four tiger reserves – Bandipur (Karnataka), Pench (Maharashtra, Tadoba-Andhari (Maharasthra) and Similipal (Odisha).

So ok, we have a Tiger Protection Force, too. Moving on…

Also Read:

Inside Kaziranga’s one-horned dream by Urmi Bhattacharjee

In South Africa, a home for orphaned rhinos, via the LA Times