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Project Tiger– India’s Ecological Oasis

Project Tiger– India’s Ecological Oasis

Kailash Sankhala, author of the international best seller ‘Tiger’, is by any count a remarkable man. A Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow, his life has been so totally dedicated to saving the tiger that even today, nearly five years after his resignation as the Director of Project Tiger, the prime motivating factor in his life remains the animal he loves so passionately.

The Fellowship was awarded to study the ecology and behaviour of the Indian Tiger for two years, 1970-1972.
Photo: Divyabhanusinh.

At a time when killing tigers was a tourist draw, this man waged an almost single-handed battle against very powerful odds to save the animal from certain extinction. After painstaking effort, in 1970 he presented the Government of India with alarming evidence that only 2000 tigers were left alive in our forests. This led to an immediate and total ban on the shooting of tigers and for the first time in many years the future of Panthera tigris tigris was assured.

In 1973 the world got together to save one of its handsomest animals from certain extinction. Reasons for the tiger’s decline have been discussed and rediscussed ad nauseum, but we should concern ourselves only with facts -- thanks to man, the tiger nearly vanished from the face of the earth. Only last minute action by desperate individuals and the newly awakened conscience of an enlightened government saved him.

The Indian sub-continent has always been the heart of tigerland. The tiger was, and fortunately still is, the spirit of the jungle -- unafraid, powerful, secretive and hypnotic. Through the ages man’s fascination for this animal has been tempered by fear. We admired his capacity for stealth, his invincibility in battle and wished therefore, to demonstrate our own bravery by doing him to death. In isolation, this futile attempt at proving our manhood would not have resulted in the precarious position into which we placed the tiger. We simultaneously hacked out of his homeland, space for our fields and wood for our fires, and this disturbed the entire structure of tigerland. Its areas were reduced, its animals were disturbed and its peace was shattered.

With the disappearance of grasslands and forests, deer, wild boar, monkeys and bison also became scarce and the tiger found it more and more difficult to find food. The downward spiral was further set into motion after independence when almost every farmer was issued a gun license on request for ‘crop-protection’. Many of these guns, added to those owned by city dwellers, were profitably used to supply the ‘skin trade’ and the animal retreated deeper and deeper into the forest. But man followed him relentlessly, till the combination of habitat destruction and wanton killing almost led to the tiger’s extinction. At this stage, the one-sided massacre was called to a halt.

In 1969, the IUCN listed the tiger in the ‘Red Data Book’ as an endangered species, the same day I presented my paper “The Vanishing Indian Tiger” to them.

In 1970, a total ban on hunting tigers was imposed when the government realised how few were really left.

In 1971, the Delhi High Court upheld the ban, against the protests of people who wanted to exercise their ‘rights’ as ‘free citizens’ to continue killing tigers.

In 1972, on April 10 to be precise, Guy Mountfort, on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund, met Indira Gandhi, who enthusiastically placed the machinery of her government and her position as Prime Minister squarely on the side of the tiger.

On April 1, 1973, exactly 20 years after I joined the forest service, Project Tiger was launched at Corbett National Park.  An emotional appeal from the WWF had stirred the world and nearly two million dollars were collected to ‘Save the Tiger’. Finally it seemed, the tiger had found some friends. In a sense, this represented the culmination of my life’s ambition though my appointment as Project Tiger’s Executive Director allowed me to follow my efforts through still further. But where was Panthera tigris? To which far-flung corners of his ravaged homeland had he retreated, away from the persecution of man? To save him, we first had to find him and our search led us through mountains, plains, forests and swamps, for the tenacious animal had learned to survive in very widely varying habitat.

The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) is one of the many animals which benefited from the protection accorded to Tiger Reserves. Photo: Sankhala.

There was a time when the whole of tigerland was one contiguous region. Now however, the land had been carved up by civilisation and tigers lived in four broad zones.

The north-east extending southward to the Sunderbans.

The north-west consisting of the Himalayan foothills and the Terrai.

Peninsular India which included the arid lands of Rajasthan, the Central Plateau and the Eastern Ghats.

And lastly, the Western Ghat region.

I travelled to each of these zones, from which we isolated nine tiger strongholds. These we called ‘Tiger Reserves’ and we were determined to protect every creature in them since we knew the tiger could never be preserved in isolation. He needed animals to prey on who needed grasses, shrubs and forest cover. Forests in turn needed converters – micro-organisms in the soil to recycle nutrients. The philosophy of Project Tiger, therefore became one of total environmental protection. In the core areas, no trees would be cut, no cattle grazing allowed and even deadwood was to be left alone, to rot on the forest floor. Our guiding principal in other words was ‘do nothing and allow nothing to be done.’

At this juncture, much well intentioned advice was received on how best we should manage our Tiger Reserves. But Indian conditions were different and though many of their suggestions were usefully employed, it was left to the inventiveness of Indian minds to overcome a majority of the problems that confronted us. Fortunately, we had a good team of people. Their commitment was complete, our authority was considerable and our success was spectacular. Despite initial misgivings, almost every international forum was eventually full of praise for the world’s most famous conservation programme. The simple truth was – tiger populations were on the rise.

In the process of saving the tiger, the reserves we so fanatically guarded turned into veritable Gardens of Eden and their other inhabitants multiplied as well. The first phase of Project Tiger justified our implicit faith in Nature’s ability to recover and maintain its own balance. Instead of resorting to ‘experimental’ park management techniques like tranquilisation and radio colloring tigers, we concentrated our efforts on the protection of their habitat. The funds made available to us by the WWF provided us with transport, wireless equipment and guns, and for once we were better equipped than the poachers who plundered our forests. These gentlemen of dubious courage were so demoralised that poaching incidents became virtually non-existent and peace once more prevailed in tigerland.

Inside Tigerland

She lay patiently in the tall grass. An hour had passed; not a muscle moved, not a whisker flickered.  The paths were well-used and led to a lake which provided the only water available for miles -- if at all she made her kill it would be now. Her cubs had been safely deposited in a rock cave half a mile away, well hidden and out of danger. She had made no kill in two days.

He appeared cautiously, his body tensed for instant flight. Large eyes searched for danger and his nostrils sniffed the air. Satisfied, the large chital buck stepped out of the forest cover and ambled across the line of grass to the water’s edge. The herd followed in ones and twos, fawns traipsing playfully around their mothers, young bucks and does sparring for positions – all of them eager to drink.

Still she waited. Almost willing one of the deer to walk closer towards the grass. He was a young buck, antlers still not fully spread. He walked without a care, parallel to the grass and away from the water till he was just 20 yards from where she lay. The first warning came when he heard the rustling of grass as the tigress, belly almost touching the ground, prepared her crouch. He barely had time for one loud, high-pitched, ‘bark’ of alarm when she was upon him, her weight bringing him down instantly; the back of his neck in her jaws. In under a minute it was all over.

The other deer bolted as the jungle was momentarily filled with sounds that confirmed death or danger.

There is no place in the jungle for diseased, disabled or disturbed animals.  In one form or another they are removed from its midst as they soon fall victim to starvation or sudden death. Their end however, is not without purpose as sudden death means certain food for carnivores and their camp followers -- the scavengers. The hunters concentrate their efforts on the weakest, slowest or least alert prey to conserve energy which in turn strengthens the genetic strains of their prey. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is an obvious reality in the jungle and is always in evidence to naturalists like myself who have spent a lifetime in ‘hides’, over tiger kills and water holes. In a hide, as the day progresses, the jungle book reveals itself, each moment steeped in mystery and each day filled with romance. ‘Inner secrets’ become known and with patience one begins to feel a sense of belonging, a oneness easier felt than explained. Occasionally, my quiet moments are interrupted by thoughts that remind me of the threat to this tranquillity and it is now that anger comes to the fore. The mindless interference of ordinary mortals with a system so perfectly outside their comprehension is inexplicable. Inexcusable. I recall a small stream, surrounded by trees and shrubs, in the Kachida valley, where I used to watch animals from a hide, many years ago. Some well-intentioned individual decided to dam the stream to ensure a perennial water supply for the animals and in the process, submerged the trees, shrubs and the hide. Inside of a year, all the trees had died and the wayside pools, contaminated by lime and iron rust, were left alone by the animals. What did such meddling achieve? Tigerland needs no such ‘mis-managers’. Its management is best left to the inhabitants who did so well till we made our presence felt.

The facial marking of every tiger is different. The specific stripe and patch pattern above the eye lends itself to excellent field identification. Photo: Sankhala.

The tiger is the undisputed king of the jungle. His co-predators – leopards, jungle cats, hyenas, jackals, wolves, bears, crocodiles, mongoose and even snakes, play subordinate roles. Even the king however, is subject to the checks and balances of Nature. The Palamau Reserve for instance, supports around 20,000 chital and 18,000 wild boar, yet tiger populations are lower than anticipated. The same holds true for the Kanha Tiger Reserve which harbours such extensive forests and grasslands. In these areas, the tiger has competition. Wild dogs (Dholes), one of Nature’s most efficient predators keep prey species nervous and alert and tigers find it difficult to hunt by surprise. Reserves such as Corbett, Kaziranga, Dudhwa, Sunderbans and Ranthambhor are free of wild dogs and their tiger populations are proportionately higher. This does not mean that we should shoot wild dogs on sight. The less man-made interference we allow, the healthier will be the state of our reserves.

The feeding habits of animals seldom overlap in a naturally balanced environment and food is invariably plentiful. No carnivore for instance, is likely to deplete herbivore populations to extinction levels. In summer when water is scarce, herbivores move out and grasslands are given time to regenerate, assuring the animals of an abundant food supply on their return.  The smallest details interlock and resources are totally utilised as death becomes a part of the cycle of life.

Outside Tigerland

The vistas are different. No forest glades provide cover for shy animals and Man the super-predator, depletes life with a consumptive fervour. Landscapes assume lunar dimensions as strip-mining and quarrying activities progress unchecked. Ecosystems, self-evolved over millions of years, are manicured to suit the need of the hour as stately Sal forests are razed to make way for faster growing varieties of trees to feed new paper mills. In these man-made forests, a deathly silence prevails – the hum of life has vanished. Insects, birds and mammals are unable to adapt so fast and die while desperately searching for safer sanctum. Man, left alone to tend his lifeless gardens, feels the loss and creates zoos and safari parks to gawk at captured animals from whose bodies the soul has fled.

But even these dispirited animals come from jungles and wild places, trapped and transported against their will to the ‘showcase-prisons’ where we gather in such great numbers to be entertained. And soon, even they will be difficult to come by as their original homelands continue to shrink under pressure from man.

Today, in 1981, eight years after Project Tiger was launched, we could well ask ourselves, ‘What have we achieved?’ The outcome of such an effort cannot merely be judged on the basis of a head count of tigers, though their population has increased dramatically in all our reserves. A more rational approach would be to compare the status of Tiger Reserves with other less protected environs. The contrast is too stark to be missed by even the most inexperienced eye. Tiger Reserves like Kanha, are doing well and getting better -- other areas, once incredibly rich are slowly dying, like Bharatpur, where the domestic buffalo is the best represented four-legged animal.

What does that leave us with tomorrow? Is there no way by which we can be dissuaded from “squeezing the last rupee out of the jungles? .... Is it beyond our political will and ingenuity to set aside a small percentage of our forests in their pristine glory?” The words haunt me. They were a part of the contents of an off-white envelope announcing the birth of Project Tiger, addressed to me by the Prime Minister’s office way back in 1973. It seems so long ago and though I am no more at the helm of affairs of Project Tiger, I have followed the tiger’s future with possessive care. He is alive and well in his protected kingdom, but danger lurks in the form of callous and mercenary people who are waiting, hawk-like, for the first opportunity to exploit him once again. What is required is constant vigilance and action from those who have both the vision and the power. The tiger is a symbol of the health of our forests and his presence is as good a gauge of their well-being as his absence would be of their decline. The longer we wait the more difficult we make our task. Our conservation efforts must be concerted and well-directed. States and even countries have to realise that man-made boundaries cannot be recognised by Nature and that protected areas need to be enveloped by buffer zones to reduce the chances of conflict between man and beast. The tight regulations introduced in Tiger Reserves, which have produced such encouraging results must be introduced to other forests so that these oases of green can be saved for posterity. This is the challenge that faces us today. This is the promise we must fulfill for tomorrow.

An anti-poaching squad. Poaching incidents have been considerably reduced as a result of timely assistance received from the WWF who helped obtain wireless equipment, transportation and guns.
Photo: Sankhala.

Post Script: Preservation Politics

If Project Tiger had powerful friends – it also had insidious enemies. Whispering campaigns were started to undermine the effectiveness of our Field Directors by a few people who were not allowed to impose their ‘expertise’ on us. History proves we did well by the tiger, but no thanks to these individuals who were unable to rise above their personal motives for the cause. Whoever assumes the responsibility of caring for our wildlife tomorrow must be on guard against such destructive elements, for their appearance in any form is undesirable.

I resigned from Project Tiger, to save the operation from likely political vendetta. As it happens, this was all for the best since I was given an opportunity to view the overall effort from the outside and many finer points that escaped me earlier now became clear.

For the sake of the future, however, I hope that good sense prevails and that our priorities are realigned. Wildlifers of tomorrow have their lessons clearly spelled out by our experiences – nature requires less management and more care.

by Kailash Sankhala, First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. I. Premier Issue, October/December 1981.


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