Friday, May 14, 2010

Straight from the tiger’s mouth: a review of the short film, Truth About Tigers

Rajesh Singh

Most of you by now will be aware of my plight. The government has told you that only 1411 of us exist in the country, and even these numbers are endangered. The authorities have engaged the corporate sector and the media to spread the message of our conservation, with the hope to involve each one of you in the exercise. I cannot tell you how glad I am at all the publicity. Without your participation, I have no future. Let me also add, if you do not mind the language, that you too have no future without me.

You want to save me, but what can you do? Truth About Tigers – a 40 minute compact film by wildlife activist Shekar Dattatri, shows the way. It’s for people who love me, care for me, but do not know how to contribute to my well-being, because they do not know enough about the situation. The film empowers you with the information that will help you ask the right questions and demand the right answers. But, more than the academic part, I think it is invaluable because it stirs your conscience – makes you ‘feel’ for us.

When you see us in the film with our cubs playfully scampering about, you will be reminded of the little children around you and the happiness they spread around you. And then, a poacher gets to one of the mother tigers, spears her in the throat repeatedly or knocks her brutally on the head till she dies … for her skin and bones. Can you imagine the grief that visits our young ones who have lost their mother? Let alone hunt for food, they are too small to even defend themselves. So, they either die of starvation or fall prey to the hounds and jackals and hyenas in the forest.

You are a human being, so I ask you: Is it humanity to kill one of us that have done no harm to you, orphan our cubs and push them to an untimely and brutal end? Are you doing enough to punish those who are responsible for the slaughter? Why am I being exterminated when I am such a key part of your eco-system – without me there would be no forest; without forest there would be no rain, without water you would not be there.

Like the film says, my plight might not have been so pathetic had the authorities taken affirmative action when the crisis first became known. While the political will in the 80’s provided good news for us with the arrival of wildlife and forest protection legislations, the 90’s and later proved disastrous for us. Can you imagine, just when we were being killed left and right by poachers, a Project Tiger official said in 1993 that he saw no threat to our race! It is such complacency that did us in.

As we were getting eliminated in alarming numbers, the government launched upon a census to track our strength by employing the dubious ‘pugmark technique’. This method, as the film points out, is entirely unreliable, as the same pugmarks got counted over and over again, inflating our numbers in official records. If only the authorities had heeded the words of committed experts, we would not been on the verge of extinction in a country that has been our home for millennia. As long as two decades ago, the film informs us, an expert had devised the camera trapping method to count our numbers. It was by comparing the stripes in the photographs that the actual figure could be arrived at, since no two of our stripes are exactly the same. His advice was ignored, and the pugmark system continued to provide heartening figures even as we kept getting killed and our numbers dwindled. In another instance, a scientist was hounded out of the Panna reserve in Madhya Pradesh because he ‘dared’ to tell the authorities that we had disappeared from the sanctuary.

It was only five years ago that a Task Force recommended scrapping the pugmark methodology. By then, your poachers had already wiped us out from reserves like Sariska.

But, it is not just poaching that is a threat; even supposedly well-intentioned moves can harm us. If you want us to survive, please understand the basics: avoid unnecessary ‘development’ activities in and around our jungles. Shekar’s film shows how check dams are being built in my reserves where there is no water source, watch towers erected from where no watching is done, plants that provide food for our prey and cover for larger animals like us being cut down in the name of afforestation, and rainwater harvesting pits are being dug in regions where there is no rain water. All these activities affect us severely as they mutilate the natural habitat that we need to flourish.

My immediate protectors in the forest are the foot soldiers of the government – the forest guards. But, as Shekar’s film points out, equipped with just lathis and at times outdated guns, they are no match for the poachers who are armed with sophisticated weapons and fast-moving vehicles. Also, they are poorly paid and not incentivised enough to protect us.

So, is this the end of the road for us, despite all the high-pitched publicity? I accept that it’s not easy being a tiger in India today, but I have not given up. You can still turn the tide in our favour. You have the Kaziranga and the Nagarhole examples, as the film narrates. Both turned from near-disasters to wildlife paradise, thanks to committed forest officials.

Learn as much as you can about us and promote the concept of ‘live and let live’. The film will help you in that endeavour.

By the way, Truth About Tigers is narrated by Roshan Seth. He has a nice voice, but it’s not better than my growl!

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