The Third Tiger Crisis – 2003 onwards

The period between early 1990s (after the Second Tiger Crisis) and early 2000s was “by and large” a stable time for tigers in the Project Tiger Reserves. However, during this time tigers of a few reserves, particularly the ones that had insurgency and naxalite problem, such as Manas, Valmiki, Namdapha etc. got decimated. Besides the population of tigers that were not in the Project Tiger reserves did decline dramatically.

By the early 2003 news gradually started filtering from different high profile reserves that the organised professional poachers are back in action. Such “rumors” were routinely being heard in Panna, Ranthambhore, Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Sariska and many other National Parks. The Forest authorities and the Project Tiger Directorate dismissed these as “mere rumors with no scientific basis” but the “rumors” continued. There were, as yet unverified reports from visitors to Tibet, that fresh skins of tigers and leopards are being openly sold and worn by people.

missing tigers of Ranthambhore
10 tigers that went “missing” in Ranthambore between 2003 and 2005

Environmental Investigation Agency’s Tibet survey
In 2003, a United Kingdom based Non Governmental Organisation – the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) undertook an under cover survey of Tibet and found that the rumors were indeed true. Their report stated the following:
The demand for tiger skins and bones has been going up for the last decade or so. The skins mostly go to Tibet through Nepal, while the bones and other parts go to China and East Asia. (The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) of UK has some excellent documentation of the trade in tiger parts). In the last 2-3 years, as a lot of Tibeteans started getting richer the demand for Tiger and Leopard skins went through the ceiling. To quote from the EIA website: “Travellers to Tibet in 1995 documented the use of tiger and leopard skins to decorate costumes known as chubas, mostly among the Khampa people from eastern Tibet. Historically however, the wearing of skins was restricted to victorious war commanders, rewarded with a patch of skin by the great Kings of Tibet; it is not traditional for every day Tibetans to wear tiger and leopard skin. It was never traditional to wear the entire skin or great swathes of skin. Tragically, anyone with the affluence is able to wear this illegal product”

Dead tiger
One of the missing tiger of Ranthambhore that went missing between 2003 and 2005

In 2004 an Indian NGO – the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) – in collboration with the EIA undertook another undercover survey of Tibet and unearthed even more shocking details about the trade in tiger skin. To quote their website:
“Dramatic new findings released today from investigations in China and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) reveal the previously unknown scale of the trade in tiger and leopard skins. Skins are being openly traded in China and TAR on a scale that triggers real fear over the future of the wild tiger. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), who first pioneered undercover investigation into crimes against wildlife and the environment 21 years ago, and the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) have just returned from investigations conducted in August this year. EIA and WPSI have obtained footage revealing the staggering size of the market for tiger and leopard skins – much of which is being used for costumes and ceremonial events. Investigators attended horse festivals across the Tibetan plateau where many people, including the organisers and officials, were wearing costumes decorated with tiger and leopard skins, known locally as chubas. The costumes had been bought within the last two years and the traders categorically stated that the tiger skins had come from India. Since EIA’s visit last year, there has been a massive increase in the availability of tiger and leopard skins in Lhasa, TAR. In the 46 shops surveyed, 54 leopard skin chubas and 24 tiger skin chubas were openly displayed, 7 whole fresh leopard skins were presented for sale and, within the space of 24 hours, investigators were offered three whole, fresh tiger skins. In one street alone in Linxia, China, more than 60 whole snow leopard and over 160 fresh leopard skins were openly on display – with many more skins rolled up in the back. The investigators also found over 1,800 otter skins, which are also used to decorate costumes. The quantity and blatant display of tiger and leopard skins in TAR and China demonstrates a lack of awareness among consumers about the plight of the tiger, and the urgent need for targeted enforcement to stop traders from smuggling and illegally selling the skins of tigers and leopards.”

These are the findings of a survey which was carried out in August 2005 by a UK- based NGO, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), and the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). It confirms earlier reports – notably in October 2003 when China’s Anti-Smuggling Bureau seized a truck in the Tibet Autonomous Region containing 31 tiger, 581 leopard and 778 otter skins from India. In an earlier survey in May 2004, the EIA found whole fresh leopard skins for sale in Lhasa:-

“In August, we found that the open sale and use of fresh tiger, leopard and otter skins is now even more widespread. All the dealers that we talked to said the skins had come from India, and most of the Tibetans wearing them said that they had purchased the skins in the past 18 months. The skin chubas are only worn twice a year, at local horse festivals – where we witnessed dancers, horse riders, visitors, and even organisers and officials, wearing skins – and at the Tibetan New Year.”

Tiger poaching
One of the missing tigers of Ranthambhore that went missing between 2003 and 2005

Despite all the evidence the evidence, the Forest Department in India and the Project Tiger Directorate, instead of declaring a crisis and taking urgent steps, kept on denying that there any problem with tigers in India. They claimed that the skins that were being routinely seen in Tibet were not from India.

Sariska Tiger Reserve

From the summers of 2004 there were strong and persistent reports – mainly from the people involved in tourism – that no tigers were being sighted in Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. It was not only that tigers were not being seen but also and more alarmingly, there were no indirect evidence of tiger’s presence (such as pugmarks, scratch marks on trees etc) being found. The Rajasthan Forest Department took the stand that “the tigers had temporarily migrated outside the reserve and would be back after the rains.” The Project Tiger backed this assumption. In January, a leading English national Daily broke the news that there were no tigers left in Sariska. Thus broke open the Third Tiger Crisis. Soon the Rajasthan Forest Department and the Project Tiger Directorate declared an “emergency tiger census” in Sariska. After a two month exercise they finally declared the bad news that Sariska indeed did not have any tigers left.

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