The paradoxes surrounding India’s tiger reserves: Tribal rights being lost

Conservation policies detrimentally impacted Tribal communities 50 years after a key programme on tiger conservation was launched.

IndiaSpend found through a variety of data sources and from visits to tiger reserves in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra; that although the country’s tiger population has grown over the past fifty years, this increase has come at the expense of people losing their traditional homes.

In 2023, India celebrated 50 years of tiger conservation. In order to create tiger reserves throughout the nation, the then government launched Project Tiger in 1973. Nine reserves in nine states were initially covered by the program. According to a government news release dated July 2023, “the project has flourished into a remarkable accomplishment with 53 reserves spread across 75,796 km2, effectively covering 2.3% of India’s total land area.”

According to a recent tiger census published by the government in April 2023, at least 3,167 tigers are thought to be present in India. Later, in July, camera and non-camera trapping estimations were used to revise this figure to 3,925, which is the estimated upper limit. Compared to the most recent estimate of 2,967 for 2019, this represents an increase.

However, a 2013 Lok Sabha reference note estimates that 600,000 forest residents were uprooted from their homes in roughly 50 years and 2007 as a result of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.

*Tigers in, people out*

The events at Mudumalai are indicative of the situation surrounding tiger reserves and national parks throughout India. Modi had also visited Bandipur, which was turned into a tiger reserve in 1973 as a part of Project Tiger. The state has relocated at least 417 families from the central region since it was founded. Sixty-five residents were evicted from their houses in the park in 1993.

According to data from the National Tiger Conservation Authority, as of 2017, state governments have identified 56,247 families in 751 villages and 50 tiger reserves that are located in core or vital tiger habitats as part of “voluntary village relocation.” Of these, the data indicates that 12,327 families in 173 villages have been relocated or resettled.

As a result of rising tourism, more concrete structures have been built in protected areas and community spaces have been encroached upon, forcing away indigenous tribes.

The environment ministry approved 517 projects in 2022 that required the diversion of forest land, several of which were in densely forested areas. In addition, 401 projects received approval in principle. The ministry informed the parliament in August 2023 that during the previous five years, it had accepted 40 out of 53 projects that were proposed in environmentally sensitive areas surrounding protected areas.

The June 2022 judgment of the Supreme Court, which mandated that every national park and wildlife sanctuary have a minimum eco-sensitive zone of one kilometer measured from the delineated boundary of such protected forests, was modified in April 2023. It did so while lifting a complete ban on development and construction activities within ESZs.

These existing and upcoming proposals threaten more people with displacement. Moreover geography, as well as land use, is also changing as a result of these projects. Dense forests inside protected areas are being converted into grasslands, and the balance of species’ is being disturbed, people on the ground say. For instance, in some parks, specific flora is planted to attract deer, which are prey for tigers.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority report also acknowledges that extractive industries are causing destruction to the flora and fauna in these areas, including mining-related activities.