NAGARJUNA SAGAR TIGER RESERVE, India -- Early this year, when villagers discovered a huge male tiger trapped in an abandoned well in this largest of India's tiger preserves, they did a remarkable thing: They constructed a handmade rope-and-bamboo ladder, lowered it into the well and set the big cat free.
And when India's most notorious gang of tiger poachers showed up in the park and began setting traps, an angry band of local forest dwellers, bows and arrows drawn, ambushed the interlopers and arrested them. Many are now in jail.
Tigers are vanishing in India. Five years ago, the country had 3,700. Today, scientists say, there are fewer than 1,500, most in scattered small reserves.
Poachers, feeding a Chinese market hungry for tiger skins and bone, have taken a share, clearing some reserves of all remaining big cats. Incursions by land-hungry peasants and their livestock have eaten away at other parks. Armed Maoist rebels, who favor the same remote forests as cats, have made some reserves impossible to patrol.
Now India's government is considering a bill to hand as much as two-thirds of the land set aside as tiger reserves to landless peasants, a move that tiger activists fear would be a final death sentence for wild tigers in India.
"If things continue the way they've been going, then there's no hope," said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India and a passionate tiger advocate.
But in Nagarjuna Sagar, a sprawling tiger reserve of more than 1,000 square miles in southeast India, tigers are holding on thanks to an innovative campaign by local conservationists, who have quit trying to evict villagers and even extremist rebels from the park and instead won them over to the tiger cause.
Saving tigers "is more about managing people than managing animals," said K. Thulsi Rao , an assistant state forest officer, head of biodiversity research at the reserve and the mastermind of Nagarjuna Sagar's people-friendly conservation approach.
"If you address people's needs, the rest is taken care of," he said. "When you make people the partners of management, there is really a lot of change."
Nagarjuna Sagar, split by the mighty Krishna River, doesn't look much like a traditional wildlife sanctuary. The park is the site of a huge hydroelectric dam and a popular religious shrine, which draws millions of Hindu pilgrims each year. Heavy traffic plies paved roads cut through the open forestland, and herds of goats, water buffalo and cattle meander along the roadsides.
Perhaps most troubling, nearly 120 small villages lie within the boundaries of the hilly park, including 22 settlements in the reserve's core conservation area, which under Indian law is supposed to be free of human inhabitants.
When Rao arrived at the reserve in 1994, its forests were full of Naxals, India's homegrown Maoist rebels. The rebels had recently shot dead one of the forest service's best rangers, at point-blank range, and had forbidden others from entering the woods.
Villagers in the park, fed up with a government program that paid them only a third of the value of any livestock killed by tigers, were pouring pesticides on livestock carcasses and poisoning the cats.
Neighbors of the reserve, with the approval of the populist Naxals, were leveling large sections of the woods for firewood to sell, selectively felling the forest's valuable teak trees or bringing in huge herds of cattle to graze.
Efforts to evict villagers living in the core of the reserve had ground to a halt, and the reserve's tiger population, which once topped 80, had fallen to fewer than 40.
Rao, who had a background in eco-development efforts, decided the Naxals were the reserve's biggest problem. When the government lifted a shoot-on-sight order against the rebels soon after his arrival, the new forest officer headed into the woods to talk to them, armed only with 600 slides and a presentation on the philosophical merits of conservation.
Told by a Naxal leader that the forest service cared more about animals than people, he argued that man also relied on the forest, and that if it disappeared the people - not to mention the Maoists - would have lost their livelihood and home.
The next day, to everyone's surprise, the Naxals issued a ban on woodcutting in Nagarjuna Sagar.
Rao also went to visit woodcutter villages outside the reserve, where rangers had long been greeted by men waving axes and angry women trying to blow chili powder into their eyes.
Insisting he would listen to their concerns, he discovered that people hated being treated as thieves, struggled to survive on $2 a day as woodcutters and would have preferred farming but had no water for irrigation.
Rao crafted his plan. Calling in local nongovernmental organizations and raising development funds from India's government and international bodies such as the World Bank, he began paying locals $2 a day to replant degraded forest areas in the Krishna River's water catchment area and helped them rebuild abandoned irrigation channels.
He introduced solar panels and biogas to cut the need for fuel wood, and brought in new breeds of more productive milk cows to raise yields and incomes.
He helped villagers plant new cattle-grazing areas outside the reserve and targeted conservation-education programs at the area's most notorious poachers and smugglers.
In the park's core, he assured 2,000 aboriginal Chenchu forest dwellers that the government no longer wanted to evict them, but preferred to give some of them GPS units and hire them to monitor the cats' movements. And he and others persuaded the government to boost its compensation for cattle kills to full market value.
Today, satellite photos show strong regrowth of forest within Nagarjuna Sagar and large-scale regeneration of grazing land outside the park. The region's water storage lakes are full for the first time in decades.
Tiger poisonings have virtually stopped, political talks with the Naxals are under way and rangers just last month resumed driving tourists deep into tiger territory and rebuilding scenic lookouts bombed by the rebels.
Sakria Mudavat, 40, a former woodcutter living on the fringes of the reserve, today gets several crops a year of rice, lentils and castor beans from his once-barren land. He earns $125 a month, up from $12.50 in the old days and enough to put both his children in school. Now that village wells are full, his wife no longer has to walk a half-mile to find water.
"We're very happy now," said Gamli Bai, 75, a leader of Mudavat's village. "If anybody comes [to poach], we will stop them."
Venkataiah , 30, a Chenchu tiger tracker living in a grass and woven bamboo hut deep in the reserve's teak and crocodile bark forest, also reports seeing tiger cubs on his rounds these days.
"Slowly, they are increasing," he says of the big cats, whose numbers today are estimated by rangers to have risen to about 80.
The reserve's tale is the exception in India, where tiger numbers remain "precariously low," according to Sujoy Banerjee of the World Wildlife Federation's India office. Extending lessons learned at Nagarjuna Sagar might prove difficult, not least because many of India's reserves are smaller, even more imperiled and facing crushing pressure from India's growing population of 1.2 billion.
But learning how to deal with tigers' human neighbors, everyone agrees, is a crucial step toward saving them.
"Every 10 miles there's a new problem in tiger conservation," said John Seidensticker, a leading tiger expert at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park. "You're never done saving them. You just keep working on it."