Beyond Tiger Numbers: Forests and Livelihoods in Asia

The theme for this year’s World Wildlife Day is ‘Forests and Livelihood: Sustaining People and Planet’. In this special feature, Dr. Naveen Pandey gives an insightful account of forest conservation measures in Asia – their successes, lessons to be learned and opportunities to be seized – towards ensuring the Earth’s vitality.


Aboard M.V. Banbilash, Bangladesh Forest Department’s wildlife research and monitoring vessel, I sailed for four days in 2017 through Sundarbans Reserve Forest – the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest. The 7th annual meeting of SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from extinction) had brought together scientists and conservationists on the vessel. As the stream meandered, wonderful landscapes, countryside, and lifestyles alien to a city-bred populace kept us captivated. What struck me most was the dependence of local communities on Bangaldesh’s mangrove forests.

The five core assets that form part of the livelihood framework – physical, natural, financial, human and social capital – could easily be appreciated as we disembarked from the big vessel and shifted to country boats for a more intimate experience. We learned that forest products contributed to nearly three-fourths of per capita annual income for low-income households in Bangladesh. Fish, crustaceans, shellfish, sea cucumbers, oysters, mussels, honey, condiments, timber, nipa palm and other produce, supposedly of a medicinal nature, continued to be harvested. It was evident that conserving the largest delta and securing the livelihoods of the millions who inhabit it goes well beyond tiger numbers – indeed, it is more complex than often anticipated.


Forest dependent community-Cambodia


Facilitated by The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), UN World Wildlife Day is observed on 3rd March annually. The theme for 2021 is ‘Forests and Livelihood: Sustaining People and Planet’.

During the evolution from arboreal to more settled life on the ground, humans, forests and forest-dwelling wildlife species shared a symbiotic relationship. Indigenous people and local communities largely depended on the ecosystem services this relationship provided. Currently, a little less than one-third of the world’s land surface is managed by indigenous people. Some of the most ecologically intact forests on the planet are still protected by them, which in turn protects their cultural identities. A University of Illinois study (2009) found that larger forest size and greater rule-making autonomy at the local level resulted in high carbon storage and enhanced livelihood benefits.

Today, more than a billion people worldwide, directly and indirectly, derive their livelihoods from protected areas. Arguably a large proportion of this group battle poverty in many Asian countries. Alongside, as cautioned by a 2018 WWF report, global populations of vertebrates have declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012. Many Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia have endured large-scale land-use changes that have gravely contracted the biodiversity of the region. There is also growing (and disturbing) evidence that unsustainable hunting has decimated wild populations in many forests in tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia.


Crop protection tools


Some Asian countries have seen successes in their attempts to curb the damage to forests and biodiversity through the community forest model. The Community Forestry Program in Nepal was introduced in the late 1970s, and is based on forest-dependent people’s participation. The Master Plan for the Forestry Sector (MSFP, 1988) facilitated the decentralization of the forest management regime, leading to the transfer of nearly one-third of the forest cover to community forestry, which saw the participation of women, the poor and many ethnic groups. A study (2007) by the University of York found that once forest user groups (FUGs) were established under a community forest program in Nepal, the forest had sufficient time to regenerate. This led to an increase in the availability of forest product due to better forest health.

Bhutan has performed better than most Asian nations in ensuring political and economic equity to its community forest user groups. A joint study by the Department of Forests in Bhutan, University of Rhode Island, USA and the Forestry Commission in the UK attributed economic equity (in terms of the distribution of benefits) and political equity (in terms of participation in decision making) to four factors: ethnic homogeneity, active participation of women, supportive government policy and intensive extension support. In contrast to Nepal, Bhutan follows a policy to allow controlled grazing in community forests. While prohibited grazing in community forests of Nepal might have added to the growth of the forest cover, increased stem density and natural regeneration, it has hurt the livelihoods of thousands of poor and marginal farmers due to poor availability of fodder for their impoverished livestock.

Unlike Bhutan and Nepal, participatory forest management in Pakistan – initiated in the late 1990s with aid from Asian Development Bank – has failed to halt the degeneration rate of forests in the North West Frontier Province. Because this province has nearly 40% of the total forest cover of Pakistan, the inadequacy of the participatory project needs to be seriously analysed. Empirical evidence in the Himalayan region of rural Pakistan indicated that female-headed households and households with older heads and larger family size were more inclined to use forest resources for their livelihoods. Less than 5% of the total land area of Pakistan is covered by forests now.

In India, subsistence among forest-dwelling tribal people like Kol, Bheel, Munda, Baiga, Naga, Santhal, Karbi, and others is a complex, dynamic and multidimensional phenomenon. One of the largest community forestry initiatives in the world, Joint Forest Management (JFM) in India, symbolizes inclusive decentralization of forest management. Although JFM is widely acclaimed to have ensured participatory forest management, the claimed benefits are contested. A case study by the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal underscored the ill-effects of the state’s taking over non-wood forest products (NWFPs) collection. The state control of NWFPs for products like tendu leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon), sal seeds (Shorea robusta), fruits (Terminalia chebula), mahua flowers (Madhuca latifolia) has resulted in sagging collection of these products and other compounded problems of unfair wages and restricted access to resources.  

In northeast India, jhum cultivation (shifting cultivation, also known as slash-and-burn) calls for a fresh assessment. While the government has maintained that it causes serious damage to natural resources, its sympathizers have argued in favour of jhum citing food security and sustainability. The two sides need to look at shrinking jhum cycles (that have reduced to as low as three years from ten years over the last three decades), as well as the failure of suggested alternatives.


Sariska Tiger Reserve


The fitness of the earth will chiefly be determined by the constitution and vitality of the largest continent, Asia. All Asian nations – collectively and willingly – should look beyond the Protected Area model of forest wildlife management and accommodate human well-being along with the sustainable conservation of forests, wild flora and fauna. Species-specific myopic conservation goals, like doubling the numbers of tigers and rhinos, belittle wider conservation contexts. Nature does not necessarily always communicate in numbers.

About the Author /

Dr Naveen Pandey is a conservation medicine professional trained at the University of Edinburgh. He serves The Corbett Foundation as its Deputy Director and Veterinary Advisor in Kaziranga. When not traveling to his favourite jungles in Kaziranga, Kanha and Bandhavgarh on work, he loves cooking and reading books with his two sons. Inbox and engage in ‘nature gossip’.


  • Sunil Dutt Sharma

    March 4, 2021

    Very well written and found informative too.

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