Searching For Arcadia – Private Nature Reserves and The Promise That They Hold
From the Himalaya to the Western Ghats, a smattering of private sanctuaries and reserves are transforming conservation strategies. Cara Tejpal takes a walk in the woods, and suggests you do the same.
Photo: Sejal Worah.
Passion or duty? Which would you choose?
Both are admirable traits, but I suspect that when it comes to success, the former has a slim lead on the latter. Duty is that unforgiving taskmaster that is so often resented and avoided, but passion is the alluring, inescapable mistress that offers you pleasures untold. The way I see it, through India’s long, tumultuous conservation history, more has been protected and conserved by passion than by duty. Yes, forests have been notified, even maintained by the grudgingly dutiful, but they have only flourished under the watchful gaze of those who are in their thrall. Tadoba, for example, was declared a national park in 1955, but for years its landscape was pillaged despite its notification. Managerial intervention only came in 1997, when tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar and Indian Forest Officer Shree Bhagwan, fuelled by their love of the wilds, orchestrated the ‘Great Tadoba Turnaround’, and effectively changed the fortunes of the languishing park. Where the government seems to tragically have lost both passion and duty to conserve our Protected Areas, a new solution to the looming biodiversity crisis may be emerging as private conservancies and reserves begin to sprout across India.
Courtesy: Jabarkhet Nature Reserve.
Janaki, Poonam, Parvati and Pam
The permit to raft down the Cauvery hadn’t come through, so otter biologist Nisarg Prakash had trundled off to the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) office in Mysore to pull some strings. With his departure, wildlife filmmaker Rita Banerji or Ban, wildlife rehabilitator Saleem Hamid or Sal, and I, all in beautiful Coorg to trail Nisarg on his study, were left to our own devices. We did what any green-blooded wildlifer would do… and hired a car so we could visit every worthwhile wildlife destination in the vicinity.
On day three of our adventures, Ban insisted we visit SAI Sanctuary. We cruised down the blacktop, observing as the fragrant coffee plantations gave way to the clean symmetry of tea hedges that in turn abruptly relented to thick forest. Here, in a small clearing where stood a behemoth of a house overlooking a babbling brook, I met Pamela Malhotra for the first time. In 1991, Pam and her husband Anil had purchased 50 odd acres of estate in Coorg and established the SAI Sanctuary with the express purpose of re-wilding the land. Over 20 years later, with the gradual acquisition of surrounding farmlands, the rebirth of perennial streams, and resurgence of grazing meadows, the sanctuary, now near 400 acres in size, is a tranquil retreat for native wildlife.
As Pam led us through the quiet trails on a personal guided tour of ‘her’ forest, she stopped intermittently to paint pictures with words. “This is where a trio of wild piglets ran into my legs.” “Here in this stream is where a herd of elephants cut steps into the mud bank to help a struggling calf cross the water.” “I was walking along this very path when I first saw leopard pugmarks.” Pam’s passion infused us all, and by the time we returned to her house, crossing bridges and grasslands, I was near giddy with the realisation that private parks are a possibility in India.
Before we left, Pam took us to the rooftop to show us the solar panels and windmills that allow her and Anil to live off the grid. With the Brahmagiris shimmering in the distance and Racket-tailed Drongos swooping overhead, she urgently intoned, “If we want to save our wilds, we can’t depend on the government.”
In all probability, Parvati and Poonam don’t know Pam. They also probably don’t know each other, but they certainly seem to subscribe to Pam’s philosophy. In north Kumaon’s Gola corridor, in forests of oak and rhododendron, I encountered Parvati Lal, her sari hitched up to her shins, as she aggressively yanked out invasive weeds. Parvati, along with her husband and neighbours, maintains 100 acres of forest in Jilling, Uttarakhand, making a living through niche ecotourism ventures that are dependent on the integrity of the forest. In central India, Poonam Dhanwatey (see page 61) and her husband Harshawardhan, conservationists and now ecotourism professionals, were resiliently successful in re-wilding a barren parcel of land on the buffer of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. Unfenced from the surrounding forest, their small property attracts all the local wild residents, including tigers. Further south, Janaki Lenin and Rom Whitaker too have a re-wilding success story. Their 11 acre forested property in Chengalpattu near Chennai, where visitors can stay in rustic huts, once hosted only paddy fields.
Courtesy: Jabarkhet Nature Reserve.
Monsoon in Jabarkhet
My cheeks are flushed from walking, heavy mists envelope the mountain side and I can see legions of leeches swaying seductively on the leaf litter. Ahead of me, Ady and Viru, respectively the outreach coordinator and resident naturalist of Jabarkhet Nature Reserve (JNR), have stopped near a livid red mushroom and are animatedly consulting a field guide to discern its identity. Once they come to a consensus we move on, sending a Kalij Pheasant scuttling into the undergrowth, passing by quaint, wooden signposts that demarcate the path, and making our way to the top of Flag Hill where Buddhist prayer flags flutter a welcome. The forest is splendorous in its monsoon avatar.
I had first heard of JNR from a friend, while hiking in the lower reaches of the Great Himalayan National Park (see page 56). The idea of a resurrected wilderness, now managed as a nature reserve, with the ambition to be a profitable model without the attraction of a campsite or lodge was captivating. I need any excuse to head to the mountains, and this one seemed robust enough to pitch to my editors.
As I began to probe into the management of the reserve, I found that it’s almost entirely the product of one woman’s determination. Sejal Worah, Director of Programmes at WWF-India, returned to visit the mountains of Mussoorie where she had spent much of her early years to find jarring changes in the idyllic places of her childhood. There began Sejal’s journey to establish Jabarkhet Nature Reserve (see box below), and though the road has been bumpy, the fruits of her endeavour are beginning to ripen.
Conveniently located a few kilometres from the charming cantonment town of Landour, JNR spreads across 110 acres of recovering forest. In the two years since the land began to be actively managed from a conservation perspective, the flora and fauna have responded with exuberance.
As we make our way back down towards the entry gate, Viru pauses at the lone structure on the property – a storage shed – and retrieves a camera. The LED screen lights up and we start flicking through image after image of wildlife. Leopards, black bears, leopard cats, barking deer, goral and an assortment of birds flash before my eyes. The bears, he tells me, have returned to these parts after a hiatus of over a decade. Later when I meet Sejal at her office on New Delhi’s Lodi road, she verifies this, “It’s the acorns and the watering hole. We allowed the land to recover, and so the wildlife returned.” Author, nature lover, and Landour resident Stephen Alter, has stood witness to the rapid transformation of the area. When I meet him for a coffee at Rokeby Manor’s Emily Restaurant in Landour, he tells me of a spectacular walk in JNR last May. “A friend and I entered the reserve and almost immediately spotted goral in the meadow, further ahead we came across a pair of kakar on the path, and then as we approached the ridge between Flag hill and Bear mountain, we saw a leopard just 300 m. below us!”
Allowing nature to return has however proved to be the least of the challenges for Sejal. The JNR venture is initially based on a 30-year lease, and the model must prove financially viable within a timeframe of five to 10 years. With wildlife as the priority, no construction has been allowed in the reserve, and any money is made through gate entrance fees collected from day visitors, and institutional and individual memberships. But with running costs exceeding 10 lakhs an annum, interest in JNR will have to pick up. “Jabarkhet is proof that islanded fragments of forest can be productive. Look at what we’ve achieved in just two years,” asserts Sejal. “We have 300 species of wild flowers, uncountable types of mushrooms, the mountain spring provides a perennial water source, wildlife is flourishing, the bears are back, we have local employees, and we have the chance to show that conservation can be profitable for everyone involved!”
Sejal has an affinity for turtles. The window sill near her desk is lined with dozens of turtle figurines in ceramic and terracotta, jute and glass. Looking at them, I briefly wonder if they are some sort of allusion to the parable of the hare and the tortoise. It’s been a slow road to establishing JNR, she travels to the reserve every weekend, develops resource material, and networks the idea, all in her spare time, while still managing her impressive work profile with WWF-India. I can only hope now that success will steadily follow, because this is a race we will all benefit from if she wins.
Courtesy: Jabarkhet Nature Reserve.
Journey to Jabarkhet Nature Reserve
By Sejal Worah
During my teenage years, I was lucky to have spent a lot of time in Mussoorie. During those magical summers in the foothills of the Himalaya, we walked, hiked and explored, returning often to a place locally known as Flag Hill. This was one of our favourite hikes, taking us along a ridge to the top of a small hill festooned with Tibetan prayer flags and affording glorious views of the surrounding villages, mountains and snow peaks.
Flag Hill was a special place, and in our minds, it was always going to “be there”. We didn’t wonder who owned it, whether it was a government forest or a Protected Area – like many others, we just used it for our own pleasure. While we lamented over the trash thrown by visitors, and the occasional snare set for wildlife – we did not notice the excessively lopped oak trees, the increasing bare ground exposed through trampling and grazing of generations of livestock, the insidious takeover of the native vegetation by the exotic weed Eupatorium, and many other signs of overuse. real6.ch
A quarter of a century later, after years spent overseas and in India studying and then working in the field of environmental conservation, I returned to Mussoorie. It was a shock and a wakeup call. While I had been away preaching and teaching conservation to the rest of the world, the place that I called ‘home’ had suffered from all the impacts of poorly planned development and environmental neglect. Going back to Flag Hill as a conservation professional, and seeing it as it was – a typical example of an open access forest with no stakeholders to manage or control resource exploitation - was depressing. Most alarming of all was the rampant development of every inch of land and the eyeing by developers of any area that was not “utilised”. The forests of Flag Hill and its surrounding areas fell into this category and I wondered how long they would survive.
It was time to take action. At the time, the idea of setting up a Nature Reserve was far from my mind. All I wanted to do was to find a way to conserve the forests in and around Jabarkhet (the name of the area and the nearest settlement) of which Flag Hill was a part. I knew by now that these forests were privately owned but I had no idea how to find the owners. Luck and serendipity stepped in. My sister happened to meet Vipul Jain, a Mumbai resident and the owner of the hill and surrounding forests at a school reunion. She told him about my ideas and he agreed to meet me. We had a long talk and found that there was a connection. Vipul was interested in my vision of a conservation model as he related this to the early efforts made by his late father who managed and cared for these forests. He agreed to set aside just over 100 acres of his land for conservation in memory of his father.
We then set up a partnership and the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, Uttarakhand’s first private Nature Reserve was born. Having a business background, Vipul convinced me that the only viable conservation model was one that would be economically self-sustaining, and talked me out of my naïve ideas of setting up a trust or an NGO. With my conservation background and his business brain, we have set up JNR anticipating that it will support conservation, enhance local livelihoods, impart nature education and serve as a model for other private forest owners. If JNR can demonstrate that conservation can indeed bring economic returns, it will have served a conservation purpose that will echo far beyond its 100-acre boundary.
In the two years since I started active management of the area with the help of a small team of local villagers, we have cleaned the trash, restored the forests and wildlife, created jobs, trained local youth, documented the flora and fauna, developed nature trails and walks, created interpretation materials and are now welcoming visitors.
Author: Cara Tejpal, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 10, October 2015.