What the reports on the increase in India’s tiger population do not include

23 January 2015

In a recent study conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India—affiliated with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change—the tiger population in the country’s reserves is recorded to have increased from 1411 in 2006 to 2226 in 2014. Given the fear of their possible extinction, this news was met with widespread jubilation when it was announced via a press release by Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister of the Environment and Forest, on Tuesday, 20 January 2015. However, a week earlier, the Hindustan Times carried a report indicating that the tiger population had only increased marginally, and that numbers had, in fact, reduced outside of protected zones. Another report that ran contrary to that of the Wildlife Institute of India, was published in the Hindu on 22 January. It stated that the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala is only home to 76 tigers as opposed to the 136 reported.

It is worth noting that the NDA government last year cleared proposals for diversion of forest land in the Kanha–Pench tiger corridor in Madhya Pradesh, among other protected areas, for development projects. In addition to the biodiversity that these proposed projects could put at risk, there’s another factor that receives less traction: that of the human cost of conservation movements, either by governments or private bodies. In his essay ‘The Authoritarian Biologist and the Arrogance of Anti-Humanism,’ published in The Ecologist in January 1997, Ramachandra Guha argues against the standard approach taken towards the conservation of tigers. In this excerpt from that essay, Guha talks about the human displacement at the Nagarhole National Park and tiger reserve, which forms part of the Mudumalai–Bandipur–Nagarhole–Wayanad complex and which the Wildlife Institute of India report claims “holds the world’s single largest tiger population.”

Five major groups together fuel the movement for wildlife conservation in the Third World. The first are city-dwellers and foreign tourists who season their lives a week or a month at a time with sojourns in the “wild.” Their motive is straightforward: pleasure and fun. The second group comprises ruling elites who view the protection of particular species, the tiger in India, for instance, as central to the retention or enhancement of national prestige. Spurring on this process is a third group, international conservation organizations, such as the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), which work to “educate” people and politicians to the virtues of biological conservation. A fourth group consists of functionaries of the state Forest or Wildlife Service which is mandated by law to control the parks. While some of these officials are inspired by a love of nature, the majority—at least in India—are often motivated by the power and benefits (overseas trips, for example) that come with the job. The final group are biologists, who believe in wilderness and species preservation for the sake of “science”.

These five groups tend to be united in their hostility to the farmers, herders, swiddeners and hunters who have lived in the “wild” from well before it became a “park” or “sanctuary”. They regard these human communities as having a destructive effect on the environment, their forms of livelihood aiding the disappearance of species and contributing to soil erosion, habitat simplification, and worse. Their feelings are often expressed in strongly pejorative language. Touring Africa in 1957, for instance, a prominent member of the US Sierra Club sharply attacked the Maasai for grazing their cattle in East African sanctuaries. He held the Maasai to be illustrative of a larger trend, wherein “increasing population and increasing land use”—rather than industrial exploitation—constituted the main threat to the world’s wilderness areas. The Maasai and “their herds of economically worthless cattle”, he said, “have already overgrazed and laid waste too much of the 23,000 square miles of Tanganyika they control, and as they move into the Serengeti, they bring the desert with them, and the wilderness and wildlife must bow before their herds”.

Thirty years later, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) initiated a campaign to save the Madagascar rainforest, home to the Ring Tailed Lemur, the Madagascar Serpent Eagle, and other endangered species. Their fundraising posters had spectacular sketches of the lemur, the eagle and the half-ton Elephant Bird, which once lived on the island but is now extinct. The human race “is a relative newcomer to Madagascar” [sic], noted the accompanying text, “but even with the most basic of tools—axes and fire—he [sic] has brought devastation to the habitats and resources he depends on”. The posters also depicted a muddy river with the caption: “Slash-and-burn agriculture has brought devastation to the forest, and in its wake, erosion of the topsoil”.

Ramachandra Guha books include India After Gandhi and An Anthropologist Among the Marxists and Other Essays. He lives in Bengaluru.