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”.

This poster succinctly sums up the conservationist position with regard to the tropical rainforest: the enemy of the environment is the hunter and farmer living in the forest, who is too shortsighted for his, and our, good. This belief (or prejudice) has informed numerous projects across the world to constitute nature parks by throwing out the human inhabitants of these areas, with scant regard for their past or future in the name of the global heritage of biological diversity.


Whistle-Stop Opinion Makers

An ongoing controversy in the Nagarhole National Park in southern Karnataka is illustrative. In the park live an estimated 40 tigers, the species towards whose protection enormous amounts of Indian and foreign money and attention have been directed. Nagarhole is also home to about 6,000 tribal people, who have been in the area longer than anyone can remember, perhaps as long as the tigers. The Karnataka Forest Department want the tribals out, claiming they destroy the forest and kill wild game. In response, the tribals answer that their demands are modest, consisting in the main of fuelwood, fruit, honey and the odd quail or partridge. They do not own guns, although coffee planters living on the edge of the forest do. Is it the planters who poach the big game, they ask? In any case, if the forest is for tigers only, they query why the officials have invited India’s biggest hotel chain, Taj, to build a resort inside the park.

Into this controversy jumped Dr John G. Robinson as he was passing through Karnataka. Dr Robinson who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York oversees 160 projects in 44 countries. He conducted a whistle-stop tour of Nagarhole and hurriedly called a press conference in the state capital, Bangalore. Throwing the tribal people out of the park, he said, was the only means to save the wilderness. In Robinson’s opinion, “relocating tribal or traditional people who live in these protected areas is the single most important step towards conservation”. Tribals, he explained, “compulsively hunt for food”, and compete with tigers for prey. Deprived of food, tigers cannot survive, and “their extinction means that the balance of the ecosystem is upset and this has a snowballing effect”.

All over India, the management of parks has sharply pitted the interests of poor tribal people who have lived in the areas for generations against those of wilderness lovers and urban pleasure seekers who wish to keep parks “free of human interference”—that is, free of other humans. These conflicts are being played out in the Rajaji sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh, in Simlipal in Orissa, in Kanha in Madhya Pradesh, in Melghat in Maharashtra and in numerous other locations. In all these instances, Indian wildlifers have joined the Forest Department to evict the tribal people and rehabilitate them far outside the forests. In this endeavour, they have drawn sustenance from Western biologists and conservation organizations, who have thrown the prestige of science and the power of the dollar behind their crusade.

A partisan of the tribal might answer Dr Robinson and his ilk in various ways. He might note that tribals and tigers have co-existed for centuries; it is the demands of cities and factories that have of late put unbearable pressures on the forest, with species after species joining the endangered list. Tribals are being made the scapegoats, while the real agents of forest destruction—poachers, planters, politicians and profiteers—escape notice. As Dr Robinson flies off to his next project, he might reflect on his own high-intensity lifestyle, which puts a greater stress on the world’s resources than dozens, perhaps hundreds, of forest tribals.

In Nagarhole, the tribal partisan might further point out that even as plans are afoot to evict the tribals, Taj is being welcomed in to build its hotel. Meanwhile, the Forest Department has applied for funds from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to build seven patrol stations and a network of roads connecting them. It is claimed that these are necessary for greater vigilance against poachers; what they will in fact do is open up the forest still further to outside interests. The tribal partisan might argue, finally, that a policy which treats it forest dwellers as enemies rather than partners can only be counter-productive. What this policy will encourage, in time, is poachers and smugglers of ivory and sandalwood who can count on tribal acquiescence in the battle against their immediate perceived common enemy, the Forest Department.

All this was said much better and more eloquently over three decades ago by anthropologist Verrier Elwin. Writing in 1963, having made his home among the tribals and forests of India for some 30 years, Elwin deplored the “constant propaganda that the tribal people are destroying the forest”. He asked pointedly how the tribals “could destroy the forest. They owned no trucks; they hardly had even a bullock-cart; the utmost that they could carry away was some wood to keep them warm in the winter months, to reconstruct or repair their huts and carry on their little cottage industries”. Who, then, was (and is) the real culprit? Elwin wrote of the:

“feeling amongst the tribals that all the arguments in favour of preservation of forests are intended to refuse them their [rights]. They argue that when it is a question of industry, township, development work or projects of rehabilitation, all these plausible arguments are forgotten and vast tracts are placed at the disposal of outsiders who mercilessly destroy the forest wealth with or without necessity.”

An excerpt from ‘‘The Authoritarian Biologist and the Arrogance of Anti-Humanism,’ published in The Ecologist in January 1997. Reproduced with the permission of the author.

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