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BANGALORE, Jan 13 2012 (IPS) - Tucked away in a dense and ecologically diverse tiger reserve in Southern India, tribes-people and wildlife defenders are locked in a battle of indigenous peoples’ rights versus wildlife rights.
Earlier this year the Soligas – a tribe hailing from the Billigiri Ranga Temple Hills tiger reserve (BRT) – won the rights to their ancestral land, following a thorny legal encounter with the state forest department, which had earlier threatened to displace 1,500 indigenous families in order to protect 30 endangered tigers.
Tribal representatives insist that the Soligas’ presence on the reserve is not detrimental to the tigers, claiming back in December, “We have been the ones who looked out for the tigers. Give us poison rather than move us from our home.”
Last month the tribe secured access to 60 percent of the forest that they claim is their ‘birthright’ and rejected a relocation package outside the tiger reserve, which is situated at the confluence of the Eastern and Western Ghats in Chamrajnagar district in India’s southern state of Karnataka.
A press release by the UK-based tribal advocacy group Survival International said last year, “This unprecedented move brings an end to (the tribe’s) fears of eviction and the ban on their right to hunt and cultivate.”
But wildlife conservationists across India are deeply alarmed by the tribe’s decision to stay in the BRT, since it does not appear to take into account the irreversible impact of human settlement on wildlife populations and complex ecologies.
The BRT was officially declared a protected reserve last year, when scientists discovered it was home to a huge variety of wildlife including endangered tigers, leopards, elephants, wild dogs, bears, 270 species of endemic birds, scores of snake varieties and other reptiles, as well as turtles and monitor lizards, all in a 541 square kilometre forest.
Anthropologists say this dense concentration of wildlife is already a strain on nature’s ability to provide adequately for all the forest’s dwellers. Add to this a human settlement that relies heavily on forest produce for its survival and the situation bodes badly for the wildlife.
The Soligas are considered by many to be to be an environmentally “low impact” group. They worship a 1000-year-old tree as their supreme deity and have, for centuries, lived as one with the forest.
“The Soligas’ traditional health care system is holistic, [relying on] herbal remedies. Their customary diet includes millet, pulses and 20 varieties of leafy vegetables found in the forest,” said H. Sudarshan of the tribal advocacy NGO Vivekananda Girijan Kalyan Kendra (VGKK).
However, the Soligas’ transition from a subsistence community into increased participation in the formal market economy through trade in forest products has increased their environmental impact on the reserve.
“Excluding firewood extraction, trade and consumption of minor forest produce (like herbs, roots, tubers, barks and mosses) account for 60 percent of their total cash income; they supplement their incomes by working as daily wage labourers with either the forest department or with the forest fringe coffee estates,” Siddappa Shetty, a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment in the BRT, told IPS.
“Granting land and community rights within Protected Areas – which [comprise] less than four percent of India’s landscape – to growing populations of forest dwellers engaged in raising crops and livestock and commercial collection of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) for markets is a retrograde step,” Praveen Bhargav of the Bangalore-based Wildlife First, added.
“Since India’s independence, vast areas of wildlife habitats under the control of local communities have been decimated. While the consequences of mining, dams and wildlife resorts are clearly visible, the destruction caused by millions of people extracting forest products remains largely unseen,” he told IPS.
“Today, India’s Protected Areas are the last refuges where endangered species have a slim chance of survival. Rampant, market-driven exploitation of NTFPs in these ecologically sensitive hotspots could affect the delicate balance of nature,” he said.
According to a recent study by Aditi Sinha and Kamaljit S. Bawa, researchers at the Department of Biology at the University of Massachusetts, “the Soligas” – meaning children of Bamboo – “harvest an average of 86 percent of the fruit yield per tree.”
Quoting other scientific studies, Bhargav added, “Current harvesting techniques used by the Soligas have negative impacts on trees since they focus on maximizing economic returns by adopting methods of extraction like lopping branches and cutting trees. Such practices can ultimately decrease the rates at which trees grow, thereby making the extraction of Phyllanthus fruits unsustainable.”
Given that at least eight varieties of birds, 100 species of insects, one leopard, one bear, a dozen Langur monkeys, a colony of 200 bats, a herd of 35 spotted deer and five snakes can dwell in and around a single tree in a tropical forest like the BRT, every tree culled by human beings contributes to the human-animal conflict for space.
Statistics from the Chamrajnagar Deputy Commissioner’s office revealed the tribal population to be 60,930 in 2001.
According to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII)’s most recent tiger census, the 541 square kilometre reserve was also home to 37 tigers in 2010. An average adult Royal Bengal Tiger needs at least 50 square kilometres of space, which means that the current terrain deficit for the endangered creatures is staggering.
“Tigers occupy areas where human impact is minimal; high tiger densities occur in areas with low human disturbances. When humans outnumber wildlife, the wildlife will not survive,” Y.V. Jhala, head of the WII’s national tiger census, told IPS.
“While it is imperative that we redress injustices done to forest dwellers, it is vital that we do not simultaneously perpetuate injustices to wildlife, which are far more disenfranchised,” Barghav told IPS.
*This is the first of a two-part series on the struggle for space between indigenous peoples and endangered species.
*Malini Shankar is a wildlife photojournalist and filmmaker based in Bangalore.
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