Friday, May 4, 2012

The Gift of the Tiger

I visited the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve this February, and was fortunate enough to witness the spectacular sight of a tiger stalking elephants. That marked the beginning of my Nagarahole tiger story. To say the experience was special, magical, is inadequate, but much as I cherish the encounters, greater is my feeling of gratitude...for all those who have made it possible, for tigers to thrive here... 3.30 pm-5.20pm , February 19, 2012, Nagarahole National Park Some might call it time ‘wasted’ …sitting, waiting, watching at Mavina Halla Watch Tower, in Nagarahole Tiger Reserve. Doing nothing. No animals that might save the day, ensuring that the time being spent is not all futile. No tiger...the ‘Star’ that will make it all worthwhile, that one can brag about back home. No leopard, the next best trophy. Not even (Asiatic) elephants, of which this landscape has the highest population in the world, and which are pretty much ‘guaranteed’. No guars, either, that magnificent wild oxen--but, which in the scheme of wildlife sightings would 'only' serve as a consolation prize. But I wasn’t a 'typical' tourist. And it wasn’t a ‘waste’ of time. Forget the wildlife I didn’t see. Imagine time spent sitting in a watchtower in one of the last wild places on Planet Earth…where lives the tiger. No distractions, no deadlines, no watch, no email, no Blackberry. Amidst pristine forest and the promise of great expectation. Cheetal graze, placidly. One among the lot, lost in the crowd is lame, dragging its bad leg, as he tries to match pace with the herd. Poor guy, I think, pretty much a guaranteed tiger meal. A Malabar Giant Squirrel looking dapper in its rust suit, jumps branches above us, while another scrambles across the path below, unusual for this arboreal creature. Directly across, perched on a Terminalia tree, are a pair of imperial green pigeons--huge, stunning creatures unlike their drab grey cousins back home. Still, even with all this action...I find something missing. Perhaps, it is to do with the fact of my missed trip last month, where my colleagues, able to get away from the tyranny of the desk watched, from this same machan, a tigress with two cubs for no less than three hours. Finer feelings do tend to take a backseat at the perceived unfairness of life. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I am here with Dr Ullas Karanth--a name synonymous with Nagarahole..and tigers. It was here that Ullas started his path breaking research on tigers, and that India's first big cat got radio-collared...revealing much about the secret world of tigers (Did you know for instance, that to survive a tiger needs around 500 hoofed animals, of which it will consume about 50 at weekly intervals?) It was here that the longest tiger monitoring programme in the world was established, which has been ongoing for over two decades. This work has yielded crucial information about tiger behaviour and ecology, including the fact that the key to stable tiger populations is a good prey base. Here, in Nagarahole. the tiger's dietary needs are well provided for, with an array of hoofed animals on its menu, and no less than 40 of them packed into every square kilometer of forest. Somehow, with this remarkable history, you would expect that the tiger, who has inspired this body of work would be part of Nagarahole experience. That with Ullas around, the tiger was bound to put in an appearance.... 5.20 pm: 5:40 pm Quelling the twinge of disappointment, we descend from the machan, and into the SUV for the drive back to the forest rest house, taking the circuitous route, giving chance--for meeting tigers and other animals--the best opportunity. Our first sighting is wild pigs, scurrying across the path, young in tow. We spot sambar, a doe with her fawn. She flicks her huge cauliflower ears and eyes us curiously, before crashing into the bushes, tail uptight in the air. Next, on our rapidly growing list, is the even bulkier tiger meat-gaur. It's a humongous male--weighing not less than a ton--a mass of muscle tapering down to prim white schoolboy socks. Ullas peers through his binocs, and while I--foolishly-- wonder why he needs them to view such a huge target, he points at a wound on its massive shoulders. It's an old injury, healed now, but the claw marks tell a story. A tiger had attacked the gaur--the largest wild bovid in the world-- who lived to tell the tale. It's nearing six , when the gates of the parks close to visitors, and we are on our way back to our destination the forest rest house, dusk, on Nagaraja road, when ahead of us, a grey haze takes shape..then another..till a mass of massive, grey creatures emerge out of the shadows. Elephants. We stop, with the herd about 40 metres feet on our right. 5.40-5:49 pm We count eleven --babies, calves, mothers, aunts. They are preoccupied; carefully scooping out with their trunks, tufts of grass, thrashed and dusted off, before popping it into their mouths. Some chew on the salty chunks of earth. Through the mass of trunk-like legs, I spy a small frame, no bigger than my labrador, neatly fitted under her mother. The baby, a month old, if that , stumbles forth, her tiny head endearingly topped with a shock of gollywog hair. She runs amok, playing 'chase' with a tusker. He is young, brash, and clearly a bully--and the kid goes squeaking back to mum. I smile, my heart squeezing at the sight..this was it. This is what we work for. All the struggles, the heartbreaks, that must accompany conservation battles...are worth it. So that the wilds flourish... Ullas squeezes my arm, breaking my quiet reverie, and I look up, beyond the elephants; Perfectly camouflaged in the tall, golden grasses is a...tiger. A tiger. Sitting on its haunches, observing the elephants as intensely as us--but obviously with different, and not so altruistic--intentions. He is still, ears straight, alert, his gaze, unwavering--and clearly fixated on the tiniest pachyderm. But the elephants, they are blissfully unaware of the danger that close. I can see-feel-their contentment as they calmly go about their business, munching on the grass, occasionally extending their trunks, to softly, delicately, rub it against a mate. It's the calm before the storm. Has to be. It's surreal, this moment, the drama of it! I am besides myself, cannot think--or is it that my mind is a jumble of thoughts? Tiger..and elephants. in the same frame, a few feet from each other, the air is tense, waiting for the tipping point, an explosion. How can the elephants not know? The wind changes direction, and I know the microsecond when it hits them. TIGER, I can hear them think, and in a flash the sky is rendered by shrill screams as the elephants run amok...or so I think. Even in their panic, the escape is planned, the babies have been herded and pushed ahead firsts...and the landscape is emptied of the elephants. The tiger shifts stance, turns toward us, gives a brief, disinterested, glare, as though acknowledging our presence, before he ambles off too...a blaze of fire vanishing into his forest. What can I say? I breathe again, break into a sweat, laughter, tears. This was from 5:40 to 5:49 pm, nine--incredible --minutes of my life. But not really, this is another life, in another realm, for when you are here, in the forests, in wilderness, you are one of them. Primitive man, or in my case, woman. I thought post this event, anything, everything would be an anti-climax, but Nagarahole apparently, had decided to pull all stops for me, and put up a grand show. 7.00 pm-midnight As we that evening on the rest house verandah, relaxing, reliving those magical moments...came that unmistakable rumble in the jungle..a sound that pierces right through the soul aauungh, aauungh...the call of the tiger. The excitement, nay, the euphoria does not allow me to sleep, and as I lay awake, restless, letting the events of the day sink in, a cry breaks the stillness of the night. It is the forest eagle owl, called the Alu koogina hakki, the bird that wails like a man. The soft mournful cry is oddly soothing, and next I know, is being jolted awaked the raucous local morning alarm, the grey jungle fowl. 6 am, February 20, 2012 In the morning, on the drive up the Nagaraja Road, we have another big cat encounter. A tiger, a large male, very impressive, very regal, very beautiful..striding softly, across the dusty road. He is on the edge of the path, about to be lost to the bushes--and us, when he halts. Looks us over, his intense golden gaze holding my pensive brown one, then, as though we passed scrutiny, he settles down, resting his massive head in his front paws. It's a simple act, nothing to get all teary and sentimental about, but I am all mush. so grateful that we met the tiger, that he accepts us enough to ignore our presence, that he trusts us enough to roll over..and fall asleep. We watch him, for a few minutes..eternity...till the arrival of another jeep with noisy photographs disturb him, and in a flash, he disappears, swallowed by the forest. 11 pm to Noon, Murkal, Shetthalli I am on my way back, accompanied by Ullas's colleague Muthanna P M . We chat, there is much common ground, both of us were journalists before being smitten-and bitten--by the wildlife bug. Muthanna is part of an organsation called Living Inspiration for Tribals, and with the support of the wildlife Conservation Society, has played a key role in the voluntary relocation of villagers from the park, carried out by the state forest department, with financial support from the centre. Relocation of villages is vital to tiger conservation. The PM appointed Tiger Task Force prioritised the voluntary relocation of villages from core critical tiger habitats, recognising the fact that tigers need inviolate areas to live and breed. For villagers living in remote forests, in the heart of reserves, it's a new life—of mobile phones, roads, employment opportunities––away from the fear of elephants and trampled crops. I see the truth of it, here, in the old Murkal settlement in the heart of Nagarahole....What meets the eye is an expanse of grassland, instead of the shanties, garbage and bald meadow that existed here, merely an year ago. We should have been here yesterday, so say the forest staff with whom we have stopped to chat. A courting pair of tigers was around--it was a rather unfortunate tracker who stumbled upon them, or rather, the other way around, when he had gone for, err, some urgent personal business. Years of being in the field, taught him to hold his ground, sit firm, as the pair walked by..."but I ran as I was, soon as the pair turned away, screaming straight into my friends who were rushing to see what the commotion was all about..tigers here, who would have thought, " They laugh, guards, trackers, watchers--our 'tiger army', teasing him, and he joins them, in the hilarity... I stand bemused, indeed, who would have thought, tigers, here....with the forest lost, disturbed, degraded by the presence of humans? They are gone now, the people, to lead better lives, to a more secure future. From landless labour, depending on sporadic, seasonal employment––they now own land. I spoke to them later in the Shetthalli relocation center. We went around the fields first, which yielded a bumper maize crop last year, worth over a whopping 45 lakhs. They tell me about their new life. There were teething problems, but largely life is better. Their children go to regular school, the hospital is accessible, and they have TV! Telling, given that in their old home they did not even have electricity. "It is," they say, "the gift of the tiger..."

Heritage animal faces elephantine problem

We have declared elephants as our ‘National Heritage Animal’. And left them to fight for their survival against odds In October 2010, with much fanfare, India declared the elephant as its National Heritage Animal. While it’s good that the state officially acknowledged the deep cultural links that our people have with Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, it was pretty much the only substantive recommendation of the Elephant Task Force — appointed to propose measures to strengthen elephant conservation — which it paid heed to. The ETF report, ‘Gajah’, had a host of other recommendations, key among which was an amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, to create an autonomous authority along the lines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. While the then Union Minister for Environment and Forests lent his weight to the appointment of a National Elephant Conservation Authority, the proposal was promptly shot down by the Prime Minister’s office even before it could reach the Cabinet. The reasons are obvious and linked with the failure to implement other recommendations crucial to the conservation of the Elephas maximus. These include the declaration of elephant landscapes, inclusion of critical elephant corridors into the ‘protected areas’ network, making it mandatory for diversion of forest land in elephant corridors to be approved by the Forest Advisory Committee at the Centre instead of by the regional offices of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (notorious for their vulnerability to ‘influences’) and notifying elephant reserves as Ecologically Sensitive Areas under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. It is easy to see why these have been glossed over, given the serious implications. Elephant conservation is all about securing elephant habitats and halting their fragmentation. This calls for serious protection measures, implying that these forests must be restricted — that their destruction from mining, thermal power plants and other major industries be regulated by law. But none of this is palatable, not when we are hurtling down the double-digit growth path, trampling over crucial ecological concerns. In the current scenario, when there is frenetic attempt to grab land and intense pressure to denotify wildlife habitats, any move to protect animal habitats is anathema to the state, which is bent upon giving away forest and community lands to industry at any cost. The vulnerability of the PMO to the industry lobby’s pressure was apparent, when in February, the Environment Ministry agreed to divert an additional 25 per cent of forest land earlier categorised as ‘no-go’ for projects concerning power, roads and coal. Media reports said this was after the PMO stepped in and pressured the Ministry to fast-track project clearances. The trigger, reportedly, was a meeting the Government held with industry bigwigs on the economic slowdown. It is equally apparent that in this battle, the elephant is losing ground. In the past 50 years, the elephant’s geographic range has shrunk by over 70 per cent; all that remain are fragmented pockets of forest. Conflict is rooted in habitat loss and fragmentation: Shrinking, patchwork forests push elephants into human-dominated landscapes, and deadly confrontation becomes inevitable. Elephants are nomadic creatures dictated by ancient instincts that lead them to sources of food and water, especially in times of scarcity. But their forests and migratory paths are swallowed by dams, devastated by mines, taken over by agriculture and ripped apart by the highways and the railways. Disoriented, homeless and starved, elephants raid crops, destroy houses and occasionally kill helpless people protecting their homes and crop. In retaliation, people poison, electrocute and even blow up elephants by placing crude bombs in jackfruits or bananas that the unsuspecting pachyderms eat. Human-elephant conflict is thus increasing. On an average, about 300 people and 100 elephants lose their lives annually. Crop damage by elephants is estimated to impact about one million hectares. Yet, apart from doling out compensation — erratically and unsystematically — the Government has no sound policy or any long-term strategy to tackle the conflict. Poaching is another issue usually brushed aside by wildlife managers as ‘not a problem’. How, then, does one explain forests where the male-female elephant ratio is as skewed as 1:100? Or the fact that the population of tuskers in Orissa has plunged to an estimated 200 now against the previous count of 363 in 2002? No less than three out of 10 elephant deaths are unnatural: Attributed to train accidents, electrocution, poaching and poisoning. Clearly, the Gajah is in trouble. Granting the elephant a grand title or running Haathi Mere Saathi campaigns is mere symbolism. Unless they are backed by effective implementation of law, sound policies and hard conservation action, such campaigns are not going to achieve anything. Even the Environment Ministry, mandated for the elephant’s protection, has been complacent. Forget a dedicated, autonomous authority, even the existing Project Elephant has been headless — and clueless — for nearly 18 months now. The budget allocation for the project this year was a mere `19.58 crore for 32 elephant reserves across the country. Significantly, about a third of the budget is spent on conflict. It is another matter that elephant reserves have little sanctity and are largely sanctuaries on paper. Elephant corridors are also steadily being eroded as they give way to coal mines, oil refineries, highways, railway lines, stadiums, golf courses and tourism infrastructure. The Uttarakhand Government looked on as an oil depot created a physical barrier across the Gola river corridor that links the Corbett Tiger Reserve and Nandhour landscape — home to about 1,000 elephants, and in fact handed away part of the corridor for a para-military camp. Chhattisgarh refused to notify two elephant reserves, due to coal interests, as did Orissa. What the Government is taking refuge in is in numbers — there are believed to be 25,000 to 27,000 elephants in the country, and ‘increasing’. This sounds like an echo of the Great Indian Tiger Saga: While in the forests, the tigers were dying, successive Governments insisted that “all is well”, steadily increasing the tiger numbers on paper. Habitats of both elephants and tigers overlap in most parts of the country. Elephants face the same threats as the tiger: Poaching, conflict, habitat loss and fragmentation. So, how is it that elephant numbers are rising? It is important that we establish robust and better systems of estimation of elephant populations. Elephants are running out of space and time. India has about 60 per cent of the world’s wild Asian elephants. We owe this not just to legal protection, but to the reverence for elephants that has been intrinsic in Indian culture. Lord Ganesh is the god of wisdom and fortune, but his own fortune is fraying. Clearly, we have failed the gods we love. The writer is member of National Board of Wildlife. Published in The Pioneer on april 25, 2012