The Bandipur National Park is a long narrow tiger reserve. Twenty-five thousand families share its 180 km border with wild animals. One lakh twenty five thousand villagers depend on the forest for survival. Over 50,000 cattle use the jungle for fodder. Each family cut around 8 kilograms of fuel-wood from the forest each day. That’s almost 2.5 tonnes of firewood per family per year. It was taking a huge toll on the park. But forest guards looked the other way. Most of them are locals and knew the villagers had no other option. As villagers cut into the forest, its rightful inhabitants came out. Elephants, wild pigs and deer raided fields to satiate hunger. And where its prey went, the tiger followed. “One village near the Bhadra National Park had 17 buffaloes killed by a tiger. The villagers killed it. You can’t blame them for protecting their livestock,” says M.D. Madhusudan, director, National Conservation Foundation (NCF).
Similar conflicts took place in Bandipur. In response, the forest department fenced off some farmers’ lands and then dug huge trenches so that wild animals couldn’t cross over into the fields. They installed a couple of bore wells too.
The villagers that populate the outskirts live on the margins of society with no resources to turn to. Their cattle are the main source of livelihood. The trenches that kept out wild animals also kept their cattle from the forest. So within a couple of weeks, all the trenches had been filled and the fencing was taken down for other uses. On their part, the forest department saw the villagers as ungrateful people who did not want to improve their livelihood. They threw up their hands in exasperation and the tiger population in the country dipped dramatically to 1,411 in 2006. All the good work done through the Seventies and Eighties to boost the tiger population to 4,200 had come to a naught.
The NCF took up the gauntlet and approached the relatively better of farmers first. It offered to install electric fences for their farms. About 100 families agreed. So the NCF went ahead and spent Rs. 8 lakh to fence off eighty acres of land. In return for this, each of the families was asked to contribute Rs. 1,500 to build a corpus to be used in the future. They also have a pay for maintaining the fence and employ somebody to ensure there are no breaches.
“That way, elephants and other herbivores from the forest couldn’t eat into their crops,” explains Madhusudan. What, you wonder, do elephants, farmers and electric fences have to with saving the tiger? Answer: Everything.
And it shows on Malegowda’s face, the headman of Maguveena village. Turmeric, ginger and chillies are in full bloom. He says, “Now that I have these fences, I can rotate crops. The borewells are finally in use. I had taken a loan of Rs. 4 lakh last year. I’ve already repaid Rs. 3 lakh.” But the biggest change is that he has swapped 20 cattle for a pair of bullocks and a pair of milch animals. The bullocks are ploughing a corner of the field and the milch animals are grazing in another part. He grows his own fodder now and there is no need for the forest — essentially, tiger country. Because he doesn’t push into the tiger’s boundaries, the tiger doesn’t push his boundaries either.
If this model can be implemented around tiger reserves across the country, a large part of the tiger’s problem can be solved. But, says NCF’s Madhusudan, “This is by no means a fool-proof method. It has worked so far but we can’t go ahead with it unless we get the numbers.”
There’s a similar experiment under way at Bandipur. Twenty five thousand kilos of fuelwood were being cut from Bandipur every day. The forest was fast getting depleted and groundwater levels had reduced to 90 feet from 350. Even the threat of force didn’t deter the villagers. Most didn’t mind spending a night in jail. In any case, with over one lakh villagers entering the forest daily, there weren’t enough jails to accommodate all the culprits.
Enter, D. Yatish Kumar, deputy conservator of forests for Bandipur. He had successfully relocated tribals from the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in 2003, something the Centre hadn’t been able to do for 27 years. He had figured then the only way people would stop entering forests is if they were given an alternate source of energy.
Kumar joined forces with Krupakar and Senani, two wildlife photographers, to start a non-profit organisation, Namma Sangha in 2004 that provided people with LPG gas. P. Suresh, a local who had grown up with the photographers was made the public face. “I know the problems these people suffer from. I sold gas to them on two fronts, health and time. They would stop getting respiratory problems and they could use the time they spent in the forests to be more productive,” he says.
The pitch worked. Namma Sangha tied up with Indian Oil Corporation to provide cooking gas to the 25,000 families at a subsidy. “The first round of funding we got was from well-to-do people in urban areas. Initially, the villagers were afraid of the cylinder. Now, we have 17,000 families under our project,” explains Suresh. Project Tiger donated 11,000 stoves for the project. The villages’ footprint on the forest has come down tremendously.
With the time they saved from not going into the forests, a lot of villagers have been able to take advantage of the National Rural Employment Act and work extra hours. They make an extra Rs. 1,000 a month. That’s a huge amount in these parts. They have begun to swap their yoke animals for milch animals. Suresh has started the Melkamanahalli Milk Producers Co-Op Association. They say they sell milk to the Mysore Dairy Union now. “We just had to give them a headstart. Once they saw the benefits, they re-invested on their own,” says Suresh.
Science and Tigers
As villagers learn to let go of the park and its forests, the number of herbivores has increased and this can only mean good news for tigers, believes Ullas Karanth, one of India’s leading tiger scientists and director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), India. “You won’t see tigers reviving in Arunachal Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand anymore. They suffer from the Empty Forest Syndrome. All the prey has been hunted out,” says Karanth.
That is why it is important to preserve high prey density areas like Kaziranga (Assam), Nagarhole-Bandipur (Karnataka) and Kanha (Madhya Pradesh). These are the breeding grounds for tigers. And Karanth is adamant that science is the way forward to conserve tigers. He raised objections to Project Tiger’s census method of counting pugmarks, to ascertain the number of tigers back in 1986. Sariska Tiger Reserve officials in Rajasthan counted the pugmarks of three tigers as 24 tigers to fool the government for a long time. By 2004, poaching had wiped out tigers. “Sariska exploded in 2004 and Sunita Narain’s Tiger Task Force report rubbished pugmarks,” he says.
Karanth’s technique of camera trapping and sampling has proved to be a much more effective tool. He sets up 120 camera points in the Rajiv Gandhi National Park in Nagarhole in areas where tigers are most likely to visit. Scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research have devised a method of identifying tigers from their droppings. The numbers today are more accurate and officials cannot fudge numbers as easily.
WCS works with many institutions across India: Living Inspiration for Tribals, Centre for Wildlife Studies, National Centre for Biosciences and the Kudrumukh Wildlife Foundation. “We have cultivated them since 20 years. They’ve been exposed to science and they think rationally, not emotionally,” says Karanth.
Karanth also says the fear of tigers getting extinct is a bit far-fetched. “Tigers are a very fecund species. They can take a lot of losses. We were talking about tigers getting extinct by 2000. But, they have survived. A tigress has 15 reproduction cycles. So she replaces herself 15 times.”
Year of the Tiger
But fifteen reproduction cycles may not be enough next year. Next year is the Year of the Tiger in China, the world’s largest market for tiger products. Everything from tiger whiskers to penises to claws to bones are in huge demand because they are used in medicinal products. One kilo of tiger bones is worth Rs. 1,00,000 in the international market.
“There is huge poaching pressure in India right now,” says Belinda Wright, executive director, Wildlife Protection Society of India. “74 tigers have been found dead between June and November this year, 26 of them in Karnataka that has the highest mortality rate this year,” she says. Both Wright and Karanth sit on the board of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the next stage of evolution for Project Tiger.
The Environmental Investigative Agency conducted an undercover operation in China earlier this year and they confirmed the worst. China has over 5,000 tigers in captivity. Karanth calls them ‘tiger farms’. The EIA says there’s going to be very high demand for wild tigers from India.
Says P.K. Sen, former director Project Tiger (1996-2001) says, “We are very deficient in controlling poaching. There is a 40-50 percent vacancy in the department. There are barely been any recruitment in the last 20 years.”
It is not for lack of funds though. The government has earmarked Rs. 650 crore for tiger conservation in the 11th Plan, of which it plans to deploy Rs. 240 crore this year. That’s a huge increase from the Rs. 150 crore it has marked in the 10th Plan.
The World Bank had released Rs. 286 crore under its India Eco-Development Project between 1997 and 2003 in seven national parks. But this huge influx of money also attracted people who were not interested in conservation and were out to make a quick buck. A lot of conservationists had opposed the project. But the government of India passed it.
Suddenly the forest department had to multi-task. From being protectors and enforcers of the law, they were then responsible for resettlement of tribals who lived in the forest, eco-tourism and developing infrastructure for forests. While this meant more work, it also meant more ways to siphon off funds.
The random ditches outside Bandipur suddenly got meaning. Labourers were employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to dig ditches under the guise of ‘rainwater harvesting’. The number of ditches dug and labourers employed can easily be inflated. Worse, photographs taken by Sanjay Gubbi of WCS show the same has been done in the interiors of the forest after getting rid of forest vegetation. Huge water tanks at costs of up to Rs. 2 crore a tank so that animals have a place to drink.
Acacia trees, alien to India, have been planted across huge areas. The tree soaks a lot of water and is inedible to Indian herbivores. Why it has been planted is anyone’s guess. “All this just throws animal habits out of gear. If you leave forests on their own, they will take care of themselves,” says Gubbi.
In 2003, an audit was conducted by the Karnataka Lokayukta (state ombudsman) because the NGO, Wildlife First, lodged a complaint against the misuse of funds in Nagarhole. After surveying a partial area, the Lokayukta found 12,000 timber trees had been cut and smuggled, the number of poachers had increased and losses were estimated at Rs. 6 crore in the surveyed area. The project was terminated and the World Bank got a lot of bad publicity.
A major problem behind the failure of the projects is that both the World Bank and the government conducted their own audits that failed to throw up any problems. “This is like the accountants of a company evaluating its financials. Mistakes will be covered,” says Karanth.
But this is not to say the re-development programme has been a complete failure. WCS in partnership with the forest department has relocated 346 impoverished tribal families (out of a total of 1550) across 55 settlements in the past three years at Nagarhole.
Eleven women are learning to sew in the community hall at 1 pm in Sollepure village. There are no men in the village, they are all working. Each family got three acres of land and Rs. 10 lakh when they decided to relocate. They have got ration cards, election cards and area also members of the Panchayat. Unlike earlier, now there is a reason for the local politician to listen to them. They are a vote bank and that gives them extra power.
“I don’t want to go back to the forest. What is there for me? Here, my children have a chance to educate and live a better life,” says Bharati, president of the women’s self-help group in Sollepure.
Ironically though, even as the forest department is trying to get people out of forests, the hospitality industry is trying to get tons of people in. The Oberoi Group run the Oberoi Vanyavilas in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan. Taj Hospitality has tied up with CC Africa to set up a tiger circuit across Central India. But India works differently from Africa. If you deal with one African chieftain, you get huge areas of land for reserves. African reserves are privately owned and run for thousands for kilometres. You can drive hundreds of miles before seeing a single human being. The empty land in Africa can accommodate a large number of tourists, whereas India is already under pressure from the local population. When premium hotels offer five star luxuries to their guests, the imprint on the forest is huge. Both companies were unavailable for comment.
It’s not just the luxury hotels who are eyeing eco-tourism. Some conservationists have also entered the hospitality sector. They bring their conservation experience into play while running these resorts and try to reduce the impact of tourism. Nanda and Latika Rana run the Singinawa Jungle Lodge in Kanha, Madhya Pradesh and have been involved with tiger conservation since 20 years. They have acquired 58 acres of land in the forest and set up shop in 2006. They say they have used only four acres for their camp. “The rest was degraded land and we have converted that into grasslands. We grow our own trees and use them for wood,” says Nanda. They claim over 70 percent of their 40-strong staff is local and they procure local produce.
While there are critics of eco-tourism, there are also states that would give anything to attract tourists. But tourists wouldn’t dream about stepping into conflict states like Orissa and the North-East for tiger tourism.
There were 29 planned Naxal attacks in the Simlipal National Park, Orissa in March this year. A special team by the Central Task Force that included Madhusudan was dispatched to assess the situation there. The report was shocking. Almost all infrastructure was damaged. Bridges were burnt, buildings destroyed, modes of communication taken out. There was one forest building still standing that the remaining guards used as bunkers and kitchen. They couldn’t go into the forest since the Naxals would target them. Field director Manoj Nair was away completing a course at the academy in Dehradun. The top brass of the department stayed away. But, the guards and rangers stayed back trying to do their job. “I came back in June to resume charge. The guards were back on duty. They were still conducting patrols and venturing into deep forest,” says Nair. Nair stayed at the forest for three months completing his tenure and raising the morale of the guards. They were just happy that someone from the higher-ups was here as a show of confidence.
With officers and guards like the ones at Simlipal and a strong conservation lobby in the country, there is still hope. But the government has to find a way for its policies to better converge with ground realities.
(This story appears in the 18 December, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)