Do human beings who have lived in tiger habitat for generations really need to be tossed out to save tigers?
At the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC last week, I had my fair share of irritating moments listening to speakers on topics that (in my humble opinion) they knew not much about, yet had a symposium platform to pontificate on at a conference with more media coverage than any I have ever seen at any scientific gathering. Most of the irritations came during talks about conservation and natural resource governance issues, which didn't get as much media coverage as some other topics. Aside from occasional tweets and a question or two that seemed to catch the speakers off guard, I kept my irritations to myself. I am reminded of one such moment, however, by an excellent article by Janaki Lenin on "The best laid schemes of tigers and men" (published also in Governance Now under a duller title but may not be accessible there), which begins thus:
The media leaves little doubt about the dire straits that we find the tiger in today. Millions of dollars are raised at home and abroad to secure the future of this magnificent beast. But the people who are paying dearly for the conservation of the charismatic big cat are the unglamorous local people who have had to quietly forsake their homes and traditional livelihoods to make way for the tiger.
This reminded me of a discussion at the end of a session on "Changing Climate, Changing Approaches: Conservation in the Face of Climate Change", when the rather hapless discussant said something about how amazing the US Endangered Species Act was as a conservation tool, and asked why no other country in the world had emulated the US in adopting such an exemplary law? Seriously - that's what he asked!
Granted, I had missed half the session (having foolishly gone to another even more frustrating talk on caste systems...), but this discussion did seem to be banging on a bit too much about the Endangered Species Act, which surprised me given the rather broader discourse I expected based on the title of the session. So when the above question was posed, I couldn't help but raise my hand and point out that the US wasn't really all that exemplary and that other countries - like India - also had strong laws (and, occasionally, strong ministers pushing to implement the laws), so the problems lay elsewhere. John Mathews of Conservation International (who had given a good talk just moments earlier) then chimed in as well to talk about how India had a history of protecting sacred forests (i.e., whole ecosystems) thousands of years before the ESA was invented to save individual species. As my friend Eric Johnson tweeted in the moment:
"India has sustainably managed sacred forests for 3,000 years. Americans are smug about protecting one fish: A to Q by @leafwarbler #AAASmtg".
Its hard for Americans not to feel smug about themselves, though - but Indian tiger-wallahs can surely match that smugness with their own breast-beating about how the tigers are beset upon by "too many people", as evidenced by an immediate response to Eric's tweet from @dyingtigers:
"India has laws, but not enforced. 99% of tiger habitat is GONE!! India has too many people + tigers don't vote".
How can one have a rational conversation about real solutions when caught between hubris and hysteria? Janaki's thoughtful article is how! She provides an excellent (and balanced!) perspective on India's rather well-intentioned laws and how we have stumbled and bumbled in our interpretation and implementation of said laws. And how, in doing so, we are failing both the tigers and the poor marginalized human inhabitats of tiger habitats who have lived with the beasts for generations only to find themselves in the conservation crosshairs now. As Janaki concludes:
"In this day and enlightened age, can we rightfully protect the tiger by impoverishing the people who have lived with it until now? Ironically, conservationists bemoan that the public is not more engaged with protecting wildlife and yet, they condone an undemocratic system that serves to turn any wildlife-tolerant tribal into an ardent opponent. Is it really so difficult to save the tiger without being unfair and callous to fellow human beings?"
Excellent questions indeed that must be answered by all of us, from government officials to conservationists to ordinary citizens, from Washington, DC to New Delhi and everywhere in between.