Make people ACCOUNTABLE

A first-time MP (from Nagaur, Rajasthan), Jyoti Mirdha exudes the confidence of a veteran politician and feels concerned about a wide range of issues. An NTCA member, Mirdha says that tiger conservation is closest to her heart. Akash Bisht in conversation with Mirdha   

What has gone wrong with India's effort to save the tiger?
Tigers are extremely vulnerable to poaching, a fact borne out by events at reserves across the country. Sariska is a gory example of an entire population of tigers wiped out by poachers. Even the news from other reserves is not at all rosy as tigers are being poached or killed at will. We have the right attitude but our mindset is obsolete. You cannot fight armed poachers with lathis. Poaching is an organised trade and should be dealt with accordingly. 

Your reaction to the killing of one of the tigers relocated to Sariska.
That's what I mean when I say that our mindset is obsolete. It is a known fact that there are more than 22 villages inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve which need relocation. Tigers cannot be poached or killed without the knowledge of the villagers. As long as we have villages inside the reserve, the tigers would keep dying. It's a direct consequence of the man-animal conflict and I do not blame the villagers for it. 

What options do they have? Tigers could be a symbol of national pride for people living in urban areas, but for people living inside these reserves, they are a nuisance. Tigers kill cattle, and with the authorities lackadaisical in compensating for the loss, it's the tigers that face the brunt of people's anger. Humans and animals cannot coexist in the same habitat. If the big cat is to be saved, then people should be rehabilitated outside these forests.

Many believe that villagers are also involved with poachers?
This is not true. Of course, there are a few hunting tribes that do pursue the trade. But blaming all the villagers is not the right approach. The government should make villagers stakeholders in tiger conservation. They could be hired as guards or guides. Once their livelihood becomes totally dependent on the tiger reserve, they would themselves ensure the well-being of the tigers.  

Rehabilitation has been surrounded by controversies.
The issue is very complex and a lot of politics is being played in the name of forest rights. The government is often in a dilemma, whether to save the tiger or implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

What do you think of the mindlessly growing tiger tourism?
What we are witnessing is an explosion of tourism and allied activities in and around the buffer zones. These do not seem to augur well with nature or the eco-system of the area. Eco-tourism should be promoted but the sole idea should be to educate people about the forest and its inhabitants. Anyone violating the norms should face stringent action. During my recent visit to Ranthambore, I was shocked to find that forest chowkis are built with concrete and look more like guest houses. Why would you need such structures in the core area of a tiger reserve? Bamboo or wood could have been easily used instead of the concrete. 

Mining is another issue that needs to be dealt with caution. There is a strong mining lobby asking the government to allow mining in some parts of the forests. It has been successful in doing so. More than 68 mining leases have been granted in and around Sariska. There is no forest lobby and the ones who raise their voice are gagged.

What else can be done to facilitate tiger conservation?
Make people accountable and consult experts like Ullas Karanth, Ghazala Shahabuddin and Fateh Singh Rathore to find a way out of the crisis. Constant year-round monitoring of the forests and use of camera traps instead of pugmarks is a welcome move.  In my view, let one MP take charge of two reserves and ask them to deliver. You would see the difference in a year.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2010