The new conservation agenda should not revolve around tigers versus tribals. It has to be about tigers and people
The year 2023 marks 50 years of the birth of Project Tiger — India’s flagship programme to protect its flagship species. In 2005, I chaired a tiger task force with fellow conservationists as its members to review what had gone wrong in Sariska tiger sanctuary that had lost all its tigers. Our report, Joining the Dots, put forward the agenda for tiger conservation. It was not well received in the close-knit “tiger” community, as it was seen to be more human-centric than conservationist.
Much water has flowed under the bridge since we submitted the report to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Much has been done to follow up on its recommendations — the tiger census methodology has changed from tracking pugmarks to scientific estimation using camera traps; the tiger authority and wildlife crime bureau have been established with much enhanced budgets; new protocols for management and protection have been laid down; relocation costs to villages have been enhanced.
All these have borne results in terms of a stable and now increasing tiger population in the country. But still in this 50th year, we should recognise that there is a huge unfinished agenda that needs to be worked upon. India’s challenge now is twofold: One, to safeguard the tigers in the wild and two, to grow the tiger numbers beyond the carrying capacity of the designated reserves. This is why the agenda of co-existence — where conservation works are reconciled with support for local communities — must be the future.
There is some reason to cheer. The 2006 All India Tiger, Co-predator and Prey Estimation found that there were 1,411 tigers in the country; in 2010, the numbers increased to 1,706; by 2014 to 2,226 and in the fourth round in 2018, to 2,967.
But there is a catch. In 2006, the tigers roamed some 93,000 sq km; by 2018, this came down to 89,000 sq km. This means there is now better protection inside the tiger reserves, but the habitat of the tiger is shrinking. The “zoo-fication” of the tiger is happening. Also, the 2018 estimation showed that some 1,923 tigers — 65 per cent — are found within the confines of the reserves; the rest roam outside in the contiguous forests, habitat to both wild animals and people.
This is why I would reiterate that my position on co-existence — working with people outside the core area of the tiger reserve to build alliances and to bring them benefits — which was much reviled by the conservation community, must find real takers.
Till now, policy has ensured that communities outside the reserve get nothing from protection. Over the years, with little investment and even less understanding of how to plant trees that survive cattle and goats, the lands outside the reserves stand denuded. People have no option but to send their cattle to protected areas for grazing. As the ruminants move into forests, the herbivores — deer and other animals — move out to farmers’ fields to forage and destroy.
We must learn this reality if we want more land to safeguard more tigers. The answer is in, first and foremost, paying people quickly and generously for the crops destroyed or the cattle killed.
Second, we need to ensure that there is huge and disproportionate development investment in the lands that adjoin a tiger reserve. People should be benefitted to live in the buffer of the reserve. They must want to secure the tiger for their own interest.
Third, people must directly gain from conservation. They must be preferred in jobs to protect. They must be partners, owners and indeed earners from tourism the tiger brings.
We know today that wildlife tourism is growing; it is also high-end, exclusive and caters to all of us in the middle-classes who want to see animals in the wild. It must grow, but in ways that can benefit people who live in the tiger’s habitat. This is not happening.
The fact is that conservation is still happening in ways that exacerbate the conflict between animals and local communities. Today, in many cases, tribals are relocated from the parks and there is a virtual takeover of the same area by luxury tourism. This only adds to alienation and conflict.
In the 2005 Tiger Task Force report, we had asked for a 30 per cent cess to be imposed on hotels that were in the vicinity of tiger reserves and had asked for this money to be ploughed back to people and the park. We had also said that homestead tourism, owned and run by local communities should be incentivised, indeed pushed, so that people are partners in protection. They have an equal stake in the tiger and its future. This is not happening, but it must.
The new conservation agenda should not revolve around tigers versus tribals. It has to be about tigers and people. This is why in next 50 years, we need an Indian ethics of conservation — we need to reinvent the practice of exclusion and fortification of the original and western-oriented tiger charter as the one which includes the interest of people who coexist with the tiger. Only then can the tiger roam free, far and be bright.
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