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Leave the tigers alone

What do tigers need? That is the question. Definitely not tribals, forest dwellers, or any human beings to interact with. And definitely not...

Written by Valmik Thapar |
June 20, 2005

What do tigers need? That is the question. Definitely not tribals, forest dwellers, or any human beings to interact with. And definitely not sermons by social activists and ecologists. And neither livestock or crop fields or bullock carts or endless human beings on foot after forest produce. And not illegal miners or encroachers or even tourists. Or even legislations like The Tribal Bill which would provide land to hundreds of thousands of families. In fact such a Bill would kill tigers.

Tigers do not breed in co-existence with human beings. They need inviolate spaces, and so do the deer and the boar and the gaur. It is this prey of the tiger that eats the grass and grows in population, and then the tiger has enough so it starts to increase its population. It is these essential basics that must be understood by human rights activists. It is then that tiger populations will rise or are maintained at healthy levels.

If we track back to the 1970s, the early tiger reserves were full of villages, be it in Ranthambhore or Kanha or any other area. We know that after many of the villages were relocated, the ungulates flourished and the tiger numbers also shot up. Forests became viable enough for tigers to breed in. By the late 1980s, the population had risen to 4,000 from 1800 in the early ’70s.

From 1975 to 2005, I have followed the story of Ranthambhore’s tigers. I have witnessed the population rising from 12 to 14 when I first went there to 50 in 1987. This is fact not fiction, and all due to village relocation. There are endless records that reveal the same from Nagarahole in the South, or Manas in the North East.

It is now proven across the world that human activity destroys tiger habitats, and in 2005, the population dynamics are such that the tiger has no chance. As areas get more and more disturbed, the tiger vanishes, as we have seen in Sariska. And there are many more Sariskas waiting in the line. If we want tigers to flourish they cannot co-exist with forest dwellers. This is not some cosy relationship that can be romanticised.

So what do we need to do? We must decide that we want 50,000 sq kms of habitat for tigers. Or more. We already have 34,000 sq kms in our tiger reserves. This could look after 2,000-plus tigers if we are lucky. We then make sure that all the villages inside are relocated by giving the people the best deal that money can buy. This habitat must then be managed by hand-picked men from the Indian Forest Service — hand-picked down to the rangers, foresters and forest guards. Something along these lines exists in Kanha and Kaziranga.

The job at hand is to protect the land of the tiger like never before. It is in this mission that the fringe area population can be engaged in jobs connected with protection, water and soil conservation and other forest-related jobs. This is how local people will play a role in keeping tiger landscapes inviolate. This will play the role of creating and increasing forest wealth. Income generation can take place from tourism if permitted. Local people need to participate with the management in the day-to-day decision-making process in order to keep the area disturbance free and inviolate. This is where the challenge lies.

Why all this? Because tiger biology teaches us that there is no other way. Wildlife scientists across the world from Siberia to Sumatra, from India to Cambodia, have all reached the same conclusion. This is again a simple fact. It is not a matter for debate. Tiger populations increase without human beings around. We have a vast tiger crisis. This is not the time for fiddling with cuddly tribal-tiger friendly ideologies that make no practical sense to what the tiger needs to survive. The mission at hand is what the tiger needs and not what the forest dweller needs.

We could create an environment for forests to co-exist with people but in non-tiger areas. It is these non-tiger, non-wildlife areas that can be used to create new models for co-existence between man and forest. Livelihood needs of the forest dwellers in the forests of India and from them cannot be enjoined with the needs of wildlife. There are two separate paths to be followed if we are talking about use.

Rich tiger and wildlife areas have to be inviolate and human livelihood needs will have to connect to non-wildlife forest areas, and there are millions of hectares of them. And all this if you want to save tigers.

So in any strategy for saving wild tigers we have to discuss the tiger’s future without mixing it with the livelihood issues of forest dwellers. There is no connection between the two. The tiger’s livelihood is dependent on the absence of people. If you force people to live with tigers, man-animal conflicts increase tremendously, grazing livestock get killed, tigers then get poisoned, man-eating can start, and a vicious cycle begins till the last tiger is wiped out. Don’t forget Sariska.

And with this conflict come an enormous amount of violations against forest and wildlife laws. I think that in the last five to seven years across India, there are at least 3,000 to 4,000 cases of poaching, illegal felling, and other offences commited by forest dwelling communities and tribals. This endless process of criminalisation is of no use to no one. You can’t right the ‘‘wrong’’ by giving tribals land or change the laws to suit them. That would be sheer stupidity. To legislate the rights of forest dwellers on forests is only possible in non-tiger areas or non-wildlife rich areas or in areas that we decide tigers are not required. If we want to save tigers the humans, all of them without exception, need to be engaged in maintaining inviolate tiger habitats. If we want to save tigers, then this is the fact we must reach consensus on. There is just no other way.

Let us not forget that the Java, Bali, Caspian, and now even the south Chinese tiger in all likelihood have gone extinct because of excessive human use and interference in the tiger’s landscape, which resulted in sharp falls in the prey species that in the end triggered the tiger’s extinction. These processes have been documented in great detail over the last century. We must learn from them so that the same mistakes are not made. Glib statements that tigers can co-exist with people can kill tigers especially when these statements enter policy.

Let me conclude with a statement by Dr RS Chundawat, one of our top tiger scientists after his eight-year study on the tigers of Panna, ‘‘The single most important finding to emerge from our work to date has been the importance of the watercourses and watering sites in this forest type as critical habitat for tigers. If small reserves such as Panna are to sustain their tiger populations then they must include as much of the water course as possible in a disturbance-free zone, so that tigers can hunt wild ungulates and rear their cubs undisturbed. What is urgently needed in Panna is the creation of at least two more disturbance-free mini core areas in Balaiya Seha and the Ken river valley. This requires removing 4,000 people from the reserve; without this the future of the tiger population in Panna is very bleak.’’

This was written in 1999 and little happened to remove human disturbance. The park is in a mess and many of its tigers are dead. I hold little hope of recovery. So if we want to save tigers then we need people-free landscapes, otherwise there is no hope in hell.

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