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Introducing tigers in Kumbalgarh extremely risky: Researchers forewarn Rajasthan CM

By Rosamma Thomas* 
On November 8, 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on television to announce the demonetization of all Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, it was unclear on whose advice he was acting. It later became apparent that the move was a disaster, wrecking the economy, causing needless death and livelihood loss while not achieving any of the aims initially listed as the purpose of the move. The plan to introduce tigers in the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary could have similar consequences, and the state government has been forewarned.
On August 22, 2023, Meenal Tatpathy of Pune-based NGO Kalpavriksh and Hanwant Singh Rathore of the Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan, an NGO that has been working among pastoralists in Pali district, around the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, wrote to Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot explaining why the plan to introduce tigers in Kumbhalgarh is doomed to failure. Local media reported that Union minister for environment, forests and climate change Bhupendra Yadav had announced on a social media platform that approval for a tiger sanctuary at Kumbhalgarh had been granted. 
Rathore and Tatpathy, in a detailed letter, note that no formal announcement of such plans were made by the state government, although reports in the media and action on the ground indicated that such plans are being implemented. They note that the last tiger in the area was shot in 1961, in the Todgarh-Raoli area. Local residents have never seen a tiger, and the region is better known for leopards, bears and wolves. The striped hyena and the almost-extinct caracal too have been sighted, and the area ought to be conserved for the sake of these species, they write.
They note that the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary is unsuitable for tigers – it is a small sanctuary, only a couple of kilometres in width at certain places. The terrain is steep, and totally devoid of prey species. It is also not connected to corridors that could support the movement of tigers, which roam vast distances. To address the problem of the lack of prey base, a ‘herbivore enrichment centre’ has been set up, where deers are raised in captivity for release into the wildlife sanctuary. 
The government has also drawn up plans for evacuating villages – there are 24 villages within the boundaries of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, and 27 inside the Todgarh-Raoli Wildlife Sanctuary. More than 250 villages in the periphery are likely to be affected too. 
Besides the Bhil, Meena and Gharasia tribal communities, the non-tribal Raika, Rajput and Meghwal communities have lived in the area for centuries, keeping livestock, engaging in agriculture, using forest produce and forging deep ties with the landscape. These communities are mobilizing too, in protest. 
On August 24, a large gathering of tribal communities held a protest in Rajsamand and submitted a petition to the district collector, seeking to protect their lands and rights. In other parts of the world, the wisdom of allowing such communities to husband natural resources is now gaining legal protection.
Tribal communities have protested in Rajsamand and submitted petition to district collector, seeking to protect their lands and rights
An expert committee under the National Tiger Conservation Authority had earlier submitted a report on the feasibility of a tiger reserve in Kumbhalgarh (that report, however, has not been made public). Tatpathy and Rathore note that the committee visited the area in September 2021, covering 260 km of the sanctuary in two days. They held on video conference with local forest officials, and one physical meeting. 
Rathore and Tatpathy note in their letter to CM Gehlot: 
“The committee also claimed to have collected ‘feedback’ from local villagers by distributing survey forms about their attitudes towards a tiger reserve. Despite these serious lacunae of limited time and no direct interaction with locals, the committee has recommended the phase-wise creation of a tiger reserve by expanding the area, relocation of villages and increasing prey base. We would like to point out that this process shows a complete lack of any scientific or objective criteria adopted by the expert committee to provide these suggestions.” 
Even though some villagers have been granted individual forest rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006, the process of granting such rights has not even commenced in several of the villages in this area. The bulk of the individual forest rights currently granted are faulty, since the title is for less land than was claimed, and no physical markers exist for land to which titles were granted. 
Unless these rights and all appeals are formally settled, relocation of villagers or restricting access to forest resources are illegal, under Section 4 of the Forest Rights Act. At least 23 villages have so far sent resolutions opposing the tiger reserve.
The tiger is the apex predator, and it is argued that conserving this species in the wild would lead to a conservation of nature in general. India is home to three quarters of the world’s tigers. It would be inordinately expensive and extremely risky to introduce these cats to regions that have not seen tigers in half a century, while chipping away at already-protected tiger reserves. It would be a pity to allow conservation strategy to be dictated by potential tourism revenue.
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*Freelance journalist

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