Written by Aditi Patil:
The tiger is an iconic species of the cat family and India is home to the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger. In the first tiger census of 1972, the tiger population in the country stood at only 1827.
The Government of India had to launch a separate scheme called ‘Project Tiger‘ during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure, to protect the species from depleting further.
Several campaigns were launched even after Project Tiger by individuals, Bollywood celebrities and media houses, all stressing the importance of protecting the tiger.
But, who is actually going to save the tiger? Evidence proves that tribal communities are better placed at looking after their environment than anyone else, and are therefore the best guardians to protect the tiger and its forests.
— HISTORY TV18 (@HISTORYTV18) April 1, 2016
The Baiga are an ethnic tribal group living in central India primarily in the state of Madhya Pradesh. They have always lived in and around forests that later became the Kanha Tiger Reserve and its buffer zone. Like the Baigas, many tribes, such as the Chenchu and the Mising, worship the tiger considering it both God and a member of their large spiritual family, which includes other animals such as leopards and bears. The tiger is seen as a companion with whom they share the forest. Marriages in the Baiga community cannot take place without offering prayers to the tiger first.
For several decades, the Baigas were discriminated against and often evicted from forest areas by government agencies. Despite the claims of many conservationists, tribals living in the forests are not a threat to wildlife just like wildlife is not a threat to them. Recognising the important role that tribal communities have in protection of biodiversity, the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) empowers tribals and forest-dwellers habitat rights in forest areas that they have been living in since generations. The Baiga community is one of the 75 particularly vulnerable tribal groups, or PVTGs, who are eligible to get habitat rights under the Act.
The Baigas in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh, were the first ones to have gained the right to their habitat under the law.
Habitat rights under the FRA aim to protect not just land rights and livelihoods of the people living in forests, but encompass their whole culture and way of life. Officials of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, home to around 131 tigers, have admitted that the jungle cannot survive without help from the tribals.
Decades of living in the forests has gifted the Baiga community with exceptional skills of locating animals, identifying threats in the wild and understanding the weather like nobody else. The team at Kanha Tiger Reserve now has 8-10 members in its patrolling team who belong to the Baiga community.
Human presence in the forests is also a deterrent to poachers and the Baigas can immediately spot outsiders. In spite of these ecosystem services, current conservation practices threaten to destroy India’s tribal guardians and their natural heritage by illegally evicting communities from their ancestral homelands. Who is going to save the tiger when the Baigas are evicted from central India’s forests, is a question that we need to ask ourselves.
Aditi Patil is currently employed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change as a young professional. With a Masters in Development Studies, she has previously worked on community-conservation research projects with WWF-India, Columbia University and the Gujarat Forest Department.