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Local people provide wildlife and forest data in park plagued by conflict

There are often many obstacles for scientists when gauging wildlife decline and forest loss, and one of the most difficult is civil conflict, like the situation in the Similipal Tiger Reserve in India. But a new study in’s open access journal Tropical Conservation Science (TCS) finds that local communities may be used to gauge forest loss and wildlife decline for baseline data when conflicts or other obstacle prevent long-term research and monitoring.

Located in the Eastern Ghats of India, Similipal Tiger Reserve covers an area of about 2,750 square kilometres with about 61 villages along the periphery, supporting a population of nearly half a million. The area has been the centre of civil conflict for years with insurgents heavily affecting long-term research and monitoring of wildlife and forest cover including the destruction of infrastructure and shootings of forest staff and domesticated elephants.

When difficulties such as these happen, research much adapt. In their study of the Similipal Tiger Reserve, scientists have found that community surveys may aid in compiling data on forest loss and wildlife decline, noting that indigenous people who live in the wilderness possess detailed knowledge of their surroundings, including the extent of forest deterioration.

Male and Female Bengal tigers. Photo by Paul Mannix.
Male and Female Bengal tigers. Photo by Paul Mannix.

“The objective of the survey was to gain an understanding of the people’s perception of wildlife decline and forest loss over a 20-year period, from 1988-89 to 2007-2008, which covers the pre-insurgency and insurgency phase,” the scientists write.

The survey was conducted between 2007-2008 and was voluntarily based. Overall, 217 men and women from 16 different villages participated in a questionnaire-based survey.

In the survey, individuals were asked several questions ranging from their normal everyday practices (do they hunt, fish, etc) to their perceptions of their present and their past.

The purposes of these surveys were threefold. Firstly, the scientists wanted to determine the participants’ everyday practices. Secondly, perceptions of years gone by aids current perceptions; those who have lived for a significant amount of time will be theoretically better able to gauge what changes have occurred in their forests. And finally, participants were questioned about their views on conservations and its effects on their livelihoods. The final question is not only a good indicator of local perceptions of conservation in general, it also is an indicator of bias.

The results of local perceptions of wildlife and forests were unsurprising: “the majority of people agreed with the statement that the tiger, the elephant and large trees had disappeared over a 20-year period,” record the scientists.

However, the results of their perceptions toward conservation were quite extraordinary: 53% supported conservation due to heritage, 42% were ambivalent, while very few did not trust conservation efforts.

What this means is, positive or negative perceptions on conservation made no difference in participants’ answers regarding wildlife decline or forest loss. Therefore, local communities, who are acutely aware of the disappearance of wildlife and forest loss, may provide useful baseline data in areas where long-term research and monitoring may not be available.

“…Concerted efforts need to be made to involve the local communities in conservation, in partnership with protected area management and civil society in order to reverse wildlife decline and forest loss in Similipal,” the scientists conclude.

CITATION: Sasmita Sahoo, Jean-Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar. 2013. Local knowledge suggests significant wildlife decline and forest loss in insurgent affected Similipal Tiger Reserve, India. Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 6(21):230-240. Available online:

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