It is human nature to be fascinated with danger and the adrenaline rush that consequently follows it. Very few things spell danger as much as a tiger in the wild. Once upon a time, these regal and deadly creatures roamed freely around our country. You could find them near the banks of the river Yamuna, near Delhi and Agra. The tiger appears in many religious scriptures and Indian royalty such as Emperor Ashoka laid out royal decrees preventing the hunting of tigers.
However, sometime during the Mughal rule in the 16th century, the royal tradition of 'shikaar', or hunting began. Tigers became the precious reward of a successful hunting expedition. Paintings from Mughal, Afghan, Rajput, and Turkish empires depicted kings and their entourage going for hunting expeditions on elephant or horseback. Hunting did not stop when the British colonized India. For them, hunting a big game like the tiger became an exorbitant display of power and wealth. Legends say that King George once hunted 39 Royal Bengal tigers during his 10-day stay in Nepal.
With the introduction of photography in the 1870’s the wealthy began to document their killings. It became a matter of status symbol and pride as to who possessed the best photograph of a tiger hunt. Eminent historian, Mahesh Rangarajan estimates that over 80,000 tigers were killed during the years 1875 to 1925. The incessant slaughter only increased after India’s independence. 1947 marked the beginning of an era where free for all hunting was in fashion. Hunters not only slaughtered tigers but also big games such as elephants, rhinos, and lions — all of which were made out to be ostentatious displays of hunting prowess. In the 1950s, a wave of fashion swept over Europe and the United States. A tiger pelt sold for $50 and in the consequent years, rugs and coats made out of tiger fur fetched prices as steep as $10,000.
Black market demand, indiscriminate recreational hunting, and loss of habitat were all factors that pushed the tiger population in India to the brink of extinction. By 1971 only 1800 tigers were left in India and it was predicted that the species would be extinct by the end of the century. It was then that a glimmer of hope shined under the leadership of Indira Gandhi when the India Government announced the inception of Project Tiger.
Project Tiger was launched on April 1, 1973, and is the country’s biggest and most successful tiger conservation program. Its aim is to reduce factors that lead to the depletion of tiger habitats and to mitigate them through suitable management; rectifying the damage done to the tiger's natural habitat. They facilitate the recovery of the ecosystem to the maximum possible extent, ensuring a viable population thrives. Project Tiger helped set up several tiger reserves in strategic parts of the country, which became breeding grounds for tigers and some tigers were even migrated to nearby forests.
In spite of incessant poaching, Project Tiger continues to successfully live up to its motto — “India Leads Tiger Conservation”. Project Tiger currently has 53 tiger reserves spread across every ecosystem in India: from Namdapha in the north-eastern Himalayas to Pakke and Nameri in the foothills; Danpa in the Mizo hills to Valmiki in Terai (Bihar). They attract tourists from all over the world.
Today, poaching is a criminal offense with almost five years of imprisonment. However, it is not the fear of the law but rather our own sensibility and ecological consciousness that should prevent us from hunting and killing. Even if it's a far-fetched dream today, I will always hope for a day when India becomes a country where the very the notion of poaching is but a distant memory of a far crueller time.
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