The Great Indian Bustard and NannajIt is four a.m. in Solapur, the year is 1996. My five-year-old daughter and I creep across the still dark grasslands of Nannaj to sit in our little hide. As the sun rises, casting a pinkish glow across the eastern horizon, a soft booming call echoes across the undulating landscape. An alpha male Great Indian Bustard (GIB) is courting females, head thrown back, gular pouch raised, and tail up. Moments later, a covey of female bustards shufflepast, foraging for crickets that have come to gorge on the fresh, green grass.
Though this bustard and his countless ancestors have exhibited their mating rituals on the small lookout plateau of Nannaj-Mardi for millennia, there is no guarantee that our children will still see this display 20 years from now.
The GIB sanctuary was scattered over 8,200 sq. km., whereas a much smaller forest area needed to be made inviolate for the bustards to breed. If even this small area could be well protected, we could secure the future of this endangered bird for posterity. It was vital, however, to include areas such as the Gangewadi grasslands into this more tightly-protected bustard haven. People had begun to turn hostile towards the birds because they considered the declaration of a vast 8,200 sq. km. sanctuary dedicated to bustards as illogical, since the birds were not found in most of the areas here. What is more, entire towns such as Solapur, Mohol and Karmala were included within the Protected Area boundary! Wildlife conservation was proving to be an obstacle as it came in the way of the alignments for highways, canals and even in the decisions they had to make about how best to use their own lands. Blackbuck learned to hide in protected forest patches in the day and then to devastate jowar and groundnut crops of farmers at night. Had the state government not denotified a huge chunk of the GIB Sanctuary, neither the blackbuck, nor the bustards would have been able to survive.
Today, a major effort is underway to win support for organic farming in the neighbourhood of this sanctuary, a step that will enhance the food availability and safety of the GIB which consumes beetles and other insects.
How quickly things can deteriorate can be judged by the fact that as the District Collector of Solapur from 1995 to 1997, I would see GIBs on every visit to Nannaj.
On none of my recent visits was I able to see a bird, not even on the bird’s favourite hillock, where my daughter and I used to see them so often. It worries me, of course, to observe how farmers who were once happy to grow coarse grains like jowar now want to grow sugarcane, flowers and pomegranates, thanks to the abundant water they obtain from the Ujjani dam. If this trend continues, then grassland species, such as the blackbuck, chinkara, grey wolf and the GIB face a bleak future.
The Melghat Tiger Reserve: Cattle and peopleI first visited Melghat in 1979, when it had just been brought under the Project Tiger mantle. On night drives, we came across gaur and sambar, but during the day all we saw were cows and buffaloes… no wild herbivores. A decade later, I returned as Chief Executive Officer of the Zilla Parishad, Amravati, with a clear mandate to implement programmes to reduce poverty. The sustenance of Korku tribal communities depended on lightly-cultivated soils on which they grew wild millets including kodo and kutki. Each year roughly half their crop would be lost to deer and wild pigs, not to mention beetles and grasshoppers. The sanctuary regulations did not permit black topping of access roads, new dams for irrigation or setting up cotton ginning and dal mills, all of which were possible just a few kilometres outside the wildlife sanctuary.
Protecting wild animals in the 1,500 sq. km. Melghat Tiger Reserve, with 28 villages, a population of 16,000 humans and 11,000 head of cattle, was a huge challenge. Particularly, when you consider that the estimated number of herbivores was a mere 3,500 on which 34 tigers were supposed to depend. At that time, neither the tiger, nor the Korku people seemed to be doing too well. The tigers would resort to cattle raiding, particularly during the monsoons, and Korku cattle owners and farmers had to suffer not only crop losses, but bear attacks and cattle kills.
We had to cut this Gordian Knot if both people, and the reserve, were to be provided a real and sustainable future.
We took a conscious decision to develop variegated strategies based on local geography, social conditions and ecological circumstances. We also aimed to involve local communities in regenerating ecosystems on which their own lives would ultimately depend. In the last 18 months, with the support of the Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan and Forest Minister, Dr. Patangrao Kadam, Maharashtra’s political and administrative system, the Forest Department has been able to put these plans to the test. And while it is still too soon to pass judgement, the landscape-wide approach seems to be showing results that point towards a renewal that will benefit both livelihoods and biodiversity conservation.
The last remaining vast forests of Vidarbha: A nuanced approach to protecting Melghat, and TadobaThe Satpuda and Tadoba landscapes are two of the largest contiguous forests remaining in Maharashtra. Home to source populations of tiger, gaur, chital, sambar and endemic birds such as the Forest Owlet, the hill forests of Melghat have relatively low herbivore and tiger populations, in contrast to the plains of Tadoba and the Karandla, Bor and Nagzira landscapes, all of which have dense populations of herbivores and, consequently, tigers.
Over the past two years, we have evolved a nuanced strategy to meet our biodiversity objectives, while simultaneously catering to the sensitivities and the needs of local communities. In Tadoba’s core area, we began with the voluntary rehabilitation of villages. And to provide space for spillover populations of tigers and herbivores, we have managed to expand inviolate Protected Areas such as Nagzira and Navegaon and their corridors. In Melghat, however, 15 of 28 villages will remain in the core. Here, we are trying to promote co-existence by reducing their dependence on forest biomass. This involves providing alternative fuelwood, fodder and also by encouraging eco-tourism based livelihoods.
The larger Melghat Landscape: Co-existence and conservationIn Melghat, we have been implementing a strategy of ecological development in the buffer zone villages. Six out of 28 villages have already been rehabilitated after they passed the necessary Gram Panchayat and Gram Sabha resolutions. These include Vairat, Churni, Dhargad, Barukheda, Amona and Nagartas whose rehabilitation package was specifically tailored to fit individual requirements. Churni and Vairat, for instance, wanted land for the land they gave up. This was done, even the landless got land and the new village gaothan was provided water supply, electricity, black top approach roads and access to schools. Their farms were provided well-irrigation by tapping existing state schemes. They all agreed to move away from free grazing of livestock in the forest to stall feeding, which also supplies biogas-based fuel for kitchen fires.
Amona, Nagartas, Dhargad opted to collect the National Tiger Conservation Authority package of 10 lakh rupees per adult in the family. The Forest Department and Collector’s Office chose to ‘hand-hold’ the process by providing two lakh rupees for relocation and construction of homes. To prevent men from squandering this sum, seven lakh rupees was placed in a long-term, monthly interest-yielding annuity, which cannot be encashed without the prior permission of a committee headed by the District Collector. Each family thus draws a monthly income of Rs. 6,500 (calculated at nine per cent interest with the State Bank of India). With prior permission of the Collector, 60 families chose to encash the bank deposit, and have purchased more than 70 ha. of valuable agricultural land.
Going beyond the legal stipulations of the ‘cash package’ to help develop the new village sites, the administration provided drinking water, electricity to each home, internal roads to newly-settled villages and more. All four newly-settled villages chose their own sites next to, or as part of an existing, developed gaothan so that they could benefit from existing infrastructure and connectivity to larger towns.
Credible NGOs such as the Satpuda Foundation led by Kishor Rithe worked with dynamic forest officials such as Srinivasa Reddy, then the Deputy Conservator, Akot and A. K. Mishra, Field Director, Melghat, because they knew that delivering real benefits to villagers was key to the tiger’s future.
Camera trap images reveal the return of gaur, chital and tiger to all the meadows that magically regenerated after the villages moved out. Following the principle of ‘nothing succeeds like success’, villages that were initially hesitant are now flooding us with requests for similar rehabilitation packages. This includes Semadoh, Somthana, Talai, Rora, Gullarghat and we now need to obtain the resources to enable this. An independent socio-economic study by the Amravati University reveals that in the rehabilitated villages the per capita income has tripled!
The larger Tadoba Landscape: Inviolate core with eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture in the buffer, inclusion of corridors in expanded Protected Area network“Why is the tiger coming to our village every day? Do something about it!” That was the continual refrain of one resident of Jamni village who kept disrupting a meeting I was attending to discuss the park-people relationship. I imagine that in bygone days Jim Corbett must have faced similar outcries, but the villager no longer had the option of summoning Jim Corbett to solve the problem his way!
Later that day I was at the Pandharpauni lake in Tadoba, when I saw a tigress with her four cubs that showed up as if on cue in response to the heat of summer. Ideally, villagers living around Tadoba and similar wild landscapes should profit from the presence of tigers. Instead today, the tourism trade and visitors benefit, while villagers are left paying the price in terms of loss of livestock, crop raiding and constant fear.
Tadoba, Jamni, Navegaon, and most of the families of Kolsa have opted for voluntary rehabilitation outside the park. Funds were allocated for Navegaon and Jamni to move to chosen sites at Amdi and Khadsanghi on the Mul-Nagpur road with irrigation, electricity and drinking water facilities at the gaothan itself.Tiger conservationist Bandu Dhotre, and the husband and wife team Poonam and Harsh Dhanwatey who run the Tiger Research And Conservation Trust (TRACT) have both played positive roles by working with the Forest Department, while representing the villagers’ interests.
But this is not enough. In the buffer zone and in forests under the Territorial Division of the Forest Department, serious tiger-poaching incidents have recently taken place. It is here that the spillover populations of tigers are lost after they leave the protective care of the 10 to 12 breeding females that occupy Tadoba’s core critical habitats. Strengthening less-protected forests such as the corridors leading to Bhivapur, Navegaon and Bor is therefore essential. This is what has occupied Dr. Vinay Sinha, Field Director, Tadoba, who did his PhD. in participatory Forest Management, over the past year. Working on a strategy to share revenues earned from tourism with villagers in the buffer zone, he used the gate fees of Rs. 45 lakhs lying with the Tadoba Tiger Foundation to give a sum of Rs. 51,000 to each of the 53 villages in the buffer zone. This was used for community welfare on necessities such as biogas plants and stall feeding of cattle.
He also placed a moratorium on more than 51 vehicles entering Tadoba’s core, while empowering the Junoana and Devada villages outside core areas to erect a gate and collect fees from visitors who chose to avail of a specially-created wildlife route managed by the village Eco-Development Committees (EDC). Additionally, local youth were trained as wildlife guides. With 15 more routes planned in the protected buffer, these areas promise wildlifesightings comparable to those in the core. The experiment seems to have succeeded. Seeds have been sown for livelihoods that sustain people, while benefitting the tiger.
Sustainable livelihoods linked to a rise in tiger and wildlife populations: Koyna, Chandoli and Bhimashankar: A mix of rehabilitation and community based eco-tourismVillages in the Koyna Sanctuary, like Dichauli, Punawali, Nahimbe and Ambheghar suffer a double burden. The Koyna reservoir has cut them off from their normal economic markets in Karad and Satara, and the declaration of the Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary has led to further restrictions on them, making transportation, livelihoods and energy a huge challenge. Such villages have been petitioning for rehabilitation for several years and we are trying to raise resources to meet their demands. Over the past year, the state Forest Department has managed to develop village infrastructure in Pulus and Babar Machi, where nearly 200 families have already shifted, free from crop depredation by wild pigs and sambar!
In the vast buffer zone around Koyna, Joint Forest Management Committees have become active. Working with the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve officials they have developed trekking routes for intrepid hikers who will be invited to walk designated trails on the understanding that theirs will be zero-garbage visits, and that all waste will be carried back out of the park. Local village guides, familiar with the area have been trained by expert naturalists who will add to the monitoring strength of poaching squads, particularly in the remote crest areas that are difficult to reach daily, even for forest guards, particularly during the monsoon.
Hope for the futureIn recent years, with advancing climate change, habitat destruction and pollution, India has been battered by bad news. But we also have news of resurrection and recoveries – for instance, the slow return of Gyps vultures (with the Bombay Natural History Society taking the lead) and olive Ridley sea turtles (thanks to Bhau Katdare and his inspirational team of volunteers off the coast of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg).
Recognising the wisdom of using the internal motivation of NGOs, the Maharashtra Forest Department is adding its strength by co-financing ‘vulture restaurants’ to ensure Diclofenac-free food. Support for collecting and hatching of olive Ridley turtle eggs and releasing them is underway. All the tiger reserves of the state have received support from Hemendra Kothari’s purposeful Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), which donates patrolling vehicles and equipment for forest staff. In the case of the GIB and the grey wolf, the process of protecting grasslands is underway, though the course is predictably long and uncertain.
It is my view that Homo sapiens may well be able to reverse the destruction of nature. This article is a plea to all of you to join hands with Forest Departments and conservationists to make this a reality. Admittedly we have a long way to go.But we now know the right direction.
by Praveen Pardeshi, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXII No.3, October 2012