As tiger count grows, India’s Indigenous demand land rights

Bengaluru (AP) — Just hours away from several of India’s major tiger reserves in the southern city of Mysuru, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to announce Sunday how much the country’s tiger population has recovered since its flagship conservation program began 50 years ago.

Protesters, meanwhile, will tell their own stories of how they have been displaced by such wildlife conservation projects over the last half-century.

Project Tiger began in 1973 after a census of the big cats found India’s tigers were fast going extinct through habitat loss, unregulated sport hunting, increased poaching and retaliatory killing by people. Laws attempted to address those issues, but the conservation model centered around creating protected reserves where ecosystems can function undisturbed by people.

Several Indigenous groups say the conservation strategies, deeply influenced by American environmentalism, meant uprooting numerous communities that had lived in the forests for millennia.

Members of several Indigenous or Adivasi groups — as Indigenous people are known in the country — set up the Nagarahole Adivasi Forest Rights Establishment Committee to protest evictions from their ancestral lands and seek a voice in how the forests are managed.

“Nagarahole was one of the first forests to be brought under Project Tiger and our parents and grandparents were probably among the first to be forced out of the forests in the name of conservation,” said J. A. Shivu, 27, who belongs to the Jenu Kuruba tribe. “We have lost all rights to visit our lands, temples or even collect honey from the forests. How can we continue living like this?”

The fewer than 40,000 Jenu Kuruba people are one of the 75 tribal groups that the Indian government classifies as particularly vulnerable. Jenu, which means honey in the southern Indian Kannada language, is the tribe’s primary source of livelihood as they collect it from beehives in the forests to sell. Adivasi communities like the Jenu Kurubas are among the poorest in India.

Experts say conservation policies that attempted to protect a pristine wilderness were influenced by prejudices against local communities.

The Indian government’s tribal affairs ministry has repeatedly said it is working on Adivasi rights. Only about 1% of the more than 100 million Adivasis in India have been granted any rights over forest lands despite a government forest rights law, passed in 2006, that aimed to “undo the historical injustice” for forest communities.

Their Indigenous lands are also being squeezed by climate change, with more frequent forest fires spurred by extreme heat and unpredictable rainfall.

India’s tiger numbers, meanwhile, are ticking upwards: the country’s 2,967 tigers account for more than 75% of the world’s wild tiger population. India has more tigers than its protected spaces can hold, with the cats also now living at the edge of cities and in sugarcane fields.

Tigers have disappeared in Bali and Java and China’s tigers are likely extinct in the wild. The Sunda Island tiger, the other sub-species, is only found in Sumatra. India’s project to safeguard them has been praised as a success by many.

“Project Tiger hardly has a parallel in the world since a scheme of this scale and magnitude has not been so successful elsewhere,” said SP Yadav, a senior Indian government official in charge of Project Tiger.

But critics say the social costs of fortress conservation — where forest departments protect wildlife and prevent local communities from entering forest regions — is high. Sharachchandra Lele, of the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, said the conservation model is outdated.

“There are already successful examples of forests managed by local communities in collaboration with government officials and tiger numbers have actually increased even while people have benefited in these regions,” he said.

Vidya Athreya, the director of Wildlife Conservation Society in India who has been studying the interactions between large cats and humans for the last two decades, agreed.

“Traditionally we always put wildlife over people,” Athreya said, adding that engaging with communities is the way forward for protecting wildlife in India.

Shivu, from the Jenu Kuruba tribe, wants to go back to a life where Indigenous communities and tigers lived together.

“We consider them gods and us the custodians of these forests,” he said.