Conservation at crossroads – Science, society and the future of India’s wildlife – A talk by Ghazala Shahabuddin

This article by Amita Bhaduri describes Ghazala Shahabuddin’s recent talk on the malaise underlying India’s dominant conservation paradigm

Ghazala Shahabuddin’s recent talk on 30th August, 2012 at IIC, New Delhi focused on the malaise underlying India’s dominant conservation paradigm, which is for the most part one of top-down control and exclusion. Her lecture drew heavily from her book by the same name where she has used the Sariska Tiger Reserve as one of its major anchors, to analyze the historical, socio-political, and biological contexts of nature conservation in the country.

Ravi Singh, WWF India while chairing the session drew attention to how in India, the issue of relocation has ac­quired centre-stage in debates on biodiversity conservation. He attempted to reconcile social equity with biodiversity goals. He also spoke about the commonly held notion that environmentalism is “elitist" and how this influences on the credibility of environmental research.


Tiger at Sariska Reserve, Image courtesy:

Ghazala began her lecture with an account of the Sariska reserve, earmarked for tiger conservation. In July 2005, news appeared that tiger had become extinct in the reserve based on accounts of researchers of Wildlife Institute of India. Loss of tiger led to a lot of hue and cry as it is our national animal.

Unfortunately, in the entire discourse over tiger disappearance, a historical overview of the nature of forest use and rights in the tiger reserve was overlooked. A deeper delving into the long-term causes of habitat degradation or tiger poaching was not done by the forest bureaucracy. Ghazala attempted to draw attention to these aspects to understand the current conflict between the park management and the people.

Sariska Tiger Reserve: Bureaucratic knee-jerk reactions to tiger extinction

Sariska tiger reserve, spread over 866 sq km in Rajasthan, presented a typical example of increasing pressures for relocation, which turned out to be problematic both from an ecological as well as human point of view. This hunting reserve for the former rajahs has later (post 1930s) seen a lot of commercial extraction of dry deciduous species like Anogeissus pendula (Dhok) and Acacia catechu (Katha). In the post independence period too, the Forest Department continued with extensive working of the forests for timber extraction.

Villages and cattle-camps continued to exist even after the sanctuary notification in 1958. The tiger reserve notification was passed in 1979. People in around eleven gujjar dominated villages in the core zone of the tiger reserve continued to be in an indeterminate state. Ghazala noted that by the time tiger disappeared, sixty per cent of the reserve forests were highly degraded with very low regeneration of native trees and shrubs. This had led to low numbers of herbivore prey, such as chinkara and four horned antelope typical of semi-arid forest tracts. Tiger numbers were down to less than ten by 2000. Parts of the buffer area were severely degraded.

The area had a history of failed displacement and removal of cattle camps because of inadequate land allotments and cash compensations paid to the villagers. The areas allotted to relocated people were not cultivable because of the rocky character. These villages did not see development because the wildlife protection act did not permit developmental activities such as roads, schools etc.

The forest bureaucracy and wildlife biologists lay the blame of biodiversity decline squarely on forest resource extraction through grazing and fuelwood collection by local villagers. Most information on human impacts was anecdotal and not based on scientific studies. Timbering and charcoal production by the state was ignored while more recent use by locals was highlighted. The influence of tourism, mining or external extractive pressures was ignored.

The tiger crisis was followed by a period which saw relocation as the only tool to conserve biodiversity in Sariska. The report of the Rajasthan State Empowered Committee on Forests set up in 2005 to investigate into the tiger ‘crisis’ noted that “In Sariska, all the reasons responsible for disappearance of tigers in toto zero in on one single factor and that is the large number of villages inside the Reserve, where no successful rehabilitation of villages has ever taken place. Therefore poachers could shelter in the villages of the area and kill tigers.

The immediate governmental response to the crisis was of stepping up of armed protection of the reserve area and bringing in of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate poaching. Senior officials were transferred and two villagers arrested for poaching. Some improvements were made in the relocation processes by 2007 but till date there is a lot of resistance from locals to moving out of the park.

Reframing conservation strategy for Sariska

Ghazala then went on to present an approach to improve the effectiveness of wildlife conservation in Sariska. Just and equitable relocation of the villages of the core zone was suggested apart from creation of livelihood alternatives for peripheral villages. She also suggested equitable compensatory mechanisms and positive interactions between villages and the reserve management. Improvement of the capacities and numbers of personnel as well as the infrastructure for protection was called for. Finally, in the longer-term, there was a need to plan for improved management of buffer zone as a multiple use area that contributes to biodiversity conservation inside the core zone.

The recent Tiger Task Force Report called for reconsidering relocation from the core areas of the tiger reserves in terms of who is to be relocated and how, while seeking a transparent and open process of deci­sion-making. It also stated that there is a need for scientific studies on controlled extraction. It stressed the need for buffer zone management and reforestation so that pressure could be somewhat relieved on core zones. More involvement of external independent scientists and experts in management was recommended. Formation of Reserve Advisory Committees that would have experts of various disciplines was highlighted. These Committees have not been set up till date.

The forest bureaucracy decided to ‘re-introduce tigers' and that necessitated the revival of forest habitat. Several new institutions were created and the emphasis was on tiger protection rather than on improving people-park relation. Amendments were made in Wildlife Protection Act aimed to increase the punishment in case of wildlife related crimes. An elite Tiger Protection Force was set up out of retired army personnel and protection of the reserve was stepped up. An overhaul of conservation science was sought by redoing a mammoth tiger census. Pugmark methods were to be phased out and more statistically viable scientific methods were to be introduced.

The reintroduction of tigers involved their tranquilization and air lifting and this became a matter of pride for the wildlife bureaucracy. Questions were raised by some biologists regarding the viability of tiger population because there was no “social matrix” to absorb the newly introduced tiger. The planning for this had not really been done. The viability of this small population to survive over the long term came into question. The original ‘threat’ to the big cat remained unaddressed.

“What was the point of spending so much of money in a place where you still had a highly hostile local environment, reduced prey and highly degraded habitat in the buffer zone?”, Ghazala observed.


A painting depicting Akbar, Mughal emperor of India hunting with locally trapped Indian Cheetahs, c. 1602. Akbar is said to have had 1,000 cheetahs at one time for assisting in his royal hunts. Source: Wikipedia

Cheetah reintroduction programme in India

Ghazala talked about the programme on reintroduction of the Asiatic cheetah in India. Cheetahs had been hunted into extinction in the country by the British Colonial Officers as well as the Indian Royalty. Their introduction involves the identification and restoration of the former grassland scrub forest habitats where they existed and the artificial re-establishment of a population of cheetahs into these.

Wildlife experts shortlisted some regions like the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh that have the potential to support cheetah population. This area has a very important history of relocation, as in 2002-04, twenty four tribal villages were relocated because of the Government’s plans to reintroduce the Asiatic lion from Gir forests, Gujarat.

Ghazala noted that the cheetah introduction programme was fraught with problems. There were genetic issues as African cheetahs had characteristics that are not very similar to Indian cheetahs. Besides, the calculation of the prey density was faulty. There was a lack of a management plan for habitat restoration and species reintroduction. She said that the location chosen did not present an optimal habitat but was opted for mainly because of the ‘manageability’ of the people.

Though the Supreme Court has recently (May 2012) stayed the reintroduction of the cheetahs, the wildlife bureaucracy is very much in its favour. The proposed plan of cloning proposed by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad as also the option of breeding the cheetahs in captivity and then setting them free in protected, semi-arid habitats, and the problems with these alternatives was also discussed.

Science deficiency in conservation practice

Ghazala talked about how conservation practices are supposed to get refined by advancing scientific knowledge. In the context of tiger conservation in India she said that the state had a complete monopoly over research and independent scientists are discouraged. ‘Permit raj’ exists and only favoured few are allowed. Tiger reserves have become out of bounds for researchers since March 2012 ostensibly to reduce human interference. Foreign collaboration is discouraged and there is a lack of peer review in governmental set-up. There is no reference to landscape histories, local economies or local culture in most researches.

She raised a couple of questions regarding conservation in India. Who creates ‘legitimate knowledge’ about nature and ecosystem? Who makes the conservation decisions and why? What is the role of academia and of democracy in conservation? Can academics, local people, NGOs and forest managers have mutually beneficial relationships to restore the ecosystems?

A new ecology would entail recognition of economic, socio-cultural aspects and the role of history. The importance of traditional knowledge was highlighted. She talked of the concept of nature beyond borders. The need for corridors between reserves and sanctuaries and wildlife friendly habitat outside of reserves to absorb dispersing wildlife/ spillover was discussed.

There is a need for reducing pressure for biomass extraction on reserves. Cultural traditions that value wild flora and fauna need to be encouraged. Organic agriculture can play a role in maximizing diversity in cultivated landscapes, she said. She concluded with the optimism that there has been a revival of ecology based interventions at the grassroots level. This will open up spaces for more just approaches in biodiversity conser­vation.




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