Namdapha: can hunter-tribes be protectors?

Today I browsed again the website of the President of India (, hoping to find something on our ST. Sadly, I found the only reference was from the Project Tiger (Union Ministry of Environment and Forest). They are the last government agency we ever wanted to interact with. But then I also read that the researchers for this report are much more objective than the authorities of the Namdapha National Park.

Enjoy your reading and learn the potential policy of the Central Government in the Namdapha National Park.


Source: The Report of the Tiger Task Force: Joining the Dots (Page 65-67), by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (Project Tiger), 2005.

The reserves in the northeastern states of India are vast and inaccessible, low on staff and high on local control. One conservation option here, as elsewhere, is to spread a security blanket around a reserve and protect it with hard action. This model has been successfully tried in Kaziranga national park, Assam, where a low intensity war has been fought between insurgents and poachers versus the government for a period. But even here, the park authorities and the government have worked on reconciling local interests in protection. But there are other reserves where this protection model is not feasible. What, then, are the options?

The 2,000 sq km Namdapha tiger reserve is located in Changlang district, the eastern-most part of Arunachal Pradesh. It was declared a reserve forest in 1970 under the Assam Forest Regulation Act, 1891 (first proposed in 1947), and subsequently a wildlife sanctuary in 1972. It was finally declared a national park in May 1983; two months before, it was declared a tiger reserve. In 1986, a 177 sq km area of reserve forest was added to the tiger reserve and is designated as the buffer zone, while the rest (1,808 sq km) is considered the core zone.

The area has a wide altitudinal range, from 200 m to over 4,500 m. The terrain is steep and inaccessible. The old 157 km Miao-Vijaynagar road runs through the park, though it is motorable only for 26 km up to a settlement called Deban. The park headquarter is at Miao township, with a single functioning range in Deban. Civil supplies to villages located outside the eastern boundary of the park are carried on foot or on elephant back through the park, mostly along the river and parts of the road. Access for tourists, and even park authorities and biologists, is mostly restricted to areas up to 900 m. The interior and higher areas of the park remain unexplored, except by hunters from local communities.

Local communities: the ones who know

The only ones who really know the forest, therefore, are the local communities that walk the forest for hunting and survival. Aparajita Dutta, a wildlife biologist with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), a Mysore-based NGO, has been studying the region for a while, and believes that hunting pressures on the region are extreme and it is only these hunting communities in the region that really know the forest.

The region is home to several indigenous tribes. Beyond the southeastern boundary of the park (at 80 mile) are 13 villages with 673 households and a population of 5,147. There are four Lisu villages in Vijaynagar circle — these adjoin the park and have 403 households (population 2,600) — and nine other villages of Nepali ex-servicemen with a population of about 2,018; these ex-servicemen had been settled here by the government after 1962. Apart from this, there are other tribal and non-tribal government department staff and personnel of the Assam Rifles and the Indian Air Force.

The Lisu, also referred to as Yobin by some communities, are agriculturalists and also have a reputation of being skilled hunter-gatherers. There is strong resentment, anger, and mistrust against the forest department among most Lisu. Their biggest grievance is that the creation of the park and demarcation of the boundary in 1983 was carried out without any consultation with them, and there was no settlement of rights. Many insist that the area between Deban and Gandhigram is their area and that they had no idea when the national park was created. For instance, most Lisu believe that the biggest hurdle to building the arterial road (which they see as crucial to their development) has been the forest department — it was responsible for stopping road repair and maintenance in 2000. There is also resentment as they believe the forest department has portrayed the Lisu as “illegal settlers who have encroached the area of the reserve from across the international border of the country”.

The field staff strength in Namdapha is very low and they are not trained or motivated; given the poor accessibility, patrolling by the department is restricted to the fringe areas. There are merely 22 sanctioned posts of forest guards to manage and protect 1,985 sq km. Of these 22 posts, only 11 are filled. This effectively means one person per 180 sq km. In contrast, Kaziranga national park in Assam, a model of successful protection through enforcement, has 500 forest guards for 800 sq km (one guard per 1.6 sq km) on flat lowland terrain with numerous ranges, beats and forest camps. In Namdapha, there is a complete lack of basic facilities and of support from local police and administration. Most staff are outsiders; not a single Lisu is currently employed in the department. The headquarters in Miao is 10 km from the park boundary with a single range at Deban. Currently, no staff is posted at some of the accessible temporary camps. Even to patrol this relatively accessible area, the staff depends on boats to cross the river and rations have to be carried there. Often during the monsoon when the river is in spate, it is dangerous to use the boats and staff has been stranded on the other side for days with no food. In the absence of regular staff presence and patrolling, hunters often use these forest camps.

The crisis…

Consequently, the park is in a state of crisis. Researchers believe tigers have all but disappeared from the reserve, though information remains unverified. Hunting continues unabated and a resilient and enterprising community turned destitute and desperate by the creation of the park looks upon the ‘park’ (not the forest) with animosity. At present, there is a stalemate. The state is unable to increase the strength of the staff.

Even if the forest department does get additional resources, it will be handicapped without knowledge of the park. The immediate need to ensure wildlife conservation in Namdapha is protection from hunting, fishing and other kinds of disturbance.

…and its solution

Most Lisu today view the park as the biggest barrier to their aspirations and the root of all their problems. They are bearing all the costs of conservation. They have poor relations with the department, which sometimes result in retaliatory hunting, and this needs to be remedied through dialogue and better communication. However, if they can get tangible benefits, there could be a positive attitudinal change.

A solution to the agricultural land problem of the Lisu is also urgently required to stop the influx of Lisu families settling inside the park. A realistic relocation/resettlement plan has to be made in consultation with and the agreement of the Lisu. There is a need to find alternate employment options and opportunities for the Lisu, some of which (such as eco-tourism) could be tied to the national park. The Lisu community’s support for the park would go a long way in ensuring wildlife conservation as they can themselves work either directly as guards and informers (about hunting activity) in the forest department, or through support from other organisations. Once they have a stake in the area, there will be a much better understanding of the need for conservation there.

The Nature Conservation Foundation, which has been working in the area for several years, has already launched a plan on these lines. The plan, in principle, is simple and based on the logic the existing social and ecological set-up demands. It proposes a creation of a protection force for the reserve that is based upon the talent and knowledge of the community. This requires creation of a trained force of Lisu hired by the forest department and working in collaboration with the department to monitor the biodiversity as well as accord protection to the area. The Nature Conservation Foundation suggests a way to reduce the burden of hiring and maintaining such a force: investments can be made to bolster the tourism infrastructure, and the revenue from tourism can be shared with the community.

Eco-tourism is the most tangible benefit the Lisu can get out of the park; through eco-tourism, they can create a direct and positive affiliation with the park as well as a case for protection of wildlife. Tourist inflow into the park is right now relatively low. But the area is known to bird watchers around the world and needs to be marketed and projected as a unique destination. Most Indian tourists are from Assam and only visit Deban, which is seen more as a picnic spot. Infrastructure and other tourist facilities are, as yet, limited to Deban. Building the tourism system is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one; it is easily more viable than positioning more guards and infrastructure in that region. Moreover, the investments made in tourism will be of the nature of capital investments, leading to revenue generation for the cash-strapped department as well as sustainable livelihoods for the people. Such investments, in a climate of political volatility and rising unemployment, are the need of the hour: to invest in creating livelihoods rather than than in bringing in more administration, guards, arms, ammunition which encourage attendant alienation of the people.

The Task Force has received representations from the Nature Conservation Foundation. Its researchers have been engaging with Project Tiger officials as well, to see how the initiative, at present a private one, can be up-scaled into an official mascot for Project Tiger to experiment as an alternative.

This will require the following at the minimum:

  • A formal pact of reciprocity between the Lisu and the forest department with consensus being the binding element;
  • A clear delineation of rights, privileges and benefits for the people even before such a pact is prepared; A clear benchmarking of indicators to monitor the health of the habitat as well as the effectiveness of the Lisu protection force;
  • A collaborative effort between the state, the communities and interested research groups to spearhead the effort; clear demarcation of roles, and responsibilities between the stakeholders;
  • A definitive time frame to set forth this process and, thereafter, to review the effectiveness and look for mid-course corrections if necessary.

While all this is easily done on paper, at the field level it demands the best of staff and the most motivated of personnel. Therefore, both the people as well as the forest department need to be given adequate training in setting up an experiment that demands skills to manage the protection force as well as run it as a profit-making exercise.

But it clearly needs to be encouraged, because unless we experiment and innovate, how will we succeed?

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