Nagarahole national park, Karnataka: At sundown, as the air began to cool and the beasts came out of the shade, K. Ullas Karanth drove slowly through this sprawling park in southern India. Elephants nibbled on the grass. A sunbird dashed across the sky. Then, Karanth nearly froze in a start. “Tiger, tiger,” he whispered.
Just ahead, a large male lumbered across the path, stopping to turn and look at Karanth’s jeep and its passengers before continuing his languid march into the bush.
Ideal playground: A recent estimate shows that Nagarahole and its two neighbouring parks have one of the densest concentrations of tigers.
The research by Karanth, a wildlife biologist who runs the India programme of the Wildlife Conservation Society, suggests that this and its neighbouring nature reserve hold one of the largest concentrations of tigers in the world.
But to make these wilds healthy for the fabled tiger is a success 20 years in the making, with crusading forest officials driving out hunters and loggers and ultimately trying to resettle hundreds of families who have lived in these woods for generations.
That fact has earned Karanth as many enemies as friends. And it is raising an increasingly pressing question for this crowded nation of 1.1 billion people: What price should India pay to save its rapidly diminishing forests, and for whom — a trophy animal like the tiger, or its original inhabitants?
That debate has taken on new urgency with a long-contested law that came into effect this year granting formal land rights to those who have lived in the forest since 2005, including but not limited to the indigenous people known as tribals.
Advocates for forest people seized on the law as overdue redress for communities denied rights to their traditional domain since the British colonial era. Conservationists saw it as a threat to the country’s vanishing wildlife.
It is a debate that affects not only the tiger, which needs precisely what India has little of — large, empty swaths of land in which to roam and hunt — but also those who have shared these woods with them for generations.
Karanth insists that their presence inevitably produces “incompatible human uses” that leave tigers no chance to live: logging, gathering of forest produce and especially hunting. In the end, the government included in the land rights law a measure that allowed for the expulsion of settlements from areas deemed “critical wildlife habitats,” but with the explicit consent of villagers. Like many compromises, it left neither side happy.
With Karanth’s help, park officials here have driven out poachers, cracked down on cattle-grazing and pushed hundreds of villagers out of these woods. Today, the wild boar and deer are so plentiful in this 250 sq. mile park that Karanth calls it a “supermarket” for tigers. His research suggests that there are 60-80 tigers in the park, depending on breeding fluctuations.
The latest government-sponsored tiger census found Nagarahole and its two neighbouring parks to have among the densest concentrations of the estimated 1,400 tigers left in the Indian wilds. But that total is still fewer than half the number estimated five years ago. Since the report was issued in February, the government has ordered the creation of eight new tiger reserves, in addition to the existing 28.
Karanth surveys Nagarahole with the zeal of a purist. He sits in the spartan government-run forest lodge with the lights out, listening to the night sounds. He forbids talking in his jeep when he drives through the park. It disturbs the animals, he said. His ears are attuned to the screeches of langurs and peafowl which are often the most reliable signal that a tiger is near.
Spotting one, Karanth became a man possessed. As the big male crossed the road, he revved the engine, sped up the track, looped around and waited for the tiger to cross the next opening in the trees. “I know all their tricks by now,” he muttered. No sooner had he stopped the jeep, scaring off a pair of jungle fowl, than the tiger emerged again, marching across the path and disappearing behind the trees.
“This is a great place to be born a tiger,” he said. But it is perhaps less so to be born a man, woman or child. The relocation efforts here and in nearby parks that have helped revive the big cats have yielded mixed results for people, Karanth admits. Some families left the forest on their own years ago because they could no longer make a living there. Others left after the government offered land elsewhere.
Then there are those who refuse to leave. “It is we who brought up this forest,” snapped an old man named Kanchan, who belonged to a tribe of honey collectors and lived at the other end of the park. “It’s not their grandfather’s property. They don’t understand the value of the forest.”
Karanth, 59, who has aided relocation efforts here and in several nearby sanctuaries, said India can have room for its tigers and its people but the government must make it worthwhile for villagers to empty the national parks.
“I’m against any moving of people unless there is a positive improvement in their livelihoods,” he said. “If this happened in the ’50s and ’60s when India was starving, I would have said, fine, we don’t have room for tigers. Now we have 9% economic growth, and we don’t have room for tigers?”
The experience of Nagarahole over the last 20 years suggests that the problem is not as simple as whether villagers should make way for wildlife, but rather whether the government can offer them a better life if they do — namely land, water and work.
J.S. Bharati was born more than 30 years ago in the vanished hamlet of Kanthur. On a low-lying field where Karanth stood scanning the tree line for wildlife, her family grew rice and millet, battling the menace of elephants, until forest officials prohibited farming altogether and rigorously enforced bans on hunting and grazing. The family moved to a new cluster of mud-and-thatch homes, inside the park but along the main road, next to schools and a post office.
Today, she and her sister, Bagya cultivate only a small patch of pumpkins and beans in their yard. Bharati’s husband is a social worker in a town just outside the park. Bagya works on a nearby coffee estate. They cannot afford to rent a home outside the park. Good real estate has become expensive in India’s economic boom.
The sisters wonder how long they can hold on here, not because of pressure from forest guards, but for sake of opportunity. Bharati dropped out of school after the eighth grade because her parents had no money, and she wants her daughter, Prakriti, now in the seventh grade, to continue her education.
One day, she hopes, her daughter will have a government job. “I can’t ruin my daughter’s life the way I’ve ruined my life by not studying further,” she said. Bagya, for her part, was not optimistic. “Our kind of people,” she said, “continue to have trouble outside”.
Indeed, the road to relocation, despite good intentions, is paved with difficulties. There are unkept government promises. The buffaloes that come as part of a relocation package die of disease. Farming is a gamble anywhere — and here, even outside the park, there is the menace of elephants that trample crops, and sometimes people.
About a third of the 1,000 families who live inside Nagarahole Park have moved out in recent years. They were given boxy houses along the road and something they never had inside — legal title to land — but also problems they never had before.
J.K. Nagesh was a mahout, an elephant handler, inside the park who lost his job when he came down with tuberculosis. His land now lies fallow. He has no money to buy seed. His wife, Vasanthi, works on other people’s farms, and that is how they get by. His neighbours, a couple — Kamala and Bomma — who moved here five years ago, said they were divided about the move from the forest.
Kamala is still bitter about having to leave. “The forest grew because of us,” she said, recalling how she watched her father plant teak saplings and then sow crops in their shade. “Now we are being thrown out.” Her husband, Bomma, shook his head. He said he was happy to have legal claim to land and schools and hospitals in closer reach. “When I go to the forest now, I wonder why I was there for so long,” he said.
Kamala, sitting on her porch at twilight, reminded him of the new scarcities they face. The neighbourhood shares one well, and its water tastes foul. Electricity was promised when they moved, she said, but it still had not come.
Explaining their decision to leave the park, her husband shrugged and said, “We didn’t have anything to lose.”
Then as night settled over the hamlet, he put on a uniform and marched through the fields with a flashlight to peddle the one skill he had learned from living inside the park. On behalf of bigger, more prosperous farmers in the area, whose crops are frequently damaged by animals who range out of the forest, he stays up to chase elephants off the land.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES