Posted on 1-December-2006
Very early during his tenure, India's current Prime Minister made a highly publicised visit to a wild life sanctuary in Rajasthan, better known as a tiger reserve, bemoaned the fate of the beast there and berated the government of the state for not doing enough to ensure its survival. Unsurprisingly, during the ensuing months expression of concern for the survival of the Indian tiger and numerous discussions on the subject in the media and elsewhere became marks of intellectual chic, for obviously for the Indian Prime Minister saving the tiger from extinction was a matter of great national importance. In fact saving the Indian tiger has been a favourite project of a certain kind of Indian conservationists ever since, about four decades ago, the World Wildlife Fund, drew the attention of the world to the extremely diminished numbers of the animal--some said there were only some fourteen hundred left in the whole of India. In the years to come a Project Tiger was put in place and India declared the tiger to be its 'National Animal'. Since then, there have been periodical reports alternately about increases in the population of the tiger, and about havocs caused by poachers greedy for profits from the sale of skins or from satisfying Chinese demand for aphrodisiacs. Newspapers, especially English language newspapers, have expressed as much shock at the death of a few tigers inside a zoo as at the massacre of two dozen villagers somewhere in a dispute with a landowner or in an inter-communal fight.
I have followed the tiger debate only sporadically because, in part, of lack of the kind of sustained interest an activist is capable of and because, in the other part, of scepticism. The reasons for my scepticism are mainly two. Firstly, extinction of species is very much part of the weave of the history of life on earth. In fact some of the massive extinctions of the past such as the Perm-Triassic extinction or the extinction of dinosaurs may have made the evolution of mammals possible, at least easier. There have been three other massive extinctions in the distant past and many more continuously, so much so that only a very tiny percentage of all life forms that have ever evolved survives till the present time. Seen thus, extinction of any species except our own or those whose existence brings our species clearly identifiable benefits cannot be considered a catastrophe. Besides, while extinction of animal or botanical species is fairly routine, public attention randomly rivets itself only on some: the giant panda whose mating in distant zoos has been celebrated to the point of boredom; the Indian tiger which gets talked about much more than its equally endangered Siberian or Southeast Asian cousins; or, the American Condor. The poor Indian cheetah and the European wolf vanished unlamented before wildlife conservation became part of public discourse.
The second reason for my scepticism is that I have yet to come across any description of the benefits the tiger brings to man or the disadvantages of its disappearance to human life. It is said the tiger is a beautiful, majestic beast whose disappearance will diminish the beauty and richness of nature. But that may be an Indian illusion because, of all the big cats the tiger has been the most numerous and its population the most widespread in India until the hecatomb wrought upon it by an earlier generation of lovers of its beauty who preferred the animal dead and in salons to it being alive in the wild. Nature is full of other beautiful animals--one of the most fascinating sights imprinted on my my mind is that of an adult lioness chasing an antelope early in the morning in a game park in Africa. I find the young of practically any mammal, even the much derided donkey or the ungainly rhinoceros, irresistibly pretty. In fact the strongest conservationist argument to my mind is that since most of the extinctions in the past have been gradual and since we do not fully know the impact of the rapid extinction of a large number of species it is best to do what we can to conserve as many as we can.
For a country like India much more important for human welfare than wildlife conservation is the conservation of forests. In 1997, the per capita availability of forests was 0.07 hectares, which is poor by world standards. If the population of India were to grow at the present rate or even at a lower rate, this per capita availability would be unlikely to improve even if the area under forest cover were to expand. After a long period of shrinkage, the area under forest cover declined by only about 1% between 1989 and 1997 and would now seem to have stabilised at around 20% of the total land area, of which around 12% is under dense forests and about 8% under 10% or less tree cover, which is another way of saying that about 8% of the total land area is under degraded or depleted forests. These national figures conceal some dire regional situations. Besides, there has been a decline in the average yield from forests, which bespeaks a qualitative decline.
In spite of the welcome news that continuous and massive deforestation has been arrested, forest conservation and afforestation should for many years to come be important national concerns. The environmental damage caused by the large scale deforestation during the first eight decades of the twentieth century could be substantially undone only if India were to achieve the government's target of 33% of the total land area under forest cover. Within this general target, it is perhaps even more important to achieve the target of 60% of the land area under forest cover in the hill areas of the north--at present only Arunachal Pradesh has more than 60% of its area under forest cover while the average for other hill areas in the north is closer to 40%. These figures should give a measure of the effort that needs to be made in the proximate future.
Despite the stoppage of further deforestation, the forest continues to face dangers from not only loggers, corrupt officials, builders and industrialisers but also from sheep and goats and people seeking fuelwood--according to one study, in the year 2000, 78% rural and 30% urban households used firewood as domestic fuel; in many ways one of the most formidable enemies faced by the forest is poverty and for successive post-independence governments of India, poverty reduction has remained an unfulfilled task. All these questions probably occupy the minds of people in government but they do not seem to be subjects of public debate and education as much as their importance would require. Those in authority could give a lead.
Baby seals, street dogs, giant pandas or Indian tigers attract the attention of the fashionable, the elegant and the beautiful while those who campaign to save trees and forests have often been dismissed as hippy dippy tree huggers. Yet the forest houses a wealth of wild animals, birds and insects. If the forest flourishes, it helps wild life also, including our beloved tiger, to flourish, apart from conserving soil, absorbing carbon dioxide and sustaining an ecological balance. Even the protected tiger can roam out of a depleted forest, devour a farmer's cattle, maul his son and get killed. An abundant forest gives him and his food shelter and protection. By any reasonable measure, it is the forest that should have primacy and not the tiger. Perhaps a country like India should convert its wild life reserves and other existing forests into nature parks where all life--flora and fauna--should be protected and maybe another Prime Minister of India would start his tenure with a visit to one of them.