Sunday, July 16, 2000

Let the tiger earn its stripes

Recently, a dozen tigers died under mysterious circumstances over a span of a few days at the well known Nandankanan Zoo in Bhubaneswar. While the threat to the tigers in the wild is well recognised, the condition of the tigers in zoos across the country need to looked in to as well. In this article "Let the tiger earn its stripe" published in the Hindustan Times, on 16 July 2000, I note that a highly valuable animal like the tiger could well earn its keep, if we look for more creative strategies to help protect it.

The king of the jungle has been on the run for some time now. And the chase to save it has also been on for a while. Yet tragedies like the one at Nandankanan happen making it worse for the majestic animal.

There may be a case here for changing tack a little and throwing open the conservation effort to money, market and commerce.

There are estimated to be only 7-7,500 of them left in the wild, about four or five thousand of them in India. Another couple of thousands may be in captivity in zoos and circuses around the world. Sadly, the death of a dozen tigers at the Nandankanan Zoo in Bhubaneswar, has brought home the fact that even in zoos, the last refuge for some of the wild and endangered species, the animals are no longer safe. Unless serious lessons are drawn and drastic reforms in management of zoos, as well as changes in the Wildlife Protection Act, are initiated, the days of the tigers and many other wild animals in India will be well and truly numbered.

The Nandankanan tragedy calls for a serious review of the policies governing zoos in the country. Rather than trying to pin responsibility on some particular official at Nandankanan Zoo, or the Central Zoo Authority (CZA), we need to focus on the system responsible for the tragedy.

The issue here is our whole approach to wildlife conservation.

Today, zoos, with the support of modern science and technology, and growing concern about the fate of dwindling population of wild animals, can and must play a much more significant role. Zoos can become centres of specialised research in wildlife, developing expertise in captive breeding of endangered species, while continuing to be popular tourist spots. Many of the famous zoos around the world are already engaged in this kind of knowledge-based activities. They raise funds, generate revenue and attract some of the best talents to work with them.

But in India the zoos, which are governed by rules framed and monitored by the Central Zoo Authority, since 1991, have not even started in that direction. In fact, because the tiger and many other wildlife species are considered priceless, laws have been enacted to prohibit any economic use of these species. It is felt that economic utilisation of wildlife will push the species further down the road to extinction. Consequently, the laws have foreclosed the possibility that commercialisation may actually be conducive to conservation. Almost three decades of WPA has shown that stringent laws have not achieved their objects. Despite adding more and more animals to the highly protected Schedule I list, the number animals in the wild has not shown any appreciable increase and in fact it has declined in some cases.

Yet, consider the evidence of the most exploited species in the world today — cattle, sheep, poultry and other farm animals. These are nowhere near extinction. Millions are bred, sold and killed each year and have made a significant contribution to the economy. In many countries, some of the exotic wild species like crocodile, ostrich, deer, have become valuable economic products and have actually moved away from extinction since.

But Indian laws have prevented people from capitalising on the economic demand for wildlife. Captive breeding of endangered species would have been a good way to regenerate dying species. The government despite its good intentions has to put the brakes on it for pragmatic considerations. But WPA has ensured that private experimentation with captive breeding remains a non-starter as the Chennai Crocodile Farm episode shows.

The Farm has been extremely successful in breeding crocodiles and providing alternative economic opportunities to some local tribals, yet the government has for years been refusing to grant it permission to sell its animals and generate income. This is despite the fact that crocodile farming has become big business in countries like Australia, South Africa and United States. Indeed, such has been the effect that, many crocodile farmers in the west have been trying to promote crocodile meat as an exotic delicacy.

Species such as tigers also have enormous economic potential when alive in forests and wildlife parks. Tourists, who come to see these animals in their natural setting, help boost the local economy. In Zimbabwe, villagers in many areas are given ownership rights to many wild animals and share in the income brought in by tourists and hunters to see or shoot a limited number of animals. So they ensure the wildlife of their area is protected.

In India however, there is a strong move to stop tiger shows in some National Parks as such shows are cruel and deprive the tiger of its “wildness”. When the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh expressed a view that limited hunting could be permitted of some of the abundant species in the State to attract tourists, he came in for widespread criticism.

The animal rights politics in India has gone to ridiculous extents as ostrich farming project has shown. It was a foreign bird and not an endangered one at that by the international standards of the CITES agreement. It was not a protected bird under any Indian law. Yet it took the Commerce Ministry years to okay a few projects for farming of the bird for commercial purposes.

There are many species that have made a comeback on the back of commerce. Various species of deer have found increasing acceptance on dinner tables as well on the walls of trophy hunters. There are more blackbucks in Texas today, than in their native India. American bison population has jumped from a few hundred at the turn of the century to close to half a million today. Ranchers are trying to develop a market for their meat and hide in order to improve their economic potential.

With economic interest, of course, comes the motivation to deploy and train the people and harness modern technology to ensure that the animals are kept in best of conditions. The economic power of animal husbandry was seen in action a few years ago, when millions of cattle in Europe and poultry in Asia were killed because of suspected infection. Yet, the industry and the population at large did not feel any effect.

Likewise, zoos can be the vanguard for preserving wildlife. But for that to happen, laws need to be changed to allow the harnessing of the economic potential of wildlife in myriad forms. Many zoos then will become economically viable, and able to function as an efficient corporate entity providing their knowledge and services to wildlife managers and farmers. The wildlife in turn will then receive the best protection and thrive in their environment.

One cannot help but think that for many people, bureaucrats and activists alike, there is a vested interest in continuing the crisis facing wildlife. But unless we quickly realise the value of commerce in conservation, the fate of wildlife, whether in the wild or in captivity in zoos will continue to hang in balance. It is time to act or the tragedy of the Nandankanan tigers will only turn into a greater farce.

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