Home > Random Stuff > ‘I’ of the Tiger

‘I’ of the Tiger

As Archies, Hallmark and co line up to drive business with the Year of the Tiger, it is ironic to see the posters being put up everywhere by Aircel’s Save the Tiger campaign. 1411 tigers, they proclaim. A visit to the website provides us with ways to contribute – blog, status message, social networking sites and, of course, cash donations. However, in a situation where the animal has completely disappeared from a couple of the sanctuaries set up, ironically, to protect it, the question arises if we are doing enough. Or is it a case of too little, too late?

Now I know that every other discussion about the Indian economy ends up turning into a point by point comparison with China but this is a place where we could take a lesson or two in animal conservation from our neighbours.

The Giant Panda is the national animal of the People’s Republic of China and also the well recognised emblem of the WWF since its inception in 1961. Found in the remote mountains of central and western China (primarily Sichuan province), the panda has disappeared from its lowland habitat due to human settlement (farming) and deforestation. The species depends on conservation to survive. There are chiefly two problems which prompt a widespread conservation program for the animal. Firstly, loss of natural habitat is killing the animal. The Giant Panda has one of the smallest intestines among the bear family. Now considering the exceptional nutrition quality of bamboo, which forms 99% of its diet, an adult Giant Panda weighing about 100 kilos must eat 12-15 kg of bamboo leaves and stems daily. In fact the energy derived from this diet is so low that it just about meets the energy requirements of the panda to sustain life causing the animal to lead a primarily sedentary life. To sustain a large population of Giant Pandas one would require immense amounts of bamboo groves in the region. Bamboo typically grows poorly in mountains. To compound problems, all bamboo plant of a single species die and rejuvenate seasonally every year. This raises the need for the presence of at least two species of bamboos in a panda habitat to prevent the animal from starving to death.

Secondly, giant pandas have a very low reproductive rate. Peak reproductive years for females are between eight and eleven years. Coupled with the fact that a female gives birth to two cubs once every two or three years it means effectively one or, at the most, two birthing cycles per female. The cubs, when born, weigh a mere 85-150 g, about 1/900 times the weight of their mother. Since cubs are completely helpless at birth they need the undivided attention of their mother to survive and so she can only care for one of the cubs. The panda mother usually chooses one cub to take care of and abandons the other cub, which dies soon after birth.

China has taken various steps to boost the population of this animal. Many natural reserves and breeding facilities have been set up to protect the animal. Artificial insemination techniques are used to increase the birth rate and the abandoned cubs are raised and taken care of by trained caretakers by hand. China also frequently loans its pandas to zoos across the world. Typically, it charges a fee of USD 1 million per year and loans the panda for 10 years. Any cubs born during this period are the property of the PRC. The zoos on their part ensure that at least half this money is channeled back to the Panda conservation program. Frequently, these pandas are temporarily brought back to China for the reproduction program as well. All this has resulted in the current population of pandas to be an estimated 3000. China has very stringent laws to protect the national animal and the administration takes a very dim view of poachers.

Coming to India, our national animal, the Royal Bengal Tiger is seeing very different things as it stares at a bleak future. Rampant poaching of tigers for their skins and body parts have reduced the wild cat to frighteningly low numbers.

Tigers are the largest and most powerful of all big cats and are unique in more ways than one. The Royal Bengal Tiger (referred to henceforth as ‘tiger’ for purpose of brevity, unless otherwise mentioned) is one of five species of tigers around the world. It is also the only one to give birth to actual white tigers (which are NOT albinos but white in colour). Under Project Tiger, national reserves such as Jim Corbett Sanctuary, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Sariska have been setup across the country. However, due to the use of arcane demographic techniques using pugmarks, the numbers are not accurately reported. This problem is compounded by other factors such as the tiger is shy and avoids human contact and also its territory can extend over a surprisingly large area. This hampers conservation efforts since the actual numbers are not known. The issue takes a serious turn when human settlement encroaches upon the catchment area of the sanctuaries giving rise to tiger-human encounters which can easily turn fatal for either party. Unlike China, the legal structure in India falls behind in prosecuting offenders on the count of poaching and most poachers are ready to face the same in lieu of the ready cash offered to them for the job.

The need of the hour, in my opinion, is for India to set up a new project, a Project Tiger II if you may, which will have a more comprehensive conservation and breeding program. India may consider loaning animals to zoos in friendly nations. Most zoos would be more than happy to receive young animals from India even at a price to put in their exhibits. Moreover, these zoos are equipped with modern facilities and trained animal professionals who are adept at caring for the animals. Again like China, India can stipulate that all cubs born would be the property of India. This would not only help raise awareness about the specific problems surrounding tiger conservation but also put money into the project to improve resources and the protection provided to the animals in general.

Our biggest problem, once again, is the red tapism that surrounds probably every aspect of our administration. Somebody needs to step up to the challenge and deliver the good before we lose the Royal Bengal Tiger for good. Most other tiger species have even lower populations than the Royal Bengal Tiger and so it is critical from the point of view of the tiger population across the globe that something be done to protect our national animal. Else at this rate we may well be reduced to naming the cow or the goat as the national animal. At least they have a lower chance of extinction.

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  1. 17 March 2010 at 19:50 IST

    that was a well researched piece. hope the policy makers take some of the points into consideration to save the tiger!

  2. 31 March 2010 at 16:52 IST

    Awesome piece.
    A point though: An extinct animal can be a national animal too. Some countries have dragons as national animal. This does not mean that we should not try and save the tiger.

    Regarding how to save the tiger: Your methods are definitely worth a try but what you did not mention is that whatever tiger poaching happens in India, it ultimately goes into China. Tiger skin is a much sought after commodity in China. We need to bring in China to stop buying that stuff along with boosting our efforts to save the tigers. If the demand goes down, poaching and smuggling would be less lucrative and in turn help in saving tigers. Really tough though.

    • Siddharth
      31 March 2010 at 17:13 IST

      Hey Munish
      Thanks for the comment. Just a couple of thoughts: Firstly, yes an extinct/mythical animal can be a national animal but it would be really disappointing not to be able to see one’s own national animal alive.
      Coming to the point of China’s use of tiger products, officially China has banned all forms of endangered animal products in traditional medicine – be it tiger, bear, etc. I don’t think more can be expected from them through regulations. The problem is that in China even today, illegally, tiger farms exist. What India can do is to convince their Chinese counterparts to pressurise these tiger farms into selling their animals to India albeit at a premium. The rescued animals can then be immunized and released slowly into areas which were naturally inhabited by tigers but now have no animals left.
      Having said this, let us not forget some specific problems that firstly the Indian public, barring a few, would take a very dim view of the decision to buy “animals” on a premium price when there are people starving. Secondly, China and India though diplomatically polite are hardly on talking/negotiating terms and their government will have no real advantage in helping out India with this. Basically, we have nothing to offer in return. Except Arunachal Pradesh, sadly!

      • 1 April 2010 at 10:06 IST

        sad but true…
        But tigers becoming extinct is a worldwide problem. South East Asia (specifically India) is the only place where some tigers are left. It the world doesn’t come together for this, then even those would be gone. We can do our efforts and hope that others do theirs.

        • Siddharth
          1 April 2010 at 10:32 IST

          True India has the largest population of tigers remaining but we must not forget that genetic diversity is necessary for any animal to survive. Also of importance is the admirable way in which some countries have protected their native tiger subspecies. Case in point, the Siberian tiger. It would be necessary for all these countries to collaborate and cooperate so that they can use the combined experience and wisdom of each other to tackle this challenge. As much as it pains me to say this it is probably past the point where tigers could be preserved in the wild except probably the Royal Bengal variety which is the most populous. Nations should now turn their efforts to at least conserving these animals in captivity in larger numbers to maintain a diverse enough gene pool that is sufficient to prevent inbreeding and subsequent extinction of a subspecies. Re-introduction could be a possibility but only at a later stage. The need of the hour is to ensure a large enough gene pool of all existing subspecies.

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