Early this year, when villagers discovered a huge male tiger trapped in an abandoned well in the largest of India’s tiger preserves, they did a remarkable thing: They concocted 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 and arrested them. Today many are in jail.

Those are rare acts in India, where tigers are disappearing at an astonishing pace.

A century back, India had 40,000 of the emblematic cats. But five years ago the number was down to 3,700, and 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 cleared some reserves of the big cats. Incursions by land-hungry peasants and their livestock have eaten away at other parks. Armed Maoist rebels have made some reserves impossible to patrol. And India’s government is considering a bill to hand over two-thirds of national tiger-reserve land to landless peasants. But in Nagarjuna Sagar, a sprawling reserve in southeast India, tigers are holding on thanks to an innovative campaign by local conservationists, who have quit trying to evict villagers and 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.”

Conversing, conserving

Nagarjuna Sagar, split by the mighty Krishna River, doesn’t look much like a traditional wildlife sanctuary. The park, which encompasses more than 1,000 square miles, is home to a massive hydroelectric dam and a popular shrine that draws millions of Hindu pilgrims each year. Heavy traffic plies paved roads cut through the open forestland.

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 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. The reserve’s tiger population, which once topped 80, had fallen to fewer than 40.

Rao, who had a background in ecodevelopment efforts, decided the Naxals were the reserve’s biggest problem.

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 if the forest disappeared, the people would lose their livelihood and home.

The next day, to everyone’s surprise, the Naxals issued a ban on woodcutting in the park.

Rao also went to visit woodcutter villages outside the reserve, where rangers had long been greeted by men waving axes. 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.

Calling in local non-governmental organizations and raising development funds from India’s government and international bodies like the World Bank, Rao 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 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 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 massive 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 and political talks with the Naxals are under way.

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, enough to put both his children in school.

“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.

“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 the Sujoy Banerjee of the World Wildlife Federation’s India office. Activists fear the government bill to transfer reserve land to peasants would be a death sentence for wild tigers in the country.

Extending lessons learned at Nagarjuna Sagar may prove difficult given that 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.”