‘CONSERVATION SHOULDN’T BE A DRAG ON DEVELOPMENT’

NTCA Member-Secretary Rajesh Gopal speaks exclusively to Hardnews on various facets of tiger conservation and its uneasy dialectic with development

Akash Bisht Delhi 

With a marginal increase in the numbers of tigers as per the recent census, even as tiger habitat has shrunk by more than 20 per cent, what are the challenges that Project Tiger faces today?

We are focusing on the fringes, corridors and core areas. Despite the slight rise in numbers, there is a reduction in occupancy and that, of course, is a matter of concern. So we can’t believe that everything is fine. People still have to be relocated from notified core areas to make space for tigers to breed. Tigers need 800-1200 sq kms for a viable population and that’s quite challenging for us. The government has approved more funds for the voluntary relocation of these villagers. 

We also need to focus more on the special tiger protection force, not only in five or six reserves, but in 15-20 of them with significant tiger source populations. There is no room for complacency. Moreover, we have to institutionalise the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and other experts to help in reserve-level monitoring. The WII has recently adopted a standardised protocol based on the Kenyan experience — it gives you details about the inner-sphere patrolling that has taken place and day-to-day presence of tigers, co-predators and prey. We call itm-stripes. It helps generate a lot of alerts, but is still at the Geographic Information System level.

How do you intend to keep the human casualties low in the growing man-tiger conflict, and bring people into confidence?

That is much easier said than done. Six people died recently in Sundarkhal village near Corbett. People still enter these fringe areas. Recently, the government has approved doubling the compensation for human deaths from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2 lakh. We have also hiked the support for treatment of the injured. 

What are you doing to protect and empower the new tiger reserves identified by National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)?

Six new reserves have got approval, while six others have been identified and the states have been advised to send us their proposals. It would be a challenge to help the states in consolidating these areas. These are areas that already have the status of a park or sanctuary, but we are pursuing the states to designate them as tiger reserves. 

Active management too would require more attention. We have low-density areas, high-density areas, and areas where tigers have gone extinct — for instance, Sariska and Panna. On the same landscape, without disturbing the genetics and social dynamics of the tiger, we need to help the states in active management by translocating some tigers to repopulate these areas. 

What is NTCA doing to improve the livelihood of people living near tiger reserves?

This is a big challenge, but it has to be addressed because the man-tiger interface starts when people come inside the reserve, often to fulfil their day-to-day needs like collecting fuel or fodder. One good thing has happened — the Tiger Task Force recommendation has been implemented and the Act amended. We should get the states on board through tripartite MoUs, and then get them to notify 25 buffer reserves. To fund these buffers is very important — the local officials can then prepare micro-plans for the village level and have it implemented onquid pro quobasis with the help of locals, so that any tiger entering the area is reported back to the authority and not poisoned and killed.

This mechanism will ensure ready payment of compensation, and in return, the tiger reserve authority is assured of engaging them in fire-protection and other work. Project Tiger is not only about tigers. In a single year, almost 24 lakh man days were generated with 50 per cent central assistance — around Rs 24 crore. People are employed on contractual or daily basis according to the system prevailing in these 17 states. Traditional communities like Baigas and Gonds in MP andMaharashtra, Chenchus in Andhra Pradesh, Gujjars in Uttarakhand, and the Assamese tribes are getting work with good results. They are not educated enough to become a forester or a beat-level officer, but they are involved in patrolling and given wages, which is now their source of livelihood.

Since 1972-73,  Project Tiger’s total funding has been only Rs 950 crore. We have now got approval for more. The battle is far from won and we need to keep up the fight, but things are not all that bleak becauseIndiahas the maximum number of tiger resources among the 14 tiger countries. We need to continue with endangered status because if we just secure the source areas, they would turn into islands. We must go beyond the reserves and secure as much forest connectivity as possible.

How many tiger reserves are under Maoist influence and how difficult is it really to monitor these reserves?

Five tiger reserves have Naxal presence — Palamau in Jharkhand, Nagarjunsagar (NSTR) in Andhra Pradesh, Indravati in Chhattisgarh, and Simlipal and Satkosia in Orissa. These areas fall on the red corridor and are very difficult to manage. However, we have been visiting NSTR for the past one and half years, and the political leadership has been very supportive. There is also a revival of sorts with some sightings of cubs. But Indravati remains the worst case. 

Is there any information on Maoists killing tigers?

We have no scientific data to prove this. However, Maoist presence does deter forest staff and monitoring teams from entering these forests for fear of their lives. Sometimes the staff go as civilians to pick up faecal evidence and send it for analysis, but detailed assessment of the habitat is tough. When you can’t enter an area, how can there be any assessment? Two of our watchers, who were not even forest staff, were shot at point-blank range.

We recently had a meeting with a security officer from Jharkhand. Some parts of Palamau are still trouble-free. We are trying to monitor tiger evidences in areas barring the two ranges that Maoists frequent. Indeed, the problems are state-level, not reserve-level. In Chhattisgarh the orders are not to halt anywhere at night. The problem needs political and judicial solutions — administrative solutions might not work. 

How do you tackle political opposition that places people above tigers?

We give people the pride of place and ownership, hold workshops in different states, district- and state-level meetings where representatives of people can share their feelings, and have resolutions to show that commitment. We now have a steering committee in the states chaired by the chief minister, comprising government servants from different departments. It also has local MPs and MLAs, and presence of the State Wildlife Board (SWB) as a statutory requirement. SWBs meet regularly, where
people voice both pro- and anti-conservation concerns.

What are your views on the ‘Go/No Go’ clause?

I don’t know about it. I can only say that some forested areas are important for connecting one source site to others. These areas have varied land usage, a mix of revenue land with various forms of ownership, not-so-friendly ecological practices, and different types of cropping patterns.

How do you bring a fine balance between development and conservation?

Our biggest challenge is to harmonise various development activities. The states have been given a list of what’s eco-friendly and what’s not. These activities affect the corridors. We often reject proposals for infrastructure such as highways as they affect the corridors. It’s an ongoing fight. 

However, nine per cent growth rate can be achieved only if there is development. You need power, roads and railway lines, but in a few areas we have to put our foot down. In some other areas, we have to accommodate development, for instance, areas with lots of minerals. Look at Chhattisgarh. It’s a bowl of uranium and we need uranium, but tigers also live in those areas. Conservation should not become a drag on development. WII and NTCA reports should be taken as important background information while coming up with state-level strategies. If you cut away all the trees, where would the tigers go? There is no magic wand and you cannot say there would be development as well as tigers at the same place.    

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2011