The Indian national motto speaks volumes about the country. Contradictions abound in daily life here and can overwhelm the visitor with the futile task of trying to make sense of it all. Far better to empty your mind of everything you have learned, prepare a clean slate and allow the drip-drip effect of the experiences you will have here to imprint their truths on you. What is far more frustrating than the general chaos that will confound you is the irrefutable and profound truth which will emerge from whatever it is which has unsettled you. Whereas we in the West tend to actively ‘learn’ lessons in a more formal and uniform way; in India you will find that the lessons find you....in real life....they teach the lessons to you. From learning the truth about how an NGO the size of WWF-India works to protect the environment and stop degradation to learning the truth about other aspects of life – each volunteer will learn their own personal truths.
When I arrived in Delhi for the 3-month placement it was my second visit to ‘Mother India’. As such, I was already familiar with the unique ‘character’ of Indian culture and lifestyle and I was already obsessed by the ‘story’ of the Panthera Tigris. I had got a taste of the many flavours of India – an acquired taste many will argue – and was hungry for more. Rather poetically, I had been given a rare oil painting of a pair of Siberian Tigers for my 21st birthday and had bought various tiger icons and artworks on my previous travels to the Indian Subcontinent, but I wanted all these things to have some meaning. All this, before I knew I would one day volunteer with WWF-India to protect the species. Having no scientific background, nor any knowledge of international policy beyond being a prolific newspaper-reader, I knew very little about the precise nature of the issues being laboured over by WWF-India and TRAFFIC at an international level. This was exactly what I wanted to learn. Prior to leaving the UK, I had digested every last figure and fact from the WWF literature I had been sent and had perused the WWF-India website in great detail. Much to my shame, I had only recently learned about CITES and was keen to learn all I could about the role such bodies play in relation to the conservation of flagship species, such as the Bengal Tiger. Just how naive I was became clear the more I learned about the tricky political and logistical minefield in which TRAFFIC works to combat illegal wildlife trade. The importance of border control and co-operation between neighbouring nations is obvious once you study the facts in any detail and so I came to understand the fundamental importance of the WWF and TRAFFIC training workshops and meetings which take place between representatives from different nations. The fact that positive and bold statements of support for stopping the illegal trade of tiger products are made at conferences by neighbouring countries was thrown into stark relief by the reality that seizures are still being made and illegal trade between India and the Chinese market still continues. I also learned how difficult it is for India to secure the assistance, will and co-operation of key consumer nations of tiger products, such as China. The role of CITES in such relations is critical. The gulf between words spoken and actions taken remains central to the continued decline of tiger numbers, although WWF-India and TRAFFIC are responsible for significant progress in the last few years.
My work was based around a report looking into the impact tiger conservation has upon local economies. Entitled ‘The role the tiger plays in local economies: Sariska – a case study’, I was specifically concerned with Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, which suffered a terrible fate in 2005 – the ‘Sariska Shock’ - when it was reported that all its tigers had disappeared. They had been poached. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I had been expecting to write a report rather than a dissertation of a more journalistic style, and it would be completely untrue to say I was well-prepared to do this. But herein lay one of the unexpected challenges of this priceless experience. It was the first of many instances where adjustment and adaptation played their roles after an important decision had to be made; laugh....or cry?; sink....or swim? The background research was extensive and involved studying heaps of documents, comparing statistics, trawling through government reports and analysing previous studies besides following news reports and online sources. During the field work I spent time with local villagers and hoteliers where I was able to gain an understanding of many links between local economies and local livelihoods near tiger reserves. This turned out to be a precious highlight in my experience. India has many challenges for the visitor, but it is the Indian people who make India the strangely compelling country that it is, besides the wildlife of course! The fact that drinking ‘chai’ with rural villagers in Sariska, Rajasthan, now seemed like it was going to feature strongly in the field work component of my volunteer work was an unexpected bonus!
Enlightened tiger conservation can shape a community’s attitude to environmental issues and can produce a generation of wildlife conservation ambassadors. By ‘enlightened’, I mean inclusive of the local communities and instrumental in aiding these communities’ adaptation from traditional livelihoods which may not be sustainable. Many of the local villagers on the periphery of the reserve are entirely forest-dependent and this puts the tiger’s habitat under enormous pressure. It also blurs the boundaries between animal habitat and human habitat – an environmental trait and particular concern to conservation in India. Unlike in Africa, where many of the game reserves are found in arid, desert-like expanses of little use to farmers or communities, the verdant, rich forests and tiger ranges in India have always been home to rural communities too. Tigers and humans have co-existed in India for centuries, but the proverbial ‘age of innocence’ in this respect has been shattered by the encroachment of urban development on forest-cover and the commercial and illegal trade of tiger products for the black market. Circumstances change, and as such it no longer seems realistic to assume that a return to this by-gone era is possible if the wild tiger is to breed and thrive alongside humans in India.
There is also the cultural and traditional challenge present within the Traditional Chinese Medicine market, although synthetic alternatives have now been proven to be effective. I read a great deal about tigers in India before I left for the project. As someone who has always been generally supportive of ‘alternative’ medicine, I was horrified to learn of the extent of the international trade in tiger parts to supply the market for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). While the damaging effect TCM continues to have upon India’s tiger population was not a feature of my work for TRAFFIC at WWF-India, I became very engrossed – to be honest stupefied – by this seemingly insatiable appetite for tiger products for Traditional Chinese Medicine. It was another lesson to me that once again, international co-operation is fundamental in implementing the laws, policies and action necessary to stop human activities being a threat to the conservation of nature.
As a rapidly emerging economy and also as the home range of 60% of the world’s tiger population, India has a difficult challenge ahead in reconciling the needs of humans and wildlife. Currently, India is enjoying a rapid surge in development and there are many groups, including WWF-India, who are trying to ensure that this development does not threaten the conservation of nature. As resources go, the wildlife and biodiversity in India cannot have a price tag put on it: its value is priceless.