Tirunelveli (Tamil Nadu): When the tiger roars in Tamil Nadu, there is a gas cylinder in Nagamma's hut and a well in Velu's backyard. A riddle? No, it is the result of "landscape management" through a scheme that has doubled tiger numbers in the state while the population of the big cat has halved in India.
The scheme has brought a smile to Nagamma, who lives at the edge of the Papanasam forest range, about 800 km south of Chennai. The range includes the Agasthyamalai forests of the Tirunelveli-Kanyakumari districts, the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, the Kanyakumari wildlife sanctuary, the Theni forest division and the Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary.
Nagamma no longer gathers firewood from the forest. A man on a bicycle brings her and her neighbours in the Arumugampatti hamlet their cooking gas cylinders. "Now, I don't have to fear tigers and leopards," she says.
There are 400 such villages on the edge of the forests, where the forest department has introduced such amenities to keep people from cutting trees. "When the tiger roars, it signals the health of the entire ecosystem," says Tamil Nadu's Chief Conservator of Forests V.N. Singh.
"The roar of the tigers tells us they are safe in the forests and healthy. When there is silence, it means danger not only for the tiger but for mankind," Singh told IANS in an interview. "When the tiger roars, all the other animals run. That running is very essential to the health of any animal.
"When the tiger chases prey, it is a sign that the tiger is healthy too, just as healthy as the fleeing deer. A tiger needs about 70 deer and other wildlife to sustain itself for a year. The forest and its grassland and watersheds have to be healthy enough to support that many deer for just one tiger."
Tamil Nadu's tigers live in three forests--the Mudumalai range, the Pollachi range and the Agasthyamalai range.
This is the only state where tiger numbers have increased from 50-odd in the 2003 census to almost 100 in the latest census unveiled this January.
"From where the forest officially begins, inside the forest we keep five kilometres as a protected zone where we know people venture for livelihood reasons," Singh says. "We also mark as protected area five km outside of the official forest line." These are the most sensitive areas where human habitations meet the forest and most of the man-animal conflicts are witnessed.
"So, to mitigate this conflict, we have made an accurate need assessment. We have gone from person to person, to find out what has taken the individual to the forest."
The finding: "Women and children go into the forest mostly to collect firewood and water. We have supplied 2,000 people with cooking gas connections. We find they are too poor to pay the necessary deposit, their huts are too far away from the nearest LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) shop. So, the forest department has paid the cylinder deposit and made arrangement for delivery at their doorsteps."
For water, the department has paid the seed money and got bore wells dug in the settlements. Committees set up to manage the buffer areas in and around the forest ensure no one goes to the forest for their daily needs.
"The approach of eco-development and landscape management will remain the core of the future strategies to minimise man-wildlife conflict", Singh and A. K. Srivastava say in a paper on "Man-Wildlife conflict in Tamil Nadu."
The paper identifies poverty as one of the main reasons for dependence of the villagers on the forests. "It is of utmost necessity that dependence of people living within at least five km of the forest is reduced," the authors recommend.
This can be done by "eco-development committees all around the protected area" - a net of such committees over 51,000-sq-km of forests in the state. The committees have to develop strategies for meeting the needs of the peripheral communities from outside the forest. It has also been found that improving the economic status of the village communities can reduce their dependence on the forests.
This means help with alternative income. Landscape management, according to the paper, will "take care of not just one protected area but the whole stretch of the forest areas along with peripheral villages as one entity and sort out all issues related with that landscape in totality".
The report recommends the concept's extension also to the Wayanad-Mudumalai-Bandipur forest. The root cause of the man-wildlife conflict is "disturbance to the natural activity of wildlife in their habitat", it says.