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Big cats and their canine friends

 Nikhil D Thiyyar |  2015-07-04 20:41:43.0  |  New Delhi

Big cats and their canine friends

Tiger, tiger burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry? It was William Blake who penned these immortal lines dedicated to the magnificent cat that is the Tiger. Two hundred odd years after William Blake penned these lines, there are only a thousand plus tigers left in the wild. India was thought to have the largest number of tigers across the globe with 1,410 individuals according to a 2006 census.Those numbers have shown considerable improvement according to a 2015 census, but it’s not as if the tiger population has crossed the dreaded river of extinction. There is still a distinct possibility that like the Tasmanian Tiger which was hunted into extinction, the Royal Bengal Tiger could also perish under mankind’s vicious onslaught. How the Indian Tiger came teetering close to the verge of extinction is a depressing story in itself.

At the close of the 19th century, when Rudyard Kipling penned the Jungle Book, between 50,000 and 1,00,000 tigers were thought to roam the Indian subcontinent; by 1971, about 1,800 were left alive and the Tiger Task Force predicted they would be extinct by the end of the century. That year, the Delhi High Court banned tiger killing, despite opposition from the trophy hunting industry that was raking in $4 million a year.

Then in 1973, Indira Gandhi launched “Project Tiger,” which still stands tall as the world’s most comprehensive tiger conservation platform. She established nine tiger reserves, hired dedicated guards to patrol them, and forcibly moved whole villages outside the <g data-gr-id="71">perimetres</g> of these said reserves.

Since then conservation efforts have met a great many challenges. The greatest challenge obviously is <g data-gr-id="81">man</g> himself. Relentless poaching has continued due to the fact that Tiger parts are in great demand in China for their use in traditional medicine. Trade is officially banned by China, yet continues illegally and provides a lucrative incentive for poaching of tigers. Rising populations, increasing resource consumption, reckless human enterprise and demands from natural resources are also forever expanding.Changing land-use patterns and resource extraction (such as logging, mining and urbanisation) have been major causes of deforestation and loss of habitat.

The bigger challenge India has today is to ensure that we have enough wildlife corridors to ensure habitat connectivity and genetic breeding. That is the only way we can provide for further growth in tiger numbers. Considering these steep challenges, India’s forest departments have been facing a Sisyphean task of sorts in combating the traditional challenges offered in tiger conservation. In the last couple of years, however, forest departments of India have had <g data-gr-id="76">help</g> from unexpected quarters. TRAFFIC, the international wildlife monitoring network, has trained several batches of dogs to sniff out contraband at check-posts as well as crucial entry points in forests.

Tigers and dogs have as much in common as cats and wolves do, which is to say they don’t have much in common. And yet it is a group of trained German Shepherd dogs who are helping to protect the Tigers of India. That’s right, man’s best friend is being trained to protect India’s national animal. Jimmy, a sniffer dog trained under World Wide Fund for nature’s TRAFFIC’s programme, was accorded Certificate of Merit by the Governor of Madhya Pradesh in 2013. Jimmy, a German Shepherd dog, has so far helped bust at least 25 wildlife poaching and smuggling cases. Jimmy has helped in nabbing poachers, detecting and seizing of Star Tortoises, skins and  bones of Tigers and Leopards, detecting sambar meat, birds and many other wildlife contrabands. Trained dogs like Jimmy will now be deployed in seven states that are home to large tiger populations – Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Karnataka.There’s a good reason to use dogs in this endeavour. TRAFFIC estimates that a dog and its handler can thoroughly scan 75 <g data-gr-id="88">per cent</g> of the passengers and their baggage arriving off a Boeing 747 in 20-30 minutes. It would take 36 humans to do the same job in the same amount of time, and they would be able to offer not more than a cursory examination.

Illegal wildlife trade continues to prevail and has evolved into an organised activity threatening the survival of many species in India. The current practices for combating illegal wildlife trade have not proved sufficient to curtail this. In order to curb this growing menace, it is necessary that the best enforcement practices are deployed. Using sniffer dogs for crime detection and prevention is one of the long proven practices TRAFFIC has experience of running in several countries. The programme is leading to early successes and the dogs are being used regularly for patrolling and are proving to be a strong deterrent.

It is dogs like Jimmy who are at the forefront of this battle. Not only does Jimmy share an exceptional bond with his handler Kailash, Jimmy is treated like a member of the family. His birthday was celebrated with great enthusiasm and pomp by Kailash. Kailash and Jimmy have been together since 2010. Based out of Jabalpur they have been going on their patrols for some time now.

Perhaps it is the efforts of Jimmy and his canine friends like Jackie, Tracy and Raja coupled with devoted men like Kailash who have helped to rescue India’s tiger population from the brink of extinction. The latest tiger census, India’s most extensive ever, covered 3,78,118 square kilometres of forests in 18 states, with camera traps at more than 9,000 locations and over 1,500 individual tiger photographs taken. This is indeed positive news.  However, the battle to save the Tiger is far from over. There is about 2,00,000 <g data-gr-id="95">sq</g>. km of potential tiger habitat in the country. 

At the moment, tiger numbers are extremely low in states such as Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and (the) Northeastern states where widespread hunting of prey species has depressed tiger numbers significantly. These are also areas where the mining sector is looking to expand – and there are large industrial projects in the pipeline. Moreover, large infrastructure projects have now been exempted from seeking environmental clearances. As of now there are only 27 dogs in the squad. It takes three lakhs and above to get the dogs fit for action. Given that human-intensive methods have failed to some extent, it’s perhaps time that forest departments across the country roped in more dogs. 

Nikhil D Thiyyar

Nikhil D Thiyyar

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