Of late the proponents of sustainable use of wildlife seem to be gaining ground. The passing in parliament of The Tribal Rights Bill is one of the most serious threats to the future of our wildlife. This theory advocates the sustainable harvest of forest produce, including the hunting of large mammals, to help improve the social and economic status of the people who live around and within the forests. The argument goes that this is crucial in gaining the support of the local people in protecting wildlife and thus ensuring the future of our wildlife. Do the proponents of this theory have any hard data to present as evidence? I think not.

In this article I try to figure out if sustainable use can work in the Indian social context of large human population, poverty, disparity in income, rising aspirations and hunger for land.

Large mammals in India are difficult to conserve due to their life history traits. They are found in relatively low densities, have large home ranges, slow reproductive rates, small litters and long generation times. They however attract human hunters because of their high meat yields, their value as trophies, and for their commercially valuable by-products like hides, bones and horns etc.

Immediately after independence there was a general relaxation in hunting norms and hunting of game both for the pot and as a sport increased significantly. The liberal granting of gun licenses for crop protection increased the number of people able to hunt and all this led to a drastic reduction of our wildlife. The government also laid great emphasis on the harvesting of timber and spreading of agriculture, both of which led to a rapid depletion of our forest cover.

Therefore when India embarked on a conservation programme in the 1970s the Indian forester, learning from experience, framed an agenda that was essentially preservationist in nature. This agenda included the setting up of wildlife reserves and sanctuaries from which all human settlements were to be removed. The agenda also included the curbing of poaching, forest fires logging and plant biomass removal from within these areas. They also started species recovery plans like Project Tiger. Recognizing the impact of hunting on wildlife from past experience, the Indian forester was able to persuade the government, over a period of time, to totally ban hunting.

This method called the preservationist method has been vindicated by the fact that today it is only in these reserves and sanctuaries, that one can find wildlife in good numbers. All other areas such as reserved forests and revenue forests where traditional forestry practices continue contain little or no wildlife. Forests that were existing at that time but which were not given protection have all but disappeared.

Can the sustainable use method help in the recovery of Indian wildlife? Can it at the very least ensure the future of what little we have left? Let us look at Nagarhole as a case study.

The sustainable use method aims at preserving wildlife by giving a stake to the local people in its preservation. This they intend to do by allowing them to sustainably harvest the forest. So let us take a good look at the people who live around Nagarhole and their socio-economic position.

First let us look at the people who still reside within the park. They are the Jenu Kurubas, the Beta Kurubas (collectively called Kadu Kuruba or simply Kuruba) and Yerava tribals. These people were originally hunter gathers who switched to swidden agriculture and when that was banned to collection of minor forest produce. They now work as agricultural labor in the plantations outside the park. These people are now fully integrated with the market economy and have been agitating for relocation outside the park or for agricultural rights within the park. A section of them have indeed been successfully rehabilitated outside the park.

Outside the park the dominant land holding caste are the Kodavas. They have a tradition of hunting and as they were considered loyal to the British they were exempt from gun control laws, a privilege they enjoy even today. This has led to a high density of legal guns around Nagarhole. However most of them have now given up hunting in keeping with the changing times. They are socially and financially the dominant class.
Apart from them there are the Moplah Muslims from Kerala who are similarly well off. The rest of the people consist of tribal groups and other Hindu castes, most of whom are agriculturalists. There is also a floating population of migrant agricultural workers.

While the Kodavas have to a large extent given up hunting but they do lend their guns to known people. Hunting is illegal and done mostly for the pot. Wild meat is bought and sold only from known sources. Thus it can be said that wild meat is not a source of protein for the population and that there is no subsistence economy based on hunting.

A study was conducted by Dr.K.Ullas Karanth on the impact of illegal hunting in Nagarhole. Two areas of the park were chosen One area which had been relatively free from hunting and another that had only recently been brought under control. The area that had been free from hunting had significantly higher densities of large mammals. Thus proving the adverse impact of even a small amount of hunting (illegally and candisentally done) on mammal densities. Other observations from Northeast India and Southeast Asia demonstrates the virtual elimination of large mammals in absence of effective hunting controls.

Sustainable use I fear is extremely difficult to define and implement in India. Who among the people around the park are to benefit from this? In the prevailing social divisions in terms of caste and class it will be impossible to define who the beneficiaries should be. Because of high population levels the per capita returns from such hunting is likely to be economically insignificant. On the other hand the same high population levels will create a huge potential consumer base and as India has a history of systemic abuse in all spheres the same is sure to creep into the sustainable use programme. The precarious state of our wildlife leaves no room for such failures.

What is the aim of sustainable use? I feel it has more to do with the socio economic upliftment of the people than with the preservation of wildlife. If that is the case then the government has in place a reservation policy which has resulted in the social and economic upliftment of the weaker sections of society. Do you remember the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan recently? Here we had a dominant caste agitating for tribal status to avail of the opportunities that the government reservation policy has to offer. Obviously there is a lot to gain by being officially tribal. Why can’t we ensure that the tribals and weaker sections of society around the parks are able to avail of this? After all the policy was formulated for their upliftment. Proper and sustained investment in primary education will definitely help them to avail of these opportunities.

Wildlife tourism can play its part in the creation of jobs and in giving a fillip to the local economy. However in India I personally feel that the wildlife tourism industry has not shown a responsible attitude. To rectify this legislation is required. Only those who follow the rules should be allowed entry into the park. The following norms should be followed.
Land should be taken on long lease and not brought outright. This will ensure long term income for the landowners around the park.
At least 80% of the staff should be from the local population with adequate representation of the weaker sections. After a while they should be made stake holders in the venture. This will translate into long term support for the parks and wildlife.
Again 80% of the provisions should be sourced from the district level. This will give a much needed fillip to the local economy and win the support of the traders.
All pollution norms should be met and new pollution norms regarding noise and light pollution should be laid down.
The government should actively encourage the setting up of home stays by the locals by giving them special concessions.

This may seem utopian I sincerely believe that this is definitely a better way of going about things than the sustainable use method. And the last but not the least the preservationist model needs to be strengthened by effective implementation on the ground. The war will be fought and won on the frontlines, not in our living rooms.