Wildlife conservation and corridors

An in-depth discussion on the road ahead for tiger conservation

Special Feature

The second panel discussion held by Hardnews in association with Aircel as part of its ‘Save Our Tiger’ initiative took place on March 16, 2016 in Bengaluru. The discussion on ‘Wildlife Conservation and Corridors’ was led by a distinguished six-member panel consisting of senior government officials and civil society members: Vinay Luthra, senior Indian Forest Service officer, Karnataka; Vijay Mohan Raaj, senior Indian Forest Service officer, Karnataka; Sanjay Gubbi, author and biological conservationist; Praveen Bhargava, eminent wildlife activist, and Uttara Mendiratta, wildlife biologist and activist.

The discussion was moderated by Jose Louies, Regional Head, South India, Wildlife Trust of India.

Before a sizeable audience, the panel discussion went on for nearly two hours and concluded with an interactive session. During the session several issues were covered.    

Landscape conservation and linking corridors

In recent times, because of the initiative by Aircel, the amount of awareness on the issue of tigers has increased. In her opening keynote address Brinda Malhotra, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Aircel, illustrated the immense amount of work and multi-pronged strategy of Aircel that has contributed towards the increase in the tiger population in India, “When we began there were only 1,411 tigers and today there are 2,226 tigers in India.”

The increase in the number of tigers has initiated another conversation; the growing need for the preservation of forests and tiger habitats. Vinay Luthra spoke on this issue and said, “Karnataka has the largest number of tigers but we also have the largest number of elephants and that creates challenges, both these species need large amounts of space.” He added, “The landscape is very important and we are part of the Western Ghat landscape which is one of the healthiest as far as tigers and wildlife are concerned. The approach of the department has been that we need larger wildlife habitats. That is how we can increase the number of tigers. The size of wildlife areas has been increasing considerably, Karnataka is one of the few states which have added reserved forest areas to the wildlife areas and it is when we add these areas that the focus of the entire management shifts from general forestry to focused wildlife management and it is this focus which increases the landscape, brings a better habitat, better prey for bigger species. As a result of this approach we have been able to increase the number of tigers in Karnataka. The state is also moving towards linking wildlife corridors. Karnataka is one of the few states which has actually linked forests. We have to continue strengthening these links and that’s what we are moving towards.” 

Dealing with local communities in forests

One major aspect of tiger conservation is the interaction of tigers with the local communities. Many people have opined that managing local communities is the most important part of the conservation drive. On this issue one of the panelists said, “The general perception of local communities being seen as a special privileged class by conservationists should stop, I think these are the people who have done long-term conservation much before we brought down this glare on them by saying that they need attention. These people have seen the worst times and conflicts but they have continued to live with that. I think they have been at the forefront of all this.”

Another panelist gave his views on the conflict between man and animal, “Conflict has increased because of many reasons, one of them is the changed eco-system. More irrigation facilities have come up, lands which were lying fallow at one time next to the forests are now growing sugarcane and banana. This brings the animals out. A lot of landscape changes have happened which have been beyond the control of forest officials. When forests were surveyed and handed over to the forest department about 150 years back, almost 50 percent of the forests were handed over to the revenue department for meeting the needs of the local communities. Now, a tiger or an elephant wouldn’t know who controls this forest. And today 80 percent of the land not given to the forest department at that time has been privatised. So, these are the kind of problems which have aggravated the human-animal conflict but the conflict has always been there.” Uttara Mendiratta made the assertion that “You cannot prevent poaching without the goodwill of local communities.” 

Indian policy and laws for tiger conservation

Praveen Bhargava used his experience as a lawyer to explain in great detail the legal framework that tiger reserves in the country function under. “We have various categories. All tiger reserves in this country are either a sanctuary or a national park. Till date we do not have any area which is notified as a tiger reserve, which is not a sanctuary or a national park. If an area is only a tiger reserve, its status is only that of a conservation reserve because several important provisions of the Wildlife Act do not apply to areas that are not a sanctuary or a national park. So, national parks, sanctuaries, by and large, have the same status. There is an overlapping notification which comes under the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which enables funding, management, etc. to ensure that the tigers are conserved. Now, what is a buffer zone? This is still a debate which we haven’t resolved but primarily areas that have some characteristics of forests should typically be buffer zones. Then you have eco-sensitive zones.

Eco-sensitive zones are notified under the Environment Act and a lot of people get very agitated about them, and the media may know about this, that there is a lot of resentment by people like politicians who say that an entire area is being notified as an eco-sensitive zone, they allege that sometimes entire districts and talukas are notified. Actually an eco-sensitive zone, as per the guidelines, is just a shock absorber. It is there to prevent industries from penetrating closer and closer to where the tigers are.” On the laws for wildlife protection, Bhargava said, “Currently, the laws we have are more than sufficient. Unfortunately, things have been changed through circulars and guidelines. The law is saying something but it’s being interpreted to say something else, which I think is rule of law by subterfuge. We have good laws, the implementation of these laws, like many other things in this country, needs attention.” 

Poaching and frontline staff

Mendiratta spoke on this extremely important issue. She said, “When we look at corridors, we are basically giving tigers an option to not go into the scene of hostility, where the growing population is. It is only now that the guidelines have come in where they are talking about training the frontline staff specifically for anti-poaching activities and also training them in having a better relationship with the local communities. I think these are things that have only started in the last five years to get things from the level of ideas to ground-level implementation. People are training better but there is still some way to go. We need to formalise this training into our system, we need to formalise the mindset into our system.” One of the panelists added to her comments, “Unless and until you have a specialised or separate and exclusive law enforcement agency – which currently is the forest department – to implement these wildlife laws, hunting is not going to go away. 

It will be around. It has been suggested that instead of the forest department, the panchayats of communities living in the wild should be given arms and allowed to deal with poachers. This is silly. While communities can be a good second line of defence, they can’t be the primary custodians. It is definitely welcome if communities support the law enforcement agencies but we need to build up our law enforcement capacities.”

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2016