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SOS Rhino : In the News : India in bids to save its wildlife

India in bids to save its wildlife


Sat 24 May 2003

VILLAGE 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?"

The 24 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 who pay."

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.

Others 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.

Tribal farmers 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 pheasant.

" 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.

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