A lot of enactments for the

A lot of enactments for the protection of the tiger are in place, but they need to be properly enforced

BK Sharma Delhi
The year 2005 was particularly critical for the survival of tigers. An enquiry confirmed the worst fears that the entire tiger population of Sariska was annihilated inter alia by organised poaching. Investigations by Rajasthan police revealed the existence of a gang of poachers that killed 21 tigers in Ranthambhore during last two years. Seizure of skins and other body parts outside Panna, Periyar and the Sunderbans showed that the network extended to protected areas in different parts of the country.

2005 also saw many developments that commit to protecting the tiger. A Tiger Task Force was created that gave comprehensive recommendations; infamous wildlife smuggler Sansar Chand was arrested and for the first time in the history of wildlife enforcement, the Control of Organised Crimes Act was invoked; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself made an assessment of the on-ground protection regime in Ranthambhore; the union cabinet gave its approval for the establishment of the National Tiger Conservation Authority while the setting up of the National Wildlife Crime Control Bureau is in the ultimate stage of sanction.

"At one time in parts of India at the beginning of the last century, they (tigers) were so numerous that it seemed to be a question whether man or tiger would survive" wrote Dunbar Brander in 1923 (Wild Animals of Central India), reflecting on the tiger population in early 1800s. E P Gee in Wildlife in India estimates that there were perhaps 40, 000 tigers at the turn of the 20th century. The single most important factor for the cataclysmic decline in numbers thereafter was hunting. Tiger hunting already had a long history among the ruling elite of India, dating back to the Mughals. Emperor Jahangir killed over 17000 animals in the first 12 years of his reign, which included 86 tigers. For the British army and civilian officials, and also Indian rulers, it was an exciting pastime. Ramanuj Saran Singh Deo, ruler of Sarguja, claimed to have killed 1,159 tigers while George Yule of the Civil Service killed 400 and Montague Gerard hunted 207 tigers. RG Burton estimates in his The Book of the Tiger-1933 that a total of 1,579 tigers were shot in British India in the year 1877 alone, while former forest officer MD Chaturvedi calculates that an average of 280 tigers were shot annually from 1934 to 1954 in all the seven major tiger states. In a period of 50 years between 1875 and 1925, over 80,000 tigers and more than 150, 000 leopards were killed.  While hunting for trophy, reward or humanistic cause continued, post-Independence India witnessed systematic destruction of tiger habitats arising out of an exploding population, exploitation of forest resources, decimation of prey base and increasing livestock. The death-knell was sounded by Kailash Sankhala in 1969 when he presented the tiger estimates as less than 2,000 to the Tenth General Assembly of World Conservation Union (IUCN) at New Delhi. Soon, the tiger was included in the list of endangered species, India placed a complete ban on tiger shooting and enacted the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Project Tiger was launched in April 1973, creating a network of nine reserves comprising core zones that are free from all human activity and buffer zones in which land use compatible with conservation needs were permitted. The number of reserves has now gone up to 28, so do the tiger numbers - from 2000 to somewhere close to 3800 - notwithstanding the controversy attached to the reliability of the pug mark census.

Poaching, however, remained a problem. In mid-1993, New Delhi Police with the assistance of Traffic-India seized 287 kilograms of tiger bone, estimably representing the remnants of 25 tigers along with eight tiger skins, 43 leopard skins and more than 100 skins of other protected animals. Two seizures in Ghaziabad and Khaga in late 1999 and early 2000 showed ingenious concealment methods and an organised trans-border smuggling operation. During 1995 to 1999, 140 tigers, averaging 28 per year, were killed by poachers while 411 cases were recorded during 1999-2003. The figures however are disputed by NGOs who claim that annual killing rate is close to 60.

The magna carta of India's protection regime is the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.The Act intends to provide for the protection of wild animals, birds and plants with a view to ensuring the ecological and environmental security of the country. It prohibits trade or commerce in trophies and animal articles derived from animals listed in the four schedules and prescribes punishments for such offences. The Act underwent two major amendments: while the 1986 amendment made penal provisions stricter, amendment in 1991 added chapters for protection of plants and management of zoos.

A comprehensive amendment in the Act was effected in the year 2002 that became operational from April 1, 2003. While changing many definitions to enlarge their scope, the amendment provides for the constitution of a National Board for Wildlife and similar boards for the states as well.

The most significant change pertains to penalties in section 51. While for any contravention of the provisions of the Act, the maximum sentence on conviction was enhanced to three years, for an offence against any animal or derivative specified in Schedule I that includes tigers or Part II of Schedule II, the minimum sentence is imprisonment for three years, extendable to seven years and also a fine that shall not be less than Rs. 10,000. In case of a second conviction, the minimum fine shall be Rs. 25,000. Any vehicle or weapon used in the commission of the offence shall be forfeited while the possession of an arms license shall be cancelled for five years. Conditions of granting bail have been made extremely stringent.

Introduction of a chapter for forfeiture of property derived from illegal hunting and trade makes the Act comparable to Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985 and Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2003. Any property of a convict of three years or his associate, which is obtained from or attributable to illegal hunting and trade of wildlife, is defined as "illegally acquired property". Interim seizure of property is permissible in case there is reasonable apprehension of concealment or transfer. The burden of proof to show that the property was not illegally acquired rests on the accused who, however, can appeal to an Appellate Tribunal against seizure and forfeiture orders.

In 1994, Time magazine proclaimed that the tiger is "on the brink and on the road to extinction". Massive conservation activity has seen the tiger transiting to the new millennium with greater awareness of its survival problems. Perhaps, the tiger's unshakable grip on human imagination has proved to be a prophetic protector, not an extinction catalyst. Complacency, however, shall doom the tiger as evidence incontrovertibly suggests that threats continue to loom large and overpower the protection regime with ease. Demographic consequences of such threats may not be immediately visible but may prove to be disastrous in the long run.

Poaching of tigers has continued to be a problem due to a combination of certain factors. The statute is fairly stringent, yet there have not been many convictions. There have been many impressive seizures, yet the quality of subsequent investigation has not been professional. Deterrence of prompt arrests was lost since shoddy investigation resulted in easy bails. Hostility of witnesses and delayed trials result in frequent acquittals. To stem the tide, what is needed is a combination of many approaches. While the visibility of deterrence has to be improved, logistic support and forensic assistance to enforcement must improve. Strategic offensive against known organised syndicates, as successfully undertaken for conservation of Amur tigers in "Operation Amba" and against Sansar Chand, should be taken up on an urgent basis. Anti-poaching strategies need to be reoriented towards increasing the opportunity costs of poaching activities. Border management should improve while incentives to informers and rewards to investigators need to be institutionalised. Greater coordination amongst the enforcement agencies is the call of the day while skill improvement of the enforcement personnel by way of targeted training is an imperative. The task is onerous, yet achievable. Policing India's forests is a difficult job but with great consequences for the destiny of the tiger and the nation as well. 

The author is deputy inspector general of police, CBI and has been a recipient the Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Awards 2005