Tiger, Tribals and others like us

For the last few weeks there is this big debate going on in India between tiger conservationists and tribal activists. The more notable one worth reading are by Pankaj Sekhsaria of Kalpavriksh and Sunita Narain of Centre for Science and Environment. The problem with tiger conservation is that it is much more complicated that it appears at first. There are too many factors involved. Besides there are more experts than wild tigers, many more. And since research on tigers is actively discouraged all these so called tiger experts (including dodos like me) have no scientific ground to stand on.

Some facts:

  • Right now tigers exist only in the most “economically” remote area of India.
  • Typically these are places with the people have the lowest socio-economic index, relatively lower population density than rest of India but are areas rich in natural resources.
  • Over half these areas (specially in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh etc) have huge political problems (eg naxalites etc).
  • The law and order situation is generally speaking very poor in all these areas.
  • Tigers exist in such areas because the population around did not kill them. This is a very important and most of us when talking about tiger conservation tend to ignore this.

As Dr. Ulhas Karanth rightly says destruction of habitat and prey is the most severe threat that tigers have been facing for the last century or so. This is what will ultimately get them. Poaching gets to be a threat only when the tiger numbers are so low that they were almost unviable. For instance all of us say that poachers killed 18 tigers in Sariska in one year and as a result all the tigers in Sariska were wiped out. Wrong. There were never more than 4 or 5 tigers in Sariska since the year 2000. By 2004 (the year when poachers wiped out tigers in Sariska) there were probably no ore than 2 or 3 tigers in Sariska.

In reserves like Simlipal killing of prey (for the tiger) species like deer, antelopes, wild pigs etc is widely accepted. Part of the reason for this is that bush meat has always been an important dietary supplement for the local population. Till about 50 to 60 years ago this did not make much of a difference to the forests health because the local population was very low and there was a lot of wildlife around Simlipal. With improvement in medical facilities the local population boomed. Which created more and more strain on the local resources including wildlife. This has now reached a crisis point .

Wild tigers are a huge source of revenue for India. I would estimate that they contribute something over Rs 15,000,000,000 per annum to the Indian economy just through tourism to 12 to 13 of the popular tiger reserves. This the turn over of airlines, transport companies, tour operators, Destination Management Companies, Accommodation providers, local Excursion agents, Shop keepers and various other service providers. This is a huge sum and small parts of it can finance conservation activities in the entire country. Besides this, there is a huge sum that comes through charities, NGOs etc. The problem with this huge sum is that the local villagers who live around the reserves do not get to see most of this money. For them life is barely above (or in most cases – below) subsistence level. Most of them feel that this is the price that they have to pay for not killing the forest around their home and to an extent they are correct.

In the long run tigers will survive only if a large chunk of the people who live around tiger reserves make a living out of the forests around them. Why should they be excluded from this pie?

The debate goes on and on and on. If you find someone who is genuinely interested in tiger conservation, do let me know.