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`Tiger Project' Pioneer Opposes Park Ecodevelopment Strategy

IN the late 1960s, Kailash Sankhala, a young Indian forester, began to insist that the Bengal tiger was a vanishing species. Not many people wanted to listen. A turn-of-the-century estimate put the tiger population at 40,000, and tiger shooting in India was truly a sport of kings, both foreign and domestic. Mr. Sankhala said tiger hunting should be banned.

Now Sankhala is retired, but he is still swimming upstream. Even as consensus grows in India and abroad about the wildlife-conservation strategy called ecodevelopment, Sankhala claims it is "nonsense." Advocates of ecodevelopment say people living around nature reserves, particularly poor people engaged in subsistence agriculture, should be helped economically in order to lessen their dependence on a park's environmental resources. Sankhala says such programs will only draw more people to a reserve's per iphery.

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In 1969, his agitation led the International Union of Nature Conservation to voice concern about the tiger, and then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi approved a moratorium on tiger hunting in 1970. After a census found 1,827 tigers in India in 1972, Mrs. Gandhi backed the Project Tiger, an ambitious conservation effort. Sankhala was named director.

A dapper, rectangular-faced man who combs his white hair straight back, Sankhala calls ecodevelopment a potential "final blow" to Project Tiger. "The No. 1 priority," protecting the ecosystem, has been lost, he says, because bureaucrats find the new approach more comfortable and "more remunerative."

"Facing the poachers is a difficult time, and distributing favors to people is an easy time," he says.

The way to ease threats against wildlife "lies not in meeting the accelerated demands of the people," he says. "The solution lies in weaning the people [from relying on protected land]." In some cases, he says, parks must be protected like fortresses.

Sitting in an office in a huge government complex in New Delhi, two senior wildlife officials shake their heads at Sankhala's objections to ecodevelopment. "This is medieval thinking," says S. C. Sharma, joint director for wildlife in the ministry of environment and forests.

His colleague, wildlife-preservation director S. Deb Roy, agrees. "Unless you do something for the people they will not leave you alone, because their lives depend on it," he says.

Conservation is only possible, adds Mr. Roy, if political leaders support it. That support is in turn dependent on the popular will, and if people are estranged from conservation, laws authorizing preservation efforts will be undone. A national park is only "a piece of paper," he says.

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