Anniversaries are a time for celebration. April 1, 1973 will mark the fiftieth year of Project Tiger, launched by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, at the Jim Corbett National Park. Its avowed aim: to secure the big cat as a species from the threat of extinction.
The previous year, the government of India had embarked on the first ever nationwide effort to estimate how many tigers there were in the country. The figure of 1,827 based on pug marks of the tigers sent shock waves as it was even lower than the figure of 2,500 estimated by the Nehru Fellow and director, Delhi zoo, Kailash Sankhala, just three years before.
The prime minister’s message sent out on March 26, 1973 stands out even now for its clarity of purpose. The species, she observed, was “at the apex of a large and complex biotope.” While human intrusion such as cattle-grazing was blamed, she explicitly named policies of forestry “designed to squeeze the last rupee out of our jungles.” A wider vision had to replace “the narrow outlook of the accountant.”
The political clout of the Union government was brought to bear on the states, almost all of which had Congress governments after the assembly elections held in the wake of the Bangladesh war in December 1971. In September 1972, a Task Force had called for a chain of reserves dedicated to tiger preservation. A new law, the Wild Life (Protection) Act, had already been put IN the statute book.
“Project Tiger,” Indira Gandhi noted in the statement, “abounds in irony. The country that has for millennia been the most famous haunt of this great animal now finds itself struggling to save it from extinction.” This was by no means the first time that the tiger had been central to the symbolism of Statehood. A springing tiger had been a powerful emblem of the Azad Hind Fauj of Subhas Chandra Bose.
But the invocation of the tiger as an emblem to secure nature as heritage was new. The early 1970s were a time when there was a dent in the larger Cold War. India was among the countries that had stayed out of the rival military alliances while keeping ties intact with both superpowers. Yet, in the wake of the Bangladesh war, relations with the United States of America were in deep freeze. The effort to save the tiger found strong support from Europe — the World Wildlife Fund itself was led by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s conclave in November 1969had been held in New Delhi. It was here that Indira Gandhi found herself speaking on conservation on the world stage for the first but not the last time. Headquartered in Morges, in neutral Switzerland, these two organisations helped build bridges with Western publics and governments.
The efforts to save the tiger also rang a bell in other parts of what was beginning to be termed the third world. Peru rallied to save the vicuna; Indonesia the orangutan in its rain forests. These efforts won goodwill across the world, most so among scientists and a younger generation increasingly concerned with the future of the planet. Among such efforts, including China’s initial steps to preserve the giant panda, Project Tiger stood out for the scale of funding and the ambition of the effort.
India was central to the efforts to save the tiger and remains so. Nine reserves were announced in 1973; half a century on, there are now53. The official count then was less than 2,000 tigers; the country, now with over twice as many people, has a figure of just under 3,000.The message quoted above ended by saying that the project “could succeed only with the full cooperation of the Central and State governments and the support of the people.” Even its admirers will admit that there is much to rethink. For instance, tensions with resident and nearby populations in forests remain a challenge, most so in North and Central India. In the next fifty years, the tiger thus needs introspection as much as acclamation.