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Save the tiger and you save an ecosystem

In the last few months tigers, or more correctly the absence of tigers, have been making front-page news in most Indian newspapers and websites. Everyone seems to have a different opinion on this, not just about the disappearing tigers but whether they have actually disappeared and what needs to be done. The government got so worried about this in one wildlife park in Rajasthan, Sariska, that they sent in the police, in the form of a CBI team, to look for the tigers. Some poachers actually admitted to killing around 10 tigers. But where are the rest?

It seems that in certain wildlife parks that were famous for their tigers, there are actually very few or no tigers left. And large amounts of money were being spent on taking care of these parks. So if the tigers are gone, where did the money spent on protecting them go?

Because tigers are a symbol of India , and the Government of India, along with tourists and big international environment and animal welfare organisations, spend so much money protecting tigers and ensuring their survival, this really is a big scandal.

Before people started disturbing their habitat and killing them, tigers were actually quite resilient animals, able to live in a wide variety of environments, ranging from wet rainforests to dry arid scrubland, from the hottest regions of India to the sub-zero freezing temperatures of Siberia. The Indian sub-species -- commonly called the Bengal tiger -- can be found all over India and neighbouring countries.

Panthera tigris (the scientific name of the species) are capable of killing animals 10 times heavier than themselves and then dragging them away to shelter. A tiger itself weighs between 130 and 180 kg. And it can grow to an average height of 90 cm. Its main prey species include herbivores -- sambhar and spotted deer being favourites. Tigers eat an average of five kilos in one sitting, and can eat upto 25 kg in a day. A kill can feed a tiger for two to four days; the animal usually gives himself a two-to-three-day break before setting out on the next hunt. Tigers have a life expectancy ranging between 15 to 20 years.

Their breeding season begins towards the end of the monsoons and carries on into the early months of winter. After a gestation period of 105 days, tigresses give birth to three to six cubs that don't open their eyes until they are 15 days old. They nurse for the first three to six months, and begin learning how to hunt at five to six months. They become fully independent only after roughly two to three years.

Once, tigers were considered ferocious killers, the 'bad guys' in many films and stories from rural India . During colonial times, and even afterwards, they were ruthlessly killed both as sport and to protect people who had to work in the fields and forests. In the middle of the last century, opinions about the environment and wildlife began to change; rather than seeing the environment as something that needed to be battled and tamed, people realised that the environment needed to be taken care of. Tigers went from being man-eaters to majestic symbols of India . In 1973, after a tiger count showed that there were only around 1,800 tigers left in India , despite tiger-hunting being banned, the Indian government decided to actively protect them. Project Tiger was set up to provide safe havens for tigers -- places where they could flourish and reverse the startling drop in numbers. Project Tiger was launched that year with nine tiger reserves covering an area of 16,339 sq km. This has now grown to 37,761 sq km in 27 reserves. The Government of India initially gave only Rs 23 million towards the project; it has since increased the outlay to Rs 230 million. The international environmental agency the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF, earlier known as the World Wildlife Fund) put in a large amount of money to start the project. They and other non-government organisations (NGOs), both international and Indian, still come up with lots of money.

With all this and the full force of the government behind it, if the numbers of tigers haven't increased, what went wrong? Once the actual hunting of tigers was stopped, shouldn't there have automatically been more tigers?

It's not just hunting that kills tigers. Possibly more important is habitat destruction; cutting down forests for the wood, and farming and mining destroy the tigers' natural habitat. In fact, people wanted to protect the tigers not just for the tigers' sake, but also because tigers are at the top of the foodchain. They eat other animals, especially various kinds of deer, which feed on grass and need space to breed. Because of the tiger's position at the top of the foodchain, if you want the tiger to survive in the wild you have to save the whole environment in which it lives, including the deer, the plants that the deer eat and the birds and insects that pollinate those plants. By saving the tiger from extinction you are not only saving one animal species but a whole ecosystem.

Apart from disappearing forests, another problem is poaching, which is made worse because of the shrinking forests. Poachers illegally kill tigers by trapping, shooting or poisoning them for their body parts. In India , tiger skins are valued for religious reasons; some people use the skin as rugs and wall hangings. Traditional medicine all over Asia has used tiger parts -- tails, teeth and bones -- for hundreds of years. Although the cures may or may not be effective, these beliefs are part of a cultural tradition and difficult to get rid of. As tigers get rarer, the prices of these medicines get higher and the people using and making them are willing to pay a lot.

Poachers are often helped and supported by people living in villages near tiger reserves. Why would the villagers want these magnificent animals dead?

As the forests get smaller, fewer deer are able to survive in the confined space. This means tigers have less food available to them. With less natural prey, tigers are sometimes forced to leave their habitats for nearby farms where they kill cattle to eat, causing financial loss to farmers. Tigers also occasionally kill people, so farmers living near tigers have to always be on the lookout. This interferes with their daily livelihoods.

A dead tiger can be worth upto $50,000 for its skin and other body parts. Though this amount is split between a number of people, most of it going to the middlemen who are rich in any case, a poor villager can earn much more by supporting a poacher than by looking after what, in any case, is a dangerous pest to him.

One of the biggest problems in tiger conservation was the people who originally lived near or inside a sanctuary. They were asked to move to make space for the tigers; some were given money but not very much considering that they had to find other homes and occupations. The villagers considered the forests their homes and gardens, and had been living there for centuries. The forest was where they grazed their cattle, where they got wood to build their houses and to burn as firewood. It was where they had their temples and where their children played. It was the place they got medicines from. So asking them to move meant asking them to give up their ancestral homes and lifestyles. People living near the parks, who weren't actually asked to move, were stopped from going into the forests.

Understandably, many villagers refused to move, saying that if people loved the tigers so much why didn't they move the tigers into their own homes?

What made this problem worse is that although the ordinary villagers were stopped from using the forest because tigers had to be protected, if you were rich you could pull a few strings, pay some money and get part of the reserve cancelled so you could cut some trees or start mining, or build a road. This habitat destruction was one of the main reasons why the tigers were dying out in the first place!

If tigers are to survive in India the people in charge of looking after them are going to have to start paying attention to such problems, and also start looking after the people who live in rural India . Once people become as important as tigers, then maybe those who are best able to look after the tigers' home -- the forests -- will do so properly.

Some links:http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/projecttiger/index.php                  http://projecttiger.nic.in/introduction.htm

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