July 29 was designated as the International Tiger Day at the Global Tiger Summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 2010. This is an annual event when NGOs and forest authorities host celebrities and school children — and media invites experts — to create awareness about tiger conservation.
Today, tiger enthusiasts can walk a mile under golden-black banners, adopt a tiger for as little as $55, or just pray for Jai, the alpha male gone missing in Maharashtra. The new option is to click a selfie with a tiger sculpture or photo — a tourism promotion concept probably inspired by the bizarre spectacle of safari tourists presenting their back to wild tigers and twisting themselves into knots in pursuit of that ultimate frame.
While walking, donating, praying or posing for the tiger today, it may also be worth noting that this Tiger Day follows a few startling developments.
It is entirely coincidental that Parliament cleared the CAMPA Bill yesterday and — barring the minister’s assurance — there is nothing in it to benefit the traditional forest dwellers, the natural custodians of tigers. Instead, the huge funds may well trigger mindless afforestation drives, destroying rootstocks and even standing community forests to further imperil both.
Instead of squandering the bulk of Rs 41,000-crore booty in leaky plantation drives that have been chronic failures, India can pump that money into protecting existing forests and corridors (they regenerate given a chance), into securing the future of all endangered species including the 16 that demand urgent attention (and were never allocated even Rs 100 crore in all), into empowering forest communities as custodians of local wilderness.
That is the first thing India could pledge this Tiger Day.
If this day is about securing the big cat’s habitat, the second imperative is to designate no-go forest areas. India needs to exit the paradigm that allows destruction of wilderness for monetary compensation. We do not allow destruction of heritage buildings on the ground that the evicted would do just as well in plastic tents provided by builders. Plantations can never ‘compensate’ the loss of long-standing natural forests and time we accept it as a policy.
And if this day is about raising awareness, the third thing we should do is hold NGOs and governments accountable. For a start, officials must stop blaming every tiger death to in-fighting and start accepting that poaching can happen under anybody’s watch. Tigers are not suicidal and no system is crime-proof.
While the social media is abuzz with Jai’s disappearance, the absence of an individual tiger doesn’t matter in conservation. But we need to ask how did the impossible happen? How did a collared tiger tracked 24×7 under a Rs 1-crore research project go missing without alerting anyone?
Hundreds of crores of foreign and Indian (including government) funds are spent on sundry projects on conflict mitigation, awareness drives or monitoring through different NGOs. We need to ask how NGOs implementing the same projects using identical templates end up submitting drastically different financial accounts. We can’t have only volunteers saving the tiger — it is time to guard against plain profiteering.
This Tiger Day, India will also do well to hit at the foundation of this symbolism. Conservation as an elitist fad has never worked. The engagement of forest communities — not as photo props but as the lead partner — can make the next Tiger Day a little more meaningful.
The other part of the symbolism — using the tiger as the mascot — is perhaps inevitable. The cultural impact of the striped cat is unparalleled. We may not be able save everything in saving the tiger. But if we fail even the all-important tiger, chances are we will not be able save much else.