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     Gobar times: Environment for Beginners

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C O V E R  S T O R Y

S H E R E  K H A N  C A L L I N G

Leaving locals out...a no-win strategy
The question that is really worrying the tiger-watchers is how did the villains get into these protected zones? Especially when Project Tiger is built on the Western concept of the ‘core-buffer’ strategy — which means that the entire forest area in a Project Tiger location was cleared of ‘human interference’! This included the local communities which had, for generations, used this area for earning their livelihood.

The answer lies in the strategy itself! In India, unlike in most western countries — forests cannot be separated from human beings, because they depend on each other for survival. Do you know that thanks to this ‘exclusion’ drive of the government more than four million people living in and around the fringes of the protected areas have lost their right to enter the forests? And to collect mahua flowers, sal and tendu leaves, resin, lac, and fuel wood —and a hundred other things that provided their daily meal?

So the villagers who used to rush to douse a forest fire, and beat up outsiders who dared to hunt down wild animals, cannot care less now. Worse still, many have grown actively hostile to the tigers, who they hold directly responsible for their own sorry state. Instead of driving them out, the local people who have intimate, invaluable knowledge of the jungle, actually lead the poachers into a tiger’s den. At least, they are ensured a reward for this!

By leaving the locals out, the government has created deadly enemies out of those who once were the tiger’s most valiant allies! What a pity, and what a waste….

Card board soldiers
Now, all powers and all responsibilities of managing the reserve forests are in the hands of a huge body of government officials—some who are posted in New Delhi and others who work in the various state forest departments.

Some are truly committed but most are not. Let’s take stock of how the reserves have been ‘managed’ till now:

Money game: There is plenty of money but no one to manage it! In the 10th Plan Five Year Plan alone Rs. 150 crore has been allocated to the Project. But every year the funds remain unutilised because the various state governments do not release their share.

Take Tamil Nadu as an example. Thanks to halted cash flow even the day-to-day functioning of the Kalakkad-Mundanthuria reserve– the Project Tiger site –becomes a challenge.

No staff: Though most of the tiger reserves are seriously understaffed and need additional hands urgently, the state forest departments have not made any recruitments since the mid 1980’s.

A ragtag band: The current troop of forest guards who are supposed to be manning the tiger domain, are a tired, dejected lot. Why?

  • Most are more than 50 years old.
  • They are poorly paid.
  • Are rarely equipped with firearms. They have bamboo lathis to protect themselves and the tigers.
  • They have neither boots nor binoculars

Picture not perfect...

In October, 2001, the staff of the Valmiki tiger reserve in Bihar staged a walk out leaving the 43 tigers in the park unguarded. ‘Irresponsible’ did you say? Maybe, but they had not been paid for 15 months!

People-friendly Periyar
But hold on…not all sanctuaries are in such a dismal state. The Periyar Tiger Reserve, spread over 777 square kilometres in the Western Ghats in Kerala has proved that there is hope yet for the Indian tigers.

Till about seven years ago, poachers were on a rampage here. They were mostly locals — desperately looking for some source of income. They killed animals and smuggled out huge amounts of cinnamon bark locally known as vayana. Their knowledge of the jungle terrain and its flora and fauna made them formidable foes of the forest department.

Till some of the Kerala Forest Department officials decided to offer them friendship. A unique eco-tourism project, the Periyar Tiger Trail programme, was launched in 1998. And 21 hard core ‘eco offenders’ were taken in as eco tour guides! The aim of these wise government officers was to provide these men, who till now were social outcasts, an opportunity to return to normal life.

What they got in return was the skill, intelligence and loyalty of the ex-offenders who were intimately familiar with the forests and the animals. Quite a bargain, don’t you agree?

The authorities give Rs. 2 lakhs to the Eco Development Committee of which 70 per cent is equally distributed to the members, 10 per cent goes as government revenue and 10 per cent is put in the welfare fund.

Everyone benefits. Most of all, the big cat. Cases of poaching have reduced dramatically in the Periyar reserve. The eco-tour guides keep a constant vigil to make sure the tigers are safe. And obviously they are doing a great job.

Mission Possible
So, our Mowgli will not fight a losing battle. Nor will he be a lone crusader. If he takes the local people — ultimate protectors of the king of all beasts— along with him, his ‘save-tiger-drive’ is bound to be a Mission Possible…

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