THE LAST STAND: SAVING THE FORSAKEN TIGERLAND
Its 1:50 a.m., I have just finished watching a hard-hitting documentary---Tiger: The Death Chronicles by Mr. Kishnendu Bose---which explores the impact of Tiger-People dispute and its effects on the dwindling tiger population. I can’t help but pen my thoughts about the Tiger’s current predicament based on what I have seen and experienced over the years.
Now as you know from my previous article, I have had a very close association with Palamau Tiger Reserve (PTR) as I spent the first seven years of my life roaming these forests along with my father, learning about the realm of the tiger, its inhabitants and the intricacies of conservation.
Tiger!!—from time immemorial, this majestic beast has been described in a million ways by thousands of writers. But perhaps the most fitting tribute to the monarch of India’s forests comes from the legendary Jim Corbett: “A wild tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage.” Perhaps if we humans possessed just an iota of the large-heartedness that a tiger embodies, I wouldn’t be writing this article. As I write this piece, somewhere in India a tiger forest is surely being hacked or mined—even the mere relics of the tiger’s kingdom being plundered; perhaps a cattle kill is being poisoned on the fringes of the forests or a tiger being shot right through its heart. I ask myself—“Is there any hope? A precipitous and instinctive answer is NO!” But when I mull over what I have seen and experienced in this short life-span of mine, I guess the answer becomes-Maybe YES! , perhaps the tiger can notch up the seemingly unattainable victory against this crusading army of politicians, corrupt bureaucrats and businessmen, an army which is hell bent on destroying the tiger and his forests.
Now almost everybody interested in the wildlife issues of the country knows the problems ailing the system--a system fraught with problems that has lead to decimation of tiger populations. Time is running out and with each passing minute a new nail is being hammered into the tiger’s coffin.
In this article, I will take up the issues related to the current plight of Tiger and wildlife in general in the tribal dominated states of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Orissa particularly keeping Jharkhand in the focus, as it’s my home turf. Now, I concede that some of the things I suggest will be perhaps unacceptable to the “Old School Conservations”. And I fully respect that because even I am a student of this “Old School”, and it has been very difficult for me to trudge on this path which is quite different from the path of the “Old school”. Even though I don’t believe in the term “coexistence”, but I feel that keeping the ground realities (which are extremely bad owing to a cocktail of problems viz. Naxalism, tribal rights, poor governance, etc.), it’s highly unlikely to realize the goal of creating “inviolate spaces” in such areas in the foreseeable future.
Rehabilitation of locals living in Tiger habitats to create “inviolate spaces” is the need of the hour in all the tiger habitats of the country, and should definitely be carried out rapidly in regions that aren’t under the Naxal control without further delay, but it’s almost impossible to do that in the Naxal Havens in the coming years, and unfortunately for the wildlife of these areas, time is in extremely short supply (Details on this quandary in the section “Why the concept of inviolate spaces will not work in such areas in foreseeable future”).
So, keeping in mind the ultimate goal of safeguarding a bright future for our wildlife, we must explore all the options. Maybe we will fail somewhere, suffer a few setbacks inspite of our best intentions; maybe inspite of following this path, in some places, we will face the bitter experience that Mr. Valmik Thapar faced in Ranthambore even after he did his best to integrate the locals into conservation. But, somewhere deep down, having spent a lot of time with the Tribals of Jharkhand, I know that these people aren’t the same as the smart and cunning locals of Ranthambore. These people are the simplest, humblest and the warmest people you will ever meet. Unfortunately they are also the most gullible of all the people. However I have experienced that majority of these people (save the few black sheep) don’t betray those who have helped them or stood up for them in their hour of need. Nevertheless, a word of caution will be that inspite of the goodwill of the majority, the few black sheep I mentioned are very powerful and they always try to overpower and crush any voice of dissent(even if the voice of dissent is the voice of the majority). At last, all said and done, I just hope that whatever be the means, the end result is a safe future for our wildlife.
THE FORSAKEN TIGERLAND:
I guess the biggest tragedy for India’s Wildlife has been the constant bickering among the tribe of “Conservationists” and “Forest and People Activists”. The gainers are the poachers and large corporate houses while the losers have been the Tiger, his forests and the people sharing the tiger’s domain. Ironically, the aim of both set of activists is to save the forests-- the home of the Tigers.
A number of articles have been written on the Tiger-people relationship and the problems pertaining to this issue. However surprisingly, I can never find anything on the problems being faced by a huge chunk of tiger habitat, an area which is perhaps the biggest and the most peculiar example of this “Conservationists Vs Activists” clash. I am talking of the forests under the Naxal control—a huge forested area and prime Tiger-habitat that accounts for roughly 30% of the total Tiger forests of the country. This “Forsaken Tigerland” includes some of the biggest tiger reserves of our country viz. Indravati, Palamau, Sitanadi-Udanti, Sunabeda, some parts of Similipal(I have come to know that the situation in Similipal is more or less under control now) and numerous wildlife sanctuaries(some have been completely decimated while others cling on to the last straws). A heartening news according to Andhra Pradesh Forest Department states that Naxals have recently withdrawn from the once crippled Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve(hopefully they don’t return) and the tiger numbers as documented by WII in 2008 have been nothing short of a miracle--56!!!--while almost everybody pronounced the reserve as ruined.
The biggest plus point for these huge forested tracts is that they haven’t lost a lot of forest cover (except for some profitable trees like khair, teak, etc.) over the years as compared to other forested regions of India, and can perhaps harbor the largest population of Tigers in India with a healthy gene-stock. Moreover unlike the other Tiger-forests in India which are more or less isolated Tiger pockets, the forests of this region are quite contiguous, criss-crossed with numerous wildlife corridors connecting the major forests. Unfortunately and unbelievably, this huge potential habitat has always been neglected by conservationists. And at the same time the Naxal menace is proving to be the last straw for the tiger and the wildlife in these regions.
I am a firm believer in the concept of inviolate spaces for the tiger and a staunch opponent of the term “co-existence” as its being used today by a bunch of phony people ( like Ms Sunita Narain who inexplicably has become an expert in Tiger conservation and Tiger-People relationships by working on urban-environmental issues!!!! ).Such people don’t even dare to visit places like PTR or for that matter any forests in such Tribal-Naxal dominated regions which are at the fore-front of the complex Forests-Tiger-People-Naxal web; and yet, sitting in their comfortable air-conditioned rooms in Delhi, claim to be a voice of remedy for these problems.
However, in-spite of my outspoken support for inviolate spaces, I have now understood that in this extremely crucial and complex Tiger-habitat, the conventional methods of conservation will never work and achieving the goal of inviolate spaces seems highly unlikely in such areas in the near future. The Naxal movement which grows stronger with each passing day in this region is a major player preventing this. This problem coupled with the huge tribal population and the related tribal issues will not allow the authorities to carry out the rehabilitation plans. Its better that we accept this fact and try to work with these communities to convince them that the disappearance of wildlife will directly imply that they will also loose their dwellings---because once the wildlife of these forests disappears, the last cushion protecting these forests from the predatory eyes of huge mining industries will be lost, they will easily get clearances and this will mean that the Tribals living in these areas will also be evicted. If we can make the Tribals understand this simple series of events that will certainly take place, I’m sure most of them will be on our side. Moreover, it will further help us in pursuing the goal of rehabilitating the tribal villages in the critical wildlife habitats of these areas.
If we study the prevailing situation in this region, it presents the worst case scenario of this Forests-Tiger-People-Conservationists-Forest Activists entanglement—an imbroglio which has also played a prominent role in the rise of Naxalism in these wildlife refuges.
If we can find a remedy to protect tigers and wildlife as a whole in this area, I think we can solve the “Tiger Vs Humans” problem in all the other tiger forests of the country.
WHY THE CONCEPT OF INVIOLATE SPACES WILL NOT WORK IN SUCH AREAS IN THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE
As I start analyzing this problem--especially keeping in mind Palamau Tiger Reserve as a case study of the Tiger-People relationship (and other PA’s of Jharkhand as a case study of general Man-Animal-Forest relationship) in such areas-- it all seems like an intertwined mess. There doesn’t seem to be any black or white answer to the problems and again I reiterate categorically that the traditional conservation ethos can’t be applied here. We cannot create inviolate spaces for wildlife in the foreseeable future in areas like Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, etc. because:
a) A whopping 1, 49,644 Tribals live in the Protected Areas (PA’s) of Jharkhand (2001 census figure). By now i.e. 2010, this figure must have increased exponentially. The situation is the same in all the other such tribal and forest dominated states viz. Orissa, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh. There is neither the budget nor the political will to carry out the rehabilitation of such a huge human population. A proper rehabilitation of all the forest dwelling families in a single state (on the guidelines of NTCA i.e. a lump sum payment of Rs10 lakhs per adult OR a relocation by Forest Department which includes providing a house, agricultural land and access to various basic amenities such as school, hospitals, electricity, etc.) will require a budget that is perhaps thousand times more than the total budget allocated to the Forest Department for the whole country.
Moreover the politicians will never want the Tribals to move out of the forests as this will make the Tribals prosper and become more educated—obviously this will put an end to their exploitation of Tribals for easy votes.
b) Even if somehow a budget is sanctioned for this purpose and implausibly a political will generated, the Naxals whose presence grows stronger with each passing day, will leave no stone unturned in resisting and stopping such an initiative. The insurgency entirely depends on these forest villages for recruitment, their ration and food supply, information network, etc. Rehabilitating the villages out of the forests will sound a death knell for the insurgency in those forests.
However this fact also presents a very important and hardly discussed benefit of the conservationist’s demand of inviolate spaces in such forests--- A properly carried out rehabilitation will not only protect our wildlife and lead to upliftment of tribals, but may also achieve what 40 years of policing and paramilitary might has failed to do i.e. put an end to the 40 years old problem of Naxalism(at least in and around our Tiger Reserves and Wildlife Sanctuaries)
c) Another significant roadblock is the fact that there is a deep running mutual distrust between the Forest Department and the Tribals. Moreover the whole new dimension of “Forest Rights and People Activists” has further alienated the Tribals from the Forest Department, increasing the feelings of mistrust. So until and unless an extremely competent team of forest officers does not address this alienation issue, it is highly unlikely that such a plan will succeed (the reason for voluntary relocation of Jenabil in Simlipal Tiger Reserve has precisely been the extraordinary efforts of a highly competent team of officers and field staff in Similipal. Moreover, the Naxals did not hold much sway in this area of Similipal unlike in situation in Jharkhand and Chattisgarh where each and every forest village has huge Naxal dominance).For rehabilitating the Tribals out of such critical areas, it’s imperative that the department wins back the trust of the Tribals and creates immense goodwill among them so as to negate the influence of the “People Activists”. Personally, I cannot comprehend their pleas that Tribals should not be rehabilitated out of the forests (I completely agree with them on the issue of forced displacement by the industries, dams, etc. and for that matter on the shoddy rehabilitations whether done by Industries or the Forest Department).
What is the point in keeping the Tribals in the forests even if a proper rehabilitation package is being offered to them (assuming that it is carried of honestly and sincerely). Will the Tribals prosper in their poverty-stricken habitation in the forests, where every day they fear losing their crops to marauding herds of elephants or losing their most valuable asset i.e. their cattle to a hungry tiger. Will their children get proper education staying 20 miles inside a dense forest, will they be entitled to access to hospitals, electricity and other benefits that their tribal brothers living outside the forests enjoy. And from the history of Independent India, there is nothing to suggest that any of these basic amenities can be provided to these people, especially in the light of the raging Naxal insurgency in almost all such areas. I bet some of these “People Activists” who oppose such rehabilitation to spend just 10 days in some interior forest village of Jharkhand and let’s see then what they have to say about rehabilitation plans of the Department. Yes, I agree that there is a unique Tribal lifestyle that needs to be preserved and that its our heritage, but does that mean we deny these people the opportunity to prosper by keeping them cut-off from the society in their forest dwellings , just to fulfill the fanciful notions of Tribal life of the well off society. And we conservationists never ask that all the tribal villages should be moved out, we ask for the rehabilitation of villages that fall in critical wildlife habitats and are the epicenter of man-animal conflict in these areas. Surely, the tribal way of life, their culture and traditions won’t get destroyed by rehabilitating a few hundred villages out of the forests. There are thousands of tribal villages in Jharkhand that are not in the forest areas but the tribal traditions there are as impregnable as anywhere else. I believe even those who aren’t interested in wildlife issues, will agree with me on this subject.
But all this is wishful thinking, a fools paradise of sorts, far flung from the ground reality--- The rehabilitation plans remain on the paper as there is neither the budget nor the bureaucratic or political will or competence to carry them out honestly on the guidelines of NTCA; Naxalism rages on; the mistrust between the forest department and Tribals is reaching a tipping point in many areas with some phony People Activists adding fuel to this fire. To make matters worse, systematical and unabated destruction of the Tiger’s forest, which automatically also implies the forceful displacement of Tribals (I can’t believe that the so called “People and Forest Activists” fail to see this naked truth) is being carried out by huge mining industries at an unimaginable speed. Now, here is the catch---We conservationists speak out vociferously against the destruction of forests by such industries, but keep mum on the issue of forced displacement of Tribals inhabiting these areas, and this is where we make our biggest error---- our silence on this issue naturally results in hostility and antagonism of the Tribals towards the wildlife and conservationists. Moreover, it gives an opportunity for guileful People Activists to convince these people that its useless to cooperate with conservationists or the Forest department--- further jeopardizing the conservation efforts being carried out by the Department and the conservationists.
DWINDLING FAUNA OF THE REGION—THE REASONS:
If we take the forests of my home-turf Jharkhand, the following are the reasons for an alarming decline in the wildlife population in spite of a rich forest cover:
1). The first and foremost reason is the rise of Naxalism that has completely destroyed the authority of Forest Department over the forests, thus preventing any action being carried out against the offenders.
Even though organized poaching syndicates usually don’t operate in Naxal-dominated forests, the wildlife is destroyed by the unchecked poaching of the herbivore population of these forests at the hands of locals. The Naxals even though sometimes release diktats on felling of trees, never oppose this hunting. Obviously as the herbivore population gets decimated, the carnivores especially the big cats start attacking the livestock and get poisoned. Forest Department comes nowhere in the picture as Naxals have wrested control of almost all the critical forests from them.
This is precisely what has happened in Palamau— the reserve became the Citadel of Naxals in Jharkhand and the forest department slowly lost control over the whole reserve---and with this loss of administrative control, local hunters started having field days and in a matter of few years they completely wiped of the herbivore population from almost 90 percent of the reserve (the relics of the once abundant herbivore population of Palamau survive in a few compartments of Betla National Park). The few tigers and leopards that continue to hang on, do so by preying upon domestic livestock and without effective action, it’s just a matter of time before they follow the Dholes of Palamau (Dholes of Palamau Tiger Reserve mysteriously went extinct in 2002).
However, Palamau is just a renowned name in the long list of Wildlife Sanctuaries of this region that have been casualties to the raging Naxal insurgency. The less fortunate and relatively unknown Wildlife Sanctuaries died out quickly and quietly without much hue and cry, once their totalitarian masters stamped their authority over them.
Moreover, the possibility of Naxals financing their insurgency by indulging in poaching of Tigers and other wildlife can’t be ruled out—even though as of now there haven’t been any direct evidences to suggest that in Jharkhand at least.
2). The second major reason is the tribal population that resides in the forests and its distressing implications. This problem is three folds:
a) Increasing Population: This is perhaps the most important reason for the degradation of forests and the decimation of wildlife in Jharkhand (and other such tribal-dominated forests of India).The other two problems mentioned below are also a consequence of the upsurge in tribal population. Tribal villages which had 50 families a decade back now have 100, those which had 100 now have 250 and so on. To make room these new families and for their agricultural needs, forests are hacked down which in turn leads to increased man-animal conflict. Obviously humans emerge as the victors in this one-sided battle. Moreover in spite of the rising population and dwindling wildlife, tribals refuse to give up their unsustainable hunting rituals such as the “Sendra Shikar or Bishu Shikar” carried out by the tribals in the Jharkhand-Bengal border as well as in other tribal dominated states.
b) Extreme Poverty: The poverty level of the tribals who live in the forests is appalling and coupled with the problem of unemployment, they are extremely vulnerable to being recruited as henchmen for the poaching syndicates and the timber mafia. Whenever such an offer is made, more often than not, they indulge in such activities partly because of the extreme poverty and partly because they also know that it’s a very low-risk & high-gain job as the authorities have no control over the forests.
c) Changing Tribal Culture: The new generation of young tribals is moving out of the forests to the cities for a better life, giving up their age-old customs and rituals. And so in order to sustain their city-lifestyle they go back to their ancestral homes in the forests and hack down trees and indulge in poaching—both the offences being an easy way to make quick bucks especially in the absence of any Departmental control over the forests(owing to the Naxal influence).
3). An equally major reason is the massive destruction of prime-forests for the Mining Industries. This problem is particularly acute in Jharkhand and Orissa. Fortunately there are no mining industries operating in the Palamau Tiger Reserve but this avaricious mafia has cast its eyes on the surrounding buffer forests of the Tiger reserve and even started operating in some of these forests. A doleful example of the destruction caused by mining in Jharkhand is that of Hazaribagh Wildlife Sanctuary (ironically Hazaribagh means the “Land of Thousand Tigers”); its forest used to have about 35-45 tigers in the 80’s, shockingly, all of them disappeared by 1994(a transitory male tiger showed up in the Hazaribagh Wildlife Sanctuary in 2006—it also disappeared after the Forest Department refused to recognize it as a tiger and labeled it a leopard). The once rich forests of Hazaribagh (which also form a vital corridor between the forests of Southern Bihar and Palamau) which used to support a very healthy wildlife are now bereft of its denizens; even the sighting of 4-5 cheetals in the forest is considered an achievement. And this is a vicious circle—with the disappearance of wildlife, the mining industries can easily obtain clearances to mine new patches of the forest. This is the story of almost all the mineral rich forests of Jharkhand.
It is here that I fail to understand as to why do the Conservation Activists and People Activists work separately on this issue and refuse to work in coalition against these mining industries. Mining causes huge tribal displacement without any compensation and it destroys the forest and the wildlife. Even if we disagree with the People Activists on a number of issues, this issue is of prime concern for both the parties. But the egoistic attitude of both the parties leads to a deadlock. Even some of the genuine forest activists (who form an extremely small minority in this booming field of “Forest and People Activism”) fail to recognize the importance of protecting wildlife which is perhaps the most important tool to achieve their goals. They unbelievably miss the boat when they overlook this simple reality that if a forest becomes bereft of its wild denizens, it’s just a matter of time before the tentacles of the wretched mining industries will engulf that area. However, at the same time, most of the Conservationists miss the boat when they don’t share the dais with People Activists on this major issue; if they do this, it will create immense goodwill among the Tribal population (and we have to agree that the forest activists have a much more greater sway over these people here in Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orissa, etc. than the conservationists) which will in-turn lead to a greater cooperation from them in protecting the wildlife of their forests. And with the passing of the ill-conceived Forest Rights Act, 2006 it becomes imperative for the wild-lifers to be in the good books of the Tribals and this can be only achieved when conservationists stand up for Tribals on the issue of forced displacement by industries. This trust and goodwill will also negate the sway that some egoistic & guileful self-proclaimed forest rights activists hold over these gullible people; and hence make the apprehensive Tribals of this region accept the government resettlement plans.
4). Poaching--- Even though the above mentioned problems are the major problems behind the dwindling wildlife of these regions, the grave threat of poaching cannot be ignored. As I mentioned earlier, in these tribal areas, it’s the herbivores that are poached unrelentingly. This is not to say that the “high-priced game” viz. Tigers, leopards, bears and Tuskers aren’t poached, but the ratio of poaching of herbivores is unbelievably high as compared to anywhere else in India. So, it’s a double blow for the carnivores of this region—their food is disappearing at the rate of knots, as a result they are indulging in cattle lifting and getting poisoned and at the same time poachers specifically targeting them are having field days. . And again with the Naxal problem, the department is rendered powerless as far as arresting the poachers is concerned.
THE WAY OUT THIS MESS
Given the unpredictable nature of this region--where Naxals rule most of the forests, the locals and forest department have a huge mutual distrust, where forest activists hold sway among the local masses and to compound the problems, huge mining industries vie for large chunks of these forests—its very difficult to chalk out a plan to protect the wilderness of these areas. However, perhaps the following roadmap for protecting the wildlife (especially the flagship species such as the Tigers, Elephants, Leopards, etc.) will be the most effective:
1) Saving Wildlife in the Naxal bastion: Now, I’ll tell you before hand that I am going to elaborate this point in great detail as this is the most important one, because we can solve all the other problems if and only if we find some way forward with the Naxals. The Naxal insurgency that engulfs most of the forest of this region is the single biggest roadblock in protecting the wildlife of this area. I have already mentioned how Naxalism has led to the decimation of wildlife. Now, Naxalism is not going away in the coming years, rather all indications are that it will grow stronger and their grip over these areas will increase tremendously (and at the same time, it will take new areas under its control), but after so many years of visiting Naxal dominated sanctuaries of Jharkhand, I feel that perhaps there is a way out---and that is through dialogue. Now, inspite of all the assaults by Naxals on the various administration wings, they haven’t yet come into direct conflict with the Forest Department as such. They usually don’t kill forest staff or wantonly destroy forest properties--- well yes they do it sometimes, but more often than not, the resthouses that are blown up are those that are forcibly taken over by police to temporarily house there men. Once they leave the Resthouse, the Naxals come back, beat up the forest staff (though they don’t kill them barring a few extremely rare cases, which mostly happened because few members of the Dasta had some personal grudges) and blow up the resthouses so that it can’t be used by police again. It is also an established fact which might not be accepted officially, that the forest department always has to get a clearance from the Naxals when they plan to implement any schemes in their area pf dominance. This is usually done by village mediators. I gave this whole background to make you all aware of how things work in these areas. Now, there have been instances in the past when the Naxals have agreed to work hand in hand with the forest department on the issue of saving the wildlife--- the most memorable instance being when they issued a diktat quoting “We will chop the hands of those who indulge in Tiger poaching or chop off green trees” (might sound barbaric and brutal, but it was effective) in 1995 in Palamau Tiger Reserve after a series of indirect negotiations between the Forest Department and the Naxals—the negotiations for which my father was threatened with TADA. However inspite of the TADA threats, this was the golden era of sorts for Palamau, the Tiger populations rose, the Naxals were helping the forest department in nabbing poachers and they were even helping the department in recovering skins and bones. One of the most noticeable instance of this newfound cooperation was when the Naxals returned 136 kilos of ivory and a leopard skin that had been stolen from Betla museum in 1995 (the whole story can be read here https://oldwww.wii.gov.in/publications/newsletter/nljdec97/prof2.htm ).The staff was being allowed to carry out their duties and the combined effect of the active manning by the Palamau staff & the Naxal diktat meant that poaching was in check. However, this newfound peace didn’t last long and ended with the landmine blast of 1998 about which I mentioned in the previous article. However the only silver lining was that this incident was basically the handiwork of a group of 7-8 naxals who had in turn been ransomed by the timber mafia which was feeling a lot of heat. This means, that the door for dialogue is still open, but perhaps with the rise in Naxal influence, things will be more difficult as compared to the 90’s. Some of the other key instances of cooperation between forest department and Naxals are mentioned below:
Ø In Hazaribagh Wildlife Sanctuary, the Naxals didn’t interfere in the work of the Forest Department after 1999 owing to the goodwill department created among the locals by building check dams to fulfill their water needs, providing them temporary employment in forest-road repairs, fire-watch groups, check-dam building, etc. There wasn’t a single instance of beating up of forest staff. And lest we forget, these were the same Naxals who launched rocket launchers on the cavalcade of the then Chief Minister Babulal Marandi when he came to visit a village inside the Hazaribagh Wildlife Sanctuary. There was just a single instance of confrontation from 1999-2005 (that is the time period when Dad was in charge) when Dad was kidnapped by Naxals who were actually looking to kidnap the local MLA who had come to inspect the work of Forest Department in the sanctuary. Even though they were, let’s say more than rude to Mr. MLA, they were extremely courteous with Dad and the forest staff accompanying him, they even asked him to deliver a speech on the importance of forests to the villagers present in the “Jan-Adaalat” that they had organized. They released Dad and the forest staff within 5 hrs. It’s worth mentioning here that a few days back this same Dasta of Naxals had chopped of the hands of a B.D.O. (and left him to die) after pronouncing him guilty in the Jan-Adaalat. But these same guys were extremely courteous with the department staff.
Ø After indirect negotiations, Naxals allowed department staff and officers to patrol Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary on the eve of “Sendra Shikar” (an annual hunt carried out by Tribals of this area) on April 26th, 2010. They even issued a release that stated “The ritual should be allowed to be carried out as this is a part of the Tribals culture but at the same time we ask the Tribals to carry out the festival in a non-violent way without harming the wild animals” (at the same time they also released a separate message that “we will also carry out the Sendra of corrupt forest officials”—a statement with which I’ll agree to some extent, unfortunately they don’t believe in this statement as they turn a blind eye on the corrupt practices of the Forest Department in many other areas of Jharkhand as long as they are given a stipulated share of the ill-gotten money). The result—the Tribals managed just a single wild-boar. It was a job well done by the department staff and they need to be praised here. But at the same time as Dad (who being appointed the C.F. of this sanctuary a few months back, was camped at Dalma top) told me two other factors that were equally responsible for the negligible catch--- first, the scorching heat and second, the fact that the wildlife of Dalma has dwindled over the last decade or so. It is worth mentioning here that Dalma forest form a contiguous patch that meet the forests of Lalgarh. Dalma Wildlife sanctuary is perhaps the only sanctuary apart from Palamau which still has a viable population of wildlife and is especially famous for the large elephant herds that visit this forest every summer, walking hundreds of kilometers all the way from West Bengal. Unfortunately, due to the Lalgarh siege and the ongoing confrontation between security forces and Maoists, the elephants have been stranded in the forests of Jharkhand-Bengal border this year and are yet to reach Dalma. The herd is almost a month late now, stranded and hence marauding and destroying villages of that area. Moreover, due to struggle at Lalgarh, the Maoists of Lalgarh regularly camp at Dalma (whenever they are cornered by security forces in Lalgarh, they move here) and have created it as a permanent base of sorts in this area. As a result, all the roads of the sanctuary have been planted with landmines and training camps have been established in this Elephant Forest (I have myself seen one or two such abandoned camps in my visits to Dalma).And things reached took an ugly turn when the Naxals attacked the only forest Resthouse in this 188 sq. km sanctuary, the “Pindrabeda Forest Resthouse” situated atop Dalma in 2008—they ransacked the Resthouse, beat up the forest staff and blasted the department Truck. The staff abandoned their posts and returned partially almost a year later. The other forest Resthouse of Dalma had already been abandoned 6-7 years back owing to the Naxal diktat who had established a training camp in the vicinity. Now, even though the department is somehow trying to regain some sort of control over the sanctuary, yet this year the timing of “Sendra Shikar” coincided with arrival of a huge Naxal Dasta from Lalgarh into Dalma. As the result, they had asked outsiders and even department staff to stay out of Dalma until this huge contingent of Naxals didn’t return to Lalgarh. As a result,the forest Department had to camp in the on the foothills of Dalma, and it was through a round of indirect negotiations with the Naxals that they finally allowed the department to take a large patrolling force inside Dalma and also agreed to release the statement asking Tribals not to harm the wildlife. This was nothing short of a victory for the department which has been struggling to regain control over Dalma and also a proof of the fact that sincere, honest and genuine dialogues with Naxals on the issues of Wildlife conservation will succeed more often than not.
Ø There has also been cooperation among Naxals and department staff whenever genuine and honest dialogue has been carried out in other forests of Jharkhand.
So, the above instances highlight the following points as to how cooperation with this insurgent force can be achieved to some extent for the purpose of protecting the fauna of the areas under their control:
a) The foremost prerequisite is that an honest, fearless and competent officer is placed in charge of such regions, an officer who is known for working without fear or favor. At the same time, the officer should have a good rapport with his subordinate staff that is ready to back him up and trusts his judgment when it comes to negotiating with such rebels. The Naxals will only be ready to cooperate if they know that the officer has a good image among the locals and that ignoring his pleas for cooperation may not go down well with the local support-base. Moreover, most of the Naxals of a particular comprise of locals, so a good reputation of the officer among the local automatically means that he will have a good reputation among the Naxal members (who mostly belong to the forest villages) and hence they shall be cooperative.
b) The other important point that since Naxals are an outlawed organization, there is a serious limit to which the forest officers can negotiate with them, so the role of non-governmental individuals becomes very important. Its here that the role of conservationists outside the government becomes absolutely necessary. This path of dialogue by non-governmental conservationists has succeeded in much worse situations, the best example being the case of “Virunga National Park” in the war-ravaged eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo which was run-over by rebels in late 90’s. The National park is home to the critically endangered Silverback Mountain Gorillas. In order to save this species a team of conservationists held dialogues with the rebels (who were killing off these gorillas for meat) and finally the rebels agreed to protect the Gorillas of these forests. It’s also important to mention that the situation in Virunga is thousands times worse than in the Naxal forests, the Congolese Rebels of Virunga have killed 97 forest personnel’s since 1997. And the result of these successful talks--- a 14% rise in the Gorilla population of Virunga. If the negotiations could work in those abysmal situations then there is no reason why an honest effort made here won’t work.
c) Another prerequisite of sorts to make such a plan work is that the relations of the department and the conservationists with the locals of such areas need a tremendous improvement as most of the members of the Naxal Dasta will comprise of locals belonging to these forest villages. And for this as I already mentioned, conservationists need to stand up for the locals on the issues of displacement due to mining (or for that matter even displacement due to botched up rehabilitation plans by the department).
The importance of asking help from this outlawed organization is the fact that unlike the administrative orders, when Maoists release a diktat, locals obey. So, once the Maoists release the diktat such as the one they released in Palamau, the locals listen, they don’t dare to disobey the orders of Naxals as it will simply mean—a severe beating or even death. They also know the fact that unlike the department who is poor at apprehending, the Maoists will get to know of the disobeying of their orders in a matter of hours. So, all in all if the Maoists release diktats in the favor of Tigers and other wildlife, it will automatically check the problems of poaching and destruction of forests
Why will/should the Naxals cooperate in Wildlife protection: Well, honestly speaking this is a very tricky issue, as to why will or should the Naxals cooperate with the Forest Department to safeguard the wildlife when they must definitely be aware of the fact that they can poach these animals to further finance their insurgency. Well, first of all, even though it has changed over the years, the Naxals seem to respect honest and competent officers. However, this is not to say that they will blindly allow the works of even the honest forest officers—they will also look at their own benefits. Here are some of the main points as to why the Naxals will/should cooperate with department and conservationists on this issue (And I categorically mention that these points are being given assuming that an honest, upright and fearless officer is in charge of such areas, an ilk of officers that is fast disappearing):
Ø The first point is the most complex, important and intertwined point. If the officer and his staff has a good rapport with the locals and is in their good books--- and this does not mean allowing the locals to indulge in illegal activities, it means working for making their lives a bit better by building small check dams that ensure a good harvest of crops, employing the locals in the daily-wage staff, giving them work in the various temporary jobs such as forest road-repair, check dam building, fire-watch groups, etc.---then the Naxals are more likely to be quite cooperative. The reason being that first of all, most of them belong to these villages, and even if they aren’t a part of this Department-Locals engagement, their relatives are almost certain to reap benefits. This goes a long way in ensuring cooperation. The second reason is the fact that if the department is on good terms with the locals, any action by the Maoists against the department will not go down well with the locals, who form their support base. And ensuring this support base is far more important for the Maoists than financing the insurgency by being on the wrong side of the locals (they can make up for this lost source of income by a number of other means). And once, the Naxals ensure cooperation, it automatically means that those Tribals who indulge in illegal activities (which form a minority among the total tribal dwellers) are reigned in by the joint efforts of the department and the Naxals—this is what precisely happened in Palamau from 1994-98, and the results were great for the wildlife.
Ø Regarding this second point, well unlike the first point (which I have seen materialize into reality in some areas), this is a point that I speak from rationality and not from experience. The second point is the fact that the Naxals know (or if they don’t, then it’s the job of the negotiators to make them aware of this point) that even though the corrupt and inept politicians usually don’t cause them much trouble, once the forest is bifurcated for the huge mining giants, these politicians(Obviously acting because they have and will continue to get huge sums of money from these mining giants) suddenly go out all guns blazing against the Maoists of that area(and yes this has happened in Jharkhand to sanitize the forest areas that are to be given to huge mining giants such as the Mittals). The Naxals know that they cannot hold ground over say a 100-200 sq.km area if the the forces are sent in to sanitize that area. Now, to precisely avoid this situation, they must ensure that the forest retains its fauna so that it can’t be easily bifurcated to the mining giants, especially in light of the strict Supreme Court rulings on this issue as well as a MoEF that has seen a breath of freshness after years of misery (both being quite strict when it comes to not allowing mining in wildlife rich areas).
There area also has problems of some groups of Maoists being patronized by illegal mining lobbies for mining (as well as maybe killing off the wildlife to pave way for bigger nefarious designs—though I must also mention that I haven’t come across any such instance at least in Jharkhand), but I speak from experience that if the above mentioned points are implemented by the conservationists and the department, this problem can be more or less tackled easily.
2. Tackling the ever increasing tribal population--- This is the most difficult part of the problem and can be tackled if and only if the Naxals are cooperative. Now, its extremely difficult to rehabilitate all the villages—however cooperative the Naxals might be they will not agree rehabilitating all the villages in their area of dominance---so the only way out is to identify specific villages which are far flung in the interiors and fall in the most critical wildlife areas; then through a combined effort of convincing the Tribals of such remote villages to move out (who are usually more than happy to accept the offer) as well as convincing the Naxals to let go of these few Tribal villages. Most probably, the Naxals will allow rehabilitation of these few far flung villages. Now, to manage other villages with their ever increasing population, it’s imperative to educate these people—educate them and they themselves will start moving out of the villages into the cities. And as far as the one problem that I quoted earlier (that may arise out of this departure to the cities) of some guys returning to the forests to indulge in poaching and other illegal activities, well most will not dare to do that owing to their knowledge of the fact that Naxals are cooperating with the department and have released diktats against poaching and timber felling( I already mentioned that there is nothing much that can be done regarding this problem if there isn’t cooperation between the department and the Naxals). Thus education is the most important point to stop further expansion of families inside the forests. Now, ensuring education in such areas--- well this is where conservationists and genuine wildlife NGO’s have to play a pivotal role as its very difficult for administration to do that given the Naxal situation.
3. Tackling poaching: As I already said that the problem of poaching can be more or less controlled once the Naxals are cooperative. With this, the department can patrol freely to apprehend poachers, while the fear of defying Naxal orders will also check the influx of poachers.
4. Mining trouble: Apart from having a healthy wildlife population, its here that the conservationists, journalists, people activists, etc. have to also come into the thick of things to maintain pressure on the government, not allowing them to allocate wildlife rich forestlands to the mining industries. Again, its imperative that the fauna of these forests survives, because without that, all the rallying and crying hoarse will be rendered useless and the mining industries will easily take over citing the forests to be degraded.
A word of caution if and when at least some rehabilitations are carried out: Much has been said about this & there are better people than me to explain the nuances related to this issue. I just want to highlight this simple point: Rehabilitations of Tribals have to be carried out with utmost sensitivity, a point which is usually overlooked. Apart from financial and other incentives, such rehabilitations can be and should be only carried out after convincing the people to be moved out, as forced evictions or shoddy rehabilitations will be a huge blow to the prospect of future rehabilitation plans for other villages, bringing us back to square one.
A very important warning (this part somehow got omitted in the original post, I’ve added it now--10 hrs after publishing the original post) : Contrary to popular belief, Police should not at all be used in these areas to assist the forest department in patrolling, etc. because that will put the Forest Department in direct conflict with the Naxals (which is fortunately not the case as of yet) and will end all hopes for reviving such places. The Naxals will start attacking the forest personnel and forest properties on the same lines as they do with the police. The ominous warnings are already present in the form of the attacks that the department has suffered----Almost always the Naxals have targeted and blown off those rest-houses (and beat up the staff there) in Jharkhand that have been used by the police for camping their men. I’ll spell it out clearly, involve the police in this mess, and it will be a catastrophe---- an end to all the hopes of reviving these wildernesses.
Now, I know that the skeptics will perhaps still be apprehensive whether all the points that I have enumerated actually work. Well, the Naxals have cooperated in some areas (the details of which I already mentioned above) and even if we don’t know what the results will be, its better to fail trying rather than leave things as they are --- because as far the Big-cats and wildlife is concerned, it will definitely vanish within no time if we keep sitting idle simply repeating the rhetoric of saving our wildlife. First of all I am quite sure that the above course of action will be successful if done properly, but on the flip side even if it—God Forbid—doesn’t work out the way we thought, well, then at least its better to go down fighting than deserting our wild jewels in their hour of need.
Now, some might question-- Aren’t all the above steps very risky; maybe life threatening, so how can conservationists work in such an atmosphere where even when they are fearful for their lives?
To answer this question, I will directly quote my father when he was questioned as to why did he agree to go to meet the Naxals alone in 1995 to recover the 136 kg of stolen ivory and the leopard skin when he knew that he could even be killed. His reply was:
“Well, it is very difficult to explain.
I am not a daredevil nihilist motivated by the thrill of challenging death, but, a time comes when you ask certain questions to yourself. You want to know what you are made of. You challenge yourself by setting targets - at times almost impossible ones.
Then there is a moral issue also. If you cannot risk your life in performing your duty, do you really have any moral right to ask someone else to risk his life?
I hope you have got my answer”.
So, if we cannot put our life on the line when it comes to performing our duty, what moral right do we have to criticize those who don’t carry out their job honestly and sincerely?
I marvel as to how Tigers, their co-predators and other forest dwellers still somehow manage to hang on in these Forsaken Tigerlands. But I know this for sure:
The wildlife of one Forsaken Tigerland--Jharkhand--is fighting its last battle, the creatures that prospered here for thousands of years now make there last stand; but as their citadels crumple one by one, sadly defeat looms large in the horizon and until and unless some swift action is taken (perhaps on the lines of what I have suggested), the end is just around the corner.