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Treating scientists like animals, and animals like fodder

Now that the Tribal Bill has been cleared, the animal versus people debate will start all over again. Most of the discussion will miss the c...

Written by Bahar Dutt |
December 3, 2005

Now that the Tribal Bill has been cleared, the animal versus people debate will start all over again. Most of the discussion will miss the central point: Our failure to protect fast diminishing wildlife is embedded in our failure to work with two categories crucial for conservation — wildlife scientists, and local people who live around wildlife-rich areas.

Wildlife scientists could potentially be the backbone of conservation practice, but the state has treated them with suspicion. Wildlife scientists are also whistle blowers. Raghu Chundawat, who has been studying tigers in Central India for the last decade, suddenly cannot go back to the National Park where he was doing his research. He has been harassed repeatedly by the state police ever since he reported the disappearance of 12 tigers from the National Park; his research permit too has been cancelled. There are as many as 18 wildlife scientists waiting for their research permits from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Their research could provide important answers on species and their habitat, but permissions are not being given by the State. Why? Well, who wants to know how many animal have been poached? Whistle-blowers are not welcome.

The second category we are absolutely clueless of working with for conservation are local people. Here too dogma and ideologies dominate. In fact around the world, the latest buzzword in wildlife conservation is a term referred to as ‘community based conservation’. In India our notions of working with communities still centre on providing ‘alternatives’ in terms of relocation of people outside wildlife-rich areas or providing compensations when a farmer’s crops are destroyed by wild elephants or his cattle lifted by leopards. Employing a tribal as a servant in an eco-tourism resort, or using him as a research assistant, are again unfortunate ways in which conservationists claim they are doing ‘community based conservation’ or have elicited the ‘participation of local communities’.

This short-sighted approach is based on a general attitude of mistrust about the abilities of local people to be actively involved in wildlife conservation. Community based conservation however is a much more complex process. It is best demonstrated when communities (and not individuals) or community based institutions take decisions and make active efforts to protect the wildlife and natural resources around them.

Examples of this approach abound in other countries. The Gran-Chaco National Park spread over nearly 3 million hectares in Bolivia is co-managed by the indigenous people who have prevented industries from being set up on their ancestral forests. In Tanzania over a 1,67,000 ha region is protected by the Suledo Forest Community where each village has divided its forests into discrete management zones and local environmental committees now patrol the forests. As a result of the Suledo Forest Community’s interventions, some of the 27 wildlife species found in the forest and many of the tree species in danger of becoming locally extinct have come back.

In India, an organisation called Kalpavriksh has documented over 300 sites across the country, with a number of endangered animals and birds such as the Blyth’s Tragopan, the Golden Langur, or Olive Ridley turtles being protected through community based initiatives. In each of these sites, the communities have a system of rules and regulations and customary laws which ensure protection. However, organising communities as allies for conservation cannot happen overnight, by simply ‘handing over’ all forests to people living around sanctuaries. There must be a long-term investment in community-based institutions. This is a process based on systems of rules about user-rights over the forest and responsibilities for protecting it. Sadly it has been written off in India before being implemented in its true form. But there is hope.

There are a number of young wildlife scientists who have refused to be involved in ideological debates and have shown that bridges can be built and new methods for conservation possible, whether it involves working with communities or the Forest Department. Scientists from the Nature Conservation Foundation have been working in Arunachal Pradesh with the Lisu tribals to declare no-hunting zones in the nearby forest. Someone else works with fishermen in Orissa against big trawling companies to protect the endangered Olive Ridley turtles. In north India, a colleague has been working in eastern Uttar Pradesh, using the landscape approach to conservation and involving upper and lower caste farmers for saving the endangered Sarus crane.

My own training in wildlife sciences was in behavioural ecology of an endangered Amazonian primate species. I soon moved to studying the resource dependency of local communities who hunt and use animals for their livelihood. Along with community members who are from the Jogi-Nath community we have been engaged in documenting their indigenous knowledge about various wild animals, particularly snakes. All these scientists are working to build allies for conservation using new methods and recognising the complexities of governance, caste and development which are the challenges to conservation practice.

Wildlife conservation thus needs more such scientists, not ideologists. As the Prime Minister calls for a number of meetings to give shape to a stronger and more coherent policy for saving wildlife, perhaps this is what needs to be kept in focus. ‘Mind the gap’ warn the signs as you get off the train at metro platforms. Bridge the gap, Mr. Prime Minister — between wildlife scientists and wildlife managers, and local people and the State.

The writer, a wildlife conservationist, belongs to neither the tribal nor the tiger lobby

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