Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tigers for Tigers Inspires Indian Student to Make a Difference

“Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

By William Blake in ‘The Tyger’, from ‘Songs of Experience’.

When you hear of William Blake, the image of the tiger conjures in the mind. I got my first introduction to the poet in the fourth grade, whose poem, The Tyger, I recited for a contest.

Even at that tender age, the captivating message of this majestic animal left an impression on me. The force of the poem enabled me to deliver it with just as much passion. As I grew older, I read the poem again, and though many different analyses have been made about its metaphor, for me, the poem represents the beauty of the tiger.

(C) Aditi Thakur
In my childhood, I had the opportunity to visit many national parks and was fortunate to see the tiger in all its glory. One of my fondest memories is sighting a tigress with her four cubs in Bandhavgarh National Park in central India. Being a part of a family of wildlife enthusiasts, I have travelled to Corbett, Kanha and Ranthambore National Parks too.

As I grew older, I read about how tigers were poached mercilessly. Sadly, such news stories had become routine. Therefore, in my own capacity, I wanted to become part of the effort committed towards tiger conservation and its habitat. Though in my geography classes, I had read about the depletion of forests and encroachment of forestland by humans, I knew I could no longer remain a bystander. Thus, I joined the Tiger Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated towards its preservation.

My association with the Tiger Trust introduced to me to T4T. For an international summit organized by the T4T, I had to make a presentation on Machli, the oldest wild tiger in India. As I researched into Machli, her life, cubs and struggles, I was transported to the world of William Blake’s poem. The contrast between the tiger in the poem and the one in the jungle perturbed me.

Through my exploration about tigers, I was confronted with startling facts. As I saw pictures of poached tigers and orphaned cubs, these images stirred my emotions profoundly and I wondered why tigers had to face this brutality.

India has always had a special, almost sacred place for tigers. The tiger is woven into our cultural fabric. Its depictions are found in Hindu gods and folklores. It is our national animal, a symbol of tradition and pride. Over the years, the tiger population has dwindled to alarming numbers. Tigers are now an endangered species on the brink of extinction. So what has led to this situation in India?

The primary predators of tigers are human beings. The man-tiger conflict is largely a result of the burgeoning human population. Humans often encroach upon the tiger’s habitat, cutting down trees, polluting the environment and hunting its prey. Tigers, hunting for livestock, frequently enter such villages. To eliminate the threat to their livestock, villagers lay traps and snares for tigers, grievously injuring them. When a tiger wanders into a village and kills a cow or goat, villagers often retaliate by poisoning the carcass of the animal killed. When the tiger returns the next day to feed on the remains, it dies a most horrific death. Such retaliatory killings are unfortunately common these days.

Superstition, prevailing over centuries, is also a major threat to tigers. Body parts of tigers are used in ‘traditional’ Asian medicines. The use of endangered tiger products and their medicines is seen as a symbol of high status and wealth. Some remedies list tiger parts as an ingredient, but the real animal parts are so expensive that often the medicines may have only trace elements; but even this is enough to promote the continued slaughter of the tiger. Tiger skins adorn the walls of the rich, fuelling the illegal trade of tiger parts, especially in China. Poachers are the main instruments who fulfill this demand.

Over the years, legislation (Project Tiger) has provided relief to tigers. However, there is still a lot to be achieved in terms of tiger protection: efficient use of funds, proper training to forest guards and successful conviction of poachers. So how can we protect tigers in India?

Habitat protection is the key to the tiger’s survival. This refers to a multifaceted approach of protecting the tiger habitat from human encroachment and at the same time, from poachers seeking tiger parts for the lucrative market in Chinese medicine.

Law enforcement is another area that needs improvement. Fortunately, there are several national wildlife protection laws that are in place. However, we need to implement them efficiently so that the perpetrators of wildlife crimes are brought to justice. Training local forest officials in dealing with wildlife crimes (Hunting the Hunters Program) and involving more lawyers to prosecute poachers will go a long way.

Involving local communities is an innovative way of saving tigers. The man-animal conflict is a major threat to tigers and thus conducting awareness programs for villagers and educating them about the need to maintain ecological harmony are powerful instruments in conservation.

Alternative medicines will eradicate the trade in tiger parts for traditional remedies. People must be educated about modern medicine as well as herbs that can easily treat illnesses, without needlessly killing innocent tigers.

Involving the youth is one of the most significant measures. Using young minds, their passion, creativity and energy will drive this movement forward. We must educate the youth, right from elementary school, about the delicate and fragile balance in our ecological system and how tigers are crucial towards maintaining it.

Thus, initiatives such as T4T are crucial for tiger conservation. I will be attending Vanderbilt University as a freshman this fall and over there, I hope to channel the passion that other like-minded students and faculty possess. In conservation, strength lies in numbers and therefore we must all work together towards building a world where Blake’s tiger manifests itself in the real world and continues to burn brightly.

Aditit Thakur
Vanderbilt University '18

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Tiger and Elephant Days of Summer

By Steven Stone (Guest Blogger) @ElephantDude

(C) Steven Stone 2012
July 29, 2014 was International Tiger Day.  It has been held annually since 2011 and is intended bring awareness to the world that there are less than 3,200 tigers left in the wild and they are heading rapidly toward extinction.  International Tiger Day received some media attention, and while I don’t know how many people paid attention to it, I don’t think it was a large number.  August 12, 2014 was World Elephant Day, which started in 2012 in Thailand, but has since been observed throughout the world largely to focus attention on the African Elephant Crisis-the killing of tens of thousands of elephants for their tusks, a number so large that it threatens the survival of the species.[1]

Wildlife Trafficking, the illegal trade of wildlife or “wildlife products” is big business:  $19 billion to $40 billion annually.[2]  It is now generally accepted as fact that some of these funds go to finance terrorist activities[3].   A kilogram of elephant ivory can sell for as much as $2,200 on the black market in China; a kilo of rhino horn: $66,000.[4]  A single tiger can be worth $50,000.[5]  Tiger bones, whiskers, skins and meat and every body party are prized in China and other Asian countries.  A recent article in France24 reports on accusations that watching caged tigers be killed (by humans) has become a spectator sport for wealthy Chinese businessmen in southern China and accuses some government officials there of being complicit.[6]    

The problem of wildlife trafficking has been receiving more attention worldwide in the past year in part because of the African Elephant Crisis and its link to financing for terrorism.  Among other things, last year, President Obama formed the Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, as part of a commitment to increase U.S. efforts to counter poaching and the illegal wildlife trade; and earlier this year HRH the Duke of Cambridge Prince William announced the launch of United for Wildlife, an initiative to fight wildlife trafficking supported by a group of major conservation organizations and celebrities.

Tigers often top the list of the most popular animal in surveys of favorite animals throughout the world. In Chinese culture the tiger is the king of the beasts.  In the United States we like tigers so much that more than 50 colleges and universities have the tiger as their mascot. Other examples abound: the MLB’s Detroit Tigers, Tony the Tiger, the cereal box icon, whose picture has been seen by several generations on boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes; and the popular slogan in the 1960s to “put a tiger in your tank” for gasoline (Esso, which later became Exxon). 

In his July 31, 2014 article Forgotten Tigers: Have Stripes Become Unfashionable?,[7] John Sellar, a former Chief of Enforcement for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), asks the question whether we still care about the fate of the tiger.  He cites examples that suggest there is not much interest. There have been and are many initiatives, projects and organizations[8] to help save tigers and increase their numbers. Some of them have been successful: in Nepal[9] and India,[10] tiger populations have actually increased, but overall the trend has been down.  Perhaps one reason we don’t read much about the killing of tigers is because the numbers involved are so low -- the poaching of ten tigers does not sound that bad, but when there are only 3,000 tigers remaining in the wild, it is very bad news indeed.

No matter how much of an effort is made to protect endangered species and how effective law enforcement and customs patrols are, poaching will continue to be a threat as long as there is a demand.  It may take the criminals longer and may drive up the prices on the black market, but the demand appears to be insatiable and enough consumers have the resources and are willing to use them to acquire wildlife products.

(C) Steven Stone 2012
Reducing the demand for ivory, rhino horn, tiger skins, as well as so many other endangered species and products, is an essential part of the war to end wildlife trafficking. In order for consumers to stop buying, they must change their values – or have them changed.  They have to learn that the true price of these products comes at a cost far greater than what they pay in currency to procure them.  They not only need to know that these products come from endangered species, that the killings are cruel and have far reaching consequences – but they have to care.  Until these values are core beliefs in their hearts and minds, they at least need to know that their governments take these issues seriously, have tough laws for poachers, smugglers and consumers, and those involved in any part of wildlife trafficking, and will prosecute those who break the laws and impose harsh penalties.

Even with the massive number of elephants being killed, the demand for ivory in China[11] and other countries remains insatiable. It is a daunting task to change the values and habits of hundreds of millions of people.  Public awareness campaigns can have an impact[12] on consumer demand for wildlife products.  WildAid’s campaign to reduce the demand for ivory in China, using well-known personalities such as Yao Ming, David Beckham and Prince William, among others, shows great promise of making a difference in the buying habits of the Chinese.  With an estimated 70%[13] of illegal ivory destined for China, an impact here would save the lives of countless elephants. 

The National Tiger4Tigers Coalition in partnership with the National Wildlife Refuge Association is raising awareness of the plight of the tiger by targeting the more than 50 U.S. colleges and universities that have the tiger as their mascot.  T4T is building on the loyalty and affinity of students, faculty and alumni for their mascot to garner support for efforts to save wild tigers from being killed. Perhaps the most important thing about T4T is that it is helping another generation become aware of the plight of the tiger, and by extension the threat facing other endangered species.  This awareness includes the key message that if they want to live in a world with tigers, elephants and other wildlife, they have to get involved. 

No single initiative will save tigers from extinction or stop the killing of tens of thousands of elephants.  But you have to start somewhere, and try, or you might as well give up. If you give up, then it’s all over.  If we lose the war to save tigers from extinction, it will be tragic; if we lose but do not do everything we can to fight it, that would be an irreparable moral failure.

Steven Stone is an attorney with the law firm Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke LLP. Be sure to follow Steven on Twitter @ElephantDude

[1] The number of elephants killed each year is an estimate, based largely on ivory seizures provided by countries and which vary widely depending on the sources and the reporters. For 2012, most estimates range from 22,000 to 35,000 elephants killed.  Regardless of the exact number, a lot of elephants are being killed.