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Crouching Tiger, India's Forests

Lessons from Ranthambhore and T-24

Priya Singh (karnisar@gmail.com) and Girish Punjabi (girisharjunpunjabi@gmail.com) are members of Researchers for Wildlife Conservation, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. Nandini Velho (nandinivelho@gmail.com) is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science (TESS) and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia and a member of Researchers for Wildlife Conservation, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

The polarising debate around Ustad or T-24 who killed a forest guard in Ranthambhore National Park, and was eventually relocated, will serve little to address complex problems of conservation. This article focusses on the scientific and societal considerations of wildlife conservation—the forest guards as well as the communities living inside and around wildlife habitats. 

On 8 May, Rampal Saini, a forest guard at the Ranthambhore National Park (RNP) was fatally attacked by a tiger. He had been working with the forest department for 27 years. The investigation on ground by the forest department and local conservationists was based on eyewitness accounts of three other forest guards who rushed Rampal’s body to a hospital. A nine year old tiger, T-24 or Ustad, was held responsible for the death. This was the fourth person and the second forest department employee to have lost his life to a tiger within a period of five years in Ranthambhore.

Ustad or T-24 in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve (Sandesh Kadur)

With assurances of prompt action against the accused by the forest department, peace prevailed on ground. However, in the past, when previous deaths had occurred, there were protests by violent mobs who created road blocks, attacked the local Station House Officer (SHO) and refused to accept a victim’s body unless adequate compensation was paid.

Within eight days following Rampal Saini’s death, with pressure mounting from residents, permission from the Chief Wildlife Warden was obtained to relocate T-24. He was moved to a captive facility 400 km away at Sajjangarh Biological Park, Udaipur. This resulted in a legal petition filed at the Rajasthan High Court by Chandra Bhal Singh, from Pune, against the actions of the forest department. This was accompanied by candlelight marches and protests in Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Jaipur and other cities. There were campaigns on social media sites such as Change.org, Help T-24 on Facebook, and #BringT24back on Twitter in support of the tiger.

While scientists like Ullas Karanth, Dharmendra Khandal and Vidya Athreya focussed on the need to eliminate individual problem animals; wildlife enthusiasts believed it was human intrusion of wildlife habitats which was the problem. Hence, they felt T-24 must be allowed to return to Ranthambhore.

Crosstalk at Different Scales

Embedded in this issue, are concerns that operated at different scales: the species, ground level interactions and global concerns. In the last few weeks, much has been written about the species and in this case the specific individual (T-24). The focus has been his grace, his not so man-eater like behaviour and his relationship with other tigers and humans. This has raised global concerns in the form of articles carried out by the local, national and international media focussing on the opaque processes that led to the tiger’s displacement from his rightful home to a captive facility, protests by a section of animal lovers and ground issues such as uncontrolled tourism and unregulated human movement into protected areas.

In comparison, there has been very little focus on the multiple dimensions on the ground and the scientific and societal considerations of managing these situations. In this article, we seek to fill this gap by highlighting issues related to on-ground forest management through a diverse set of experiences in field.

Ranthambhore is a reserve that has been in the spotlight for many decades (the T-24 incident has created more and renewed interest). But the difficult conditions of field staff in Ranthambhore and other reserves are very similar. While their jobs involve implementing policies to achieve our common conservation goals, they also face enhanced public pressure from residents and now many urban wildlife enthusiasts. This last group has been particularly vocal in terms of the recent relocation of T-24. The balkanisation of content has been apparent in this debate. Scientists have traditionally spoken to society through the use of more traditional platforms such as peer reviewed scientific journals. This however does not necessarily reach a wider audience or enable real time communication. This lag is apparent as society has started to speak to scientists and managers through social media forums which have a much wider readership.

However the science of animal movement needs to be more widely understood. Home ranges of large wildlife vary depending on productivity of habitats which in turn determines availability of fodder and prey. In other words, the home range of a tiger is larger in a rainforest compared to a dry deciduous forest. These dynamics are usually altered by competition that occurs between different individuals of the same species and across species. Competition and human disturbances can thus alter the home range size of species. Some protected areas and forests adjoining them support high densities of many large wildlife species. This means that home ranges of large mammals could transcend into neighbouring human dominated landscapes.

Besides, many wide-ranging species such as leopards persist completely in human dominated landscapes, in reserved forests, cash crop plantations, and agricultural areas. Likewise, local communities living on the fringes of protected areas and reserved forests often use protected forests to meet subsistence needs and for commercial benefits. Some protected areas also see large influxes of tourists, either for religious or recreational reasons. This creates the perfect setting for human wildlife interactions. Dealing with humans and wildlife together thus requires immense prudence and pragmatism.

Many complexities also persist in implementing legal and policy writs on the ground. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), an apex governmental body for tiger conservation, facilitates voluntary relocation of families from the core or critical tiger habitat of tiger reserves. However, almost a decade ago, when India had 28 tiger reserves, far less than the 48 today, 273 villages existed in these core areas with 1487 villages in buffer areas (Project Tiger 2005). This translated to roughly 101, 077 people living in core areas and 380,535 in the 28 tiger reserves. The constraints are further coupled with legislation of acts such as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 which recognises the land rights of people living in forest areas.

Today less than 5% of Indian landmass is under protected area network. Each protected area averages a size of less than 300 sq km. This means given the small reserve sizes in India, management of all protected areas will inevitably have to deal with species and people to various degrees. In reality such a dichotomy is impractical. Should people enter forests or not? Should food choice of animals extend to agricultural crops or be restricted to wild fodder? Such questions remain relevant in theory. In the Indian conservation scenario they are limited by a lack of choice for both, humans and wild species.

Living with Large Wildlife

There is a substantial overlap between the largest network of tiger reserves in India and the highest concentration of low income tribal groups (Project Tiger 2005), typical of the “Rich forests, poor people” syndrome (Peluso 1994). These areas also face threats from consumptive activities: from mining on one extreme to unregulated tourism to another (Karanth and DeFries 2011). This means that people living with wild animals are the poorest, and also bear the brunt of the voices and choices that urban Indians chose to exercise. The benefit of having these wild areas means availing ecosystem services to a wider area. For example, in Ranthambhore, all streams originate inside the park (DeFries et al. 2010).  These benefits are shared with a wider populace of nature-based tourists who sometimes want swimming pools to be functional even during periods of water scarcity.

Anti-poaching camps are often unguarded like this one (Sandesh Kadur)

But the losses people face from living with wildlife and nature are restricted to these low-income residents. The losses of living with wild animals are non-trivial. For example, a study of three national parks in India (Kanha, Nagarahole and Ranthambhore) indicated that 89% of the surveyed households reportedly received no compensation for crop raiding and livestock predation (Karanth et al. 2013). When large-ranging carnivores such as wolves predate upon livestock outside protected area networks there is little chance of compensation. This is a combination resulting from the lack of compensation policies for such regions, and partly the lack of knowledge regarding compensation amongst nomadic herders. In certain cases, despite the existence of compensation schemes, cattle-herders may seek the more reliable method of poisoning carcasses to eradicate the predator. The logic being that compensation is almost always less than the actual worth of a domestic animal. Furthermore, homogeneous policies may not be very functional in India which is marked by high geographical, sociocultural and political variety.

This sociocultural diversity also manifests itself in attitudes towards large wildlife in India. While some communities show high tolerance for cattle-lifting large carnivores, this varies significantly across the country. For example the levels of tolerance for leopards and tigers in Ranthambhore (Karanth et al. 2013), is different from the tolerance for wolves in Solapur, Maharashtra (Agarwala et al. 2010) or the snow leopards in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh (Suryawanshi et al. 2014).

Living with wild animals can become particularly daunting in situations where different individuals of the same species might behave in different ways. This is true for herbivores such as Asian elephants which adopt different strategies and behaviours to crop raid agricultural fields (Srinivasaiah et al. 2012).

Irrespective of how an individual responds, lives are often lost when humans and wildlife interact. Ninety one people were killed by elephants in a three year period in Karnataka (Gubbi et al 2014) while 400 get killed each year to elephants both inside and outside of protected areas (MoEF 2010). Carnivores may cattle-lift (in Ranthambhore 27% of livestock loss) of which people may be generally tolerant. Understandably, they would be more inclined to kill carnivores when they kill people rather than when they kill their livestock (Karanth et al 2013).  In just 6 years, 71 human lives were lost to tigers and leopards inside or near Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (Dhanwatey et al 2013). When human lives are lost, this often means loss of an able earning family member resulting in permanent antipathy towards wildlife within an entire community. This is also accompanied by violence (often directed towards the forest department). Retaliatory killings could often lead to death of not just the “problem” animal but many others within the same spatial complex.

Timely compensation, reduction in dependence of local communities on forest resources, and sometimes even translocation is oft-recommended to mitigate human-animal conflict. The efficacy of translocation to other areas for mitigating wildlife conflict is questionable. Each of the other options is not free of its bureaucratic and technical challenges. Timely compensation is uncommon and reporting of conflict to the actual settlement for any loss is a sluggish process. Besides people who live on the fringes of protected areas usually suffer higher losses and may be unwilling or unsure of how to claim compensation (Ogra and Badola 2008).

Forest Guards on the Ground

All of this implies that the forest department and on ground conservationists are endowed with a complex and challenging task. Forest managers are expected to ensure minimal human movement in protected areas, while simultaneously ensuring protection of wildlife which regularly moves into neighbouring human dominated landscapes. When wildlife populations begin to respond positively, jobs of forest staff do not become any easier. This means higher densities of wild animals which are often not confined to small protected enclaves anymore.

The anti-poaching camp in Dampa Tiger Reserve from where 5 guards were kidnapped (Priya Singh)

At the most basic unit of management, are the people on the ground. Forest watchers (many working for years on daily wage) and forest guards are part of the hope, despair and day-to-day forest governance. Often daily wage forest watchers come from the same community as those residing in the neighbourhood of the protected areas. They are expected to punish people who enter forests while on duty and celebrate life and mourn death while off-duty. They are supposed to implement conservation policy and goals of reducing extraction from forests. But the energy market for rural areas still comes from fuel wood (60% of the total fuel), often sourced from forests. Increased availability of commercial fuel such as (LPG, kerosene and electricity) has changed consumption patterns mostly in urban and not rural areas. Then there is an increased expectation from the job profiles of forest department staff. Apart from keeping well-oiled and armed poaching gangs at bay, they also have tourism and census operation duties. But in parallel, the funding allocation for training, employing more permanent staff on ground, and patrolling has not increased at the same pace everywhere. For example as recently as 2010, around 38 forest guards and foresters were recruited for the first time since 1980s in Mizoram.

In 2005, “Joining the Dots”, published that on an average a forest guard in any tiger reserve of India is responsible for patrolling an area of over 15 sq km a day. This does not incorporate the terrain or political issues such as insurgency. In Dampa Tiger Reserve, in Mizoram, five forest guards were kidnapped by militants from the National Liberation Front of Tripura while on duty in 2013. In Pakke Tiger Reserve, in Arunachal Pradesh, families of poachers have created liaisons with militants to put pressure on the Forest Department to meet their demands. There are underlying efforts to consolidate extortion. Militant outfits want to know the names of permanent forest department staff (starting from the level of forest guard to higher) to extort money from them.

In this environment, at the end of the financial year comes the uncertainty of the little job security of daily wage forest watchers. Their jobs depend on the quantum of funds that are released as per the approved Annual Plan of Operation by the government. This makes the job of a field director doubly difficult. As much as the field director motivates his staff throughout the year, by the end of it he/she determines how many daily wage Forest Watchers will be retained for the next financial year. If status quo is maintained, the first instalment of funds is released only by June (at the very earliest). Until then a large majority of forest watchers do not get paid for months on end. Apart from being low-paid risky jobs, often there is no allocation of funds for rations to many anti-poaching staff. And infrastructure is sorely lacking at many anti-poaching camps. In some places, the lack of fund allocation to recurring expenses for yearly upgradations and regular camp maintenance makes upkeep difficult, given that camps are usually built under non-recurring budget heads. In the long run this leaves camps in a dilapidated state.

Forest guards on duty in Kaziranga National Park, Assam (Sandesh Kadur)

Even at the recruitment level, taking decisions is not easy in some tiger reserves. Most forest watchers in tiger reserves work as daily wage employees. By the time it is their turn to be considered for recruitment as permanent employees or as forest guards, they are often considered to be too old. Hence there is a trade off between those who have put in decades of work as daily wage forest watchers and their age.

While they maybe poorly suited for the physical and political challenges on the ground, how does one factor decades of daily-wage work under the most trying conditions while recruiting people? In certain states forest managers thus face the important question: how do you balance dedication with the vagaries of old age? Should they be given a priority in terms of recruitment as permanent forest guards or forest watchers?

Whether they are recruited formally or informally into the forest department service the challenges are plenty. On ground field staff spend a significant time away from their families without proper means of communication, under difficult conditions. Despite being under constant threat from well organised and armed poaching gangs, most of them are not armed or even trained in using arms. Ones that have weapons, have outdated guns which are no match against sophisticated weapons used by poaching outfits. In cases of encounters with poachers or wild animals, while functional insurance mechanisms exist for fatalities, often these do not encompass serious injuries. The spirits of those working under such trying conditions remain indomitable for most part. But, the lack of public empathy, as exhibited in this instance can be highly discouraging.

With changing dynamics of wildlife populations, growing human population and large scale land-use changes, human-wildlife interactions are likely to continue. Methods to decrease overlap between humans and wildlife are not practical everywhere. Indeed they may sometimes end up being counterproductive to long term conservation.

Co-occurrence of large wildlife and humans would thus mean intrusive management actions may be necessary. This is to ensure the safety of residents and ground staff. This might mean fencing to reduce crop losses or creating well-designed livestock pens to prevent livestock depredation. In areas where animals attack or kill humans, capture or elimination of these individuals might be necessary.

In summary, we argue that the life and times of T-24, can be used as an opportunity to develop a much greater sensitivity and learning to the local contexts that operate around protected areas in India. This means acknowledging the small but non-trivial gains, but also understanding the challenges, limitations and complexities when dealing with on ground situations. It is not just scientists, non-governmental organisations, forest departments who should work to improve conditions for our foot soldiers, help in better compensation, and or create better awareness to prevent human casualties. This partnership needs many more hands, including the urban populace, who now derive a lot of consumptive and non-consumptive value from wildlife.

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