Dr. David W. Tonkyn
Tigers for Tigers Inspires Indian Student to Make a Difference
Vanderbilt University '18
“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.
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.
(Copyright Aditit Thakur 2014)