Saving the Bengal Tiger: Indigenous Spirituality Shines
The charismatic Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris) is a species native to South Asia’s wilderness. With close to 3,000 tigers, India is home to more than seventy percent of the world’s tiger population. Even so, this species is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Traditional Asian medicinal practices fuel the black-market demand for tiger body parts, and the unregulated conversion of land for agriculture eats into tiger habitats. Such threats to species preservation have raised concerns about effective management strategies by the tiger range states. One of these strategies includes an engagement with indigenous folk who continue to reside within tiger habitats. A curious urban dweller may ask the question: what can one learn from the ancient wisdom of peoples closely connected to the natural world?
“I came across an article about a small reserve in southern India that witnessed a rapid rise in its population of tigers; moreover, the article described the fascinating beliefs and practices of the neighboring native Soliga tribe that successfully coexists with the tigers."
A few years ago, Shadi Atallah and I came across an article about a small reserve, the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple reserve (BRT) in southern India that witnessed a rapid rise in its population of tigers; moreover, the article described the fascinating beliefs and practices of the neighboring native Soliga tribe that successfully coexists with the tigers. The article further spoke of how the Soliga revere and protect the tigers in accordance with their customary spiritual beliefs. Their animism—belief in spiritual power within all things, embedded within the broader Hinduism—entails the belief that a Hindu deity rides the sacred tiger of the forest, protecting them from misfortune. The Soliga protect and venerate the tiger in return. The example of the Soliga tribe bolsters the claim expressed in the article that, "tribal peoples are the best conservationists and guardians of the natural world." We surveyed the conservation economics literature, yet found no formal theoretical or empirical assessment regarding the effect of spiritual practices on endangered species preservation. Intrigued yet concerned by the lack of study of this subject, we decided to dig deeper.
India’s flagship tiger conservation program, “Project Tiger,” began in the 1970s and has achieved remarkable successes in raising tigers in designated protected areas. While there is reason to laud these successes, there remains the frequently overlooked interrelationship between tribal customs and wild animals and plants that has existed since time immemorial. The protected area strategy typically designates a large area exclusively as an endangered species habitat; this designation consequently leads to the expulsion of native peoples whose livelihoods are either little understood or considered to be of little value. Courts have entitled indigenous communities to their ancestral lands within tiger reserves through the 2006 Indian Forest Rights Act. However, there have been instances of such land claims being rejected by the Supreme Court of India when sufficient proof of land possession for at least the last three generations is lacking. This vulnerability creates an air of uncertainty in securing forestland titles.
The sacred interrelationships between an aboriginal population and its natural habitat have been fostered over generations. An approach to conservation that ignores these belief-based interrelationships runs the risk of undervaluing their positive effects on preserving an endangered species. Several indigenous people around the world have spiritual practices closely connected with the land they live on and their natural environs. In northwest India, the Rabari tribe reveres leopards in accordance with traditional beliefs, and thus avoids the retaliatory killing of leopards when their livestock are taken. In other parts of India, sacred forest groves are venerated by local communities in the belief that their gods reside within such groves. In Borneo, the Dayak tribe performs rituals during agricultural cycles that protect forests in line with their spiritual beliefs. Forests are a way to connect spiritually with their gods, and without forests there can be no farming and livelihoods. These practices unite the Dayak against commercial monoculture and mining interests, thereby sustaining their culture and forests. An interesting facet of such indigenous practices is that they are not carried out with the explicit purpose of preserving biodiversity. Rather these practices are performed in accordance with traditional beliefs, with sustainability being an inadvertent consequence.
An approach to conservation that ignores belief-based interrelationships runs the risk of undervaluing their positive effects on preserving an endangered species.
The study of spiritual and cultural practices of indigenous peoples has gained much-needed momentum. But because such practices are not easily quantifiable, they are often circumvented by scientific studies. Moreover, the application of valuation methods to measure parameters within indigenous settings runs the risk of neglecting values relevant to a tribe. Valuation using economics requires a careful identification of the cultural aspects to be studied. For instance, one such study used a survey technique to assess the value of traditional agricultural practices and the associated environmental services of the Native American Hopi tribe; valuation of such traditional activities are gauged by their contribution to the perpetuation of the Hopi culture and way of life.
So why do culture and spirituality exceed other economic incentives in preserving biodiversity or a specific species? In our study, Shadi and I designed a numerical simulation that modeled the economic impact of choices facing the Soliga tribe’s elders regarding tiger preservation. The elders or “managers” weighed the short-term gains of harvesting the tiger to sell its body parts against the spiritual stock of maintaining tigers in perpetuity. We conducted multiple simulations under a variety of policy scenarios. Each simulation demonstrated that by explicitly including the aspect of spirituality in the elders’ choice set, it was economically more profitable to preserve the tiger stock in perpetuity. Significantly, this finding was contingent on the granting of legally binding guarantees of secure forestland rights to the Soliga, thus indicating the importance of unambiguity under the Forest Rights Act for India’s indigenous folk. In contrast to the positive contribution conferred when the value of spirituality was included, under the exclusionary conservation approach of designated protected areas, such spirituality was not ascribed any value within the simulations.
Success stories such as that of the Soliga’s reverence and preservation of an endangered species, the tiger, serve as an inspiration on our quest for wisdom on effective strategies for conservation and sustainability.
A concern that many academics grapple with is the relevance of their work to a policymaker. Will our study inspire new approaches to species protection? While we are certainly hopeful that it will, we must remain cautiously optimistic. From an academic perspective, in conducting future analyses in this area, care must be taken to precisely identify the specific aspect that is to be studied. Spirituality and culture can take many different forms among the diversity of indigenous peoples living off the land. We considered how the Soliga revere the tiger in accordance with their beliefs, and the effect that such practices potentially have on the tiger population within the BRT. Our results depend on the assumptions and economic theory behind our model. While one can generalize the broader lessons for guiding conservation strategies, the particulars of spirituality for the Soliga and the pathways for preserving the tiger population remain specific to the BRT ecosystem.
Much can be learned from the spiritual and cultural customs of indigenous peoples. Those who reside in technologically advanced and industrialized societies, particularly those residing in urban environments, may not fully comprehend native practices of venerating the land and its wild fauna and flora. Care should be taken on the part of environmental policy makers not to discount the value of indigenous practices, or the novel solutions such practices may reveal. The precipitous decline in wildlife over the past few decades is serious cause for concern, because the welfare and biological diversity of the natural world directly impact the welfare and perpetuity of humanity. Success stories such as that of the Soliga’s reverence and preservation of an endangered species, the tiger, serve as an inspiration on our quest for wisdom on effective strategies for conservation and sustainability.
This article is based on a paper by Adrian Lopes and Shadi Atallah, which can be found at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10640-020-00416-1
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*Adrian Lopes is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. He has a PhD in Applied Economics from Cornell University, USA. Adrian has a keen interest in the economics of natural resources and environmental sustainability.