Time to tell the truth, again

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 15 March 2005

I really hope we are proved wrong when we say there are no tigers left in the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan. But if it is so, what is now increasingly accepted as a sad fact should actually make us extremely angry. We must know: who was responsible for this huge national loss? What amends will be made?

I ask this because the tragedy in Sariska is much larger than the frightening prospect of losing 18-odd magnificent creatures that (once?) prowled this reserve. It is really about the philosophy, the policy and the practice of conservation. The answer to Sariska -- and to the many Sariskas, festering -- will then be to change the basic premise of the way we approach wildlife. Otherwise the blood of Sariska's tigers will be on the hands of their official managers and their unofficial propagandists. Nobody else.

Let us look at the different political and policy economies of this human-carnivore relationship. Over the past many years, the country has obsessed itself with protecting the tiger. In the early 1970s, Project Tiger -- a programme to protect the habitat of this flagship species -- began. In 1976, forests and wildlife were brought under the Concurrent List to enable more centralised protection. From being an endangered species, the tiger became an emblem: wildlife protection got subsumed, as ecological historian Mahesh Rangarajan says, in a nationalist project. Over the years, this obsession has grown.

The original 9 tiger reserves have grown to 28, spread over the country. The total land area protected under the reserves is roughly 6 per cent of the forest area. A tiger habitat, once identified, is demarcated; the area is either declared a national park (higher protection) or remains a sanctuary. The status of a tiger reserve ensures coordination through a Delhi based project tiger team, and Central funds: roughly, Rs 20-26 crore is allocated each year for these reserves. The management approach has also been universally tried. The aim is to keep the core area -- the tiger's home -- pristine and free of biotic interference (people); the buffer area can have conservation-oriented use.

The powerful wildlife bureaucracy -- in it, I include those within government (who run the conservation programme) as well as those outside (who decide what goes on in the name of conservation) -- has ensured that this variety of working is carefully safeguarded. They do not like any interference in the way they run the park business. They want us to believe the key problem of the tiger is that too little money is spent on its protection. What is really needed, they say, is forcefully implement wildlife laws; this would curtail the rights of people living in the reserves, strengthen policing and arm guards to the teeth to fight off poachers.

This group of well-meaning and passionate conservationists are right in their own way. Their mission is to protect the tiger, above all else. But they are only half-right. For the reality is that in India, unlike in the West, wilderness areas are where millions of people actually live. So when policy imbues the principle of exclusion, people inhabiting protected areas are discounted, displaced. Their livelihoods are destroyed. So they become not protectors of the forest, but poachers. Their marginalisation leads to poverty, which in turn impoverishes the tiger. The carnivore-human conflict exacerbates: the truth of its exponential growth is visible in and around most tiger reserves.

More importantly, the conservationists have never really understood that the extraordinary diversity of India flora and fauna is not about 'pristine nature' but the result of millennia of human-nature interaction. It is, therefore, imperative we find ways not to isolate but to incorporate the conflicting demands of 'endangered' species and subsequently endangered humans.

But all this has been said before. Rangarajan says the real crisis lies in the narrow social base of the wildlife community. I would argue their intellectual base is even smaller. They refuse to open doors to new thinking or experimentation to find ways to make people and tigers co-exist in harmony. It is correct that the innovative community-tiger centered models of conservation are few and far between. It is also correct that there is no real alternative to the current fence-arm-exclude model India works on.

But it is also true that alternatives will have to be tried out. To take just one example: hotels have sprung up near many tiger reserves, some even promoted by conservationists; some are very expensive and almost all make profits sent out of the local economy. The neighbouring villager may get some side-benefits through ancillary tourism activity. But the people who live in the vicinity of the tiger get virtually nothing. Over time, this use of the sanctuary for tourism -- unregulated and unmanaged -- will contribute to its destruction as well.

Can we not, for instance, seriously try approaches that will involve local people in owning tourism -- not just as guards, sweepers and guides, -- but as custodians and managers of its biological and cultural heritage.

Yes, all this has been said before. But, after Sariska -- after tigers that have vanished into thin air, or tigers that have been magically conjured out of it to keep the number game going here and in other reserves -- this needs to be said again. And again, until conservation's mandarins begin to accept the truth that they need to turn their thinking upside down, or face extinction.

-- Sunita Narain

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