Monday, November 1, 2010

Tigers hit by questionable eco-development

(Published in The Pioneer on November 1, 2010)

Rajesh Singh

Sometime this November, the Government is expected to release the new tiger population figure. With the apprehension that it could be lower than the currently adopted official number of 1,411 tigers — in itself arrived at following an estimation way back in 2006-07 by the Wildlife Institute of India — experts believe the official campaign to save the striped cats has been hit in recent years.

This is primarily due to a shift in focus from habitat recovery and strengthening ground protection forces to questionable eco-development activities within the forest areas.

Except in the first few years after the Central Government launched Project Tiger in the early 70s, when the tiger number went up to more than 3,000 from a low of 1,200 or so, the tiger population has consistently plunged despite various efforts taken to address the issue. Either these measures proved inadequate, failed to sustain or were misdirected.

K Ullas Karanth, one of the country’s most respected wildlife conservationists and director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Wildlife Studies, is concerned by the enormous “expenditure-oriented activities within the Forest Department” that has been harming tiger conservation.

He told The Pioneer, “Tiger conservation has floundered because of a mission-drift away from focus on ground protection and habitat recovery, towards eco-development and other expenditure-oriented activities within the Forest Department.”

Also a senior conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conversation Society, New York and pioneer of the camera trap method that more accurately counts tigers, Karanth strongly advocated the need to re-fix priorities. “Abandon expenditure-oriented activities such as eco-development and bring back focused protection,” he said.

One of the biggest hurdles in creating safe havens for these big cats to flourish has been the slow relocation of human settlements away from tiger habitats, a process that has been mired in controversy over allegations of favouritism and low compensations. “In my opinion, the Governments (Central and State) should promote fair and generous voluntary relocation of human settlements away from tiger habitats,” he said.

The role of State Governments was paramount in saving tigers, he pointed out and added that non-compliance with Central directives had been among the causes for a less-than-satisfactory tiger conservation record.

In that context, he said a recent suggestion to bifurcate Forests & Wildlife Department from the Environment Department, while welcome, would not directly address the issue. Karanth said, “I agree it would be helpful to have this but primarily conservation actions are implemented by State Governments. This separation does not address their lack of interest or non-compliance with Central directives.”

Wildlife filmmaker and conservationist Shekar Dattatri too believes the delay in the proposed bifurcation is not the problem since it has nothing to do directly with tiger conservation. He said, “The decision to create two departments within the Ministry of Environment & Forests came about thanks to a plea made to the Prime Minister by conservationist Valmik Thapar during a meeting of the National Board for Wildlife in mid-2010. The delay in implementing it is not the cause for the problems in tiger reserves.”

The real problems lay elsewhere, he stated, pointing to the unchecked ‘developmental’ activities within forest areas, including tiger habitats. Also a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, Dattatri told The Pioneer that national park managers had turned into some sort of civil contractors.

“The main priority and preoccupation of most park managers today is not protection but lucrative civil works, such as making more forest roads, building culverts, watchtowers, renovating resthouses, digging rainwater harvesting ditches, weed eradication and creating more waterholes. Despite all the hype surrounding tigers, it is business as usual on ground, with little being done to benefit tiger conservation,” he noted.

Much of these occupations, he added, were entirely unnecessary and drained public funds. Most importantly, as he pointed out in a short film ‘Truth about Tigers’ — which he made and distributed on a CD — these works disturbed tigers and affected their conservation.

Dattatri was emphatic that “no money should be released for frivolous construction or unscientific habitat manipulation activities. All resources should be focused on strengthening the protection mechanism and relocation of villages where necessary”.

Ruing that relocation of villages from tiger reserves was moving at a glacial pace, “even in instances where villagers themselves are vigorously demanding to be resettled”, he said the stakeholders, including State Governments, should move swiftly to promote relocation of human settlements away from tiger habitats.

The involvement of State Governments is crucial, for instance, in creating buffer zones to protect wildlife from human conflicts and activities that endanger the reserves. According to a report, more than 25 of the 39 reserves do not have the buffer areas, simply because State Governments have not notified them for fear of losing out on various dubious ‘developmental’ activities that could fetch them revenue from those regions.

Upset that “plenty has gone wrong” in tiger conservation over recent years, Dattatri said several of the big cat reserves suffered from poor leadership and shortage of frontline field staff.

“Anti-poaching watchers are usually employed as daily wagers but their wages are often not paid for months. Field staff lack even basic training and equipment. Senior officers in many parks do not go to the field regularly and are out of touch with ground realities,” he added.

Dattatri said protection-oriented officials should be posted at reserves with freedom to perform “without fear or favour” and people from local tribal communities should be appointed for anti-poaching work and compensated adequately and promptly.

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