Tiger, Tribals and others like us

For the last few weeks there is this big debate going on in India between tiger conservationists and tribal activists. The more notable one worth reading are by Pankaj Sekhsaria of Kalpavriksh and Sunita Narain of Centre for Science and Environment. The problem with tiger conservation is that it is much more complicated that it appears at first. There are too many factors involved. Besides there are more experts than wild tigers, many more. And since research on tigers is actively discouraged all these so called tiger experts (including dodos like me) have no scientific ground to stand on.

Some facts:

  • Right now tigers exist only in the most “economically” remote area of India.
  • Typically these are places with the people have the lowest socio-economic index, relatively lower population density than rest of India but are areas rich in natural resources.
  • Over half these areas (specially in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh etc) have huge political problems (eg naxalites etc).
  • The law and order situation is generally speaking very poor in all these areas.
  • Tigers exist in such areas because the population around did not kill them. This is a very important and most of us when talking about tiger conservation tend to ignore this.

As Dr. Ulhas Karanth rightly says destruction of habitat and prey is the most severe threat that tigers have been facing for the last century or so. This is what will ultimately get them. Poaching gets to be a threat only when the tiger numbers are so low that they were almost unviable. For instance all of us say that poachers killed 18 tigers in Sariska in one year and as a result all the tigers in Sariska were wiped out. Wrong. There were never more than 4 or 5 tigers in Sariska since the year 2000. By 2004 (the year when poachers wiped out tigers in Sariska) there were probably no ore than 2 or 3 tigers in Sariska.

In reserves like Simlipal killing of prey (for the tiger) species like deer, antelopes, wild pigs etc is widely accepted. Part of the reason for this is that bush meat has always been an important dietary supplement for the local population. Till about 50 to 60 years ago this did not make much of a difference to the forests health because the local population was very low and there was a lot of wildlife around Simlipal. With improvement in medical facilities the local population boomed. Which created more and more strain on the local resources including wildlife. This has now reached a crisis point .

Wild tigers are a huge source of revenue for India. I would estimate that they contribute something over Rs 15,000,000,000 per annum to the Indian economy just through tourism to 12 to 13 of the popular tiger reserves. This the turn over of airlines, transport companies, tour operators, Destination Management Companies, Accommodation providers, local Excursion agents, Shop keepers and various other service providers. This is a huge sum and small parts of it can finance conservation activities in the entire country. Besides this, there is a huge sum that comes through charities, NGOs etc. The problem with this huge sum is that the local villagers who live around the reserves do not get to see most of this money. For them life is barely above (or in most cases – below) subsistence level. Most of them feel that this is the price that they have to pay for not killing the forest around their home and to an extent they are correct.

In the long run tigers will survive only if a large chunk of the people who live around tiger reserves make a living out of the forests around them. Why should they be excluded from this pie?

The debate goes on and on and on. If you find someone who is genuinely interested in tiger conservation, do let me know.

4 thoughts on “Tiger, Tribals and others like us

  1. Well, aditya, as e.p.gee said (or was it corbett), “wildlife has few friends and many enemies”…
    We have been in touch about tigers and conservation and there will be a lot to talk about when I visit in December, but I had a few questions that fit well in the context of this post:

    1) Do the businesses at the reserves (such as your own lodge) employ locals?
    This is an obvious way for the local population to benefit from tourism. What fraction of the local population do you estimate find employment in tourism-related businesses at Ranthambhore? Is it negligible?

    2) Does the forestry department employ locals, and if not, then why not? I have traveled in Brazil, Costa Rica, where I came across local naturalists who have an incredible knowledge of the forests that they grew up in. They often only spoke the local language with a smattering of english, but this wasn’t necessarily a barrier.
    If the Mogiyas (for instance) have knowledge of the forests and are experts at tracking animals, then why can’t they be trained to work on the other side of the law — as vigilantes to track down poachers?

    3) I was wondering if anyone has carried out a survey among the local villages at Ranthambhore (or other reserves) to figure out what the locals really think about conservation. I gather there is a fair amount of hostility, but has anyone studied this formally to pin-point the grievances of the local population?

    4) Thanks for the link to Simlipal. I have been interested in finding out more about that park.

    I will be visiting several reserves in December and if anyone wants to talk to me, please get in touch. Aditya has my itinerary and briefly, I’ll be at Ranthambhore Dec.8-12, at Corbett Dec 13-16, Bandhavgarh Dec18-21 and Kanha Dec 21-24.

    Thanks! — Deepa

  2. Lets take it point by point:

    1) Most of the smaller Lodges around here have local staff. Like for instance we have about 85% local staff. The bigger (and more expensive) Lodges like Oberois etc hardly have any local staff. Besides it is slightly tough to define “local”. Most of the local people who benefit from tourism in Ranthambhore are either from Sawai Madhopur town and 5 villages that lie close to the town. The people from other 91 villages that lie around the national park hardly gain anything from tourism. This is partly due to government policy. They have only on gate open to tourists, while there are 4 other gates. If they opened these gates too the benefits of tourism will spread. They should freeze the number of people that visit the park but make sure that they enter from 4 or 5 different gates.

    The economy of the Sawai Madhopur town is largely dependent on tourism but the villages (except for 4 or 5) have no role to play in tourism.

    2) The majority of the forest guards are not locals. The Forest Department does employ locals as daily wage labour (the lowest wage earners in India). Most of the guides etc are from the Sawai Madhopur town and not from the villages.

    3) A few surveys have been carried out locally but these were very basic (to be polite to them) and came out with highly contradictory findings. No detailed study has ever been undertaken.

    Looking forward to our conversations when you are in Ranthambhore.


  3. Very well written Mr Singh. I totally agree with what you say. In Orissa, where I belong, tigers are left in a few areas (in very sparse densities) only because of the inaccessibility of the region and the cats’ exaggerated secretiveness due to constant human disturbance, which somewhat protects them from poaching. Things here are very bad for the big cats. Lets not even talk about non PAs. In Similipal Tiger Reserve, a park claimed to have 101 tigers in 3000 sq kms, one hardly ever comes across a pug mark or an alarm call. Kills and sightings are almost nil. The Department blames the lack of sightings on the terrain and density of foliage. In parks like Ranthambhore and Bandhavgarh, there is a hue and cry if one particular tiger is not seen for a while. Nothing of that sort happens here. There is absolutely no concept of tiger monitoring here… watchers will laugh at your face if you ask them to show you a tiger. The scariest part is, if something goes terribly wrong here, nobody will even know until its way too late…

    Poaching by locals has always been taken too lightly here. Poaching of wild boar and chital has almost never been considered a serious crime… its become an accepted part of village life here. Even the Forest Department doesn’t respond seriously to anything less than an elephant or big cat poaching. As you rightly pointed out in your article, this didn’t have much of an impact on the wildlife half a century ago. But now, with the human:wildlife ratio having drastically changed against wildlife, prey base has terribly fallen, making many thousand square kilometers of excellent potential tiger habitat unsuitable for big cats. In areas like the newly declared Satkosia Tiger Reserve, which have a struggling population of breeding tigers, there is increasing conflict with humans and poisoning of tiger kills has become naggingly frequent.

    I have noticed everywhere in the state, that the recruitment of locals in the Department has been limited to the daily wagers employed to clear forest roads seasonally, or the odd forest watcher. The reason behind this is the near absence of vision and interest in the upper rungs of the administration and immense corruption during recruitment of fresh staff. Usually, its the Forester’s nephew who gets a job as a guard or a watcher while the hapless local has to be content grazing cattle and endlessly pursuing the Department for a paltry compensation when his cow is killed by a tiger. People like these easily yield to poachers and timber smugglers.

    Orissa has vast potential for tiger conservation. Almost every district in the state has potential tiger habitat. Its ironic, that it took 11 pellets of buckshot by a “petty” poacher “who was only shooting deer” to shoot a tigress by “mistake” in Satkosia to give most wildlifers of the state (including this one) a chance to see their first live Orissan wild tiger. The key to ensure the success of such immense, relatively well connected wild tiger habitats, which span states like Orissa and Chhattisgarh, where indeed, the real future of the tiger lies, is first, to ensure proper management of parks- nurturing prey density, proper monitoring, etc. and then opening up parks to responsible wildlife tourism (the tourism usually seen here is more of picnicking and little or none of wildlife). The ‘sighting based’ tourism practiced in most successful parks of our country like Corbett, Bandhavgarh, Ranthambhore and Nagarhole has, without intention, become the biggest watchdog of our wildlife. In parks like Similipal and many others in Orissa, Andhra, Chhattisgarh, etc. where such tourism is not practiced, wildlife dies an unnoticed death. Secondly, once the tourist buck starts flowing in, locals have to be made stake holders in the success of the park- both as direct employees of the Department and also as indirect beneficiaries from conservation based commercial activities like tourism.

    Thanks for bringing this subject up. Hoping it rings the right bells in the administration and makes it act.

    Aditya C. Panda


  4. Dear Aditya,

    I think you hit the nail on the head. I have heard lot of bullshit from people (almost all the “armchair coffee table conservationists”) telling us that tigers are getting seriously disturbed by jeeps / photographers etc etc. There is nothing more disturbing for a wild animal than a bullet in the head and this does not happen in areas where there are tourist jeeps roaming around.

    Most reserves in India have a “core area” where “visitors are not allowed” so that “animals can move around in total freedom.” The fact is that most such areas do not have any wild animals alive. The Core areas in almost all the tiger reserves in India have very few animals while the tourist zone in the same reserve is teeming with animals.

    It is high time we admitted in public (and almost all the managers of wildlife reserves in India admit so in private) that as of right now it is only tourism that is saving wildlife in India. This may not be the most ideal solution but as of now it is the only solution.

    Bullets disturb a wild animal more than jeeps do. I think most wild animals will agree with this. Only the Project Tiger thinks otherwise.

    Keep up the good work.

    Aditya Singh

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