Fifty years of tiger reserves in India bring the tiger population to over 3,000, but displaces over a hundred thousand people

Tiger walks across a dirt road. Tiger reserves in India have caused displacement of indigenous communities.
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Fifty years of tiger conservation in India has increased the big cat’s population to over 3000. However, during the same period, some estimates suggest that these projects have displaced at least a hundred thousand forest-dwelling people from their homes.

On Sunday 9 April, the government of India released a new tiger census. The report estimated that there are at least 3,167 tigers living in the wild across the country. This is up from 2,967 reported in the last exercise in July 2019.

Prime minister Narendra Modi lauded the successful conservation efforts, which he called a “proud moment”. However, the news comes just weeks after hundreds of indigenous people from across India held a week-long march and demonstration to denounce Protected Areas (PAs). They did so to protest the devastating impact that these PAs – including tiger reserves – have had on their communities.

Project Tiger

The government of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) released the new census to coincide with the 50-year anniversary of Project Tiger. Project Tiger is a government-funded scheme to establish tiger reserves across the country. It initially covered nine reserves across nine Indian states.

To date, the government has sponsored state authorities to set up 54 of these PAs across 17 states. State governments have designated these areas to protect tiger populations from significant threats which have caused their numbers to plummet.

Deforestation, poaching, and human encroachment on habitats have decimated tiger populations across Asia. In 1900, 100,000 tigers roamed the planet. However, that fell to a global record low of 3,200 in 2010.

Modi said India is increasing its tiger numbers thanks to “people’s participation” and the country’s “culture of conservation”.

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Conversely, for many indigenous and local communities, the country’s “culture of conservation” has been a legacy of violence, eviction and violation of their rights.

According to the World Rainforest Movement, as of 2019, NTCA data showed that state governments have evicted 56,247 families for tiger conservation across India since 1972. These families were from 751 villages across 50 tiger reserves.

In addition, the “people’s participation” Modi celebrates has also involved coercion and abuse. In establishing the tiger reserves, state officials have excluded villages from newly designated areas without their consent.

While conservation organizations and officials claim that the relocations are voluntary, research by Survival International shows that in reality tribal peoples have been harassed, threatened, and intimidated into ‘agreeing’ to leave.

Tiger forests and fortress conservation

During the launch of the new tiger census, Modi visited two tiger reserves in adjacent Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, in the southwest of India. The states host 10 tiger reserves, and sit within the Western Ghats landscape – a stretch of hills running alongside the Arabian Sea coast.

At the Mudumalai reserve in Tamil Nadu that he visited as part of his tour, indigenous communities continue to resist displacement.

In 2015, the state prepared plans to relocate seven villages from the core area of the reserve. However, indigenous families refused the move. In part, this was due to the fact that authorities only offered them monetary compensation. According to Down to Earth, by September 2019, state authorities had yet to pay compensation to 93 tribal families. Authorities had moved these families out of the park between 2016 and 2018.

Moreover, some villagers alleged that park rangers had harassed them into leaving the park. In 2020, a villager from Benne told Rural India Online that rangers had threatened that they would evict the community without payment if they refused to move.

In March, the Hindu reported how indigenous communities from Mudumalai are still suffering the impacts of the relocation. Between 2016 and 2017, the Forest Department moved Bennai villagers during the first phase of relocations. However, members of the Kattunayakan tribe from Bennai said the government had not delivered on the promise of money, housing, and land. Many experienced alleged fraud at the hands of landowners and compensation middlemen. As a result, around 40 families from Bennai village have since returned and built houses in the reserve.

Protests at Nagarhole

Modi also visited Bandipur, one of the first Tiger Reserves that India established at the advent of Project Tiger in 1973. Additionally, the government designated the area a National Park in 1985. There, authorities have displaced multiple communities from their forest lands. Since the state established the reserve, it has removed at least 417 families from the core area. In 1993 alone, 65 families were forced out of their homes in the park.

At another reserve in Karnataka, communities gathered to protest the PAs that have annexed their forest commons. Between 15 and 20 March, indigenous communities convened a protest march at the world-famous Nagarhole Tiger Reserve.

In 2007, the state government designated the reserve. However, it imposed the PAs, without consent, on the ancestral land of the Jenu Kuruba. The reserve was also home to other indigenous communities, such as the Beta Kuruba, Yarava and Pania tribes.

During the march, protesters chanted:

The Nagarhole forests belong to our ancestors. The animals and forests are part of us – our families.

The Nagarhole indigenous communities were joined by people from many PAs across India. Protesters from tiger reserves and PAs such as Kaziranga, Similipal, Achanakmar, and Udanti-Sitanadi attended the march.

Indigenous and local communities held the protest to highlight how in conservation areas across India, tribal people have been evicted from their ancestral lands. According to Survival International, state authorities continue to threaten communities with eviction in the name of conservation.

A report by human rights advocacy and research charity the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) echoes this continued threat. The charity produces annual reports on forced evictions in India. As of April 2022, the HLRN estimated that state authorities were threatening 110,000 people with eviction for tiger conservation. These figures refer to communities from 273 villages that fall in ‘core’ areas inside 28 tiger reserves.

Destructive industries in tiger reserves

Following the march, Community Networks Against Protected Areas (CNAPA) hosted an inter-communities dialogue. They titled the two-day event ‘Debunking the idea of Protected Areas – Community ownership of forests and commons … where forest, peoples and animals are equals’.

The group highlighted what they feel is the hypocrisy of the “colonial” conservation model. While state authorities exclude indigenous and local communities from these reserves, they welcome the very industries and infrastructure that have been destroying tiger habitats. Therefore, CNAPA pointed out that:

It is important to underline that the relocation programmes run by NTCA are increasingly being financed from CAMPA [Compensatory Afforestation Fund] money – money that mining companies deposit with the government in lieu of forest diversion, read destruction, required for their mining operations.

As a result, they said that:

the linkage between mining, deforestation, and eviction is part and parcel of the ‘fortress conservation model’ (parks without people) being pursued in India.

Echoing this, a report by the Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA) in India documented a number of infrastructure projects damaging habitats in tiger reserves. The report explored infrastructure projects and their impacts across 10 reserves. The CFA said that mining, roadways, railways, transmission lines and other large-scale projects:

pose an existential threat to the flora and fauna in the regions where the tiger reserves are located, along with endangering the existing tiger population.

The NTCA report itself also acknowledged that extractive industries are destroying crucial tiger habitat. Moreover, it recognised that this destruction poses a significant threat to tiger populations.

Nevertheless, the government continues to greenlight these industries in and adjacent to areas designated for tiger conservation. Meanwhile, state governments evict communities from these same lands. The rise in tiger numbers should be a cause for celebration for people across India. Instead, fifty years of colonial conservation is a cause of marginalisation and oppression for indigenous and local communities.

So long as this model remains, and states fail to recognise indigenous peoples’ forest and land rights, these unjust evictions will continue – even as tiger populations rise.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse

Feature image via Fitindia/Wikimedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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