NEW DELHI - A new law giving rights to millions of poor Indian forest dwellers has provoked debate among conservationists who disagree over whether it will help save or further threaten the nation's dwindling tiger numbers.
The Recognition of Forest Rights Bill 2006 -- approved by lawmakers on Monday -- granted some of India's most impoverished and marginalised communities the right to own and live off resource-rich forest areas for the first time.
But while some wildlife groups say it will help efforts to save endangered tigers by making forest dwellers more accountable, others fear it will lead to more big cat poaching.
"Entire forest village communities will actually now ensure that no one in their community is involved in poaching and other illegal activities as they could all face penalties," Nitin Sethi of the Centre of Science and Environment think-tank said on Thursday.
Allowing forest dwellers to legally use and sell minor non-timber produce such as bamboo, honey, wax, fish and medicinal plants and herbs, would also help, he said.
But others argued the law would give rights to "encroachers" recently settled in forests and not just to those living there for at least three generations as the bill specified.
"How do you prove your family was there for generations?" said Tito Joseph of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
"Lots of people will take advantage of this and our fear is that more people will mean more poaching and more destruction of the natural habitat of wildlife such as tigers," he added.
India is home to half the world's surviving tigers, but experts say it is losing the battle to save the big cats, citing poaching by some of the 300,000 people living in the country's 28 tiger reserves as one of the main causes.
Most eke out a meagre living by cutting down trees to sell for firewood, collecting honey, picking fruit and simple farming. But some are also paid by criminal gangs to lay traps, poison water sources and electrocute tigers.
Environmentalists say poor forest dwellers are paid an average of US$5 for each tiger killed, while a single skin is sold on the international market for up to US$20,000.
There were about 40,000 tigers in India a century ago, but decades of poaching and depletion of their natural habitat have cut their numbers to 3,700. Some wildlife experts say the total could be as low as 1,200.
Story by Nita Bhalla
Story Date: 22/12/2006