Conservation in east-central India
‘The tiger roars from up there,’ says Suryanath Singh, a Khairwar Adivasi and a Baiga/Paahan (Shaman priest), pointing towards the thickly wooded hills overlooking his village Kotam. The village nestles inside Palamau Tiger Reserve, a 1129.93 sq km forest in western Jharkhand.
‘The bagh’s roar is a bad omen. He roars to let us know that Kesra Chandi is angry and great miseries will befall us,’ he says. ‘When this happens, we go up the hill, tie a goat or paadha (buffalo calf) at the cave-shrine atop the hill, pray to Chandi to calm him down and descend. If the tiger consumes the tied animal, it roars no more, signalling that Chandi has accepted our offering.’ With the baghaut as its enforcer, Kesra Chandi – the residing Adivasi deity of the Kesra hill that juts into the sky piercing the heart of the tiger reserve – lords over the jungle.
But the hills of Kesra have been silent for many years now. ‘Tigers no longer roar at Jharkhand’s lone, and one of India’s first tiger habitats, Palamau Tiger Reserve (PTR), according to All India Tiger Estimation (AITE) 2018 report…’, reads a headline in a national daily.
‘But what now? The tigers seem to have disappeared from these forests?’ I ask my Baiga friend. He responds in a grave tone: ‘They must have gone antardhyaan [disguised as invisible]… they must be there somewhere.’ He thinks for a while and mutters ‘Bagh nahin hoga toh phir jungle hi kaise kehlaaya.’ (How can one even call this a jungle then if there is no tiger?)
According to noted anthropologist Raymond Hames: ‘If a people have a conservationist ideology but do not act as conservationists, they are not conservationists... How a hunter feels about the deer he hunts and how those feelings may have been engendered by his religion are interesting psychological questions. But the hunter’s actual treatment of the deer is the only thing that matters.’1 Despite what my Baiga friend felt about the tiger, the carnivore, and more so its prey, have been hunted out in the area. Tigers and other wildlife are intertwined with faith, folklore and myths of Adivasis. That is where they still live on. Palamau’s case is not an isolated one. Palamau is an ecological and social microcosm of Jharkhand in particular and east-central India in general.
The east-central Indian landscape includes forests of eastern Uttar Pradesh (Mirzapur, Chandauli and Sonbhadra districts), southern Bihar (Kaimur/Bhabhua, Rohtas, Aurangabad, Gaya, Nawada, Jamui and Munger districts), Chotanagpur Plateau (i.e., Jharkhand and western districts of West Bengal), Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Gadhchiroli district (Maharashtra), northern Telangana (Warangal, Adilabad, Khammam and Karimnagar districts) and the Agency Tract Areas of north-eastern Andhra Pradesh. Large contiguous tracts of forests span these state borders. These were once famed for tigers and other wildlife, large and small. Many indigenous communities with distinctive cultures and overlapping in spatial location also live here. There are 32 Scheduled Tribes in Jharkhand, 42 in Chhattisgarh, 62 in Odisha, 32 in Telangana.
The east-central Indian landscape has a long history of conflicts and tribal assertions over Jal, Jangal, Zameen (Water, Forest and Land). This slogan, critical to the Jharkhand movement, continues to resonate in many parts of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. However, in these debates over Jal Jangal Zameen ‘Jaanwar’ (wildlife or animals) have always been conspicuously absent. This omission is unfortunate because while the unfinished contests over Jal Jangal Zameen continue, many faunal species have either already vanished or soon will across this landscape.
The tiger’s ecological position as an umbrella predator species, makes it a major indicator of the ecosystems health. Tiger numbers have fallen steeply across east-central India since the first all-India tiger census in 1972. The 2018 estimates confirmed a crash in numbers across these forests. Functionally extinct in Jharkhand, tigers are near-extinct in Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Unlike local extinctions in Panna2 or Sariska,3 which were a result of selective poaching, these collapses of tigers, co-predators and multiple ungulate and other mammalian species have gone unnoticed by most wildlife groups, biologists and the media. Similarly, vigorous movements for people’s rights here have also ignored extinctions of these animals, long integral to local cultures as much as to the overall ecologies.
These silences over the vanishing calls for critical reflection. This is all the more so as community based conservation has many adherents over the last three decades4 and there are critical debates around its realization. Some activists and commentators even label indigenous communities as ‘natural conservationists’, ‘born conservationists’, ‘best conservationists’ and ‘natural protectors of wildlife’.5 But are either the votaries or even critical voices cognizant of the ground realities?
Wild animals and forests are common cultural threads that tie together disparate Adivasi groups of east-central India. Among the two, forests arguably are much more important to them. This is because apart from their cultural and spiritual importance, forests are central to their economies. Forests provide them with grazing grounds for cattle, water for fields, livelihood via non-wood produce like Tendu and Mahua, firewood, additional food security and traditional medicine. Finally, it is a space for recreation, which includes hunting. On the other hand, wild animals – especially tigers – are often part of the origin legends of many of these communities. Wildlife iconography in the form of totem animals are bedrocks of clan based divisions.
This totemistic differentiation governs many specific social and cultural norms of inter-clan and outside interaction. These cultural relationships and the historic cohabitation of wildlife in the same landscapes can easily lead one to surmise that coexistence is the norm.
But can we equate co-utilization or cohabitation with conservation? Such simple readings often ignore the evidence on ground. Developments in recent decades have drastically altered lifestyles for remote forest communities: from the rise of settled agriculture and sedentary living to the proliferation of mutton and cheap broiler chicken as a replacement for game meat. There is an increasing integration of village communities with outside market forces due to increased all-weather road penetration, expansion of cell phone network, televisions, provision of electricity (either solar or gridbased) and migration of youngsters to distant places for work. Amidst these, while Adivasi communities retain material ties to their forests, they no longer share perceptible utilitarian relationship with wildlife.
11. Palamau TR
12. Mahuadanr WLS
13. Porahat Forest Division
14. Koel-Karo Hydroelectric Project
15. Saranda Forest Division
16. Kolhan Forest Division
19. East Singhbhum
22. West Midnapore
23. East Midnapore
26. Achanakmar TR
27. Hasdeo Forests
28.Sonakhan / Barnawapara WLS
29. Sunabeda WLS
31. Satkosia TR
32. Similipal TR
33. Kotagarh WLS
34. Karlapat WLS
36. Sitanadi-Udanti TR
37. Bodhghat Hydroelectric Project
39. Indravati TR
40. Pranahita WLS
41. Kawal WLS
45. Pakhal WLS
47. Kinnerasani WLS
48. Papikonda NP
49. Polavaram Hydroelectric Project
51. Amrabad TR
52. Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam TR
53. Gundla-Brahmeswaram WLS
57. Eturnagaram WLS
Map of East-Central Indian Landscape including all the locations named in the essay.
Before the advent of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 – which outlawed hunting and trade in wildlife derivates – wildlife did have some benefits for Adivasis even if this utility could never match up to the varied material benefits of forests. Back then, access to broiler poultry or farmed goat meat was rare and wild game was a common meat source. Wildlife products could be sold to earn money. Many forest dwellers earned additional income by working as ‘beaters’ or ‘shikaris’ for city based hunters. However, post-1972, many Adivasis became either indifferent or even antipathic to wildlife.
The antipathy primarily stems from their perception of conservation legislations and programmes (especially the creation of Protected Areas) resulting in restricted community access to forests, thus limiting their material relationship with the forests. Their free movement through forest roads was hindered and basic health and education infrastructure development scuttled. Wild animals caused loss to human life and property too.
Conservation interventions of the post-independence era, which imposed new restrictions on land and forest rights, are seen as a counterpart of imperial era forest reservation and game rules. Many Adivasis perceive wildlife as a mascot for the state’s restriction over their forests and livelihoods. As a forest guard in Jharkhand once told me:‘Hum log jab haathi khadedne jaate hain toh inn log bolta hai "apna" haathi le jaao hamaara gaaonkhet se. Jal Jangal Zameen inka, aur Haathi ko kar diya van vibhag ka’ (Whenever we go to chase off elephants that have entered villages, villagers ask us to take away ‘our’ elephants from ‘their’ village and fields. They claim ownership over Jal Jangal Zameen, but label the elephant as forest department’s property).
This deep antipathy towards forest and civil agencies in east-central India has historical roots in uprisings often over identity, land and forest rights, both during the colonial era and post-independence. This partly explains why Maoists struck roots here while failing to gain a foothold in other forested landscapes.
Another important aspect of this discussion is the culture of hunting as the traditional way of life of the Adivasi. Hunting of wild animals occurs at two levels – communal/ritual hunts and year-round hunting for bush meat. Ritual communal hunting usually commences during the spring period or sometimes as a celebration of the post-harvest season. During such hunts, thousands of Adivasi men go en masse into the forests to hunt. For instance, in places like the Singhbhum-western West Bengal landscape as many as a lakh (100,000) or even more hunters will fan across the forests spread over seven forest divisions between the two states. Such communal hunts are an integral part of social life of many forest communities.
The Santhals practice Disu Sendra/Disom Sendra (Sendra means ‘to hunt/hunting’ across all major Adivasi languages spoken in Jharkhand), whereas Mundas and Oraons celebrate Phagu-Sendra. Bishu Shikar, the mass-hunt that happens around Dalma hills (Jharkhand) and the adjoining forests of western West Bengal is often in the news. The Akhand Shikar of Similipal hills in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district is also well known. In Bastar and Gadhchiroli, hunting festivals such as Kedh/Kedhkul and Paradh are celebrated respectively by the Durwas and the Murias, Marias, Bhatras, Parjas and others. Similarly, the Konda Doras as well as the Khonds (also called Jatapu or Samanthas) of the Vizianagaram hill tracts of Andhra Pradesh celebrate a common ritual hunting festival called Itika Pongal.
Other major indigenous groups of east-central India such as Birhors, Bondos, Gadabas, Juangs, Bhuiyans also have their own hunting festivals. The number of such communal hunts in a year, and the duration of each hunt vary widely. For example, multiple kedhs and paradhs are observed annually in Bastar. The principal kedh of the Durwas is the Kil Medul Kedh while the primary paradh is the Badi Paradh or Wija-Wetta organized from March to May.
While earlier such ritual hunts had rules that governed them, they were diluted over time. Now such mass hunts are almost always a ‘kill-all hunt’, i.e. indiscriminate killing of wild animals without any restriction on the numbers of kills or what is being hunted – a bird or a mammal, a common species or an endangered one, a male or a female, a young one or an adult/old animal. Such indiscriminate hunting has especially plagued the Bastar landscape. ‘In one instance in Sukma zamindary a herd of 19 bison [Gaur] were beaten into nets and the whole lot slaughtered’, wrote E. Rooke in 1908.6
As far back as 1957-58, the disastrous impact of ritual hunts was being documented. D.G. Sharma, a forest officer, wrote in 1957 of the Wija Wetta hunt: ‘…Many villages combine together and do thorough beating of the forests by haka, or setting fire to the forests and putting nets and snares of all sizes across the path of the animals… many wild animals are captured and killed. No rules regarding the number, sex, legal status of forests and methods employed in hunting are observed. Bows and arrows, spears, axes and muzzle loading guns granted under crop protection licenses are the common weapons used… All type of wild game is killed, and nothing is spared. Even tiger, bison, wild buffalo, panther and bear are hunted. Many a time tigers escape with wounds and become man-eaters, causing havoc subsequently in the interior… The number of the animals killed in the parads by these adept hunters runs into hundreds.’7
Noted biologist George Schaller who conducted field work in Bastar in the mid-1960s wrote: ‘In the West Bastar District... the communal hunts by the tribal peoples indiscriminately destroy the wildlife over large areas so completely that even monkeys are rarely seen.’8
Another major dilution has been the participation of anyone and everyone in such hunts irrespective of whether they are members of the same Adivasi community or not, locals or outsiders. Even non-Adivasis and non-forest dwellers, including urban residents from nearby towns and far-off cities – sometimes travelling from as far as 500-700 kms – are allowed to be a part of many of these hunts (especially in various Sendra hunts and Akhand Shikar).
In contemporary times, a prime example of such kill-all, free-for-all, mass hunt is the annual Sendra that happens in the forest landscape straddling Dalma hills and across the border into Purulia, Jhargram, Bankura, West Medinipur and East Medinipur districts of West Bengal. The shorter duration (2-3 days) hunt in Dalma hills and adjoining forests of East Singhbhum and Seraikela-Kharsawan usually record an influx of anywhere between 40,000 to 50,000 hunters. The longer hunt in West Bengal, that can span as many as 45 days, attracts anywhere between 50,000-60,000 hunters annually.9
The bag of one such Sendra here in 2018 consisted of everything ranging from a tiger (the first recorded here in more than 100 years) to eggs of forest birds, wolves to foxes, jungle cat kittens and their mothers to civet cats, jackals to wild boars, various deer species (including fawns) to common birds (including chicks), monitor lizards to turtles. Anything edible is killed. Similar hunts occur across various regions of east-central India. Despite being completely illegal under various wildlife and forest laws as well as the Forest Rights Act, the forest department is completely incapable of stopping such hunts as it does not have the manpower or capacity to stop and/or prosecute such a mass influx of hunters. In other areas such as Bastar and southern Odisha, the forest department is absent altogether after being routed by the Maoists.
The ritual hunts are in addition to the regular bushmeat poaching that goes on everyday across east-central India, constantly chipping away from the already depleted wildlife of the region. Eventually, the rate of reproduction of surviving wild animals is not enough to compensate for the rate of their depletion through hunting, thus leading to an irreversible decline that culminates into local and regional extinctions. Ecologist Kent H. Redford coined the term ‘Empty Forest’10 to describe such a situation where an otherwise excellent wildlife habitat or ecosystem is rendered devoid of large mammals as a result of human impact. This describes thousands of square kilometres of prime wildlife habitat across the east-central Indian landscape. Let alone tigers, even the once common herbivores no longer exist in the mixed Sal forests of this region.
We examine the march of the tigers towards oblivion first. The tiger population of undivided Bihar was 85 in 1972 out of which 70-72 dwelled in what is now Jharkhand. Their number in Jharkhand had plummeted to single digits by the start of the 21st century. Similarly, the districts that form Chhattisgarh today recorded about 160 tigers in 1972, the bulk of them in Bastar. Their numbers plummeted to 26 in 2006 and 19 by 2018, with none in Bastar. Of the three tiger reserves of Chhattisgarh, tigers have been functionally extinct in Sitanadi-Udanti tiger reserve for more than a decade, and teetering on the edge of extinction in Achanakmar tiger reserve. Bastar’s Indravati tiger reserve, though wiped clean of tigers, sometimes gets a few tigers migrating out of the neighboring tiger rich forests of Chandrapur-Bhandara-Gondia districts (Maharashtra) but has not had a viable stable population of its own for more than 40 years. Tigers have been extinct for more than 30 years from the massive Surguja landscape of northern Chhattisgarh – where Maharaja Ramanuj Saran Singh Deo of Surguja killed most of the tigers from his infamous bag of 1,150 tigers (some claim 1,710).
The first tiger census in Odisha in 1966 recorded 326 tigers. They whittled down to 142 by 1972, though still evenly distributed across the state. By 2018, Odisha’s tiger population had withered away to 28. The state’s only partially viable tiger population survives in the Similipal Tiger Reserve, the second major population in Satkosia is extinct. Gadhchiroli in eastern Maharashtra recorded 60-70 tigers in 1972. They disappeared by 1990. A similar story is repeated in the northern Telangana-Andhra Pradesh landscape. Back in 1972, an overwhelming bulk of undivided Andhra Pradesh’s tigers were recorded from the forests of Warangal, Adilabad, Khammam, and Karimnagar (now in Telangana) which consisted of five large wildlife sanctuaries – Kawal (892.33 sq km), Eturnagaram (806.15 sq km), Pakhal (860 sq km), Kinnersani (635.41 sq km) and Pranahita (136.93 sq km). Another significant population inhabited the Vizag Agency Tract forests of north-eastern Andhra Pradesh which included a large national park – Papikonda (1012.86 sq km). By the turn of 21st century, tigers had been wiped off from across this landscape including all the aforementioned Protected Areas. Kawal was notified as a tiger reserve in 2012, but even nearly a decade later it continues to be tiger-less except for transient tigers from Maharashtra sometimes moving in (and then usually disappearing without trace). Eastern Uttar Pradesh and southern Bihar which had a healthy tiger population until the 1970s, lost all its big cats by the early 1990s.
While these observations may seem like the story of disappearance of one species, it is an indicator of a much larger collapse. Unlike Sariska (Rajasthan) or Panna (Madhya Pradesh), tigers and other co-predators in the region have died out less due to direct poaching and more due to collapse of the food chain. Virtually all large and medium sized ungulates such as gaur, sambars and cheetal were the first to go. Other losses included the critically endangered hard-ground barasingha, the last populations of which outside Kanha in Bastar and Sunabeda forests (western Odisha) were eliminated between the 1950s to late 1970s due to bushmeat hunts by villagers.11
A few dozen wild buffaloes now survive in a small patch of forest around the border of Bastar and Gadhchiroli. They once ranged over central and south Chhattisgarh and southern Odisha-northern Andhra Pradesh. Gaurs had become extinct from virtually all strongholds in Bastar, north Chhattisgarh and south Odisha much before the tigers. Jharkhand lost all its Gaurs – except a single small isolated population of 50-60 animals in a 20 sq km forest patch of Palamau tiger reserve – 20 years prior to the tiger.
Similarly, once abundant in Jharkhand’s nearly 30% forest cover, the sambar deer – the primary prey of tigers – had been hunted to local extinction throughout the state 20-30 years before the tiger’s demise. Common elsewhere in India, the chital is now exceedingly rare in Jharkhand. Similar accounts emerge from many other forests of east-central India. Once the prey-base disappeared, tigers and other big cats were driven towards cattle killing as their main source of sustenance. This led to large economic losses for the forest dwellers as well as attacks on humans in some cases. The forest department, largely absent from the field due to either administrative apathy or insurgency, could neither compensate for the losses, nor enforce measures against hunting. Consequently, most of the big cats were killed off by poisoning cattle carcasses.
It is worth mentioning here that bushmeat and ritual hunting in east-central India does not have a food security aspect to it anymore, it is primarily either carried out as a tradition or even as mere recreation – what the Durwas of Bastar termas chularana (anthropologist Madhu Ramnath translates it as ‘to wander’) wherein ‘there is nothing specific in mind’ of the Durwa when he sets out into the forest for hunting though the casual wandering for hunt may turn into walitana (a chase) or kaatana (a long wait for the quarry).12 This is so because – in addition to the reasons elucidated earlier in the essay regarding elimination of dependence on wild meat – virtually all the forests of east-central India continue to suffer from the empty-forest syndrome for some decades now. Moreover, in ritual hunts, the number of hunters is too large compared to the meat obtained.
Finally, the proportion of hunters out of the total Adivasi population of a village is relatively small while an overwhelming majority are cultivation dependent. Thus, not only can wild meat not realistically impact the annual protein intake of an individual, even its access is restricted to a few.
Moreover, bushmeat hunting can be associated with the illegal wildlife trade. Cases of big cats or other animals prized in illegal trade getting ensnared in traps set for bushmeat and then being sold off to wildlife traders are recorded every year. Pangolins have also emerged as a commonly trafficked animal in the illegal wildlife trade, supplied by casual bushmeat hunters. Furthermore, the regular seizures of leopard skins, bones and claws from western, southern and central Odisha – including a seizure of eight leopard skins in a single day from Kalahandi in July 2021 – along with a number of similar seizures of leopard and tiger skins, bones and claws from south-Chhattisgarh over the past couple of years suggests possible deliberate and targeted hunting for wildlife trade in these landscapes as well.
‘Aapko gussa nahin aata Hundaar aapka khassi dhar leta hai toh?’ (Don’t you feel angry when wolves snatch away one of your goats?), I ask a goat-herder on the banks of Burha river in Mahuadanr Wolf Sanctuary, on the southern tip of Palamau tiger reserve. ‘No. The wolf takes his share. After all he too needs something to survive,’ he replies.
Mahuadanr, the first wolf sanctuary of India, is the site of one of the first natural history studies of the Indian grey wolf undertaken by S.P. Shahi – the ace naturalist-photographer and forest officer of undivided Bihar– almost half a century ago.13 While Palamau has lost much wildlife since then, wolves still persist in Mahuadanr. They continue to exist almost entirely on the goodwill of the local villagers who are gracious enough to let the wolves take ‘their share’ of a goat or a chicken every now and then despite getting no compensation from the forest department. Such bright spots, even if few, offer clues on the way forward.
Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR) – now bifurcated between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana– is the largest Tiger Reserve of India, set in the heart of a massive block of nearly 10,000 sq kms of tiger country clothing the Nallamalla hills that straddle across the two states. The 1972 census recorded around 20 tigers here. The Nallamallas are also home to Chenchu Adivasis, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). More than 50,000 of these hunter-gatherers live in the Nallamalla forests. While tiger numbers here had doubled to 40 by the mid-1980s, the entire landscape was soon overrun by Maoist insurgency. For nearly two decades (late 1980s to mid-2000s) the Nallamallas became an impregnable fortress of the guerrillas of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) People’s War or People’s War Group (PWG).
During these decades of strife, no information on the state of wildlife emerged from this landscape and experts feared that the mega fauna had been wiped out. Eventually, once the security forces prevailed over the Maoists around 2006, the Wildlife Institute of India carried out the first scientific study of wildlife here. To the surprise of even the most optimistic of conservationists, more than 60 tigers were found in the then unified NSTR. The adjoining Gundla-Brahmeswaram sanctuary also harboured around a dozen big cats. The Nallamallas have since emerged as a bastion of tigers, co-predators and prey species in the entire east-central Indian landscape. Even with no law enforcer in sight, the Chenchus and other local elements had not over-hunted and left the fauna intact.
According to Hames: ‘Ideological approaches to the problem of conservation in tribal society have suffered from a number of theoretical short comings because... the conditions under which conservation should evolve have not been specified. It is never made clear why conservation is practiced by one society, but not another. The cause of conservation is often seen as a group’s ethos or ideology, but the conditions that favour the development of such belief systems are never made specific.’14 The case of varied conservation outcomes in different parts of India, populated by disparate indigenous groups, is a testimony to this assertion on the need to study the conditions of decline. Even within the east-central Indian landscape there is a difference in the severity of wildlife decline.
In the northern half of the east-central Indian landscape (i.e. eastern Uttar Pradesh, southern Bihar, northern and central Odisha, northern and central Chhattisgarh), it is the large and medium sized ungulates and large predators (tigers and leopards) that have primarily been extirpated. Other mammals like bears, langurs, civets, wolves, jackals, foxes and civets, as well as the bird-life, have not suffered drastic declines. However, the situation in large parts of southern-half of east-central Indian landscape (especially Gadhchiroli, Bastar, south Odisha) is much worse where not only the ungulates and big cats, but almost every single medium and small mammalia (except bears) and even much of the birdlife has been wiped off. Researchers and anthropologists working in the heart of Bastar have noted the utter silence of the forests because even the commonest of birds have been hunted out.
How can the empty forests of east-central India be revived? Can we create the same sense of ownership of the Jaanwar among them as they have over their Jal Jangal Zameen?
One step in that direction could be to address the issue of utility of wildlife. Ensuring that communities incur direct visible benefits out of any conservation effort in these landscapes could begin to change the current outlook of wildlife being of no utility to the forest communities. This could be achieved by income augmentation through wildlife tourism led by communities as well as through developmental and infrastructural benefits that accrue for villages and communities out of the expansion of the tourism sector.
However, as the above in itself might not be a sustainable solution, broader partnerships are needed. The primary thrust of all major contemporary Adivasi struggles have been against diversion of their lands for mines, dams, roads, and infrastructure and monoculture plantations – each of which is equally destructive for wildlife. Led by Adivasi groups and social activists, the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 – often viewed with scepticism by some conservationists as being antithetical to conservation – has in fact proved to me to be the most potent legislative tool for countering such diversions of forests. It has proven more effective than the Indian Forest Act, Forest (Conservation) Act, Environment (Protection) Act, and Wildlife (Protection) Act, all of which have been easily co-opted by the state machinery.
Moreover, active conservation intervention from mainstream conservation is limited to a small fraction of India’s Protected Areas (PA) Network which consists of 51 Tiger Reserves, 104 National Parks, 566 Wildlife Sanctuaries, 97 Conservation Reserves and 214 Community Reserves. Forests within and around many neglected and poorly-known PAs have been de-notified and diverted without much outcry from conservationists. The FRA has been a vital tool for local resistance in such situations. For instance, local protests against Vedanta’s Baghmara mining project in the Sonakhan forest abutting Barnawapara wildlife sanctuary, Chhattisgarh, evoked community rights clauses.
There has long been Adivasi protest against the Bodhghat hydroelectric project – which plans nine dams on the Indravati river at Bodhghat, Kutru, Nugur, Bhopalpatnam and Inchampalli – which would drown hundreds of square kilometres ofthe Indravati tiger reserve (Bastar). The Polavaram Project on the Godavari is deeply controversial for displacement. Few are aware that it would also drown large parts of wildlife-rich Papikonda national park in Andhra Pradesh. The situation in forests outside the PA network is even worse where requisite forest and wildlife clearances can be even more easily manipulated while garnering little to no attention. In such areas too, it’s the Adivasis and allied organizations that have stepped up to protect the forests.
The struggles against mining in the Niyamgiri forests (abutting Karlapat and Kotgarh wildlife sanctuaries) in Odisha, or the Hasdeo forests in Chhattisgarh (abutting Achanakmar tiger reserve’s eastern boundary) – both of which are critical to the continued connectivity between east-central Indian PAs and with the wildlife and tiger rich forests of Madhya Pradesh – are well known. Adivasis have even fallen to police bullets in their struggle to save forests from infrastructural destruction such as the killing of eight of them in police firing at a protest against the Koel-Karo hydroelectric project (West Singhbhum, Jharkhand) in 2001. This project would not only further fragment the already mining ravaged forests of Singhbhum but would also snap the south-western connectivity of Palamau tiger reserve with Odisha’s Similipal tiger reserve and other forests of north Odisha.
All these above stories have one abiding feature – conservation organizations are absent and Adivasis and allied organizations are at the fore-front of the protest. In the vast forest areas beyond the network of sanctuaries and parks, it is local resistance that stands out.
The aforementioned struggles are of course not engendered by wildlife conservation concerns, rather because Adivasis need forests and land to sustains their lives, cultures and livelihoods. Despite that, these struggles indirectly protect the habitat of wildlife by keeping the forest cover intact. Conversely, wildlife conservation schemes can also help protect forests that are vital to Adivasi and marginal peasant lives.
The need of the hour is to forge alliances between these two parallel movements. They can be allies even if at times they are in contention. Lands that are rich in mega fauna or emblematic smaller taxa are more difficult to de-notify and divert than ‘empty forests’. Similarly, existing PAs and even the creation of new PAs can act as a strong bulwark that makes diversion of lands and forests falling within their purview more difficult. However, for the latter, conservationists and foresters must redress the factors that cause antipathy towards PAs in the first place, i.e. issues of access and sustainable use of forests, hindrances to free movement, basic provisions of healthcare and education as well as prompt compensation of wildlife-inflicted damage. The creation of new Conservation Reserves (CR) where communities are statutorily empowered with a much greater stake in management and decision-making of the notified CR, could be especially beneficial.
However, there is no escaping some hard truths for tribal rights groups and social scientists either. Their belief that community forest conservation automatically leads to wildlife conservation is a demonstrably false assertion. The ‘empty forests’ of east-central India attest to how biomass production and tree cover may continue to remain intact but key faunal species may still be rendered extinct. Wildlife has certain specific biological and ecological needs from the forests they dwell in, and without understanding them and making adjustments to human-use of the forests accordingly, wildlife cannot thrive. Among the adjustments that might be required, voluntary relocations from sensitive areas to create inviolate habitats in accordance with the provisions for the same provided in FRA, 2006 (Section 2(b) read with Section 4) and WLPA, 1972 may also be needed.
Similarly, agricultural expansion and its legal recognition under the Forest Rights Act may be socially just and yet damage low-land and valley habitat of large and medium ungulates. In fact, from Kolhan (Jharkhand) to Koraput (Odisha) and Porahat (Jharkhand) to Phulbani (Odisha), a major limiting factor in the forest cover of the region has been the spatial honeycombing of forests (both at a macro and micro level) over the past decades into a mosaic of forested hills and cultivated-populated valleys. This has been one of the major contributing factors (along with hunting) towards the extinction of large and medium sized ungulates who depended on these valley habitats for pasture and water.
Conversely, all human presence may not be as damaging as hard-edged conservation policies often tend to assume. Satyamangalam tiger reserve (Tamil Nadu) or the Soliga Adivasi inhabited tiger forests of B.R. Hills of Karnataka are good examples.
At the end of the day, India can only be home to as many tigers as agreeable to those hundreds of thousands of forest dwellers who harbour the tiger amidst them and share its habitat. It is now up to us to create the right conditions that hopefully can make them agreeable to more baghauts rather than less. Navigating all these complex issues means that each area will need to come up with its own unique blueprint for management of their respective landscapes and engagement between forest dwellers, conservationists, forest departments, conservation organizations and tribal rights groups.
* Acknowledgement: I am extremely grateful to Mahesh Rangarajan for all his support, guidance and encouragement. I am also deeply indebted to my friend and cartographer Manish Bakshi for preparing the map accompanying this essay.
1. R. Hames, ‘Wildlife Conservation in Tribal Societies’, in Biodiversity: Culture, Conservation, and Ecodevelopment. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1991, pp. 172-99.
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