RANTHAMBHORE, INDIA — FOR every sparse, thin tree along the uneven two-lane road leading to Ranthambhore National Park here, there seems to be the stump of another. Goats nibble and chew the leaves off the wiry bushes that cover the craggy hills. Sometimes thin people - too thin - walk along the bare, beige earth, far from the road, carrying loads of firewood on their heads.
Inside the park, the temperature drops several degrees amid the dense foliage. In one area, the forest gives way to a broad, blond savanna leading down to a marshy pond where kingfishers and Brahma ducks congregate.
Elsewhere, Indian and foreign tourists, much better fed than the people outside the park, ask their jeep drivers to stop, training their cameras on a crocodile lying in the sun, its toothy jaws agape.
To the Rajasthani farmers and shepherds on the park's periphery, this is a painful contrast. They are a "hungry population," says Fateh Singh Rathore, a former park director who lives on a farm just outside Ranthambhore.
When his impoverished neighbors look at the park, he says, they don't see one of India's most prized tiger reserves. They see fodder for their livestock, firewood for cooking, and a source of lucrative timber - all being protected for the pleasure of tourists.
"If you want to protect your park, then you have to ... take care of the people," says Mr. Rathore, a sometimes gruff man whose foulard tie and handlebar moustache give him the look of an intrepid wildlife warden.
Rathore's view is part of a growing consensus among both official and private conservationists in India.
"Basically we have only one problem," says S. Deb Roy, India's director of wildlife preservation, "and that is the human population problem. The pressure has built up so much."
Mr. Roy and other officials say that the way to preserve wild animals and their habitats is to help the humans who live nearby by developing programs to lessen their economic dependence on the natural resources that parks protect.
"The whole philosophy of a national park has to be changed," asserts a tour operator who has traveled India's parks for a decade. "In a democracy you can't have a national park as a fortress. It has to be a people's park."
FOLLOWING the lead of conservation programs in Kenya, Costa Rica, and other countries, India is about to embrace "ecodevelopment," a strategy that emphasizes providing for the needs of neighboring people.
The World Bank and two United Nations agencies are reviewing plans to fund pilot ecodevelopment projects here through a $12 million grant, according to a World Bank official in Washington. The money, combined with as yet unspecified resources from the Indian government, will facilitate this change in India's approach to conservation, says another senior wildlife official in New Delhi.
Ecodevelopment in India is not completely without critics. Some observers, like former Ranthambhore director Rathore, say that the government is understaffed and disinclined to make the strategy work. He points to three years of less than successful ecodevelopment attempts at Ranthambhore, where the government has set up trial programs.
The most radical opposition comes from the founding director of India's renowned Project Tiger, Kailash Sankhala, who insists that the fortress approach is the correct one [see related story, left].
For almost 20 years, conservation efforts in India have focused on the Bengal tiger, which has become a symbol of India's ecological heritage. Thanks in large part to Project Tiger, the government's 1989 census found 4,334 tigers in the country, up from an estimated 1,827 in 1972.
The project has also enjoyed high-profile political support from both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi during their tenures as prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi even spent New Year's Eve at Ranthambhore in 1989, and "his party saw tigers for breakfast as well as for afternoon tea," recalls Mr. Sankhala.
Unfortunately for some visitors, it isn't as easy as it used to be to see a tiger here. Tourists greet each other at dinner by saying, "So, did you see one today?"
Not seeing a tiger begins to feel like some sort of personal failing after a day or two. Too much of this feline rejection, and a visitor starts to resent the excited recollections of children who were in the right place at the right time.
During a visit in March, senior park administrator Tejveer Singh acknowledged that tiger sightings have gone down compared with previous years. But he denied that the park's tiger population has suffered a steep decline.
That charge is made by former director Rathore. He says flatly that fewer than 10 tigers inhabit the park; Mr. Singh says last year's census showed 45 tigers.
Arin Ghosh, the national director of Project Tiger, says Rathore's charge is motivated by a personal dispute with his former employers in state government.
"If you want someone to say the tiger population has gone up," he says during an interview in his New Delhi office, "I can find many people who can say it." Mr. Ghosh and Singh say tigers change their routines, and that fewer sightings don't mean fewer tigers.
That may not mollify disappointed tourists, who arrive having heard tales of plentiful felines. One American freelance wildlife photographer, who'd spent five days in the park, complained of having seen only the rear end of a tiger, and that only briefly.
The glamour of some of Ranthambhore's visitors and its large cats may explain why the government has chosen to test the ecodevelopment approach here. But Ranthambhore and its tigers may well be in danger.
VALMIK Thapar, a writer and environmental activist who has co-authored several books on Ranthambhore's tigers with Rathore, says the illegal collecting of timber, grazing of livestock, and gathering of firewood is jeopardizing the national park. Mr. Thapar is reluctant to put the blame for this encroachment on nearby villagers; instead, he says, the fault lies with "the quick buck that is made by the middleman, by the trader, and by the forest guard."
To counteract these problems, says park administrator Singh, the government has created pastures that will generate fodder and firewood. He adds that the government is working on the introduction of better quality cattle that will produce more milk and more income and thus reduce the number of livestock needed in the area. Cooking fuel other than wood, such as liquid propane gas, will also be introduced.
The government also wants to provide better veterinary, medical, and educational facilities for the villagers who live near Ranthambhore, says Project Tiger director Ghosh.
But Rathore and Thapar are unconvinced by the government's good intentions.
"Nobody's there to really do this work," Rathore says. "They have spent millions of rupees [to demarcate pastures] but they have not been able to [grow] a single pasture land." The government, he asserts, has yet to introduce new strains of cattle, educate or consult villagers about ecodevelopment, or improve available veterinary care.
Ghosh, a sober, dark-haired man who works under a full-color portrait of a tiger, acknowledges that the only tangible result of ecodevelopment at Ranthambhore has been the as-yet infertile pastures.
But he disputes that new education and veterinary officers should be assigned to the Project Tiger staff, saying it's "not a matter of more people."
"We want to reorient and reorganize and reassign [existing] people to new duties," he says, in order to bring about ecodevelopment. "We have our own constraints, and maybe we can't measure up to the expectations of everybody."
Toward that end, Thapar and others created the nonprofit Ranthambhore Foundation in 1988 to "prevent the degradation of the forest ... by assisting the rural communities that encircle these areas," according to the foundation's first brochure.
The foundation has since worked with other nongovernmental organizations to provide those communities with primary health care, help market local artwork and handicrafts, introduce better strains of cattle, and educate villagers about the park and the environment. Twenty-six people work full time on these and other projects, Thapar says.
Thapar says it was a great shock when he realized that the future of the tiger and its habitat depended not so much on addressing the animal's needs as on addressing those of the people who coexist with the land. "I had to relearn everything I knew about" conservation, he says.
"There is a lot more to do," says national wildlife director Roy. Ecodevelopment is "not a forests or wildlife matter," he says. "It's a matter of social development."