The National Tiger Conservation Authority’s recent announcement that it is all set to notify a tiger reserve in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang valley has alarmed local residents most of whom belong to the indigenous Idu Mishmi tribe.

The community’s apex body, the Idu Mishmi Cultural Literary Society, has alleged it is a ploy to “dislodge” the locals from their homes. “The tiger reserve will cover a lot of areas and there will be no place for us to stay,” said Ista Pulu, who heads the body.

For the Idu Mishmi community, who are just around 12,000 in number, a tiger reserve was yet another hazard to their indigenous lands already under threat from several hydel projects, said Pulu. “There are multiple dam projects going on and they will submerge so many of our areas,” he said. “Now, they are proposing this tiger reserve and if that fully comes into effect, then we won’t be able to move around [the forest].”

A contested wildlife sanctuary

The Dibang Valley in eastern Arunachal Pradesh is a sparsely populated mountainous stretch of land, bordering Tibet.

Almost half of the valley is protected forests, designated as a wildlife sanctuary in 1998. The high-altitude Dibang Valley Wildlife Sanctuary – it stretches from 1,800 to 5,000 meters above sea level – located within the Eastern Himalaya Biodiversity hotspot is also contested.

The local Idu Mishmis claim it was notified without following due procedures. The government, they insist, did not settle the local residents’ land ownership claims before declaring the area as protected.

“According to the Wildlife Protection Act, if the government takes land, there has to be a meeting and if there’s rehabilitation needed, relocation needed, everything needs to be done,” said Itanagar-based advocate Ebo Mili, an Idu Mishmi himself. “But nothing was addressed.”

‘We might become landless’

The tiger reserve is likely to be carved out of the sanctuary.

But, according to Mili, that amounts to adding insult to injury. He argued, “How can they impose the tiger reserve on the wildlife sanctuary when that itself was declared illegally bypassing the law?”

If the tiger reserve proposal went through, Mili said, the community fears that “one day we might become landless”.

A tiger reserve, the Idu Mishmis believe, would also have adverse economic repercussions for them as it would restrict their entry into the forest. “A tiger reserve will mean more restrictions with deployment of armed personnel,” said Ere Linggi, the general secretary of the Idu Mishmi Cultural Literary Society. “Our whole livelihoods are dependent on this forest and its resources.”

Linggi’s fear may not be unfounded as tiger reserves come with more stringent rules compared to wildlife sanctuaries. While a forest declared as a wildlife sanctuary is not entirely out of bounds for the local communities, the core area of a tiger reserve “should be free from all human use”, according to government regulations.

Tigers in the snow

The National Tiger Conservation Authority’s attempts to notify a tiger reserve in the Dibang Valley go back to 2012 when tiger cubs were rescued in the area by local residents. This led to the wildlife scientists embarking on new research into the area. Then, a 2018 study identified 11 tigers in the upper reaches of the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mishmi Hill range, up to a height of 3,630 metres, through camera documentation.

The Idu Mishmis have been up in arms against the plan ever since. They claim they have known of the tigers’ presence since time immemorial and had always co-existed with the animals.

Officials see merit in idea

Arunachal Pradesh’s forest officials, however, seem favourably disposed toward the idea of notifying the area as a tiger reserve.

Tana Tapi, the state’s deputy chief wildlife warden, said that the area was “very suitable” for a tiger reserve because of the presence of prey populations and alpine grasslands. Tapi said: “The terrain is not accessible and is very steep. The alpine type of vegetation occurs at a higher altitude of 4,000 metres to 5,500 metres. The herbivores found are goral, takin, serow, and musk deer.”

Besides, Tapi said there had also been incidents of suspected poaching in the area – a claim that the Idu Mishmis vehemently contested. In a recent statement, the tribe’s apex body said there was no “conclusive evidence” to prove that the inhabitants of Dibang Valley were “specifically” involved in any manner in the alleged poaching.
The state government will take the final call on the proposal of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

‘No question of any conflict’

The predominantly animist community has questioned the need for an official conservation programme given that their beliefs and cultural practices already strongly forbid the hunting of tigers. “Our cultural beliefs and taboos state that the tiger is our brother,” said Linggi. “There is no question of any conflict with the tiger and indigenous people.”

Sahil Nijhawan, a conservation anthropologist who has studied the Idu Mishmis and the Dibang valley, spoke of the unique relationship that the Idu Mishmis shared with the tigers in an essay published in Sanctuary Asia in 2019. “The two are co-dependent; their history, ecology, culture and destinies intertwined,” he wrote. “The story of either one is incomplete without the other”.