The Supreme Court strikes a blow for buffer zones around tiger reserves, but the rights of local people, including livelihoods, are also important.
The directive of the Supreme Court in April to identify and declare, in three months, a buffer zone around every national park in a tiger reserve is a welcome step that wildlife conservationists say can lend a strong legal impetus to tiger conservation. Even around 40 years ago, when Project Tiger, now rechristened the National Tiger Conservation Authority, was launched, its guiding principles envisaged that forestry operations and other activities would be reoriented to suit wildlife conservation. As a result, by 1982, there were 11 tiger reserves in the country with either clearly identified or notified buffer zones. These zones had no legal basis and were just backed by a principled stand on how tiger reserve management should be viewed.
Kanha, in Madhya Pradesh, now one of the finest wildlife protected areas in India, already had a clearly notified buffer zone in 1977. While the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 (amended subsequently in 2006) provides for the creation of a buffer zone in a tiger reserve area, some valid concerns about the tremendous value of such areas for the exploitation of natural resources and the undertaking of mega-development projects therein have somewhat weakened the governments resolve to declare them buffer zones. At present, there are 42 tiger reserves in India, 15 of which are still without notified buffer zones. The apex court has also directed that the limits of the buffer/peripheral areas have to be determined on the basis of scientific and objective criteria in consultation with village councils and an expert committee constituted for the purpose.
India as a developing country with a huge population has its own problems. It is not easy to implement any policy relating to wildlife conservation without affecting or conflicting with the interests of rapid developmental activities in and around wilderness areas. And the governments uneasiness should come as no surprise, as it is accountable for the countrys progress and has to consider peoples aspirations. However, as conservationists suggest, a smooth change of priorities will bring immense benefits to nature in India.
While it is not fair to compare the two countries, the science and significance of a buffer zone was probably first fully understood in the United States. The concept of buffer zone was first initiated in that country in the late 1930s when the optimisation of national park boundaries was introduced to strengthen the earlier myopic model of a national park, which did not fully take into account inappropriate influences from surrounding anthropogenic activities. These included truncated animal migrations, nibbling effect on the periphery, and poaching and conversion of land outside. Now, in the U.S., the protected area strategy includes a buffer zone and corridor as one component.
The buffer zone of a tiger reserve does not enjoy the legal status of a national park. Simply put, it surrounds the national park, which is fragile and more ecologically significant, and protects the park from unsustainable or otherwise unacceptable pressures arising out of the needs and activities of the villages in and around the park. This zone may be regarded as a shock absorber or a cushion.
Most Indian wildlife protected areas have been islanded, as if a vast sea of humanity were slowly getting closer and closer to engulf them. Ideally, tiger reserves have to be managed on a core-buffer strategy. While the core zone is kept free from all human and livestock disturbances, the buffer zone is visualised as a multiple-use area. The buffers provide an added layer of protection to wildlife protected areas, hitherto exposed and vulnerable. Buffer zones harbour different land-use patterns encompassing private, revenue, farm and agricultural lands along with a range of other private and government establishments so typical of rural India. Besides, various agencies also operate there to carry out their respective tasks for the development of villages falling in the buffer zone.
Buffer zones mainly serve two functions. They become an extension of the protected area where the spillover populations of both plant and animal species can establish themselves after crossing the boundary of the protected area. This is called extension buffering. In social buffering, the land is used to grow various products that the local people earlier collected from the protected area.
In the beginning, when the buffer zone around a tiger reserve was brought under the administration of the reserve, there was the misplaced fear that villages in the zone would be relocated and that the zone would be a secret extension of the national park. There was vehement opposition to the move, and field staff were threatened and even assaulted. However, Kanha and some other tiger reserves successfully put all fears and anxieties to rest through excellent management of the buffer zone. The imperatives of the management of a buffer zone are to enforce a lower degree of habitat protection around a critical tiger habitat or a core area for the dispersal of tigers, co-predators and prey species; to facilitate coexistence between wildlife and human activity; and to ensure due recognition of the livelihood, development, social and cultural rights of local communities.
Some buffer zones also support the origins of what effectively become ecological corridors for animal movement, especially tigers, through and beyond them and need to be protected and strengthened. There is now no doubt that wildlife conservation is not possible without public support. Therefore, effective buffer zone management requires sincere confidence-building measures to strike a good rapport with the local people. This is achieved by way of eco-development of villages: various development works are undertaken in consultation with village eco-development committees. These are micro-institutions with elected office-bearers governed by a code of rules and regulations. Eco-development activities are undertaken on the basis of micro-plans prepared taking the needs of villages into account. There is a difference between development and eco-development. Eco-development is generally undertaken by the Forest Department and is assessed against the background of the return received as support for nature conservation.
Employment in conservation-related areas is another important aspect that helps strengthen the people-nature relationship. Job opportunities are also created for the local people in ecotourism and they become stakeholders. Villages are made aware of the importance of wildlife conservation and their role in supporting the tiger reserve administration to achieve its objectives. The tiger reserve administration ensures, through a district-level committee of officers, that all local-level government departments and non-governmental organisations operating in the buffer zone are able to deliver their services without coming into conflict with wildlife conservation. It also ensures that all forestry operations in the buffer zones are compatible with the needs of tiger conservation. The mainstreaming of wildlife conservation outside a national park, with safe dispersal of wildlife beyond repaired and restored ecological sinks, is actually the essence of buffer zone management in a tiger reserve.
Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.