BENGALURU, India (AP) — It was a celebratory atmosphere for officials gathered just hours away from several of India’s major tiger reserves in the southern city of Mysuru, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Sunday, to standing ovation, that the country’s tiger population had grown. steadily. to more than 3,000 since the pioneering conservation program began 50 years ago after fears of dwindling big cat numbers.
Modi declared, “India is a country where protecting nature is part of our culture.” “And that’s why we have so many unique achievements in wildlife conservation.”
Modi also launched the International Big Cat Coalition which he said would focus on protecting seven species of big cats, namely the tiger, lion and cheetah.Snow leopard, puma, jaguar and leopard.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, protesters tell their stories of how they have been displaced by wildlife conservation projects over the past half century, with dozens demonstrating about an hour away from the announcement.
Project Tiger began in 1973 after a big cat census found tigers to be rapidly becoming extinct through habitat loss, unregulated sport hunting, increased poaching and retaliatory killings by people. The number of tigers is believed to have been around 1,800 at the time, but experts widely consider this to be an overestimate due to imprecise counting methods in India until 2006. Laws have tried to address the decline, but the conservation paradigm has centered around creating protected reserves where ecosystems can to work without hindrance. by people.
Many indigenous groups say conservation strategies, which have been heavily influenced by the American environment, mean uprooting many communities that have lived in the forests for thousands of years.
Members of several indigenous groups or Adivasi – as the country’s indigenous people are known – have set up the Nagarahole Adivasi Forest Rights Foundation Committee to protest evictions from their ancestral lands and seek a voice in how forests are managed.
said JA Shifu, 27, who belongs to the Geno Kuroba tribe. “We have lost all rights to visit our lands, our temples, or even collect honey from the forests. How can we continue to live like this? “
Jenu, which means honey in the South Indian Kannada language, is the tribe’s primary source of livelihood as they collect it from beehives in the forests to sell.
Fewer than 40,000, the Jinu Koroba are one of the 75 tribal groups that the Indian government classifies as particularly vulnerable. Adivasi communities such as Jenu Kurubas are among the poorest in India.
Some experts say conservation policies that attempted to protect pristine wilderness were influenced by prejudices against local communities.
The Indian government’s Department of Tribal Affairs has repeatedly said that it is working on adivasi rights. Only about 1% of the more than 100 million Adivasi in India have been granted any rights over forest lands despite the government’s Forest Rights Act, passed in 2006, which aims to “repeal historical injustices” to forest communities.
Meanwhile, India’s tiger population is booming: the country’s 3,167 tigers account for more than 75% of the world’s wild tiger population.
Tigers have disappeared in Bali and Java and China’s tigers are likely to be extinct in the wild. The Sunda Island tiger, the other subspecies, is found only in Sumatra. India’s Project to Protect Them has been hailed by many as a success.
“Project Tiger hardly has a parallel in the world because a scheme of this magnitude and scale has not been successful anywhere else,” said SB Yadav, a senior Indian government official in charge of Project Tiger.
But critics say the social costs of maintaining forts — where forest departments protect wildlife and keep local communities from entering forest areas — are high.
The conservation model is outdated, said Charachandra Lilly, of the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Research Fund on Ecology and Environment.
“There are already many examples of forests being actively used by local communities, and the number of tigers has actually increased even as people in these areas have benefited,” he said.
Vidya Athria, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society of India who has been studying interactions between big cats and humans for the past two decades, agreed.
“Traditionally, we always put wildlife before humans,” said Atharya, adding that engaging with communities is the way forward to protect wildlife in India.
Shivu, of the Jenu Kuruba tribe, also wants to return to a life where Aboriginal and tiger communities live together.
“We consider them gods,” he said, “and we are the guardians of these forests.”
Aniruddha Gosal contributed to this report in New Delhi, India.
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