Lone soldiers of the Wild

Published: March 3, 2010 - 14:02 Updated: March 4, 2010 - 12:50

Poaching prospers in an environment where committed forest guards are underpaid and professionally untrained
Pradeep Kapoor Lucknow

"There are no more than 1,000 tigers left in the wilds of India," believes Dr RL Singh, veteran tiger conservationist and founder-director of the Dudhwa National Park in UP. He currently heads one of the five committees appointed by the UPA government to review effective evaluation and independent management of the 37 tiger reserves in the country.

"There were nearly 4,300 tigers in the Indian forests when I was associated with Project Tiger," says Singh.  The rapid growth of the Indian economy is a major factor for the dwindling population of the big cat, believes Singh. The current model of development comes at a cost as it has led to a decrease in forest cover and commercialisation of every possible activity, including wildlife. It is these interventions which are spelling doom for the tigers.

Moreover, Singh says, negative publicity about tiger trade by all sections of the media also led to increase in poaching of the wild cat. "Media has publicised that a dead tiger fetches a lot of money," Singh says. As a consequence, anti-social elements are turning to forests to take part in this organised loot. Poaching prospers in an environment where forest guards are underpaid and professionally untrained. Such untrained and financially insecure personnel, Singh argues, have been given the responsibility of guarding our wildlife
and flora and fauna from eco-marauders who are willing to sell even the tail of the magnificent cat in the black market.

Singh says lack of monetary incentives to the forest guards only adds up to their frustration and apathy. Many of the guards are deeply committed and 'natural environmentalists' but the establishment cares little for them and their hard and risky life.  "Fifteen years ago, the salary of a forest guard was equivalent to that of a police constable. In 2010, its not even 60 per cent of that of a constable," says Singh.  "So how does one even expect these forest guards to be efficient and serious when there is no monetary support from the government?"

There is an urgent need to train these lone soldiers in the wild and organise them in such a manner that they may be able to leave behind all the disinterest and insensitivity that has crept in. "The forest guards must be treated at par with the armed forces and should be provided with modern weaponry," says Singh.

Also, the absence of legal protection for this underrated cadre has led them to avoid confrontation with poachers. Singh says that there have been cases when these guards have been charged with murder even when they fired in self-defence. "There should be an inquiry by a magistrate before an FIR is registered against a forest guard," Singh demands.

An experienced conservationist, Singh tells Hardnews that poachers prefer the cat to come out of the reserve so that it becomes easy for them. For instance, the lack of fencing in tiger reserves makes herbivores like deer, the preferred prey of tigers, to venture out of the sanctuary. The big cat follows them out to the 'unsecured' spaces and falls prey to bullets or killer traps of the poachers. They are often badly injured and slowly die in abject pain.

When it is not easy to fence the whole reserve, then secure micro-reserves within these reserves can be created. He also stresses on the need for more support from the central government for the upkeep of tiger reserves. Currently, the cost is almost entirely borne by the state governments.

Singh is opposed to the modern idea of installing electronic collars on tigers to keep a track. This will disturb the daily life of the wild cats. Moreover, this could also lead to increase in poaching as the mafia might try to influence the guards, who have information about the movement of tigers. Ironically, he also believes in the controversial model of captive farming as done in China. It must be started in India to maintain the original Indian gene pool and also as a measure to promote tourism, he argues.

Poaching prospers in an environment where committed forest guards are underpaid and professionally untrained
Pradeep Kapoor Lucknow

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This story is from print issue of HardNews