The tiger occupies a hallowed seat in India. Ecologists believe that millions of small ecological processes live out their routine lives under its majestic awn. But the picture gets muddled with the entry of another god: the human. The tiger has to now compete for space. Its throne, therefore, becomes riddled with thorns.

This is no theoretical matter. The fates of millions hinge upon on how we define and redefine the roles of the tiger and the forest. And this is a drama with many actors: governments, courts, non-governmental organisations, conservationists, human right activists -- there is also a large set who hold agency on behalf of both: the tiger and, lets call them, the tiger-affected.

But this drama soon turns into a cacophony: many of the actors try their desperate best to shout down the other players. The tigerwallahs believe the tiger must survive at any cost; the people's movement activist believes the tiger can bear to pay the price for our lack of prudence; the researcher believes years, maybe decades, of research shall solve the problem; the judiciary plunges right in, while new quasi-governmental bodies also try and raise their own shrill voices to the utmost.

Let's, however, not be very harsh. The fact is that whenever one tries to define the complex matrix called 'forests' as a simplistic, linear equation, an incomplete picture emerges. In an attempt to re-sketch the canvas, Down To Earth brings together a set of essays and pithy opinions on the entire gamut of the 'forests-people-wildlife' issue. These arguments emanate from different points in a spectrum. We are firm in the belief that the different arguments are not hermetically sealed and must be read as dialogues of the same conversation. Reading one without considering the other, is fraught with danger. It leaves us with biased ideas of how India must resolve the problems that today pit the tiger against the tiger-affected.

Published: Thursday 30 June 2005


-- There are two things that attract people to India -- Taj Mahal and the tigers. Shouldn't we really care for them?

-- Belinda Wright, Wildlife Protection Society of India, May 4, 2005

In all this hungama about the return-land-to-tribals bill, the tigers that are rapidly becoming extinct are forgotten. A token task force has been set up with no teeth at all and no funds to do anything either. The chair of the task force wants to step out of the 'paradigm' and create new methods of protection. By the time this happens, if at all, the there will be nothing left because the oncoming monsoon is when poachers invade forests and kill. The world knows that it does not require any paradigm shift

-- Malavika Singh, The Financial Express, May 21, 2005

India is facing an acute conservation crisis. On the one hand, the showpiece of the country's long-standing conservation efforts managed by the ministry of environment and forests, Project Tiger, has been undermined by the latest epidemic of tiger poaching. On the other, another agency of government, the ministry of tribal affairs, has just come up with an outlandish scheme to actually take over forest lands with resident tribal populations. This latter scheme, as articulated by the Scheduled Tribes and Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, threatens to destroy India's unitary forestry system, which does not partition forests, by caste or community. It is moot whether this gargantuan take-over and settlement of forested public lands will actually help tribals, or elect and enrich those who speak for them in Delhi

-- Himraj Dang, Business Standard , May 7, 2005

After such expenditure on areas like resettlement, community care and general conservation, it's surprising that the Ranthambhore tiger reserve still faces huge biotic pressure and we need armed policemen to stand guard. We are not even in a position to conduct any constructive dialogue with the local population. If money was not the problem, we must ask what was?

-- Rajesh Gopal, director, Project Tiger, Indian Express , May 22, 2005

Tiger habitat destruction is the long-term result of illegal encroachments and diversion of forestland. And, with skin and bone trade spelling big money in the international trade, saving tiger habitats is important

-- Ashok Kumar, Wildlife Trust of India, Tribune , May 29, 2005

There is a popular joke in Panna: "Every park director gives birth to one tiger". The census is liberally manipulated through liberal manipulation of pug marks. There is a suspicion that this is happening in other reserves too

-- Raj Chengappa, India Today, May 23, 2005

The science and technology ministry plans to map the genetic diversity of tigers in the country. The Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology is setting up a facility called Lacones to be inaugurated in July. Faecal matter will be collected from tigers and they will be monitored through dna finger printing

-- Kapil Sibal, Union minister of state for science and technology, Indian Express, May 20, 2005

The Tiger Cannot Change its Stripes

A tiger requires a prey base of 500-deer sized animals

-- The tiger's ecology is rooted entirely in its four canine teeth. This index-finger-sized weapon enables tigers (and four other big cat species) to subdue prey animals five times their size. Its canines and two related biological traits - the large body size and a pure meat diet -- have determined how tigers evolved as specialised predators of large ungulates, took over large parts of Asia in the next million years, only to teeter to the brink of extinction in the last few centuries, having lost 95 per cent of their range.

To survive a tiger must kill, on average, a deer-sized animal every week. A tigress that is raising cubs, preys on 60-70 such animals, annually. A tiger takes out about 10 per cent of prey population annually therefore it requires a prey base of 500 deer-sized animals to sustain it. Consequently, tiger numbers are primarily determined by the abundance of prey. Tigers can attain population densities of 20 animals for every 100 square kilometres in prey-rich forests. Their density can dip down to just one or two tigers if prey is scarce. At densities lower than this, tiger clusters cannot persist without periodic colonisation from other high-density source populations.

The matriarch
Such source populations of tigers consist of clusters of tigresses headed by a matriarch who defends her home range against intruders with ferocious zeal. She, however, shares her range with her cubs till they are two years of age; the cubs are then evicted from the clusters. Adult male tigers compete with each other to gain mating opportunities. A male tiger's home range may, on an average, overlap three female territories.

A female tiger can breed for 6-10 years in its lifespan of 10-15 years. During this tenure she produces 3-5 litters of about three cubs, once every two to three years. Male tigers generally have shorter breeding tenures: just 3-5 years. The size of the territories that the tigress requires to raise cubs varies enormously: from 10 square kilometres to 500 square kilometres or more, primarily depending on prey densities.

Surplus males
Usually, the number of adult tigers in a healthy population is much more than territories available. The 'surplus' tigers become floating transients that sneak about, looking for opportunities to subdue any weakened resident or to disperse into new habitats. Tiger society is fiercely competitive and mortalities are high: fights, cub-killing by new territorial males, injuries suffered while hunting prey and starvation and conflict with humans impose a heavy toll on tigers of all ages.

So, even in healthy tiger populations, about 10-15 per cent animals die every year. Only about 20 per cent of all tigers born may end up breeding. However, as long their inherently high reproduction rates are kept up, tiger populations remain a surplus. This dynamics explains why, despite heavy hunting pressures -- about 100,000 tigers were legally hunted during 19th and early 20th centuries -- tigers managed to survive. Also, tiger populations in remote tracts helped the big cats to survive till the early 20th century.

The modern threat
In the 20th century, rising numbers of humans and livestock, expanding agriculture, better firearms and efficient transport increased access to remote areas. Hunting for tiger body parts as well as for meat of their prey increased forest product collection rose. These, coupled with development projects, shrunk, fragmented and degraded the tiger's breeding areas. Tigers and humans competed fiercely for the same land, and the big cat retreated steadily.

Although tiger habitats in India are about 300,000 square kilometres, tiger populations with reasonable reproduction rates perhaps occupy only about 10 per cent of this area -- mostly, wildlife reserves. The rest is just a huge 'population sink' which holds the small surplus from the populations with reasonable reproduction rates.

But as the recent 'tiger crisis' has once again clearly shown, these small fringe populations, such as the one in Sariska, can get pushed over the brink for any number of reasons -- not just from commercial poaching as is often thought. Also, the forces driving the decline of the tiger will eventually catch up with even larger populations that appear relatively more secure now.

The central biological challenge in recovering tigers: sustain as many clusters of breeding populations as we can, each with at least 25 tigresses. But then how many such clusters are we are willing to tolerate? That remains the larger social and political issue. For, there is an unavoidable cost to recovering wild tigers: compensating humans who have to make room for them.

Regardless of the social tactics we employ to recover wild tigers, we cannot ignore essential biological factors. To do so would be a recipe for certain failure. The tiger cannot change its size or its diet, as surely as it cannot change its stripes.

K Ullas Karanth is with the Wildlife Conservation Society, India Program, Bangalore

Shot down by friendly fire

Conservationists and wildlife managers have little use for scientific research

-- From one of India's foremost reserves, right under the gaze of an establishment meant exclusively to protect the tiger, the big cat has gone missing. But this disappearance is rather unsurprising. It is not as if the ground below suddenly gave way, plunging the tiger into an abyss. The fact is, the tiger has been helped, by its custodians and guardian angels alike, along a downhill path paved methodically over many years with dishonesty and ineptitude, but more dangerously, with ignorance. Good intentions notwithstanding, the future of all our wildlife -- not merely our tigers -- is today being menaced as much by poor diagnosis of problems and poor solutions as it is by the many grave threats.

Moribund administrators
Science, both biological and social, offers us a suite of diagnostic and monitoring tools to identify conservation problems, examine solutions and provide corrections.But today, neither conservation activists nor administrators seem to think that science has a significant part to play in conserving India's wildlife. Often, the administration believes there really are no snags requiring scientific diagnosis, or simply feels threatened by scrutiny, scientific or otherwise. Outfits like Project Tiger have elaborate systems of self-diagnosis, based ostensibly on science, but calculated to produce self-congratulatory assessments. For their part, activists too seem to see science as a waste of time because, after all, it is the cure that fixes problems, not the diagnosis. So they cut straight to the solutions. And here is where the twain -- the administration, and their bugbears, the activists -- meet: at the burial of science in the management and conservation of India's wildlife.

Consider this: substantial scientific research in India has shown that our tigers are threatened, certainly by organised poaching networks, but also by a range of other factors that are perhaps just as important. All over the country, humans relentlessly hunt down the tiger's prey for the pot. Millions of grazing livestock in our parks systematically edge out tiger prey while sustaining human livelihoods. Famished tigers are poisoned at cattle kills by desperate villagers. Tonnes of tiger habitat is carted away to hearths of poor people everyday as fuelwood. Ruthless markets pay jobless jungle dwellers to clean the forests of a dizzying range of 'minor' products. The list goes on. And pray, how have we addressed such problems? Activists, with total disdain for the complexities, are campaigning energetically for a National Wildlife Crime Bureau to tackle all crimes against wildlife, including, no doubt, all those cited above. With a few million wildlife 'criminals' behind bars, surely our parks will again be safe havens for wildlife. The administration, for their part, are just as untouched by science as the activists. In the belief that nothing solves conservation problems like a good spending idea does, billions of rupees have been spent battling the issues above. To ease grazing pressures on parks, tractors have been bought for villagers who rear cattle for dung. To alleviate fuelwood demands from forests, biogas plants are bought for villagers who gather firewood, not for hearths, but for markets.

Money doesn't help
Scores of checkdams and waterholes are built to 'improve the ecology' of parks. And how effective have these measures been? Very, we are told by hired consultants with dubious credentials in whisper-quiet reports that are always impossible to access. These evaluations, are of course, backed up by the parks' animal census figures, which climb stodgily, until some pesky researcher comes along and bursts the bubble -- as in Sariska. It is thus a strange predicament that, although science today throws more light on conservation issues than ever before, activists and administrators seem more determined than ever to battle these issues in the dark.

To move beyond the crisis mode, we urgently need to bring more science into wildlife conservation. The first step to do that is knowing what science can and cannot do. It cannot replace activism or administration but it can certainly join forces with them to help identify and understand conservation problems, evaluate solutions and clarify conservation goals. And to enable this, we need to put in place a system that fosters responsible collaboration between these domains.

M D Madhusudan is a Mysore-based wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society

Environmentalism of the rich

Assures parks don't get a new lease of life

-- All over the country, tensions fill national parks and sanctuaries. People living in and around these forests see them as the last remaining source of biomass and depend on them heavily to meet their fuel and fodder needs. Regulations on grazing, for instance, have cut these people off from their biomass resources and have led to numerous conflicts.
17th January, 1993

Ranthambore (in 1991) faces a total revolt against the conservation laws of the country. The villagers no longer hesitate to indulge in violence against the upholders of these laws, which, according to them, have turned them into outlaws in their own habitat.

The government has two strategies in mind. One is more guards and guns. The other is sops in the form of an ecodevelopment programme, which will try to increase fuel and fodder supply to the people through better management of the areas surrounding the park. But, it is unlikely any of these strategies will succeed.ill succeed. The only way national parks can be a success in India is if people are made to feel they belong to them, that they are a part of their heritage. But the government's imported nature conservation strategy begins by treating people as outcasts.
6th June, 1993

A Gujjar leader, Mastuk Lodha, told a meeting organised in Delhi by the Centre for Science and Environment that his community knew the forests like the back of its hand. He argued that it was not right to blame the Gujjars for the destruction of the forests, especially as they knew well enough who was actually behind the destruction. Also, he indicated the Gujjars were quite prepared to take over management of the proposed national park (Rajaji National Park).

Asked what they would do to manage their own population and cattle so that both remain within the park's carrying capacity, Gujjar leaders said they would take steps to restrict the size of the population dependent on the park's biomass resources if they were given control of it.

Nomads and tribals usually know more about their environment than even experts. In fact, nomad and tribal lore is responsible for greatly enriching the world's botanical knowledge. But rarely has the world given them credit for this. Once the Gujjars have a vested interest in the park, they will do their best to manage it well.
17th January, 1993

Today, a fair amount of resources are spent on policing the park. With their management, they would improve the habitat, both for the animals as well as to meet their own needs. Without the money they allegedly have to pay on the side to forest officials they could earn more from their milk. The regenerated grass would give them incentives to protect more, as they would be assured of the benefits of their work. learly this would give a new lease of life to the park.

Then why is this not done? The reason lies in the difference between the environmentalism of the rich and the environmentalism of the poor. The environmentalism of the rich supports the protection of habitats and the pristine purity of nature. The environmentalism of the poor wants sustainable use of habitats for meeting the needs and aspirations of the poor. The forest is a living habitat not a wilderness area.

This does not mean that environmentalism of the poor has no place for wildlife. But it demands that the protection of wildlife demands that people have to be involved in its conservation. The past record of the forest department makes it clear that there are few options. Recent studies have shown that even the most protected tiger reserves are getting degraded. Experts in India and abroad have warned that the 'protected tiger' could well be wiped off the face of the earth by the turn of the century unless bold new steps are taken. Given the present situation the government would have to put a guard and gun behind every tree to protect wildlife and its habitat. But if the government wants the people to take care of the national parks and sanctuaries, it will have to make them stakeholders.
7th November, 1993

Status quo how long?


The tribal rights bill has been held hostage by vested interests

-- On its face, the Scheduled Tribes and Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights), Bill, 2005 seems an uncomplicated piece of legislation. But it has been made contentious by people who refuse to see merit in anything that changes status quo.

The bill's emphasis on looking at forestry-related issues from a broader perspective is nothing new. Committees and commissions of the Union government have in the past highlighted the need for recognising tribal rights on forestland. The P S Appu committee, for example, observed in 1972 that land should be allotted to tribals on a long-term basis with certain rights of occupation. In the same year, the Task Force on Development of Tribal Areas suggested recognition of customary rights of tribal over forestlands. However, these recommendations have never been backed by legislative sanction.

Legislations must reflect ground realities and the proposed bill attempts to do precisely that. It's well known that the erroneous process of settling rights over forests is the main reason for tribal unrest in most parts of the country. It's also well known that not every tribal community was strong enough to exact enact tenancy acts, such as the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, 1908 or the Santhal Pargana Act, 1949 from the colonial and the post-colonial states. Moreover, numerous rights have today dwindled into mere concessions. It's little wonder then that most land settlement processes are in dispute today. The Supreme Court, which had once stipulated that tribal rights in protected areas be settled in a year, today seems helpless at the machinations of forest bureaucracies.

The proposed bill thus assumes much importance. It's based on the simple premise that forests have the best chance to survive if forest-dwellers are involved in their management and control. Globally, this principle has been accepted as one of the basics of forest management. Our government also has a consistent view on this. All policy statements, circulars, guidelines, government orders and court affidavits since the forest policy of 1988 have espoused the cause of tribal communities. But none of these lofty ideas have been implemented. The forest rights bill is a good chance to correct this anomaly. Granting security of tenure to communities who have been at the forefront of conserving forests would only help the state put a curb on various nefarious activities over forests. At the risk of being speculative, let me surmise that that the timber lobby and the forest department nexus stand to be most affected by this legislation.

Monopoly syndrome
I also see no reason why one agency should hold monopoly over forestland or forest-based resources. The state has to serve common good and the administrative convenience of allocating different businesses to different departments or ministry cannot be an excuse for injustice towards the marginalised. It is here that one is baffled at the stand of the Union ministry of environment and forests. The ministry claims that the bill would result in "de-notification of vast tracts of forestlands", "eliminate all legal protection for forest cover" and cause "irreparable ecological damage". This can only be termed as overreaction. Equally preposterous is its charge that disproportionate allocation of large areas of natural resource of the country will put a "question mark on the very existence of national Parks and sanctuaries". I would like to see one provision in the proposed bill, which overrides any provision of earlier wildlife of forest protection acts.

Several irresponsible statements have come in the wake of the bill. The media has to take some blame for writing what is fed to it This trend has to stop before the bill is usurped by those who probably would be most affected if it's enacted. Believe me when I say that I am not talking about the tiger or the conservationists.

Sanjay Upadhyay was member of the technical support group to draft the Scheduled Tribes and Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005

Blinkered critics

Understand: tribals want change, but strictly on their own terms

-- The Scheduled Tribes and Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 has drawn much flak. Its detractors argue that the proposed legislation is based on the faulty assumption that tribals are still integral to the forest ecosystem. The fast decreasing forest-people/livestock ratio is not amenable to traditional lifestyles, today, and even routine movements by forest dwellers jeopardises the cause of conservation, they excoriate.

I agree that today the forest-people/livestock ratio is adverse. But this is not because tribals want to cling on to their centuries-old lifestyles. Most tribal communities do want change but strictly on their own terms. For example, many communities in the northeast want to give up jhum (shifting cultivation). But do they have alternatives? No. For, outsiders control the region's economy and treat the northeast as a supplier of raw materials -- tea, coal and petroleum -- and as a captive market for finished products from "mainland" India. There are just about 200 major and medium industries here -- almost half that of industrially backward Orissa.

It's little wonder therefore that only 6 per cent of the area's workforce finds employment in the secondary sector, while more than 70 per cent still works the land and forests. And make no mistake. Literacy levels in five of the seven northeastern states are far higher than the national average. But this only compounds problems. For example, Mizoram with a population of nine lakh has some 70,000 jobless graduates. Unemployment, and what an increasingly disgruntled and frustrated youth perceive as an attack on local culture by outsiders who control the northeast's economy, has forced many in the region to take up the gun.

Pressure on forests
Poverty has also intensified pressure on forests and many in the northeast eked out a paltry living by felling trees. But that was before 1996. That year, the Supreme Court banned logging in response to a petition by environmentalists who considered tribals enemies of the forest. The ban was definitely necessary. But it was more imperative to provide alternatives to a practice born out of poverty. No thought was given to the latter. The result: the vicious circle of destitution and tribal unrest continued. Insurgency, for example, began in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya right in the wake of the ban on logging.

Apathy abounds
The northeast is not a stray example: apathy towards tribal rights abounds throughout India. Since 1950, around 6 million hectares of forestland has been acquired for development projects without much thought to rehabilitating the forest-dwellers. Sheer survival needs have forced many to change their relation with the forest from constructive to destructive dependence. India has some five million "headloaders" who carry firewood to markets that cater to the urban consumer's needs. 75 per cent of them were forced into this misery by industrial deforestation or displacement. And it's not just headloaders. Of the 9,000 families displaced by the Dumbur dam in Tripura in the 1970s, only 2,553 were counted and compensated. The rest started shifting cultivation in the dam's catchment area. The list of injustice towards tribals is endless.

Some justice
The proposed legislation tries to undo some of it. One cannot oppose it with the colonial thinking that the choice is between the people and forests. We cannot ape the West in managing sanctuaries. Let's not forget that at least 3 million people live in the core areas of wildlife sanctuaries -- but are denied access to the forest for even food. Ten times that number lives in other forests and many more in their periphery depend on them. The bill only proposes a one-time allotment of what they are already living on.

The forest department (fd) and the communities have to find ways to rebuild the earlier links with the forests. Joint forest management can fit the bill, but not in its present form, where the fd takes all the decisions. Communities and the fd have to become partners, take joint decisions on the type of species to plant, methods of protecting them and of benefit-sharing. The State in its turn has to develop forest villages like other revenue villages by providing them better facilities. That can give the tribals the option of moving out in search of better livelihood, not of being evicted and impoverished as is happening all over India today.

Walter Fernandes is Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati

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