“When transfers (of forest officials) happen, there's virtually no handing over (of charge from one forest officer to another). Very often the outgoing officer doesn't get to meet the incoming officer,” rues Shekar. Having spent years in jungles making avant-garde wildlife films like A Cooperative for Snake Catchers, Silent Valley – An Indian Rainforest, Mindless Mining – The Tragedy of Kudremukh, Monitoring Tigers and their Prey and SOS – Save Our Sholas, Dattatri regrets the absence of a single model national park in India.
He explains that forest management in India lacks continuity. “An officer shifts from raising eucalyptus plantations to protecting wildlife. They have to start from scratch each time,” he says.
In Coimbatore recently to screen his film The Truth about Tigers , Shekar says that India's national animal could be saved with efficient forest governance and a public-private partnership. He reveals that there is a shortage of frontline staff like anti poaching watchers (APWs), fire watchers and forest guards.
“The condition of APWs is pitiable. They often work without torch lights or weapons and sometimes their salaries are held up for six months,” he explains.
“The rot,” he says, “set in the early nineties.” By then Project Tiger had succeeded in increasing the tiger population from its precarious level in the seventies. The early pioneers of the project were highly motivated and took up conservation as a national mission. The inheritors of their legacy turned complacent and got bogged down with schemes like World Bank's Ecodevelopment Project, explains Shekar.
The project gave “hundreds of crores to forest departments to alleviate the living conditions of communities around the forest by giving them cooking gas, alternative livelihoods and microfinance. The spending spree killed the time and inclination for wildlife protection,” he adds.
Even after the project concluded in 2002, this tradition of spending money on roads, rest houses, watchtowers and “habitat improvement works” continues. Administrative reform is needed to bring down paper work and unnecessary expenditure, so that officers go out and protect our forests, he says.
All's not well
“If they (forest departments) say everything is fine, then they are fooling themselves. Anyone can loot our forests because protection is in tatters,” he says. His film The Truth about Tigers shows how organised poaching gangs have wiped out tigers, with impunity, in reserve after reserve. It also shows the human-animal conflict and retaliatory killings as human pressure of forest land increases. People send cattle into the forest for grazing. These cattle become easy prey for the tiger. When a kill occurs, herders usually poison the carcass with pesticide to kill the tiger.
Shekar says this is because of the low compensation paid for cattle loss and the red tape one has to surpass to get the refund. The cattle are usually of less-milk-yielding breeds and are mainly kept for the manure they provide. If milk co-operatives have a good marketing scheme and herders are given high-yielding cattle and fodder, herders wouldn't need to graze their cattle in forests. But politicians often pressurise committed foresters to let herders in, he says.
Herders often set fire to forest pastures in summer, to stimulate new grass. This kills non-fire resistant species on which the tigers' prey feed on. It also makes it difficult for tigers to den. The fires also stimulate the germination of weeds like lantana, which kill native species of the forest.
“Lakhs are being spent of lantana eradication when it cannot be eradicated. As the canopy grows lantana gets limited on its own. It just needs to be protected from fire,” he explains.
Man vs. Tiger
“People can only thrive outside forests. We need to get rid of romantic notions of forest life,” says Shekar emphatically. He cites the example of the Mountadan Chetties, an indigenous community within the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. “They find it tough to cultivate, there are no schools and no hospitals for 15 to 20km. They are pleading to be resettled and even got a court order five years ago, but the government is dragging its feet,” he reveals.
“I made this film because our knowledge on tigers is sketchy. I've talked to leading experts so you can ask the right questions and demand the right action to save our tigers. Whenever there's a conflict, it's the tiger that loses,” he states.
You can order the DVD of The Truth about Tigers for free and also learn more about tigers and conserving them at www.truthabouttigers.org. The film is available in Tamil and English. For getting involved in conservation in Coimbatore contact Osai environmental organization at 9443022655 or 0422 4372457.