- A new approach towards the management of wild areas needs to be considered for India where local communities are made central to conservation, suggests conservationist Sandeep Menon in this commentary.
- Local communities are not always unblemished and there are power structures within them that can lead to intense politics and corruption.
- A number of examples already exist in India and the world over to show that community-led conservation works well if structured right.
Wildlife conflict is the flavour of the season. Almost everyday, we are exposed to scenes of the forest department struggling to handle jeering, stone-throwing, and hooting mobs while managing an animal that has inadvertently strayed into their midst. Things take a turn for the worse when the adrenaline starts pumping and ends with tragic consequences on all sides. In fact, mob control has become such a dangerous occupational hazard that many forest officers would rather deal with a rampaging elephant than with a frenzied mob of human beings.
On the other hand, there is sullen, simmering anger amongst local communities who view themselves as less cared for than the wildlife that surrounds them. How did things come to such a pass?
A few months ago, I was told about a leopard being treed up by village dogs near a farm in Hunsur, Karnataka. A crowd of over 1000 people soon gathered and started heckling the forest officials who were trying to figure out how to get the cat down from the tree. The smartest move would have been to simply push everyone out and let the cat slip away. But the crowd wanted a capture.
The vet arrived after hours but could not dart the animal without risking it tumbling down. Meanwhile, a local politician heckled the officer to hand over his dart gun if he couldn’t hit the target. The crowd swelled. The panicked leopard was jumping from one branch to another. They were finally forced to take the risk of tranquilising it on the treetop. Luckily, it fell down without significant injuries and had to be whisked away. Similar stories are heard from almost every part of the country.
When big cats are captured in cages, the department cannot even follow a basic protocol of covering the cage as the mob demands its right to take selfies and videos. When our field researchers visit conflict areas, they are often heckled and asked to take away “your animals”. Brutal videos of animals being beaten to death by bloodthirsty mobs are circulated regularly and we all rightly rush to condemn them.
But no one is asking the right questions. Why is the hitherto tolerant Indian villager changing? Why are they developing an inimical attitude towards wildlife and seeing themselves at war with outsiders? The clue might lie in the wry remarks of a local villager from an area rife with human-elephant conflict in Sakleshpur taluk of Karnataka.
“Ask any of these city activists to walk one kilometre down our road at night, without a torch and then they can come and lecture us about tolerance!” It was a dry observation on the rise of social media warriors and the pressure they exert on wildlife managers. People who have barely walked in a forest, let alone co-exist with animals that are involved in dangerous conflict, now hold candlelight vigils and influence wildlife management policies disproportionately through their share of voice in the media.
An increasing cadence of such incidents must make us stop and question whether the entire paradigm of wildlife conservation needs a fundamental rethink. For decades our way of managing wilderness areas has been based on the colonial and feudal models of elitism, exclusion, and a punitive approach towards transgression. The prevalent wisdom being that human beings, especially local communities are not to be trusted and must be kept out of wild areas. The result has been a sort of “islanding” of our wilderness areas within well-demarcated boundaries.
While working with Wildlife Association of South India (WASI) in many parts of the Cauvery river basin, we observe the same scenario repeatedly. Local communities resent that the land that they live next to has become out of bounds to them. They dryly remark that the “white man” has been replaced by the “brown sahib”.
“The elites and government officials whiz around our forest in their fancy jeeps but we are excluded”. It is time we realised that in the changing political and social landscape of India, this is a fundamentally unsound and unsustainable model. It causes an “othering” and alienation of local communities and frustration predictably starts to mount. Add to this is a rise in muscular local politics and the unfortunate events playing out today start to seem inevitable.
Return of traditional knowledge for wildlife management
Our experience suggests that a new approach towards the management of wild areas needs to be considered for India. The policy framework needs to go beyond acknowledging local communities and actually make them central to conservation. Some of the following examples highlight the sustainable changes that could form part of this new paradigm.
1. Creation of wildlife management councils around key wilderness areas that include the panchayat and village headmen of surrounding areas. Ensure all key decisions are run through these councils for collaborative decision making. Especially those that have an impact on local populations. This can instill a sense of local ownership and pride for “their wildlife” through empowerment.
2. Promote the formation of eco co-operatives to manage sustainable eco-tourism initiatives and ensure that some of its benefits flow back to local communities.
3. Creation of a local eco-development fund into which every tour and hospitality operator could deposit a reasonable amount akin to Corporate Social Responsibility for corporates. Use of the same to carry out training and development for local communities.
4. All compensatory schemes for human-animal conflict to be administered through local village committees and registered NGOs, with only oversight by the forest department. (This is already implemented successfully in several areas)
5. Co-opt youth from local communities into anti-poaching and patrolling activities alongside the forest department in buffer zones. An initiative that is similar to the community policing model in cities. We have implemented this and seen that they become valuable eyes and ears in the neighbourhood.
6. Amend the Forest Protection Act to allow community conservancies on deemed forest land adjoining protected areas. Permit limited tourism activities within that space. This could be especially beneficial for creation of wildlife corridors between critical habitat zones.
One of the added advantages of bringing back local communities will be the return of traditional knowledge to wildlife management. Local and indigenous knowledge systems always had strategies for human-animal coexistence inbuilt from ancient times. They knew in which season the elephants would visit which areas and how to plan crops accordingly. They knew the route a tiger would take if it stepped into the undergrowth and how to avoid it further down. We have lost most of that knowledge, tracking ability, wildlife behaviour, and habitat experience.
Many of our older village volunteers could look at tracks in the morning and tell us what time humans had entered the forest and whether they were department folks or locals, whether they were carrying anything heavy, were they trying to hide, and so on. They could look at tiger tracks and tell us roughly what time it had passed and its gender, weight, size, etc. Unfortunately, neither urban conservationists nor the forest department possesses these skills now. The problem is that local communities have also started losing these skills due to disuse. Not many young men along the river can even identify which tree produces fruit that the fish wait for versus those that are foreign invasives. Whom do the elders pass on the knowledge to, if the youth cannot even step foot in the forest? Where does this knowledge get voiced and documented if every conservation seminar is packed only with urban academics?
This imbalance can be set right by bringing communities back into proximity with the jungle and hearing their voices on critical conservation issues. The nature of these suggestions implies a fundamental shift. It suggests that a key role in managing and protecting wild areas be slowly and partially devolved to local communities, while the forest department primarily targets law and order scenarios and focuses on core wildlife management issues without entangling itself in a web of administrative and political tasks.
Community-led conservation works well if structured right
Having said all this, it is also pertinent to note that local communities are not always unblemished and there are power structures within them that can lead to intense politics and corruption. Local strongmen can take over and abuse the process. Once entrenched, it becomes difficult for “outsiders” to step in as egos and politics get involved. So a clear hierarchy of authority and veto power needs to be retained. Decision making can also become contentious as local power structures can exert pressure on the system. Be that as it may, we have no choice but to test the model, learn from feedback loops, and make it workable by putting in the right checks and balances.
A number of examples already exist in India and the world over to show that community-led conservation works well if structured right. The Wildlife Association of South India (WASI) worked extensively with local communities in what is today the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, from 1972 to 2000. We created a framework to engage them in patrolling and anti-poaching activities along the Cauvery and saw the river ecosystem flourish as a consequence. Elsewhere, Kerala has pioneered the formation of eco-development committees that devolve tourism activities to reformed poachers and local tribes.
Tribes from northeast India have countered a tradition of indiscriminate hunting with examples such as the Bugun community reserve and the Phom community reserve where wildlife is protected. Internationally, Namibia has successfully transitioned rights to protect and profit from wildlife to local communities. So has Kenya where much of the endangered Grevy’s zebra is now seen on community land. Local fishermen in Tanzania are empowered to confiscate illegal fishing equipment that damages the environment and destroys their future resources.
It is time that these models were tested and expanded. The problem is that it requires existing power structures to voluntarily cede control and power, which is never easy. But with the right vision and drive from the top, it should be possible.
Sandeep Menon is secretary of the Wildlife Association of South India (WASI), an organization that has been engaged with conservation efforts in the Cauvery river basin since 1972. He has also studied public policy at the Takshashila Institution in Bengaluru.
Banner image: Tribal watchers lead a trekking group in Parambikulam. Photo by Sandeep Menon.