Let the tiger roam

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

"She has never seen a tiger": this is how some conservationists questioned my credentials to chair the tiger task force when it was set up three months ago. It did not surprise me. Cola, pesticide or diesel car-making companies reacted precisely like this to our work. Discredit the messenger and hope the message also gets dismissed.

But it did worry me. Here were people we work with. Saving the tiger is surely common to all environmentalists. So, was it really so important for me to have seen a tiger to have the expertise for what could be done to safeguard it? Why did I need to prove my 'loyalty'? After all, this was not the fanaticism of religious extremism or the jingoism of right-wing nationalism. Was it?

The task was to understand how to secure the tiger's future. It was clear the tiger was under threat from many fronts. There was the poacher, whose network extended from the poor hunter to sophisticated trade cartels. There was the miner and developer, out to grab the tiger's home. Then there were the desperately poor people sharing the tiger's habitat. We needed to understand what had been done so far -- successfully or unsuccessfully -- to find answers.

We learnt how critical conservation history was to the tiger's future. Project Tiger began over 30 years ago, amidst international concern and foreign advisors who believed large areas -- reserves -- would have to be set aside just for the tiger. The history I read showed the Indian architects of this programme knew -- even then -- this was not possible in this densely populated country. They fiddled with the concept of creating reserves, embedding them within larger landscapes of forests so that the tiger could roam and multiply. They knew coexistence was critical. By the early 1980s -- just 10 years after Project Tiger began -- they realised it would need innovative strategies to involve people in regenerating lands, so that tiger habitat could expand. Without this, they knew, the 'islands' of conservation would be lost over time.

Sadly, this message never went home. What happened instead was this: on the one hand the threat to the tiger grew; on the other, protectors responded by raising the barricades higher. Their paranoia grew; they began to believe everybody else was increasingly against the tiger. Their solution should have worked. But the fact was the war of conservation began to be lost.

Each time a tiger crisis hit headlines, and it did many times in the last 30 years, the response was: more guns, more guards, more fences. Sariska received over Rs 1 crore per tiger over the 25 years of its existence, against the national average of Rs 24 lakh per tiger. It received over Rs 2.58 lakh per sq km over this period (the average for the rest of the reserves was a little over Rs 1 lakh per sq km). Yet Sariska lost all its tigers. In short, money and infrastructure for protection was not the simple answer.

Our inquiries taught us many things have to be done. We must throw a protective ring around the tiger, not by deploying more armed forces but carefully improving internal management and scrutiny so that defences will not fail. We have to break wildlife crime, by building investigative and forensic capacities; most of all, we have to amend the criminal provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, so that the poacher can actually be convicted.

But all this is half the work. In the past 30 years of conservation, we have never really discussed what has to be done about the people that share the tiger's home. Most reports or policies for wildlife conservation talk notionally about them; they either fail to mention their existence or dismiss it as an aside.

The people who protect the tiger believe people and tigers cannot coexist. This logjam -- tigers versus people, or for people -- had to be resolved. It was not about polemics, but the reality of winning the war of conservation. We sought answers. How many people lived in the reserves? How many were relocated? How much land was needed for relocation? How much money? Nobody knew.

We sought replies. We learnt only 80 villages had been relocated from the country's 28 tiger reserves till date; a minimum 1,500 are still inside. Relocation was fraught. Many of the relocated had returned, or turned against the park. The law provided rights of people had to be settled before a protected area could be notified. In other words, people should have been resettled or compensated before protection began. But this was not done. Relocation did not happen. People continued to live within reserves, where conservation imperatives became hasher. They needed resources. Extraction continued, illegally and unsustainably. The conflict between people and park authorities grew. Here was a deadly stalemate for conservation.

So it is that we learnt, and have espoused, that there will have to be an Indian way of conservation. Even as we secure inviolate areas for the tiger by relocating people, we will have to accept not everybody can be relocated. We will have to practice coexistence -- sharing benefits of conservation to gain reciprocal protection. It is here we will have to learn managing multiple and competing needs without compromising the protection needed to secure the tiger's future. We know it is not easy. But it will have to be done.

The protection of the tiger needs inclusive conservation. It is clear to me the issue of protecting the tiger cannot happen unless there is scope for dialogue, unless the process becomes much more inclusive. It is time to put a stop to distrust, and slander. It is time to hear a multiplicity of voices, to converse, and continue to converse. Only then, can the tiger roam.

-- Sunita Narain,

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