Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
(William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience)
Indeed, the tiger is such a majestic creature, fearsome and beautiful, an integral part of our heritage. The proud beast that prowls our forests is a symbol of strength, pride and power. Alas! We have failed to protect our Royal Bengal Tiger. There are just about 100 tigers left in the Sundarbans. How sad, how shameful!
Global Tiger Day was observed on 29 July. Ironically, the environment and forests ministry brought out rallies to commemorate the occasion. The processionists carried cutout paper tigers and wore bright orange shirts. The slogan was, "If the tiger survives, so will the forest, and the Sundarbans will be saved". Ironic indeed, that the ministry will have such a slogan when it does nothing to save either the tiger or the Sundarbans. On the contrary, the beast and forest are both being pushed to the brink of extinction by various policies and programmes of the government.
When confronted about the dwindling numbers of the Royal Bengal Tiger, the concerned minister blithely dismissed the data, saying, "There are many more tigers than just 100. Some have crossed over into India. When they come back, the numbers will go up."
Dear minister, tigers are extremely territorial animals. They don't pay random visits around the neighbourhood. They stay within their territories as a rule. The minister's reply reminds us of an old story of Emperor Akbar's court. For those unfamiliar with the tale, the story goes like this:
One day, Akbar was walking in his garden with his witty minister Birbal. Many crows were flying around and Akbar decided to ask Birbal a tricky question. "How many crows are there in our kingdom, Birbal?" Birbal thought for a moment and then said, "There are ninety-five thousand four hundred and sixty three crows in your kingdom, huzoor (sir)." The emperor said, "If there are less or more than that, then?" Birbal responded immediately, "That means either some have gone on vacation to the neighbouring kingdoms, or other crows have come to visit their relatives in our kingdom, huzoor!" Akbar was very pleased with the answer that Birbal gave and rewarded him suitably. Will our Birbal be rewarded suitably too for his glib reply?
India has about 2000 royal Bengal tigers left and of them, around 100 are living on the Indian site of the Sundarbans. Though much more than us, that too is not a big number. However, they are taking strong measures to protect the big striped cat. Or rather, they are taking strong measures to protect the animal on their side of the border. Perhaps that is why the people there refused to have the coal-fired Rampal power plant set up there, in India. They realised the devastating consequences this would have to the ecology of the region. Our government, however, has welcomed it with open arms. Again, they airily dismiss any concerns that it will harm the Sundarbans and the biodiversity of the area.
Environmentalists and conscious citizens of Bangladesh are enraged and anxious about the Rampal power project. The United Nations' Ramsar secretariat has expressed its concern over the power plant, the unauthorised river routes and coal depot being set up by the side of the Sundarbans. Bangladesh, as a signatory of the Ramsar Convention, has been asked to explain these projects. There certainly is cause for concern. Already oil spills have caused serious damage to the forest, but the government continues to allow vessels to ply through the rivers and canals of the Sundarbans, as if the rest of the people are raving tree-huggers.
What will it take to make the authorities sit up and take action? Our vultures are dying off, even our common sparrow is no longer common. Will our tiger end up like Indonesia's dodo bird, a vague memory, almost a myth? We stand to lose the Sundarbans' status as a world heritage site, but even that does not melt the hearts of the authorities. What will?
While our brave boys on the pitch have been aptly named "Tigers", what about the real tigers of the Sundarbans? Perhaps our young cricketers can come forward with a petition to save the royal beast after which they have been named. Environmentalists, the civil society, national and international institutions, everyone must raise their voice in unison: "Save the Tiger!"