Sat 24 May
IAN MACKINNON IN THE KUNO WILDLIFE SANCTUARY, MADHYA PRADESH
headman Babu Lal wore a forlorn air, like the crumbling homesteads
around him. On a brief return trip to his native village he stood
barefoot amid dried cow dung, praying to an abandoned family shrine,
for better times.
The shrine is to be relocated to his
new home, just beyond Kuno wildlife sanctuary in India’s central Madhya
Pradesh state. Mr Lal is paying the bill. He and 8,000 other tribals
living within the sanctuary
had to swap rich farmland for parched scrub outside - making way
for a pride of endangered Asiatic lions.
Most villagers left willingly,
pleased with the deal that gave them more farmland and cash. Mr
Lal, 52, was reluctant to go.
I’ll never forget when we left. Even the men cried that day," he
said. His family had lived in the village for five generations. "Is
it fair to do this to 1,600 families for a few lions?"
villages relocated outside Kuno in the past four years make up
the tiniest fraction of India’s billion-strong population.
But they are among a growing number of voiceless Indians - mostly
tribes people and low-caste farmers - pushed out of protected areas
in favour of wildlife.
The numbers of so-called "conservation
refugees" are set
to grow dramatically, according to social activists - up to two million
if India goes ahead with radical plans to conserve the environment.
Last year India agreed a new wildlife
strategy that looks 14 years ahead. The country’s top court has already shown the way: a
1993 case brought by World Wildlife Foundation India forced the government
to do more to meet its conservation obligations.
Between 1970 and
1995 an estimated 25,000 people were relocated from India’s
89 national parks and 487 wildlife sanctuaries. But, in the past
five years alone, the people of nearly 500 villages have
been expelled from designated tiger reserves.
It’s bound to
increase. With 14 per cent of the world’s
population crowded into 2 per cent of its land mass, India is also
home to 60 per cent of wild tigers, 70 per cent of rhino and all
the world’s Asiatic lions.
There’s a bias for animal conservation in government policy,
influenced by the urban middle classes," says Ashish Kothari,
an environmentalist. "But it’s the poorest and most disadvantaged
Even the staunchest human rights activists
accept there is sometimes little option but to move people out
to save a
rare species. But
it must be carried out fairly, they say. "I don’t know
a single example in India where relocation was handled properly," says
Mr Kothari. "It’s a scandal and now people don’t
want to move out.
My great worry is that this is being handled in such a ham-handed
way that we’re losing the potential to do good for animals
and effectively losing support for conservation," said Arpan
Sharma, co-founder of the Samrakshan Trust that works in Kuno.
who see only India’s massive population overrunning
and pillaging the environment show less sympathy. Experts point to
traditional farming and hunting practices by tribal communities that
wreck the countryside and leave little for wildlife.
practice slash and burn methods, decimating forests and every living
thing. Others have long-held hunting traditions.
In the Andaman and Nicobar islands groups hunt the flightless megapod
bird, while in Orissa’s Simlipal tiger reserve villagers hold
an annual hunt for deer and wild boar. In Himachal Pradesh people
traditionally wear in their caps the crest of a legally protected
Our most intractable problem is increasing population," says
M K Ranjitsinh, a former bureaucrat and architect of India’s
first wildlife preservation laws.
Certain traditions are untenable and unsustainable. We can’t
allow them to go on because they’ll destroy themselves and
the country. The environment must be protected - not only for wildlife
but for humanity and the country as a whole."
Efforts to reduce
the tensions have met with mixed success. Villages were long ago
moved out of Rajasthan’s flagship Ranthambhore
tiger reserves, but 200,000 farmers living on the edge continued
to plunder and poach despite the efforts of police and forest officers
to save its 30 or so tigers.
The Prakratik Society, backed largely
by tiger conservation money, has tried a novel approach. Myriad
schemes seek to reduce pressure
of the park by improving the lot of those outside. Family planning
and health programmes reduce population while bio-gas plants provide
for cooking and lighting to cut demand for wood fuel.
We want to impress on these people that it’s all because of
the tiger," says Dr Goverdhan Singh Rathore, Prakratik Society
executive director. "That way they’ll realise it’s
giving rather than taking away."
It doesn’t always work.
Last August, desperate after four years of drought, 500 villagers
drove 3,000 cattle and water buffalo to
graze inside the park’s steep, wooded ravines, sending outnumbered
forest guards fleeing and closing it to lucrative foreign tourists
for three days. It’s a scene likely to be replayed often in
years to come.