Charismatic Megafauna

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Late in December we spent the day at Keoladeo National Park, in Rajasthan, formerly the Bharatpur wildlife sanctuary, where we encountered our first python and jackal and identified more than thirty-five species of birds, including Dusky eagle owls (two chicks and a mother in a nest), a Night jar, Bul buls, a White Throated Kingfisher, a Pygmy woodpecker, Ruddy shelduck, and a group of Sarus cranes.

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It’s now late in March and we are on the road to Ranthambore. And like most people, we’ve come to with the hopes of seeing a tiger. It’s five hours from Jaipur to this well-known wildlife park in Southeast Rajasthan. We are comfortable in a cool white Ambassador, bumping along over what can only be described as a terrible road. The usual disregard of traffic rules and lanes is prevalent out here on the open road, with goods carriers filling both lanes, and smaller cars, horns blaring, passing the trucks and slower cars. A two wheeler slides by occasionally, and camels with carts slow the procession as we pass through small, dusty villages.

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About twenty-five percent of visitors to Ranthambore actually see a tiger. Yet the hotels and nature resorts that line the road to the park suggest that the success rate does not correlate with the number of visitors. We arrive in the afternoon and leap from our air conditioned auto to the open canter that will take us into the park. Two hotel pick ups later we are motoring through a narrow canyon toward the parkland. Hanuman langurs hang in the trees. A mother langur sits with her baby on the stones of a small temple text to the creek. And Ellinore catches a glimpse of a Mongoose.

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When we enter the park, our guide gives us the standard overview of ecosystem as well as a primer on patience. He emphasizes the party line, sitting in the motorized canter and looking out at stone ruins, that this is a natural ecosystem with no human impact. Open every year from October to May, our guide continues, the park sees over 50,000 visitors each year. There are forty vehicles allowed in the park each day, each assigned to one of five areas, he explains. Ranthambore became a wildlife sanctuary in 1955, a part of Project Tiger in 1973, and a National Park in 1981. Today, the Ranthambore reserve is the largest remaining expanse of dry deciduous Anogeissus pendula forest left in India. And it is stunningly beautiful-dry scrub forest, open hillsides, wetlands, old stone walls and ruins. In fact, the forests of Ranthambore were once private hunting reserves of the Jaipur and Karauli royal family, and there are stone ruins scattered throughout the dry scrub forest and wetlands.

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There is much to see in the park: less showy mammals, birds, reptiles, and interesting vegetation. And then, after a couple of hours, a female tiger. She is about one hundred meters away under the shade of a small tree. As we are watching, a spotted deer approached, unaware of the tiger’s presence. As the deer moved across a dry hillside, up a small slope toward the tiger, she takes notice. Her ears fold back, slowly, and her shoulders fall into a crouch. Rebecca and I can’t speak and we both feel tears welling as we watch this huge predator stalk its prey. Suddenly, the wind shifts, and the deer senses the Tiger’s presence. It veers off, calling to alert other animals. When the tigers move through the forest prey species warn others. The urgent calls of Sambar, Spotted deer, and Langur monkeys roll through the forest.

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Later I learn that there are still villages in the park, as well as in the core and buffer zones within the reserve boundaries. The forests of Ranthambore were long managed by the Shikar Khana Department (Hunting Department) of the state and legal hunting continued until 1973. Villages were moved out of the sanctuary and, in 1980, the core of the area was declared a national park. The state then stopped all collection of forest products from the sanctuary and national park lands. Of course the ban on traditional seasonal use of the park flora, as well as stopping the use of parkland for grazing, has affected the local population, as the livelihood of local people depends to a large extent on the resources of the reserve. The consensus seems to be that cutting of wood for fuel and habitat loss is the result of ecologically insensitive villages. This appears to be the perspective of our guide, in fact.

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And yet throughout India, people have been living in the villages, as well as with the native tigers, for centuries. Government control of the land has, as many have pointed out, limited access to the land and resources. At the same time, tourism brings tens of thousands of people to the park each year. Lavish hotels cater to the wealthy visitors, essentially shifting the claims of the land from the local people to the visitors. This transfer of control has been furthered by the conservation programs that have sought to preserve habitat for the endangered species. Conservation biologists in India, as Ramachandra Guha observes with some irony, has effectively replaced the colonial civil servant in knowing what is best for the land and how that land would be managed. In fact, as we drive from hotel to hotel to pick up affluent tourists, I think of what the Indian ecologist Raman Sukumar says about the failure to grant local control to the people who live in and around the periphery of parklands. Sukumar writes that “local people see sanctuaries or national parks as simply the pleasure resorts of the affluent.” (The problem is more than evident to me, a student of John Muir, a proponent of wild land who so ably edited out the native people as he constructed his version of wilderness.) And all of us coming to experience wild tigers, hotel compounds catering to the people more affluent than us, the local villagers clearly receiving very little economic benefit. Trickle down my ass.

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The chasm between economic development and tourism in India needs to be addressed if this forest habitat is to be conserved. Otherwise, the incentives shift from sustainable management of a resource to the financial gains of clear cutting and poaching. I’ve just finished reading the writings of Guha and Gadgil, and I recall their story of Bharatpur. In 1982, conservation biologists charged with framing policy recommended excluding traditional grazing practices from the bird sanctuary. The villagers protested, and the police fired and killed villagers. In the subsequent years, as the ban on grazing continued, the populations of water fowl and Siberian cranes declined because cattle grazing had controlled the tall grass that now made it difficult for the migratory birds to forage for insects. Despite the evidence that cattle grazing was beneficial for the park (a park, by the way, that was created out of human-made reservoirs for hunting birds) the scientists refused to lift the ban.

Based on such evidence, Guha and Gadgil propose a wider definition of biological conservation that would minimize future conflicts, retain traditional uses of the forest land, and create within the local populations incentives to value and conserve their biodiversity. They point to the problems with moving in such a direction given the tension in India between aesthetic appreciation of nature and the use of nature for subsistence. The bigger problem, of course, is the bigger problem. The threat to the tiger and to the natural system is not the local subsistence farmers and tribal gatherers. Rather it is the voracious deforestation and dam building (and, as Guha points out, restaurant menus in Beijing and Taipei) that have victimized both the tribals and the tigers. (The areas surrounding the reserve are deforested and Ranthambhore has had numerous problems with illegal poaching of tigers. In 2002 the Park census identified forty tigers. In 2003 and 2004, however, only twenty-six tigers were found in the reserve. The estimate today stands at around forty.) That is, the real problem is the destructive lifestyles that we lead-and that so much of urban India aspires to. As the Indian environmentalist Ashish Kothari reminds us, we seem happy to live in ways that cause far greater destruction to the natural systems around the world than the forest dwellers might ever cause; at the same time, we shamelessly blame these people for practices that destroy habitat.

Later in the afternoon of our first day in the park, after a couple of hours looking for tiger sign and listening for warning calls, we return to the spot where we watched the encounter between the female tiger and spotted deer. And just in time. For the tiger appears not more than twenty meters from where we sit and walks slowly across the hillside in front of us. For a moment all the people straining to see and the impatience and other bothersome human presences in the canter fall away, and it is a wild tiger-walking slowly across the hillside in front of us.

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We decide to take another park tour the next day. And so at 6:30 we are careening down the narrow road in the cool morning air. We are feeling more than a little satisfied, though not quite smug, at having seen a tiger on the first tour. (Remember, the percentage of sightings for visitors is about twenty-five percent.) Our canter is assigned the same section of the park but guides take us to parts of the forest we have not seen. We are entertained by a Tree pie as we wait in the morning sun by tall reeds that fringe the north side of a wetland. We watch spotted deer and Sambar grazing, sure that a tiger is lurking. We then drive back toward the entrance. Then, there is a report from another driver that two tigers are nearby. Again, the urgent movement of all of us in the vehicles drops away as someone says look, there! And sure enough, walking through the forest, near the road, is a tiger. And then another, walking parallel to the road. It’s the time-seems-to-stop thing again as the tigers saunter past, within three or four meters, almost two close, I think, as I somehow manage a sequence of photographs.

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We are lucky to have these experiences, I am thinking, and grateful to be having them with Nathaniel and Ellinore. As I reflect on the park and its problems, I’m also grateful for the many years I spent living and working in and around national parks in the US. For I have developed a tolerance for the human spectacle that unfolds as people are brought in to have a certified experience of the wild. In this case, the experience of being in the presence of a wild tiger was among the most intense I’ve ever had.

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