Maoist rebels join the fight to keep India's tigers alive

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The Independent Online

India is proud of its tigers and always fearful for their future, which helps to explain a strange story that has come to light about a little-known and remote tiger reserve in central India where no conservation official has set foot for three years.

India is proud of its tigers and always fearful for their future, which helps to explain a strange story that has come to light about a little-known and remote tiger reserve in central India where no conservation official has set foot for three years.

Indravati National Park in Chhattisgarh state has become the scene of an extraordinary standoff, in which conservation officials and Maoist rebels appear to be vying over who can do the most to protect the tigers. No government conservationist has dared set foot inside the reserve since 2002, because the Maoist Naxalite rebels have declared a ban on them. Those who have ignored the ban have been severely beaten, and forestry guards now fear the next one to be caught might be killed.

Yet in spite of this, official annual census figures for the tiger population in the reserve show that the big cats are thriving. The 2005 figures show 31 tigers inside the reserve, the highest number since 1984.

The reason, according to a recent report in the Indian Express, is that the Maoists have taken over the job of the forestry guards they evicted and are enforcing their own ban on hunting the tigers. So effective has the prohibition been that the rebels have not only prevented commercial poaching, they have even managed to put a stop to local tribesmen's annual month-long tiger-hunting festival.

India is the only place in the world where efforts to save the tiger have been successful on a large scale. Today the country has 3,000 tigers in the wild, about half the total world population, and in some areas numbers have actually been growing.

Poaching tigers for their skins and bones, which are used in Chinese medicine, remains highly lucrative, and there are now even suggestions the rebels may be doing better at protecting the tigers than government officials.

The People's War Group (PWG), popularly known as the Naxalites, is a Maoist organisation dedicated to overthrowing the Indian government and setting up a Communist regime in several states. Though they do not often capture the headlines, since their territory is well off the tourist trail, they control significant areas of eastern India.

Because of the Naxalites' preference for deep jungle, where they can easily hide from security forces, much of their territory overlaps with wildlife reserves. They are a constant menace to forestry officials, who are supposed to be there to protect animals from poachers but spend most of their time protecting themselves from the Maoists.

It appears, however, that the Naxalites have decided that protecting the tigers is their responsibility. "Thanks to the PWG ban, animals and the jungle are safe. We are happy that Naxals are doing our job," S G Parulkar, a forestry official, told theExpress.

But leading Indian conservationists remain sceptical. "The Naxalite ban on hunting is great logic," said P K Sen, chief of the WWF's tiger programme and a former director of Project Tiger. "But if villagers can't flout the PWG ban on hunting, do you think forest staff would defy the Naxals and enter the park to conduct the tiger census? Then how do these numbers come up every year?"

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