Recently submitted report says in India, forests are not wilderness but also the habitats of people
Chennai, August 9, 2005: India is protecting its tigers against all odds; the biggest threat to the tiger today is not poaching per se, but a deadly combination of the poachers’ guns and the growing anger of people who live in and around tiger habitats, says Joining the Dots, the report which the Tiger Task Force submitted recently to prime minister Manmohan Singh. The key recommendations of the report (see Action to be taken…) have already been accepted by the prime minister.
Task Force chairperson Sunita Narain, speaking to the media in Chennai today, quoted from the report’s assessment: “While the good news is that not every tiger reserve in India is facing a Sariska-type crisis, it is also clear that a Sariska-type crisis haunts every protected area in India. The tiger is under attack from poachers, miners and other exploitative activity. Worse, it is also under siege from the people who co-inhabit its land, who have never benefited from conservation and continue to face daily harassment. In these circumstances, if the defences are down, protection will fail. Like it did in Sariska. The challenge is to ensure that the siege can be lifted so that tigers can survive.”
The Task Force has recommended a series of actions – from the setting up of the wildlife crime bureau and strengthening of the criminal provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 to convict poachers, to institutional reform and strategies of coexisting with people.
The five-member Task Force was constituted in April 2005, following the shocking disappearance of tigers from Sariska tiger reserve in Rajasthan (for the terms of reference and composition of the Task Force, please visit http://projecttiger.nic.in/TTF2005/index.html).
Can tigers and humans coexist?
The dissent note from one Task Force member, included in the report, primarily concerns the issue of coexistence: humans and tigers living together. In her response to the dissent note, the chairperson of the Task Force explains that the fact is the country has no choice in this matter. She says the report, in fact, outlines strategies in which areas will be made ‘inviolate‘ for the tigers; there have to be other areas where people and tigers will have to coexist. The basis of this strategy is the data the Task Force has collected on the numbers of people who have been relocated from reserves and those that remain inside. The Tiger Task Force has placed this data in the public domain for the first time.
“The facts are devastating,” says the chairperson in her response to the dissent note. In the last 30 years, only 80-odd villages have been relocated from all 28 reserves. There are another 1,500 existing inside, of which 250 are within core areas of tiger reserves, which must be relocated. Relocating them will cost Rs 660 crore at the minimum, in terms of the meagre relocation package government works with today, and without accounting for land costs. If this is taken into account, then the estimated cost is Rs 11,000 crore. What is suggested is a time-bound programme to identify those villages that must be relocated because they are located inside crucial tiger habitats. It is also suggested that, unlike the past, this relocation must be done speedily and sensitively, with careful consideration of the needs of people.
But the report says that there is no way, given the past track record and the logistical hurdles of relocation, that all villages can or will be relocated. In this case, the country has no choice but to make peace with the communities that share the tiger’s home. If not, we will lose the ‘war of conservation’, tiger by tiger. This must be done in a variety of ways – from “preferential shares in tourism, to collaborative management involving communities”. There is no other way to secure the tiger’s future.
The Task Force recommends that tigers must be reintroduced into this crucial habitat in the Aravalli, which is today under threat from miners. But this must only be done after corrective action has been taken to ‘fix’ the problems. The Task Force assessment of what happened in Sariska points to:
i. Complete breakdown in the internal management system of the park;
ii. Faulty and fudged system to count the number of tigers, as a result of which tigers were disappearing in the reserve but appearing in the census reports of the park authorities;
iii. Complete breakdown in the relationship between villagers and the park management. The latter talks about relocation, but little has been done. The one village that was relocated has come back, because the work was done shoddily. People face daily harassment because they are treated as illegal trespassers in their own land. In this scenario, they are friends of the poachers, not the tiger.
All this must change, says the report. Relocation of key villages needs to be done after full consultation with people. The remaining villages must be given the benefits of conservation. There must be reciprocal arrangements between villagers and tiger managers so that, in return for protection, they get livelihood benefits.
More guns and guards?
The Task Force has analysed data from across the country to understand what needs to be done to increase protection of tigers. It finds that the current approach of guns, guards and fences is simply not the solution. Sariska and Ranthambore, both important reserves that have been in the news lately for tiger losses, are cases in point.
On protection, Sariska has spent an astounding Rs 1 crore on every tiger (presuming the reserve had 22 tigers) in the last 25-odd years. In comparison, the rest of the reserves, on average, spent roughly Rs 24 lakh per tiger over the same period. In other words, Sariska has invested Rs 2.58 lakh per sq km of its area, as compared to Rs 1 lakh on an average that has been spent in other reserves. But still the tigers have gone. (see table below)
Comparison of money spent area-wise in Sariska to the country’s average
Average of all reserves
Annual average area-wise fund allocation in tiger reserves from inception (Rs lakh per sq km
Ranthambhore has, similarly, not lacked funds. The Rajasthan Armed Constabulary guards its territory. It has fenced its borders. But the ‘war of conservation’ here continues, and tigers are the losers. The fact is that people who live around this reserve have never benefited from it, but have lost their livelihood and grazing grounds. But others have gained. The Task Force has estimated Rs 22 crore is the annual turnover of the top 21 hotels near the park. The problem is that since some conservationists have interests in this business, the anger of people gets intensified for they see the tiger being protected for a few, against the interests of all.
What has to be done then?
The detailed recommendations of the Tiger Task Force aim to do the following:
The action agenda is comprehensive, but it is within reach. It is clear that there is no quick-fix solution to tiger protection, says the report.
Given the urgency of the situation, the report was completed within the three-month time period allotted to the Task Force. Said Narain: “Our effort has been to listen to and incorporate the views of as many concerned people as possible from across the country. It is essential that informed knowledge drives the process of conservation.” She adds the problem with tiger conservation is that it has become the ‘exclusive’ preserve of a few. This must change, as the tiger needs all the friends today.
Action to be taken on the basis of the Tiger Task Force report
It is clear that what has happened in Sariska has created enormous public concern. There is a felt need to take action urgently and decisively. The report offers a comprehensive agenda for action. But even as the report is being looked at by the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and the process is on to implement its recommendations, it would be important to take some steps to move ahead.
The steps which could be considered are:
1. Revitalise the National Board for Wildlife and/or request the prime minister to head the steering committee of Project Tiger (in the early 1980s, Indira Gandhi had headed this body). This can be done for the next two years, during which time the recommendations of the Task Force can be implemented and steps taken to involve state chief ministers in this work.
2. Convert the Project Tiger directorate into a statutory authority under the MoEF. This will give it greater autonomy and ability to coordinate with state governments.
3. Create the wildlife crime bureau immediately under the MoEF. The Task Force has suggested a smaller organisation, which will be more effective in working with states and the CBI, which will handle special cases.
4. Do the next census (planned for November 2005) of tigers and habitat using the new methodology, suggested by MoEF and endorsed by the Tiger Task Force. Present independent audit report to the Parliament in six months, which will rate state performance on different criteria.
5. Finalise the plan for relocation of villages from key tiger habitats within one year, with its financial and logistical implications.
6. Prepare the plan for coexistence. This is to be done by each tiger reserve within one year so that benefits of conservation can be shared with local communities.
7. Share the benefits of tourism with local communities using the recommendations of the Task Force.
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