India's Missing Tigers

Dawn at Kanha National Park in India's central highlands is welcomed with a symphony of animal sounds. The safari guides in their jeeps listen intently, straining to pick out telltale dissonant notes—the honk of a sambar, the shriek of a chital or the loud cough of a langur. These are alarm calls: they mean that somewhere out there in the high, dry grass, a tiger is on the prowl.

Kanha is one of the last strongholds of the Royal Bengal tiger, perhaps the world's fiercest terrestrial predator—and its most beautiful. The chance to glimpse that signature orange and black coat attracts tens of thousands of tourists each year, who flock to this and India's 27 other tiger reserves. Alarm calls can still be heard in the Kanha dawn, but many of India's jungles have fallen disturbingly quiet.

The government-run Wildlife Institute of India shocked the nation—and tiger lovers worldwide—in February when it released a rigorous scientific survey estimating India had just 1,411 tigers left, a decline of more than 60 percent in five years. Previous surveys had overestimated tiger numbers, but the new figures placed the big cat on the cusp of extinction. India has pledged to save the tiger, but as the nation grows richer the task is becoming much more difficult. In the 1970s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi presided over a rigid, largely socialist economy that limped along at what has often been derided as "the Hindu rate of growth": a mere 3.5 percent. But she also had the centralized authority needed to launch a successful conservation campaign. Today India is a charging capitalist elephant, barreling forward at 9 percent a year. But with economic growth the supreme political priority, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—who perches precariously atop an increasingly unwieldy and decentralized power structure—is finding it much harder to help the great cat.

Although tigers have been endangered for decades, many experts had long held out hope that the species could be rescued. Now even the optimists sound downbeat. "My grandchildren may not see tigers in their lifetime," says Ashok Kumar, vice chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, a prominent conservation group. Already, three tiger subspecies—the Bali, Caspian and Java tigers—have vanished, victims of hunting and development, and no more than 200 Siberian tigers now stalk Russia's Far East. The Bengal tiger—whose population in India accounts for about half of all wild tigers in existence—seems headed down a similar path.

India has been here before: in the early 1970s its tiger population—estimated at close to 40,000 at the end of the 19th century—had fallen below 2,000. Spurred to action, Indira Gandhi, the iron lady of Indian politics and a great lover of the tigers, banned its hunting and launched one of the most ambitious conservation programs in history: Project Tiger. Stringent wildlife-protection laws were passed, dozens of reserves were ultimately created, thousands of villagers were forcibly relocated outside these parks, guards were hired to protect wildlife from poaching and programs were established to preserve forest land as well as the deer, antelope and bison on which tigers prey. Within 15 years, tiger populations had not only stabilized, they had come bounding back—more than doubling, according to many estimates.

But in the following 15 years, Project Tiger lost its way. Complacency, neglect and corruption plagued the project, according to an Indian auditor general's report from 2006. The money dwindled, and what was appropriated was often siphoned off for other purposes by state governments. Forest guards lacked equipment—including radios, guns and even simple boots. Vacancies also went unfilled, and as the average age of the guards and rangers crept toward 50, the frequency of foot patrols—essential for monitoring tigers and deterring poaching—declined. When new forest officials were hired, they were often politically connected city slickers ignorant of the jungle.

The Forest Department also began taking on wider responsibilities, diluting its once narrow focus on protecting wildlife. Park directors were judged as much for the work they did promoting rural development and tourism as for tiger protection. "The huge sums of money available for ecodevelopment led to a mission drift," says Ullas Karanth, a leading tiger researcher who works with the Wildlife Conservation Society in India. "The Forest Department got distracted."

At exactly this moment, India's tigers began facing a new and ominous threat. Booming economic growth in neighboring China has accelerated the demand for tiger skins—a fashion symbol in Tibet—and bones, an important ingredient in traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs. With no wild tigers left in China, India has become the prime source for the illegal trade. Organized gangs of poachers travel the country, systematically targeting India's reserves and decimating its tiger population. In the past 10 years, India has seized the bones and skins of more than 800 tigers—eight hides were captured just last week—and this is assumed to be just a fraction of the total killed.

Wildlife biologists conducting field studies in reserves reported that tigers were vanishing, but officials refused to acknowledge the precipitous decline. "Poaching was just not taken seriously," says Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, a group that works with the police to crack poaching rings. Directors could be transferred or demoted for reporting falling tiger populations. Besides, the cats meant tourist dollars, which created a perverse incentive to cover up poaching. So Project Tiger clung to inflated estimates derived from analyzing tiger-paw prints, long after experts had shown that such data were unreliable. In some cases, conservationists suspect, officials deliberately fudged the numbers. In 2005 the government claimed that there were 18 tigers in Sariska, the closest reserve to Delhi, but a study found it had been completely cleaned out by poachers—not a single tiger remains.

In the wake of this scandal, the Indian government disbanded Project Tiger and replaced it with a new National Tiger Conservation Authority, mandated to bring the tiger back. Repeating the success of the 1970s and 1980s, however, will be difficult. Not only are population pressures worse and poachers more organized, but India's political and economic dynamics have been transformed.

"Indira Gandhi made Project Tiger happen," Kumar says. Gandhi presided over what was essentially a one-party state: her Congress party not only controlled India's federal government, as it had since independence, but it controlled most state governments as well. That's critical, because forests in India are state property, and states have a large say over logging and mining projects. "Indira could pick up the phone," says Kumar, "and call any chief minister [the top state official] and say, 'Why haven't you declared a sanctuary?' and they would do it because no one dared defy her."

Current Prime Minister Singh, meanwhile, is no Indira Gandhi. She was a charismatic populist. He's a technocrat who took the prime minister's job after Sonia Gandhi, Indira's daughter-in-law and current head of the ruling Congress party, declined the post. It's Sonia who now calls the shots in the Congress party, not Singh, and both have failed to use their offices as bully pulpits on tiger conservation.

Unlike in Indira Gandhi's day, moreover, Congress's power now depends on the most fragile of coalitions. With a general election expected next year, the party is wary of any action that may cost it votes, particularly among the rural villagers who live alongside India's last tigers. At the same time, many of India's state governments are now in the hands of regional parties that did not exist in Indira Gandhi's time and over which Congress and the central government in New Delhi have little leverage. "The problem is, the land is owned and managed by state governments," says Karanth. "They don't feel they are part of this. Unless we have models of tiger conservation that are almost state specific, it will be very difficult to effect recovery."

Many chief ministers, however, are more interested in feathering their own political nests than in conservation. And as wildlife advocates like to point out, tigers don't vote. Nor do they bring in wads of money—unlike industrial developers who want to build hydroelectric dams or bauxite mines in the middle of prime tiger habitat. The states are also hypersensitive to anything that might be construed as undue meddling on their turf by New Delhi, complicating a national recovery plan. Rather than accepting the disturbing results of the latest Wildlife Institute study, some states that have lost large numbers of tigers, such as Orissa—where the chief minister hails from Congress's rival Bharatiya Janata Party—have insisted the government numbers are wrong and ordered their own recounts, wasting time and money that could be spent saving those tigers that remain.

In response to the current crisis, the Indian government has announced a crash effort aimed at rescuing the tiger. It will create eight new tiger reserves and a new armed force to protect tigers. It also announced a $153 million program that includes additional money for anti-poaching efforts, including the hiring of retired soldiers to act as forest guards, new equipment for monitoring tigers and a tenfold increase, to $25,000 per family, in the amount it will pay villagers to relocate outside tiger reserves. Under this scheme, the government estimates it can move 200,000 people out of tiger sanctuaries. It has also set a May 15 deadline for states to come up with their own preservation strategies.

Conservationists have applauded these plans, but implementation will be tricky. "In India a lot of money can disappear just propping up an existing, faulty system," says the Wildlife Protection Society's Wright. In 2006, following the Sariska debacle, the government created a new Wildlife Crime Control Bureau to take on poachers. Two years later, the new agency still exists mostly on paper; it has yet to investigate a single poaching case. And even some of the government plan's most ambitious points can't address the scale of the problem. For instance, the government's village-relocation program sounds impressive—until one remembers that India is a teeming nation, struggling under the crush of 1.1 billion people. Aside from the high Himalayas, hardly an inch of the country has not been settled. Some 3 million people live inside India's protected forests, and an additional 4 million live in areas adjacent to them. So the pressure on tiger habitat will remain intense even after these 200,000 villagers are moved.

Karanth and some other tiger conservationists also accuse the government of "schizophrenia," since Singh's administration last year pushed through a new law that will allow traditional forest-dwelling peoples to claim ownership over forestland. Some of these tribes had previously been removed from their ancestral homes in the name of protecting wildlife and the environment, although in practice this was frequently a pretext to seize land for mining or industrial uses. The disaffected tribes turned against the government, providing fuel to India's growing insurgencies, particularly the powerful Maoist guerrillas known as Naxalites. The new tribal-rights law, then, is more than a way to correct historical injustices—it is a counterinsurgency tactic. But while existing tiger reserves will be declared off-limits to tribal claims, the new law could result in people's carving up potential tiger habitat.

The Naxalites pose other hazards to tiger recovery as well. The rebels hold sway over vast tracts of remote forest in central and eastern India that might serve as prime tiger habitat. Their presence has prevented forest officials from even attempting to count the tiger population in some areas—and rendered conservation efforts impossible. P. K. Sen, a former director of Project Tiger, has estimated that as much as 30 percent of the tiger's range in India is inaccessible due to insurgency. While there is no evidence that Naxalites are involved in tiger poaching, without wildlife protection in these lawless regions local people hunt deer and boar that would otherwise serve as food for tigers. An adult tiger must eat at least 50 deer-size animals a year to survive; the less prey, the fewer tigers.

Previous studies found that fewer than half of India's tigers lived inside official reserves. The rest inhabited other undeveloped areas. But the latest Wildlife Institute survey discovered that many of these tigers have disappeared. And it isn't hard to see why: India has lost thousands of square kilometers in forest cover over the past 20 years—the result of dam building, logging, mining and rural development. "Where humans are there, tigers are not there. Where livestock is there, tigers are not there. Where forest cover is missing, tigers are not there," Rajesh Gopal, head of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, told a meeting of India's national-park directors at Kanha in mid-March.

The conservation authority wants to preserve—and in some cases restore—forested buffer zones around national parks. It also wants to create green corridors that will allow tigers to move between protected sanctuaries. These thoroughfares are considered essential to ensuring that India's tigers do not become trapped in genetically isolated pockets. But the conservation authority has no power to create such vital corridors. Doing so will require coordinated action by state governments and multiple federal and state bureaucracies, many of which have diametrically opposed interests—exactly the sort of problem modern India is least equipped to handle.

Maintaining the national economic boom is clearly the top priority for the government. And with good reason: it is the escalator that has lifted millions of Indians out of abject poverty. But this dynamic makes the trade-offs between development and conservation tougher for the prime minister. While most believe Singh sincerely wants to save the tiger, the cat has no natural constituency: India's new business elites have not adopted the tiger as an important cause the way wealthy philanthropists in the United States and Europe have. Nor has environmental degradation in India attracted the sort of broad-based concern it has in the West. "India is hellbent on going into the sunrise of development, and the tiger has been seen as a bit of a nuisance," says Wright. "India has never seen the tiger as an asset."

One morning in Kanha in March, a tiger lay on a bed of fallen leaves at the foot of a sal tree, its dusky orange fur and black stripes making it hard to spot in the dappled sunlight that filtered through the dense forest canopy. Elephants carrying camera-wielding tourists on their backs circled the big cat as their handlers jockeyed for the best vantage point—a daily ritual that park officials have dubbed "The Tiger Show." Kanha is considered among the better-managed tiger reserves in India, one of the areas the tiger authority hopes will provide a springboard for the big cat's recovery nationwide. It has a healthy population of 89 adult cats and corridors connecting it to other forests. People living around the park are generally supportive of the tiger's presence, which has brought tourism and economic growth to the area. But watching the orange and black cat sitting under the sal tree, licking its paws, oblivious to the peril of its species, one couldn't help but think the final credits have already begun to roll on India's own long-running tiger show.