Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, Pondicherry University, Pondicherry 605 014, INDIA.
Human impacts result in forest degradation and ultimately in the loss of biodiversity. Therefore, it is important to understand the nature of the impact on forests in order to effectively conserve biodiversity. In this study I have shown that the local communities living within the core and buffer zone of Similipal Tiger Reserve depend extensively on the forest for resources, which has led to degradation of the forest. This level of dependence has been compounded by additional problems of increasing market access to forest products such as timber, leading to illegal felling, higher and non-sustainable extraction of fuel-wood, and hunting pressure on the scarce wildlife that still remains in the forest. This study shows that almost 53% harvested and sold fuel-wood for a living and collected 1.6 times more fuel-wood than they would need just for household use. Younger people from lower income classes tended to be fuel-wood sellers, and this suggests that lack of economic opportunities for the younger people in this region is a serious problem. The region is populated with tribals and mostly very poor people who have lived in the forests for generations. Therefore, the relationship between marginalized tribal households and their dependence on the forest needs to be taken more serious.
The problem of over-harvesting is motivated by poverty and lack of opportunities. Political extremism augments the prevailing problems of illegal harvesting of forest products, poaching and bushmeat hunting, since the local communities believe they are beyond the law.
The local people had a negative attitude towards management of the protected area by the government, even though half of the respondents supported the conservation of nature as a common heritage of the country. However, they were unwilling to make any sacrifices in terms of loss of access to the forest products and to traditional hunting practices, mostly because they felt that conservation has been imposed on them. The local people find that the protected areas are ideal because of opportunities for grazing livestock, fertile land for cultivation, water sources, food and fuel-wood (Sahoo, personal observation). This has resulted in continued encroachment and exploitation of the forest. Loss of access to the forest is regarded as a big loss. They are unwilling to settle outside the National park even if they have better resettlement opportunities from Government. The local communities are also hunters and poachers. Because of all this they have a negative attitude towards conservation despite perceiving that the forests and wildlife are disappearing. This antagonism has been compounded by the presence of political extremists, the Maoists who support local causes (Pandav et al., 2009).
This study shows that the local tribal people living in and near the STR, are mostly agriculturists, and many also depend on the sale of NTFPs to earn a living. Their dependency on forest products was very high leading to the non-sustainable extraction of biomass for sustenance and sale in the market. This has resulted in ongoing rapid loss and degradation of forests and decline in endangered species such as the Tiger and Elephant, documented by publications and by press reports, and also perceived by local people.
Currently, this iconic forest and its wildlife are under severe threat from poaching and non-sustainable extraction of forest products and other illicit activities. The tribal hunts still go on, but there is little left to hunt. With the increase in commercial poaching of the elephant and tiger, and the enormous market for Similipal timber in the major urban areas, its fate appears to be sealed. This rapid degradation of forests and decline of wildlife will ultimately destroy the heritage of the country, and cause increasing hardship to the local population due to loss of ecosystem services. Concerted efforts need to be made to restore the forests and wildlife to their former glory.