Asia-Pacific, Biodiversity, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

INDIA: Balancing Biodiversity and Livelihood A Juggling Act

Malini Shankar* - IPS/IFEJ

BANDIPUR TIGER RESERVE, KARNATAKA, India, Apr 16 2010 (IPS) - Hanumantha Nayak had not ventured too far into the forest in search of firewood. But, while he was apparently attempting to tear up a cluster of dried bamboo, a tigress leapt onto his back, bit his forearm, and then went for his throat. Nayak, 50, never stood a chance.

Villagers near the Bandipur reserve are accuses of conniving with poachers. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Villagers near the Bandipur reserve are accuses of conniving with poachers. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Officials have since said that the Mar. 13 incident was an “isolated one that seems provoked by circumstances”. After all, it was Nayak who was the interloper at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, about 290 kilometres south-west of the southern Indian city of Bangalore, and the tigress that attacked him was “probably nursing her cubs”, says K T Hanumanthappa, deputy conservator of forests at the reserve.

The tigress’s killing of Nayak, in fact, is the first documented in south India since 1947. It is the first such case in the Bandipur reserve, says Hanumanthappa. So far, too, that tigress has yet to attack another human being or even a domestic animal, leading reserve officials to rule out the idea of declaring it a “man-eater”.

They have also refused to compensate Nayak’s family, saying he was not supposed to be inside the reserve. His death, however, has once more underscored the importance of addressing the needs of the people who live on the fringes of nature reserves.

Indeed, environmental historian Mahesh Rangarajan wrote in the ‘Deccan Chronicle’: “(Living) with nature is about much more than parks. It also calls for innovation that reduces risk and loss for those at the edge of conflict.”

Nayak lived in Bairambadi, one of the 200 villages surrounding the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Bairambadi has about 2,887 people or some 348 households, half of which do not have gas connections, says the charity organisation World Vision. The government has a slightly higher figure, but no one contests that far too many villagers still need firewood to cook their meals.

Many Bairambadi residents are also too poor to buy firewood and therefore have to gather whatever they can find for fuel. They harvest forest produce to make agricultural implements. The forest staff tolerates this as long as it does not involve timber species like rosewood and teakwood, the harvesting of which are considered offences. Other residents graze cattle in the forest.

Those who grow crops often do so on land not their own, and have to pay rent to absentee landowners.

Nayak’s family appears to own a plot of land, but this is too small to sustain those who he has left behind. Pleads one of his nephews: “The deceased’s family have but one hectare of land. The forest department must honour its pledge of employing part time the son of the victim in the anti-poaching camp.”

In truth, during harvest time, villagers resort to picking coffee beans in neighbouring Kerala state or peeling pepper seeds for other farmers. During the rest of the year, many Bairambadi men do construction work in faraway towns or make farm tools – occupations that barely earn them enough for their families.

All these seem to have resulted in villagers trying their luck in foraging for firewood and whatever else they can use or sell from the nearby reserve.

“Unfortunately the villagers of Bairambadi are not just dependent on the forests for firewood, but they are also notorious for smuggling of forest trees and connivance with poaching mafia,” says Manikanta, a Bairambadi native who works in a government eco-tourism facility and preferred to give only his short name.

“Every week, at least four or five forest offence cases are booked against villagers of Bairambadi,” he adds.

Forest official Hanumanthappa himself hints that there have been incidences of timber smuggling by the villagers. “Not a leaf can be taken from the tiger reserve,” he stresses. “National parks and tiger reserves are protected areas meant to nourish the wealth of natural history and ecosystems.”

Established in 1973, the Bandipur Tiger Reserve is one of 38 in India and occupies some 900 square km. In 2008, tigers at Bandipur were estimated at about 280. Last January, reserve authorities said this figure has since grown but have not yet made a formal announcement.

An endangered species, tigers worldwide now occupy only seven percent of their historic range, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Tiger reserves, however, are meant to protect not only the tiger itself, but also an entire faunal spectrum and natural ecosystem. In Bandipur, animals in the reserve include elephants, antelopes, deer, sloth bears, peafowl, peacocks, and wild dogs.

Human settlements surround the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. To its north and east are vast inhabited areas devoid of forests, while thick jungle borders it in the south and west. Shrub forests before the demarcation line serve as buffer zone between the reserve and the outside world. The buffer zone will soon be expanded by 300 sq km more.

Since the reserve’s establishment, no tiger has been recorded as having ventured outside of it. But despite warnings, people have crossed the reserve’s demarcation line to forage in the forest or to poach animals, including elephants. On that fateful day in March, Nayak himself had ventured a good four km past the line and into the bamboo forest inside, where he met his death.

Comments V B Mathur, dean of the Wildlife Institute of India: “Man-eating behaviour of tigers can be caused by a variety of circumstances. Extreme caution needs to be exercised to prevent anthropogenic/man-animal conflict.”

“No more human lives can be lost so it is best to maintain sterility of the tiger reserve,” he says. “It is an ecosystem where wild animals have to thrive without anthropogenic conflict, because it is very important to save every last gene in these times of tiger crisis.”

* This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by IPS, CGIAR/Bioversity International, IFEJ and UNEP/CBD, members of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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