The uproar over the reduction in numbers of our wild animals is not new. I was still a young girl when Project Tiger was introduced way back in 1973. I welcomed that initiative, and for many years thereafter, I did not for a moment doubt the likely success of the policies adopted in response to the dwindling numbers. But as I grew older, and in particular started working with indigenous people, I also began to see the other side of wildlife protection projects and laws.
I observed repeatedly that animal protection projects not only ignore the wisdom of the indigenous people, but actually eliminate them from the very forests that are their homes. This approach, it has all along been clear, was doomed to fail. As a result, the early faith I had in our conservation projects began to waver some years ago. And the the last straw came with the recent revelation that there has been a reduction in the tiger population even since Project Tiger was launched 33 years ago!
It is time that some hard questions are asked, and our wildlife projects truthfully evaluated. Here I wish to bring to light some of the experiences I have had as a human rights activist over last few decades concerning our wild life polices.
The Maldharies (traditional cattle breeders) have since time immemorial shared their space with lions in the world-renowned Gir forest, the last remaining abode of Asiatic lions in Saurashtra, Gujarat. Having lived in the Gir for generations in their austere settlements (called ness), they have unparalleled knowledge of the forest, its geography, biodiversity, and its animals. Sadly, as this knowledge has been passed down orally from one generation to the next, and gathered while roaming about in the forest grazing cattle, it has no formal recognition. Instead, only the degrees handed out in colleges are 'recognised'; the Forest Department places no importance on the natives' immense local knowledge.
It was therefore saddening when in the early 1970s the government decided to clear parts of Gir of many of their traditional dwellings within the forest. This move was part of a larger pattern of wildlife protection initiatives in India - to remove human settlements in order to protect wild life in forests. Ironically, however, while the residents of the area were removed, the Forest Department bolstered tourism! For those of us who have seen the life of the Maldharies as an integral part of the Gir, their removal and the influx of tourists instead was very distressing.
Subsequently in 1987, I happened to visit the rehabilitation sites of these Maldharies after their displacement. Their plight was no different from those displaced by developmental projects everywhere else in India. The government had given them agricultural lands for livelihood. Being cattle breeders, they had no knowledge of agriculture, and this experiment proved disastrous. And yet, their displacement was thought necessary to protect the territory of lions.
Lions in Gir forest.
(Photo by Snehal Bhavsar).
My visits to The Gir National park continued regularly in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade. But Gir was not the same anymore. Earlier we could spot a lion on the first day of our visit itself, but now we retuned without seeing one even after days of tracking. I contacted an animal rights activist in the area to suggest the right places to spot lions. She suggested an area outside the park to me. And sure enough, we spotted a pride of lions within the first few hours of our arrival there. This was surprising, and I wondered why was it not possible to see lions in the protected core area whereas one could spot them fairly quickly outside the National park, closer to human settlements.
This observation, it turend out, was not nearly as startling as I imagined. Not only were the lions outside the protected core areas, it was now being reported in newspapers that the animals were being seen on the Saurashtra seacoast - not their natural habitat at all. It was also reported that a pride of lions had settled near Palitana, a hundred kilometres from Gir.
Gir no longer remained the only home of Asiatic lions, and this led to the assumption that the policy of declaring parts of Gir forest as a National Park and removing human settlements within these parts had helped increase the lion population so much that they were now moving to newer areas.
In private conversations, however, forest officials were more forthcoming. One senior forest officer revealed this, "The lions need open spaces. They cannot live or hunt in thick forests. After we removed the human settlements from the core area, the forest has become very thick. This is not suitable, and the lions have moved out to areas with thinner vegetation. If we want the lions back into the National Park now, what we need is thinning down of the forest!"
He reaffirmed, "Earlier, the human settlement ensured the forest to be exactly of the type conducive to lions. Their cattle grazed in the forest and so the growth of vegetation was restricted. They cut wood for their fuel requirement and so; there were open spaces for lions to hunt. But now the core area is too thick a forest, and the lions have moved out to the costal belt and as far as even Bhavnagar." To confirm what this officer was saying, I crossed checked the information with a wildlife expert at Dehradun Wild Life Institute. He admitted that the lions have indeed moved out of the Gir National Park, but provided a different reason. "Forty per cent of the prey of lions was the old, sick and sometimes abandoned livestock of the Maldharies living in the ness. Since the people and their livestock have been removed, there is a 40 per cent reduction in the food available for the lions, and so they have moved out," he said quite clearly.
Whatever the reason - heavy woodedness, or dwindling prey - this was a complete contradiction of the forest policy pursued in our country of removing human settlements from National Parks and sanctuaries. The threat in continuing this policy is not just to the livelihood of the locals and the knowledge they have of the forests, but also to the very wildlife for which they are being removed - this is true at least as far as the Gir National Park is concerned.
Leaving tracks in MP too
While the life of the Maldharies has been disrupted in the Gir in the name of protecting its lions, the same has happened to the tribals of over 20 villages a thousand kilometres away in Madhya Pradesh, for a different reason, but also in the name of the same lions.
Last month, I had an opportunity to visit Ahira village near Pohari, situated on the periphery of the Kuno Sanctuary, along with members of a local organisation working in the area. This is what the tribal inhabitants and the activists had to say, "Some twenty odd villages were displaced eight to ten years ago to make way for the lions from Gujarat. None of these villages have been rehabilitated properly and the people have been impoverished. The income of people in villages similar to Ahira on the periphery of the sanctuary has also been severely reduced, as several restrictions have been imposed on economic activities in and around the forest. And the irony of it all is that the lions too have not arrived after having put us all through so much distress!"
And why have the lions not been relocated here, even years after the human population was disrupted? The government of Gujarat wants to maintain an exclusive right over the lion population, come what may, even if doing so would mean that the lions themselves would be under higher risk from catastrophic events. Amidst all this chaos, no one is held answerable for the premature and needless eviction of hundreds of indigenous people from their ancestral lands for an ill-prepared scheme like this.
Mindless disruption of human settlements, and the corresponding restrictions on the traditional rights of people living within forests serves no purpose, to say the least, and sometimes even destroys the very wildlife for which it is being done. Though some forest officers informally accept this, it is not officially voiced. Some of us asked the forest department officer at Gir why was he not voicing his opinion that the removal of the Maldharies from Gir National Park has affected both the people and the lion population? He replied, "Who wants to bell the cat?"