In early 2005, amidst the adivasi-versus-tiger conflict, when the news of the tigers disappearing from the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan became public, the government’s initial reaction was of denial, followed by a reluctant admission that poachers could have killed them all.
In Sariska the tiger population declined from 26 in 2003 to 16-18 in 2004 and then suddenly there was no trace of the big cat at all. According to the Tiger Task Force Report, “Joining the Dots”, the Sariska Reserve spent more money per tiger and per square kilometer than any other reserve in India, and yet it failed comprehensively. The report warns that a repeat of this failure haunts all Indian reserves today in some form or the other.
Many conservationists believe that a part of the blame must go to the forest tribes. A century ago there were more than one lakh wild tigers worldwide, today there are less than 5,000 and India is home to about half of them. Indian officials insist that the current population is stable at 3,600 but, according to the report “Skinning the Cat” by Wildlife Protection Society of India, the real figure is more likely to be less than half the official number. The gravest warning comes from a survey done by the Economist, which predicts India will be left with only 300-400 tigers in the next 3 to 4 years.
But why this furor about the tiger? Explains V.M.M. Homji, in an article in the Current Science, that when the apex species at the top of the food pyramid like the tiger is saved, the entire ecosystem remains protected. Many wildlife experts propose a strategy of inclusive protection, where the forest dwellers are encouraged to help in preserving forests and conserving wildlife. There is sufficient consensus in the scientific community that both the tiger and the tribals are being marginalised at the cost of development.
The Asia- Pacific Forestry Commission cites the example of Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala to illustrate how the interests of the forest dwellers and the tiger can be reconciled. Erstwhile hunters are now gamekeepers and help in policing the forest, while tribals are employed by the reserve for activities like guiding tourists and waste elimination, the Commission has said in a recent publication.
The Tiger Task Force Report puts the three – the tiger, the forest and the tribals – as interlinked variables that need to be protected together because saving just one will not be enough. “The protection of the tiger is inseparable from the protection of the forest it roams. But, the protection of the forest is inseparable from the fortunes of the people who inhabit it,” the report puts it succinctly. The message is clear: Alleviate the stress on the tribals, help to sustain them and the forests will survive.
The point remains that the tribals and the tigers are not on opposite but on the same side.