The Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (BRT) is located in the southeast corner of Chamarajanagar district in the state of Karnataka. The Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) was established in 1974, and later was declared as a tiger reserve in 2011.The tiger reserve was notified without prior communication and consent of the indigenous Soliga tribals who have been living in the Bilgiri hills for generations [2,6].
In 1974, the area was declared a WLS, without any information passed on to the Soliga tribals living in and around the area. This led to forceful displacement of some of the tribals without any proper relocation process being carried out. Traditional practices, such as shifting cultivation were completely banned within the declared WS [2, 8]. However gathering non-timber forest produce from the BRT (including honey, gooseberry and lichen) continued to remain the main source of their native food system and their economy. In 2006, after the amendment of the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), the forest officials restricted the access and collection of non-timber forest produce (NTFPs). Just after this, in 2008, the Soliga decided to go to court and used the recently implemented Forest Rights Act (FRA) to reclaim their rights over their forest land and their resources. “We campaigned rigorously and informed the entire tribe of our traditional rights,” said Shivmallu, a 55 years old Soliga man, recalling their advocacy efforts to gain community forest rights. “We distributed pamphlets in Soliga dialect to every household in every settlement.” [7,5].
With the court ruling in their favour, in August 2010, about 1,200 families received pattas (land titles) that established their rights over the land . Just at the same time, the forest department in order to create more restrictions in the areas declared the area a Tiger Reserve, in violation of the WLPA and the FRA, as no prior informed consent (as declared by law), was given by the community for its notification.
Nevertheless, the Soligas have been able to challenge t the forest department thanks to the support of organizations such as Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), which have fought for the recognition of the tribal rights [8,4,3]. In October 2011 the Soliga community, which include of 6,000 people living in the core areas and 10,000 people living in the buffer area of the tiger reserve, for a total of 61 podus (villages) got recognized their community rights under the FRA. “The forest department initially coaxed and coerced our people, especially the youths, for relocation from the reserve,” says C. Made Gowda, secretary of Zilla Budakattu Girijana Abhivrudhi Sangh (Soliga Peoples’ Collective). “But we resisted.” [9,4,3] Today, Soliga settlements are spread across all the five ranges of the reserve. The story has been of multiple successes. Indeed it has been recognized that the number of tigers has been highly increased, from 35 in 2010 to 68 in 2014, showing the positive impacts of the community conservation management upon the conservation and management of wildlife .
However, as testimony by Made Gowda, the reclamation of their forest rights upon the forest areas have not been an easy process and many accidents and cases of repression have carried on against the Soliga, to coerce them to relocate and leave the forest [8, 5]. Under the Forest Rights Act, the Soliga will now have legal rights to use and protect as much as 60 percent of the reserve, including parts of the core area. The Soligas are now working on a proposal to manage the tiger reserve jointly with the Karnataka state authorities, using their traditional knowledge. About 20,000 Soligas live in Karnataka state, and have been inextricably linked to the Biligirirangan Hills for generations.