The World Wildlife Fund has refused to condemn the illegal eviction of thousands of tribespeople from the Kanha Tiger Reserve, telling reporters that, while they don’t support it, “there is a greater mission”.
Tribes who have survived in the area for thousands of years have been scattered, and some tribespeople have been killed trying to make a new life for themselves. Yet the WWF openly advertises luxury holidays to the reserve on its website.
The devastation of the Baiga tribe, who were evicted in 2014 from Kanha, India (the original setting for The Jungle Book), has been documented by journalists in an undercover documentary for French TV channel Canal Plus.
More than 22,000 people have been illegally evicted from a number of villages in the area to clear the way for the Bengal Tiger, and for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit each year in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the rare animals. Each morning 150 jeeps laden with tourists set out to roam all over the Kanha Reserve, in the mistaken belief that they are participating in responsible tourism.
One of those evicted was Sukhdev, a tribesman interviewed in 2012 by the charity Survival International, which lobbies on behalf of indigenous people. Sukhdev told Survival: “We won’t find another place like this. How will we set up home there? How will we raise our children? We need our fields and homes … Won’t we die?”
Two years later, Sukhdev was indeed killed after his village was evicted from Kanha. His body was discovered after he had attempted to buy land for his family to live on.
Sukhdev’s brother told Canal Plus: “We were one of the last families to resist. But the people from the reserve forced us to leave. They told us they’d take care of us for three years, but they didn’t do a thing. Even when my brother was killed, no one came to help us.”
The Reserve is supported by the World Wildlife Fund, a multimillion pound environmental NGO which has supplied infrastructural support, training and equipment for frontline staff in Kanha. But its motives are not entirely altruistic: the WWF advertises on its website a 12 day “Grand India Wildlife Adventure”, promising “dramatic rivers, fabled jungles and intriguing wildlife, including the majestic Bengal tiger,” at prices starting from $8,995.
“Ecotourism is integral to conservation in India, and our travels directly benefit the continued existence of some of the world’s most precious vanishing species,” the tour details state, luring tourists in with assurance of an “authentic nature experience”. It adds: “Kanha offers some of India’s best tiger viewing possibilities.”
As part of their documentary Canal Plus met with Yash Sheita, Associate Director of WWF-India’s Species and Landscapes Programme. He was asked directly whether he would like to condemn the eviction of the Baiga people, to which he replied: “I would not put it like that. But we don’t encourage them. Under no circumstance do we support the resettlement of villages.”
When pushed on whether WWF “opposed” it, he said: “Well we think that there’s a greater mission. If we engage with the authorities on six cases and we don’t share their point of view on one of them, why should we suspend the rest of our engagements, to the extent that we work with endangered animals?”
Survival’s Director Stephen Corry commented, “So-called ‘conservation’ continues to destroy tribal peoples as it has for generations. They’ve never threatened the tigers, who would do better if the tribes remained and the tourists stopped. Tribal peoples are generally better conservationists anyway than industrial-sized NGOs like WWF which stand by in silence while the parks forcibly evict people like Sukhdev and his family. It’s time these evictions are stopped and this scandal exposed.”
This isn’t the first time that WWF has been accused of ignoring the persecution of people in the name of conservation. Last October Survival uncovered serious abuses of Baka “Pygmies” in southeast Cameroon, at the hands of anti-poaching squads supported and funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Like the Baiga, the Baka were forced off their ancestral land to make way for “protected areas”, including safari hunting zones. But rather than tackle the powerful people behind organised poaching, wildlife officers, backed by WWF, targeted Baka people hunting to feed their families, often brutally beating, torturing, and occasionally killing the tribespeople.
A Baka man told Survival, “The forest used to be for the Baka but not anymore. We would walk in the forest according to the seasons but now we’re afraid. How can they forbid us from going into the forest? We don’t know how to live otherwise. They beat us, kill us and force us to flee to Congo.”