‘State governments are in denial’

She saw her first tiger in Palamu when she was three months old. She photographed a tiger in Sariska when she was 16. Since then Belinda Wright, 57, one of India's leading conservationists, has pushed the limits to save the Great Indian tiger. Her mother, Anne Wright, was a part of the Tiger Task Force mandated to select nine reserves to launch Project Tiger. She won two Emmy awards and 14 international awards for her film "Land of the Tiger'. She spoke to Hardnews in New Delhi
Akash Bisht Delhi

What impact would the 'year of the tiger' in China have on Indian tigers?
I met traders in China and they mentioned that the demand for tiger parts is increasing in China. The Year of the Tiger will definitely fuel demand for tiger parts which is a flourishing business in China. This demand would have a detrimental effect on tiger conservation in India and could lead to more tigers being poached. It is also a wonderful opportunity to create awareness in China about the few tigers that are left in the world. The international community should build pressure on China to stop trading in tiger parts.

Despite so much funding why is Project Tiger unsuccessful in curbing poaching in India?
Money doesn't buy motivation, commitment or political will. The central government has shown concern about dwindling numbers, but states don't give much importance to tigers. The tiger is an inconvenience because it involves people who live in tiger habitats, and politicians are only bothered about vote bank politics. State governments are in a state of denial whenever the issue of tiger deaths are raised. These governments are stuck in old ways and there is complete lack of transparency. The entire system is rotten. There are numerous vacancies in the forest department but they are not being filled; there is lack of training of forest officials. While poachers have modern weaponry, forest officials still carry primitive weapons.

What about organisations that oppose rehabilitation from crucial tiger habitats?
I have spoken to numerous people who live in these forests and they have expressed the willingness to move out. These areas have no amenities and they want schools, hospitals and clean water. I want to ask the people, who oppose rehabilitation, to try and live in these forests without any basic amenities.

Who are the poaching gangs operating in India and why is it difficult to nab them?
Five years ago, the main players were Sansar Chand, Shabbir Hasan and Prabhakaran in south India. After their arrests, their family members are carrying on the business. Poaching is like a drug trail which keeps going in the safe hands of an organised system: if one man is arrested, he is soon replaced by someone else. It is like any other organised crime and needs to be dealt with in a similar fashion. But, in our country, when people can get away with murder, how do you expect stringent actions against wildlife crimes, which are not even taken seriously by the government and its agencies?

Recently, I read about 'tiger wines' that are available all over the world.
Most tiger wines use tiger bones that are bred in captivity in China, while the Indian tiger is used exclusively for medicine. Bulk of manufacturing happens in China and then these products are exported. You can find products with tiger bones on the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco, among other cities.

What is the future of tigers in India?
India has to make serious decisions. Do Indians want these magnificent species or not? None of these animals would survive if we don't give them space. We will have tigers in the future but they would be confined to small patches across India and then we will have glorified safaris to see the true wild tiger of India. In 2006, Animal Planet did a global survey and tiger was voted as the most popular animal in the world. India has the largest population of wild tigers. The world envies us and this makes us deeply responsible to ensure that this species roams Indian forests forever.

Your views on commercial activities inside reserves.
Our reserves can't sustain this kind of mindless pressure. Instead of developing tiger habitats we are destroying it. Resorts in reserves cater to parties, weddings and rain dances which are beyond my understanding. Why should people go there for such events? These reserves should be strictly for wildlife tourism and authorities should not encourage this senseless mess. The vision of the authorities is blurred.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2010

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