Millennium massacre

Valmik Thapar

I thought I would end this century feasting on the extraordinary recovery of the wild tigers of Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in the State of Rajasthan and in a way I did. I spent nearly 30 minutes reversing my Jeep some 4 kilometres in the face of a tigress that decided to move from one end of the valley to another, and it was a day to remember as I quietly clicked my camera and loved every minute of it.

But I was rudely awakened on the 19 December to what is happening to the wilderness when, purely by accident, the Sales Tax Inspectors in Ghaziabad – a small town in North India – intercepted a truck and found 50 leopard skins and 3 tiger skins. It was probably the second largest seizure of big cat skins since independence.

Illusory recovery
I went to the town with some of the most senior officers of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. There in front of us were laid out and hanging the skins of so many dead leopards that the first sight took the breath away and stunned all of us into silence. I realized that the recovery of Ranthambhore was probably only an illusion.

How many thousands of mornings I have waited even for the faintest sign of a leopard in India’s forest. In over 25 years I have seen 28 of them – and here I was surrounded by 50 dead ones. Some were enormous, their skins shining in the early morning sun. They all looked freshly killed – in the last six months. They had been cured somewhere and waxed and even had the signature of the ‘artist’ at the back.

I and my colleagues from the Ministry were shocked, even close to tears. But this must be only the tip of the iceberg in the massacre of India’s wildlife. Hundreds of leopards and tigers are being decimated by the coordinated efforts of poaching gangs right across India. The 20th century could not have ended on a more ugly note.

Yet the new century opened with an even worse shock. On 12 January 2000 a police party with wildlife inspectors raided three premises in Khaga, Fatehpur in the North Indian State of Uttar Pradesh and seized 70 leopard skins, 4 tiger skins, 221 black buck skins, 18,000 leopard claws and 132 tiger claws.

It appears that the seizures were linked. The three premises were illegal factories that were tanning and curing skins. By 15 January more than 185 kilograms of tiger and leopard bones had been recovered from around them. In all, remains from 1,100 leopards and 35 tigers were found in this one place. What could have been processed at these factories in the last decade? This was clearly the largest seizure ever in the world of big cat derivatives.

We as a conservation community have failed – the Government, the Ministry, the states, the non-governmental organizations and people like myself. We have entered the 21st century with no intelligence, no information – impotent to act. Hardly any mechanism of wildlife governance and enforcement is working. Our laws are being violated with impunity.

Big business has ripped apart the wilderness of India for mining, and illegal traders have picked out our precious wildlife for commerce. None of us has worked out a way to counter either. It is a national shame, an unmitigated disaster that a country like ours has not been able to take on the challenge to save its superb natural heritage.

Global crisis
We are already losing thousands of square kilometres of dense forest each year. We believe that at least $12 billion worth is exploited from India’s natural treasury annually. The skin market across the world is booming and the planet is loosing the best of its natural treasures. We have failed globally to act in time – our international organizations are just not strong enough to deal with the crisis that engulfs us.

India’s wilderness is heading for disaster. Can we hope for a global political will that brings effective international cooperation? Can we hope that innovative mechanisms for enforcement do not get lost in endless rhetoric and diplomacy? Can we even begin to hope that human beings everywhere will act before it is too late to reverse the horrors that envelop us, not just in India but across the planet?

Valmik Thapar, who has spent 25 years following the trail of the wild tiger, is Executive Director of the Ranthambhore Foundation and South Asian Chair of the Cat Specialist Group of IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

PHOTOGRAPH: Anant Vijay Singh/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Critical crossroads | Genetically engineered crops... | Sustainable solutions | Protect elephants | Getting it together | CITES: 2000 and beyond | At a glance | Competition | Interpol alert | Deep waters, high stakes | Tall trees and bottom lines | Globalizing solutions | Global Biodiversity... | Walking on the wild side... | Voices of the Earth | Millennium massacre