Open season on tiger poachers as state gives rangers licence to kill

A Bengal tiger cools off in Van Vihar National Park in Maharashtra state Picture: AP
A Bengal tiger cools off in Van Vihar National Park in Maharashtra state Picture: AP
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AN INDIAN state has declared war on tiger poachers by licensing wildlife rangers to shoot them on sight.

The government of the western state of Maharashtra said killing suspected poachers would no longer be a crime.

Forest minister Patangrao Kadam said rangers should not be “booked for human rights violations when they have acted against poachers”.

The state also ordered an increase in ranger patrols and is offering payments up to five million rupees (£57,000) to drum up informers.

No tiger poachers have ever been shot in Maharashtra, though cases of illegal loggers and fishermen being shot have led to charges against forest guards, according to chief wildlife warden, SWH Naqvi. But the threat could act as a significant deterrent to wildlife criminals, conservationists said. A similar measure allowing guards to fire on poachers in Assam has helped the north-eastern state’s population of endangered one-horned rhinos recover.

“These poachers have lost all fear. They just go in and poach what they want because they know the risks are low,” said Divyabhanusinh Chavda, who heads the World Wildlife Fund in India and is a member of the National Wildlife Board, which advises the prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

India faces intense scrutiny over its tiger conservation, as it holds half the world’s estimated 3,200 tigers in dozens of wildlife reserves set up since the 1970s, when hunting was banned.

Illegal poaching remains a serious threat, with tiger parts fetching high prices because of demand from traditional Chinese medicine practitioners.

According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, 14 tigers have been killed by poachers in India so far this year – one more than in all of 2011. The tiger’s habitat has shrunk by more than 50 per cent in the past 25 years and its numbers have declined from 5,000-7,000 in the 1990s.

Eight of this year’s tiger poaching deaths in India occurred in Maharashtra, including one whose body was found last week chopped into pieces with its head and paws missing in the Tadoba Tiger Reserve, home to around 40 tigers. Mr Naqvi welcomed the offer to pay informers. “We get very few tips, so this will help.”

But conservationists said the fact that poachers are rarely caught has more to do with low ranger numbers, and that around the clock patrols would help. The poachers usually hunt the nocturnal big cat at night.

Dozens of other animals are also targeted by hunters across India, including rhinos and elephants, and other big cats such as leopards, killed by villagers afraid of attacks on livestock.

A study on hunting in India noted 114 species of mammals were being hunted, with dozens of birds and reptiles also under attack. “There has been an onslaught going on in India,” said William Laurance, a conservationist at James Cook University in Australia and part author of the study published in Biological Conservation journal.

“It’s a serious threat to wildlife, along with habitat encroachment and forest degradation. A lot of species are clinging to survival in remote areas.”