Picture this. A young(ish) sociologist/anthropologist. His accommodation, a hut in a tiger reserve in Nepal. His assignment is to analyse the impacts of wildlife on the people who live on the outskirts of the reserve. He sits at his desk about to write up the day’s notes. It’s quite late because there had been a festival at a nearby village and he had gone to that to understand some more about the ways local people live. The festival was a celebration of the forest and so it was an important one to get a sense of people’s connections to their forest. It had been a full moon (hence this particular festival), and he had returned to his room by its light, through this forest that was lit by the silver of the moonlight.
His thinking, gained from far-away Australia and framed by Western values of national parks, tiger protection and conservation, was that things needed to be done to protect the reserve, the forest and the national parks from the impacts of people.
As he sat at his desk, the yellow light of the kerosene lamp lighting his notebook, staring out the window at the blue-bucks grazing on the grasses, he thought two things in quick succession. The first was: ‘This is what fieldwork is like’ – a somewhat romantic notion of the field that had been instilled into him from the early days of studying, reading reports of fieldwork by anthropologists and, of course, the totally romantic scene that he was part of – village festivals, jungle, kerosene lamps, wildlife, saving the tiger.
The second thought was his ‘oh my God’ moment. He thought: ‘It’s not the wildlife or the forest that needs protecting, its the local people.’
It was at that point I really, really understood. I understood that local people live with wildlife and that it comes at a cost to them. I understood that the cost of conservation is not shared equally, that whilst we may want to, and should want to, protect tigers and forests and other species, local populations often bear the cost – a cost they can ill-afford.
And perhaps most of all, I understood that life is complicated. Seeing tigers in the wild is spectacular, but it doesn’t do justice to the complex economic, political, cultural and historical connections that people have with their forests, their landscapes and their livelihoods. All the tiger ecology in the world will not save them until all this other stuff gets understood and sorted.
There has been a man-eater attacking villagers, which by all accounts has come out of Corbett Tiger Reserve (a reserve a know a bit). The tiger has taken something like 8 or 9 people over a few months. One of the people was taken when he was in his field at night trying to keep the deer, monkeys and pigs out of his crops. You just can’t win – spend the night in the field to keep the animals out of your crops so you can get an income, and then get taken… Its a reminder of the delicate balance, and the bearing of costs. You can have a read here