Flickr / Rick Hobson
Flickr / Rick Hobson

People versus wildlife

Reassessing wildlife conservation policies in India.

On the face of it, India has a fairly reasonable wildlife conservation record. Protected areas cover 5.2 percent of the land mass. Large mammals like elephants and tigers continue to survive. The sarus crane, the world's tallest flying bird, is endangered but not extinct from the wilderness like it is in Thailand. Similarly, the rhinoceros, which has vanished from Burma and Vietnam, is still found in India. 

Behind these superficial successes, there are many failures rooted in conservation policy. India's wildlife refuges are currently under tremendous pressure. The examples from Arunachal Pradesh are particularly compelling. According to conservation biologist Ghazala Shahabuddin, 50 percent of India's flowering plants, 50 percent of its birds, and around 25 percent of its mammals have been spotted in this state, which has been identified as a biodiversity 'hotspot'. She also points out that scientists have discovered several species of mammals there, some even within the last five years. Yet, there are 13 massive hydroelectricity projects planned for the state. Engineering projects of this scale entail new roads, reservoirs and infrastructure. Hydrology and ecosystems will be dramatically altered and locals will be displaced. 

Meanwhile, conservationists remain divided over a 'people versus wildlife' dilemma. First, there are the 'purists' who want minimal or no human presence in wildlife sanctuaries, and there are others who claim, with considerable justification, that evicting people without adequate thought and provisions for relocation impoverishes the communities and turns them against conservation efforts. But as debates prolong, increasing competition over natural resources has led to the encroachment of wildlife areas by large urban, industrial projects. Since 2004, some 250,000 hectares of forest land has been opened up to mining. It cannot be 'business as usual'. Shahabuddin's book Conservation at the Crossroads is, therefore, particularly timely.

Many of India's wildlife refuges that are portrayed as unspoilt wilderness comprise tall, homogenous stands of trees – monoculture plantations with low biodiversity. Often, tangled undergrowth consists of lantanas and other invasive plants that choke off competitors; trees are stunted and sparse. Meadows with inedible weeds sprouting around old tree stumps are either parched from the unbroken glare of the sun or leached by heavy rain; tree canopies that are supposed to protect the soil below have disappeared. Despite some success, India's conservation effort since the 1970s has been laced with disillusionment. Beyond the gaze of the public and media, which is focused only on the marquee national parks and tiger reserves, this is the state of many protected forests. 

Starting with this assessment, Shahabuddin cites the example of Sitamata Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan to develop her argument. In various leaflets catered towards tourists, Sitamata is described as a 'rich' sanctuary. Shahabuddin debunks this myth. "The serene-looking green canopy hides a dysfunctional forest ecosystem that can no longer shelter the diversity of tropical life that it is meant to". Seed-dispersing species like nilgai antelope, sambar and chital deer, and sloth bear would be present in large numbers if the ecosystem still offered an abundance of edible, native plants, grasses and fruit-bearing trees instead of coarse lantanas and stunted teak trees. Leopards are uncommon because of the shortage of large-bodied preys. 

Despite its status as a wildlife sanctuary, Sitamata is subjected to a lot of pressure from the surrounding population of humans and livestock. This pressure is compounded because the villagers are poor, underemployed and have very limited access to healthcare and education. Forest departments have not undertaken initiatives to employ the local people, and the inhabitants have no stake in wildlife conservation. They are left out of the decision-making process that affects their lives and the future of their children. In order to survive, they must turn to forest biomass – wood and bush meat, for instance – the collection of which has been rendered illegal by the protected status of the forest. Such policies, in turn, make the people liable to fines, harassment and exploitation by forest authorities, a situation which is unlikely to elicit any support for wildlife conservation. But Sitamata, which is neither a national park nor a tiger reserve, "lies forgotten and degraded, virtually wiped out from bureaucratic memory". 

Sitamata's plight is not unique. Shahabuddin cites studies that show how human and livestock pressures have degraded large chunks of protected forests in areas considered well managed, such as Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh, Pin Valley in Himachal Pradesh, and Bhadra in Karnataka. Oftentimes, these areas are surrounded by poor communities, some of them displaced from the forest and struggling to adapt to the transition from subsistence to cash-based economy. 


The post mortem begins with an epic conservation failure: the extinction of the Bengal tiger from Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, which came to light in 2005. For many conservationists, the disappearance was a dramatic manifestation of the general failure of India's protected area network in conserving biodiversity. But Shahabuddin reminds us that while the proximate cause of that was poaching, the degradation of the forest – partly caused by the communities and livestock living inside – is often overlooked. Even before the tigers vanished completely, their population was low, fluctuating between 16 and 25 for years, and hovering around 16-18 the year before. As a result of this, relocation for 28 villages from Sariska has been planned since, but progress has been slow and only a few households have been shifted to two sites. 

The idea of making wilderness 'people-free' became a conservation norm in the 1970s. It involved displacing and impoverishing the same people that needed to support the idea of wildlife conservation if it were to survive. People continue to live inside the forests, but face an uncertain existence exacerbated by deprivation. Modern facilities and markets are few; schools and healthcare are out of reach. The people, however, are hesitant to move out because of the lack of lucrative alternatives.

Successful relocations have been few, but there are some worth mentioning. A long struggle to relocate Gujjar communities from Rajaji National Park, on the flank of the Ganga River at Haridwar, which this reviewer had firsthand experience in, paid off in the early 2000s – culminating in acceptable packages. The relocation brought the communities closer to roads, health and educational services. The quality of agricultural land provided was also critical. The process has taken several decades, but has been smooth because of the cautious approach. While the project remains work in progress, the struggle has been worthwhile for protecting and increasing biodiversity. Tigers reappeared in Chilla, following their prey, soon after the Gujjars and their cattle left the area. This success owes a lot to the pressure from civil society activists who forced a better relocation deal.  

Similarly, Shahabuddin mentions the relocation of 419 households from the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in south India, which was completed around 2002. The result was positive due to an attractive relocation package and transitional support. Compensation given out to those displaced was about four times more than the norm, and paid on time. Roads, schools and other infrastructure were built and operational before the communities were relocated. 

In response to the failure of the people-free approach, a range of participatory models, like joint forest management, was introduced in the 1980s. But the promise of ‘community-based’ conservation – an attempt to compensate for the exclusionary paradigm of the 70s – has not fully materialised. This is partly because government authorities continue to be the dominant partner. Often, forest departments manage to monopolise the benefits of extraction. For all the emphasis given on ‘joint management’, the real power to decide how to manage the forests still lies with the departments.

Conservation at the Crossroads: Science, Society, and the Future of India’s Wildlife by Ghazala Shahabuddin. Permanent Black in association with The New India Foundation, 2010
Conservation at the Crossroads: Science, Society, and the Future of India’s Wildlife by Ghazala Shahabuddin. Permanent Black in association with The New India Foundation, 2010

There are structural problems that the current discourse on community-based conservation does not address. The main assumption is that the benefits from the extraction of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) will provide sufficient incentives to the people, making the initiative work. This assumption is debatable because the value of forest produce is often insufficient or irregular. Externalities like rainfall and drought are difficult to predict; fruit trees may produce 100 kilos one year and just ten the following year. The trade is not always lucrative enough. Early predictions of the value of sustainable extraction of NTFP tended to be over-ambitious. The cost of transportation of NTFP to markets – a function of road and transport infrastructure which varies widely from place to place – was overlooked. Shahabuddin cites a study from Periyar Tiger Reserve which showed that locals turned to NTFP as a last resort when wage labour was not available.  Secondly, this conservation approach rests on the principle of sustainable extraction. But there is the dilemma of what constitutes ‘sustainability’. The apparently sustainable extraction of even a single species of tree can start ripple effects on ecosystems; this is particularly critical in the case of seed dispersers and pollinators. There is disagreement on how much of which NTFP should be extracted, and mistakes can have far reaching consequences when key species are disrupted.  Joint forest management has indeed regenerated thousands of hectares of forest. Multiple use areas, once recovered in this manner, can accommodate some wildlife and form buffer zones between urban and forest habitats. But studies from Tanzania and India’s Western Ghats indicate that biodiversity is lower in these areas, compared to those that are completely protected from human use.  Used ecosystems tend to harbour sets of species that are different from those found in non-used forests within the same ecosystem. This is principally due to the fact that there are groups of species that are more vulnerable to forest disturbance than others, and the upshot is that different taxa respond rather differently to land-use change. “Additionally, species that are narrowly specialised on a given resource tend to lose ground in human-used landscapes,” Shahabuddin writes, citing a study which shows that certain species of birds found in the eastern Himalayas – fruit and insect eaters like bulbuls and drongos, for instance – thrived in primary rainforest, but were not good at adapting to the secondary forests left by shifting cultivation.  [But ultimately,] there is no profiting from extreme positions, such as the impossibility of coexistence of human settlements with wildlife, or on the necessity of community participation in wildlife management, without qualifying either perspective with cultural, ecological, and socio-economic specificities. The theory of ‘people-free wilderness’ has collided with that of a pro-people ‘sustainable extraction’ model to produce a paralysing dilemma. “The chasm between biologists and social scientists seems insurmountable”, and India’s wildlife continues to suffer.  Middle groundThe book is an extensive, well-researched diagnosis of the state of wildlife conservation in India. Shahabuddin is meticulous and persuasive in laying the ground for her conclusions and recommendations. Through a plethora of references, buttressed by her own research and experience, she analyses conservation failures and half-successes, while attempting to find a middle ground between equity, participation, and ecology.  Arguing that shortcomings in the current approaches to conservation reflect on Indian society, Shahabuddin suggests that “inequities in protected area management seem to closely mirror not only the deep inequities in Indian society but also, ironically, the pathetically low values that urban Indians typically associate with common spaces and the common good”. This is evident in her examples from Sariska, which highlight “casteist undertones” employed by guards – who outranked locals in the caste order – in their everyday dealings with local people. She remarks on how that sense of hierarchy further heightened a “generally adversarial relationship between people and the forest department”.  The government’s lack of respect for scientific research and researchers is another major weakness. “A wall of bureaucracy is erected to sabotage valuable research.” Field research depends on permits, often issued or withdrawn at whim. Ecosystem dynamics require sustained research in order to acquire enough data, if sound management policies are to be prescribed. Yet, “[I]t is as if science-based perspectives are viewed as a mortal threat by a forest department that believes it has a monopoly on knowledge of the forest”.  But ultimately, her most important prescription is that conservation policy needs to be flexible enough to accommodate disparate pressures. “The way to harmonise these opposing demands on the Indian wilderness is to develop a mosaic of different strategies in conservation all of which are given equal importance.” Whatever works for conservation should be allowed to work without being forced to fit into a preconceived paradigm.  The closing chapter is rather thin on specifics. But that is because there is no one-size-fits-all solution; each conservation approach has to be evolved and tailored to site-specific solutions. Having worked on the long and laborious relocation of Gujjar communities from Rajaji, this reviewer found himself in agreement with the author’s prescriptions. The case studies are recent, and while the book is not too academic but also not completely directed towards a popular audience – falling somewhere in between – this sort of compilation is critical in bringing the knowledge in the conservation domain up to date. As such, it is certainly recommended for conservation policy-makers, forest department staff, wildlife field-managers, but also anyone else with more than a passing interest in conservation. ~ Nirmal Ghosh is a foreign correspondent for The Straits Times, based in Bangkok. He has worked on wildlife and biodiversity conservation issues in India and Southeast Asia for over 20 years. He is currently a Trustee at The Corbett Foundation. He can be followed on Twitter at @karmanomad.

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