NEW DELHI — When South Indian wildlife researcher M.D. Madhusudan detected a spike in illegal cattle grazing in the tiger reserves near the coffee plantations of Karnataka state some years ago, he traced the problem to a surprising source: a prolonged drought, not in India, but in Brazil.
With world coffee prices soaring, plantation owners boosted production, and neighboring subsistence farmers left their fields fallow to focus on a far more lucrative product: cow dung. Thanks to globalization, the organic fertilizer for coffee plants now sold at auction like brown gold. The result was tens of thousands more cattle trampling through nominally protected forest, which locals viewed as free pasture, and stripping it bare.
“This was a contingency in the global market that opened up an opportunity for locals here. But the change was so large that the knock-on consequences were pretty serious,” said Madhusudan, who is a wildlife biologist and co-founder of the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation.
With consecutive droughts cutting Brazil's coffee exports by half in the mid-1990s, profits for Indian coffee growers soared by more than nine times, Madhusudan wrote in an academic paper published in Conservation Biology. (PDF)
New demand for organic fertilizer allowed subsistence farmers living near Bandipur National Park—who'd once used cow dung as fertilizer for their own crops—to sell it to coffee growers for as much as $100 a truckload, which is about 100 times the amount typically earned by a rural day-laborer. Recognizing a windfall when they saw one, they raised more cows, increasing their herds as much as 17 times faster than the national average, and drove them into the reserve to graze—making a third of it unfit for the tiger's natural prey.
Although coffee prices have dropped, the dung-sellers have moved on to supply farmers of organic ginger instead of scaling back, Madhusudan says. And his findings are more relevant than ever.
This January, the most thorough census of India's tiger population ever conducted showed that there are some 2,226 tigers living in the country's shrinking forests. That's a full third more than researchers had previously believed, and accounts for nearly three-quarters of the 3,200-odd wild tigers still surviving around the world. But it made headlines for the wrong reasons.
The world's newspapers almost universally reported the new number as a 30 percent increase in India's tigers over the past four years. But according to Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, “Saying that there's been a 30 percent increase in tigers is flat out wrong.”
Not only did the latest count rely on new methods— camera traps instead of the distinctive footprints, called pugmarks—but also for the first time the census covered large swaths of forest outside the country's 47 protected reserves. Some of the new numbers represented tigers found living in these previously unmonitored areas.
That the results show there are more tigers in India than was previously thought “is great news,” says Rabinowitz, “and the Indian government along with other NGO’s should be applauded for their efforts.” But, he adds, “Misstating these numbers as only increases resulting from better enforcement and protection efforts is a gross disservice to future tiger conservation.”
Which brings us back to the problem of coffee and dung and cattle grazing, which is really the problem of the perverse ways the global marketplace can affect delicate ecosystems like the tiger habitat and undermine the best-laid plans to protect them.
For decades, Indian conservationists thought they need only stop the commercial exploitation of forest resources by mining and timber companies. They believed that so-called subsistence use by the 147 million poor people who depend on the forests for survival was, or could be made, sustainable. Meanwhile, the leaders of Project Tiger, the government agency responsible for protecting the big cat, focused on carving out reserves and slowly pushing villages out of them.
But the improved tiger count shows those reserves are already full, and locals hardly needed a census to tell them of big cats prowling outside their borders—thanks to a dramatic increase in attacks on livestock and people.
At the same time, as the government endeavors to free up more and more territory for the mining of coal, bauxite and iron ore, Madhusudan's research indicates that the lines between subsistence and commercial use of the forest are growing increasingly blurred.
That means conservation must go beyond drawing borders, resettling residents, blocking highways and barring industries. Instead, planners must focus on creating economic opportunities for villagers outside the parks, while conservationists need to shed their obsession with inviolate forests and seek compromises that allow developments that do not sever the green corridors connecting protected zones.
Neither task is impossible.
In South America, Rabinowitz and Panthera have succeeded in getting governments from Mexico to Argentina to cooperate in the maintenance of a breeding corridor for jaguars by emphasizing that it doesn't mean freezing economic development—getting to the negotiating table and winning important concessions on projects such as Costa Rica's Reventazón hydroelectric project.
And with small scale projects near Bandipur, Madhusudan has demonstrated that straightforward measures like helping farmers acquire and install a solar-powered fence to stop wild animals from eating their crops encouraged them to invest in irrigation and replace their dung cattle with milk cows deemed too valuable to turn loose in the forest.
“You may be able to create completely protected areas. But you will never be able to rid them of neighbors,” Madhusudan said.
The trick is to make those neighbors into good ones.