The Last Days of the Indian Tiger

While traveling in India earlier this January, a front page news story caught my eye: “Effort Underway to Find New National Animal.” Whoa, hold on a minute. What happened to the Indian tiger? Then, a few months later,
The Economist special report on India called it “an elephant, not a tiger.” Surely, this was a reflection of the economy, right? All of 2009’s India conferences picked up and exploited this theme, that the Indian economy could not escape the global downturn and would, for a few years, be more like a big, strong, lumbering elephant and less like a nimble, strong, and fast tiger. Economic metaphors are cute, but what about the real tiger? This was never the subject of one conference panel, and here’s why…

Turns out, India’s record on preserving its national animals has a checkered past. Prior to 1973, the lion was India’s official national animal. That year, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared that the tiger was India’s top cat. Today, the Indian lion only roams in the heavily protected forests of Gir in western Gujarat. And, while census figures approximate that India had over 40,000 tigers in 1900, by 2000 that number reduced by an entire factor of 10, to just around 4,000.

British rule and hunting trips. Parts for ancient Chinese medicine. Poachers. Pressures of growing human populations and human habitat expansion. All are certainly culprits, but, how could the Indian government, a government that has nuclear weapons, is a growing economic giant, and wants to be a world superpower, allow such a crime on its own biodiversity, especially a species that has come to embody the country’s spirit, vigor, and durability?

Zoologists will point out that tigers are both territorial and solitary, hunting alone, at night, in the far corners of India, like in The Sunderbans, featured in National Geographic, or in Rathimbore and other smaller national parks. These tigers, what’s left of them, cannot be bred in captivity and, on the off chance they do breed, produce offspring empirically incapable of making their own way in the wild. In order to save the tigers, conservationists would need, in theory, swats of land, protected, with plenty of tasty antelope and other meals for the tigers, and lots of time, because in order to naturally boost populations, it takes generations.

Therefore, with tiger numbers in a precipitous decline, some conservationists have resorted to what they perceive as the only option: Arming forest rangers and ordering them to shoot trespassers on sight. If humans are killing the remaining 4,000 tigers, kill those humans first. Makes sense, I guess, but in 2100, the smart money is on the fact that India won’t have any wild tigers left to boast about. They’ll all be locked up in cages or makeshift parks for tourists to hope for a glimpse of, and be a lesser version of what God intended it to be—strong, powerful, independent.

What does India’s failure to preserve its iconic animal say about its resolve as a nation and its ambition to become a world power? What have other superpowers or aspirants done in the face of similar challenges?

In United States, there was a time that the American Bald Eagle was endangered; swift government efforts combined with conservation groups in civil society worked tirelessly to bring the species back from the brink, and now the eagle soars high again. In China, their lovable giant panda is known around the world for its soft demeanor, a clever way to promote its “panda diplomacy,” exercise government control of the environment, and woo kids from around China and tourists from around the world. The U.S. and China never had contingency plans for what their national animal would have been had these two species been wiped out; on the other hand, groups in India, perhaps sarcastically, are trying to draw attention to the fact by suggesting a group of second-class emblems, such as the langur or wild buffalo.

All debates aside, the India tiger—in the wild—cannot be saved. The next national animal will most likely end up to be the elephant, a big, intelligent, sensitive, slow, gentle, empathetic giant of the subcontinent’s jungle and plains.