The barometer of India’s leadership in tiger conservation will be both in securing Indian wild tigers in our forests as well as diplomatic heft for Chinese captive tigers.
In what distant deeps or skies/ Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand dare seize the fire?
Thus wrote the British poet William Blake on the Royal Bengal tiger. The powerful verse was mythical in its own way; Blake had famously never seen a tiger, but like many others, was grasped with the enigma of the animal. In the years since, poachers have successfully deconstructed this enigma, ‘seizing the fire’ of the tiger repeatedly – just this year, more than 30 tigers have been poached, greater than the poaching numbers in all of 2015. Other than on-site conservation needs, this opens up new catalysts for tiger diplomacy.
Poaching takes place each year, with spikes and troughs. But this year, two further notable developments have taken place. Firstly, India has seized the opportunity of being the ‘natural leader’ of tiger range countries. India has about 2500 tigers, and others countries have lesser tiger numbers: Russia (leads after India with about 400 tigers), Indonesia (about 300 tigers), Malaysia (about 250), Nepal (about 200) Bangladesh and Bhutan (100 each approximately). China (7), Vietnam (5), Laos and Cambodia are also tiger range countries but tigers are considered functionally extinct here. The number of tigers in Myanmar, which ironically has the world’s largest tiger reserve, is unknown. With the most tigers, India has also institutionalised tiger protection (Project Tiger started way back in the 1970s) and is thus keen to project itself as a geopolitical leader in tiger conservation. So it was that no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi who opened an inter-ministerial meeting on tiger conservation earlier this year.
But since the meeting and its several statements, the nexus and difficulties of poaching pressures have reasserted themselves. Thailand’s famous tiger temple near Bangkok, which caters to millions of tourists who take selfies with seemingly placid tigers, has been shut down under allegations of poaching. Following a raid by Thai authorities, 40 tiger cubs were recently found in a deep freezer at the temple, and a monk was charged with trying to get away with tiger parts. For many of those campaigning against the temple – on grounds of cruelty toward tigers as well as poaching – this was a vindication of many years of struggle against a powerful and popular tourist attraction. But do captive centres like this temple impact or impede wild tigers in India?
Yes, it does, assert many Indian conservationists. Sanctuary Asia, a wildlife magazine based in India, led a campaign with the hashtag #tigertempletakedown, lobbying to shut down the temple. While countries like China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam run tiger farms or zoos under domestic legislation, this is a front for poaching, it has been alleged. The nuts and bolts are complicated: some countries (China and Laos) allow a legal domestic trade of captive tigers under a permit system, though international trade in wild or domestic tigers is not allowed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While Thailand and Vietnam allow tiger farms or zoos, trade in tigers, whether captive or domestic, is illegal – as evidenced in the tiger temple case.
Sanctuary Asia asked for Thailand’s tiger temple to be shut because it is believed that these places boost trade in tiger parts, thus also spiking poaching of wild tigers. “There is a coterie of Buddhist monks who have been infiltrated by the illegal narcotics and international, illegal wildlife networks. They are a disgrace to Buddhism,” Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia, told The Wire. The other issue, Sahgal points out, is that it is much cheaper to kill a wild tiger than to actually raise or breed one.
An international movement to shut down tiger farms has been gaining momentum for years. “There are about 7,000-8,000 captive tigers, mainly in China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The fact is, tiger farms have massively expanded in the last few decades, even as the wild tiger population has declined by 96 percent in the last 100 years,” says Debbie Banks from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Ahead of a CITES meeting, 45 NGOs, including Indian ones, have signed on a statement drafted by EIA asking for the shutting down of all tiger farms. This would imply changing the domestic legislations of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. At the same time, China is understood to be the biggest market.
“All eyes are now on the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting in Johannesburg from 24th September to 5th October,” Banks told The Wire. “It’s the perfect opportunity for the governments of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to announce real action to end demand for tiger parts and products. We want all four countries amending legislation so that tiger ‘farms’ are phased out. That’s not just the massive battery-farm style operations [like in China], but also the facilities that masquerade as ‘zoos’ and centres for conservation across the region; the ‘tiger temple’ being a classic example.”
The question is this: can Indian negotiation rise to the seemingly impossible challenge of influencing domestic policies of countries that favour tiger farms and trade in their goods?
Modi’s speech on tigers at the inter-ministerial meeting included specifics on poaching: “The forest and its wild denizens are an open treasury which cannot be locked up. It is painful to learn about trafficking of body parts and derivatives of tigers and other big cats. We need to collaborate at the highest levels of government to address this serious issue,” he had said.
At the summit, then Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar also said India would give tigers to Cambodia to help start a new tiger population; a move meant to cement India’s leadership on tiger conservation. As gestures go in wildlife conservation, few things can be more culturally and diplomatically robust than India’s national animal, feted by poet and politics alike, being gifted to another country.
The real issue though, is still poaching of tigers, which is a pernicious, international and persistent problem. The barometer of India’s leadership in tiger conservation will be both in securing Indian wild tigers in our forests as well as diplomatic heft for Chinese captive tigers.
Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.