On 14 April, two young tiger cubs were killed by a speeding train as they trustingly followed their mother in the forests just outside Tadoba Tiger Reserve. Four days later in the Ramnagar Forest Division on the edge of Corbett, the carcass of a young tigress was found riddled with bullets. This was not too far from the forest where another tiger had been found dead along with a leopard in early March, probably  poisoned.  Elsewhere, in Orissa, six elephants were mowed down by a train in the Ganjam district, and a few miles further away, in the same district at Bhetnoi, we saw herds of India’s endemic antelope, the blackbuck, glide across fields of moong

The common thread in all the varied instances quoted above is that these are reports from outside National Parks or sanctuaries, indicating that wildlife thrives, yet is very vulnerable outside Protected Areas, which constitute less than five per cent of India’s geographical area. However, while legally wildlife enjoys the same legal protection under the Wildlife Protection Act within or outside a PA, wildlife management and protection strategies, funding and other support are targeted almost exclusively at this five per cent.

India has a rich repository of wildlife outside this PA network, which includes wolves, jackals, hyenas, smaller cats such as  jungle cats, leopard cats––and even l14 Oct 2009- Valparai-Divya Mudapaarge carnivores like the leopard. A recent study led by Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, revealed a very high density of both leopards and striped hyenas (five adults per 100 sq km) in a heavily human dominated landscape (350 people per sq km), where virtually all habitat is agriculture, with no Protected Area or forest in the vicinity. Even tigers and elephants are not just occasional visitors to human dominated areas, but have significant breeding populations and good densities outside the PA network. According to ‘Gajah’, the Elephant Task Force’s report, only 27 per cent of Elephant Reserves constitute sanctuaries or national parks.

According to the All India tiger estimation of 2010, the Ramnagar Forest Division that abuts Corbett Tiger Reserve holds no less than 14 tigers per 100 sq km, a density that rivals, and in fact exceeds many tiger reserves. Yet, the wildlife here are “animals of a lesser God”, lacking the management, funding and technical support that is granted within the boundaries of Corbett.

There is nothing new or startling in the presence of wildlife in rural or even semi-urban landscapes.

The challenges of such a situation are many––and complex.

First,

One very major concern of such human-wildlife interface is conflict, even fatal conflict, which is witnessed across the country. A recent paper authored by Dhanwatey et al cites that the landscape around Tadoba (Maharashtra) has witnessed 132 carnivore attacks on humans, 54%  of which were lethal to humans. Dhikuli and Sunderkhal villages outside Corbett are another human-tiger conflict zone, and who can forget the horror of a tigress beaten to death last year near Bamni in Chhattisgarh. In Uttarakhand, over 50 people are reported to be killed by leopards every year, and a greater number of leopards are killed in retaliation.

How can we best address the issue of wildlife outside PAs? While solutions have to be site specific, factoring in habitat, wildlife species and density etc there are some basics that need to be taken up on an urgent basis:

·        Areas with high wildlife  densities  that are largely free of human habitation must be considered to be notified as parks or sanctuaries, while those with a larger community dependence may be considered as Conservation or Community Reserves. Corridors which connect PAs and other such ecologically fragile areas can be notified as Eco Sensitive Zones. ESZs do not impact livelihoods of local communities, but restrict and regulate heavy infrastructure, mining and  other such ‘red’ category industry which will drastically alter land use devastating not just natural habitats and biodiversity but also local livelihoods.

·        However,  it is utopian to imagine that all wildlife areas can be given legal cover.  What we must do is manage and protect areas outside PAs better.  Currently, the focus on forests outside PAs is commercial forestry,  with no place for conservation, unless driven by a committed manager. The need of the hour is to ensure that wildlife conservation  is an intrinsic part their management. These forests must have wildlife management plans,  protection strategies, and trained staff. Even the district administration needs to be sensitised, given that they play a crucial role in conflict situations.

·        Community participation and support is critical outside of PAs. Tolerance comes easier if there is culture connect to the species, but it frays in the face of loss of livestock, and worse–human injury and fatality.  It is critical to ensure fair, prompt compensation. Work carried out in some parts of Maharashtra where the forest department has used science based inputs. (Athreya and Balsare 2007) finds that conflict can be reduced to a great extent. Innovative ideas geared toward reducing losses also need to be explored.

·        In some areas eco-tourism centred around wildlife has ensured that the local community views wildlife as a boon, not a bane. Community driven snow leopard tourism project is a good example, where from being a problem that depleted their livestock, the snow leopard now brings in visitors,  and a respectable source of  livelihood.

·        Since these areas are not primarily wildlife areas, do not have legal protection,  and are largely human dominated  the need for intervention is even greater. A small beginning has been made with the National Tiger Conservation Authority providing funding support to the tigers of Ramnagar. This, while very welcome, is simply not enough.

Currently, we have band-aid solutions to issues that confront wildlife outside PAs, what is needed is a vision  and a strategy, as is envisaged and defined in the National Wildlife Action Plan, 2002-16.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Pioneer on 24th Aprul, 2013.

Pix Credit: Divya Mudappa/NCF

The picture was taken in Valparai, Tamil Nadu