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WWF scandal (part 6): Evictions of indigenous peoples in India for tiger tourism

2015-07-23-120200_1054x1026_scrotFrench TV channel Canal Plus recently broadcast an investigation into mass tourism company Nouvelles Frontières. The programme includes a visit to the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh state in India.

Canal Plus reports that at least 22,000 people have been evicted from three tiger reserves on Nouvelles Frontières’ tour, about half of them from Kanha. Indigenous peoples are kicked out of the tiger reserve, but tourists are welcomed.

Here’s the Canal Plus documentary (in French). The report about Kanha starts at 37 minutes 18 seconds. Survival International has produced an unofficial English translation of the part of the programme about Kanha Tiger Reserve.

In 2012, India’s Ministry of Forests produced a report about planned evictions from tiger reserves. Canal Plus obtained a copy of the confidential report, which documents how many people would be evicted.

Canal Plus contacted the Ministry of Forests, but received no reply.

WWF provides infrastructural support, training and equipment for staff in Kanha Tiger Reserve. WWF’s panda logo is displayed at the entrance to the reserve:


Canal Plus’ journalists met with Yash Shethia, Associate Director of WWF-India’s Species and Landscapes Programme. Shethia does not condemn the evictions:

    Reporter: Do you agree to say, today, as a representative of WWF, that you strongly condemn the resettlement of the villages. Like those that took place in the Kanha Reserve, for example.

    Yash Shethia: I would not put it like that. But we don’t encourage them. Under no circumstance do we support the resettlement of villages.

    Reporter: But are you opposed to it?

    ShethiaYash Shethia: Well we think that there’s a greater mission. If we engage with the authorities on six cases and we don’t share their point of view on one of them, why should we suspend the rest of our engagements, to the extent that we work with endangered animals?

    Reporter: Because this case in particular affects thousands of human beings – it’s not a small problem.

    Yash Shethia: “Obviously we’re putting all our effort into this case. You may not see what’s going on, it may not be obvious in every place but, very clearly, our colleagues on the ground are sending on our messages.

    Reporter: Thank you very much for your time and for answering these questions.

In 2012, Survival International filmed some of the Baiga tribe who then lived in Jholar village, inside the Kanha Tiger Reserve. Canal Plus reports that “this tribe is thought to have lived in this jungle for more than 20,000 years”.

In January 2014, Survival International reported that the Baiga had been forcibly and illegally evicted from their homes in Kanha. Canal Plus’ journalists visited the families after the evictions. They are living next to a road on the outskirts of a town 30 kilometres from the forest. Their new houses have no electricity and no drinking water.

Sukhdev, one of the men who spoke to Survival International in 2012, was killed after the eviction. His body was found after he tried to buy some land. In 2012, Sukhdev had said,

“We won’t find another place like this. How will we set up home there? How will we raise our children? We need our fields and homes… Won’t we die?”

Sukhdev’s brother, now living at the side of the road, told Canal Plus,

“You know, my brother had said everything in this video. That we wouldn’t leave the village. That we would not go anywhere else. We were one of the last families to resist. But the people from the reserve forced us to leave. They told us they’d take care of us for three years, but they didn’t do a thing. Even when my brother was killed, no one came to help us.”

Tourism in India’s tiger reserves has increased dramatically in recent years, to the point where it is threatening the tigers.

In 2013, Suhas Kumar, Additional Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), published a study he carried out in a personal capacity on the impact of tourism in India’s tiger reserves. Kumar points out that in Kanha and other tiger reserves, “ongoing practices and management … make tourism incompatible and detrimental to the primary objective conserving tiger”.

[R]apid escalation in visitor numbers in Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench tiger reserves and the resultant crowd, noise and litter is eroding the very sense of wilderness that visitors long to experience. On the other hand unplanned large scale construction of luxury resorts, hotels and dhabas along the periphery of the core zones hamper free movement of tiger by blocking open spaces thus adversely impacting the corridor functions of buffer forests.

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said,

“So-called ‘conservation’ continues to destroy tribal peoples as it has for generations. They’ve never threatened the tigers, who would do better if the tribes remained and the tourists stopped. Tribal peoples are generally better conservationists anyway than industrial-sized NGOs like WWF which stand by in silence while the parks forcibly evict people like Sukhdev and his family. It’s time these evictions are stopped and this scandal exposed.”


PHOTO credit: Survival International.

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  1. Kanha and Bandhabgarh are celebrities among Indian forests, so far as tiger tourism is concerned. But tiger reserves in India are full of scams of various kinds.

    Like several other reportedly tiger-bearing tiger reserves in India, Buxa Tiger Reserve on the Indo Bhutan border in West Bengal is a scam of the first order. Recently it surfaced that the reserve does not have a single tiger left. The park managers and the concerned Minister have unilaterally decided that tigers have disappeared because of the presence of human habitations inside the reserve: to make the Tigers reappear, the villages must disappear. They say this brazenly, without scientific data of any kind, and forgetting in the process that moving villages/humans out of their forest habitat is now legally subject to written community approval, and a host of other pre conditions, after the Forest Rights Act came into being.

    Let me try to tell the story of Buxa briefly here: it’s so typical. I have known those forests for more than three decades now, first as a tourist, then as a film-maker and wild lifer, and finally as an activist working with the indigenous forest villagers there.

    Most probably, tigers disappeared from the area somewhere between 2000-2010, though in 2010, I heard indigenous Rava villagers’ talking emphatically about at least one big tiger around Poro village, which is located on the fringe of the forest. Perhaps the last tiger of Buxa (a male)roamed there, looking for cattle.

    Why did tigers disappear from Buxa? They were there,surely, though there was no point in talking about scats and pugmarks etc,in making a somewhat close guess about tiger numbers, let alone determining a exact figure. I know what I saw myself: from 1988 to 1997, pugmarks in the soft sand of Bala river, sometimes quite fresh, sometimes older. Bala riverbed was the best place in Buxa to find tiger signs, it had a goodish stretch of soft and sometimes marshy sand running across the breadth of the Park. I have seen tiger marks in other areas, too, for instance near Jayanti, in Panabari and Pokhri. But Bala was the best spot.

    Ironically, Buxa was the biggest revenue earning forest division in the state–it was also the biggest producer of timber. Which means that forest villages were thriving settlements there, with a lot of logging and plantations. In addition, there were dolomite mines. Which means more people still. The forest area was ringed by innumerable villages and tea gardens, all densely populated. And yet, tigers could be felt,heard and seen–there might be serious doubts about the 33+ tigers the department claimed for the entire 789 sq. km area in 1988-1989(the official notification for the reserve came around 1983), but I knew, and so did all forest villagers there, that tigers existed.

    As organised forestry activities dwindled post 1990,a whole body of outside contractors with their cheap labour force(all outsiders) ate away the major part of the remaining jobs(like logging, loading), and most significantly, Buxa metamorphosed into a full blown tiger reserve from the yesteryear’s biggest timber yielder, tigers started to disappear. One evident correlation between aggressive ‘wild-lifing'(no forestry activities, no dolomites, no boulder lifting from rivers) and the disappearance of tigers is that deliberate and thoughtless choking of all kinds of livelihood opportunities had immensely affected the standing vegetation. The so-called ‘illegal’ logging increased manifold, and forest villagers got involved en masse in the process,which until then was controlled mostly by outsiders(political leaders turned into timber mafia). The result was destruction–I saw entire stretches of semi-evergreen/moist Sal forests of Buxa vanish from prime areas like Poro, Nimati, Garam, Damanpur, Panbari and so on. Habitat loss on a grand scale, an ever-diminishing prey base(it was never large to begin with, Buxa tigers kept on lifting cattle), and last, but not the least, poaching. This intensified in the Assam-North Bengal Buxa forests adjoining Manas ever since armed Boro militants started targeting wild life. As a result of all these, within a span of a bare 10-15 years, tigers became locally extinct, a species which survived more than 150 odd years of organized logging,forest burning,mining and all such disruptive and destructive activities.

    In my opinion, tiger conservation killed the tiger in Buxa. The whole thing was so utterly meaningless! Now it’s a question of conservation money–it will stop flowing if there are no tigers, and also, the officers have to save their hides. Blame somebody, then. The villagers are the best scapegoats. Also, as we all know, relocation means money.

    As the scandal over one more tigerless tiger reserve gathers steam, the forest villagers are on the warpath. At a time when there is at least some effort on behalf of the communities to save the forests, they are not going to take such foolish and libellous drivel lying down, or so I gather from friends in Buxa.

    I also request everyone to see our film on Buxa, “The Tiger Game”, which is now available in Vimeo:

    The film, which took more than 10 years to make, bares the essential paradox of wild life conservation in a natural landscape which has been industrialised and commercialised thoroughly, and also the extreme brutality the forest staff had inflicted upon the villagers.

    I feel so bad about Buxa: the forests,the tigers, the people. And I feel angry: with greedy politicians,mindless and often inhuman bureaucrats, and our sonetimes well-meaning but ultimately extremely damaging, conservationists.

    Whatever has happened and is still happening need not have happened at all.