By Sunita Narain (E-mail), for IWMC – I really hope we are proved wrong when we say there are no tigers left in the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan. But if it is so, what is now increasingly accepted as a sad fact should actually make us extremely angry. We must know: who was responsible for this huge national loss? What amends will be made?
I ask this because the tragedy in Sariska is much larger than the frightening prospect of losing 18-odd magnificent creatures that (once?) prowled this reserve. It is really about the philosophy, the policy and the practice of conservation. The answer to Sariska – and to the many Sariskas, festering – will then be to change the basic premise of the way we approach wildlife.
Otherwise the blood of Sariska’s tigers will be on the hands of their official managers and their unofficial propagandists. Nobody else.
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The powerful wildlife bureaucracy – in it, I include those within government (who run the conservation programme) as well as those outside (who decide what goes on in the name of conservation) – has ensured that this variety of working is carefully safeguarded. They do not like any interference in the way they run the park business. They want us to believe the key problem of the tiger is that too little money is spent on its protection. What is really needed, they say, is forcefully implement wildlife laws; this would curtail the rights of people living in the reserves, strengthen policing and arm guards to the teeth to fight off poachers.
This group of well-meaning and passionate conservationists are right in their own way. Their mission is to protect the tiger, above all else. But they are only half-right. For the reality is that in India, unlike in the West, wilderness areas are where millions of people actually live. So when policy imbues the principle of exclusion, people inhabiting protected areas are discounted, displaced. Their livelihoods are destroyed. So they become not protectors of the forest, but poachers. Their marginalisation leads to poverty, which in turn impoverishes the tiger. The carnivore-human conflict exacerbates: the truth of its exponential growth is visible in and around most tiger reserves.
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Yes, all this has been said before. But, after Sariska – after tigers that have vanished into thin air, or tigers that have been magically conjured out of it to keep the number game going here and in other reserves – this needs to be said again. And again, until conservation’s mandarins begin to accept the truth that they need to turn their thinking upside down, or face extinction.