Ranthambhore has becomes the latest wildlife sanctuary to express fears about 'missing' tigers. Will this jewel in the Project Tiger crown go the same way as Sariska? Does the answer lie in relocating villages outside national parks, thereby minimising contact between man and animal?
After Sariska, is it Ranthambhore's turn to become a graveyard for tigers? If last month's Indian Express reports are accurate, eight tigers have gone missing in Ranthambhore between August 2005 and October 2006.
These are the findings of an independent survey conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India. Its photo-census shows only 18 tigers, as against 26 two years ago, and 47 in 2004. Only further investigations will reveal whether the animals have been poached, or have died due to lack of prey and consequent infighting. However, if this is the grim situation in the country's best-known tiger reserve, the plight of other national parks can well be imagined. Only recently, due to a rise in ocean levels with global warming, entire islands in the Sunderbans have been submerged, putting the Royal Bengal Tiger population at grave risk.
Delhi wildlife filmmaker, Krishnendu Bose, has just released his hour-long documentary, starkly titled Tiger: The Death Chronicles, which was commissioned by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. He begins with what one might term the "scaremongers" -- experts like Valmik Thapar, Ulhas Karanth, Belinda Wright and P K Sen, former Director of Project Tiger. Sen, who was previously Field Director of the Palamau National Park, cites how not a single tiger has been spotted in the Buxa park for a decade. Officials claim that the tigers have moved to the adjoining foothills of Bhutan, where the environment is presumably more congenial. Whether this is true or merely self-serving is one of those conundrums one encounters all the time when it comes to missing tigers. Everybody seems to be passing the buck.
Thapar, who has virtually thrown in the towel in the fight to save tigers after some three decades of relentless struggle, believes that in the last half century something like 50,000 tigers have been killed. And that the conflict between man and tiger can never be resolved until humans are relocated from tiger sanctuaries. Wright endorses this view, asserting that the two cannot co-exist and that tigers need "inviolate habitats".
It is tempting to take this approach, especially when you see the mangled remains of a tiger caught in a poacher's trap, which the film lingers on. After all, wildlife areas comprise only some 5% or 6% of the total area of the country.
Halfway through the documentary, Bose changes tack and addresses the concerns of what one might term the "humanists". The most prominent of these is the feisty Director of the Centre for Science and Environment, Sunita Narain, who headed the controversial Tiger Task Force two years ago. Narain has consistently maintained that she believes passionately in the preservation of the tiger, but where she differs is in advocating that co-existence with humans might be necessary, given the far-from-ideal conditions in India.
Pragmatically, she argues that if it were financially and logistically feasible to relocate the few thousands of people living in buffer areas within national parks, it would be all right to do so. But in the official Tiger Task Force report she cites the numbers and the costs of doing so, demonstrating that it is not within the capacity of any state or central government to relocate so many people. The costs become greater when one puts a price on the land on which they are being resettled; this has so far not been taken into account in most displacement cases, in a variety of projects.
Following the scare over the disappearance of tigers from Sariska in early-2005, the Rajasthan government decided to move villagers out of the sanctuary, alleging that they were hand-in-glove with poachers and set baits for the big cats. Subsequently, it decided to follow suit in Ranthambhore. However, these are the two most-visited tiger sanctuaries, and within driving distance of Delhi. What about the other national parks dotted throughout the country? Will poorer states like Bihar or Orissa allot funds to do the same?
One indication of the complicated nature of the problem is that the entire belt of central India -- which Baba Amte has memorably called the "cummerbund of India" -- is also where Naxalites hold sway in several districts. On occasion, the Naxalites have been held responsible for decimating wildlife in order to raise funds for their insurrections, while they have also sometimes proudly claimed that they alone have preserved "their" tigers in sanctuaries they control by eliminating (often literally) corrupt forest officials. It is only because the people there are so terribly poor that the Naxalites have established their bases.
Narain, addressing a meeting of international environmental journalists in Delhi in November 2005, asked how it was that India's poorest people lived in the most resource-rich areas. From eastern Maharashtra to the western districts of West Bengal, there are huge resources of minerals and forests, but this is also where the tribal population lives in the most abject conditions. In all their undoubted zeal and dedication to preserving the tiger, conservationists have not paid much heed to this central and crucial dilemma.
Indeed, the Tiger Task Force recommended that instead of driving people out of sanctuaries they ought to be employed in such activities as preventing forest fires, and other maintenance operations. Furthermore, it advocated that 30% of the revenue from resorts in and around national parks should be earmarked for the welfare of villages within the buffer areas. Such measures alone will ensure that villagers have a stake in the wellbeing of the tiger.
Of course, this is a complex issue with many dimensions, not least the personalities involved, many of whom are inflexible and see only their points of view. Bose attempts to take the middle path. But he does it so unobtrusively that those unfamiliar with the debate may not understand the polarities in the pros and cons of the argument. At the same time, he does well to dwell on how, between 2001 and 2003, 26,000 sq km of dense forests were lost, leading to a 5% reduction in tiger habitat. And, despite the brouhaha over the radical findings of the Tiger Task Force, which led to the prime minister ordering more stringent measures to beef up surveillance mechanisms in parks, the total budget for Project Tiger was reduced from Rs 31 crore to Rs 28 crore last year. The left hand obviously knows not...
A similar scenario regarding the co-existence of humans and wildlife was in evidence over a controversy within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. This city is unique, certainly for a metropolis of its size, because it houses a 103 sq km national park smack in the middle of its limits. When Maneka Gandhi was environment minister, she re-named what was then known as the Borivili National Park after her late husband, and also debarred visitors from entering the core area. As a result, there are now some 40 panthers within the park that regularly stray out into the surrounding suburbs, much to everyone's terror.
Things came to a head in 1996 when the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) filed a petition in the high court, asking that the 61,000 families -- around 3 lakh people -- who had occupied land in the buffer area should be relocated because they posed a threat to the wildlife there. The BEAG was opposed by another NGO, the Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti (NHSS), which espouses the rights of the homeless. It argued that the authorities -- the municipal corporation and the police, aided and abetted by politicians -- had turned a blind eye to the extensive squatter settlements. Indeed, these were so well established for two or three decades that several inhabitants even had ration and voting cards; there were full-fledged schools and the like. Without the connivance of the authorities and the forest department itself, it is impossible for the settlements to have flourished for so many years.
What followed was a bitter confrontation between the settlers, the forest department and the NGOs. The high court eventually ruled that the villagers had to move -- if necessary by force and the use of helicopters -- but must be given alternative accommodation, which was a practical compromise. After months of bitter recrimination, nearly 50,000 dwellings were demolished.
But the land that the state government identified for relocation, an hour by autorickshaw from the distant outlying township of Kalyan, was not only unsuitable because it lacked basic amenities but local villagers in the area too opposed the project.
Ultimately, the NHSS appealed to the state government that earmarked a 45-acre site in a disused quarry in a suburb called Chandivli, for resettling 12,000 families that had been living there before 1995, the cut-off date. Each had to pay only Rs 7,000 per household to get a 225 sq ft tenement free of charge. The NHSS roped in a builder, Sumer Corporation, which has built the first lot of 5,000 tenements. The keys were allotted to the slum-dwellers on May 1. In return, the builder will get what is known as Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) in the suburbs, north of the present location, which ought to fetch it a fortune.
At the inauguration, Shabana Azmi of the NHSS cited how this was a partnership between the slum-dwellers, an NGO and a builder that could be replicated elsewhere. Unlike other slum redevelopment schemes, the beneficiaries were part of the decision-making process. P K Das, an activist who is also an architect, drew up the blueprint for the first lot of tenements, which has far more open space than in other schemes, prompting Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to remark that each looked much larger than 225 sq ft.
Would-be occupants cited how they used to fear the nocturnal visits of the leopards and could now sleep in safety for the first time in their lives. The wild cats regularly preyed on stray dogs that surrounded the hamlets and, on occasion, lifted small children at night when they were sleeping outdoors or performing their ablutions in the forests. For its part, the forest department is happy that most of the squatters have been evicted and it can now guard the park better.
The ecological role of this park is not widely understood. Apart from being the lungs of Mumbai -- it occupies around one-sixth the area of the city proper -- it also has two lakes that are the source of some of the drinking water for this thirsty city.
While it is entirely possible, perhaps even desirable, that villagers are able to live cheek-by-jowl with tigers in the periphery of national parks, the urban scenario is quite different. For one thing, it is a question of numbers: Sanjay Gandhi National Park was home to around 3 lakh people in what were virtually regularised slum pockets. The sheer density made it impossible to avoid conflicts between humans and wildlife. The forest department would regularly trap what they assumed were man-eating leopards and move them to forests outside Mumbai.
In remote tiger sanctuaries, on the other hand, the villagers are fighting for their own survival in a hostile environment. I will never forget being present at Bandhavgarh National Park two decades ago when a tribal was killed by a tiger. More than the admittedly gruesome remains of the tribal, what stays in my memory is the diminutive figure of his grieving widow, all skin and bones. It would be tragic if, in the name of protecting tigers, no attention was paid to the desperate plight of people in remote areas.