Hope burns bright for state's tigers

Conservation


With a global population of just over 3,000 animals, there is barely a discussion about tigers today that does not lapse into bleakness. There is a sense of crisis everywhere, and stories that inspire hope for the big cat are few and far between. Yet, at a time like this, it is especially important to seek examples of hope, for they offer both the inspiration and the lessons that may lead us out of a crisis.

The largest population of tigers in the world today is believed to occur in the Western Ghats. Of the five states that this biologically rich mountain range straddles, Karnataka accounts for nearly 60% of the remaining forest cover, offering one of the best hopes for tiger conservation in the world. This is a unique distinction no doubt, but one that is humbling because it also comes with enormous responsibility.

What has the state done right?

As a potential leader to whom the world may look in this hour of crisis for the tiger, what has Karnataka done right so far? And, to lead better, where does it need to improve?

Foremost among the things Karnataka has done right is simply keep its forests. Thanks to its climate and geology, Karnataka’s Malnad was always cloaked with contiguous tracts of forests. The British ‘reserved’ large tracts of these for extraction of timber, which meant that they received legal protection from other kinds of exploitation—a situation that has continued even post-independence.

The livelihood needs and development aspirations of Karnataka’s growing population began to intensify pressures on these forests, not only for farmland, fuelwood and fodder, but also for the creation of big dams, mines and highways. Karnataka has handled these pressures somewhat better than other states, managing to retain forest connectivity over large areas, allowing tigers the opportunity move and occupy forests that are relatively undisturbed and prey-rich.

Yet, this bequest of nature is not something we can take for granted. As a shaken Indian economy prepares to reclaim its role as an Asian tiger, there is a renewed thrust on development projects in the infrastructure and energy sectors.
Today, highways, wind farms and micro-hydel projects, now wearing green labels, threaten to shred the tiger’s last habitats. Here, Karnataka has the opportunity—and indeed the responsibility—to demonstrate how these legitimate development aspirations can be balanced against the tiger’s survival needs, and indeed, our own.

The Kudremukha example

The effort to halt mining in Kudremukha is a case in point. It was not, as is often made out to be, the narrow legal victory of a bunch of blinkered treehuggers or tiger-lovers over mindless miners. It was a rare example where ecologists and conservationists joined hands with farmers concerned for the wellbeing of their watersheds, poets concerned about keeping the aesthetic beauty of a landscape, and religious heads concerned about the desecration of rivers they worshipped. If more such inspiring civil society partnerships can be imagined and created across the tiger’s range, there is hope yet for the animal.

Second, Karnataka has hosted pioneering scientific research into the tiger’s ecology and behaviour. Without reliable knowledge on how many tigers there are, where they occur, what their requirements of habitat and prey are, it is easy to do a poor job of conserving the species. Knowledge, which helps identify the animal’s most important survival needs and biggest conservation threats, must lay the foundation to a strategy to protect existing populations and help recovery in areas where tigers have declined. Here, the research carried out by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and other organisations in Karnataka has helped understand tiger ecology and yielded insights that have global application.

Yet, the research is not without its limitations. Although a formidable fund of knowledge has been created in tiger ecology, there are large gaps in our scientific understanding of how the tiger and its conservation agenda affects, and is affected by larger societal goals.

In a scenario where the primary challenges to tiger conservation are social, the costs of ignoring this area of research are, as we have already seen, very high.

The consequences of leaving this gap in knowledge unfilled may well be that the forests saved from commercial exploitation are eventually gnawed away by marginalised communities with no access to alternative resources. Third, research has shown that tigers thrive in large, prey-rich forests free from human pressures.

But tens of thousands of people still live inside or use forests where the remaining tigers roam.
Some conservationists have argued that in order to make these tiger habitats inviolate, forest-dwelling people must be encouraged to resettle outside tiger habitats, and supported with measures that improve their welfare. But in many parts of the country this action has been implemented sans the spirit, resulting in serious injustices to forest-dwelling people, and escalating conflict between them and wildlife reserve managements.

Resettlement done right

While instances of poor resettlement abound, Karnataka offers an important example of resettlement done right.

A four-year collaboration between sincere forest and revenue officials, as well as conservationists, helped over 500 families resettle from Bhadra Tiger Reserve to a location outside.

Recognising the pain that this process imposed on people, the officials and conservationists worked closely with the communities that agreed to relocate, prioritising their interests and supporting them as they re-established themselves at the new site. This highlights the possibility that, if a few important conditions are met, there can indeed be joint-wins for people and for tigers.

Yet, it would be utterly foolish to focus entirely on relocating forest-dwelling communities as the most important way forward to render tiger habitats inviolate. Over ten times more people live on the fringes of tiger habitat and use it, often more intensively, than people living inside. Here again, Karnataka can show the way ahead by focusing on how best to engage with this large constituency of people, with whom the relationship right now is indifferent at best and acrimonious at worst.

These are but three examples of hope Karnataka can offer for tiger conservation. While leading in important ways, Karnataka must continue to find new and imaginative approaches to securing tiger habitats, addressing gaps in knowledge and bringing on board multiple stakeholders in order to make tiger conservation both ecologically sound and socially responsible.

(The authors are with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore)

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