Tigers don't need company

The report of the Tiger Task Force of the Government of India that was submitted to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently provides fresh confirmation, if any were needed, that the biggest threat to the future of the charismatic animal comes primarily from unsustainable population pressure on thinning forests. The Task Force headed by Sunita Narain, has displayed commendable transparency by making its report available in full on Project Tiger's website. The acknowledgment by the panel that inviolate forests are necessary to host viable tiger populations is an encouraging endorsement of established conservation practice. It has, however, missed the opportunity to recommend an immediate security blanket for the most vulnerable protected areas, based on important data available from recent scientific research. The report makes significant contributions to the policy debate on incorporation of good science in conservation, accurate assessment of tiger populations, protection against poaching, and harmonious tourism to generate funds for local communities; much-needed reform in the Ministry of Environment and Forests by way of creating a less bureaucratic, research-oriented wildlife wing is another positive recommendation. There can be little support, however, for the strident assertion made by the Task Force (with one member dissenting strongly) that in many places, people and tigers would have to co-exist, given the difficulty and expense involved in relocating an estimated 350,000 people from tiger reserves and nearly ten times that number from all protected areas, and the colossal failure of past rehabilitation programmes.

Conservationists, including the dissenting member of the Task Force, Valmik Thapar, have raised the pertinent question whether the deprivation among communities dwelling in and around forests can be overcome merely by enabling legal exploitation of protected areas that are the last bastions of the tiger, given that it has not been achieved using the rest of the available land. A well thought out policy will readily recognise the fallacy of the anachronistic "co-existence theory" as it is bound to pit more people against tigers with well-known consequences for conservation; tiger biology shows that the big cats simply do not survive without inviolate spaces. The sole option before the Government of India is to devote itself to a time-bound and liberal relocation programme. Funds for the rehabilitation of the forest-dwelling communities cannot be a constraint, considering that the budget of just the Rural Development Ministry can achieve the objective painlessly; such a programme, supported also by cess proceeds from tourism, irrigation and other beneficiary sectors, will bring to the villagers, barring few exceptions, the benefits of mobility, education and healthcare access, all of which, the Task Force laments, are unavailable now. National policy needs urgently to identify inviolate spaces as recommended by the Task Force and relocate people honourably in partnership with State Governments.