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SEPTEMBER 20, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

Who's Minding the Tiger?
The endangered Royal Bengal needs help, but conservation forces in India are busy squabbling

The Royal Bengal tiger has little time for human beings. It rarely allows itself to be seen. But unlike most animals of the wild, the tiger does not dive for cover if it comes face to face with you. Instead, it pounces for the kill or, if you're lucky, stares you down with its yellow eyes and then, with a disdainful flick of the tail, saunters off. The tiger's arrogance has made it a favorite quarry of big-game hunters, who by the middle of this century had pushed the great cat to near-extinction. If that were not bad enough, the growing popularity of traditional Chinese medicine in the last decade has vastly increased the worldwide demand for dead tigers--various body parts are important ingredients. If ever there were a species in need of saving, the Royal Bengal is it.

Instead, an unseemly quarrel between agencies responsible for helping the animal has broken out in India, home to most of the world's 5,500 or so remaining tigers. Late last month, India's Ministry of Environment told the World Wide Fund for Nature to close the regional office that runs its Tiger Conservation Program. Reason: the WWF had depicted "Indian boundaries incorrectly" on its maps.

Normally, that is not such a grievous crime. India has territorial disputes with both Pakistan and China, and most international groups and publications show the de facto boundaries. Usually, such maps are confiscated by Indian authorities, stamped as "neither correct nor authenticated" and then released. Offices are certainly not closed down. Says Claude Martin, director-general of WWF International: "This is not about maps. Somebody has misused the map issue in a dubious way to present us wrongly to the government."

The WWF suspects its own branch in New Delhi. After earlier disagreements between the Geneva-based parent organization and its Indian unit, the WWF in 1998 set up an independent office to run the tiger project. "No real program had emerged from WWF India," says Martin. "So we decided to fund tiger conservation directly. WWF India did not like this because they wanted to control the money." The World Wide Fund has 4.7 million contributors in 96 countries, and last year they accounted for almost half of the group's $380 million budget (the rest came largely from government and aid agencies, trusts and legacies). The Tiger Conservation Project would help the wildlife rangers and forest guards who patrol the 25 sanctuaries where the last of the big cats reside. Hunting tigers for pleasure has effectively been stopped in India, but the animal now faces other threats. One is the loss of habitat as forests are chopped down to make way for factories, mines and farms. Without natural prey, the tigers attack cattle; irate villagers respond by poisoning the tigers. The other risk is from poachers who kill tigers and then sell their body parts for use in Asian medicine. The Wildlife Protection Society of India, an activist group based in New Delhi, reports that at least 440 tigers have been killed in the past six years.

The WWF has been working with the Indian government to prevent such depredations since 1974, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched an official campaign to save the cats. The WWF, however, has been criticized for spending only a fraction of its budget on actual tiger conservation. According to TigerLink, a well-regarded newsletter, the WWF last year devoted just 3% of total expenditures to tigers; the rest went mostly for fund raising and other wildlife protection projects. The WWF's Tiger Conservation Program was hoping to be more effective. With a two-year budget of nearly $1 million, it funded cattle-compensation programs to prevent angry villagers from poisoning tigers. It also provided rangers and forest guards with tranquilizer guns and better patrolling equipment, such as boats and jeeps. Says Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society: "Just when they wanted to get it right, they end up in trouble."

The dispute has become a major distraction for those involved in saving the Royal Bengal. "The tiger is under a state of siege," laments Ranjit Singh, head of the Tiger Conservation Program. "The long-term solution is to work with the government to create a contiguous tiger habitat and give it more ground." Indian officials generally agree, but they find it difficult to back down over the maps issue. "When it comes to national integrity, there can be no compromise," says S.C. Sharma, the wildlife protection officer who axed the WWF's regional office. The WWF has promised to alter its maps and settle the funding feud with its New Delhi office. Eventually, the storm may pass. But until then, the only loser in the dispute is a species that has lost too much already. END