The rumble of the tiger’s roar in the forest set everyone’s pulse running. The majestic beast hunting for prey in dense forests sent the deer and gazelles running for shelter, it had the ox, bison and wild buffalo saving their hide. While preying on the carnivore and preserving habitat, the pride of tigers left behind the carcass for the scavenging animals providing them with their meals.
Not only did the royal animal take care of the environment and its animal subjects, it also found a place of reverence among certain forest tribes. The Naga tribes of in the North Eastern parts of the country not only do revere the beast but also have co-existed along with the tiger to the extent that these tribes have opposed the creation of a tiger reserve on said grounds. Similar tales of folklore can be found among the various forest dwelling tribes of the sub-continent.
In a symbolic fashion, we can say that the tigers have ruled the jungles of India. But for an animal enjoying such exalted status the royal beast was hunted down to levels which endangered its existence. What were the reasons that brought the state of affairs to this dire state?
The elite class of India since time immemorial had a penchant for the exotic. Hunting was an activity that was considered both as sport and leisure. The ruling class, the Rajahs and the Maharajahs and their courtiers went on hunting trip and bring back the prey to display it as a trophy and prowess of strength. Otherwise it would end up as part of a feast to celebrate a successful hunt.
Despite the fact that the activity of hunt as sport being carried out , the population of the big cats in the wild did not dwindle during the era where kingdoms ruled over various swathes of territory of the Indian subcontinent. Most of these kingdoms had tigers and lions as the royal insignia of the ruling family and hence due to religious beliefs and societal constraints of the period, the animals were well protected.
But the arrival of the invading forces of Turkic origin who established various Islamic sultanates found the jungles and the wide variety of wildlife available in them to be exhilarating and exotic. The most prominent of these sultanates is, the one teachers love to teach us about in school, the Mughal Empire.
The Mughals too loved their hunts. Just like any other royal family. Accompanied along by their trusted servants and fawning courtiers, the hunts were an activity to display their machismo and prove their superiority. The measuring tool used to determine the heroism of the nobility was the ferociousness of their kill. And pray tell me, which animal in the Indian wilderness was more fierce than the tiger?
The ferocious beast became the target to satisfy the lust of power of the elite. The animal which earlier was protected by the nobility was now being ruthlessly hunted down for sport. It was quite a decline in stature for the royal beast. From being the symbol of royalty, its significance reduced to become prey for the hunters.
The legacy left behind by the Mughals were carried forward with much impunity by the British. With the mandate of governance lying in the hands of the Crown, the nobles of the erstwhile princely states were left counting coppers. Leisure was the order of the day. These royals went out on hunts alongside the British aristocracy and competed among them to symbolise their strength and virility by bringing down as many tigers as possible.
Recounting tales of horror as documented by historians provides an insight into spree of killings that went on under the garb of tradition, leisure and sport.
over 80,000 tigers…were slaughtered in 50 years from 1875 to 1925. It is possible that this was only a fraction of the numbers actually slain.Mahesh rangarajan, Historian.
There are other chilling and brutal accounts of tiger hunts which wrecked the natural jungle ecosystem. In 1911, King George making a visit to the dominion of India upon his ascension to throne spent 10 days in the Indian wilderness. He along with his retinue slew 39 tigers in the mentioned time span. The Indian royalty was not far behind. The Royal family of Rewa, an erstwhile princely state of pre-Independent India situated in Central India, considered it auspicious to slay 109 tigers after their coronation.
Post Independence the situation deteriorated. Without a system of checks and balances, any individual with the right equipment could hunt wildlife for sport and leisure and not face repercussion. The practice continued unabated which wrecked the natural ecological biosystem until hunting wildlife was outlawed by government in 1971.
The genesis of Project Tiger launched in 1973 is rooted in the measures enacted by the government in 1971. The initiative was aimed at preserving the natural habitat and safeguard the tiger from the dangers of poaching. While ensuring the survival by safety, efforts were made to increase the population of the tigers to protect them from extinction.
The government announced the success of Project Tiger to the world with much fanfare. Though news reports surfaced at the regular intervals ringing the bells of alarm, the claims were countered displaying official data. Warnings ignored, the authorities spearheading the government initiative painted a rosy picture publishing their records which stated that a healthy number of tigers with a presence of 3,500- 4,000 walked free in the wilderness of India.
This euphoria came crashing down in 2004. The Sariska Tiger Reserve made national news after its claim of 18 tigers residing in the reserve was busted after a fact check. It was found there was no presence of a tiger in the tiger reserve. Not only did it shed light on the glaring malfeasance in the official records, it blew the lid off the sinister poaching operations taking place inside Indian jungles.
If that was bad, the worst was yet to come. Recovering from the Sariska scandal the government intervened to recalibrate the monitoring and tracking procedures. With new systems in place the latest tiger census in 2006 brought out the grim reality of the tiger population. The number of tigers which were reported to be around 3,500 dwindled down to a dangerous 1,411.
The stark reality put the gravity of the situation into perspective. The Royal Bengal Tiger a national symbol and a matter of pride was facing an existential crisis. The endangered species of the tiger was on the verge of extinction. This shook the inertia off the government apparatus and Project Tiger went in for an overhaul.
With a new outlook, the officials working on Project Tiger instituted measures and tweaked procedures to upgrade the safety matrix to curb the threat from poaching and improve ways of generating a census of the tiger population roaming free in the wilderness. To improve the chances of survival of the tigers and in retrospect the forests, an awareness campaign was launched to turn tiger conservation into a people’s movement.
This government initiative was ably supported by industry bigwigs such as NDTV and ITC which were a part of the ‘Protect the Tiger’ campaign. The awareness campaign with support from these corporations achieved the dual objectives of generating support to the cause and raise funds to support the initiative.
Concerted efforts over the years to protect the tiger and its habitat have borne fruit. On International Tiger Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a convention informed the world about India’s success in saving the tiger. From 1,411 in the year 2006 the tiger population doubled to 2,957 in 2019.
The revival of majestic beast marks a good beginning in our efforts to conserve and preserve the wildlife in the country. For now let’s savour the victory and hear the tiger roar again in the jungle!