India Intelligence Report

   Tribal Rights Bill will shrink Forests Further


Satellite imagery shows that human habitation in and on the periphery of forests, encroachment, and illegal logging has reduced forest cover in 11 of the 28 forests and the proposed Tribal Rights Bill (TRB) legalizing forest dwellers land rights will exacerbate this scenario. Wild life activists say that this new bill will increase the pressure on crumbling ecology and undermine tiger conservation efforts. The Indian tiger is hunted for its pelt and bones by politically connected poachers with impunity.

Federal Environment Secretary Prodipto Ghosh claims that poaching of Tigers will not increase with the opening the Nathu-la Pass on July 6 for trade between India and China since the security forces guard the pass and would be trained to identify tiger body parts. He also claimed that the Government has taken several steps to check illegal trade of animal parts, including smuggling of tiger parts like skin and nails. He added that the Chinese government has also implemented laws banning use of tiger parts in medicine and disallowing display of products made by using endangered animals. Despite such claims, independent reports point the other way. While the Government may be well-intentioned and the Chinese Government cooperative, lack of enforcement on the ground makes laws useless and tiger poaching continues unabated.

While poaching is an immediate threat for tiger conservation, habitat loss is of far serious consequence because regenerating and improving destroyed habitat is difficult if not impossible. Ghosh conceded that the Sariska National Park in Rajasthan is no longer fit to be home to tigers because invasive human presence and thinning green cover has completely destroyed the natural habitat of the tigers. Commissioned by the Federal Environment and Forest Ministries, the Wildlife Institute of India’s ecological analysis of the reserve finds that not only had Sariska lost almost 11 square km of forest cover, tigers have not been able to reproduce in the park for the last seven to eight years.

The TRB seeks to grant legal rights to tribals residing in forest till 1980 and up to 2.5 hectares where they are living right now. Government estimates that two million people live inside forests and some in the core areas of national parks. The TRB will grant them permanent right to residence in the forests and independent experts say that a significant part of forest land will be diverted for granting legal rights to tribals. Their dependence on forests and economic aspirations are worrying conservationists trying to keep tiger habitats free from human interference. Further, there is fear that illiterate and unarmed tribals may be forced out their land by poaching and land mafias thus subverting the fundamental assumptions of the bill.

The Forest Survey of India reports that Tiger reserves of Nameri, Manas, Indravati, Buxa and Dampa have showed a significant loss of forest cover while Bandipur-Nagarhole, Dudhwa-Katarniaghat, Kanha, Pakhui, Palamu and Sundarbans are also showing declining trends in forest cover. These reserves are under threat from human habitations within and outside the reserve, encroachment and cattle grazing. For the first time, the report showed loss of forest in a 10 kilometers (km) radius from the periphery of reserves. Conservationists say that outer forests health is crucial as it buffers the reserve from external human pressures therefore enhancing the prey base for wild cats. The report also said that of the 11 tiger reserves with shrinking forest cover, the worst ones lost 7 to 45 sq km and the less affected ones by less than 4 sq km.

Detailed analysis has also thrown up natural and unnatural causes for forest cover change. In the Buxa Tiger Reserve, flooding of the river flowing through the reserve caused forest decrease during 2000-2002. However, it is not clear whether the flooding was natural or manmade. In Nameri, Manas, Indravati, Kanha, and Palamu Tiger Reserves illegal logging and encroachment are seen as primary reasons for forest cover shrinkage. In Dampa and Pakhui Tiger Reserves, shifting cultivation is cited as the cause. Change in the course of the Mohana River is cited as the likely cause for the shrinkage in Dudhwa-Katarniaghat Tiger Reserve. The decrease in Sundarbans Tiger Reserve was caused by ebb erosion in Mayadweep Island. A rehabilitation centre inside Bandipur Tiger Reserve has caused shrinkage in that forest.

The only Reserves that actually grew in forest cover were the ones at Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Nagarjuna Sagar-Srisailam, Namdapha, and Valmiki where the forest area has increased by up to 7 sq km.