Needed: Imaginative wildlife managers

Published: Thursday 31 December 1992

THERE can be no sharper indictment of the government's attempts to protect the environment than this: After 20 years of spending money and effort, Project Tiger is in shambles. Experts say the fate of tigers in India may be worse than when this much-flaunted conservation bid was launched. Some even predict the Indian tiger may become extinct by the end of the century. If the situation is to be salvaged, urgent and imaginative action is needed.

We say imaginative, because that has been Project Tiger's major drawback. It started in 1973 as a foreign implant, the outcome of a decision taken at the General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). One thing led to another and Project Tiger was born. Its mission was to protect designated tiger reserves from biotic pressure from people and their animals, with the state providing "guards and guns". The upshot is the local people have an antipathy to both forests and the tigers that inhabit them and have resorted increasingly to aggression, illegal felling and poaching for the benefit of traders in wildlife products. From throughout the country there are reports of tension, skirmishes and violence in the vicinity of the barricaded national parks and sanctuaries.

The tension continues because villagers who were ousted from their homes within the parks consider their rehabilitation in new homes on the outskirts of the parks is both inept and hopelessly callous. Many of the villagers still living inside the reserves do so under a constant threat of displacement. They are truly caught between the claws of the tiger and of the forest bureaucracy.

The fields of poor tribals and farmers are frequently destroyed by wild animals, but compensation is either meagre or inordinately slow. For instance, in Bhimashankar sanctuary near Pune, tribals resorted to everything from petitions to agitations to demand compensation for crops lost to wild boars. Ultimately, the Central ministry of environment and forests agreed to request the Maharashtra government to allow controlled killing of wild boars, but this was never done. And so, wild boars continue to multiply and destroy the crops in fields supposedly under the watchful eyes of khaki-clad guardians.

By now, it should be clear that if the government continues to treat wildlife protection as a mere law-and-order problem, neither the tiger nor its habitat can be saved unless the government posts an armed guard behind each tree. Saving the Indian tiger won't be easy and the solution won't be found in books or being practised elsewhere. The fundamental lesson to be kept in mind is that people have to be made partners in conservation. Barely a year ago, Karnataka forest officer Srinivas was killed in a gruesome manner by sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, because even more than enforcing the law, Srinivas had begun talking to the local people about their problems. For Veerappan, keeping the people alienated from the government is the key to his success in eluding capture. Hence, the murder of Srinivas was essential. What is even more tragic is that this outstanding forest officer died for a system that is so indefensible because it gives people no rights to their environment.

Involving people in the management of their environment may be difficult, but not impossible. A number of options are available, but only if the government goes beyond the mere mouthing of phrases such as "buffer zone management" and "people's participation". These only mean that a lot of money will be spent on planting trees -- which probably won't survive -- at the periphery of the park. What is vital now is to find ways to give local people a real stake in preserving the tiger reserves. This can be done through employment opportunities, tourism income and even revenues from selective culling of animals or breeding. For instance, in Zimbabwe and Botswana, the elephant population has been protected by giving people a share of the proceeds from elephant culls. As a result, because the elephant has a value for farmers, they tolerate its depradation in their fields. Indian wildlife managers must seek out such imaginative approaches, if the Indian tiger is to be saved. Pussyfooting simply will not work.

There is yet another issue involved. Though land in India does not come cheap, no attempt has been made to pay the cost for keeping the land under conservation. In international negotiations, developing countries have been demanding that the North should pay if it wants developing countries to protect its forests and wildlands for future generations. This principle should be applied at home.

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