Rhinos can live with tribals

But in Kaziranga forest officials have no respect for their needs and customs

Published: Monday 28 February 2005

Rhinos can live with tribals

-- The concept of national parks--large inviolate stretches of forests to protect rare wildlife--originated in the us in 1872, with the formation of the Yellowstone National Park in the state of Idaho. Many countries, including those from the developing world, have since then taken up the us example. This concept has, however, worked to the detriment of the indigenous people who have stayed within, and in the vicinity of, these protected areas for centuries. The fortunes of the tribal people who stay close to the Kaziranga National Park in Assam is a case in point.

Kaziranga was notified a national park in 1974; the 430 square-kilometre reserve harbours the world's largest population of the Indian one-horned rhinoceros, 50 per cent of the world's wild buffaloes and 65 per cent of the world's swamp deer. More than 20,000 people live on the three sides of the Kaziranga -- the river Brahmaputra flows by its fourth side. The tea plantations around the forest are worked by Munda, Santhal and Oraon tribals -- who were brought there by colonial rulers more than a 100 years back. Kaziranga does not have a buffer zone and the park boundary starts where fields of the villagers end. The wild animals ravage the fields frequently, but rarely does any villager kill any marauder. In fact, the myths of the tribals show a deep veneration of the wild animals: a rhino visiting a paddy field is a good omen among tea labourers and the Karbi tribals revere the tiger as their father. Forest authorities must respect the traditional practices and value systems of these forest dwellers while enunciating rights to forest-use. But this has not happened.

Uncontrolled immigration Planners today talk of displacing villages in the name of conservation. Officials carp that a rapid increase in human population around Kaziranga has harmed the forest. Prima facie, it seems a rational complaint. But why club all people living in the fringe area together? Field studies show that uncontrolled immigration for land and other economic activities is the real cause of the population explosion. On the park's southern boundary -- on both sides of the national highway from Burapahar to Kohora -- a relatively vacant land has changed into crowded settlements with the influx of Bengali-speaking people in the last ten years. Moreover, around 50 dhabas (roadside eating stalls) have come up on this highway. The trucks parked outside these stalls, which are barely three kilometres from the park, disturbs the movement of animals. The new tourist resorts that have come up in the area have worsened the situation. None of the dhabas or the resorts are owned by the tribals. But they are always blamed for the trouble.

And this is not all. In times of floods, a large number of swamps come up in the fringe areas. The villagers who fish here are often reprimanded by forest officials. Is there any harm if villagers, who protect the rhino, take fish from the swamps? Forest officials have also put an end to grazing by livestock of the Nepalese community who live close to the park. The law that prohibits grazing might be appropriate for a fragile ecosystem but not for the Kaziranga. For, luxuriant grass covers 67 per cent of the forest; in addition 28 per cent of the forest is covered with trees and about 5 per cent of it has water bodies. So, conserving wilderness and safeguarding interests of forest dwellers can go hand in hand in Kaziranga. In fact, a number of studies have shown that a reasonable amount of livestock grazing is good for forests.

If protected areas are to survive and thrive, they must bring tangible benefits to communities that rely on them. But our planners have found no use of local knowledge on forests.

Ujjal Kumar Sarma is doctoral fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi

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