A shrinking habitat for tigers is one of the biggest challenges facing conservationists in India, which has mounted the world’s biggest program to protect the big cat. There is a growing problem of balancing the interests of wildlife with those of villages situated in or near tiger reserves.
More than a year ago, wildlife authorities scrambled to a village located in the heart of Sariska Tiger Reserve on hearing that a tigress was prowling in its vicinity.
Worried that petrified villagers would target the animal, they spent many hours persuading them not to disturb the tigress, which had apparently come in search of a mate.
The Deputy Field Director of Sariska Reserve, Manoj Parashar, says forest guards along with villagers formed teams to keep a 24-hour vigil on the tigress.
He says they told the villagers that if she attacks someone, they will immediately intervene. Otherwise they urged the villagers to leave her alone. He says they agreed.
The tigress spent a week near the village before returning to the deep jungle - three days alone and four days with a tiger who responded to her mating call.
The officials were elated when months later, the same tigress gave birth to two cubs. They are the newest additions to the 13 tigers in Sariska.
But conservationists say neither the villagers nor wildlife benefit from the proximity. Wild animals, whether deer, boar or elephants, trample the villagers’ crops or attack their cattle. For tigers and other animals, the presence of these villages means noise and movement in the midst of the forest.
Conservationist Belinda Wright, who heads the Wildlife Protection Society of India, says times have changed, even for forest dwellers. “It is no longer a quiet little village that has a sort of very simple existence and simple life. Nowadays it is quite intrusive. People have aspirations which they did not have in the past. It is now very complex and same villagers want motorbikes and so on and it is a huge disturbance for wildlife,” she explained.
India is home to half the world’s tigers. After falling to around 1,400, their numbers rebounded to 1,706 at the last count taken in 2011.
In an effort to protect the tigers' habitat, authorities launched a program five years ago to relocate villages in the sprawling 886 square kilometer sanctuary. Similar programs are being undertaken in several other tiger reserves across the country.
Under the program, villagers in Sariska are given a resettlement package of about $16,000 to leave their homes and buy land elsewhere.
But the project has made uneven progress as persuading villagers to leave their traditional home is no easy task.
Haripura village, just inside the gate of the sanctuary, is one of the villages identified for relocation. For generations, villagers here have made a living rearing cattle and farming.
A village resident, Lalu Ram Gujjar, says villagers are resistant to moving out because the package being offered by the government is too small for them to resettle.
He says even the if he buys a small plot of land, it will cost a lot. He questions how will be able to build a house or manage during the one or two years of transition.
So far, three villages in Sariska have been relocated. Six others are in the process of relocation.
The director of Sariska Tiger Reserve, R.S. Shekawat, says moving villages out from the sanctuary is a huge challenge. Villagers cannot be evicted, they have to agree to move voluntarily.
“It is quite difficult, because land prices have gone very high all around, and the package is not that great and not many people are not coming forward for relocation. So this is one of biggest challenge," Shekawat notes. "Tiger for breeding need inviolate space. If they [villagers] move out, we would have a lot of area, 500 square kilometers, which would be inviolate.”
But villagers like Lalu Ram Gujjar are in no hurry to move out. He says they are accustomed to living along with the wildlife and nonchalantly points out that the tiger often passes close to their homes, but never threatens them.
Protecting the habitat
However, conservationists like Belinda Wright feel there is little time to be lost.
“This is a very, very difficult thing for people, probably more difficult than even the people think it is, to move them from their traditional homes that they have lived in for generations, and for them to start a new life and a new way of life," said Wright. "But if it does not happen now, in five years, 10 years times it will be a 100 times more difficult to find land to accommodate people and in the meantime a lot of damage will be done.”
The struggle to balance the interest of wildlife and villagers is not likely to end anytime soon as on the one hand, India steps up efforts to conserve the tiger and on the other, it tries to give a fair deal to people and tribes for whom the forest has always been home.