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The War on India’s Tiger Reserves

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 15, 2015

(Photo: Aditya Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Aditya Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve been reporting a story lately in India, and one day’s drive between two important tiger reserves reminded me that wildlife survives here only in the face of endless challenges, and with almost all the money and power working in opposition.

The day started in Bhadra Tiger Preserve in the Western Ghats mountain range, and our destination was Kudremukh National Park, 75 miles to the west, with just a thread of wildlife corridor—less than a mile in width—connecting the two.

Bhadra is a beautiful forest with a dirt road winding among tall, straight teak trees. The tigers were in hiding, but there were chital deer in herds, and solo muntjac deer peering out at us nervously. A giant squirrel with big ears and a red tail half again as long as its body stared down. Yellow-toed green pigeons with gorgeous crimson wings busied themselves at a patch of mud.

People were the main challenge here, as everywhere in India. More than 700 families used to live in this forest, in 13 villages. The politically correct point of view, especially among human rights activists, is that indigenous people should stay in the forest, as an integral part of the natural world. There is plenty to be said for this point of view when loggers, palm oil producers, and oil companies hack down forests around tribal people who have always lived there.

But the reality in India

, according to Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society, is that village cattle graze down the vegetation, and village men routinely set snares for animals, decimating the population of native prey necessary for a place like Bhadra to be a tiger reserve in reality, not just in name. The villages also typically have no electricity; no water; no access to schools, medicine, or public transportation; and plenty of opportunities to bump into angry elephants. The government of India provides funds to help willing residents move out of protected tiger habitat onto nearby farmland. It’s a complicated process, like everything in India, but it happened here in 2002, and it’s the reason Bhadra is beginning to look like natural habitat.

The threats also come from outside, taking bites out of that slender thread of connecting habitat, said Akarsha B.M., a WCS employee for this area. (According to local custom, the “B” stands for his place of origin, the “M” for his father’s first name.) Corruption is everywhere in India, and by way of example, he pointed out a patch of forest just uphill from Bhadra. It’s part of the 39 square miles of forest around Bhadra categorized as “district revenue lands.” That means the deputy commissioner of the district can use the land for the public good as he interprets it, even giving it away to cronies for development. In this case, a local partner of a luxury resort chain obtained a 50-year lease on 30 acres of land at 1,000 rupees a year—about $15. The forest was already being cleared to create a five-star “ecotourism” resort that would, Akarsha said, have charged 30,000 rupees (about $450) a night. No tigers allowed. It took a lawsuit, lots of ugly infighting, and some embarrassing publicity for the hotel chain before a court canceled the contract.

Next stop was a proposed dam that would have permanently separated the two tiger reserves with a reservoir. Fighting these battles is a strategic game, said Akarsha, with the same handful of conservationists working through different organizations, wearing one hat to sue government agencies and another to work with them on mutually beneficial projects. In this case, it didn’t pay to fight the reservoir on conservation grounds. Instead, the conservationists prevented it from happening by stirring up protest from the communities that were also scheduled to be flooded in the process.

I

Akarsha B.M. in front of proposed mine site within the park. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Finally, we arrived at Kudremukh National Park, where the threat was an open-pit iron ore mine in the heart of the park. It was run by a company owned—go figure—by the Indian government. With its lease due to run out, the company wanted to excavate another section of the park, and it claimed to have compensated for its previous damage by planting nonnative trees on a section of the park that, on account of local wind patterns, should have remained grassland. Like most such fights, this one took 10 years of persistent campaigning and litigation by conservationists before the mine was shut down.

Later in the day, Akarsha and I got caught for hours in standstill traffic in both directions on a road that cut directly through the wildlife corridor. All of us had places to go, things to do, dreams to achieve. But a tiger would have had to make its way across on our rooftops, and it’s no easier at night, Akarsha said. Truck traffic is heavy then, to supply the raw materials for India’s rapidly growing economy.

I was impressed by the untiring work of groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society to keep some vestige of habitat intact in such a world. But I was equally in awe of the odds against them. Sending money helps. But if we want tigers or pretty much anything else to survive on our hot, crowded planet, we are all going to need to learn to live with less. How do you sell that message to 1.2 billion Indians who have every reason to think it’s their turn to live large?

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