The beleaguered Asian tiger: China's still-robust medicinal market is only part of the problem.
There were an estimated 100,000 wild tigers in Asia at the turn of the century. Ninety-nine years later, their numbers have declined by 95 percent, and only 5,000 to 7,000 tigers are estimated to survive, approximately 4,000 of them in India. While there were eight subspecies in 1900, there are only five now. Conservationists the world over give the wild tiger anywhere from 10 to 25 years unless sustained emergency action is taken.
Back in the early 1970s, the picture was even worse. Decades of wholesale slaughter and habitat destruction had dropped Indian tiger numbers to an estimated 1,700. Backed by a million-dollar pledge from the World Wildlife Fund, the Government of India launched Project Tiger in 1973. Its objectives were two-fold: to “ensure the maintenance of a viable population of tigers” and “preserve for all time, areas of biological importance as a national heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people.” A ban on tiger hunting was finally imposed and entire villages were moved out of areas designated as sanctuaries. For the next 15 years or so, tigers responded vigorously, and Project Tiger was lauded and emulated all over the world.
Relief turned to panic in the late 1980s, when censuses of tiger populations began to reveal that many were “missing.” In fact, tigers were nowhere near as numerous as the Indian Government reported. Investigations revealed that tigers were being trapped, poisoned and shot at an estimated rate of one per day to provide parts for the global black market trade in Chinese traditional medicine. By this time, China had virtually wiped out its own tiger population, having long viewed them as “pests.” Tigers were also killed in growing numbers by farmers living on the borders of tiger forests.
But in the last decade, another formidable threat to tiger survival joined poaching and population pressure: runaway economic globalization. The tiger is now up against dams, mines, roads, tourism projects, thermal plants, cement factories, chemical effluents and commercial forestry projects, all being built in India on a massive scale.
As Bittu Sahgal, a long-time tiger activist and editor of India's largest wildlife magazine, Sanctuary, puts it: “Were poaching and population the limit of the problem, I would say the tiger would be saved through a combination of education, protection and consultation with communities. Unfortunately, industrialists and international bureaucrats are developing the tiger out of existence.”
The World Bank, which has an enormous presence in India, is working on two tracks. It funds numerous economic infrastructure development projects which, activists say, threaten fragile ecosystems and tiger habitat throughout the country. At the same time, they add, it throws up a “green” smokescreen of concern for biodiversity. Hazaribagh (“Land of a Thousand Tigers”) National Park in central India provides corridors vital to migrating tigers and elephants, which coal mines run by Coal India threaten to disconnect. Aided by World Bank funds, over 495 new coal mines are being added to those currently in operation.
In the Indian state of Bihar, the World Bank is financing the Kotku Dam, which will drown the best forests of a tiger reserve called Palamau.
In Andhra Pradesh, a “Forestry Project” funded by the World Bank will convert tiger habitat to a monoculture designed to boost commerce rather than biodiversity. Bulldozing old-growth trees will make way for money-making species such as eucalyptus, teak and bamboo. “Tigers will no longer be able to live in such altered forests,” says Saghal. In Madhya Pradesh, an area of critical importance to the survival of tigers in India, the Bank may invest more than $200 million over a 10-year period, “for development of the forestry sector.”
According to Ashish Kothari, a founding member of the Pune-based Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, which has been working on conservation and development for 20 years, “The World Bank has greatly aided an uncontrolled 'development' process which treats all of nature as raw materials. Even national parks and sanctuaries are being sacrificed for dams, power plants, highways and tourism complexes.”
An arm of the Bank plans to spend $90 million on something called the “India Ecodevelopment Project,” to “conserve biodiversity” near parks and sanctuaries. But according to a number of Indian environmental groups, pouring millions into seven protected areas, including five Project Tiger reserves, is not halting but spurring destruction of the forests and the local peoples' way of life.
Dr. Ravi Chellam, a scientist and Research Coordinator with the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehra Dun, bemoans the World Bank's self-imposed and disingenuous role as a green superhero. “In Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in southern Tamil Nadu, much of the Bank's money is thrown at shoddily-constructed, unnecessary projects. It has always amazed me that in the name of conserving nature, we actually destroy it by bringing in tons of concrete and steel!”
Some tiger advocates do praise the Bank's role. Dr. V.K. Melkani, field director of the Kalakud Tiger Reserve portion of the Ecodevelopment Project, points to the Bank's “biodiversity enhancement” agenda which, he says, “provides us with an opportunity to test a new tool for forest protection.”
The Bank itself declined to comment directly about its role in tiger conservation. Instead, it provided E with the following statement: “The Bank's current environmental strategy aims to introduce environmental concerns into all aspects of the Bank's work through 'do no harm' policies to avoid and mitigate the negative impacts of infrastructure, power and other development activities.”
The view from most environmentalists in India is that if the Bank doesn't change course, it will only be a matter of time for the tiger. Other threats to its survival seem serious, but manageable. Commercial development just might do what the poachers' snares and farmers' guns have not.