25 Years of Project Tiger

Given below is a speech of Shri Suresh P Prabhu, Hon ble Union Minister for Environment & Forests on the occasion of 25 years of Project Tiger. Shri Prabhu made the speech at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi on November 19, 1998.

It gives me great pleasure to address you all on this occasion, which has been organised to commemorate the completion of 25 years of Project Tiger in India. Today also happens to be the birth anniversary of the Late Prime Minister Shrimati Indira Gandhi who had the vision and sagacity to conceive and launch a field conservation project of this magnitude. Indeed it was her personal interest and leadership, which was largely responsible for the spectacular success achieved by the project in its first decade.

Previously, we had organised similar events on the completion of 10 and 20 years of Project Tiger. However, we considered it necessary to refocus attention at shorter intervals of five years in view of the rapidly changing scenarios and the challenges confronting nature and natural resources in our country. In addition to this national level event, we have drawn up a year long calendar of events to be held regionally and at the international level, because many of the threats to tiger conservation originate from across our borders. I would urge the forest ministers and other state representatives present here to also organise suitable programmes in their states during the year to generate awareness and support for the project.

Since its inception in 1973, Project Tiger has grown manifold in its extent, coverage and resources. And so have the problems! While we can rightfully feel proud and satisfied with our many achievements under the project, we must at the same time realise that we can no longer afford to rest on our past laurels. If we fail to do so we are certain to be overtaken by the furious pace of the emerging challenges.

Although for the first decade the project was globally acclaimed as one of the most successful field conservation projects in the world, it now appears that things have started to slip out of our hands. Reports about poaching of tiger and its prey species, disturbances within its habitat and illegal trade in wildlife products are being regularly received from different parts of the country.

Unfortunately, in recent years, our response to the various threats has not been effective enough. The resulting decline in management standards has brought the project under the glare of intense media and public scrutiny. Today s occasion presents us with an opportunity to take stock of our successes and failures and agree upon strategies and action plans to arrest and reverse this negative trend. However while doing so, we must equally share the pluses and minuses and should not get bogged down in trying to find fault with one another. Otherwise, we will not make much progress.

After taking over as Minister for Environment & Forests, I have travelled to many of the tiger states. I find that most of the officials and staff are very committed to the cause of wildlife conservation but at the same time a number of them feel helpless and inadequate in dealing with the problems within their areas. State allocations for the wildlife sector are very low and even the funds released by the Central Government do not reach the field level in time. Habitat management and anti-poaching efforts are being neglected. Protected area managers do not have the funds to compensate people for loss of life and property expeditiously. The relationship between the staff and the local people is worsening by the day. Therefore, this is not an occasion for us to celebrate but rather contemplate and evolve strategies for resolving these problems.

We have already taken a number of initiatives; and more are in the offing, to strengthen our wildlife conservation efforts in general and Project Tiger in particular. We will be increasing the number of tiger reserves to 25 in this Silver Jubilee year by adding a reserve each in Karnataka and Maharashtra. We have recently approved the long-standing demand of providing special allowance to the staff under Project Tiger. Mechanisms for prompt disbursal of ex-gratia and compensation money are being put in place. The deployment of additional security forces in vulnerable reserves can now be supported under the Project. We are also looking at alternative procedures of transferring funds from the Central Government so as to ensure their timely availability for utilisation at the field level. We will soon be instituting awards for the field staff on the pattern of the President s Medal in the Police Department.

We have stepped up considerably the allocations in the Ninth Plan for Project Tiger, eco-development and other centrally sponsored schemes on wildlife. We expect a corresponding step-up in the allocations by the states, with at least 15 per cent of the state forestry budgets being earmarked for wildlife conservation. I hope to receive firm commitments in this regard from the state forest ministers present here today.

The support of local communities is crucial for forest and wildlife conservation. While we have the Joint Forest Programme for eliciting their participation in the forest conservation effort, the eco-development programme is specifically targeted to the people living around national parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves. We have supplemented our national eco-development effort with international assistance through the India eco-development project, and I am happy to note that the programme is also being supported under various externally aided state forestry projects. However, long-term sustainability of these efforts can only be achieved if the various forestry and rural development schemes are co-ordinated to contribute to the eco-development objectives around wildlife protected areas. Some institutional mechanism for bringing about such co-ordination should be evolved and operationalised in each state.

Our other major concern is that of poaching and illegal trade in tiger body parts and other wildlife products. Some recent high profile cases have clearly shown that the problem is more serious and widespread than we anticipated. The traditional forest and wildlife enforcement machinery is clearly unable to tackle this problem. We have recently set up a Special Co-ordination Committee in the Ministry headed by the Secretary, Environment & Forests and with representatives from the Home Ministry, CBI, Customs, Revenue Intelligence and other enforcement agencies. Similar structures should be established in every state to coordinate anti-poaching and illegal wildlife trade control efforts. There should also be a system for buying intelligence and paying rewards in this effort. We are currently working out the modalities of establishing a Wildlife Trade Control Bureau under the Ministry, with linkages down to the district levels.

Under our wildlife conservation programmes we have so far concentrated efforts on the creation and management of protected areas. Even Project Tiger is implemented through a network of tiger reserves. This approach has greatly neglected wildlife populations and their habitats occurring outside the national parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves. Our greatest losses have occurred in these areas. We must, therefore, adopt a bioregional approach to wildlife management by identifying and developing corridor habitats and protecting and managing wildlife in the general forest areas and in their other natural habitats. For this purpose we will be introducing two new categories of protected areas in the amended Wildlife Protection Act, which will be known as "Conservation Reserves" and "Community Reserves". These would enable wildlife protection measures to be taken without greatly disadvantaging human activities within the reserves.

Forestry operations have always co-existed with our wildlife conservation efforts. These must be re-oriented to suit wildlife interests, particularly in the buffer and corridor forests. The proposed Conservation Reserve category of protected area would enable us to strike this balance between conservation and sustainable use. The wildlife wing and the forestry set up within the states must work closely to achieve these objectives. The principal chief conservators of forests of the states have a special responsibility to ensure that every forest official under their control contributes his or her best towards wildlife conservation.

Sl.No.  Name of Tiger           State                Total area
        Reserve                                     (In Wq. Kms.)
1.      Bandipur                Karnataka                866
2.      Corbett                 Uttar Pradesh           1316
3.      Kanha                   Madhya Pradesh          1945
4.      Manas                   Assam                   2840
5.      Melghat                 Maharashtra             1677
6.      Palamau                 Bihar                   1026
7.      Ranthambhore            Rajasthan               1334
8.      Similipal               Orissa                  2750
9.      Sunderbans              West Bengal             2585
10.     Periyar                 Kerala                   777
11.     Sariska                 Rajasthan                866
12.     Buxa                    West Bengal              759
13.     Indravati               Madhya Pradesh          2799
14.     Nagarjunsagar           Andhra Pradesh          3568
15.     Namdapha                Arunachal Pradesh       1985
16.     Dudhwa                  Uttar Pradesh            811
17.     Kalakad-Mundanthurai    Tamil Nadu               800
18.     Valmik                  Bihar                    840
19.     Pench                   Madhya Pradesh           758
20.     Tadoba-Andheri          Maharashtra              620
21.     Bandhavgarh             Madhya Pradesh          1162
22.     Panna                   Madhya Pradesh           542
23.     Dampha                  Mizoram                  500
        Total                                          33126

The JJ Dutta Committee, which was set up to review Project Tiger, has made several recommendations and we should strive to act upon these in a time-bound manner. In addition, there are many other priorities, including those mandated by the courts on which action needs to be taken. I would like to mention the process of settling rights within national parks and sanctuaries as a very critical exercise, which must be undertaken with great caution and consideration. We should not resort to excluding areas during this process merely because of the difficulties in acquiring these rights. I would request the forest ministers present here to personally ensure that we do not lose wildlife habitats in this process.

The other important aspects are those relating to providing arms, communication facilities and mobility to the field staff. Here again, my ministry has been forthcoming in making available resources to the extent possible, but the states will also have to assign substantial funds for this purpose. The field staff must also be protected from harassment due to motivated legal prosecution from vested interests. I am greatly disturbed to find that over 500 staff positions are lying vacant in tiger reserves, which is a matter of serious concern and impacts upon our ability to manage these areas effectively. I would like a special campaign to be launched to fill up these posts in a time-bound manner.

We have a unique gathering of policy and decision makers, field officers, scientists, NGOs and other experts present here today. I am sure all of you will spend the next few days in collectively finding innovative and practical solutions to the various challenges in tiger conservation, which can be implemented at the central and state levels to put Project Tiger back on the rails and regain its past glory. I look forward to your recom-mendations and assure you of my complete support in putting these into practice expeditiously.