Early in 2005, a vigorous debate broke out within India about the status of the country's national animal, the tiger. Reports began appearing in the press suggesting that there had been an alarming drop in the animal's numbers. In several formally notified Project Tiger sanctuaries, such as Sariska, no tigers were spotted for weeks on end. Anecdotal evidence from other parks - particularly those in northern India - also confirmed the decline. This fresh manifestation of a 'tiger crisis' led to the prime minister constituting a Tiger Task Force, and, beyond this, to a wider debate on the best means of preventing the tiger from sliding into extinction.

As it happens, with this debate on the tiger was commenced, simultaneously, a debate on the rights of adivasis in forest areas. This was sparked off by a new legislation proposed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, which seeks to give 'a permanent stake to scheduled tribes' living in the forests. Based on the (correct) presumption that the colonial regime had committed a 'historic wrong' in wresting rights of forest ownership from the tribals, the new law wishes to make amends, by now involving them more directly in forest use and forest conservation.

The tribal rights bill has been vigorously opposed by wildlife conservationists. In their view, it would only put further pressure on the natural forests that are the last remaining redoubt of the tiger. The prominent conservationist, Valmik Thapar, insists that "tigers have to be saved in undisturbed, inviolate landscapes... You either create landscapes that are undisturbed, or you don't save tigers. As far as I'm concerned, tigers and human beings - forest dwellers or tribal peoples - cannot co-exist."

"... tigers have to be saved in undisturbed, inviolate landscapes... You either create landscapes that are undisturbed, or you don't save tigers. As far as I'm concerned, tigers and human beings - forest dwellers or tribal peoples - cannot co-exist."

- Valmik Thapar

 •  Understanding encroachments
 •  Forest fights, Indian style
 •  Recognition of forest rights
 •  "They are people too"
On the other side, anthropologists and tribal activists dismiss the views of such conservationists as arrogant and elitist, as putting the interests of animals above that of poor humans. Elitist these views probably are, and very definitely unhistorical. For, in fact, tigers and tribals have co-existed for centuries in India. True, in some parts they now compete for survival and subsistence. But the reason for that is that the living space and natural resources of both have shrunk because of economic processes powered by humans who are not tigers, nor tribals either. The shrinkage of the tiger's habitat, and the shrinking of their numbers, is the result of such things as large dams, iron ore mines, and menus in Beijing and Taipei restaurants - in sum, the result of the lifestyle of the urban elite and the industrial and commercial interests that go with them. It is fair to say that in the unfolding of these processes, the tribal has been almost as much a victim as the tiger itself. The solution urged by Thapar and his colleagues is to punish one victim in order, ostensibly, to save the other.

The media, naturally, have seized on this debate between 'the tiger' and 'the tribal'. However, two recent and quite soberly presented reports allow us to go beyond these polarized positions, towards a more scientific approach with regard to biodiversity conservation in India. The first is a fascinating study of the country's biodiversity commissioned in 2000 by the ministry of environment and forests, and coordinated by the pioneering environmental group, Kalpavriksh. Covering all of India's states and Union territories, this was the most participatory exercise in environmental planning ever undertaken in the country's history. (It is also, most likely, without parallel elsewhere in the world.) Kalpavriksh worked with state and Central governments, NGOs, scientists, and peasant and tribal communities to produce nearly one hundred plans, these grouped under political regimes, ecological zones and subject themes. Each report aimed at integrating the ecological security of the region or state with the livelihood security of those humans who most critically depended on its biodiversity. It studied and critically assessed biodiversity in the wild as well as in cultivated areas, and gave a special focus to the rights of women and children (the main cultivators and collectors of this biodiversity).

These various specific studies have been synthesized in a 'final technical report' entitled Securing India's Future (see this link for more). Where traditional conservation focusses merely on saving large mammals - those 'megacharismatic metavertebrates' - what we have here is a far more sophisticated approach, and in at least three respects. First, it is ecumenical with regard to scale, whereby small patches of refugia, such as sacred groves or ponds, are given the same loving attention as are large areas of wilderness. Second, it is ecumenical with regard to species, with rare plants (including cultivated plants) and insects being valued along with megacharismatic metavertebrates. Third, it respects not just the human rights, but also the knowledge systems of local communities, in order to incorporate folk ecological knowledge in the management of conservation regimes.

This final technical report, summarizing all the others, recommends that in matters pertaining to biodiversity management, "the State becomes a facilitator rather than a ruler", by nurturing "a decentralized natural resource governance structure". It argues that a viable long-term policy must "strengthen and support community conservation areas - across the entire rural land/waterscape".

As it happens, the report of the Tiger Task Force, also just published, likewise recommends a shift from 'exclusive' to more 'inclusive' methods of national park management. It deplores the tendency of "tiger lovers ... to band together into a select group that would control policy and programme formulation" in the "belief that the tiger can only be protected by building stronger and higher fences against 'depredators'". In contrast to this centralizing perspective, the task force draws attention to the vulnerability and suffering of the underprivileged Indians who "share their resources with the tiger, without getting any benefits in return ... To succeed, tiger conservation ... has to bring benefits to [these] poor people."

How might this be accomplished? One way is to turn those who lived in and around national parks "into the frontline defenders of the forests and protected areas, rather than see them as antagonists". Their knowledge and skills could be used to guide researchers and eco-tourists, rather than poachers. Rather than ban all human use of the forests, the state might encourage the sustainable extraction of non-timber forest produce, such as honey, as was in fact being done, very successfully, in some parks in south India. The choice was between working with local people "to create situations in which they can live within the rules of the protected areas and in fact to strengthen [their] protection", or working against them "so that they increasingly turn against the protected areas and animals". If the latter alternative was preferred, warns the report, the state would have to "invest more and more into protection - more fences, guns and guards. Maybe we will win. But it is more likely we will lose".

Both within the state bureaucracy, and among traditional wildlifers, there is a strong resistance to change, a knee-jerk reliance on a narrow-minded, centralizing and essentially punitive approach to conservation.
These two quite outstanding reports draw on years of cutting-edge research by Indian scientists. Thus, biologists like Raman Sukumar have shown how it is possible to resolve conflicts between large mammals and vulnerable villagers living in and around park areas. Sociologists like Ashish Kothari have convincingly argued that, in the long run, only a more participatory approach will save the forests and their varied inhabitants. And ecologists like Madhav Gadgil have outlined how conservation needs to move outwards, from saving species towards protecting habitats and biodiversity as a whole.

The three scholars mentioned in the previous paragraph are all internationally renowned for their work. They are regarded, outside India, as global pioneers. Sadly, they have sometimes been prophets without honour in their own country. For both within the state bureaucracy, and among traditional wildlifers, there is a strong resistance to change, a knee-jerk reliance on a narrow-minded, centralizing and essentially punitive approach to conservation. This makes it all the more necessary that these truly visionary documents do not gather dust in sarkari offices. It was the government which commissioned these reports; pressure must now be brought to bear to ensure that they are implemented. For the lesson of our past conservation failures is simply this - that India's unparalleled riches of biodiversity can only be protected by working with, rather than against, the rural and tribal communities who live closest to them.