Tiger Tiger Burning Bright
he Bandipur National Park is a long narrow tiger reserve. Twenty-five thousand families share its 180 km border with wild animals. One lakh twenty five thousand villagers depend on the forest for survival. Over 50,000 cattle use the jungle for fodder. Each family cut around 8 kilograms of fuel-wood from the forest each day. That’s almost 2.5 tonnes of firewood per family per year. It was taking a huge toll on the park. But forest guards looked the other way. Most of them are locals and knew the villagers had no other option. As villagers cut into the forest, its rightful inhabitants came out. Elephants, wild pigs and deer raided fields to satiate hunger. And where its prey went, the tiger followed. “One village near the Bhadra National Park had 17 buffaloes killed by a tiger. The villagers killed it. You can’t blame them for protecting their livestock,” says M.D. Madhusudan, director, National Conservation Foundation (NCF).
Similar conflicts took place in Bandipur. In response, the forest department fenced off some farmers’ lands and then dug huge trenches so that wild animals couldn’t cross over into the fields. They installed a couple of bore wells too.
Image: Sanath Shodhan
The villagers that populate the outskirts live on the margins of society with no resources to turn to. Their cattle are the main source of livelihood. The trenches that kept out wild animals also kept their cattle from the forest. So within a couple of weeks, all the trenches had been filled and the fencing was taken down for other uses. On their part, the forest department saw the villagers as ungrateful people who did not want to improve their livelihood. They threw up their hands in exasperation and the tiger population in the country dipped dramatically to 1,411 in 2006. All the good work done through the Seventies and Eighties to boost the tiger population to 4,200 had come to a naught.
The NCF took up the gauntlet and approached the relatively better of farmers first. It offered to install electric fences for their farms. About 100 families agreed. So the NCF went ahead and spent Rs. 8 lakh to fence off eighty acres of land. In return for this, each of the families was asked to contribute Rs. 1,500 to build a corpus to be used in the future. They also have a pay for maintaining the fence and employ somebody to ensure there are no breaches.
“That way, elephants and other herbivores from the forest couldn’t eat into their crops,” explains Madhusudan. What, you wonder, do elephants, farmers and electric fences have to with saving the tiger? Answer: Everything.
And it shows on Malegowda’s face, the headman of Maguveena village. Turmeric, ginger and chillies are in full bloom. He says, “Now that I have these fences, I can rotate crops. The borewells are finally in use. I had taken a loan of Rs. 4 lakh last year. I’ve already repaid Rs. 3 lakh.” But the biggest change is that he has swapped 20 cattle for a pair of bullocks and a pair of milch animals. The bullocks are ploughing a corner of the field and the milch animals are grazing in another part. He grows his own fodder now and there is no need for the forest — essentially, tiger country. Because he doesn’t push into the tiger’s boundaries, the tiger doesn’t push his boundaries either.
If this model can be implemented around tiger reserves across the country, a large part of the tiger’s problem can be solved. But, says NCF’s Madhusudan, “This is by no means a fool-proof method. It has worked so far but we can’t go ahead with it unless we get the numbers.”
There’s a similar experiment under way at Bandipur. Twenty five thousand kilos of fuelwood were being cut from Bandipur every day. The forest was fast getting depleted and groundwater levels had reduced to 90 feet from 350. Even the threat of force didn’t deter the villagers. Most didn’t mind spending a night in jail. In any case, with over one lakh villagers entering the forest daily, there weren’t enough jails to accommodate all the culprits.
Enter, D. Yatish Kumar, deputy conservator of forests for Bandipur. He had successfully relocated tribals from the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in 2003, something the Centre hadn’t been able to do for 27 years. He had figured then the only way people would stop entering forests is if they were given an alternate source of energy.
Kumar joined forces with Krupakar and Senani, two wildlife photographers, to start a non-profit organisation, Namma Sangha in 2004 that provided people with LPG gas. P. Suresh, a local who had grown up with the photographers was made the public face. “I know the problems these people suffer from. I sold gas to them on two fronts, health and time. They would stop getting respiratory problems and they could use the time they spent in the forests to be more productive,” he says.
The pitch worked. Namma Sangha tied up with Indian Oil Corporation to provide cooking gas to the 25,000 families at a subsidy. “The first round of funding we got was from well-to-do people in urban areas. Initially, the villagers were afraid of the cylinder. Now, we have 17,000 families under our project,” explains Suresh. Project Tiger donated 11,000 stoves for the project. The villages’ footprint on the forest has come down tremendously.
With the time they saved from not going into the forests, a lot of villagers have been able to take advantage of the National Rural Employment Act and work extra hours. They make an extra Rs. 1,000 a month. That’s a huge amount in these parts. They have begun to swap their yoke animals for milch animals. Suresh has started the Melkamanahalli Milk Producers Co-Op Association. They say they sell milk to the Mysore Dairy Union now. “We just had to give them a headstart. Once they saw the benefits, they re-invested on their own,” says Suresh.