What has the mahua tree got in common with the tiger? by Julian Matthews


normal_Homesteads_Pench_Kanha_corridorDrive through any agricultural landscape in Central India, as I have just done, particularly near a forest, and you will undoubtably see the only trees left in villages and fields are the Mahua trees (and mangoes). They’re beautiful, tall, broad canopied trees that offer shade and succour to a host of animals, both domestic and wild.

They are also the only trees left for a very particular reason. They have a  distinct economic advantage, a very human one, over other trees that are seen as good only for firewood or building material.

Mahua’s are saved because they provide better quantifiable benefits as living and fruiting trees – in cash, and dare I say ‘alcoholic happiness’, to their human guardians, than they would do as chopped and burnt logs, their succulent flowers providing millions with a powerful liquor each year.

So too the tiger.

For most of the last two centuries the tiger was seen as a problem, hunted down as vermin, shot at every opportunity or simply killed for sport. He had little economic value as a living entity, much more as a trophy or carpet. Even his famed mythological and religious status failed to save him.

Today many of India’s tigers have enormous monetary value, just like the mahua tree  – and the tables are finally turning in their favour.

In just a few places (still too few ) a tiger is worth far more alive than dead, to far more people than would realise, or even care, to admit it. Machali is reckoned to have generated US$110 million in good old cash, in her lifetime so far, in Ranthambhore alone, but her real value is five or ten times that, even without getting into Pavan Sukdev’s,  ‘Economics of Biodiversity’.

The economic prosperity that he (or she) can now garner means that politicians fly across the land to see him, infrastructure is laid down to get near him, and tens of thousands of jobs are dependent on his continued reign in a few protected forests.

Finally, over the last few years in India, his huge and growing economic value can be weighted against other uses of his forest – for timber, for mining, for roads, for dams, for new building development and agriculture.

Almost overnight preserving his forests has begun to offer more of that grubby, yes cash, benefits to many more people, in our increasingly myopic short term world, than other detrimental industrial sectors would or could.

The weighing scales are tipping  – and the maintenance of his life is now critical to the very stability and economic stimulus of some regions and their governments today – for the better.

To boil nature down to merely a ‘balance of trade’ hurts my very soul – but the pragmatist in me recognises it’s one of the key reasons tigers still live in India, and so few are left anywhere else.

Long live the mahua – if all else fails.

Credits: Tiger Nation 

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