The other side of conservation

Published: Tuesday 28 February 1995

ANIMAL welfare activists in India have never adopted the path of physical violence taken by a section of those who protested against live cattle exports in England earlier this February. They do, however, subscribe to a moral militancy whose right - eousness is always dismissive of the problems faced by humans in many wildlife conservation projects in this country.

The latest instance of this trait can be seen in acclaim accorded by wildlife enthusiasts, both within the country and internationally, to the glamorous, hi-tech scheme to translocate part of the Asiatic lion population from its last home at the Gir sanctuary in Gujarat's Junagadh district to the Kuno sanctuary in Morena, Madhya Pradesh. By creating a second residence for the lion, the project-planners hope to solve some of the current problems being faced at Gir .

There is no gainsaying the success of the wildlife authorities in nursing the big cat population to nearly 300 today. This has, however, caused overcrowding and territorial shrink!lge. Significant among the other problems is a risk of repeated inbreeding and consequent vulnerability to disease.

It is essential to create better survival conditions for these magnificent beasts. But it would be a gross error to endorse all of them uncritically. There has to be concern for human lives and lifestyles that may be affected by the translocation. As of now, there isn't.

The plan entails expanding the KUDO sanctuary over 750 sq kmof the surrounding Sheopur forest, booting out 7,500 Sahariya tribals settled in 19 villages. Between 15,000-20,000 more will find their access to the forest blocked. The authorities are quick to assert that they have a Rs 20-crore plan to resettle the dislocated tribals in wellirrigated tracts nearby. The money, however, is still to come through, although the tribals are to be shifted beginning next month. Moreover, it is a matter of dubious optimism that amply irrigated Jand capable of providing sustainable agriculture to nearly 8,000 people is freely available in this part of the country. The authorities might intend to establish irrigation facilities at the resettlement sites, but when, or whether at all, this would happen is as uncertain to predict as the swish of any lion's tail.

Then there is the broader question of whether any forest-dwelling people can be hustled into becoming settled cultivators, without messing up their lives and lifestyle. The precedent of Gir itself is forcefully indicative of the great probability of failure. Similar resettlement plans to convert the resident Maldharis from pastoralism to cultivation were tried there. They bombed. Tardy implementation and erroneous assumptions that crept into resettlement planning have only succeeded in dragging the Maldharis from past prosperity to present penury. The translocation at Kuno, as it is envisaged now, consigns the Sahariyas to a similar fate.

Other official wildlife projects in the country have pranged with similar inevitability. Much of the government's work in this direction has been influenced and shaped by the country's arch-conservative conservation establishment which strident- ly and singlemindedly believes that endangered life, whether flora or fauna, can be saved only in isolation from humans. Its single-point strategy has been to establish sanctuaries and national parks by excluding and often displacing humans. In 1960, there were 60 sanctuaries and 5 national parks. Today, the needle hovers at 450 and 80 respectively, and there are clear plans to set up many more.

These animal conservatories have disastrously affected millions of forest-based communities. The Union ministry for environment and forests has itself accepted that by 1990, 6 lakh tribals had already been displaced by sanctuaries and national parks. This is an extremely modest admission of a gargantuan guilt. Instances of humans becoming prey to insensitive conservation are replete from almost every part of the country.

Such so-called conservation must be resisted. Already, grassroots activists and concerned NGOS have begun to push for an alternative vision which, among other things, can see that humans and animals can and do exist in a symbiotic ecological relationship. This vision would recognise that local forest dwellers, particularly tribals, have been major, often exclusive, agents of the protection and conservation of our forests and wildlife down the ages. The activists and NGOS have also begun to campaign for the active and complete involvement of local people in conservation projects.

Unfortunately, such sensitivity is a long way off from becoming the mainstream mindset. Giving it due importance could mean the difference between life and almost-death for the tribals. Without it, conservation will always be a matter of dubious principles.

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