`Something's going wrong'



When the country woke up one morning to be told brusquely that Sariska's tigers were all gone, it stirred up a hot debate. Yet again. A wildlife crisis was on. Valmik Thapar, an anthropologist passionate about tigers, is today one of the world's leading tiger experts having studied, filmed and written about them for over 20 years. A member of the Tiger Task Force, he is vociferously in favour of creating undisturbed biospheres for tigers. Team him with the world's leading expert on the Asian elephant, Raman Sukumar of the Indian Institute of Science, fondly known as `Elephant Suku', and you have a spirited conversation on wildlife conservation, observes Bhumika K.

Sukumar believes in keeping forest land unfragmented and the two agree it's time a land-use policy was put in place. Sukumar, famed for his statement `If the tiger is the spirit of the forest, the elephant is its body', has been championing the preservation of forest corridors. MetroPlus: Wildlife is a non-issue till there's a disaster. But do we learn from crises?

Valmik: Whether we learn from a crisis or not is difficult to answer. Sariska's tigers are extinct so there's no back and forth on it. Ranthambore has lost maybe 10 to 15. Scientists in Panna are saying we've lost 24 tigers there. In Dampha, Namdapha, Indravati, Nagarjuna Sagar or Valmiki Tiger Reserves there are hardly any left. So this is a big wake-up call. But the message is not clear to everyone because you can still go to Nagarhole, Bandipur or Kaziranga which are still lovely. If this is the heart of our forest, the fingers are dropping off. Maybe we don't need to save the fingers but a policy decision has to be made about "what do we save".

Raman: Very often it's not just the animal population alone. It's a whole range of other elements — it's the fragmentation of habitat. Now that economic growth has been unleashed on the country, pressures have grown enormously for newer areas to be mined, railways and highways to be laid across the forest.

At the same time, invasive species like weeds and lantana have taken over large forest tracts. What impact is this having on the tigers, prey populations, elephants, biological diversity? It's not just the area of habitat but the habitat conditions.

Valmik: In North India, I've never lived through this kind of crisis in 30 years. Problems and sounds of problems are coming in from everywhere and your instincts tell you something is going wrong.

Raman: You see in the South, the problems are slightly different. In terms of animal populations I think we're okay — whether it's the tiger or the elephant. The South is considered overall to be wealthier than the North. So the developmental pressures here are larger as a direct consequence. Tourism, for instance. Resorts are coming up in a major way along the periphery of national parks and sanctuaries, sometimes in very critical areas. There's a demand now for a railway line between Mysore and Satyamangalam. This is going to slice right through Project Elephant Range No 7, which has Asia's largest elephant population and it also cuts through the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. What is this railway line going to do?

Valmik: It will bring more people and create more human disturbance. One thing is clear — tigers have to be saved in undisturbed, inviolate landscapes. You either create landscapes that are undisturbed, or you don't save tigers. As far as I'm concerned, tigers and human beings — forest dwellers or tribal people — cannot co-exist.

Raman: And sometimes when one agency does something for conservation, there's another that undoes the whole process. About 20 years ago, I had identified a crucial area in Bandipur as a wildlife corridor. I designated it as an Elephant Corridor because I study elephants; but it's also for tigers, leopards... all sorts of wildlife use it. This is strategically located between the Western and Eastern Ghats. It had narrowed down to an extremely narrow strip of jungle between a deep gorge and a settlement. After 15 years, I managed to get Project Elephant, Government of India, to put in money to strengthen and augment this corridor. And this was done finally in 2001. Very recently, I was aghast to learn that a resort is coming up at the edge of the corridor. They could have gone a few kilometres away.

Valmik: It's how you assess the landscape. If a resort is coming up, it requires to be investigated.

Raman: Fortunately, the Wildlife Warden reversed the decision recently. The other issue you talked about is the conflict between wildlife and the people. Increased fragmentation increases conflict. And when you have fragmented elephant habitats you have escalation of elephants coming into fields, trampling and killing people.

Valmik: Yeah. Two or three hundred people a year. I'm not saying every forest should have only tigers and there should be no tribal or local people. Let the country decide. You want 500 tigers, 1,000? Decide on the landscapes. Close the rest. Give tribal people their rights and trees. But don't play this game of having a debate over and over again.

Raman: There has to be a long-term land use policy. Not a short-term response to a crisis. We need one that plans over the next 25 to 50 years; and we have set goals for that time period. It's not that today we have a problem and tomorrow we react to it and then we forget about it. It must incorporate the needs of people and animals.

Valmik: And looking at what elephants and tigers need; not what we want from them! We've seen them live and die, we've seen them through good times and bad. We know what they need. We need to tell policymakers. Don't bring in bills and legislations that can destroy elephants and tigers! Which is what we are doing. Tribal Bills! It will kill them like this. (Snaps his fingers in a passionate rage).

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