Saving Wildlife - and Livelihoods. Sanctuaries have helped tiger population, but local residents suffer loss of land, attacks. INDIA: PROTECTING THE TIGER
RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK, INDIA — IN India, a country of more than 800 million people, man and beast are locked in a struggle to survive. In the process of trying to save endangered wildlife species, rural areas have become battlegrounds where too many people vie for too little land, and animals have become intruders in their own natural habitats.
For instance in Ranthambore National Park, a small sanctuary tucked among the arid hills of Rajasthan State, tigers and tourists have become an accepted, if not exactly welcome, sight among villagers living in the area.
The preserve and its visitors have boosted the local economy. But in return, local residents have had to surrender - sometimes violently - farming and grazing land, and fuel-wood supplies.
``We must maintain the sanctuary because it means Russian and American tourists for us,'' says farmer Jagdish Prasad, who lives a few miles from the park. ``We don't oppose the sanctuary for the tigers. But the government must look after our needs too.''
Indian conservationists say that gains have been made in saving seriously endangered species. For decades, India was a hunter's paradise as erstwhile maharajahs and their British masters accumulated big-game trophies. After independence in 1947, hunting remained a big draw for tourists, government and Army officials, and diplomats.
It was in 1973 - after an international outcry from conservationists - that the Indian government established nine sanctuaries to save the tiger, the symbol of India's endangered wildlife.
Today, the reserves of the heralded Project Tiger number 16, and the tiger population has doubled to more than 4,000. (It was 40,000 at century's beginning.)
Government officials also claim that poaching is being curbed, due to stricter controls on wildlife trade in India and internationally. Scores of rare beasts are killed annually, for example, the elephant for its tusks, and the rhinoceros whose horn is ground and valued in Asia for medical tonics and aphrodisiacs.
Still, India's wildlife faces the threat of a fast-growing population and the loss of thousands of acres of vital forests every year.
``The number of animals under threat today is less and the population of some of the animals has even been built back,'' says Ranjit Singh, the government's chief wildlife conservator and author of India's first wildlife protection legislation in 1972. ``But that doesn't doesn't mean they are all safe because the population pressures and the pressures on the land will only increase.''
Nowhere is that conflict for scarce space more evident than in the tiger sanctuaries. Tigers' expanding numbers are outgrowing the reserves, leading to increased incidents of on livestock and villagers. Officials estimate that about 50 people are killed yearly by tigers, although other observers say the number is higher.
In the mangrove forests of northeast India - the Sundarbans - fishermen and wood- and honey-gatherers have long fallen prey to man-eating tigers. But the threat has worsened in recent years with the migration of tigers from neighboring Bangladesh, where poaching is widespread.
Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh State has been hit by a spate of tiger deaths in recent years, as villagers try to preempt attacks on livestock and people.
At Ranthambore last fall, a nine-year-old boy, one of thousands of pilgrims visiting a Hindu temple inside the sanctuary, was dragged from a road by a tigress and killed. Park officials said the tigress was trying to cross the road and was disturbed by the presence of the crowd. It was the first attack of its kind at the park.
However, more common at Ranthambore is the villagers' bitterness over losing their homes, wood supplies, and grazing land as well as tiger killings of livestock. Twelve villages were shifted to create the 150-square-mile park. In separate incidents, a forester was killed by angry farmers and a field director of Project Tiger was severely beaten.
``This has been a deprivation for local people while no alternative has been offered,'' says Sharad Gaur, a biologist with World Wildlife Fund, India. ``They see the sanctuary as being managed by outsiders for outsiders.''
At Ranthambore and the national level, officials are now taking steps to ease animosity toward the sanctuaries. The park is planning a $5.5 million development scheme for adjacent villages. Elsewhere, plans are under way to create land buffers around the reserves and increase jobs for locals.
The new incentives for villagers anticipate a future need to expand the sanctuary at Ranthambore. Since 1973, the park's tiger population has jumped from 14 to 43, prompting the tigers to migrate outside the reserve. Officials are planning a new 230-square-mile addition, which now includes 25 villages.
``At first, we were giving the local people a hard look. But now we are changing,'' says Jaswant Singh Nathawat, field director of Project Tiger at Ranthambore. ``We need to show them that if they reduce pressure on the park, they stand to gain.''
Indeed, officials say the survival of wildlife ensures the survival of India's dwindling forests.
``People want to protect the tigers because they're nice and pretty, and attract tourists,'' says Ranjit Singh. ``But the main reason to protect the tiger is to protect the forest. Without the forest, you can't have the tiger.''