Forest Reserves (D) for controversy
The tigers of the Sariska Reserve in Rajasthan have disappeared. Simply vanished! The alarm bells are now ringing hard. So loudly that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has asked the state government to find the cause and the culprits. Pronto! And we are once again asking ourselves how can humans and animals live with each other in this crowded planet?
Even though the details remain hazy, it is clear that human intervention (read poaching) was responsible for the disappearance of the big cats in Sariska. In the recent past there have been frequent conflicts between humans and animals. Take the case of Mumbai. Last year a spate of leopard attacks left 15 people dead. If in Sariska the big cats were on the receiving end, in Mumbai it was the people. And if you thought Mumbai was bad, think about the people living around the sanctuaries. They live in constant dread of tigers attacking their villages.
Humans have always shared this planet with other species. Why is there a conflict now? One major reason is that we have slowly encroached into habitats that nature had reserved for others. Many species today are on the verge of extinction. To counter this we reserved some space for them. That’s quite fair, right? Why do people then kill these endangered beings?
Sariska is not an isolated case – poaching is rampant in all the tiger reserves.
The geographical range for thesemajestic creatures once stretched from the eastern borders of Russia to the edge of the Caspian Sea. Now it has shrunk and tigers survive only in small pockets. They are found in a variety of habitats: from the tropical and deciduous forests of Asia to the coniferous and birch woodlands of Siberia. There are about 5000-7,500 tigers surviving in the wild today. There were eight sub species of tigers but only five remain.
Amur (Siberian) tiger
South China tiger and
The Java, Bali and Caspian sub species are extinct.
At the turn of the century the tiger population in India was estimated at 40,000. In 1972 it fell sharply and only 1,827 of these regal beasts survived. This decline led to the initiation of Project Tiger in 1973. The concept of wildlife conservation started off in India with Project Tiger. It began with nine tiger reserves covering an area of 16,339 sq km, which has increased to 37,761 sq km in 27 tiger reserves.
Why Protect the Tiger?
Besides being stunningly beautiful, tiger is an indicator species. It is at the top of the food chain and reflects the status of the entire ecosystem. To support a viable tiger population, a habitatmust have a good prey base and healthy vegetation.
Why does Poaching Happen?
It’s big business. Wildlife trade is valued at US$ 20 billion in the global market. Tiger skin, bones and other parts are in great demand. Only ten grammes of tiger bones fetch as much as Rs.1,060. Poachers don’t act alone. Often the local villagers help the poachers. You will say that’s unfair on the animals besides being ethically wrong. Take a look at the ground realities. You may change your opinion.
1. Local people are not allowed into areas within the boundaries of the reserves.
The formation of the sanctuaries uprooted many local communities from their native land...land that had sustained them for generations. Many of these people were hunter-gatherers and the forest was the only means of support.
2. The forest authorities tried to safeguard the reserved forests with walls, gates and guns.
This policy led to confrontations between the villagers and the authorities. The people held the authorities responsible for their poverty. For them, conservation programmes put animals before people. Most therefore, oppose the rules.
3. The forest once provided everything the local people needed.
Now they are fined if they enter the reserved areas. What can they do for a living? How shall they support themselves? Many of these people therefore are forced to turn to poaching.
Can people and animals share space in this planet? In India, local traditions have always encouraged wildlife preservation. A rhinoceros visiting paddy fields is considered lucky in Assam. And the Karbi tribesmen in this state refer to the tiger as ‘father’. It’s not as if the government has not paid attention to such practices. About a decade ago, it came up with the ‘Eco development’ projects.The basic idea was to make local people partners in protecting and nurturing the forests. Great idea...but how much has it been put to practice? If we take Sariska as an example we can only say ‘very very little’!
The lakes of the Kokkare Bellur village in Karnataka is the winter home for storks and pelicans. The birds are considered to be good omens and the villagers have established an orphanage for injured birds.
Ecotourism — an important component of eco development — is a relatively new concept in India. It includes nature trails, hiking, angling and water sports and has great potential to connect people, forests and wildlife.
Ecotourism stresses on responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the wellbeing of local people.
How different is ecotourism from tourism? While tourism concentrates on entertaining tourists, ecotourism focuses on making sure that travellers don’t leave behind tell-tale marks of their visit! If poaching is destroying the sanctuaries, so is excessive tourist pressure. There were some 13,500 tourists to Corbett between November and December last year.
How does ecotourism help?
Eco tourism is a partnership between the tourist and the local people. It encourages travellers to behave in an environmentally responsible manner. If you go on a nature trail then eco tourism will not give you five star hotels in the middle of the forest. Instead, it will teach you to live off the land. You will learn how the local people use resources without destroying these. It also gives the communities an opportunity to preserve their way of life and involves them in planning, decision-making and management.