Wrong roars

 
Published: Tuesday 31 December 1996

THE Indian tiger has once again grabbed international attention - for all the wrong reasons. The last two months have seen a massive hype being bat up with the release of two controversial reports, both by Britain-based conservation organisations - the Tiger Trust and the Environment Investigation Agency (EIA). Both reports have one message: the Indian tiger is on the verge of extinction. Claiming evidence to show that one tiger is being killed in India every day, and with approximately only 2,500 tigers left in the country, these organisations hold that it is only a matter of five years before the last tiger roams wild in this land. Initiating sustained international campaigning on the issue, these British organisations hope to push for some radical changes in wildlife protection and management in India.

Though no one disagrees on the gravity of the situation, it is imperative to ponder on the possible ramifications of what these reports are propagating. They seek to bring in some sort of immediate crisis management of tiger reserves - stricter enforcement, increased patrolling and sustained anti-poaching drives. While Tiger Trust recommends creation of rapid response teams, static, combat and hunter patrols, and introduction of state-of-art technology, EIA emphasises; the need to generate political will on the issue. However, once again the fundamental issues are being pushed under the carpet. And, if concerned people do not, at this crisis point, push for some radical rethinking on wildlife management strategies, the same flawed methods of management will be sold by the conservationist lobby. The approach of these organisations is essentially an eco-fascist one.

It might be recalled that a similar hype was created in the early '70s when an international alarm was raised about drastic reduction in wild tiger populations. Thus emerged Project Tiger in 1972, with massive inflow of funds, and the passing of the first ever wildlife legislation in the country - the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi took a personal interest in this. However, some environmentalists even then were questioning the sustainability of such reserves. They felt that wildlife conservation in India was based on fundamentally flawed models borrowed from the West. Forests in this country are not wilderness areas as in the West, but habitats of millions of forest dwellers. Any management strategy that takes people out of their homes, alienates them from their resource base, erodes their basic rights and sees wildlife and forest in isolation of all this, is doomed from the start.

And that is exactly what has happened. Local communities, having lost most of their rights, looked at protected areas and its laws with utmost suspicion and resentment. The result - the present crisis facing not only tigers, but also rhinos, elephants and several other species which are falling prey to outside commercial forces on one side, and grappling with their rapidly degrading habitats on the other.

Instead of looking at these basic issues, wildlife management strategies have stuck to the old principle of "keep people out to let wildlife survive". So you have ecodevelopment strategies of the forest department, which pushes for relocation of people, and a quick settling of rights in all protected areas, while paying lip service to people's participation. They are, ironically, hoping that people will actually participate in the destruction of their own future. And the World Bank is entering the fray with its own version of ecodevelopment - a whopping us $67 million in seven protected areas, to be spent on giving some sops to local people affected because of conservation strategies, with hardly any attempt to give people a fair share in management and benefit sharing from these parks. Unfortunately, none of them are really looking at alternative models of management, which see local people as a part of the ecosystem, quite as much as the wildlife and the forests.

Ahd that'seems to be the only logical way to understand and deal with the present crisis in wildlife. Let us now think of ways wherp wildlife protection is not based on guns and guards, but where every forest and village community living in and around protected areas joins hands to protect their resources. Without local support and strict vigilance being kept by thousands of villagers, poachers and timber merchants - the real threat - will lose their loot. But local people will only come forward to do this if they are made equal partners in management of these reserves, when they become the largest beneficiaries from the revenue coming into these protected areas. We have to go beyond seeing participation of people just as an appeasement strategy. True participation would build and strengthen local institutions, empower communities to make rational decisions based on their own knowledge and traditional practices of conservation, and most importantly, give them rights. It would strive to create positive incentives for people by funneling in resources from tourism and other activities directly to these local institutions. Only then would we have truly protected areas - protected not from local communities who depend on it, but from the real threats of poachers and traders who are wiping out our natural heritage.

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