Tiger conservation pitted against tribals in Rajasthan's Kumbhalgarh

"The last tiger was shot in 1961 and local communities here do not know what tiger is," says Hanumant Singh of Pashupalak Sanghathan, a livestock rearing community’s organisation.
A view of Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary as seen from the fort (Wikimedia Commons)
A view of Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary as seen from the fort (Wikimedia Commons)

NEW DELHI: "We will lose rights to our generations-old houses, agricultural fields, livestock, irrigation wells and trees after this place becomes a tiger reserve," says an agitated Mangilal Bhil, 23, of Nayakhera Gawar village in the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary (KWS).

Like Mangilal, villagers who suddenly found themselves under the ambit of the proposed tiger reserve expressed similar fears. India's apex tiger conservation body, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), gave its in-principal approval to the KWS as a new tiger reserve in Rajasthan on August 21.

Two days after the announcement, hundreds of indigenous people, including the Bhil tribe, Garasia tribe and nomadic Raika pastoralists organised a protest march to the district collector demanding annulment of the tiger reserve approval.

A proposal to upgrade the KWS to a tiger reserve was submitted to the chief wildlife warden of the state in late 2019. The proposal was to create a 1,280.49 sq km tiger reserve with a core area of 355.25 sq km and 925 sq km as a buffer. The entire area comprises the KWS, Raoli-Todgarh Wild Sanctuary and adjoining forest areas.

The KWS is a long, narrow stretch located at the fringes of the Aravalli – home to the indigenous Bhil, Garasia and the nomadic Raika pastoralists. There are a total of 24 villages within the boundaries of the KWS and 27 villages inside the adjoining Todgarh-Raoli WS. Together, there are more than 250 villages around the periphery of the sanctuaries. These communities depend on forests for their sustenance.

Significantly, the KWS has no recent documented history of tiger presence. Also, it was never part of any tiger corridor in independent India.  "If tigers are introduced, they may not disperse and instead accentuate human-wildlife conflict," says a senior official who was part of the State Board for Wildlife in 2016, over a proposal of converting KWS into a tiger reserve. "Also, it has a low prey base and its grasslands, too, are poor," he adds.

The KWS landscape is known for Indian wolves, four-horned antelopes and leopards.   

"The last tiger was shot in 1961 and local communities here do not know what tiger is," says Hanumant Singh of Pashupalak Sanghathan, a livestock rearing community’s organisation.  "Our livestock keepers face human-wildlife conflict as a large number of leopards keep attacking our livestock but we manage it," he adds.

India's conservation story has always been pitted against tribal people who are traditional conservationists. They have an intrinsic relationship with forests and animals. Such tiger conservation models will neither help the forests nor the tigers, argue activists.

"Who will save the jungle from forest fire?" asks Chaman Dana of  Bhil Adivasi Sangathan, a tribal organisation. "Every year tribal and pastoralist communities create a first line of defence from annual forest fires. If you displace them, more forest fires would do harm," he adds.

The state government appointed an expert committee for a preliminary assessment of the KWS as a tiger reserve. It recommended the relocation of 18 villages from the wildlife sanctuary and listed nearly 156 villages that will be affected by the proposed tiger reserve in Pali, Udaipur and Rajsamand districts. The affected villages, mostly tribal, had protested against such a proposal.

"Last year, affected villagers passed village council resolutions against the idea of a tiger reserve and submitted a memorandum to the chief minister, environment and forest minister and district collector," says Jagdish Paliwal, a local activist working with these communities.

Shikhar Agarwal, Additional Chief Secretary, Department of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, Rajasthan told The New Indian Express that there is still a long way to go.

"After the in-principle approval, the state government will form a committee to assess the requirements of the reserve to make it suitable for tiger habitats, such as increasing prey base, fencing and displacement of villages to appropriate locations," says Agarwal.

Mushrooming of resorts

Indigenous people accuse the hotels and resorts lobby of pushing the case for a tiger reserve. According to the Bhil Adivasi Sangthan, there are at least 117 big and small hotels and resorts and many of them engaged in illegal constructions in collusion with forest officials.

"These big resorts are already engaged in grabbing our grazing land, blocking our livestock movements and water sources," says Singh. Some cases were filed in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) over illegal construction. Locals say forest officials chose to harass them instead of acting against hotel owners.

In May this year, the NGT directed the district collector and superintendent of police of Pali district to ensure no construction in eco-sensitive zones around the KWS.

Besides resorts, there is illegal mining in KWS, which would impact the sustenance of tigers.  

Royal rivalry
Diya Kumari, the incumbent member of parliament of Rajasamand, under which KWS falls, is also a member of NTCA. She has been lobbying to declare KWS as a tiger reserve. "I have been trying to get tiger reserve status for KWS to promote employment through ecotourism," said Kumari, scion of the Jaipur royal family seen as a political alternative to two-time chief minister and Dholpur royal family member Vasundhara Raje. A section of BJP leaders of Rajasthan has been trying to project Kumari as Raje’s replacement.
Raje had converted Mukundara Wildlife Sanctuary into a tiger reserve without any presence of tigers there in 2013. Apparently, Kumari has been following in her footsteps. Studies show that Mukundara and Dholpur are connected to the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and act as corridors.

"Mukundara has long been the tiger corridor of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve," says Dev Vrata Singh Handa, an environmental conservationist working around Mukundara Tiger Reserve (MTR). However, the recent deaths of tigers in MTR was a setback for policymakers.

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