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Guest Editorial – Valmik Thapar, Foremost Tiger Conservationist and Author, on the future of wild tigers in India. LE Volume Two December 2014
We are in such a mess in this country that to create a path to secure the future of wild tigers will be an enormous undertaking. This country is so deeply fractured, divided and unstable that good governance is turning into an impossible dream. We seem to have sunk into a quagmire of chaos and corruption and little appears on the horizon to pull us out of it. In this political and bureaucratic nightmare very few care about wild tigers. I do, since I have spent 38 years of my life serving them. Wild tigers are symbolic of the amazing forests of India that occupy 20% of India’s land mass. By keeping them alive you keep all the natural treasures alive so essential for any quality of human life, be it the air we breathe or the water we drink. The following blueprint is necessary to save wild tigers.
There are no short cuts.
We have a plethora of confusing laws that are now not just fighting each other but the makers and enforcers of these laws appear to also be the first to abuse them. Illegal mining of natural resource has scarred our landscapes forever. We inherited from the British at independence The Indian Forest Act which was created in the 19th century to exploit and plunder the natural resources of India and it fed the British with vast supplies of timber and natural wealth and continued to feed the new Republic of India exploiting both wood and wildlife. To control this rampant exploitation Indira Gandhi created The Wildlife Protection Act in the early 1970’s and The Forest Conservation Act in the mid 1980’s. This was soon followed by The Environment Protection Act and for the first time based on Indira Gandhi’s vision India countered the exploitative nature of the British laws that we had ignorantly followed. We stumbled into the 21st century carrying this package of laws and as 2007 dawned we created yet another act—The Forest Rights Act and this in essence was to serve the people who lived in and around the forests of India. Badly drafted it fractured groups of people, dividing them against each other and has in the end served no one. This Act fights all what Indira Gandhi created and we now have a KHIDCHRI or mixture of laws from the 19th, 20th and 21st century all working against each other and creating a legal logjam. We need to sit together and draft one law which protects forests and wildlife and serves people. This needs to be drafted by thinking people in and out of government. Wild tigers must have their inviolate space and forest people must also benefit. This one law has to be piloted through Parliament and all the laws that clutter our statute books today need to be repealed.
Forests and tigers are managed by another British creation—The Indian Forest Service [IFS] which in its previous life was called the Superior State Forest Service.. In the late 1970’s Indira Gandhi came very close to bifurcating this service and creating an Indian Wildlife Service but sadly the bureaucrats who rule the roost had their way and she was stopped. Today the IFS has run out of ideas and needs serious reform both in the mechanisms of recruitment, and the process of training and specialization. The IFS needs to be bifurcated and disbanded before it takes a toll on our forests. We need a new and fresh IFS for the 21st century and with a complimentary Wildlife Service. We need this service to be in the states and not as an all India service. Every region requires its own specialization. We desperately need to engage non-governmental experts especially wildlife scientists to work alongside wildlife managers and share in the process of decision making. They must be empowered to be part of the team like in other services like The Indian Administrative Service where many secretaries to the Government of India have been appointed from outside or The Indian Foreign Service where endless ambassadors have been appointed who were not government servants.
In the 45 tiger reserves we need to engage at least 1000 outside experts on short and long term contracts. Tigers need this fresh input now and from those who understand their needs and we need them fast.
We need to encourage innovative wildlife tourism models. We need to learn from the plethora of models in play in Africa. Africa has examples where in places like the Masai Mara in Kenya millions of dollars of park entry revenues are ploughed back into the local economies. Private players are encouraged to partner locals and generate revenue from tourism. There are ongoing working relationships to learn from. We have no models in India and wildlife tourism managed by the government is a nightmare and needs to be outsourced and forest managers need to stick to their job of protection and enforcement. They are not trained to be tourism experts or assess the harmful impacts of tourism on wildlife. Create genuine partners with the local communities and tourism experts. Create new partnerships so that the millions of rupees that pour in from tourism reach locals and they feel the tangible benefits of sensible tourism. Creating and managing a good tourism plan for each site specific area is not rocket science. We have enough talent in this country to do this without any government department being involved. Innovative policies will help tigers by converting degraded farmlands on the edges of forests into wildlife havens with locals [and wildlife] benefitting like never before.
We need one Act or Law that is easy to understand, implement and enforce and not six, we need new forest and wildlife services to manage the wilderness and in tandem with their non-governmental partners, and we need an innovative policy to attract visitors and use the revenue generated to benefit locals. Today one of the critical reasons for the mess in this country is the endless baggage of both laws [nearly 1000 of them] and civil services [dozens of them] that we inherited from the British and never reformed or repealed. The future of wild tigers depends on us. Let’s change course before it is too late. If we do not little will be left for future generations. What we need today are partnerships between the government and civil society in village, town, and city that engage with the problem and generate a new vision. Money is not the problem. It is the freedom to implement fresh and innovative ideas that has to be respected and this will happen when entrenched bureaucracies are broken. Tigers suffer because of bad governance. When the tigers of Sariska tiger reserve and Panna tiger reserve were poached to the last one what was needed was a cleaning out of those responsible and action against those negligent. It never happened. More tigers will die because our systems of governance are poor and ineffective. We need real solutions for wild India and we need them fast.
© Valmik Thapar