Simanti Lahiri on Indian Tiger Conservation

Simanti Lahiri is a visiting assistant professor of political science at the Villanova University. Her research interests are focused on the politics of South Asia, social movements, political violence and nationalism. She is the author of a book titled, Suicide Protest in South Asia: Consumed by Commitment (2014), which examines the ability of the extreme protest tactics to engender policy change. Lahiri is currently researching a second book project, which compares the influence of social movements on political parties in India and the United States. She holds a Masters in the politics of Asia and Africa from the University of London (SOAS) and a PhD in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


According to sources including The Times of India and National Geographic, India’s conservation of its tigers can be viewed as a success. In what ways have Indian conservation efforts been uniquely successful?

This question is, plainly, harder for me to answer because I am unsure of what other countries have done in terms of their conservation efforts. India, within their own conservation strategy, has been specifically concerned about tigers since the early 1970s. This is one factor. India also links tigers to things like tourism and development.   In addition, certain animals within India are considered to be sacred and the country goes beyond simply conservation efforts or just the idea that we should care about animals. Tigers hold this type of status. For example in the case of the F1 Tigress,  some of the debate surrounding its hunt was that she is a sacred animal and therefore needs protection and so on. While we can say  India has done well, it wasn't doing that well [with regards to tiger conservation] at all when they began. However, with the turn of the 21st century, India has brought itself in line with the scientific community on conservation and they are using more technologically advanced methods for detection and tracking of these animals and so forth.

Tiger attacks on humans have increased in recent years, leading to growing tensions between wildlife conservationists and the public. Have attacks increased due to the conservation efforts and the growth of the tiger population? What are some of the reasons that unwanted encounters with tigers are rising?

From what I understand, first of all, the growth in the population of tigers has definitely increased the interaction between them and humans generally.  But India has also taken a relatively piecemeal approach to environmental problems such as pollution and conservation. For instance, tiger reserves are supposed to be free of human presence and buffer zones and forests corridors are made so tigers can travel. However, tigers are wild. Additionally, there isn't much management of these buffer zones where there are mixed interactions between humans, agriculture, businesses, and forests, all at the same time. And so, while there has been a lot more management of the reserves there has been insufficient management of these buffer zones. This is coupled with rapid urbanization, rapid industrialization, deforestation and a lot of the more systemic issues facing not only India but also the rest of the world.  In terms of environmental degradation, there are consequences of urbanization and deforestation  that lead to a variety of different predators now interacting with humans in a way they never have before. Then there are also a lot of small farms and agricultural lands that aren't well-regulated so there is a lot of settlement on the periphery of these national forests. This type of movement and buildup of towns has exacerbated a problem that is also heightened by the relative success of tiger preservation.

How has the government dealt with victims of tiger attacks? Are these methods effective and adequate?

I think that it is effective and adequate in certain ways and not in others. In the short term, appeasing or helping families that have been affected by tiger attacks is important. India’s government does conduct investigations to figure out whether the human was attacked within the reserve (which is forbidden territory for humans) because they do not get compensated if they were on private land. The issue is that [the government] needs to take a holistic  and comprehensive examination of human and tiger interaction as well as the larger systemic deforestation, urbanization, and rapid movement of population from one place to the other. In terms of environmental policy, which I do know more about, such as the exploitation of rivers and other large-scale state projects, or even Mumbai’s forecasted water crisis -- these are, in part, issues that have been caused by not looking 50 or 100 years into the future, but focusing on short-term problems.. Instead the government often tries to ameliorate problems in an ad-hoc kind of way. Currently it seems that the approach is one where they had a tiger problem and they fixed it except now that the problem has been fixed, relatively speaking, there are new problems. Successful tiger conservation leads to all these other consequences, which were not necessarily things the government had thought of. It is not just India that has these issues. There has been a lot of debates today, worldwide, about the effects of conservation. For example, take the wolf population in the Western United States, which has increased to a point where they are no longer in danger and are now attacking cattle. So, now, people are debating whether they should start hunting them again. This will always be an issue if there isn't education about environmental issues, including the need for biodiversity. Generally you are more likely to get mobs of angry people talking about killing tigers or wolves. More and more of these questions will come up as conservation efforts continue to succeed but also as humans continue to exploit and change the environment around them.

The Indian government’s Project Tiger, which aims to protect the species, has become so successful that the quick growth of the tiger population actually endangers itself. How is India, its government and its public, dealing with the growing interaction between humans and wildlife?

There are as many reactions as there are people in India. It would be impossible for me to claim that I understand everyone in India. However, there is an increasing sense of environmental awareness and environmentalism that has been growing since the 1970s and 80s. This is especially true with the idea that environmental impacts matter not just for humans but also animals and that biodiversity is actually an important aspect of a functioning environment.  Generally that attitude has had significant growth in certain populations in India.  Simultaneously I imagine if one of my relatives were killed by a tiger I would be pretty upset about that. There have been certain cases on land usage and land rights of national forests, which have put emphasis or primacy on the rights of the animal and have sort of disregarded the rights of Adivasis, or tribal populations, who live in those areas. Hence there is a lot of conflict between formal and informal property rights as well as what is the land meant to be used for. Certainly, if you are on the front line or if you are in the community that is being affected by tigers, you would feel frustrated by what seems like an increase of tiger interactions where they have never been before. This is exacerbated by what seems to be a lack of planning on how to deal with it from the government.  The central government of India has started enacting certain standard operating procedures for human-tiger interactions. However, I am not so sure what these procedures are in the different states. This is a relatively new problem. We are still at the start of it and we will be seeing what the resolution will be. We must, certainly, take into account the love of these animals and the ethos of conservation and environmentalism that has grown in India but also the needs of the people who are living in those areas and are affected by such attacks.

What does India need to do to ensure a balance between humans and wildlife?

Based purely on my own research, again, on large state projects, generally speaking, India has to look to a more holistic and comprehensive approach to these issues. It can't be this approach of ‘we're going to fix one problem and not worry about any of the other problems we have created.’ For example, ‘we need more electricity so let’s dam these rivers. But, by the way, people will be displaced and there are environmental impacts and all these other things to consider.’ India needs to start thinking of the environment like a living issue. They need to contend with a myriad of different programs and it can't just be trying to fix one problem at a time because that is not how the environment works. In terms of having the political will to enact something like this, I don't know if the Indian government has the will or the ability to fully enact these kinds of large-scale comprehensive reforms because there are a lot of interests involved. I can only say again that India should take all these issues into account, look beyond just the next five or ten years, and really engage with the problems that it and the world might face in the more distant future.

The recent hunt for tigress T1 has led to some controversy, especially in light of the Indian government’s rejection of the appeal to save its life. Indeed, the government has said that it would not interfere if rangers were forced to kill it while trying to capture it. Why did they come to this decision? Or what should they have done instead?

From what I understand the man-eater category was always a category for tigers from the beginning of Project Tiger. It is very difficult to legally kill a tiger and so the government created this one category [the man eater category] where they could legally do so if it was dangerous. My assumption would be that the government was following this policy, which was already in place. I personally would have thought that it might be better if they had accepted the appeal to save its life because she just had cubs. Killing her would put them in danger. I don't know if they're going to be able to do it anyway because she has been able to escape for five years. It seems that right now is the worst time to try and find  and kill her, in terms of the weather. I am sure that there has been a lot of political pressure on the government to be seen as doing something because she has killed 13 people.  There is a lot of anger from the affected people.  Managing animal population is one way to deal with this problem. This can stop things such as people poisoning carcasses and trying to kill tigers on their own and mob attacks from happening. And so, perhaps, it's just a way to stop this type of reaction from happening.  I don't know what the government could have done other than what it did if they had to follow the actual endangered Species Act or the Act on Tigers. Are there symbolic benefits of saying no you can't kill the Tiger?  Yes, of course, but who are those symbolic benefits being given to and who is the audience for that? Is the audience for the court case?  Is it the environmentalist asking for a safe execution? Or is it the villagers who feel like they are under attack? I think you can probably see the Supreme Court weighing who they were trying to appease.

In light of recent economic growth and development in India, are the people and the government now ready to prioritize environmental conservation and the protection of endangered species?

The answer really depends on what kinds of protection we are talking about and, actually, also what kind of species and where.  India is incredibly regionalized. There are definitely location-specific issues so what might be important in one part of India maybe not as important in another. In terms of environmentalism more generally, there is still quite a clash in state-led projects, which are intended to help economic growth or development but might hurt the environment. For people, like myself, who study environmental movements, conservation is seen as the restoring of nature, or saving a habitat, or some sort of biodiversity. This should not be in conflict  with the need for development, though that is clearly not the case. Conflict between development and conservation, as opposed to trying to stop a project from happening, can lead to a lot more conflict.  I would say that people in India have had their consciousness raised regarding environmental issues starting with the Chipko movement, which is the tree-hugging movement from the 1970s. There has also been a linking of issues of the environment to issues of poverty and hunger. As a result there is an increasing sense that humans also live in this environment that provides clean water, clean air, and food. One of the issues is that there just seems to be insufficient cooperation among different types of people or different groups working in different areas of the environment. It is hard to get people to engage with these kinds of issues. It is much easier to get somebody to think about themselves locally as opposed to globally.  It is always going to be easier to get someone to say ‘not in my backyard’ or ‘save the river by my house’ as opposed to ‘save rivers generally,’ even though that's the same thing. And so we see a lot of this tension between the local and global. This is where there needs to be a way to figure out how to engage or link both development and environment in the more programmatic way.  India has recognized, to a certain extent, that the environment is important. The heat in India over the last summer, the number of deaths from extreme weather and pollution, the fact that it has two of the most polluted cities in the world, and also the ability for India to maybe take on the leadership position when it comes to Global environmental leadership – all this might persuade the state to act. However, there are twin impulses competing in India; on one hand there is development and urbanization and on the other hand there is environmentalism. They are not mutually exclusive impulses but sometimes they are framed that way.  This is the fight that is going to be played out over a number of years as India decides to urbanize and shift from a predominantly agrarian state into a much more urbanized state. It is going to continue to change the environment. India has an opportunity to deal with this from the very beginning and, perhaps, in a better way.  However, so far, it has not been doing that great.  I am skeptical but, then again, this is not an issue that is facing India alone. We see this in developing countries as well as developed countries, especially with climate change being such an important issue.


Claudia Chandra CMC '18Student Journalist

By Dineshkannambadi, ” Indian tiger at Bhadra wildlife Sanctuary, Chikkamagaluru district, Karnataka state, India” via Wikimedia Commons

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