Saving the tiger

Print edition : September 09, 2005

The Tiger Task Force report recommends: "The habitat must be shared between the people and the tigers, so that both can coexist, as they must. The poverty of one, otherwise, will be the destruction of the other." - MURALI KUMAR. K

The report submitted by the Tiger Task Force restarts the debate on strategies to save the animal and at the same time protect the interests of people living in tiger reserves.

EARLY this year, a warning was sounded that there were no tigers in the Sariska reserve in Rajasthan. Soon it became clear that many of the other tiger reserves fared no better, raising serious questions about the practice of tiger conservation and wildlife management in the country.

If the crisis had to be tackled, the real situation in the reserves had to be understood. A Tiger Task Force was set up in April by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to probe the disappearance of the tigers in Sariska. The panel submitted its report earlier in August, along with a dissent note by one of its members. The primary difference was essentially over ways to manage the reserves and conserve the tiger. The people's concern about the issue was heightened by the fundamental differences between the dissenting member and the rest of the Task Force.

Public concern about the dwindling tiger population is not new in India. In the late 1960s, the situation of the big cat in India had attracted world-wide attention. Following this, India's first Task Force on tigers was constituted under the chairmanship of Dr. Karan Singh, a keen conservationist and a Rajya Sabha member at the time. Its report, submitted in 1972, formed the blueprint for India's tiger conservation programme called Project Tiger.

In the 1970s, eight tiger reserves were set up in different ecological systems. Each had human settlements in them, which brought enormous pressure on the reserves and the conservation programme. Thus the first Task Force, in an attempt to restrict human activity within the reserves, designated the core of each reserve as a national park and banned all human activity there; the rest of the reserve was termed the buffer area and could sustain human activity. The idea was to relocate people from the core areas, but they could coexist with the cats in the buffer areas.

Since then, 28 tiger reserves have been created across the country. But two Task Forces and 30 years later, the problem of coexistence still persists. In fact, it has worsened. People continue to live in both the core and the buffer areas, the resettlement processes seem to have hardly taken off, and more people have moved into the reserves for various reasons, including deforestation, land degradation and poverty.

THE reports of tigers vanishing from the Sariska reserve came in December 2004. In March 2005, in its interim report, the Wildlife Institute of India confirmed that there were indeed no tigers in Sariska. The Prime Minister then asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe the matter.

According to the CBI report, since 2002 poachers have been killing tigers in the reserve; the last of the six big cats were killed in 2004. The CBI pointed to the involvement of the local people. A Tiger Task Force comprising five eminent environmentalists, ecologists and conservationists was soon set up, with Sunita Narain, Director of the Centre for Environment and Science, as the chairperson. The Task Force was to look into Sariska's problem in particular and find out if the problem extended to the other reserves as well.

The Task Force was asked to suggest measures to strengthen tiger conservation; improve the methods of tiger counting and forecasting; place data on tiger conservation in the public domain; work out a new reserves management paradigm; and induce local communities, forest staff and tiger reserve managers to help in the conservation of tigers.

According to the Task Force report, Sariska is a pointer to the total collapse of institutions and management systems. The main issue, it points out, is not only of saving the tiger but doing it in the Indian situation, where people have been living inside forests for generations.

While pointing out that forest-dwellers should be relocated wherever possible to ease the biotic pressure on the forests and tigers, the report recommends coexistence between man and animal in other areas owing to the scarcity of land and the paucity of funds (the relocation of all families living inside the 28 tiger reserves is estimated to cost Rs.11,508 crores).

The report states: "The protection of the tiger is inseparable from the protection of the forests it roams in. But the protection of these forests is itself inseparable from the fortunes of people who, in India, inhabit forest areas." The report therefore recommends: "The habitat must be shared between the people and the tigers, so that both can coexist, as they must. The poverty of one, otherwise, will be the destruction of the other."

But conservationists who brook no human-tiger coexistence within the reserve areas, argue that the premise of continued coexistence over vast landscapes where tigers thrive ecologically, and people thrive economically, is a recipe for disaster. The Task Force recommendation to relocate people from the priority villages and to devise strategies for coexistence in the other villages, they say, is a bundle of contradictions. They point out that the inherent contradictions in the solution would only lead to further degradation of the tiger habitat.

According to them, many communities have lived in equilibrium within forest habitats in the past. But those were times when fewer people lived in the forests and used the resources purely for their own consumption. But today, the numbers of forest-dwellers have gone up and with forest areas shrinking, they put tremendous pressure on the forests and the tigers.

Conservationists argue that each tiger needs to eat at least 50 cow-size animals a year to survive, and if a tiger has to share space with cows and people, the conflict between tiger and man will be eternal and perennial, detrimental to both. They argue that the areas falling within the reserves - barely 1 per cent of the country's land area - should be made inviolate and people living within these areas must be relocated. This, they say, is the only way to resolve the issue and save the tiger.

But the Task Force report argues that nearly half of the tiger population, in fact, lives outside the reserves. It also points out that several families from the 80 villages near the reserves, which were relocated in the past, have returned to the forests. This, the conservationists say, is because of the failure of the resettlement schemes and the way they were implemented. According to conservation and wildlife film-maker Shekar Dattatri (The Hindu, August 13, 2005), a decentralised process, with realistic budgets and involving good local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and the handholding of the settlers until they find their feet outside the reserve areas can save the tigers and improve the lives of the people.

The Task Force report, while agreeing that relocation of all forest dwellers is the ideal solution, wonders where the funds would come from, particularly considering that 1,500 villages (66,516 families) still lie within the reserve areas and hardly 80 villages (2,904 families) have been relocated in the past 30 years. At the government-stipulated norm of Rs.1 lakh to relocate a family, the cost works out to Rs.665 crores plus land cost (Rs.11,508 crores at an enhanced rate of Rs.2.5 lakh for a family, including the land cost, which will be Rs.9,645 crores). Contrast this with the Rs.373 crores spent on Project Tiger by both the Central and the States governments in the past 30 years.

Conservationists point to such reserves as the Bhadra in Karnataka as good relocation projects, which can be emulated. The report, however, stresses the fact that the Bhadra reserve had spent Rs.8.3 lakhs (including the land cost) to relocate each family. While even Rs.1 lakh to relocate one family is hard to put together, it is difficult to imagine how the country can set aside funds at Rs.8.3 lakh a family for the 1,500 villages located within the reserve areas. Apart from the money, the administration and logistics of relocation are crucial factors, particularly as hardly any land is available for relocation, the report says.

Conservationists argue that the welfare of the communities living inside the forests cannot be ensured by a one-size-fits-all solution. There is a need to devise pragmatic, area-specific solutions that take into account the aspirations of the local people as well as the precarious situation of the reserve areas.

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