Zero-Sum Wild Game

Published by The Economist on November 15, 2013. To read the original article, click here.

"TIGERS and human beings cannot occupy the same space," says Prashanth Kumar Sen, former director of Project Tiger. Human-wildlife conflict arises whenever people and predators share terrain. It is acute in India, where large carnivores like tigers and leopards coexist with dense human populations. Although only 5% of Indian land is classified as protected, India's population of 1.24 billion means that 5m people dwell inside the country’s natural havens.

On November 9th a group of people thought to be affiliated with India’s Communist Party attacked the home of a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) activist in protest against relocation of the inhabitants of Kudremukh National Park, in the south-western state of Karnataka. The WCS has so far paid to move 50 families out of the park. Success of these efforts has led to a flurry of petitions from families elsewhere seeking similar packages. The attack suggests that not everyone is happy.

Law prohibits residents of nature reserves from hunting, fishing, agriculture and livestock grazing. But it is often disregarded, eroding the land and prey that tigers need to survive. This in turn prompts the beasts to raid livestock and destroy crops. In addition to property losses, forest-dwellers risk injury or even death in encounters with the cats. Between 1800 and 2009, tiger attacks are reckoned to have claimed 373,000 human lives across Asia. In India, in the last ten years, 652 people have been killed by wild animals. This led to the retaliatory killing of 100 animals.

Such incidents make the problem seem like a zero-sum game. India's forest can accommodate either man or tiger, but not both. People need a place to live. Tigers need the wild—now more than ever. The animals have roamed the planet for nearly 2m years, but wild populations dwindled by 97% in a century, plummeting from 100,000 in 1900 to around 3,200 today. India, where numbers are more robust than elsewhere and may even be on the rise, is home to roughly half of them.

The Indian Government began moving some families out of tiger terrain during the 1970s. But many of these early relocation efforts were inadequate. They were also often unjust: some people were expelled from their ancestral lands against their will. Ullas Karanth, of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), grew up in India and has studied tigers for decades. In the 1990s he envisioned a win-win solution. He began working with NGO partners and led WCS-financed programmes to offer voluntary relocation with fair compensation.

Official implementation of WCS-supported programmes began in 2001, when 419 households traded residence in the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary for land deeds in two resettlement villages (plot size ranged from 0.4 to 4.04 hectares). The Indian Government provided cash compensation and subsidised construction of some homes, though wealthier families asked to cover their own building costs. Even individuals who illegally resided in the forest received land and housing in new villages. Both towns offered amenities like electricity, pumped water at every home and better access to transportation, markets, schools and hospitals.

In June India’s Central Government earmarked 5 billion rupees ($80m) from a government-maintained environmental fund for similar initiatives. While final approval is pending, programmes run by state governments and NGOs continue.

Some human-rights groups claim that relocation puts the needs of wildlife before those of humans and strips forest communities of identity. Proponents of resettlement insist that modern programmes are voluntary and, when properly implemented, beneficial to both animal and man. The problem may indeed be a zero-sum game: but between two sets of humans.