The tiger has suddenly become a celebrity. In advertisements, in newspapers and on company logos, this majestic, mysterious animal has captured the imagination of millions. In keeping with this high-visibility campaign, the government is set to double its budgetary allocation for Project Tiger, from Rs 72 crore in 2008-2009 to Rs 184 crore in 2009-2010. Non-governmental efforts towards tiger conservation have also intensified.
However, according to the Red List compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the tiger is only one of 54 endangered animal species in India. There are also at least 18 Critically Endangered species that are, presumably, under greater threat. About 100 animals threatened with extinction are listed under Schedules I and II of the Wildlife Protection Act of India and are supposed to be under government protection. In practice, the schedules seem to have assumed the character of an attractive hypothesis. Wildlife conservation in India has been, at best, patchy and sporadic, largely fuelled by public awareness or a furore about the animal concerned. There is, for one, a severe disjunct between the Red List and conservation efforts.
Started in 1963, the IUCN Red List is the most comprehensive inventory of threatened species of flora and fauna till date, and is recognized as a reference point when discussing the status of any species. Classifications are made according to the gravity of the threat: Extinct, Extinct in the Wild, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Threatened, and so on. One Critically Endangered animal fortunate enough to have caught public attention is the gharial.
In the 1970s, it became evident that gharials were in imminent danger of extinction and a massive conservation drive was initiated by the government, along with the United Nations Development Programme. Numbers swelled, prompting a self-congratulatory mood among conservation agencies. The Centre even stopped funding the captive rearing projects. What brought the reptile under the public eye was a tragic spate of deaths from December 2007 to February 2008, when nearly 100 gharials died in the Chambal region. With less than 200 mature gharials left, the World Wildlife Fund as well as the international Gharial Conservation Alliance started focusing on its conservation.
Species in the Endangered list have also been victims of mercurial conservation drives. The tiger has had the lion’s share of public attention while the Asiatic lion, which once ranged over large swathes of the country, is now confined to Gujarat. A proposal to introduce lions from Gujarat in Madhya Pradesh was greeted with opposition from the former and has left the ministry of environment and forests still dithering over the decision. Then there is the dubious success story of the Great Indian Rhinoceros, which graduated to Vulnerable from Endangered. According to reports, however, an unprecedented 23 rhinos were killed in Kaziranga in 2007.
The famously persecuted blackbuck, on the other hand, seems to have prospered after it was hunted by the likes of Salman Khan and Tiger Pataudi. The animal, which became an object of national concern, is only classified as Near Threatened in the Red List. Meanwhile, a host of smaller species have faded unnoticed; the Critically Endangered pygmy hog and the Malabar large-spotted civet, for instance, or the Endangered Salim Ali’s fruit bat. Smaller and less picturesque than other species, they do not even have the advantage of attracting tourism. The disappearance of such species, however, signals a critical loss in biodiversity which could destabilize the entire eco-system, a WWF report suggests.
Admittedly, ‘save Salim Ali’s fruit bat’ or ‘save the pygmy hog’ does not have the same imaginative appeal as ‘save the tiger’, and in a shamelessly sensationalist ethos of conservation, these animals stand little chance. The IUCN lists species in order of the danger of extinction; the culture of Indian conservation seems to be based on whim and fickle public interest. It is time the infatuations matured into a well-planned, consistent programme for the protection of all species.