A dominant male tiger in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. ca 2014. Abhinav Dhar ©
An often overlooked point of commonality between India and her neighbours to the east is that they are all without exception, “tiger range” nations. As fate would have it, this fact was consolidated further with a taxonomic reshuffle based on genetics in 2015, which coalesced the once 5 recognized tiger subspecies into 2. This implied that India and her neighbours represent the majority of the habitat of the now continental Panthera tigris tigris (Wilting et al.). The tiger’s status as a charismatic apex predator, and therefore it being the ideal “umbrella” species from a conservation lens, unites this shared landmass as home to large, diverse, yet fragmented ecosystems. Bound by the common thread of the tiger, this zone is home to several endangered species, such as the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis, the Asiatic Elephant Elephas maximus, the Gangetic Dolphin Platanista gangetica, the Gharial Gavialis gangeticus and as if only to highlight the diversity of habitat within the tiger’s extent of occurrence, even the metaphorical “ghost of the Himalayas''- the high altitude ranging Snow Leopard Panthera uncia (Global Tiger Forum).
In the wake of potent threats such as poaching, which has resurfaced post-COVID 19 with devastating consequences for some habitats, one would naturally expect greater cooperation between tiger range nations in the conservation of this shared biodiversity. Yet, such cooperation has historically been held hostage to and been enabled by geopolitical rumblings characteristic of our raucous South Asian neighbourhood- fractured, and “start-stop” to put it bluntly. More pertinently, since the onset of the 21st century, highly localized wildlife conservation interventions have proven to be successful, particularly where there are public-private partnerships and where local communities have been made active stakeholders in the tiger’s future. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all solutions with overarching policies and frameworks when it comes to the management of forests and wildlife. India itself has witnessed such change for the better in select landscapes. So where does that leave cooperation between tiger range nations? How can cooperation be cognizant of such change and yet remain relevant to the conservation of our shared biodiversity? In this 3 part series, I attempt to address these questions.
The Beginnings: Cold War Hiccups & a Progressive Indian Prime Minister
The Nehruvian years (1947-1964) were not the finest when it came to India’s wildlife. Forests and wildlife were naturally a very low priority, and while there was a lot of rhetoric by the Prime Minister, little to no action prevailed on the ground. The loss of forests and wildlife during those seventeen years was devastating, and according to some estimates, far more extensive than any period during the British Raj (Thapar pp 50-51). It was also towards the end of Nehru’s time in office, that we began to see just how the politics of the Cold War had an impact on the conservation of wildlife in India and by extension, on cooperation between tiger range nations.
In 1965, the iconic American Zoologist George Schaller concluded the first-ever long term study (14 months) on the tiger to have ever been conducted at the time, in the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh (later published as a book titled The Deer & the Tiger). Schaller’s work was truly ahead of its time, not just when it came to findings relevant to tiger ecology, but also explicitly recognising the intrinsic value of India’s natural heritage and recommending the adoption of strong measures to protect this heritage. He pertinently commented, “ Kanha Park is part of India’s cultural heritage, a heritage in many ways more important than the Taj Mahal and the temples of Khajuraho, because, unlike these structures formed by the hands of man, once destroyed it can never be replaced”. This was during an era when the tiger was still considered the prized piece of a gentleman’s game trophy collection, and to shoot a tiger was still a historic rite of passage for most Indian forest officers. E.P. Gee, a Raj-era naturalist, however, admired Schaller’s work and recommended that his book, “should be read and studied by every forest officer before and after taking charge of a division”. Gee’s recommendation caused “jealousy” among the ranks of the Forest Service at the time and resulted in a good number of Indian forest officers becoming overtly hostile towards Schaller. It is important to recall that the strongest objection to Schaller was his “American connection” (Thapar pp 51-54), the significance of which is lost in most recollections of the period today.
The fate of a proposed long term study on the tiger in India by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. shortly after the Schaller episode is even more revealing. S. Dillon Ripley, an eminent ornithologist who was then the Institution’s secretary, zeroed in on India to establish a research outpost in Asia to study the ecology of wild tigers. India was a natural choice for such a project. Not only has the tiger historically been identified with India, but thanks to the Food for Peace Programme launched under American President D. Eisenhower in 1954 (PL 480), the U.S. had been selling wheat to India at subsidized rates and India had been paying the former in Indian rupees. These rupees could also be spent by the Americans within India itself, and the Smithsonian naturally had access to the accumulated funds as a premier scientific institution. Thus in May 1967, Ripley tabled his proposal and addressed a large gathering of naturalists, scientists and bureaucrats at a meeting themed, “ Indo-American Cooperation on Nature Science and Environmental Conservation” during a conference hosted by the prestigious Bombay Natural History Society. Ripley echoed many of Schaller’s concerns regarding the status of the tiger in post-independence India and highlighted the need for a “scientific approach to tiger conservation in India” and drew attention to the crippling “lack of baseline data”. Ripley’s proposal was welcomed by Indian conservationists, yet there were ominous whispers in the halls of the Indian bureaucracy (Mishra and Ottoway Jr. pp 9-10).
The Cold War was in full swing, and India had already begun a de facto turn towards the Soviets. A sense of paranoia about American foreign policy objectives in India prevailed, which was further fuelled by a sensationalist tabloid oriented media. Many raised questions regarding the ‘true’ motivations behind “an American proposal to establish a tiger research center in a remote part of the Indian forest”. Ripley’s work for the Office of Strategic Services (better known as just the OSS, the precursor to the FBI & the CIA) during the Second World War in the region lent credibility to conspiracy theories concerning a CIA plot in the Indian jungles, and he began to be perceived more as an “American spy” rather than an ornithologist. Ripley, like Schaller, was also a firm advocate for banning hunting tigers for sport in India, putting him on a collision course with the powerful Shikar lobby, which at the time, worked very closely with the Indian bureaucracy. Ripley also criticized the Indian Forest Service’s style of management and was promptly declared a “chauvinistic neo-colonist” in retaliation. The Smithsonian Tiger Ecology Project was doomed before it could ever get off the ground in India and was finally forced to establish itself in Nepal in 1972, where successors to the program continue to function in the Chitwan National Park to this very day (Mishra and Ottoway Jr. pp 9-11). The mercurial Indian conservationist ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh lamented India losing the project to neighbouring Nepal, and cited opposition to the “import of telemetry equipment” (for radio-collaring tigers, a common practice today ) being the primary objection (Singh pp 96-97). However, Schaller’s and Ripley’s warnings had not fallen on deaf ears at all; unlike Pt. Nehru, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was far more attentive to India’s beleaguered wildlife and brought about a tremendous change of direction not only within India but also her neighbours.
Much has already been written about Indira Gandhi’s decision to create and appoint a task force that drafted the Wildlife Protection Act of India in 1971 and ensured that it passed through parliament in 1972. This was a landmark piece of legislation that was passed quite literally in the nick of time for India’s forests and wildlife, prompting several conservationists to retrospectively consider her to be “India’s greatest wildlife saviour”. However, it was her decision to host the 10th General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1969 in New Delhi that merits closer attention (Thapar pp 58-59). Headquartered in Geneva, the IUCN is the world’s largest conservation organization and comprises governments, non-government organizations and the scientific community. The IUCN’s Red Data Book inventories the world's most endangered animal and plant species. India, it should be pointed out, became a founding member of the IUCN in 1948 (Mishra and Ottoway Jr. pp 11-12). It was at this meeting in New Delhi, that the IUCN General Assembly voted to finally include the tiger in its Red Data Book, which inspired an immediate and complete ban on tiger hunting in India (before the Wildlife Protection Act in 1971), which in turn provided the impetus to ban tiger hunting in neighbouring Bhutan the same year with its first “Forest Act” and in Nepal by 1972 (Nature Conservation Division Department of Forests and Park Services Ministry of Agriculture and Forests),(Mishra and Ottoway Jr. pp 11-14). Following liberation from despotic Pakistani rule in 1971, newly independent Bangladesh was also very quick to ban tiger hunting in 1972 (Deseret News).
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is considered by some to be India's "greatest wildlife saviour" for her timely interventions. From Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature by Jairam Ramesh.
This was in effect, an Indian led to victory for the conservation of the tiger and the very beginnings of cooperation between tiger range nations in South Asia. Contrast this with the neighbouring People's Republic of China, where the tiger was considered a “pest” during Chairman Mao’s “great leap forward” causing the monumental decline of a population that was once estimated to number 4000 in what can only be described as wholesale slaughter (Hance). The PRC will only continue to play a damaging role in the tiger’s fortunes, as we shall see in the forthcoming installation of this series.
Deseret News. “Natural Causes Claim Hunter who slew 61 tigers.” Deseret News, 17 October 1996, https://www.deseret.com/1997/10/16/19340120/natural-causes-claim-hunter-who-slew-61-tigers. Accessed 3 March 2021.
Global Tiger Forum. “Status of Tiger Habitats in High Altitude Ecosystems of Bhutan, India and Nepal (Situation Analysis).” Global Tiger Forum, 2019, www.globaltigerforum.org. Accessed 3 March 2021.
Hance, Jeremy. “First photos of a wild South China Tiger in 34 years.” Mongabay: News & Inspiration from Nature's Frontline, 14 October 2007, https://news.mongabay.com/2007/10/first-photos-of-a-wild-south-china-tiger-in-34-years-2/. Accessed 3 March 2021.
Mishra, Hemanta, and Jim Ottoway Jr. Bones of the Tiger: Of Man-Eating Tigers and Tiger-Eating Men. Delhi, Penguin Randomhouse India, 2010.
Nature Conservation Division Department of Forests and Park Services Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. “Tiger Action Plan for Bhutan (2018-2023).” Department of Forests and Park Services, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, 2018, http://www.dofps.gov.bt/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Bhutan-Tiger-Action-Plan-2018-2023-compressed.pdf. Accessed 3 March 2021.
Singh, Arjan. The Legend of the Man Eater. Delhi, Ravi Dayal Publisher/Orient Longman Ltd., 1993.
Thapar, Valmik. The Last Tiger: Struggling for Survival. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Wilting, Andreas, et al. “Planning tiger recovery: Understanding intraspecific variation for effective conservation.” Science Advances, vol. 1, no. 5, 2015, p. e1400175. Science Advances, https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400175/tab-pdf. Accessed 3 March 2021.