Hunting the hunters: can India's big cats survive?

Feature The official number of tigers left in India is disputed, but there is no question that they are under threat. Gethin Chamberlain meets the groups who are turning the tables on the poachers and bringing them to account.

The official number of tigers left in India is disputed, but there is no question that they are under threat. Gethin Chamberlain meets the groups who are turning the tables on the poachers and bringing them to account. Slipping through the darkness across the state border, the anti-poaching team was a bundle of nerves. Not only was it up against the biggest and most powerful tiger-killer in the region, but it also had to avoid running into the local police, for fear it would tip the target off.

They knew the man they were after, Devi Singh, had killed at least five tigers in the Ranthambhore reserve in Rajasthan, one of India's most popular national parks. Heavily built and standing at least 182cm tall, Singh was also the sarpanch, or headman, of his village. In short, he was trouble. But the team had a plan. One of their members, a policeman, walked up to the front door and knocked. His pistol, tucked into his belt, was concealed by a heavy jumper. It was 11pm and pitch black. Inside their jeeps, his colleagues cradled their AK47s and fingered the triggers, expecting trouble.

A bleary-eyed Singh opened the door. The man standing outside spun him the line they had rehearsed: they were road contractors and they needed Singh to help them sort out a problem with a local official. There was money in it for Singh, he hinted. The poacher took the bait. It was only as the vehicles sped past the turn-off for the official's home that he realised he had fallen into a trap. He was surrounded by heavily armed men, with nowhere to go. The tables had been turned.

Dharmendra Khandal sits in the offices of Tiger Watch, an organisation established 12 years ago to try to stem the decline of Ranthambhore's wildlife. As he toys with a heavy iron skinning knife, he recounts the story. "We asked him how many tigers he had poached and he said five. He told us everything, about how he had poached and killed the tigers," he says. "He used a muzzle loading gun. He said if you fired in the jungle it was a loud sound, but the forest guards did not come, even though they must have heard the shots.

"He said they would go into the park for maybe a week at a time to catch a tiger. Sometimes the villagers helped. Maybe a tiger had killed their cattle and so they informed the poacher." Khandal shrugs. Saving India's dwindling tiger population is fraught with such complications. Marking the Chinese Year of the Tiger, the World Wildlife Fund last month placed the animal at the top of its list of 10 key species facing extinction, warning that there were only 3,200 left in the wild. That figure included the 1,411 the Indian government claims live inside its borders. In 1900, there were an estimated 45,000 tigers in India, but habitat loss and poaching have eradicated them across large parts of the country. Though it still has more tigers than any other country, the US$20,000 (Dh73,500) a tiger skin can fetch across the border in China is a powerful incentive to poachers, who continue to pick off the remaining animals.

Yet is seems clear that the official Indian figures have been inflated. Many of the parks are inaccessible to the counters because they are overrun by Maoist extremists: in as many as 16 of the 37 reserves in India, there are either no tigers or the animal is on the brink of extinction. Some conservationists think the true figure may be little more than half the published number. Ranthambhore is one of the better parks, one of the few places visitors have a realistic chance of seeing a tiger in the wild.

In the past five years, Tiger Watch has worked with police in Rajasthan state to arrest 47 alleged poachers from the Moghiya tribe who live around the reserve, providing intelligence and joining officers on raids. Many have been caught in possession of tiger skins and body parts, guns and traps. By their own admission, the poachers had killed more than 20 tigers. Yet in the same period, the forest department officials in the park did not record a single instance of poaching.

Something does not add up, but the authorities do not want their official account to be questioned. Not long after Tiger Watch revealed that poaching had reduced tiger numbers in Ranthambhore to just 18 in 2004, officials turned up at the office of its founder, Fateh Singh Rathore and demolished it. His daughter's shop and their restaurant were also flattened, ostensibly for operating without the correct permissions, though others in a similar situation were left untouched.

Fateh Singh is now 75. He was the government's field director at Ranthambhore from 1977 to 1996 and is regarded as one of India's foremost tiger experts. He thinks there may be as few as 800 tigers left in India. "They are always saying that the numbers are on the increase, but there is no proper scientific research. They are lying to save their skins. They should tell the truth," he says. "If they have a problem they should declare it. The authorities like only praise."

He blames the field directors for concealing the scale of the problem in order to cover their own backs. "They know they are posted for two years and then they will go somewhere else. No one is being punished for the tigers that are being lost," he says. In an attempt to stem the tide, Tiger Watch has started working with the Moghiya, hiring informants for 3,500 rupees (Dh275) a month, while setting some of the women to work producing handicrafts and providing education for their children so that they do not need to turn to poaching.

"It's a risky job," says Khandal, the group's field biologist. "We have four regularly paid informants from this community and we give them money in return for information. The community knows who the informants are. Some of them are resisting, but there are cracks in the society now. Some of them are asking why they should live in such a primitive state." The informers are crucial to their efforts: Khandal describes the Moghiya as opportunist criminals. There are still enough members of the tribe who will seize an opportunity if it arises, possibly buoyed by the knowledge that all 47 of those arrested were granted bail within six months of their arrests.

There were 72 arrests for poaching across the whole of India last year, but only two convictions, and those were for crimes dating back more than a decade. The wheels of justice turn very slowly in India and some of the poachers have powerful friends, which some say explains why the names of most of the key players are well-known, yet they remain free to operate. Kesra, 45, is a former poacher who has switched sides and now works with Tiger Watch. By his own admission, he has killed at least five tigers. He describes roaming the forests looking for tracks and then taking up position in a tree to wait, working at night and returning in the morning to skin the tiger. He says they never had any trouble with the forest guards, a common refrain. He was arrested as a result of a Tiger Watch raid and is awaiting trial. He insists he has reformed.

"I never had much education. My forefathers were doing hunting, but now times have changed. We are different people. If we do poaching we are defamed because people say we are killing tigers. But the tiger can be saved if our community gets employment. If the tiger is gone then the forest will also be gone. The forest is only protected because of the tiger." His wife, Sanwali, says that because of the efforts of Tiger Watch and the local police they, like the tigers, they have become the hunted. "We are not willing to live in an atmosphere where the police are always coming after us. We had to move from here to there. Our forefathers were involved in poaching, but we don't want to be involved in this trade any more."

Still, the killing continues. "They will place four or six leg traps on the route the tiger will take to reach its kill. Then they scatter small stones around them to direct the tiger into the trap, because a tiger will try to avoid small stones," says Khandal. "First one leg is trapped, then the tiger moves and another leg is caught too. The tiger is in pain, so it sits down. "They have a spear on a long stick, about 10 feet long. When the tiger opens its mouth to roar they thrust the spear into the mouth and the tiger starts to bleed. They do it many times. Other times they hit it on the head with a stick they have strengthened by pouring lead into the end. Everything they do not to damage the skin. Sometimes they will blind the tiger to make it easier to approach it to finish it off."

A world away, sitting in his office in Delhi, Satya Prakash Yadav, the deputy inspector-general of India's National Tiger Conservation Authority, thumbs through the official body's latest report. He insists their methods of counting are the best available, although such is the statistical margin of error that even the government concedes its figure of 1,411 tigers left in India is an educated guess and that the true figure may be as low as 1,165.

He admits that there are problems, but blames "human nature" for the failings of directors who have been caught manipulating the figures. The latest assessment lists 16 of the reserves as being in a "poor" state. It is possible, Yadav says, that there are no tigers there. "We have classified some reserves as poor where there is no population of tiger or where the tiger may become extinct. It is very complex and nobody can guarantee. Despite our various milestone initiatives... the situation may go out of control in certain tiger reserves."

According to Yadav, last year 66 tiger deaths were officially recorded in India (another official figure put the number at 75, the highest death toll since 2002), 17 of them attributed to poaching (and of those, 13 were outside the reserves). Seven skins were recovered, though even Yadav admits that is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India - which verified 32 cases of tiger poaching in 2009, nearly double the government figure - customs officers normally multiply the number of known offences by 10 to estimate the true scale of an illegal trade. It says three deaths have already been attributed to poaching this year.

Luckily for the tiger, there are still some people determined not to give up hope. Gracykutty is one of them. The 39-year-old is a member of a group of women known as the Vasanta Sena (Green Army) who live around the Periyar tiger reserve in Kerala and have taken on the challenge of patrolling the forest every day on the lookout for poachers. She has spent the past seven years voluntarily patrolling the forests alongside the other 75 volunteers who meet at 10.30am each day and set off into the forest. The poachers have reduced Periyar's tiger population to as few as 23 animals (the figure is a matter of dispute) in an area of 700 square kilometres. It is not just the animals that are under threat: the sandalwood trees are also in demand for their aromatic oil used in cosmetics and medicines. One kilogram of the wood sells for about 3,000 rupees (Dh237). The women know that if the sandalwoods go, so do the tigers.

Gracykutty picks her way daintily along the dirt track leading through the trees of the reserve. Fellow members of the Vasanta Sena follow in the dappled sunshine, which plays on the forest floor. "We live on the fringe of the tiger reserve and we decided to protect it for future generations," says Gracykutty. "Here we breathe the best air in the world and we are dedicated to protecting it. I think if there is only one tiger left in the world in the end, it will be here.

"We wander all over the area to see if there is anything of interest, then report to the forest officers. If we see strangers, we report it," she says. "If we protect the sambar and the barking deer, we are protecting the food chain and so we are protecting the tigers." Her colleague Jiji, 35, says the loss of the forest would have a devastating effect on the tourism which supports the local economy.

"It is important because if the forest is cut then there is less space for the animals and if the forest goes and the tigers go then it will be terrible for everyone who lives around here," she says. "We understand this and that is why we are doing this. It is not just for ourselves, it is for our children too, so they can enjoy the forest like we do." Aditya Singh worries that time is running out to prevent the loss of the tiger's habitat. The conservationist and tiger expert, who runs a lodge on the edge of the Ranthambhore reserve, estimates there are perhaps 1,000 tigers left in the country. He thinks what will finish the tiger off is the destruction of the remaining corridors of forest which link the parks together.

"I think the tigers have five years. They will stay in isolated pockets, but they will have reached an evolutionary dead end," he says. Many conservationists fear that without drastic action soon, the only place the tiger will be found in India is in its zoos. Inside the Royal Bengal Tiger pen at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai, Padma, the zoo's 15-year-old female, lets out a roar and launches herself at the thick metal grille with a shuddering crash. Up close, it is easy to understand why the poachers are so keen to make sure their prey is securely trapped before they approach.

The zoo's director, PL Ananthasamy, believes the answer to the tiger's decline lies in a captive breeding programme. "The basic game is conservation and in due course of time to take these species back to their home and release them," he says. For Nagammal, the woman who looks after Padma, it has to be worth a try. "My husband and children are so proud that I am working with a tiger. Everyone in India loves the tiger. It is part of this country."

Sign up to:

* Please select one