Creating Responsive Conservation Policy
Conservation is a complicated issue, especially when policies are enacted to support large predators and carnivores. The creation of conservation programs for these kinds of animals has been considered by many people to be a “market failure.” Large carnivores tend to impose particular costs on poor communities, such as the loss of human or farmed animal life, and bring many problems associated with their behavior. Where resources are scarce and precious, the lives of large predators are not valued as highly as conservationists might hope. Many of these animals need large “inviolate” tracts of land to be able to thrive, and, as the local people are usually in direct competition with large predators for resources, sometimes humans need to be displaced to achieve conservation goals.
Of course, displacement of local people is a controversial practice for a number of reasons, such as “fairness” and the cost associated with such programs. Still, researchers note that such schemes can lead to the most favorable outcomes for carnivore conservation. For relocation programs to be successful, they require the sustained and constant engagement of local communities, and this means that conservationists and governments need to manage and fund such programs in an engaged, sustainable way. It is not an easy task, especially in developing countries where resources are already scarce and priorities often lie elsewhere.
This study looks specifically at the conservation of tigers in Northern India and tries to understand where past conservation programs have fallen short. In the mid-2000s, there was a contentious battle over land in Northern India as conservation efforts tried to create inviolate tracts of land where humans were excluded so that tigers could thrive. It was a highly antagonistic time in conservation, and, in addition to tension among locals and conservationists, the program actually led to the emergence of wide-range tiger poaching in the region. It was a debacle on many fronts. To try to remedy this, researchers took a different approach and explored a two-prong strategy: coexistence, where local livelihoods could be sustained in exchange for “minimizing any deleterious impacts on tigers;” and the creation of inviolate conservation areas through the resettlement of local populations where coexistence might not be feasible. The authors of this study wanted to discover what kind of trade-offs pastoralist communities are willing to make to advance conservation while still making a living themselves.
Contrary to the widely-held belief that indigenous communities do not wish to resettle, this research found that people in the pastoralist region studied (the Gujjars) showed a strong preference for resettlement. The authors say that documented opposition to resettlement is often based on instances where there have been forced evictions or a “mishandled, non-participatory” processes. When presented with a resettlement policy that was sensitive and well-structured, the Gujjars were favorable to the idea. However, the researchers note that this may be because of a possible decline in the traditional “Gujjar way of life.” It could also be due to (failed) resettlement programs in previous years having prepared the Gujjars to accept more well-managed policies.
While this case study shows that resettlement programs can work in certain contexts and with specific management procedures, the researchers note that “no study has systematically addressed the socio-cultural impacts on the community post-resettlement in terms of changes in general well-being, their cultural practices and interactions with other communities.” This is a major gap in the study of conservation, and, considering the depth of the potential costs for local communities, it’s a factor that needs addressing quickly. Making sure that local people are engaged rather than alienated can make all the difference in the success or failure of a program like this. For advocates, this study serves as a reminder that conservation policy (and any other form of animal advocacy) often needs to be responsive to humans if it is to succeed.