New Delhi: A law that seeks to confer the right to land and other resources on forest dwellers is a challenge to the government to prove that its creation of about 600 national parks and other wildlife sanctuaries had sufficiently scientific grounds.
The tiger, which carries the torch for the cause of wildlife conservation in India, exists in just 36 of these protected areas. The others are home to elephants and rhinos, the more glamorous vanguards of conservation, and a variety of animal life, including snow leopards, black bucks and wild asses, turtles and ghariyals.
Survival at stake: Millions of people live in or around the forest areas, living off their produce and water and using them as grazing grounds. Padmaparna Ghosh / Mint
Evidence that a scientific rationale existed for creating these national parks and animal sanctuaries is crucial to designate them “inviolate”, or free of human habitation, as planned by the ministry of environment and forests.
The so-called Forest Rights Act of 2006, which the government is trying to implement now, requires the evidence to legitimize any moves to shift human settlements from forest areas. The law seeks to confer on tribals and other forest dwelling communities the rights to land and resources they have lived off for generations.
Tiger parks have already been declared inviolate in a move that has sparked a conflict in some areas, pitting the cause of wildlife conservation against the rights of forest dwellers who may be required to shift out.
“The forest department has a history of protecting areas by locking people out,” says Mahesh Rangarajan, a historian of conservation and ecology. “Though not all protected areas lack science, a lot of them were declared so with enormous ad hocism.”
Does India have a logical and fair protection regime for both biodiversity and people? Which species are critical enough to legitimize the relocation of locals in areas where economic value is key for villagers and an orchid may be more important to a scientist? Those questions are still being asked more than 40 years after India started protecting areas for forest and wildlife conservation.
Can’t be utopian
“The fixed idea of conservation on a legal basis is not feasible,” says R. Sukumar, professor of elephant biology and conservation at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. “In reality, we can and should change some boundaries (of protected areas) and ease conflicts. Himachal Pradesh has denotified four wildlife sanctuaries.”
“We can’t be utopian here,” he adds. “Science is just a part of the answer and you have to understand what is feasible.”
Some scientists maintain that the 81,000 sq. km under protection is the bare minimum required for the cause of conservation. “I don’t agree that too much area has been set out for conservation,” says K. Ulhas Karanth, one of India’s leading tiger scientists. “Today, the tiger, globally, is left with only 7% of its original range area, compared to 300 years ago. We are talking about a species whose area has shrunk by more than 90%. But the selection of areas (for tiger reserves) might not have been very correct.”
A little more than one-fifth of India’s land area is covered by forests, according to the Forest Survey of India. Just 4% of the land is protected area. Millions of people, including many tribal communities, live in or around the forest areas, living off their produce and water and using them as grazing grounds.
“In the Indian context of protection, every square kilometre has always had a history of human use,” says Ravi Chellam, director and senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. “And we copied our protection regime from the temperate countries, doing very little to adapt it (to local conditions),” he says. “We definitely need to debate its consonance with socio-economic concerns and PA (protected area) management.”
Chellam says that the science of conservation, as it is known today, didn’t exist when India started notifying protected areas. “Whatever wilderness existed then and was available for conservation was protected,” he says. “PAs today are making the most of a bad deal.”
But some scientists say that the mistakes of the past are being corrected. “Forty years have passed, yes,” says Sukumar. “And things have been rectified quite a bit. Earlier reserves were notified as such for larger mammals, which mostly exist in tropical deciduous forests, and these are the only areas which ended up getting protected. But India is diverse, with 16 major biomes (ecosystems), and certain states have declared reserves in other types of biomes as well.”
India, for the outside world, has always been the land of tigers and elephants. And wildlife conservation has largely been about the big mammals, too. Tigers, elephants and lions are known as the flagship species, which serve as indicators of the general health of an ecosystem.
In the 1970s, India launched Project Tiger — aimed at tiger conservation in specially constituted reserves — after a 1972 census showed that the beast’s numbers had dwindled to 1,827, from as many as 40,000 at the start of the century. In 1992, it began Project Elephant for the protection of elephants, their habitat and corridors.
The conservation of big mammals, or megafauna, might receive more land, attention and money, but it also indirectly helps smaller wildlife. “Tigers, lions and elephants are large vertebrates, therefore need more land and thus help protect a larger habitat,” says Chellam.
Elephants don’t really care about protected areas. “PAs don’t mean anything to the elephant, as large numbers exist outside. For elephant conservation, the landscape needs to be protected, which is under process in Project Elephant,” says Sukumar.
In Orissa, for instance, elephant populations are highly dispersed, making conservation difficult. “There has to be a proper land use policy. (In Orissa) we need a map of all resources (minerals), a map of forest cover and an elephant population map. Then we need to evolve a plan on what are the areas worth keeping, or can be conserved. The rest should be turned over to development,” he added.
While developmental activities — such as mining, industries, roads and power generation projects — are considered impediments to protecting wildlife, human pressure on forest resources is another.
And just as one conservation model cannot be used across species, the same is true of the effects of human presence. While tigers might need inviolate spaces to survive, others might not. Sarus cranes, an endangered species, exist and nest mostly in agricultural marshlands. Etawah in Uttar Pradesh has a long history of coexistence between farmers and cranes.
Now, with all reserves populated by tigers having been declared critical habitat, it is the turn of other species. Critical or not, wildlife and forest conservation has been and will continue to be pitted against development and growth needs.
But a delicate concurrence among stakeholders that policy, science and economics have to work together bodes a good beginning to a sorely needed reassessment of past and future strategies of wildlife management, conservationists say.
Offering incentives for conservation to locals also helps. The Nature Conservation Foundation, in partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust, for instance, has been experimenting with community-based management of human-snow leopard conflicts in the remote higher Himalayan landscape. In these efforts, the group has involved local communities in Spiti in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh to assist in greater protection of snow leopards and their prey, and a community-run livestock insurance programme that offsets losses stemming from attacks by snow leopards or wolves.
“Wildlife conservation in a country like ours, and indeed in most other parts of the world, is a lot about economics, particularly of local communities,” says Charudutt Mishra, director of science and conservation, Snow Leopard Trust, and founder trustee of the Nature Conservation Foundation. “We as a society need to ask ourselves what price we are willing to pay for economic development, on the one hand, and wildlife conservation, on the other. Both are essential, and there is no easy answer.”
This is the last of a three-part series on tiger reserves. The first, on the man-animal conflict, appeared on Tuesday, and the second, on Tamil Nadu’s Kani tribe’s struggle to prove its right to forest land and resources, was carried on Wednesday.