Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In the line of fire

Basavarju (name changed) a temporary forest watcher lives in a remote enforcement (anti-poaching) camp in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Aged 55 with diabetics and high blood pressure his daily duty includes patrolling forests with his colleagues on foot. It is common that they come across elephants on a daily basis. However if an elephant chases him, which is likely on most days, he faces a tough time escaping from the pachyderms due to his illness. To make matters worse he is not covered under any insurance scheme and if something went wrong, his family would face dire consequences. Despite all these risks he continues to work to save our precious natural heritage; forests and wildlife. His story is similar to those of other hundreds of forest guards and watchers working in our national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

Forest department staff at an anti-poaching camp. Pic:Sanjay Gubbi

Encounters with wildlife poachers and timber smugglers constantly put lives of these foot soldiers at great risk. Skirmishes with people who come into forests everyday to collect fuelwood, non-timber forest produce or bring in livestock for grazing is common, often turning violent. Since most of the staff also come from nearby villages there are instances of families being socially boycotted for the protection activities the staff carry out.

Does all this hard work bring them any benefits? No, they even lack some of the basic facilities most of us enjoy. Wildlife conservation in the field is a 24*7 job. Hence the benefits of weekends elude these frontline warriors. They would feel blessed if they got a couple of days off in a month to visit their families. Often families fend for themselves with the family head remaining incommunicado for most times. Even salaries are often delayed making them dependent on local moneylenders who often expect favours in return, including timber from forests.

Many members of the field staff are old and unable to take the vagaries of field work any more. Pic:Sanjay Gubbi

Circumstances of temporary staff are worse. Their salaries are much lower than permanent staff and are never paid on time. Often the wait period is for several months. Then how do we expect them not to be lured by the attraction of bribes for letting timber smugglers or an occasional wildlife poacher?

Lack of basic equipment

Most times the anti-poaching camps they live in do not have basic infrastructure, let alone transportation. Some of the camps are located in remote, inaccessible terrains making their life even more difficult during emergency situations or monsoons. Yes, this is part of their job, but improved infrastructure could make their lives a bit more comfortable and reduce the time they spend on logistics. Cooking on firewood is highly time consuming (and also affects forests) hence gas stoves could be provided to antipoaching camps. Solar powered water heaters can provide that crucial bucket of hot water and make lives a bit easier during winter.

Apart from the salary, occasionally they receive one set of khaki uniform from the Government. Uniform is one of the first deterrence to criminal elements. It gives moral power to the staff to implement law. Without this basic requirement their implementing powers are compromised. Similarly umbrellas, shoes, torches and other simple but basic equipment are unavailable. Some civil societies and individuals take interest to provide basic equipment, uniform for the staff or education support for their children. However this is not carried out on a continuous basis. More importantly only the well known parks get the attention and support while the lesser known ones do not get this support from outsiders. Hence it is best that quality equipment and incentives are generously provided through the Government system which is more permanent. A few forest officials also take interest and support the staff with equipment.

Temporary field staff lack basic equipment. Pic:Sanjay Gubbi

Training facilities

The frontline staff lack capacity (barring a few) to handle unruly situations. Hence there is a dire need to organise periodic refresher courses. Such training courses should be on improving natural history skills, handling of fire arms, public relations, managing human-wildlife conflict and other similar subjects. These are more practical and useful in the field rather than the old forestry skills. Wildlife conservation is no more economic forestry but conservation forestry atleast in protected areas. Hence skills that are suited to this subject are to be part of the training.

The way out

Tiger Reserves are now mandated to setup Tiger Foundations through which tourism revenue earned in the park is spent for park management. Sufficient portions of these funds should also be utilised for staff welfare and training. Government should allocate sufficient budget for staff welfare while drawing annual budgetary plans. An active role by the civil societies towards systematising the benefits rather than the ad-hoc support currently provided is essential.


India hosts one of the best populations of our flagship wildlife species including tigers and elephants. However the real heroes of this success story are yet to be recognised and policies to improve their lives have to be put in place. Despite the hardships these unsung heroes face, they remain as the cornerstones of wildlife conservation in the country. How long can we whine and whinge about the lack of facilities to these foot soldiers and not proactively change policies?

An edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald on 22-12-2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Trunk Call

Protected areas are importat for survival of wildlife species such as the elephants. Photo: Sanjay Gubbi

India has the distinction of harbouring the largest Asian elephant population anywhere in the world. With an estimated population of 26,000 elephants, it amounts to 50 percent of the world’s population. These mega herbivores survive over a geographical area of about 110,000 sq km in the country. Of this about 65,000 sq km is declared as 32 Elephant Reserves (ER) spread across several Protected Areas (PAs), Reserved Forests and private lands. Securing this landscape in pursuit of saving this flagship species is a challenging and daunting task. This is particularly taxing in a country which is seeing an ever expanding economy and over a billion people competing for space, some of it with elephants.

The increased human-elephant conflict that has taken casualties on both sides along with loss of thousands of hectares of cropland has brought the issue to limelight. Hence an Elephant Task Force (ETF) was set up by the central Government to suggest long-term conservation priorities for elephant conservation.

Interestingly the task force was headed by a wildlife historian and political analyst which is an indication of the issue with elephant conservation that encompasses the broader social milieu. The report developed based on country wide consultations with a wide array of people including people affected by elephants, elected representatives, officials of forest departments, wildlife biologists, conservation and welfare activists, mahouts, veterinarians, temple committees and elephant owners striving for a democratic process. It is commendable that the report was made accessible to public by uploading it on the ministry's website (

The ETF has given important, practically implementable recommendations addressing the most burning issues of elephant conservation. Atypical of any Government appointed committees, the report is critical about the lack of focus and attention at the highest level of the Government and calls for an administrative overhaul. ETF comments that though Project Elephant was set up in 1992 it has been “unable to take up leadership on elephant conservation”. To bring teeth to Project Elephant ETF suggests setting up of the National Elephant Conservation Authority (NECA), a statutory body, with a proposed budget of 600 crore under the 12th five year plan. In a progressive idea, ETF recommends recruitment of non-governmental personnel with requisite skills to be appointed in the NECA.

To improve governance in management, Reserve Level Management Advisory Committees comprising of elected representatives, conservationists and others which should hold public hearings are to be setup. Independent evaluation of the ERs with performance indicators are recommended to bring in transparency.

Revamping research methods

Elephants need standardised peer-reviewed protocols for population estimations. Hence the report calls for a critical evaluation of the current population estimation methods on scientific grounds. Due to vastness of elephant habitat in the country, ETF suggests a combination of methods for non-PAs and more intensive surveys for select sites to get robust density estimations. Other scientific measures suggested include development of national elephant mortality database, elephant reserve research stations and fellowships to students to encourage research on multiple dimensions of elephant conservation.

Defragmenting elephant habitats

In the country elephant habitats are being fragmented at a monstrous scale. Hence the report has suggested PAs to be expanded to include critical habitats and corridors or else be declared as Community or Conservation Reserves. Taking note of flawed Environmental Impact Assessments used for diverting elephant habitats for developmental projects, a new approach termed as Elephant Specific Environmental Impact Assessment is suggested for permitting projects in ERs.

Conservation organisations have already identified critical elephant corridors in the country. Ranking these corridors, a 200 crore budget for habitat securement is proposed under NECA. The report also calls for rationalisation of ER boundaries based on ecological principles rather than the current ad-hoc boundaries.

Human-Elephant Conflict

In India annually over 400 people lose their lives to elephants and at least 500,000 farmers are affected through crop depredation. Apart from humanitarian reasons this needs to be addressed as it affects elephants through vengeance killing, loss of elephant habitats due to retaliatory forest fires set by people and other threats to elephant conservation. Importantly it increases hostility of local people against wildlife conservation in general. Hence the task force has called for an integrated approach to defuse tension and more accountability in the way mitigation measures such as electric fences and elephant proof trenches are managed.

The committee has suggested setting up of local Conflict Management Task Forces involving local elected representatives, media and farmers which would hold a minimum of two taluka level hearings annually to address conflict issues.

Reducing human-elephant conflict is key for enhancing public support for elephant conservation. Photo: P.M.Muthanna

Captive elephants

India has a long cultural history of captive elephants. Currently with about 3,500 elephants under ownership of various individuals and organisations ETF has recommended for moratorium on sale of elephant to temples and phasing out of captive elephants in the future apart from other welfare measures.


Overall the ETF has shown a strong will to democratise the way elephant conservation needs to go ahead and also how Government appointed committees can perform. Lastly, the task force projects a positive picture that “India can secure the future of elephants and its forest home”. This is unlike several other reports which projects only gloomy picture. Hope the recommendations of ETF are implemented by the Government in true spirit.

The elephant task force has projected a positive future for the elephants in the country. Photo:Sanjay Gubbi

An edited version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald on 21-09-2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Relocation at crossroads

One of the hotly debated issues in Indian wildlife conservation history has been the act of relocation. Though the number of people displaced to form inviolate areas for wildlife in comparison to other developmental projects is lower, tensions spark high between social scientists and those interested in wildlife conservation on this one subject. This is due to the dismal track record of relocation projects. The compensation paid has been grossly inadequate; amenities promised have not been fulfilled or were poorly implemented and the eviction was coercive. There was total insensitivity towards social and economic aspects of those getting relocated leading to impoverishment of most relocated families. Thus it is natural that people dread the word relocation popularly called as ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘conservation induced displacement’ in academic terminologies.

Relocating people from forests has a longer history in the country but the objective has changed over time. As wildlife historian Mahesh Rangarajan narrates, in the 19th century relocation from forests was for ‘surveillance and collection of revenue’. However since the early 1960s wildlife conservation has been the major objective of relocation from protected areas.

Purely from an ecological perspective, relocation of people will help improve wildlife numbers which is the primary goal of wildlife conservation. Scientific studies have documented the impacts of chronic threats that emanate from human habitations. However it is imperative to accord priority to fair and well implemented relocation. The process and end result from a social angle is extremely important for any relocation project to be successful.

In the current scenario, both from an ecological and social perspective, if people are voluntarily willing to be relocated for better access to social amenities we need to encourage and handhold such aspirations. This could help us achieve the twin goals of betterment of people’s lives and flagship species conservation.

Based on the recommendations of the Tiger Task Force, which recognised the need for inviolate areas for tiger conservation, the Government has allocated increased budgets for relocation. There are more funds available for this under the centrally sponsored schemes and now lately under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) depicting political will. Now it’s time for the official machinery and civil societies to deliver results.

Committed civil servants who leverage external support have achieved the best results as in the case of Bhadra Tiger Reserve. In one of the recent relocation of 60 families from Nagarahole National Park to Sollepura we were able to turn tables grossly through informed outreach and facilitation with the district authorities. Apart from repairing leaking roofs, provision of electricity, water, schooling and other basic needs, measures that would ensure a better livelihood to the relocated families were executed. Enrolment to the voters list provides them political empowerment, attaching the hamlet to the nearest gram panchayat would entitle them for Government benefits, and very importantly providing them land titles for the land they received as part of compensation package assures land tenure security.

The communities were encouraged to form relocation implementation committees which decided the priorities of development activities that should be implemented for their hamlet. Committee’s approval was mandatory before it was placed before the District Level Monitoring Committee (DLMC). This was largely possible with the active participation of the Deputy Commissioner P.Manivannan as the Chairman of the DLMC.

A house at Sollepura relocation site before interventions (Photo: Vinay Kumar)

One of the houses that was modified and made liveable after the interventions (Photo: Sanjay Gubbi)

Under the new relocation package offered by the National Tiger Conservation Authority a proactive DLMC can tailor the package based on site-specific needs which can be decisive. With overarching powers, the DC can motivate and ensure that other Government benefits are provided in a speedy manner.

Despite all the complications that involves any relocation activity; it is simpler in certain aspects if the displaced are non-forest dwelling communities. Forest dwelling communities lack certain social and professional skills which others posses and negotiating with market forces is not their forte. Hence civil societies need to play a watch dog role to ensure accountability, transparency, quality implementation of the project and to engage in providing post-relocation support.

In India there are abundant social development schemes funded by both central and state Governments. These existing benefits can be leveraged if civil societies play the pivotal role in identifying and helping the relocated families to avail the benefits. Support for education, animal husbandry, horticulture, free electricity, old age and widow pensions are some of the benefits that can be accessed from the existing schemes.

Forest Department still lacks the sensitivity to implement relocation projects, inadequate staff and routine protection duties do not help the cause either. We need to explore possibilities of creating a new mechanism to implement relocation projects. Relocated families should be treated on par with other developmental project evacuees making them eligible for quotas in Government jobs.

The swiftness at which economic and social conditions are changing is unprecedented. Small pieces of land within forests with produce that has to be shared with marauding crop raiders might be difficult to sustain families. If people are truly eager to be relocated then we need to take a different perspective at relocation.

While creating inviolate spaces ensuring that other forms of habitat fragmentation such as highways, railway lines are not built through the same areas which are made inviolate through relocation of people. It will be neither ecologically feasible nor socially ethical. With less than two percent of the country’s landscape reasonably well protected for wildlife conservation we need to take a pragmatic view so that we give some space for wildlife to survive in the years to come. But this does not provide rights to anyone to implement the old model of relocation.

An edited version of this article appeared in Down To Earth, 16-31 August 2010