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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sumatran tiger threatened by oil-palm



Looks like India's escalating imports of palm oil from Indonesia will see the end of the Sumatran Tiger. While we in India would seem to be lucky in still hosting some tigers, we, however, might well be the reason for extinction of the tigers in Sumatra.

Despite frequent reports of tiger deaths due to poaching, negligence of the forest staff and due to natural reasons, we still have around 1700 tigers in our forests and their population, from all accounts, is increasing. Cubs have been sighted in Panna Tiger Reserve which had been cleaned up by the poachers not too long ago. Cubs have also been sighted in Ranthambore in Rajasthan where there seems to be a problem of plenty. Tigers are reported to have moved out of the Reserve and have been known to have migrated to the adjoining Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.

Although we crib and criticize every time a tiger is lost in the context of what is happening in Indonesia, another tiger country, we are considered to be doing rather well for conservation of the species. Our efforts at tiger conservation are earning kudos in Indonesia. Not only the political executives are being commended for their foresight and farsightedness, the conservationists are being congratulated for their efforts that have yielded positive results. Many have, therefore, suggested that Indonesia should look westwards towards India to save the Sumatran tigers.

Down to around 300 in 1970s, the Royal Bengal Tiger has recovered in numbers. With a far more superior way of counting, the count is now more reliable and is pegged at 1700-odd. Not a figure to write home about considering the vastness of the country, yet given the numerous challenges, it is a healthy count with,
perhaps, scope of improvement. Experts have opined that the country cannot host more than 2500 to 3000 tigers now, given the state of its forests. As is well known, most of our tiger habitats are in dense forests beneath which are our mineral wealth, especially coal, that great driver of development and economic growth. These forests are, therefore, always under threat from the mining and “development” lobbies.

Indonesia, on the other hand, is miserably down to just 400-500 of the Sumatran tigers. Having lost Balinese subspecies 1930s and Javanese in 1970s the only species it now has the Sumatran which is confined to a few patches of tropical forests of the island. These remnants of the Indonesian species are fighting a losing battle against human greed which is promoting progressive encroachments into their habitat.

Although some reports of increase in their numbers are reported from isolated pockets which are now conservation areas, yet their days seem to be numbered with increasing deforestation and mushrooming oil-palm plantations. The government, however, claims that the rate of deforestation has gone down yet the fact remains that from the point of view of tigers it has been of little help. They are now confined to isolated small patches of forests with no scope for fresh genetic infusion into their small in-bred numbers putting them under serious existential threat. As it is, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has included it in the “critically endangered” list.

Oil palm plantations are perhaps the single largest reason for decimation of the Sumatran species of tigers. Their profitability and contribution to the coffers of the country have been the persistent reasons for disappearance of the country’s once-abundant forests. More and more forests are being cleared legally or illegally to accommodate oil palm cultivation progressively reducing the tiger habitat. Over the last 25 years Sumatra has lost two-thirds of its lowland forests that are the most conducive habitat for the island’s tigers.

We in India are largely responsible for the falling numbers of the Sumatran tigers. Two Asian biggies, China and India, are the biggest importers of palm oil from Indonesia, India of late having overtaken China. Demand in this country for the oil appears to be insatiable. Palm oil constitutes about 80% of the cooking oil used in India and the increasing imports at the rate of approximately 3 to 4% per annum are fuelling deforestation and replacement of natural forests by oil palm plantations in Indonesia in a bid to raise palm oil production The production has now hit 50 million tonnes in 2012, India alone having imported more than nine hundred thousand tonnes.

Used mostly as edible oil, palm oil is cheaper than other vegetable oils and is generally consumed by the economically weaker sections of our society. With more and more disposable income becoming available to them the demand for palm oil has been constantly going up necessitating greater imports. A big chunk of the oil is also used in the manufacture of cosmetics, like creams, moisturizers, lipsticks, shampoos, etc. With rise in the number of middle classes the consumption of cosmetics has also been going up. The multinational cosmetic manufacturers have established manufacturing bases in the country and their products are being aggressively promoted in the media. More than 13 to 14% of the imported palm oil is used in manufacture of these cosmetics

The trend being what it is, destruction of the tropical forests in Indonesia is not going to stop any time soon. Perhaps, it would help if we in India tempered down our demand for the oil. If we did that we would not
only be saving the natural tropical forests of Indonesia, we would also be saving their rich flora and fauna, including the Sumatran tiger.

If we have been able to save our forests and the tigers therein to a great extent, it should not be too much to ask for measures to protect the tigers in Indonesia.  After all it is a matter of protecting the “Global Commons” we share. Like in our case, the forests in Sumatra will survive if their tigers survive. Tigers, with their presence, in natural forests are a vital cog in preventing and mitigating global warming. Let us, therefore, not invite the odium of knowingly contributing to the extinction of the Sumatran tiger with all its undesirable consequences.


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