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Of tribals and tigers...

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Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh, wildlifer from Tamil Nadu, with Belinda Wright, Founder and Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. Paul Noronha
Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh, wildlifer from Tamil Nadu, with Belinda Wright, Founder and Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. Paul Noronha

P. Devarajan

RUDYARD Kipling's Mowgli in The Jungle Book led 25-year-old Kalyan Varma to the forests. "I saw the film Jungle Book and that brought the change," Varma told this paper as one chatted with him at the NCPA Theatre.

After qualifying as an engineer in computer sciences, Varma worked for three years at Yahoo.com in Bangalore. He quit the job towards the end of 2004 and started as a naturalist with Jungle Lodges, a government-owned ecotourism outfit. From January 2005 he worked at the Billigiri-Ranganna Hills (BR Hills) wildlife sanctuary, some two hours run from Mysore.

"They gave me a home deep inside the forests and food. That left me alone to watch the forests, the various species and click them. The important fact about BR Hills is it forms a corridor linking the Eastern and Western Ghats and I got the chance to observe the species endemic to both," Varma said.

For about two months Varma observed the jumping ant (Harpegnathos saltator), which lead lonely lives unlike others of their tribe spending time in groups.

The jumping ant leaps in the air to catch its prey and one day he spotted near his room a worker ant having a territorial fight with a queen ant.

"I rushed to my room, picked up my camera and started shooting the entire sequence," he said happily.

One of those shots got Varma the first prize in the Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Wildlife Photography Awards for 2005. In August 2005, he quit the forest having run out of funds and is now employed as a part-time consultant in Bangalore.

"One needs money as photography is costly. But my present job gives me enough time to rush back to the forests," Kalyan admits. There was some resistance from his conservative family which is "but natural" he says though now they back him.

Sholigas, a tribal group living in BR Hills, taught him the finer points of the jungle and its ways. "I don't believe in kicking out the tribals from the forests. We will have to take them along as they have lived there for ages," contends Varma.

That's a hotly disputed point with some young foresters agreeing with Varma. Pratap Thakare of the Nature Conservation Society, Amravati who had come with the Young Naturalist Award winner, Vishal Prabhakar Bansod and Sanjay Rithe think it is hard anymore to keep tribals out of forests.

"Ye hona mushkil hai (This is going to be difficult)," Pratap told me and he should know, working in Melghat and Tadoba tiger reserves in central India.

They admit tribals do away with wild life and forest cover with Sanjay saying, "Pet ka mamla hai (They have to fill their stomachs)." Some sections of the tribals in Melghat are changing. At a talk-cum-slide show on the Tiger Crisis, Valmik Thapar showed the audience clips taken around August 2005 of Tibetans dancing, clothed in complete tiger and leopard skins. Those shots are particularly sad. Ms. Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India stalked the dangerously tricky trail of tiger skins from tiger reserves in India to Tibet.

The matter was taken up with the Dalai Lama who could not believe Tibetans flaunting tiger and leopard skins. "This is not good for my people," the Dalai Lama has said. Over the years, the Chinese Government in a cruel exercise to destroy the Tibetan ethos has been displacing locals with a strong Han population.

Forming the first link in the poaching chain, the tribals, for a few hundred rupees, do away with tigers and other animals and their precious mortal remains make their way to Tibet along well-marked trade routes.

The recent issue of Sanctuary carries reports of China planning to lift the 1993 ban on trade in tigers and tiger parts and reopen the market for "captive bred tigers from tiger farms."

This is gruesome news as tigers cannot be bred in tiger farms; the animals will be provided by poachers including tribals living and working in India's tiger reserves.

Softly but surely Belinda Wright told newspersons, "The end of the tigers is in sight. No tigers have been seen at Palamau, Namdhapa and at many other sanctuaries. Does India want tigers? I only hope I am not around when there are no tigers."

Despite Project Tiger, tiger numbers are dwindling and if one wants to escape the number game he has to stare at empty forests taken over by tribals and cattle. Some of the tiger reserves have turned cattle reserves. Forests have become big business, next probably to narcotics; in the event, forests have to be quarantined from tribals.

Valmik Thapar strongly asserts, "tribals and tigers cannot co-exist." Says Dr Asir Jawahar Thomas Johnsingh, who got the Lifetime Services Award 2005, in an interview to Sanctuary: "I wish we had been able to convince powerful people, including politicians, to be more strongly supportive of wildlife conservation. In our beloved country everything works in slow motion. We took ages to eliminate Veerappan, even longer to imprison Sansar Chand and we have been discussing the crucial Chilla-Motichur elephant corridor in the Rajaji National Park across the Ganges for more than 20 years."

Dr Johnsingh was kind enough to autograph a book of his for me. One collected the broken hearts and cracked dreams of men and women working for years on forest floors and put them in one's pockets in the uncertain hope that business instincts will leave alone a few forests and a few tigers.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 11, 2005)
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