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Saving the tiger, the Indian way

By Darryl D'Monte

If relocating the 66,000 families that live in India's 28 protected areas is not feasible, the solution, according to tiger task force chairperson Sunita Narain, is to include the tribals in the protection of this endangered species, giving them a share in the profits from the tourist trade in the sanctuaries

Is the very fact that the tiger is such a magnificent beast, paradoxically, a major obstacle in the path of its preservation? This is what Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and editor of its fortnightly magazine Down To Earth implied at the inauguration of the annual congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists, held in conjunction with the Vatavaran environmental film festival in New Delhi recently. She was also the head of the tiger task force appointed by the central government, which presented its report this August.

"The tiger is such a sexy animal," she explained, that it is difficult to put across a complex message regarding its conservation. One of the first appeals for its safety -- in light of the scare stories about the disappearance of the big cat from the Sariska National Park -- came from a group of Mumbai businessmen, headed by Hemendra Kothari of Merrill Lynch. It would be easy to put out messages from corporates or the tourist industry or children, for that matter, regarding the need to preserve the tiger, but quite another matter to ensure that a proper mechanism is in place for doing so.

At the outset, Narain clarified that she wasn't a paid-up member of the 'wildlife club' -- implying a coterie led, presumably, by such articulate and powerful spokespersons as Valmik Thapar, Bittu Sahgal and Belinda Wright, among others. When she was appointed, somewhat controversially, considering that she lacked a background in wildlife biology, she set about establishing the facts, with her training as a good journalist. Indeed, this could well be in her favour, since she began without any baggage such that established conservationists have acquired over the years they have spent tracking the big cat and other endangered species.

A seminal incident influenced her approach to the problem. When the task force arrived in Sariska, during their three-month-long deliberations, not a single villager came to meet them. It was obvious that the forest-dwellers were completely hostile towards any official intervention in favour of the tiger. Thus, the dilemma was that the animal not only had to be protected against all odds, like outside interests (poachers and the thriving trade in China and elsewhere in South East Asia in tiger parts), but faced a siege within the sanctuary itself.

This task force was by no means the first attempt to protect the beast. In 1972, Dr Karan Singh headed a committee and the IUCN weighed in too. Project Tiger, originally with World Wildlife Fund assistance, was hailed as a major international wildlife success during the Emergency in the mid-'70s (leading The Guardian in London mistakenly to allege that the burgeoning population figures were trumped up by Indira Gandhi as a PR exercise during her infamous regime).

Narain is sceptical about western approaches to saving the tiger and, indeed, her report is being dubbed "the Indian way". Foreign experts, largely influenced by the scenario in the US and Australia, advocate that "reserves" ought to be set aside because there are huge wilderness areas in these countries and sparse populations. It has, for instance, been recommended that each tiger sanctuary here should have an average size of 1,500 sq km and, what is more, there ought to be a 2,000 sq km area as a buffer contiguous to each. This is obviously not possible in this country: the land is just not available.

Today, India's 28 Project Tiger sanctuaries occupy 5.6% of the total forest area of the country, and 1% of the geographical area. However, half the tiger population lies outside these sanctuaries, which should give a graphic idea of where the problem lies. At best, there are only 1,500 tigers within the protected areas. Since the CSE has espoused the ideology enunciated by its founder, the late Anil Agarwal, who once wrote an article famously titled 'Beyond Pretty Trees and Tigers', the human dimension is always uppermost in its mind, as it ought to be.

When she presented her report to the prime minister, Narain pointed out that the "core tragedy", as her task force members saw it, was that "the poorest people live in the richest lands" in India. The entire central tribal belt, stretching from the eastern fringes of Maharashtra to the western fringes of West Bengal, was where the bulk of the country's forests, mineral resources and watersheds lay. This is the central paradox of India as a whole, considering that it is so often said that it is a rich country with poor people. "Why are they so poor," asked Narain. There are no easy answers. For all the diatribes against Bihar, as the state that is beyond redemption, and Orissa as a basket case, the fact remains that they are both enormously endowed with natural resources. Orissa often receives the largest annual foreign direct investment for this reason.

This columnist can recall visiting the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, 20 years ago. While I was there, a Baiga tribal was killed by a tiger while he was collecting forest produce off the ground. Apart from the gruesome death, another factor remains etched in my mind. The tribal's widow stood at a distance, while the forest guards did the panchnama. Apart from her stoic behaviour, my photographs of the scene have captured her extreme wretchedness. She was half-clad in a cloth without a blouse, and completely bow-legged, a sure sign that she was suffering from anaemia and malnutrition. Thus the tragedy was compounded by the fact that these hapless occupants of the forest were literally skin and bone, eking out a bare existence, even if they did evade the jaws of the tiger.

According to Narain, in the last 25 years as much as Rs 1 crore has been spent on protecting every tiger in Sariska. But that has not prevented it from disappearing from this forest. In other Project Tiger sanctuaries, it amounts to Rs 24 lakh per beast over this period. Plainly, when a single guard has to keep an eye on 14 sq km, and a forester 35 sq km, in these tiger sanctuaries (against a national average of 51 sq km in forests as a whole), it is difficult to prevent poaching. In all respects, Sariska should have been an ideal park with some 22 tigers (if there was actually that number ever). In Ranthambore, Rs 60 lakh has been spent per tiger over this period, but there too their number has dwindled. Obviously, throwing money at guns, guards and fences will not work.

Narain believes that there ought to be inviolate areas for the tiger, and these ought to be expanded, but only if that is possible. It is 1% at present, or 37,000 sq km, which, the Karnataka-based wildlife expert K Ullas Karanth points out, is only around 30 times the size of a large city. "If you can't relocate people you must learn to live with them," Narain says, much to the chagrin of wildlife experts. She was appalled to discover during her task force stint that "there had not been one assessment of how many people live within sanctuaries, or have been relocated". The impact that these people have on the tiger population, she asserts, is more a matter of belief and emotion than based on hard facts.

From the evidence her team was able to garner, there are 273 villages still in the core areas of these 28 parks, amounting to 19,000 families. In these reserves as a whole, which includes their buffer areas within the boundaries, there are as many as 1,500 villages, with 66,000 families. In the 30 years that Project Tiger has been in place, only 80 villages have been relocated; indeed, in some cases, the villagers have trekked back to their original jungle homes. When you do the sums, it negates the argument that people have to be moved to render the sanctuaries the sole domain of these big cats.

As the task force report shows, in the 273 villages in the core areas alone, which are the prime target, at the minimum compensation of Rs 1 lakh per family, the cost will amount to Rs 190 crore. At the enhanced and preferable rate of Rs 2.5 lakh per family, it will add up to Rs 500 crore. Lest this sound too high, it is worth remembering that in Bhadra National Park in Karnataka, it amounted to Rs 8 lakh per family when the cost of land at the relocation site was factored in (Bhadra, and Kuno in Madhya Pradesh are the two lone examples of successful relocation).

If land had to be paid for in the case of these 19,000 families, it would stack up to Rs 3,000 crore and for all 66,000 families, to Rs 11,000 crore. Against this staggering sum, the government has only spent Rs 18 crore on relocating people from Project Tiger sanctuaries in the past 30 years, and another Rs 30 crore on conserving tigers. And where is the land available for such relocation? The only possibility is forestland, which begs the question.

These facts indicate that rather than imagining that poor tribals are the enemy of the tiger, the government needs to include them in the solution, not exclude them, unless relocation is humanely possible in some instances. One major recommendation of the task force is that locals living within tiger sanctuaries ought to benefit from the tourism that these areas attract. Ranthambore has 21 hotels, which rake in Rs 22 crore a year, none of which finds its way into the pockets of local villagers. They have even threatened to torch the sanctuary and raze it to the ground, so intense is their anger against what they see as outside interests benefiting from their local resource. Hotels that were earlier denied permission have now set up there, as in Hindala village which is right inside the core area.

This is why the task force has recommended that a third of the turnover of these hotels should be earmarked for the benefit of local people, as a counter to being hired by poachers. Once they are ensured a share in the profits of tourism, they will have a stake in preserving the flora and fauna; at present, they are entirely alienated. There could be an eco-cess imposed by the Rajasthan government on all visitors, including the bulk who make trips during the day. Whatever the misgivings of wildlife experts on the call for coexistence between people and tigers -- Valmik Thapar submitted a strong dissenting note as a member of the task force -- this is surely one recommendation that ought to be accepted by everyone.

Other recommendations include making the prime minister the head of the steering committee on the tiger, to which he has agreed, upgrading Project Tiger to a statutory authority, creating a Wildlife Crime Bureau, employing more scientific methodology in conducting tiger censuses (the earlier pugmark method led to over-counting) and, above all, preparing plans for relocation and peaceful co-existence.

Narain is at pains to emphasise that there can be no "one size fits all" strategy for all 28 Project Tiger sanctuaries and that specific considerations will apply at different sites. She also raises an important issue regarding international surveillance on the smuggling of tiger skins and parts. Trade is being openly conducted in Tibet, where skins are sold in marketplaces, flouting CITES and other international laws. One explanation as to why the international community is unable or unwilling to check this crime is the simple fact that since China is the main offender -- and a major economic power to contend with nowadays -- no one wants to bell this cat.

At the conclusion of her presentation, Narain was asked whether she was in favour of using the Indian army to curb poachers. She cautioned against using the armed forces against their own people, which would virtually amount to a war within, where they would be shooting down their fellow nationals. There are very strict norms for employing the army for purposes other than war, and this would surely not be one of them. On the other hand, she mentioned how in certain areas occupied by Naxalites, because foresters couldn't enter, tigers were better protected -- this is in sharp contrast to the agitation in the Manas National Park in Assam, where Bodo tribals decimated the one-horned rhinos, forcing UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site in danger. In fact, these Naxalites were proud to announce that "their" tigers were safe...

InfoChange News & Features, December 2005