November 15, 2006 — By Samanwaya Rautray, Reuters
NEW DELHI — A new Indian wildlife law offers too much protection to people living in forests and threatens to further undermine efforts to save an endangered population of tigers, conservationists said on Wednesday.
The Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act 2006 came into force in September and aims to save the big cats, whose numbers have fallen alarmingly because of poaching.
But activists have called on India's Supreme Court to scrap parts of the law they say might have the opposite effect.
"Co-existence of humans with large carnivorous wild animals is a myth," said a petition filed on Monday by the Bombay Natural History Society, the Wildlife Protection Society of India, the Conservation Action Trust and the Wildlife Trust.
"Conflict between the two is the reality, a reality which is reflected in the ascending graph of the number of fatalities on either side."
They say the law, which insists authorities ensure "the agricultural, livelihood, development and other interests of the people living in tiger-bearing forests or a tiger reserve", could mark a new low in efforts to save rare wildlife.
"This Act would mean the end of forests as we know them. If you look at the map, you will see that the only forests left in this country are the tiger reserves," Maneka Gandhi, former environment minister, told Reuters.
Under its provisions, forest-dwellers could sell, give or occupy forest land, hunt animals that are not protected and even set up hotels in reserves and parks, the activists say.
Wildlife activists say the law was rushed through parliament without proper debate.
But officials say it is an attempt to address the needs of tens of thousands of poor people who live in forests and eke out a meagre living from cutting down trees to sell as firewood and simple farming.
Many take money from criminal gangs to lay traps, poison water sources and electrocute tigers. Further legislation expected later this year will fully address the rights of forest dwellers, officials say.
The law also allows for a tiger conservation authority and a wildlife crime bureau. Tiger bones and skins sell for tens of thousands of dollars in China, where body parts are used in traditional medicines.
There were about 40,000 tigers in India a century ago, but decades of poaching have cut their number to 3,700. Some groups say the number could be as low as 1,200.