Environmentalists fear that the new Act could reverse decades of progress in preserving the tigers, forests.
Kailashpuri, India: A tale about the forest dweller and the tiger sounds like some ancient Indian fable, a parable of man versus beast handed down through the ages and adapted by Rudyard Kipling for Western consumption.
But this is a real-life story unfolding today, as India’s government seeks to protect the country’s dwindling population of Bengal tigers while balancing the privileges of man. India has nearly half the world’s estimated 3,500 tigers. But in a country where the human population has ballooned to more than 1.1 billion—most of whom live on less than $2 (Rs79) a day—the government is also focused on expanding the economy and reducing poverty.
Parliament recently passed a law that enshrines the right of forest dwellers to remain in the forests and could allow the return of hundreds of thousands of people who abandoned their claim to the forest decades ago.
Environmentalists fear that the new law—known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, and due to come into force in the coming weeks—throws open the gates of India’s national parks and reverses decades of progress in preserving the country’s shrinking forests and the tigers that live in them.
“The economy is the priority now and everything else can go to hell,” said Valmik Thapar, a conservationist and author who for more than a decade has publicized the plight of India’s critically endangered tigers.
As more and more of India’s forests are logged or turned into farms to feed its ever-expanding human population, the number of tigers has plummeted from an estimated 40,000 in 1925 to fewer than 1,500 today, a figure that some experts say is the tipping point for extinction. Protecting the animal has long been a national goal.
In Rajasthan, the Ranthambore National Park attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year eager to glimpse the elusive orange-and-black striped cats, the core of a growing tourism trade here that brings in more than $22 million a year, including at least $300,000 in park entry fees. But the potential strains created by the Forest Dwellers Act are plain to see here, too.
About 200,000 villagers live just outside the national park, many of them former forest dwellers. They were coaxed out of the forest over the past 30 years with promises of schools, health clinics and electricity—all part of a government-backed programme to protect the tiger habitat.
“By now, most of us have forgotten how to live in the forest. We are farmers now, not hunters,” said Chittat Gurjar, 67, a slim man in a white turban. Another villager, Kastoori Gurjar, 78, said she has no intention of returning to live in the forest. But she does want to visit.
“We just want to be allowed back in to worship our gods, who stayed in the forest,” she said, with tearful eyes as she recalled her childhood in the thick woods of the park.
The rights of India’s forest dwellers need to be protected, the Act’s supporters say. Media reports that thousands of forest dwellers have been evicted and many forest communities violently harassed in recent weeks, which some analysts say is an effort to limit the number of people eligible to initiate land claims underthe Act.
Environmentalists and wildlife experts are lobbying Parliament and the courts to strike down the law, widely seen as a populist vote-getter in the lead-up to next year’s general elections.
“This is legislation that no one in Parliament can say no to. It’s part of India’s romanticized notion of forest dwellers as people who live in harmony with the land,” said Goverdhan Singh Rathore, whose non-governmental organization, the Prakratik Society, provides schooling and medical care for many of the villagers who were once forest dwellers.
“That might have been true in the past, but the reality now is that if the growing numbers of forest dwellers are allowed to remain in the national parks and others with historic claims to the land are allowed back in, India’s forests will be gone very soon, and with them, the tigers,” Rathore said.
Luxury hotels and “eco-lodges” have sprouted on the edges of the Ranthambore National Park. Tourists pile into open-roofed jeeps and 20-seater buses that rumble along dirt roads through nearly 800 sq. km of forest, passing langurs, elk-sized deer called sambhars and monitor lizards that dart back into the brush as the cars pass.
But here, as throughout India, the chances of seeing a tiger are getting slimmer.
At least four of India’s 27 tiger reserves no longer have tigers. Some observers believe that at least nine other reserves in India also are in danger of losing their remaining tigers to poachers or to villagers who set out poisoned carcasses to kill animals that venture beyond the boundaries of the reserves to attack their livestock.