Scant Protection Leaves India’s Tigers Prey


Deep in the jungle of the Bandipur animal reserve stands a straw shack. It shelters a key--and perhaps the weakest--link in the campaign to save India’s tigers from extinction.

A rusty .314-caliber bolt-action rifle slung over his shoulder by a pajama drawstring, forest guard D.P. Rathore sips black tea as he sits in the shack surrounded by a ditch that keeps the wildlife at bay.

He is one of only 16 officers who guard against poaching in the 320-square-mile Bandipur forest in southern India. Every day, Rathore saunters in his rubber sandals 10 miles back and forth through the jungle. To report trouble, he has to walk 9 miles to the nearest park office with a radio.


Thirteen years after India started Project Tiger with the goal of saving the big cat in its last natural habitats, conservationists say it is woefully underfinanced and has little to show for its efforts.

Game wardens in the reserve forests have few Jeeps, no radios, no uniforms and few weapons, none of them modern.

An average of one tiger is killed every day in India, which is home to the majority of the world’s tigers. Only about 3,000 are estimated to remain in the wild here, down from 40,000 at the beginning of the century, when the world had 100,000 tigers. The world total now hovers around 5,000 tigers.

Poaching is spurred by growing international demand for tiger parts for use in traditional Asian medicines. Ethnic Chinese are the main consumers, but many others are increasingly turning to balms and lotions made of tiger parts in the belief that they cure a host of ailments from infertility to rheumatism.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates illicit trading in tigers and other endangered animals is worth $6 billion a year around the world.

At the front lines of the war to protect tigers are Rathore and his colleagues at Bandipur. He works eight straight days, then gets a day off.


“He is like a beat policeman,” says S.N. Rajagopal, deputy conservator of forests in Bandipur, one of the largest of India’s 23 tiger reserves.

Bandipur gets about $140,000 a year from Project Tiger, which is partly financed by international environmental groups. Other parks get more or less depending on their size. The project is controlled by federal bureaucrats, often with little or no experience in conservation, and officials of the Indian Forest Service.

“I was given one pair of shoes when I joined this job six months back. I have to use it carefully,” says Rathore, whose monthly salary is 2,600 rupees, or a little more than $70.

Nine park wardens in Bandipur are supposed to have Jeeps, but only one does.

“On paper there are a lot of vehicles, but most of them are condemned to the garage,” Rajagopal says as he bounces along a forest track in a minibus used both for officials and tourist safaris. “We have very little money to increase the facilities. Seventy percent of our money goes in wages.”

Critics contend very little of Project Tiger’s money trickles down to the parks and low-ranking rangers who do the main work in protecting tigers and managing forests. Most of the money is spent on wages, repair and upkeep of equipment.

“I would hazard a guess that not more than 10% of the money was actually spent in the field to protect the tiger,” says Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary magazine and a well-known environmentalist.


Park officials say Bandipur has 70 tigers. Many local conservationists think it is less, saying the official figure is based on poor counting techniques.

Tiger sighting are so rare the park has a register to record them. A recent check showed just two sightings by hundreds of visitors and the 200 members of the park staff.

Rajagopal, the deputy conservator, insists his park has not been ravaged by poachers, as have many in northern India. He says the last poaching occurred in Bandipur two years ago, but many conservationists say most poaching goes unreported.

“If a poaching incident is reported, for instance, the officer is quite likely to face a departmental inquiry for failing to perform his duty,” says Sahgal, the New Delhi-based conservationist.

Indeed, local newspapers recently reported a new wave of poaching in the region. A conservation group describes the area around Bandipur, including two neighboring elephant reserves, as a veritable marketplace for animal products.