Recently, repeated attacks by marauding tigers on travelers brought the Corbett National Park – India’s largest habitat of the wild cats – into headlines. Two men died, and were devoured by the wild cats and a few injured, the attacks happening close to the main gate of the 521-sqkm forest.
Saving the tigers is one of the most difficult tasks for forest rangers in India.
There are 231 tigers in Corbett – nearly 18 tigers per 100sq km – the highest tiger density anywhere in the world-and around 1224 elephants, and there are leopards, wild boars and several other species of wild animals too.
Walking in such forests presents its own challenges-coming face to face with a herd of wild animals or with a tiger is not for the faint-hearted. Even though each patrolling party in Corbett may be armed with guns, wireless and GPS units, quick support in any emergency is difficult.
Samir Sinha, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) & Chief Wildlife Warden, Uttarakhand Forest Department, to explain how he and his men and women were combating the crisis. And more importantly, how the environment debate was exploding in a billion plus nation. Sinha said for the forest rangers, it is all about doing a job professionally and effectively while also spreading education and awareness, it is about understanding and respecting wildlife constituencies. It is a Herculean task and can only be done with public support.
This is the big interview. Excerpts:
Q: The big tussle between the land and machine. India is having serious troubles in handling its environmental laws. If there is coal in the forests, it should be mined because the nation is short on coal. But where will the animals go, and tribals who have long considered forests their homes?
A: It’s all about trying to strike a balance and to understand that the ecology is one of the primary building blocks of the economy. This balance does not come easy, as it has to weigh the hopes and aspirations of economic growth of the people of this country but also cannot afford to ignore the consequences of any decisions which impact the sustainability of natural systems and processes. That too impacts the well-being of human beings on the only planet we call home. There are simply no easy choices on this.
Q: Are you in favour of encouraging mining in wildlife reserves. If your answer is a NO, then can you suggest an alternative. Iron Ore and Coal are two such products that are often found deep inside forests. And once the state government gives clearances for mining, all hell breaks loose and the environmentalists take over. There must be a way out, right?
A: There can only be a No on such an issue. It’s not about “encouraging” mining in wildlife reserves. Protected Areas are created under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 based on the assessment that such areas are of adequate ecological, faunal, floral, geomorphologic, natural or zoological significance. There is a due process of law laid down for seeking clearances if at all any such activity is to be carried out in such a protected area. Also, persons or groups/organisations can approach the government or the Hon. courts if they feel aggrieved by any such order- that too is a legal right enshrined in our constitution. Our courts have long enunciated principles such as “precautionary principle”, “polluter pays principle” and “larger public interest” while taking a decision on such issues.
Q: Whose job is to protect the forests? Should it be solely the job of the government at the Centre and the states or should it be the job of the masses? Realistically, will masses ever get involved in saving forests?
A: It is everybody’s duty to protect the forests and wildlife of our country. Article 48-A of our constitution states that “The state shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.”
Article 51-A (g) of our Constitution which deals with Fundamental Duties of the citizens states: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.”
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the Right to life and personal liberty. Various judicial pronouncements have expanded the jurisdiction of the right to life and personal liberty to include the right to clean water and a healthy environment.
It is amply clear that if we have to survive as a society, we have to take care of our natural resources such as forests, air and water. While conservation and protection of our natural resources is certainly part of the job profile of forest officers, it is much more than just a “job” as it is about nurturing a critical life support system for all of humanity.
It would be unfair to make a sweeping generalisation that masses are not involved in conservation. In many pockets across our country, civil society groups and communities are very passionately attached to their local natural resources and are taking a lead in conservation initiatives. Thus, in Uttarakhand, many cultural and religious traditions such as the establishment of “Sacred Groves” & celebration of “Harela”, many social movements such as Chipko, Maiti Andolan and many community institutions are actively contributing in such efforts and have set examples acknowledged across the world. On the other hand, there are also instances where due to various factors including urbanisation, migration and human-wildlife conflict, a disconnect has emerged. I would strongly agree that protecting our forests and other natural resources cannot be the sole mandate of any single central or state agency but it’s everybody’s responsibility and should be a people’s movement. A lot is happening but much more needs to be done in this direction.
Q: Should tigers, leopards and lions venture out of their habitat and attack people at will or should there be some mechanisms in place? What needs correction, movement of people inside and outside forests or pushing more livestock in the forests so that the wild cats do not kill people?
A: Tigers, leopards and lions are free ranging animals and occasionally they do explore new areas as part of normal, natural behaviour while on other occasions they are forced to do so due to circumstances. Taking a view on what wild animals should do or not do from a human perspective is again simplistic. The statement that they attack people at will is misleading and not correct. Conflict happens due to a variety of reasons, many of them of anthropogenic origin. Wildlife habitats and corridors are encroached upon, exploited and opened for increasing human interference, creating a ripe recipe for such conflict.
Pushing more livestock into the forest would be a solution worse than the problem! The populations of such apex predators is determined by the availability of prey and as such there is a natural equilibrium in the ecosystem. The availability of natural prey in a forest usually determines the predator population also.
Pushing more livestock will end up degrading the forest, causing more disturbance and help create more cattle lifting animals, which when they don’t get easy prey anymore, will be attracted towards the home and hearth of nearby people in search of such easy prey, potentially leading to more conflict! It may also lead to artificially inflated local populations of predators, which would be unsustainable in the long run and again may lead to more conflict.
Most times, the belief that wild animals move out due to lack of food in the forests is just a myth. For most mammals, a shortage of food would affect fecundity, suppress regeneration rates and survival of litters and ultimately lead to a regulation of populations. That is how nature works. When easy food is offered on a platter outside forest areas, animals do get attracted and ultimately habituated towards such easy options. Swarms of monkeys sitting around some of our public roads that run through forests are an example- the food offered by people keeps them away from their regular natural food from the forest. That many die due to road accidents or complications due to food that is not part of their natural diet is not well understood or even documented.
Barring occasional aberrations, wild predators do not kill human beings as natural prey. Most such instances are chance encounters where people are injured or sometimes killed by accident. Rarely is such an incident premeditated: accidents happen sometimes when an animal is surrounded when trying to get away or when it senses that its offspring may be at risk or when it has been approached too closely. When people are pushed into close proximity to wild animals, the animals sometimes lose fear of humans. While their natural tendency is to move away or avoid human presence, repeated exposure may lead to a chance encounter that may be fatal for the person.
Q: Can realistically movement of carnivores be restricted? If not, how to check wild cats from turning into man eaters?
As mentioned earlier, carnivores generally avoid humans and human habitations. Sometimes, due to increasing populations, they are forced to explore new territories. Similarly, due to loss of habitats, they are forced into newer areas or even that human habitations have come to be in areas which have been their corridors or habitat till recently. Occasionally, they also explore new areas out of a natural tendency, as explained earlier.
Yes, there are very good models of restricting movement of predators. While mechanical barriers and other similar methods may work in some situations, the best solution is a healthy forest with minimum human disturbances. Also, animals learn over time and as such, no single method can be effective forever. Innovation is the key here.
Finally, maneaters are aberrations. An animal which actively pursues human beings as prey is rare and very dangerous. Such animals need to be dealt with swiftly and decisively. As stated earlier, most such instances of human deaths by wild carnivores are due to chance encounters.
Human-wildlife conflict has emerged as one of the biggest challenges to conservation in recent times. It has to be dealt with in a proactive manner, swiftly and effectively if we have to continue receiving public support for conservation.
Q: Uttarakhand, which is your domain, has seen a huge increase in the number of leopards? Often, the wild cats stray into human habitats. What, your opinion, is the reason?
A: The reasons are a complex mesh including fragmentation of wild habitats and corridors, growing human wildlife interface which can lead to a loss of fear & avoidance of human beings by wild animals, availability of alternate easy prey options near human habitations, poor waste disposal practices which can attract animals to close human proximity and agricultural practices in the immediate vicinity of forest landscapes which serve to lure herbivores and in turn can attract carnivores to follow.
Easy availability of prey such as scrub cattle can also bolster populations of carnivores artificially in certain pockets, beyond what would otherwise be sustainable on natural prey. It can also bring about changes in behaviour, making animals otherwise operating in the crepuscular or dark domain to show boldness to emerge in broad daylight.
Also, leopards are highly adaptable as a generalist species as opposed to tigers. As such, they can thrive on a large diversity of prey ranging from deer in the forest to scrub cattle, goats, pigs and even poultry. Their small size makes it easier for them to hide in closer proximity to human habitations if such areas are left overgrown with bushes.
Uttarakhand has done a commendable job in conserving its wildlife and continues to lead in people centric approaches to deal with human-wildlife conflict. Human-wildlife conflict is now designated as a “disaster” and there are systems in place for swift distribution of ex-gratia in case of any mishap. Well-equipped Quick Response Teams are in place across several Forest Divisions and their number is being increased. Veterinarians with the Forest Department are receiving the latest training in the country and abroad including South Africa to deal with wildlife health and tranquilisation issues. These systems are also continuously under review to improve their impact and effectiveness. Research on the carrying capacity of tigers and elephants in the Corbett and Rajaji Tiger Reserves is also being initiated for a better understanding of the population dynamics of such species in the state.
In a forest rich state like Uttarakhand, forest and wildlife issues do receive high attention at the highest levels of Government, which sure helps us perform better.
Q: Many say tourists do not know how to behave inside a wildlife park? They venture too close to the wild cats, also elephants. Some have died taking selfies. What is the answer?
A: Yes, sometimes the behaviour of tourists in forests can be a problem. People expect to see wild animals as a matter of right and expect such animals to “perform” in a certain way for them. Many don’t realise that these are wild animals and can turn dangerous if they feel they or their offspring are at risk. The answer is better awareness. The travel industry must also contribute towards raising visitor awareness, especially from the perspective of human safety. While guidelines do exist, it is very difficult to monitor visitor behaviour in a forest environment. Sometimes guides and drivers also expose visitors to undue risks in the mad rush to show a tiger or any such charismatic animal. Littering in pristine forests is also a problem. The answer again is better awareness.
Uttarakhand is presently working on a fresh set of detailed guidelines on visitor behaviour. The answer is again awareness, coupled with better enforcement.
The media in particular has a very important role in the way such issues are presented before the people. Every human-wildlife conflict is not a case of man eating, wild carnivores are not bloodthirsty beings generally lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce on people. While each conflict situation is unfortunate and brings a lot of hardship to those affected, it is important to present a nuanced and balanced view about such instances. Presenting animals as malicious, crafty beings with a Machiavellian attitude only reinforces negative stereotypes whereas they may themselves be more than often a victim of circumstances around them beyond their control. Sensationalism creates an instant buzz but also does a great disservice towards a real, sensitive and balanced approach towards this important subject.
Q: How much power should forest rangers and wildlife guards have? Barring a few parks, most of the wildlife parks do not allow guards to fire in self-defence, be it poachers, be it wild animals (possible maneaters)?
A: It is not about “power”. I see it as being better equipped to best perform the role and responsibility they are entrusted with. Forest staff, like their counterparts in other law enforcement agencies, are also primarily performing a law enforcement role. Fighting against land grabbers, illegal mining interests, timber smugglers, poachers, & dealing with human-wildlife conflict is an integral part of their daily role functions. Threat perceptions vary from state to state and even within states from area to area. As such, there cannot be a one size fits all solution. Yes, forest staff need to be better acknowledged and better equipped to deliver more on their role as law enforcement officials.
Q: What is the ideal forest cover for a nation?
A: As enshrined in the National Forest Policy 1988, the national goal should be to have a minimum of one-third of the total land area of the country under forest or tree cover. In the hills and in mountainous regions, the aim should be to maintain two-third of the area under such cover in order to prevent erosion and land degradation and to ensure the stability of the fragile ecosystem.
Q: Like telecom, coal, power and other sectors, should there be an environmental regulatory body?
A: The NGT is such a body. Its website states that “The National Green Tribunal has been established on 18.10.2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010 for effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment and giving relief and compensation for damages to persons and property and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. It is a specialised body equipped with the necessary expertise to handle environmental disputes involving multi-disciplinary issues.