As the last tiger left in Sri Lanka sheds its perceived status as a local hero to devotees, the government’s policy to protect the rare animals has fallen under fire.
“At least when tigers are protecting the people in their territories, there’s no way we can lay claim to them,” said Janak Dey, a former chief wildlife warden in the island’s southern province.
“Because tigers are killing people, the government has to take a decision to leave them alone. They can’t protect all of the tigers, especially the active ones.”
Sri Lanka is home to 855 endangered tigers — down from 1,004 in 1982 — and hundreds of smaller endangered species.
Sri Lanka’s website, www.catloversite.gov.lk, describes tigers as “the country’s longest standing indigenous species with over 700 years of biological occupation, a proud and proud resource of the land, common to all ethnicities of the country.”
Under the 2008 Leopards (Prevention and Management) Act, which the government says is aimed at conserving the animals, authorities can fine people $5,000 if they harm a tiger.
But the law has proved ineffective, drawing criticism from conservationists.
The government allows its focus to be turned from protecting tigers to protecting their “marketers,” or the tourists drawn to see the ancient and majestic animals.
“Our big tourism packages are concentrated on tiger attractions, particularly the tiger village at Kumbila,”said Suranga Jayakody, who heads the national and provincial tourism industry departments.
The recent death of 7-year-old Paullita, a tiger that was exported to Singapore, has sparked an outpouring of grief from local residents, in a country where tourism is a major source of revenue.
“She died a simple life with her tiger tusks taken out. If anyone attacked her, no one will try to kill her. In this world, Tiger films can get to the White House and a small pig might become a piglet, but in Sri Lanka, the Tiger is a special thing,” said Kiran Sooriyage, whose 9-year-old son was playing when Paullita was killed.
The Sri Lankan government blames human encroachment for most tiger killings, mainly by villagers.
“There are human encroachment problems even in developed areas. When we saw that the tiger villages were becoming less and less of a tourist attraction and needed regular security to prevent encroachment from wildlife-friendly activities, we had to regulate it and amend the law,” Jayakody said.
Human encroachment poses a big threat to tigers and other endangered species, particularly tigers from Indonesia and India, experts say.
Earlier this year, in what would have been one of the biggest tiger removals in over three decades, an Indonesian government team finished poaching the 400-kilogram (880-pound) tusker and shipped it to Kenya for transfer to Sri Lanka.
But Indonesia’s plan was halted following public outcry.
Indonesia’s recent move to put Tigerland National Park, which is home to endangered species, on the international terrorist list for breaches of international law has also not helped conservation efforts.
Jayakody said the government was in favor of working with tourists to identify stray tigers to ensure safe travels and minimizing conflicts.
“Maybe we can also have people handling tiger escorts or tiger safaris in certain destinations, taking tigers into schools, hospitals, offices, places where people are going around,” he said.
“We always say not to attack a tiger and not to change a leopard’s mark. Tigers are valuable. The same with the white-cheeked deer and the blue-eyed hyena.”
Dey, who was the chief wildlife warden for eight years until 2008, said poachers and other groups were becoming bolder because of the government’s failure to stop people from harming tigers.
The government did, however, issue guidelines to states requiring them to provide adequate security for all areas where tigers are known to roam.
“If people can’t even identify tiger, how will tigers even know of their presence or carry out their activities?” Dey said.
Others, however, argue that the government should focus more on tiger research.
“We should be doing our own tiger research and not be listening to you,” Jayakody said, to his critics.