" Trees are Earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven." ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Poachers' Paradise

Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary and Cub magazines reminds us of the wild life we are losing daily to the meance of poachers and writes of the lack of political will and government support to stop this threat.

By some estimates, we are losing one tiger a day at the hands of poachers working in tandem with international traders. At least one elephant and two leopards lose their lives to the same network every day. Rhinos, lions, lesser cats and birds such as the Great Indian Bustard and Bengal Florican are faring no better. Turtles are dying at Gahirmata, chinkaras and houbara bustards are being wiped out by cement factories in Kutch and poachers have infiltrated the highest echelons of political power.

Guns are not the only means used by poachers, often they dig pits with sharp stakes in them and cause rhinos and other animals to fall to their deaths as the animal follow predictable paths every day.

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Poisoning waterholes, using steel traps are other methods that these harbingers of death employ. Unfortunately, the state governments usually extend very little support to the forest departments over the years, sometimes not even paying guards their salaries or equipping them with shoes or uniforms.

In Assam, there are around 600 confiscated horns locked away in forest safe-houses and conservationists are asking that they be burned to send a message to the trade that their nefarious business has no future. Others suggest that the horns be sold and the money used to buy more guns and equipment, but this is only likely to fuel the illegal trade in rhino horn. Similar arguments through CITES resulted in the downlisting of elephants, allowing trade in stockpiled ivory by Zimbabwe and other African countries. This had an immediate effect with elephant poaching incidents going up in India. The same fate could befall the rhinos if the rhino horns are not burned.


For too long now, our nation has been paralysed into inaction on the issue of tackling the wildlife trade. Officials and bureaucrats keep coming up with one reason after another why this plan, or that proposal cannot be executed. Meanwhile, the poachers and traders have begun to employ sophisticated communications tools, weapons and transportation to conduct their bloody trade. Some of the best known businessmen, politicians and their relatives are said to be involved. While the threat to India's wildlife from poaching has received justifiable attention, a more insidious and potentially permanent threat remains virtually unrecognised. This is the dismemberment of contiguous forests by industrial and commercial projects that have the Government of India's tacit approval. These include mines, dams, canals, polluting industries, new highways, thermal plants and several other urban constructions including tourism projects, townships and resettlement sites. Added to this clutch of disturbances is the orgy of timber industries that continue their activities surreptitiously in the face of Supreme Court orders to the contrary. This is a direct result of a lack of vigilance and enforcement at the State Level, particularly in Madhya Pradesh where more than half the 10,000 saw mills in operation are illegal. The same is true for Tripura where just 40 per cent of the 86 saw mills are licensed. Strangely, virtually all commercial use of forests is categorised by planners as development. However, the hidden, but exceedingly high, costs of such infrastructures of commerce are never taken into account.


When you look at what is taking place in the Gir National Park in Gujarat, the seriousness of the problems becomes even more acute. Everyone knows that the last 300 lions are fighting for survival with their backs to the wall. Yet, the state government virtually encourages encroachments and illegal mining in an effort to win cheap popularity for two-bit politicians. Five star tourism is being encouraged in the very heart of the Gir forest and a major temple complex is attempting to grab a large parcel of land in the heart of the forest. For several years now we have been asking that the railway link running through the heart of Gir be shifted to an alignment outside the forest. The proposal to shift the line, however, keeps getting shifted from ministry to ministry.

Meanwhile lions and other wildlife, continue to die on the tracks. Pressure on these fragile forests has caused lions to wander miles outside, often with tragic consequences. The forests surrounding nearby Girnar, for instance, now support around fifteen lions, but they are fast losing their tree cover. Rather than protect the forests, the tourism department has proposed a new ropeway project to take people to a temple on the top of the Girnar hill.

All this is being done because those who lead the nation have lost contact with the earth. They seem to have become wrapped in ambitions of the personal kind which manifest themselves in political and financial scams almost all of which are undertaken at the cost of public health and cost.


If the nation is to prevent a bio-diversity holocaust from taking place, it is imperative that a White Paper be prepared on the true State of India's Environment, particularly its impending loss of wildlife species and habitats. The unfortunate truth is that our permanent infrastructures of survival -- rivers, wetlands, grasslands, forests, mountain slopes and coastlines -- are losing out to the short-lived infrastructures of commerce. If this trend continues unchecked, we will be forced to confront water famines and food crises of unthinkable dimensions. Planners currently treat the Sanctuaries and National Parks we wish to protect with scant respect. They believe these to be of little value to the nation other than to house exotic but 'useless' species of plants and animals.

These are, in fact, our water banks and genetic vaults... all that stands between India's ecological food security and widespread famines of the kind so common in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.