Earth Heroes – The Sanctuary Wildlife Awards 2013
The challenges of the 21st century need a special breed of heroes... extraordinary individuals whose reservoirs of integrity, courage and wisdom are deeper than humanity has ever needed. Women and men that can rise above political correctness, personal gain and public opposition to right the man-made wrongs that continue to be foisted on all life on Earth. Meet a select few from among the thousands of good people that are making our world a safer, happier place on these pages.
LIFETIME SERVICE AWARD
We were in search of a true hero – someone whose life’s purpose and respect for nature can be held out as an inspiration to the youth of India.
Courageous, determined and effective, this defender of our wilds laid the foundations of India’s wildlife movement five decades ago and has served as a field worker, administrator, lobbyist and activist all rolled into one.
The daughter of an Indian Civil Service officer, she spent her childhood in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, where her passion for wildlife was nurtured. As a child, she would search for scorpions, follow tigers’ pugmarks on golf courses and watch panthers leap across the parapets of Amravati’s rugged Gawilgarh Fort. Anne lived at an age when shikar was commonplace, and wildlife conservation really became part of her life when she saw the impact of the great drought of 1967 and 1968, which took a massive toll of wildlife in the jungles of Bihar. She imbibed much of her knowledge and values from the legendary E.P. Gee and helped set up the World Wildlife Fund in India in 1969. In 1971, she wrote an exposé in Calcutta’s leading newspaper, The Statesman, describing the shocking trade in big cat skins in Calcutta’s New Market. The article was republished in The New York Times, headlined “Doom awaits tigers and leopards unless India acts swiftly.” The story raised an outcry and was one of the first serious documentations of the large-scale slaughter of India’s wild tigers and leopards. As one of the most trusted advisors of the late Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Anne was appointed as a member of India’s elite Tiger Task Force in 1972. After carrying out a rapid survey of key tiger habitats, the Task Force prepared a remarkable document titled ‘Project Tiger; a planning proposal for the preservation of tigers in India’. Launched the following year, initially with nine tiger reserves, this was the beginning of one of the most ambitious wildlife conservation projects in history.
Anne Wright also worked with others on the drafting of the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1972, and personally pushed through the creation of a number of Protected Areas, including the Dalmia Wildlife Sanctuary in what is now Jharkhand (1976), Balphakram National Park in Meghalaya (1986) and Neora Valley National Park in West Bengal (1986).
Anne served on the Indian Board for Wildlife for 19 long years. She was also on the Wildlife Boards of seven states from Meghalaya to the Andamans and was at the forefront of India’s conservation movement for decades. She established and continues to Chair the Rhino Foundation and supported a number of organisations including Aaranyak in their early stages of inception. In recognition of her service to wild India, Anne was awarded the Order of the Golden Ark in 1979, and the ‘Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ (MBE) in 1983.
From tigers, elephants, and rhinos, to hornbills and pygmy hogs, she has worked tirelessly over a lifetime to protect them all.
For this, we honour her.
Photo Courtesy: Anne Wright’s Collection.
WILDLIFE SERVICE AWARDS
We were in search of inspired wildlifers, forest employees, researchers, villagers or anyone currently involved in nature conservation in the field who have displayed extraordinary courage, dedication and determination and set personal standards for others to follow.
He was 10 years old when he saw his first tiger. It was dead. The animal had strayed into Jamespur village and had been hammered to death by villagers. Traumatised, he vowed to do something for wildlife, especially for tigers. Today, Sarbaranjan works passionately for the conservation of the mangroves and wildlife of the Sundarbans. He earns his living from his small farm and by tutoring students. He organises his life around the work he does for the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. He is currently working for the Society for Heritage & Ecological Researches (SHER) on a project aimed at dealing with tiger-human conflicts in the Sundarbans and raising awareness through campaigns at schools, local clubs, organisations and joint forest management committees.
Sarbaranjan has been coordinating an anti-poaching information network in coordination with the field staff of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve since 1996. Many raids have been conducted and a substantial amount of bush-meat, nylon snares, and timber has been recovered based on information provided by him over the years. His tip-offs have helped officials arrest a number of poachers. For his trouble, he lives under constant threat to his life from notorious poaching gangs.
Sarbaranjan believes that reducing tiger-human conflict in the delta and assisting foresters to rescue straying tigers from villages is critical to the long-term future of the tiger in the Sundarbans.
Nevertheless, he is anything but tiger-centric, having rescued salt-water crocodiles, monitor lizards, chital, wild pigs, fishing cats and birds whenever they got trapped behind ‘enemy lines’ in villages. He works with the West Bengal Forest Department to rehabilitate and, whenever possible, release such animals back to the wild. In the Sundarbans, his work in rescuing wild species from villages during Cyclone Aila in 2009 turned him into a trusted hero in the region. Currently, he conducts door-to-door awareness campaigns in villages and is busy fashioning students and teachers into a strong support base for tigersand mangroves.
For this, we honour him.
Photo: Joydip Suchandra Kundu/Sher.
Joint Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, Mumbai, Keshav Kumar was the police officer in charge of investigating the poaching of 10 Asiatic lions in early 2007 at the Gir National Park in Gujarat. Samir Sinha, the country head of TRAFFIC India, said at the time, “The tools of conventional forensic methods were used for the first time in wildlife crime in India and it is Kumar who deserves full credit for cracking the case.” Thirty-seven poachers from Madhya Pradesh, the highest number of people convicted in a wildlife crime case in India, were brought to justice. The forensic interface gave a new dimension to solving wildlife crimes in the state. At the time, Kumar, a 1986-batch IPS officer of the Gujarat cadre, had no knowledge about wildlife crime though he had 23 years of experience solving conventional crimes with orthodox police training.
One of India’s most respected police officers, his forte lies in the application of forensics and usage of new investigative techniques and tools in crime investigation. A lecture on ‘Convergence of Conventional Forensics and Wildlife Crime Investigation’ delivered by him to the Interpol’s Environmental Crime Division received near-perfect scores for relevance, presentation, and content. He has delivered a series of lectures at the National Police Academy, Gujarat High Court’s Judicial Academy, the Rajasthan Police Academy and the Directorate of Forensic Science and Laboratory, Gandhinagar. For his unstinting service to the nation he was presented with the President’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service on Independence Day, 2012. He was also responsible for the creation of the CID Wildlife Crime Cell and continues to be relied upon by state after state to help them unravel wildlife crimes. Without a doubt his strategic inputs will raise the conviction rate for wildlife crimes in the days ahead.
For this, we honour him.
Photo Courtesy: Keshav Kumar.
Maheswar Basumatary (Ontai)
Ontai is many people rolled up in one. Tracker, photographer, naturalist and wildlife defender, his education was secured in the school of hard knocks. Quiet, yet purposeful, he has had a rough time. Really rough. Born in Bodoland, an autonomous district in Assam, he grew up with strife all round, which forced him out of school. Married at 19, with no job in hand, he fell in with the wrong crowd and turned to helping poachers as a tracker. When his wife learned of his source of income and the dark life he led, she abandoned him, leaving him to deal with his own shattered life and two young children. Jolted, he turned adversity to advantage and changed the very course of his life.
He did a complete u-turn in 2005, surrendering to the Assam government and joining a community-based organisation (CBO) working to protect the forest. He never looked back. One positive step led to another until he was invited to join the International Fund for Animal Welfare – Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW-WTI) in 2009 as part of the Greater Manas Conservation Project. Tough and effective, he was even featured in a National Geographic documentary The Return of the Clouded Leopards and is currently hand-rearing orphaned rhino calves for reintroduction into Manas as a key part of the IFAW-WTI work force.
Working with the Assam Forest Department with other members of the Bodoland Forest Protection Force (BFPF) before joining IFAW-WTI, he helped apprehend five poachers in the Sanfan Range of Manas’ Kachugaon Forest Division. He works on a regular basis with a motivated network of locals to unearth arms and ammunition used for poaching for bush meat. Fearless, he and his team have come to be known as fierce protectors and when they challenged a gang of eight poachers they forced them to abandon their arms and ammunition and the wild meat they were carrying. An invaluable aid to researchers, he has helped survey elephants and golden langurs for the Forest Department in the Bodoland area.
For Ontai Basumatary, the fact that his 18-year-old son has followed in his footsteps and works for a CBO in Bodoland is a matter of great pride and personal satisfaction. Resolute, composed and strong, his ability to think clearly in difficult situations and his determination to protect the wild heritage of the Bodo people has earned him the nickname ‘Ontai’ or rock. He is an inspiration for a young India that aspires to repair the damage done to the natural world.
For this, we honour him.
Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/IFAW-WTI.
T.S. Subramaniya Raja
T. S. Subramaniya Raja had decided he would be a crusader for wildlife way back when he received the first prize in a nature-themed drawing competition conducted by the Forest Department of Tamil Nadu. Born in Rajapalayam in the foothills of the Western Ghats, his love for wildlife developed organically and he launched the Wildlife Association of Rajapalayam (WAR) for Nature in response to the mindless damage he saw being inflicted on a landscape he loved.
His conservation work is focused on the southern Western Ghats, principally through advocacy, nature education and research. A natural leader, he was instrumental in stopping the construction of a new road which threatened to cut clean through a portion of the Srivilliputur Grizzled Giant Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary. He won the support of farmers for the protection of the squirrels and played a key role in exposing on-going illegalities in tiger habitats in the proximity of Rajapalayam.
Raja firmly believes that educating young people is key to the future of the forests and wildlife of India. He reaches out to thousands of students, teachers and people from all walks of life through nature education programmes and emphasises the importance of our wildlife and their forest homes.
On being presented with a ‘Special Conservation Award’ at the M. Krishnan Centenary Year Celebrations in 2012 at Bengaluru, he explained the rationale for the acronym ‘WAR’ by stating that nothing less than a war could protect the forests of India that were being lost. He said that he would not rest until this battle was won.
For this, we honour him.
Photo: K. Ramnath Chandrashekar.
Jitendra S. Ramgaokar, Vishal Mali and Vishal Bansod
Working closely with Korku tribal communities, Jitendra S. Ramgaokar, a 2006 batch officer of the Indian Forest Service began work in the Melghat landscape as Deputy Conservator of Forest, Chikaldhara in 2011. He has been quietly but confidently going about the business of developing stakes of local communities in conservation and responsible tourism. He is also working with determination to keep tigers and their associated wildlife safe from harm’s way.
Ramgaokar is working with colleagues to strengthen the Forest Department’s wildlife crime detection capability through the recently institutionalised Wildlife Crime Cell. As a key member of the investigation team, ably assisted by Vishal Mali and Vishal Bansod, he was critical to the arrest of over 20 poachers, including some traders from Delhi, involved in a poaching case in the East Melghat Division in June 2013. All these offenders were arrested and are currently being tried. Working closely with the police, the investigating team used mobile phone records and activated a network of informers to apprehend the perpetrators from different parts of India in record time.
Mali is the ACF, Protection, Gugamal Division of the Melghat Tiger Reserve and he has shown tremendous potential despite this being his first posting after training. He has actively conceptualised the wildlife crime cell in Melghat. Bansode has been working with the Forest Department in Melghat for over a decade and he played a pivotal role in this case by analysing data and carrying out recces to find the poachers.
Aware of the need to win over communities living around the park, Ramgaokar worked to guarantee employment to local youth, whom he introduced to the potential of livelihoods from sensitive ecotourism. He guided Chikaldhara’s Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMC) in villages encouraging them to levy disturbance fees from tourist vehicles, training guides and offering vocational training that provided young persons with jobs. The Rs. 20 lakh that was collected over two years was distributed directly to villages that now manage sensitive tourist sites around Melghat and Chikhaldara town. As many as 27 young persons from nine villages are now employed, and an ecotourism complex at Amzari village, with residential accommodation and other facilities offers a reliable source of income through a pooled village development account. Another group of 15 people have been trained as naturalists and tourist guides.
There can be no doubt that Ramgaokar is part of Melghat’s solution. In this, one of India’s most dynamic tiger habitats, the infusion of purpose has triggered several responses from the Maharashtra State Government, which has made funds available for an effective wireless communication system, fire-fighting capability, and patrols of the boundary – all geared to ensure that villagers living directly on Melghat’s boundary benefit more directly from living wild species than dead ones.
For this, we honour him and his team.
Photo: Forest Staff/East Melghat Forest Division.
YOUNG NATURALIST AWARDS
We were in search of young naturalists or conservationist, for whom the study and defense of nature is the purpose of life, whose actions speak louder than words and who inspire hope for the future.
This young naturalist from the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve is living proof that working with children is probably the most effective way to usher in paradigm shifts in our nation’s attitude to wildlife. Currently, one of his major preoccupations is to keep both tigers and people safe when a big cat strays into human habitats on the periphery of the park. Two young tigers in particular, B1 and B2, were headed for conflict with the residents of the Khawa village in 2012, when Meghraj brought their presence to the notice of Govardhan Meena, Sanctuary’s Kids for Tigers Coordinator in Ranthambhore. In short order, wildlife officials were alerted, and conflict was avoided. Both tigers, incidentally, were later translocated to Sariska.
When Kids for Tigers, the Sanctuary Tiger Programme, was launched in 2000, Meghraj Saini was just three years old. By the time he was six, he began to hang around the older kids, who would visit Fateh Singh Rathore’s Maa Farm, where many of Sanctuary’s meetings used to be held. By sheer osmosis, Meghraj grew into what turned out to be his mission in life – to save the tigers of Ranthambhore and win support from villagers whose relationship with the tiger reserve was at best strained. By the year 2006, he served notice to all and sundry that he was a force to contend with as far as tiger conservation went. At 16 years, he is now a living embodiment of the Kids for Tigers’ mission. Born in Khawa to a family of farmers on the very edge of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, he travels from village to village, organising meetings to win support for the tiger, explaining how to avoid conflict and drawing children into conservation through plays, competitions, clean-up initiatives and more. Now studying for his B.Sc at the Government College, Sawai Madhopur, he has already become a force to reckon with and a vital link between people and the park. Wise beyond his years and a realist, he says that much more work has to be done with the community to improve the quality of their lives and encourage livelihoods that are in harmony with wildlife. We have no doubt that Meghraj Saini is already defining the future of wildlife conservation, not only around Ranthambhore, but across India.
For this, we honour him.
Photo: Govardhan Meena.
Rahul became involved with the Vikramshila Biodiversity Research and Education Center, Bihar, a group that protects dolphins in the Ganges river as it flows past his home-town, Patna. Exposed to the socioeconomic realities of the fishing community and to the insensitive river management policies, he began work on a project titled ‘Dolphin Mitra’ or Friends of the Dolphins earlier this year. The project seeks to involve fishermen in the task of monitoring and protecting the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary. He knows it’s a long road ahead, but a start has already been made by a network of vigilant fishermen who are working within their own community to usher in safer practices that are sensitive to the needs of dolphins.
In October this year, Rahul won the global Wilder World Challenge, and was invited to present his work at the 10th World Wilderness Congress (WWC) held in Salamanca, Spain. Disappointed by the lack of cohesive groups or channels for young persons in Bihar to tackle hardcore wildlife conservation issues, he created a network of people whose unity he uses to push for conservation action. Their combined efforts have exposed cases of corruption and illegal wildlife trade in different regions of Bihar. Rahul has also been fighting against the illegal extraction of snake venom and the trade in snakes using snake charmers as a cover. Rahul Kumar represents a new breed of young conservationists impatient to right wrongs and willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect wild species by tirelessly campaigning to create a wilder world.
For this, we honour him.
Photo Courtesy: Rahul Kumar.
She has been engaged with biodiversity conservation since she was 10 years old. Currently a part of the vibrant Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN), she was selected to attend the National Geographic Student Expedition 2011 to Costa Rica for Biodiversity and Conservation. A Leadearth Fellow and REX Global Karmaveer Fellow, she has spoken about environmental issues at various forums like the UNEP Tunza Asia Pacific Conference 2012, Asia Youth Leader’s Summit 2013 and TEDxYouth@Chennai 2013.
Articulate and inspiring, at the age of 13, Riddhima launched her own taskforce, Youth for the Environment (YFTE). Today, she balances academics with activism in the best possible way by stirring other young persons to get involved with issues that will determine their future very soon. She has been one of the Youth Advocates for WWF-India’s Earth Hour and has been one of CNN-IBN’s young citizen journalists, highlighting environmental issues. All this has earned her some well-deserved recognition and she was selected to be part of Stanford University’s Education Programme for Gifted Youth.
Who knows what lies ahead for young Riddhima Yadav but given her ambition, her penchant for adventure and her dogged persistence, it is clear she is going to be one of the driving forces for India’s environmental future.
For this, we honour her.
Photo Courtesy: Riddhima Yadav.
GREEN TEACHER AWARDS
We were in search of individuals with missionary zeal and a proven environmental track record, who set an example for other teachers to follow.
Teachers are our first line of defense in winning the support of our children for wildlife protection in India. And teachers like M.N. Shadakshari exemplify both purpose and drive in reaching out to the next generation. Based in Chikmagalur, right next to the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, he has spent a lifetime helping children develop organic connections with nature. He is also the District Chief Commissioner of Scouts and Guides, for which he was awarded a medal by the President of India, for his 44 years of service.
He began his teaching career in August 1968 with the Mountain View School in Chikmagalur and served as the Vice-Principal for 23 long years before taking over as Principal of the Model English High School, Uppalli, on November 1, 1991, a post he continues to hold.
Quite literally, thousands of students have been guided to walk paths that take them closer to wild India through an exploration of science and nature. Many young people say they were so inspired by him that they have chosen to work on conservation issues full time. Long before it became fashionable to do so, he used to deliver talks and hold workshops for young persons on global warming, the need to cut individual carbon footprint, the protection of wild species and how to strategically tackle conservation hurdles. Years after they left school, his students still remember “Shadakshari Sir’s” simple lessons and kindly guidance. Way back in 1982, he began organising nature camps and hikes for children who he believed would learn more from actual visits to wildlife sanctuaries and national parks than they could from books.
Not satisfied with restricting his communication to students, he continues to bring conservation issues to the notice of bureaucrats and politicians. He worked with wildlife conservation groups to implement the Bhadra Rehabilitation Project, has exposed illegal mining and felling of trees in forests and the pollution of Karnataka’s pure rivers. He believes that we owe our children a green future as an article of faith and has ignited the imagination of students and instilled in them a visceral love for nature.
For this, we honour him.
Photo: D.V. Girish.
Professor Dr. G. D. Muratkar
He heads the Botany and Environmental Science Department of the Arts, Science and Commerce College at Chikhaldara, on the very edge of the Melghat Tiger Reserve. Despite budgets constraints and academic pressures he manages not merely to inspire his students but takes time to be with them in the wild, to instill in them a love of botany and a passion for our wild flora.
Over the past decades he has shaped hundreds of students and has infused them with knowledge and concern for one of the least noticed plant categories… grasses. His specific interest has been the study of grasslands in our sanctuaries and national parks and his work in protecting and studying the meadows of the Melghat Tiger Reserve, Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, Pench Tiger Reserve, Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary, Navegaon Bandh and Katepurna Sanctuary in Maharashtra and Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Pench Tiger Reserve, Sanjay-Dubri Tiger Reserve and Ralamandal Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh has greatly enhanced the productivity of these critical wildlife habitats to support larger numbers of herbivores. A prolific scholar, he has also authored two field books on the grasses and medicinal plants of Melghat. Indefatigable and impatient to communicate the vital importance of grassland conservation, he regularly works with the Maharashtra Forest Department to hold workshops and training programmes to raise the level of knowledge and skills of guards, foresters and officials at the Maharashtra Forest Rangers’ College in Chikhaldhara.
By enveloping young and old into his mission to understand, conserve and protect the grasslands of India, he has demonstrated the power that lies hidden in the minds and purpose of all green teachers.
For this, we honour him.
Photo Courtesy: Dr. G.D. Muratkar.
WIND UNDER THE WINGS AWARD
We looked for an organisation that had enabled an employee or had supported someone to defend nature by making resources available and by providing the intellectual space for them to follow their own green mission.
Gnatola ma no kpon sia, eyenabe adelan to kpo mi sena. – Ewe-mina
(Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story). – An African proverb: The Ewe-mina are one of the major ethnic groups of Benin, Ghana and Togo.
Environmental writers are vital to our task of placing nature conservation in the right perspective. They give voice to wild India and down the years Sanctuary has honoured both reporters and the papers or TV channels for which they work for helping us reach out to the public. Times of India reporter Krishnendu Mukherjee is one of those persistent journalists whose voice has come to be recognised and trusted in eastern India. Based in West Bengal, he unfailingly draws connections between the enjoined issues of climate change, biodiversity and ecosystem loss. Supported by his editors, he has become one of India’s most dependable sources of information on wild India. His investigative stories and reportage on initiatives such as the first-ever camera trapping exercise on the tigers of the Sundarbans exposed the truth about tigers in a geography that continues to be infamously difficult to access. His unbiased reporting on the battle in Buxa between the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), which claimed that there is no photographic evidence for tigers in the reserve, and wildlifers who say that there are 19 tigers and ask that a vital relocation programme for villagers continue, has garnered a lot of attention.
His articles on the lives and challenges of fishermen in the Sundarbans explored facets of the community that threw light on nuances of people-park relationships crucial to the future of the tiger. He was also the first to investigate the story of a melanistic leopard cat in the Sundarbans and the presence of melanistic barking deer in the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary. His writings on the Santragachi Wetland of Howrah district helped draw attention to the need to protect this vital migratory bird habitat and his hard-hitting reportage on the controversial Sikkim-Rongpo broad-gauge railway track forced the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) to pay attention to an issue that might otherwise have been overlooked. What makes Mukherjee stand out above all else is that his loyalty lies squarely with the truth. Without let, hindrance or favour, he reports on issues without worrying about who is implicated, or damaged. One such report underscored the fact that central protection funds were being spent on setting up inappropriate concrete structures right in the core area of the Sundarbans, and compelling the NTCA to intervene and take corrective action.
His concern extends beyond the perimeter of ‘wildlife’ stories. He has written incisive pieces on climate change, the diversion of wildlife habitats for commercial projects and on the threat of genetic swamping of endangered species. Known to take a hard line in favour of truthful environmental reporting, he has the support and the trust of his management at the Times of India, a very encouraging achievement in an age when the independence of the media is threatened from the inside and the outside.
For this, we honour him.
Photo: Times of India – Kolkata.
SPECIAL TIGER AWARD
We looked for an individual who is working quietly to give the tiger what it needs: space, isolation and protection.
He is a member of the Khadsangi Gram Panchayat (village council), holds an engineering degree… and saves tigers. Part of a community of round 200 families living in the Ramdegi village at Navegaon, at the northern end of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, he was unhappy that the people of his village lacked basic facilities including education and health and that they simply had no job opportunities. All farmers, they also lived in constant dread of tigers and leopards when their children roamed about unsupervised. Worse, carefully nurtured crops were often trampled by wild animals.
This is why he took the lead in winning unanimity through the gram panchayat to put an end to all problems in one fell swoop. On November 8, 2011, the villagers, led by Azhar Sheikh, passed a resolution demanding relocation of the entire village. He carried this resolution to the Maharashtra Government, which responded three weeks later by confirming that every family would be rehabilitated, with dignity, equity and alacrity on November 28, 2011.
Azhar Sheikh, was nominated as the President of the Rehabilitation Coordination Committee in Navegaon and he systematically planned and facilitated the shift from harm’s way to a new village site in the Chimur taluka that the families had unitedly chosen. Sheikh now ensured that every family was not merely financially compensated for their land, but were given financial assistance to construct new homes and that their lands were readied for farming. Electricity and water supplies were speedily provided, thanks to Sheikh’s dogged, coordination with all concerned government agencies. He also held meeting after meeting to ensure that the smallest grievance of every family was addressed, including the guarantee of compensation to unempowered widows and orphans whose interests he placed above those of the rest.
Sheikh left no stone unturned. At the new site he threw himself into home construction, farmland preparation, construction of school buildings, setting up self-help groups for women and he even helped create an Eco-tourism Committee so his people could benefit from the biodiversity that now flourishes in Tadoba. Virtually every department of the government helped this effort move along smoothly and the villagers now have safe homes, productive, irrigated fields, schools, and incomes from small-scale industries and tourism.
Forty-year-old Sheikh says he is proud of the small but crucial role he played in the rehabilitation process. “I was just a bridge between people and the park authorities. I will gladly help other villagers who wish to change their fortunes. I will also work to protect the tigers of Tadoba, and to see that living tigers improve the lives of those living next to them. The efforts of compassionate, caring individuals such as Sheikh give us reason to hope that India can be rewilded, even as its peoples’ lives are dramatically improved.
For this, we honour him.
Photo: Kalyan Kumar.
SANCTUARY’S BEST PROTECTED AREA AWARD 2013
These are difficult days for wildlife in India. Yet those mandated with protecting our natural heritage must somehow keep the protection flag flying, and the morale of their field staff and officers up. After searching the length and breadth of India for a Protected Area whose management, staff and local communities were relatively in sync, we honed in on the Greater Gir Protected Area as the one that came closest to harmonising even conflicting variables to the advantage of the wild species in their charge.
Gir Forest National Park
Gir is one of India’s oldest national parks, and it is thanks to this wilderness that the Asiatic lion was returned from the brink and thrives today. In the process, uncounted endangered and rare plant and animal species have flourished, on account of continuous, coordinated and scientific management by the Gujarat Forest Department. What is particularly admirable is the fact that sensible attitudes all round have enabled a pastoral society to accept that wild lions and their co-inhabitants are an acceptable, even essential part of their lives. This despite the fact that pastoral communities have had to face greater and greater crop and livestock losses with every passing day, because the numbers of both herbivores and carnivores has risen dramatically.
How has this happy circumstance come to be? Because unlike many other national parks and sanctuaries, in Gir, protection trumps all other priorities for the management and staff. Predictably, lion populations have risen dramatically and the cats now occupy new territories far beyond Gir’s boundary. Their range has been extended from the original 1,450 sq. km. to over 10,000 sq. km. today, incorporating six satellitic populations in as many as five districts, namely Junagadh, Gir Somnath, Amreli, Bhavnagar and Rajkot. This pro-active outward spread of lions automatically led to the next vital management imperative – treating the Protected Area as part of the larger landscape.
Aware of the potential man-animal conflict, animal rescue teams have been placed at strategic locations that enable them to reach conflict zones in quick time. By winning the confidence and support of local communities, as many as 600 animal rescues were undertaken in the past year, often with the active help of villagers.
Additionally parapet walls have been constructed around an astounding 19,000 unsafe wells way beyond the Gir National Park, to prevent wild animals from falling into them and drowning. The Lion Task Force, which includes all-terrain vehicles and intensive foot-patrols, has received very significant training and equipment for protection from the Wildlife Conservation Trust. All this goes hand in hand with nature education that reaches villages around Gir and Gujarat’s larger towns and cities. As many as 300 Vanyaprani Mitras (Friends of Wildlife) have been appointed by the wildlife authorities and they now help monitor lion and ungulate movement around Gir with help from community members.
Tourists are looked upon as partners and ambassadors and local communities genuinely profit from tourism. The park authorities are carefully monitoring tourism to ensure that it is ecologically and socio-culturally sustainable. Staff morale is high and even their families are offered dignified, comfortable housing and hostel facilities. Trained officials routinely hold workshops and orientation courses for field staff, guides and volunteers.
The Government of India and the Gujarat Forest Department both look upon the Biodiversity Conservation and Rural Livelihood Improvement Project (BCRLIP) as a learning centre that offers opportunities to individuals to learn to live with wild species and a great deal of reliance is placed on scientific research. More than just protecting lions, what the Gir National Park and the administrative and political system in the geography occupied by the lions have demonstrated is that regenerating landscapes and expanding populations of wild species can help to improve peoples lives, even as revitalised ecosystems help us to sequester and store carbon and moderate our climate.
For this, we honour the Gujarat Forest Department, led by its Chief Wildlife Warden and his team.
Photo: Dr. Sandeep Kumar.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXIII No. 6, December 2013.