Celebrating tiger numbers in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, while tribal residents await their rights

A resident walks inside a tribal hamlet inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, India.

  • Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve wins the prestigious conservation award TX2 for doubling tiger numbers in a decade.
  • This achievement has come at a cost, with the livelihood and land rights of indigenous people compromised.
  • Even after a decade since the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, Tamil Nadu, has given about 25 percent of community forest rights title claims to tribal claimants.

At the first-ever global tiger summit, to save tigers from extinction, held at St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2010, 13 tiger range countries, including India took a resolution to double tiger numbers by 2022 under the Global Tiger Recovery Programme. Skip to 2022, Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, one of the biggest tiger reserves in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in southern India has hit the target of doubling numbers with 87 tigers.

Wildlife conservation in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve or STR cannot be talked about in isolation to its violent past, largely dedicated to the notorious forest brigand Veerappan. Veerappan reportedly poached over 200 elephants, smuggled sandalwood and killed 132 people, most of them forest and police officials who came in the way of his nefarious activities. Deputy Forest Officer (DFO) of Sathyamangalam division, one of the two forest divisions in STR, R. Kirubashankar said, “It was difficult for the forest officials to take conservation measures like foot patrolling during Veerappan’s time due to the threat he posed.” Kirubashankar said that foot patrolling was scaled up and anti-poaching camps (40 camps since 2010) were established at STR, after the passing of the brigand in 2004.

STR’s conservation milestones began with the end of Veerappan. It was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2008 and subsequently, 1408 sq km area became a tiger reserve in 2013. Tiger numbers recovered phenomenally and in 2022, STR won the prestigious conservation award TX2 for doubling tiger numbers in a decade.

Entrance sign to the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, India. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.

The tiger estimate that came out in 2018, based on which the award was decided, points to 87 tigers in the STR, transforming the relatively new tiger reserve from an interim refuge for the big cats crossing over to one with a source population of tigers. The DFO of the Hassanur Division of STR, Devendra Kumar Meena, told Mongabay-India that the tiger numbers have shot up further and stand at about 120. “This will be reflected in the follow-up count starting this September,” he informed.

The award, decided jointly by the Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS), Fauna and Flora International (FFI), Global Tiger Forum (GTF), IUCN’s Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme (ITHCP), Panthera, UNDP, The Lion’s Share, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and WWF, acknowledges “the efforts by the state governments and the local communities which have played important roles in achieving this milestone”.

Divisions in Satyhamangalam Tiger Reserve and the enclave villages surrounded by forests in the core and buffer areas. Map by Technology for Wildlife.
Divisions in Satyhamangalam Tiger Reserve and the enclave villages surrounded by forests in the core and buffer areas. Map by Technology for Wildlife.

Tiger numbers pick up but at what cost?

Predominantly a tropical dry forest, which includes dry thorn, dry deciduous, semi-evergreen and savanna forest types, STR is a particularly important forest in conservation studies for it is one of the few tiger reserves in the country that has indigenous people living in the core tiger habitat. There are nine tribal settlements in the STR — seven in the core and two in the buffer areas belonging largely to the Soliga and Oorali (Irula) tribes.

Recovering tiger numbers in a forest with a considerable human population could have been a classic case study in coexistence but on the ground, the instance of STR reflects a flawed approach towards wildlife conservation where the needs of the indigenous people are not taken into consideration. A delay in the implementation of their land rights and restrictions on their traditional lifeways has the indigenous communities in STR despondent.

Mallappa, a Soliga elder told Mongabay-India, that even before 2006 (when the conversation around making STR a wildlife sanctuary began), the forest was protected and there were tigers living in it. “Traditionally the tribals have protected the landscape. Why are we denied our rights in the name of tiger conservation?” he asked. Since STR became a tiger reserve, said Mallappa, they have not been allowed to collect minor forest produce like gooseberries, shikakai, soapnut, silk cotton, etc. which has affected their livelihood. Phoenix grass or broom grass and honey are the only forest produce they are allowed to collect.

A male chowsingha in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. Photo by A.J.T. Johnsingh, WWF India and NCF/Wikimedia Commons.

While the forest department maintains that they involve tribals and local communities in many activities like anti-poaching and as drivers and guards, the communities say that these are not enough for their survival. “We are finding ways to value-add Phoenix grass so there is a better market for it. We are trying to eliminate middlemen so tribals can make better profit,” said DFO Kirubashankar.

The year 2006 was a significant year for wildlife conservation in India. Two important Acts to protect the forests and to safeguard the interests of forest-dwellers were enacted months apart — the amendment to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the Forest Rights Act. Read in conjunction, both Acts recognise indigenous hands in effective conservation of wildlife and their right to inhabit their traditional lands. Section 38V of WLPA, 1972  says that “subject to the provisions contained in this Act, the State Government shall, while preparing a Tiger Conservation Plan, ensure the agricultural, livelihood, developmental and other interests of the people living in tiger bearing forests or a tiger reserve”.

The implementation of this provision of the WLPA and the FRA, 2006, however, has been wrought with resistance and trouble. The state of Tamil Nadu, where the Sathyamangalam wildlife sanctuary is located, has a dismal record in distributing individual and community forest rights to tribal claimants. As per the Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ last published monthly update in October 2021, of the 34,837 title claims (both individual and community) received in Tamil Nadu, only 8,594 titles – about 25 percent – have been given. Neighbouring Kerala, on the other hand, distributed 26,924 titles out of 44,575 claims received. The state also held off implementing the Act till 2016 though it was notified in 2008.

People walk inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, India. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.

Despite FRA, the fight for land rights continue

Why is there so much reluctance in giving away rights that have been legally vested in indigenous people? Experts like C.R. Bijoy, who examines resource conflicts and governance issues, said that we continue to be obsessed with the fortress conservation” model, all-pervasive in the Global South, which is based on the idea that local people’s use of forests endangers the biodiversity and that to conserve a forest, the human inhabitants must be thrown out. This idea is flawed, he said, as there is enough evidence to suggest that wildlife thrives where it coexists with local and indigenous communities. The Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve that abuts STR, where Soliga tribals have fought and won their individual rights and community forest rights (CFR) is a case in point. A 2015 study by Survival International a non-profit that works for tribal rights showed that between 2010-2014, tiger numbers at the reserve doubled from 35-68. The STR itself is a good example of how human presence does not drive the tiger away.

The latest blow to the indigenous rights at STR is the Madras High Court order banning cattle grazing in tiger reserves. This comes close on the heels of the court’s February order banning vehicular traffic on NH 958 which connects Coimbatore with Bengaluru and runs through the STR.

A tribal hamlet inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, India. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.

Sivamurthy and Senthil, residents of Mavanatham village said that they get to know the forest better during their daily grazing trips to the interiors. “On many occasions, we have helped the forest department by informing them about animal movements or when we spot carcasses. If they stop cattle grazing immediately, it will be very difficult for us to survive,” Senthil said. “Earlier we could collect gooseberries, silk cotton, etc. which was stopped when it became a tiger reserve because the forest department told us that forest produces are for the wild animals and birds. The gooseberries need to be plucked regularly without which the trees will be attacked by parasites which is happening in the forest now. Some of these trees and bamboo have to be pruned regularly for better growth. We are not allowed to do these and the forest is degrading,” Sivamurthy said. They also point to the uncontrolled growth of invasive plants like Lantana and say that it is because they are not allowed to manage the forest as before. The Soliga practice of laying taragu benki or surface fires to destroy invasives and parasites which is supposed to help the grass grow better has long been stopped. It has been debated as one of the reasons for large canopy fires in the forests. A 2020 study on rangelands in California showed that cattle grazing played an important role in reducing fine fuels (grasses and other plants) which is a good fix to repeated wildfires.

“The implementation of FRA has been particularly challenging in tiger reserves across the country,” said Neema Pathak Broome of Kalpavriksh, a Pune-based environmental action group. Critical tiger habitats, also known as core areas of tiger reserves, are identified under the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA), 1972 as areas “required to be kept as ‘inviolate’ for the purpose of tiger conservation, without affecting the rights of the Scheduled Tribes or such other forest dwellers”. Pathak Broome said the term ‘’inviolate” in the clause often gets misinterpreted as “cleared of any human presence” but the progressive conservation approach recognises the possibility of keeping the core habitat “inviolate” while coexisting with the big cat. As seen in STR, the individual forest rights are relatively easy to acquire but except for a few tiger reserves like BRT tiger reserve, Melghat tiger reserve, etc., the claim for community forest rights to access forest produce continues to be an uphill battle, said Pathak Broome.

Jyotsna Krishnakumar, director, Keystone Foundation, a nonprofit working for Indigenous rights said that FRA gives gram sabhas (village general assembly) complete freedom to come up with forest management plans. “In places like Pillur and Sigur (in the NBR), we have observed that efficient, organised and assertive gram sabhas can make things work. At the same time, it is important that communities and forest department work with and not against each other and use a language of cooperation which is what FRA aims to do,” she said.


Banner image: A resident walks inside a tribal hamlet inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, India. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.

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