Saving tigers is a never-ending task

November 11, 2007|By Chicago Tribune

NAGARJUNA SAGAR TIGER RESERVE, India -- Early this year, when villagers discovered a huge male tiger trapped in an abandoned well in this largest of India's tiger preserves, they did a remarkable thing: They constructed a handmade rope-and-bamboo ladder, lowered it into the well and set the big cat free.

And when India's most notorious gang of tiger poachers showed up in the park and began setting traps, an angry band of local forest dwellers, bows and arrows drawn, ambushed the interlopers and arrested them. Many are now in jail.

Tigers are vanishing in India. Five years ago, the country had 3,700. Today, scientists say, there are fewer than 1,500, most in scattered small reserves.

Poachers, feeding a Chinese market hungry for tiger skins and bone, have taken a share, clearing some reserves of all remaining big cats. Incursions by land-hungry peasants and their livestock have eaten away at other parks. Armed Maoist rebels, who favor the same remote forests as cats, have made some reserves impossible to patrol.

Now India's government is considering a bill to hand as much as two-thirds of the land set aside as tiger reserves to landless peasants, a move that tiger activists fear would be a final death sentence for wild tigers in India.

"If things continue the way they've been going, then there's no hope," said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India and a passionate tiger advocate.

But in Nagarjuna Sagar, a sprawling tiger reserve of more than 1,000 square miles in southeast India, tigers are holding on thanks to an innovative campaign by local conservationists, who have quit trying to evict villagers and even extremist rebels from the park and instead won them over to the tiger cause.

Saving tigers "is more about managing people than managing animals," said K. Thulsi Rao , an assistant state forest officer, head of biodiversity research at the reserve and the mastermind of Nagarjuna Sagar's people-friendly conservation approach.

"If you address people's needs, the rest is taken care of," he said. "When you make people the partners of management, there is really a lot of change."

Nagarjuna Sagar, split by the mighty Krishna River, doesn't look much like a traditional wildlife sanctuary. The park is the site of a huge hydroelectric dam and a popular religious shrine, which draws millions of Hindu pilgrims each year. Heavy traffic plies paved roads cut through the open forestland, and herds of goats, water buffalo and cattle meander along the roadsides.

Perhaps most troubling, nearly 120 small villages lie within the boundaries of the hilly park, including 22 settlements in the reserve's core conservation area, which under Indian law is supposed to be free of human inhabitants.

When Rao arrived at the reserve in 1994, its forests were full of Naxals, India's homegrown Maoist rebels. The rebels had recently shot dead one of the forest service's best rangers, at point-blank range, and had forbidden others from entering the woods.

Villagers in the park, fed up with a government program that paid them only a third of the value of any livestock killed by tigers, were pouring pesticides on livestock carcasses and poisoning the cats.

Neighbors of the reserve, with the approval of the populist Naxals, were leveling large sections of the woods for firewood to sell, selectively felling the forest's valuable teak trees or bringing in huge herds of cattle to graze.

Efforts to evict villagers living in the core of the reserve had ground to a halt, and the reserve's tiger population, which once topped 80, had fallen to fewer than 40.

Rao, who had a background in eco-development efforts, decided the Naxals were the reserve's biggest problem. When the government lifted a shoot-on-sight order against the rebels soon after his arrival, the new forest officer headed into the woods to talk to them, armed only with 600 slides and a presentation on the philosophical merits of conservation.

Told by a Naxal leader that the forest service cared more about animals than people, he argued that man also relied on the forest, and that if it disappeared the people - not to mention the Maoists - would have lost their livelihood and home.

The next day, to everyone's surprise, the Naxals issued a ban on woodcutting in Nagarjuna Sagar.

Rao also went to visit woodcutter villages outside the reserve, where rangers had long been greeted by men waving axes and angry women trying to blow chili powder into their eyes.

Insisting he would listen to their concerns, he discovered that people hated being treated as thieves, struggled to survive on $2 a day as woodcutters and would have preferred farming but had no water for irrigation.

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