Would You Ditch Your House to Help Out a Tiger?

In a remote region of India, 98 percent of people surveyed said that they would relocate to more urban areas to help rehab the forest habitats of endangered tigers.

(Photo: Andy Rouse/Getty Images)

Feb 10, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Ten years ago, Imam Hussein reluctantly moved his family out of their traditional home in the Terai Arc Landscape, a hilly, forested area of northwestern India, as part of a government resettlement plan to protect tiger habitat. It was a struggle. The move forced the family to give up the buffalo they had depended on for a pastoral livelihood, and though the resettlement put them on a small plot of arable land, they knew nothing about farming.

But the Husseins’ lives have gradually improved: They farm wheat, they own cell phones, and a 12-year-old daughter is in school. The tigers have benefited too. Hussein used to look around his threadbare forest home and recall, with regret, how it had looked when he was a child. Now, when he visits, that lost forest is visibly recovering.

But the most dramatic change is that his fellow Gujjars, who once clung fiercely to their pastoral way of life, now want to follow him out of the forest. In a new study published this month in Biological Conservation (for which Hussein served as a field assistant), more than 98 percent of the Gujjar families surveyed indicated that they would prefer to leave behind their old lives in the forest to take advantage of what the modern world has to offer.

That’s a major change, not just for the Gujjars but perhaps also for the future of the tigers they’ve shared their homes with, and even for the future of wildlife conservation.

“Ten years ago they wanted to stay. Now they want to leave,” says Douglas MacMillan, a coauthor of the new study and a biodiversity economist at the University of Kent. “That’s part of a big global change, and I don’t know if the conservation mind-set has caught on to that.”

The Terai Arc Landscape is a 2,700-square-mile sliver of hills and mountains, as high as about 7,500 feet, four hours north of New Delhi. It’s best known for two protected areas, Rajaji National Park and Corbett Tiger Reserve, and for two Hindu pilgrimage sites. It’s also home to 6.7 million people and 227 tigers.

To put that in perspective, we’re talking about an area half the size of Connecticut with twice the human population. (Just for fun, imagine the hedge fund managers in Greenwich having to live side by side with all those tigers, not to mention the leopards.) Conflicts with the tigers are inevitable, and locals have sometimes committed retaliatory killings or collaborated with poachers supplying the Chinese folk medicine market. Tigers, in turn, sometimes kill people.

But the plan now is to increase the area’s tiger population by about 50 percent. The multinational Tiger Summit 2010 set a goal of doubling the number of tigers in the wild by 2022. (There are currently fewer than 3,600 wild tigers surviving across Asia, most of them in India, occupying just 7 percent of their former habitat.) Biologists say the Terai landscape, if managed properly, has a carrying capacity of 381 tigers. The challenge is how to fit them in.

The new study, and a companion study of tiger populations in the Terai landscape, are mainly the work of Abishek Harihar, who was a doctoral student at the University of Kent and now works for World Wildlife Fund–India. He says the plan may not be as difficult to implement as it sounds. Most of the Terai’s human population now lives outside the tigers’ preferred habitat, in more urbanized and agricultural landscapes.

Under the most intensive plan, to improve critical tiger habitat it would be necessary to resettle 2,000 Gujjar families. But it might be enough to start by persuading 200 to 300 families to move out of the two main protected areas. And the Gujjars want to go, in part because their living conditions have steadily deteriorated.

In recent years, they have abandoned their old pastoral tradition of migrating from the lowlands into the hills and back with the changing seasons. Staying in the same spot year-round to graze livestock, gather fodder and firewood, and illegally hunt bush meat has battered the habitat. Chital, sambar, and other prey species are in short supply, so tigers and leopards sometimes target livestock, and those losses, generally uncompensated, can be devastating for families. Average daily income is less than $1.25 per capita.

What the Gujjars want now, according to the new survey, is access to basic medical care, education, veterinary care for their livestock, and rural uplift schemes supplied by the government. They’ve seen how the lives of Imam Hussein and others who moved in the earlier resettlement programs have improved. In a cell phone and text message world, they are conscious that only 9 percent of Gujjars can read.

Government programs exist to pay for the relocation, according to Harihar. These programs offer about $1,600 to relocate a family to a roughly four-acre plot within 25 miles of their present home. (In addition, donors can support tiger conservation in the area through World Wildlife Fund and Panthera.) “Everything is there to make this happen,” says Harihar.

But the bigger story may lie in the prospect that the powerful appeal of the modern world, with its educational and other opportunities, will empty the countryside not just in the Terai Arc but in regions around the world. It’s already happening in Europe, where herders and small farmers now abandon a million hectares of marginal land a year, leading to a recovery of wolves, bears, and other wildlife there.

The trend to urbanization could mean rethinking how conservationists go about protecting wildlife. Since the 1990s, conservation groups have typically focused on programs to help people and wildlife coexist in conservation areas, by limiting human exploitation of natural resources and simultaneously supplementing people's income with work at tourist lodges, as rangers, and in micro-industries. But now, says MacMillan, “they don’t want to coexist, for all kinds of reasons. The key point is that people want to resettle.”

That’s not true everywhere, of course. Involuntary settlements from conservation areas still happen, including one that provoked widespread protest last month in the Embobut Forest of western Kenya. “We want people to tell us what they want,” says MacMillan. “They will be partners in conservation. If that means them staying, that’s great too. They tell us what they want, and we tell them what we want, and in that way we can move forward.” But he believes that, as in the Terai Arc, the exodus from the countryside is increasingly voluntary.

If that’s the case, then the best thing we can do for wildlife, paradoxically, may turn out to be making cities more livable.