In India, tigers and villagers struggling to exist together

SARISKA -- India, which has the highest number of wild tigers, will play the biggest role in saving the big cat. But it needs to solve the growing man-animal conflict.
Written by Betwa Sharma, Correspondent

SARISKA -- Big cats and villagers are living cheek to cheek at the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, India, which has the highest number of tigers living in the wild.

Rapid urbanization and a growing population, currently 1.2 billion people, are enhancing the stress on land. India supports 17.4 percent of the world’s population on 2.4 percent of the world’s land.

The stress on these resources has shrunk the tiger’s natural habitat, bringing them in conflict with humans. As the competition for space worsens each year, there are increasing instances of tigers attacking people and their domestic animals -- with villagers banding together to kill or poison the endangered cats.

It was only a few years ago that India confronted the threat of the tiger becoming extinct. Tigers in Sariska, for instance, were being poached by hunters or killed by villagers. Faced with losing the species completely, the Indian government launched a nationwide campaign to save it; since then, the government claims tiger numbers have increased from 1,411 in 2005 to 1,700, scattered among reserves and national parks across the country.

As part of that campaign, six tigers were sent to repopulate Sariska. They were fitted with collars to monitor their movements. If the collars break, however, officials are slow to replace them, resorting instead to outdated modes of tracking, such as identifying the tigers by their footprints (here, "pugmarks") or dung. Belinda Wright, a tiger conservationist pioneer in India, criticizes this “mismanagement.”

“It doesn’t make sense to have a collar on if it doesn’t work,” she says.

Nature enthusiasts, who use social media to play a role in tiger conservation, have created software to track the big cats online. It requires people to submit photos of the elusive animal to tigernation.org. ID software, according to its creators, recognizes tigers by their unique stripe patterns. “Just like fingerprints,” they say. “A massive database that catalogs every tiger photograph we receive, every sighting we hear about, and every drama in the wild.” (You can read more about it here.)

Man versus tiger

The tiger population in Sariska has been under duress. In 2010, a male tiger was poisoned to death here; since then, the tigresses haven’t been able to reproduce. Experts who have studied their droppings observed that levels of the hormone they need to reproduce are low.

“They are still tense in their surroundings and they need to be comfortable to carry a cub for its full term,” says Rajesh Gopal, who leads the national campaign “Project Tiger.”

A road carrying heavy traffic cuts across the reserve. At night, music blares from a hotel near its entrance. But it’s hard to ascertain which factors negatively impact the tigers' well being. For instance, tigers living in the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh have been able to reproduce despite the human habitation around them.

Sariska is also home to villagers who have lived there for generations -- some claim 40 generations. They make their livelihood from their livestock. The forest has long served as a free resource. Cattle and goats graze deep inside the reserve without paying any fee. Laws in India don’t allow forcible eviction of forest dwellers; they have to leave voluntarily.

The challenge is to protect the tiger while securing rights of people.

“Of course, it is scary for us to move around with the tigers roaming about. We are vulnerable to them and so are our animals,” says Bhauti, a villager. “The government should find a solution. It has become the tigers’ forest, not ours anymore," she adds.

So far, the government hasn’t been able to give them a deal that's sweet enough to compensate for the problems. The proposed package includes land, house, money, or some combination of the three.

“We refuse to move until we are given a proper package,” says Heera Lal, a villager. “This includes 10 bigha land with a bore well and 10 lakhs (approx. $20,000 --Ed.) for a house. Some villages are ready to go for less, but we are not.”

Project Tiger still doesn’t have enough funds to carry out a holistic rehabilitation program. Neither is there a deadline for securing this money. Finding new land to rehabilitate persons isn’t easy. “Land is a very rare commodity,” says Gopal. The government also sees some demands outside the realm of possibility. For instance, several villagers want land for minors in their family. They fear that once these children grow up, their older siblings may not want to split their share. “We don’t want family problems later on,” says Bhuri. “Here we have everything for free so why should we move for less than worth our while,” she adds.

Growing hostility

Villagers also insist government perception of their threat is exaggerated. They assert that a tiger eating one of their animals is seen as a good omen. “It means that five more will be born,” says Gangasai, another villager. The government offers compensation for the domestic animals that are killed by tigers. Villagers also believe that their presence keeps the animals safe since they guard against strangers entering Sariska.

Forest rangers contend that villagers have cleverly used the “friend of tiger” argument to generate public empathy so that they don’t have to leave. They say that villagers will accept money to help hunters enter the park or even poison tigers themselves. In March, a Sariska leopard was found caught in a snare; last week, the dismembered body of a tiger was found stuffed in bags outside a tiger reserve in Maharashtra.

Local media report equally the killing of tigers and the birth of new cubs.

Forest rangers say activities like grazing are eroding the local ecosystem, especially when villagers bring in their own relatives from outside; the villagers argue in return that heightened security could not prevent the death of the male tiger at Sariska. (Instead, they attribute tigresses’ failure to reproduce to God’s wrath, because of restrictions placed on their movements, as well as the constant presence of pilgrims, who visit a hugely popular Hindu temple located in the middle of the forest.)

The ongoing conflict between forest rangers and villagers in Sariska is seen as a failure. Animal conservationists say that because it is unlikely that the local government can get the villagers to move, it should provide them with incentives to help protect the tiger.

“It will be good to keep them positively engaged” says Gopal, suggesting that the Rajasthan government can deploy local people as forest guards.

Another consequence of the man-animal conflict has been stunted development for villages inside the forest. A pile of bricks, meant for a school, is still a pile in one village. Most of the villages do not have electricity. Officials argue that if every benefit is provided, the villagers will never leave.

“They don’t let us dispose of the dung -- heaps and heaps of dung,” says Gangasai. “It gets wet and flows into the water causing diseases both for our animals and the wild animals...it isn’t good for anyone.”

PHOTOS- Betwa Sharma/topnews.in

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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