From being tiger worshippers to guardians of the wildlife, the Baiga tribe of Madhya Pradesh are playing a vital role in tiger conservation by helping forest officials in providing protection to the big cats and other wild animals living in the Kanha National Park.
Members of the Baiga tribe, a semi-nomadic tribe of central India that is reliant on the forest, had been living in 28 villages within the Kanha National Park until 1968, after which they were relocated.
The relocation was part of an effort to maintain a critical tiger habitat. In 2014, hundreds of Baiga tribals were evicted from the Kanha Tiger Reserve — home of Rudyard Kipling's 'Jungle Book.'
However, the tribe continues to be the lifeline of the forest and the forest officials continue to depend on the experience and acumen of tribals here for tiger conservation and wildlife protection.
"Without the cooperation of the tribals, there is no way that tigers could flourish in these jungles. It is because of their experience and help that we are able to protect our tigers better," says J S Chauhan, Field Director of Kanha National Park.
Kanha National Park has ten experienced tribals also known as 'trackers' who help the forest officials in tracing animals, especially tigers in the forest.
According to Chauhan, the tribes understand the animals.
"We have about 8-10 such experienced tribals who help in tracking tigers. By observing the sound of movement of leaves and by chirpings of birds these trackers tell the approximate location of tigers which not only protect the tourists but also the tigers," he says.
One tribal named 'Manglu', says the field director, was "as good in tracking as Sachin Tendulkar is in batting."
A guide who has been working in the forest since 2002 says Manglu had helped them to locate many tigers and provide them with the required aid.
"With just the reaction of animals he could identify the location of tigers," the guide says.
The trackers also help in locating and administering required medical attention to sick tigers.
"We don't have advanced technology like that of developed countries to keep track of tigers, hence we rely on tribals who form the backbone of our system," says the field director.
Other than that these tribals also help in igniting and dousing controlled forest fires and their acumen helps in the prevention of such fires.
"The tribals help us in identifying any suspicious person who may have entered the area to poach animals. We make sure that none of the villagers house any suspicious person.
"If we find any person who has entered the area to poach animals, we immediately report to the authorities," says Ajay Kumar from Baiga tribe, who regularly help forest official in locating tigers.
Kumar who has grown up in the jungle and has been working here for the past seven years, says that he and his community worship tigers.
"No marriage in our home takes place without offering prayers to the tigers. That is the kind of respect we have for these animals here."
According to another guide, tribals act as the lifeline of the forest and without them forest conservation becomes extremely difficult.
"Tribals are the best conservationists. Human presence in the forests is a deterrent to poachers. There has been no instance of tribals killing a tiger or any other wild animal," a naturalist said on condition of anonymity.
According to the recent census, Madhya Pradesh now has 308 tigers against 257 in 2010. There are approximately 131 Tigers in Kanha National Park.
The park, which is the largest in the state, is spread over an area of 200-300 square kilometres and houses the Royal Bengal tiger, leopards, the sloth bear, barasingha, Indian wild dog, wild cats, foxes and jackals among other animals. It is also home to over 1000 species of flowering plants.
The last of the villages to be relocated for the tiger habitat is in the core zone of the Kanha Tiger Reserve. It is the ancestral home of the Gond and Baiga tribes.
According to Survival International, a global movement for tribal people's rights, tribals have proved time and again that they are the best conservationists.
"A new conservation model that respects tribal peoples' rights and uses tribals' expertise to protect and enhance ecological diversity is required.
"Tribals are better at looking after their environment than anyone else. They are the best conservationists and guardians of the natural world," says the organisation.
The national park has evolved as a major tourist attraction over the years for wildlife enthuiasts from all over the world.
The lowland forest is a mixture of sal and other mixed forest trees, interspersed with meadows. The highland forests are tropical moist dry deciduous type and of a completely different nature with bamboo growing on the slopes.
"Another conservation effort in the national park is the reintroduction of barasinghas. About 8 barasinghas were introduced in the reserve in 2003-04 and their numbers have now increased to 450," says a naturalist.