Perhaps the hardest lesson to swallow during my forays in the Western Ghats was the marriage of people and forests in India’s many landscapes. Forests in India, you see, are not necessarily as black-and-white as those in many Western countries. Wet evergreen forests, moist deciduous forests, cloud forests, dry deciduous forests, scrub-shrub forests, plantations and orchards – the term “forest” is loosely used to describe landscapes dominated by tree cover. Of course, India’s forests are also characterized by myriad wildlife, with over 500 species of mammals and over 2000 species of birds found in these vivid landscapes. The most charismatic of these animals include the tiger, the Asian elephant, the leopard, the wild dog (dhole), and the gaur. Other forest-dwellers include the nosy Malabar giant squirrel, the shy spotted deer, the secretive mouse deer, and a wide variety of civets, mongooses, and small cats.

Yet Indian forests are also home to an ever-growing human population. Indigenous tribes of India are often found in forested areas, where they are granted protection by law as life in the forest has been their right since the ancient ages. Their ancient practices may have included hunting and gathering in forests, but these activities are regulated by wildlife laws. However, in many parts of India, forest tribes have a strong connection to the wild. These tribes have different cultures, traditions, languages, religious beliefs, and food preferences, among other factors. In India, such tribes are referred to as ‘adivasis,’ stemming from the root words ‘adi,’ meaning ‘from the early times,’ and ‘vasi,’ meaning resident.

The Indian government also refers to such tribal groups as ‘scheduled tribes,’ including adivasis as well as groups living in remote areas, depending upon forest resources, and known to be socially- and economically-backward (at least with respect to so-called modernity!). Tribal people constitute 8.2% of India’s population (Ministry of Tribal Affairs 2012). In the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram, over 90% of the combined population is tribal, while in the remaining states of Northeast India, tribal people comprise only 20-30% of the population. Studies on tribal communities of central and east India (Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh) report that over 80% of forest dwellers rely on forests for 50% of their food supply. Forest food products include tubers, mahua flowers, sal seeds, edible roots, bamboo, wild fruits, and leaves of certain trees.


Forest dwellers of India enjoyed unlimited access and rights within forest areas until the advent of the British Raj. During the colonial period, the British deemed tribal rights detrimental to forest health and restricted their access and use of forests and forest products with strict laws. This also helped the goal of British administrative units to commercialize India’s forests; keeping the rights of the land in British grasp and out of the hands of forest dwellers was the first step to the economization of forests. These British laws still govern many aspects of forest dwellers rights in India today. The exploitation of forest dwellers and their livelihoods is, in part, responsible for the further retreat of adivasis into their native lands, causing strain on modern conservation protocols that attempt to reserve forests solely for wildlife.

Forest rights can take on many forms, including the right to live within and on the fringes of forests (deemed the ‘core’ and ‘buffer’ zones of forest areas by state forest departments), the ability to source resources from forests, and the ability to maintain traditional practices and cultural norms within their native regions. I have visited and interviewed multiple forest dwelling communities in southern India and Rajasthan, and have come away enlightened and with a heightened respect for their cultural practices. Forest communities foster strong ties to forests and wildlife, often facing heightened human-wildlife conflict due to their lifestyle. Our research on human-wildlife interactions in tiger reserves and surrounding reserved forests and villages exhibited an overall sense of belonging to the forest that urban Indians conspicuously lack.

with school children in Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, Karnataka

I stood at the front of a classroom in Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, one of Karnataka’s best-maintained and biodiverse protected areas, teaching a group of forest dwelling children about the biodiversity of the Western Ghats. The children were thriving in this class; they offered me the local names of hundreds of birds I had not even glimpsed outside of a bird book, the names of local trees and edible plants, and recounted tales of encounters with big cats, elephants, and rare mammals. One child proudly showed me a scar he had received from a snakebite (non-venomous, of course!) and told me and my colleagues the best way of handling a snake so as to not stress the reptile. These moments filled me with a renewed respect for the indigenous knowledge that our country is ripe with and the people who add many shades to her colourful cultural history.

While the livelihoods of forest dwellers may appear outwardly at odds with conservation priorities, especially in a growing nation like India where wildlife and humans jostle for reducing space, it is important to consider the traditional practices that these people follow, most of which are sustainable and based on principles of respect for other living creatures. Surplus hunting and gathering are not practiced by adivasis; in fact, wasteful hunting was practiced by rulers and colonists, not by the native population of India. This World Wildlife Day, the importance of forest dwelling communities and their livelihoods must be considered even as we work towards meeting conservation goals and safeguarding our planet’s biodiversity.

To answer the question ‘to whom do our forests belong,’ here is my short answer: to the wildlife of India and the people who have roamed alongside them since time immemorial!


For information on some of the vibrant tribes of India, check out this post:

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