Should the poor villagers bear the burden of conserving the world`s critically endangered Sangai?

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By Dr. R. S. Khoiyangbam
Living around protected areas (PAs) often carries a cost. The cost is liable to vary essentially with the individual countries involved, categories of PAs, species conserved and socio-economic conditions of inhabitants besides many other underlying factors. In general, the economic costs incurred are often found considerable to the living standards of the marginalised population in PAs, particularly in developing countries like India. Whereas, the benefits of wildlife protection accrue to the national and global economy, the burdens are often borne by the local poor. The international conservation community at the World Parks Congress in 2003 had voiced in the Durban Accord this concern ‘that many costs of protected areas are born locally – particular by poor communities – while the benefits accrue globally’ (WPC, 2003). In Keibul Lamjao National Park (KLNP), the hardships of co-existing with wildlife ranged from damage of property, denying access to natural resources, restriction to livestock grazing and in some instances, loss of human lives attributed to wild boar attack. Some of the economic cost incurred by local people, worth mentioning are the medical expenses attributed to wild boar attack, opportunity costs associated with land use foregone, transaction costs associated with pursuing compensation, and “hidden” social costs such as diminished states of psychological well being, etc. Economic appraisal of conservation that reconciles competition between wildlife and human is an essential component of any sustainable wildlife management programme and there is greater need of such initiatives in KLNP.

All PAs in the country are much the same, but the KLNP stands out because it is different from the others in more than one. Firstly, KLNP has the uniqueness of being the only known floating wildlife reserve in the world. This has been its strength as well as weakness. The floating vegetative island, locally called as ‘Phum’, is known to support specialised habitat for both aquatic and terrestrial biota and provides significant ecological and socio-economic services. Due to its rich biodiversity and luxuriant vegetative growth, phums, particularly those in KLNP are subjected to rampant exploitation with tangible consequences to wildlife. Detachment and adrift of smaller patch of periphery phum from the main island park, sometimes harbouring wild animals are reported. There are claims that the phums in the KLNP are becoming thinner over the years, this pose a question mark on the long term sustenance of the park itself. Secondly, Loktak Lake, in which KLNP forms a part, is a designated wetland of International Importance (Ramsar site no. 463), based on its high ecological and socioeconomic significance. However, over the years, the unabated human onslaughts on the lake seem to have diluted and eroded some of the basic characteristic features that justify its inclusion in international status. Thirdly, unlike many other National Parks, KLNP is an island of natural habitat for wildlife conservation in a sea of human settlements. Humans have dominated the land and water in the area over generations and their livelihood is closely tied to it. The traditional anthropogenic activities in the area includes primarily subsistence collection of fuel wood, fodder, wild edible plants, housing and thatch material, fishing, etc. The comparatively small size (~ 40 km2) plus the enclosure by villages on all sides make KLNP highly vulnerable to human and livestock interference. Fourthly, Loktak, the then fluctuating floodplain wetland until a few decades ago is today converted virtually into a man-manipulated artificial reservoir rather than man managed natural lake. The Lake is currently in deep ecological crisis and the water bodies are showing sign of near total collapse. Unless remedial measures are taken straightway, we are headed for a major castratrophe.

Historically, the traditions, religious beliefs and cultural attitudes of the Hindu majority society around KLNP make the people more tolerant towards wild animals. Many local people consider ‘Sangai’ to be scared animal. Except for a handful of people indulging in poaching and wildlife crime, majority consider wild animals to be revered and deserve protection. It is but for this patronage and reverence for wildlife, that the critically endangered ‘sangai’ in KLNP survived today. In spite of these good intent and feelings for the animals, the poor and resource dependent peoples are always vulnerable to punishments in the hands of the authorities, largely due to suspect of their credentials. Past experiences in KLNP show that, any incident of wildlife crime is followed subsequently by imposition of strict restrictions on people’s entry into park, depriving the income generation opportunities of the poor and marginalised ones. The situation may turn bad to worse in villages where the local people have no other recourse. Consequently, this results into animosity between Park authorities and the community, bringing the decades-old rift to the forefront. This in the long run may imperil the park authority’s ability to work effectively to conserve wildlife in KLNP. After all, poaching and wildlife related crimes are not restricted to KLNP alone, it is an international issue, prevalent in many PAs worldwide and there is need for finding new ways to counter them. A villager does not understand why the park authorities are hard on poor villagers.

The lives of people in villages around the KLNP turned miserable with increased restrictions on fishing and biomass collection, with the establishment of the KLNP in 1977. This has been further aggravated by the ecological crisis attributed to the change in hydrological regime in Loktak Lake in the aftermath of commissioning of hydropower project in 1983. The impoundment of reservoir water is claimed to have permanently inundated vast tracks of lands and is the cause of recurring floods in the area. However, the local people were debarred from claiming compensation for the submerged lands as most of them have no formal title to the private, ranch and community lands lost. Due to small landholding farm-based incomes and as agriculture provided only one crop the households in KLNP are left with few options worthwhile, other than relying on the immediate economic opportunities present nearby. Any attempts by the park authorities to enforce restrictions on entry into KLNP and resource extraction led to great unrest among villagers and were met with vociferous protests and direct confrontation. Compounded by the effects of unemployment, lack of cash many villagers are compelled to leave their villages in search of work. Some are found attempting to secure their livelihoods through illegal practice of ‘athaphums’ fishing inside the park. However, over the years, the alienation of local people who lost lands and extraction rights culminated into negative attitudes towards KLNP and the park-people relationship has been dismally poor.

The KLNP has a good base of natural resources for fulfilling most biomass needs of the local communities. Other than providing several items for domestic consumption, extraction pressures of some wild edible plants in the park have moved up from subsistence to market level. Wild edible vegetables mainly, Loklei (Hedychium coronarium), Pullei (Alpinia galanga) and Komprek (Oenanthera javanica) are extracted for market and it formed an important source of income for many households in KLNP. An individual can earn around rupees 200 to 300 a day by selling these vegetables in the local market. In villages such as Khordak and Laphupat Tera, female members of more than 90 % of the households are engaged in this occupation. For many of them, it’s a round the year activity and the cash earned the only source of income to sustain their family and sending their children to school. For some underprivileged, it’s a straight away choice between starvation and risk of encountering wild boar, poisonous snakes and harassment by forest guards. Due to their geographical proximity with the reservoir, fishing besides agriculture is an important traditional occupation for peoples around KLNP. Any restrictions imposed on fishing directly affected traditional livelihoods of the fishermen community. However, compelled by necessities of livelihood security, the fishermen continued fishing despite risks of severe fines and punishment from Park authorities.

Wild boars straying out of the KLNP, in nearby agricultural fields and villages are not uncommon in the past. This has been largely contained in the recent decades due to the impoundment of the lake water for hydropower, breaking the wildlife habitat-land continuum by a permanent water boundary. While, wild boars straying out of the park are not a conflict per se, such events are often precursor of human adversaries. Foraging and destruction of rice crops by wild boar were the major issues identified by the agricultural community. Attacks on humans causing fatal injuries are occasionally reported in and around KLNP, but death occurring due to the attacks is rare. Retaliatory killings of the animal were common when the incidents occur outside the park. The loss of life caused by wild boar may not be numerous, but any loss of life is tragic. Financial compensation schemes for victims of animal attacks are not very effective as the processes involved are costly and time consuming and often result in only a small portion of the claims being paid. Thus, people are discouraged. Another minor but significant implication on local people due to establishment of KLNP is the restriction on their mobility. Villagers have to travel more than 40 km to visit relatives on the other side of the park, for a distance of not more than 4 km they travelled before by waterways. The difficulties faced by them today are more linked to lack of proper transportation facilities and the time constraints to spare from their busy work schedule. Livestock is an integral part of the rural livelihood and a source of income for communities around KLNP. Restrictions to livestock grazing have severe consequences in the absence of alternate grazing fields.

In conclusion, it is increasing realised that there is an inherent asymmetry in the costs and benefits of wildlife conservation in PAs. Conservation initiatives taken up in PAs, in delivering the “international public good” value of wildlife, often inflict some local costs that come at the expense of poor peoples’ livelihoods. In KLNP, the marginalised population that lives in close proximity to the park are the hardest hit, but there exist no formal strategies to fully articulate their concerns in terms of resource compensation or sharing the benefits from wildlife. So far, the people whose lives were devastated by the KLNP and hydropower reservoir were less consulted and heard. This imbalance leads to a perception of local people that wildlife is conserved at the cost of their livelihood. This in terms promotes negative attitudes towards wildlife, conservation and KLNP as whole amongst the local people. In order to break this cycle, there is a greater need to protect rural livelihoods, counter balance losses with benefits and foster community-based conservation. The World Parks Congress in 2003, had rightly made the commitment, ‘that protected area management strives to reduce, and in no way exacerbates, poverty’. In fact, resolution of human-wildlife conflicts in KLNP is no longer a choice, it is inevitable. There is an urgent need for a sensitive economic appraisal that reconciles the local community’s demands for biomass and incomes from the park with the requirement of wildlife conservation in KLNP.

Dr. R. S. Khoiyangbam,
PI, ATREE Small Grants Programme
& Lecturer, Department of Environmental Science,
D. M. College of Science, Imphal
E-mail:[email protected]

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