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Bengal tiger screenshot/Survival International.
The release of the new Jungle Book film will inevitably raise interest in the condition of many of the iconic Indian animals featured in the story. No-one wants to see a world where Baloo, Bagheera and (despite his status as the villain of the piece) Shere Khan are poached into oblivion or crowded out by the destruction of their habitat. But what about Mowgli? How many people will be concerned for the fate of India’s forest-dwelling peoples, and how many will be aware that so many of them are being illegally evicted as part of the drive to conserve flora and fauna? Despite having co-existed with tigers and other animals for centuries, many of India’s tribal peoples are currently being persecuted in the name of conservation.
At the centre of much conservation policy is the idea that the world is fundamentally overpopulated. This is not a new concern, but it has become very popular among some conservationists in recent times. In India, the claim is that the post-colonial expansion of the country’s human population has made conflict with tigers and other wildlife “inevitable,” despite tigers and tribes having co-existed for centuries. The implication is that it is poor people living sustainably in rural India who have threatened the Bengal tiger, not the Raj elite’s fetish for recreational mass-shootings from the safety of elephant howdahs.
The scale of tiger loss in India during the Raj is shocking. We can’t say precisely how many tigers there were when the first sunburnt British merchants showed up in west Bengal in the 18th century, but estimates for the late 19th century put the figure somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000. By the second half of the twentieth century this had slumped to less than 2,000, almost entirely due to trophy hunting. Expeditions were arranged by colonial British administrators and local Indian aristocrats in which dozens of big cats were often herded towards guns to be slaughtered en masse.
There is no doubt that considering this dark and bloody history, as well as the importance of the tiger to contemporary India’s national identity, it is right to take measures to protect and restore the tiger. But is it right that these measures be directed at tribes, who after all played little or no part in hunting the animals to near extinction, and who in many cases actually revere the tiger as sacred? The answer to this surely has to be no, and yet the prevailing assumption in Indian policy-making has been that to survive, tiger reserves must be uninhabited wildernesses, home almost exclusively to wildlife.
To create these artificial “pristine wildernesses”, tribespeople are moved out, in many cases forced to abandon their ancestral lands and their perfectly sustainable lifestyles in favour of poverty and marginalization on the fringes of mainstream Indian society. As one Baiga tribesperson, evicted from the Kanha reserve said: “We were the kings of the jungle, but here they treat us like dogs.”
I say almost exclusively inhabited by wildlife because there is one form of human contact within the reserves which the Indian authorities have been very relaxed about: tourism. As the tribes are illegally evicted, wealthy visitors from urban India and abroad are bussed in, jaunting around the reserves in convoys of jeeps to take pictures of tigers. They leave litter, disturb the very wildlife the reserves are supposed to protect, and even get tigers used to vehicles and human presence, making them more vulnerable to poaching.
One Soliga man told Survival: “There are 3 or 4 tourist lodges in the reserve. It’s not good that tourists come. They make problems. They frighten animals and tribal people. City people spread bad habits – drinking, smoking, cars, litter.” From the point of view of local authorities, however, the bottom line seems to be all that matters. Visitors pay premium rates to get a glimpse of tigers in an authentic, tribe-free “wilderness” environment, so the rights of tribal communities can always be dismissed.
An Indian High Court report into tribal relocations concluded: “We have not found a single tribal enjoying the fruits of development.” As for the much-vaunted “benefits” of relocation, the study found one litre of milk provided as sustenance for an entire school of relocated tribal children, and only two of 22 newly-drilled wells actually working in one resettlement area.
Major conservation organizations have failed to properly acknowledge any of this, instead championing a misanthropic and anti-tribal conservation. Conservationist Kirthi Karanth has made the patronizing claim that tribespeople are in “constant fear of elephants, leopards and tigers.” Odd, then, that so many want to stay in such apparently inhospitable forests. She has added that “you have to sometimes make really hard choices, and sometimes that involves moving people.” This weak attempt at spin exposes the mindset of conservation authorities; as far as they are concerned they are the only legitimate guardians of the natural world, and “primitive” tribes need to be ushered – by force if necessary – towards the door marked “progress.”
Persecuting tribes is not the answer to solving the ecological fallout from decades of imperial British hunters and loss of habitat. By law in India, tribal people have the right to live in, manage and protect their forests, even in tiger reserves, but thousands are being forced into “agreeing” to leave against their will. If we are to adequately protect nature, we should be working with, not against, those who know it better than any of us, the best conservationists and guardians of the natural world. Punishing them for our sins is senseless, wrong and counterproductive.