The Second Tiger Crisis – Early 1990s

The Project Tiger had a very successful run from its inception to the late 1980s. However, after the heady early year, when the Project Tiger was a great success and it was clear that the tiger population was recovering, the project fell into widespread complacency until, in the early 1990s, tigers disappeared in the famous Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. A raid on a Tibetan house in Delhi uncovered 400 kg of tiger bones (possibly from some 30 tigers) ready for despatch to China for medicinal use. That provoked the “second crisis”.

In the initial years of the Project Tiger, a handful of very dedicated and knowledgeable officers headed the project. These included people like Mr. Kailash Sankhla (the First Director of the Project), Mr. Billy Arjun Singh, Mr. Fateh Singh Rathore etc. The Project also had the full backing of the Central Government. Mrs. Indira Gandhi – the then Prime Minister of India – took a keen personal interest in the Project.

Tiger poaching in Ranthambhore
One of the male tigers that went “missing” from Ranthambhore between 2003 and 2005

Role of the Prime Minister
In the early days of the Project Tiger, Mrs Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, took a very keen personal interest in the Project. At that time the Congress party, which she headed ruled at the centre and almost all the states. One of the biggest help that the Project got from her was that she ensured that there was no political interference with the Project. As a result the managers of the Project had a free hand and faced almost no political resistance from the local politicians. After her demise in 1984, her son Mr. Rajiv Gandhi also showed some con-cern for the Project but the Project Tiger did not receive the same political backing as it had earlier.

Demand for Tiger Parts in east Asia
By the mid 1980s the Project Tiger got mired in red tape and widespread complacency and as a result it lost its direction. At the same time the habitat loss for tiger continued unabated. The final straw for the tigers was that a huge demand for tiger parts arose in East Asia – particularly in China and Taiwan. At the same time the South China Tiger, that was shot by the thousands as a pest under a P.R.C.government sponsored program in the 1950s and 1960s (Laurie 1989), was on the brink of extinction; less than 50 individuals survived. As the name implies, it is na-tive to China, the major consuming market for tiger bones. Since the demand for tiger bones and other parts could not be full filled by the tiger populations of East and South-East Asia, the traders turned their attention to the tiger population of India.

Tiger poaching in India
One of the male tigers that went “missing” from Ranthambhore between 2003 and 2005

Consuming nations and trade networks
The demand for tiger bones, used in traditional Chinese medicine and as an ingredient in ton-ics, was clearly the driving force behind increased poaching from the late 1980s. In some cases, poachers have taken only bones and genitals, leaving once-valuable skins behind (Dr. S.K. Dhungel, pers. comm. 1992). Skins are easily identifiable but tiger bones can pass for pigs, cat-tle or other livestock and non-endangered species. The major consuming nations of tiger bones and other derivatives still are China, South Korea and Taiwan. Although comprehensive statistics on trade are not available, an emerging picture showed these nations are unquestionably the end consumers for tiger (and other cats) bones and derivatives. The extremely high demand, combined with virtually non-existent enforce-ment of both international and domestic protection laws in consumer nations, made the tiger’s survival into the next century doubtful. Four of the five extant tiger subspecies once roamed China in the tens of thousands. Today only a handful survive and the South China Tiger, found only in China, is on the verge of ex-tinction because of government bounties offered for skins in the 1950s and 1960s. Between 1951-1955 an average of 400 skins were taken yearly (Laurie 1989).

Having exhausted their own supply of tigers, Chinese traders branched out and it seemed most roads in the trade lead to China. In 1988, twenty sacks of bones were confiscated at a Nepal Post Office near the Tibet border (Martin 1992a); and in 1991, five poachers, believed to be responsible for the deaths of three tigers in Nepal, were arrested for possessing bones from a tiger which had been poisoned (Anon. 1991a). In both cases, the bones were bound for China. Bones from tigers killed in In-dia and Nepal are said to move through Tibet into China via mail, rail or overland (Dr. S. K. Dhungel, pers. comm. 1992). Taiwan and South Korea also imported large amounts of bones over the past decade. A few examples: TRAFFIC Japan reports that between 1985-1990, South Korea imported 1,700 kg of tiger bones, possibly representing the deaths of over 50 Tigers. Twelve years ago, TRAFFIC International cited an article in “Taiwan Trade Trends,” which reported that one Taiwanese brewery alone was importing 2,000 kg of tiger bones yearly, representing the deaths of be-tween 100-200 tigers each year, to make 100,000 bottles of Tiger Bone Wine (Jackson 1991). Bones from Siberian Tigers were easily moved into not only China (Sievers 1992) but also North and South Korea. Besides Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, cambodia and laos were also “illegal importers” of tiger parts. The use of of animal parts in Chinese medicine stems from the belief that substances found in animal products are similar to those found in our own bodies. Therefore, the potency of a sub-stance found in an animal drug will be many times more potent than that of a plant compound.

Tiger poaching in Ranthambore
One of the male tigers that went “missing” from Ranthambhore between 2003 and 2005

Ranthambhore and the Second Tiger Crisis
From the middle of 1980s to the end of 1980s, Ranthambhore was rated as one of the best places in the world to see wild tigers. However, in 1990, after the park reopened for tourists (post monsoons) it became clear to regular visitors that the number of tigers in Ranthambhore had definitely declined.

The end of 1980s was probably the best time for tigers in Ranthambhore. There were over 40 of them – which was amazingly high density for a park that is less than 400 square kilometers. People were coming from all over the world to see tigers. At that time Ranthambhore was definitely the best place in the word to see tigers.
During the end of 1980s the management of the park went to the pits. The problem with man-agement of all protected areas in India is that a lot depends on the quality of the top officers in charge. If they are good the park does very well but if they are incompetent the park can liter-ally be destroyed in a few years. That’s is just want happened to Ranthambhore in the end of 1980s. The officers who were in charge at the highest level were totally incompetent. They ignored all the warning signs that were there for all to see.

Missing male tiger of Ranthambore, probably killed by tiger poachers
One of the male tigers that went “missing” from Ranthambhore between 2003 and 2005

Since the beginning of 1989 the drivers of the jeeps that took tourists around the park had been reporting that the sightings of tigers were going down. The park authorities initially ig-nored these warnings and later on they started prosecuting the drivers who gave them such re-ports. By the beginning of 1990 it became obvious to all but the authorities that tigers were disappearing.

It was the people who were involved in tourism in Ranthambhore who first reported that many commonly seen tigers were missing. The local park authorities tried their best to stem such reports but it was an impossible task. At that time Ranthambhore was a favored destina-tion for photographers and since the best was to identify tiger is the stripe patterns – it became impossible for the park authorities to explain how a lot of commonly seen and frequently pho-tographed tigers were “missing”.

By that time the whole situation had blown up and Ranthambhore became infamous all over the world. The state government instead of actively going after the poaching network took a series of measures that were ridiculous. They set up a one-man committee called the “Kumat committee”, named after the only member retired Justice Kumat. He suggested a series of measures that did not help the tigers in the least and some of these are still a burden for the tigers of Ranthambhore.
When the forest department were unsuccessful in containing the news that tigers were miss-ing, they started denying that their was a problem. In 1991 one man was arrested by the local police in the Sawai Madhopur railway station (the closest rail head from Ranthambhore) with a tiger skin and a sack full of bones. When he was interrogated he admitted to have killed more than half a dozen tigers in the last few months. This blew the lid off the tiger poaching and the media highlighted the entire issue. This is how the second tiger crisis became public. There was a huge out cry all over the world and the Project Tiger was forced to take remedial steps.

Tiger poaching
One of the male tigers that went “missing” from Ranthambhore between 2003 and 2005

Project Tiger after the Second crisis
After the second tiger crisis the Government took the following steps to revamp the Project Tiger set up:
1. Setting up the Subramanium Committee to look into the issue of prevention of il-legal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. The recommendations of this Committee are, however, yet to be enforced.
2. Setting up the J.J.Dutta Committee to review the management of the tiger project and suggest the future course of action.
3. Organising training of various enforcement agencies in the Wildlife Institute of In-dia for species conservation.
4. Organising an enforcement training workshop in New Delhi, with the help of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and CITES for the enforcement agencies like Customs, Revenue Intelligence, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Coast Gaurds, Border Security Force, State Police, Deputy Directors of Wildlife Preservation and Scientific Organisation like BSI and ZSI.
5. Setting up of a National Coordination Committee for the control of poaching and illegal trade in wildlife with enforcement agencies mentioned above as well as the Army, the Postal Department and so on.
6. The eco-development programme has been taken up around the major protected areas for winning over the support of the fringe dwellers to the cause of wildlife conservation including tiger under national schemes.
7. Initiating India’s Eco-development Project under the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in seven protected areas which include seven prime tiger habitats (five tiger reserves).
8. Launching of a public awareness programme to involve NGOs and others for sup-porting the government in its efforts at tiger conservation.
9. Supporting programmes of some institutions and NGOs in exploring tiger trade routes and developing a forensic identification reference manual for tiger parts and products.
10. Taking initiatives with the Government of Nepal and Government of China to evolve an effective strategy to control trafficking of tiger products across international borders.

The Project Tiger Directorate also decided to increase the area under the Project Tiger Re-serves and the Central Government dramatically increased the annual plan budget for the pro-ject. These steps had the desired effect and gradually the tiger population again started increas-ing.

There was also a massive international campaign against the use of tiger parts in traditional medicine and as a result the nations that were earlier freely “importing” tiger parts had to take steps to crub this.

Tiger poaching
One of the male tigers that went “missing” from Ranthambhore between 2003 and 2005

Ranthambhore after the second crisis
After the disaster of 1990 – 91, Ranthambhore went through a phase of recovery that took over a decade. According to the State government after the poaching of 1990 – 91 there were 16 tigers left in the park. However, the reality was that there were barely 10 tigers left. Some people who have been living here for a long time think that the figure of 10 was too optimistic.

It is not clear how many tiger were left but one mature female and one mature male were surely left alive because in the early 1993 this female gave birth to four female cubs. Most of the present day tigers of Ranthambhore are decedents of this tigress. This family lorded over the entire park and that was a very prominent indicator that there were not many tigers left in the park. Tigers are highly territorial and they actively defend their territories from invasion by other tigers. Tigresses with cubs almost never stray out of their territories with their cubs. So if one tigress was moving around a very large part of the park with her cubs, it indicated that no other tiger had their territory in this part.

Thankfully for Ranthambhore all the four cubs of this litter survived. By 1995 the cubs were fully grown up and had separated from their mother. These four cubs established their inde-pendent territories in Kachida, Bhakola, Lake area and Lahpur respectively. All these five tigers – the mother and her four cubs are now no more. The cub that established her territory in Bhakola never had a litter but the other three bred successfully and repopulated the park.

With a high degree of protection, that the Park got from 1993 to 2003 the park soon bounced back. Tiger numbers went up to over 40 by the time he left Ranthambhore in 2003.

One thought on “The Second Tiger Crisis – Early 1990s

  1. Hi Aditya

    I came across some really interesting and gripping articles here. Keep up the good work!

    I belong to merinews, which is a participatory media platform. We have recently started a special coverage on the Tiger Conservation, in which we have a discussion going on regarding tigers’ future in India. I’m sure you have something interesting on the subject to share with our readers. You can share about your experiences and insights on this subject.

    You are welcome to share your views here:



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