Once upon a tiger
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Why does it always take a tragedy for the system to get rolling? After the fifth tiger this year was found dead on May 18, hacked to pieces, in the forests of Chandrapur district in Maharashtra, the state government sprang into action.
The entire Tadoba landscape is now on red alert. The state forest minister has urged field staff to shoot-on-sight armed poachers who refuse to surrender (although, truth be told, most forest guards have never even seen a tiger poacher), staff vacancies are being filled, government funds have been released to gather secret intelligence, a Special Tiger Protection Force is being put in place (four years after a grant of Rs 50 crore for this purpose was announced in Parliament), and 100 extra patrol vehicles have been ordered. With a bit of luck, the uproar will act as a deterrent to elusive tiger poachers, and the big cats of Chandrapur and Tadoba can relax for the time being.
Let us hope that other states will now follow this lead. The crisis in Maharashtra illustrates how woefully inadequate present protection measures are for wild tigers. Despite Rs 600 crore being allocated by the government in the 2008-12 Five-Year Plan for tiger conservation efforts, the basics — including patrolling, field monitoring, detection, intelligence-led enforcement, investigation, prosecution and, last but not least, accountability — are all in a sorry state. Many believe that the reason for this failure is that the forest department system itself is obsolete.
But on paper at least, the tiger conservation problems in India have largely been solved with endless government reports and guidelines. And the world is impressed. The tragedy in Maharashtra ironically coincided with an international stocktaking meeting in New Delhi on the Global Tiger Recovery Programme (GTRP) and its ambitious goal of doubling the world's remaining wild tiger population by 2022. Discussions focused on 13 National Tiger Recovery Plans and, with India leading the way, global efforts and cooperation to combat tiger poaching and the illegal trade in tiger parts.
However, the reality is that whatever a tiger range country does to address these problems, its efforts will be undermined by the fact that poaching is driven by consumer demand, usually from outside its borders. For India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan the threat comes from markets in China where tiger skins are used as home décor and taxidermy, and bones and other tiger body parts are used for medicinal purposes. Recently, authorities in central India uncovered news that an "order" had been placed for 25 dead tigers. In Southeast Asian tiger range countries, the market forces come not just from China and the emerging market of Vietnam, but
from a local demand for skin, bone and tiger meat.
Ending the demand for tiger parts requires clear policies from the 13 governments, including India and China, that signed up as the "custodians of the last remaining tigers in the wild" to the St Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation in September 2010. If policy is unclear in a consumer country — as it is in China, where skins of tigers of "legal origin", including farmed tigers, can be labelled, registered and sold — then demand reduction and enforcement efforts are constantly undermined.
Tiger conservation is a global, emotive issue. The international community is calling for a "zero-tolerance" on poaching. But surely it is time that we also called for zero-tolerance on trade in all parts of tigers, from all sources, wild and captive bred. That is exactly what the 175 parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) decided upon in The Hague in 2007, when they voted that tiger farms should be phased out, declaring that "tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives".
Sadly, we are a long way from implementing that decision. The problem of tiger farming has got worse, not better, and the GTRP has largely ignored this threat. The 4,000 tigers in captivity in China in 2007 has now grown to 6,000 tigers. Thai police have arrested several people trading in tigers destined to be sliced and diced, including by butchers right in the capital Bangkok. Tigers farmed in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are finding their way into the Vietnamese tiger bone glue market. The trade in farmed tiger parts is perpetuating a demand for body parts that leads to the poaching of wild tigers. Clear and uncompromising actions are required from government leaders if the spirit of St Petersburg and the commitments to CITES are to be met.
It's a familiar story too with enforcement efforts aimed at controlling the trade in Asian big cats. Every tiger range country has committed to CITES to enhance enforcement. There are statements on "intelligence-led enforcement", "multi-agency cooperation" and "international cooperation", but very little evidence that any of this is happening. We need to take a hard look at why professional law enforcement agencies are not cooperating at a national level to generate, collate, analyse, and act upon intelligence on the criminals involved in organised transnational wildlife crime. Why are tiger range countries not making more use of Interpol and its secure communications network and massive database on known and suspected criminals? Why is it so hard to centralise records of seizures, arrests, prosecutions, and convictions on wildlife crime?
These are not new problems. They have been recognised as an impediment to wildlife crime enforcement for decades. But instead of having an honest and strategic discussion about how to overcome them, governments keep making the same glib promises time after time.
As global concerned citizens, taxpayers and donors, we need to know that action is being taken to deliver on these promises, not just in the interests of saving wild tigers but to combat all forms of environmental crime. We need a way of assessing what actions our governments are and are not taking, beyond simply making seizures of dead animals.
Only then can we all play a part in honest and targeted decisions about the gaps in enforcement and where we need to focus our efforts to secure a future for wild tigers.
Belinda Wright is executive director, Wildlife Protection Society of India. Debbie Banks is lead campaigner, Environmental Investigation Agency, London
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