Neha Sinha Posted online: Nov 01, 2008 at 0156 hrs
There are Mangrove tigers and Bengal tigers, but can there possibly be a “sugarcane” tiger? Evidently, there can be — and there is.
In Uttar Pradesh’s Dudhwa tiger reserve, tigers which spill out of the reserve and take up seemingly permanent residence in adjoining sugarcane fields, have been christened, by locals and some scientists, “sugarcane tigers”. The unfortunate bit is that the circumstances aren’t a happy quirk of nature.
Today, there is an urgent need for part of the focus of conservation policies to shift from tiger reserves, national parks and sanctuaries, to the areas surrounding them. The landscape around some of India’s best, oldest, and most pristine forests, is changing. And there are two immediate threats: farmers selling land to private players who open up blingy, eyepopping resorts in no time; and poachers, who know the optimum place to strike for ivory, tiger and leopard skin is not the actual tiger reserve or the national park, but the forest (or civil) land around it.
Tigers and elephants, derivatives from which form the pinnacle of Indian illegal wildlife trade, are animals best identified by how much they move. Tigers will routinely patrol an area they themselves demarcate and choose, while elephants will move in herds to areas usually over the same corridors, in search of food and water. And this is the weak link in the chain of protection that poachers are exploiting. This month, elephant ivory was seized from Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnore and Uttarakhand’s Laldhang, both of which are forests, and both of which adjoin celebrity counterparts — Corbett and Rajaji National Parks. And this August, a notorious tiger poacher admitted to killing tigers which originated from Corbett but were trapped, and killed, in the adjoining Ramnagar Forest Division, which has a rich animal population but not the vigilance limelight that Corbett enjoys. Shockingly, the same man was caught in the same area for poaching in 2003. Tigers in Corbett today are dying, and being killed, in areas outside the reserve in much greater numbers than inside the reserve.
Madhya Pradesh is now considering fencing in some of its tigers within the tiger reserves, while Uttarakhand is setting elephant sensors in areas which are prone to man- animal conflict.
But it’s not just the forests. Agricultural land surrounding forests or tiger reserves today is in the eye of a storm — and of greed. Farming, especially outside a tiger reserve, is no easy thing. Apart from the invasion of weeds like Parthenium and Lantana, which make cropping difficult, there is also the constant threat of elephants or large antelopes decimating the crops. Scientists and biologists point out that despite the presence of adequate food in the forests, these animals will be attracted to agricultural fields which provide a high(er) nutrient base. Attacks by hungry elephants lead to not just crop destruction, but also to more serious loss of life. The circle doesn’t end there: farmers will then lay traps and poison to kill the rampaging animals, as well as carnivores which eat their cattle.
The result: all over the country, privately owned agricultural land around prime tiger or elephant land is being sold at high prices to resort owners. In Corbett, arguably the world’s most famous tiger reserve, the process has already set in. The ranges of Dhela, Marchula and Dhikuli are now home to enormous, new resorts which attempt to take the city to the forest and not vice versa: music, alcohol and exotic plants, garnished with bright lights that blink into the night are on the itinerary. Kanha and Bandhavgarh tiger reserves are seeing the same metamorphosis.
But what’s worse? Is a sugarcane field, which can provide shelter to a tigress and her three cubs, but carries the poaching/ poisoning threat better or worse than a resort, which may not even succeed in sensitising a tourist to the needs — and norms — of a forest? The answer lies in management.
Tour Operators for Tigers (TOFT), a UK-based tour operator company that seeks to initiate responsible action on tourism, suggests that strict norms be set down for construction of resorts and the behaviour of tourists. And the answers may not be so hard to find. The state government, working with biologists, can set up norms for the construction of a resort around a rich forest like a tiger reserve, setting aside a very small area for the actual construction of a building. In Satpura tiger reserve, such initiatives have been made by private, not government players.
The government also has to look at the possibility of reclaiming land for forests from farmers who find cropping in adjoining areas a losing battle. Afforestation in such areas also has the exciting possibility of carbon sequestration and the achievement of carbon credits.
Having 40 tiger reserves in the country may not be the answer. If our famed, magnificent animals are moving, our policies need to move with them.