Meet Poonam And Harshawardhan Dhanwatey – Tadoba Tiger Reserve’s Most Persistent Defenders
Photo Courtesy: TRACT.
A Nagpur-based husband and wife team, co-founders of Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT), he a businessman and former member of the State Board for Wildlife and she the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Chandrapur District, have a common mission – to save tigers and their wild homes. Having made the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve the centre of their lives, they work ceaselessly to protect what is fast becoming recognised as one of the most exciting tiger habitats in the world. They spoke to Bittu Sahgal at their forest home in Tigress@Ghosri in the buffer area of Tadoba, which they are working to make more hospitable to tigers, while creating livelihoods for communities on their own resurrected lands.
What started all this? What triggered the obvious love you both have for tigers and wildlife?
We both have great memories of respective family trips to the forests around our hometown, Nagpur, all through our childhoods. Shivajirao Dhanwatey (Harshawardhan’s father) was a brilliant photographer. And Dr. D.P. Sethi (Poonam’s father) was an Honorary Wildlife Warden and one of TRACT’s founder trustees. Both planted vibrant seeds of nature- and wildlife-appreciation in us. Ours has therefore been a shared passion through our years together. We would spend days on end in the forests around Nagpur, driving off-road through wildernesses when virtually no one else used to visit the havens we knew. Then a meeting with Dr. Ullas Karanth and Valmik Thapar in 2000 gave us our bearings and helped us turn our passion into a mission that would make a long-term difference. That is how TRACT was born.
Tell us about TRACT.
Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT), was started in 2001 as a not-for-profit organisation (www.tractindia.org) to protect tigers, other wild species and their habitat. More than a decade later our strength lies in the fact that trained local tribal youth who are in touch with ground realities actually run and manage our programmes. TRACT facilitates protection for tigers and their habitat within and beyond the reserve boundary. We also help facilitate the voluntary rehabilitation of villages from within the reserves and work on the mitigation of human-large carnivore conflicts. TRACT, a member of the Global Tiger Forum, collaborates with a host of organisations that share our purpose. This includes the Wildlife Conservation Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Born Free Foundation, The Smithsonian Institution, Oxford University, the University of Southern Illinois, The 21st Century Tiger, International Trust for Nature Conservation, Wildlife Conservation Trust, Sanctuary Asia and the Maharashtra State Forest Department. And there are more; we are more collaborative than most!
And when did you decide Ghosri would be your home?
It was in 2000, when Kanha, Bandhavgarh, and Pench were all the rage and virtually no national organisations were more than just peripherally involved with Tadoba. We started quietly, working on conservation issues in the Tadoba landscape. It was during our initial field surveys and driving through the less traversed roads of Tadoba’s periphery that we came to a village called Ghosri. Away from the hustle and bustle of commercial tourism, nestled between the Bhavgarh, Katezari and Ghosri hills, near the local Bhudukdev deity, with Tadoba’s core to our east, we found the most barren parcel of land, which no one wanted because it was totally devoid of water. No one had farmed the land for generations. But we took one look at it and it had ‘home’ written all over it.
What did others in the Dhanwatey family think about this? Their roots are in Nagpur!
Well, the Dhanwateys have been a shikar family until a ban on hunting was put in place. Stories of erstwhile hunting blocks being booked for family escapes still do the rounds during get-togethers. Harsh’s grandfather was known for having shot the man-eating tiger of Degma barely 25 km. from Nagpur. Back in the 1950s, man-eaters were not uncommon, but shikar in hunting blocks was only permitted in the designated areas. Inspired by Dr. George Schaller’s Kanha research, Shivajirao Dhanwatey quickly substituted guns for cameras the day the ban was put in place.
The family now takes great pride in the work done by TRACT and us. Our passion and need for being close to wildlife is now ‘perfectly normal’. In taking this forward, our son Nikhil is also helping local communities with their homestays with a platform he has created for them through his website ‘livingwithtigers.com’
Photo Courtesy: TRACT.
You have wanted to turn farms to forests for almost five years now. What was the spark of the idea? And do you see this as the future of conservation?
It really was not rocket science. We turned a barren, unfenced piece of land, bought in 2000, into a lush forest inside of four years merely by stopping grazing, the lopping of trees and by encouraging the regeneration of root stock. Soon shrubs re-emerged, branches grew longer, the grass grew taller, and before we knew it the nilgai came visiting. We created a tiny, two-metre, saucer-shaped waterhole in 2001 on the edge of the property and using a hand-operated pump, we ensured that fresh water was made available round-the-clock. A local sloth bear that the villagers named Bakul began to visit frequently and eventually, so did tigers and leopards. Before we knew it, wild dogs, a tigress with cubs, a pair of leopards, jungle cats and many shy herbivores began to use the waterhole like a timeshare! More sloth bears, fairly large sounders of wild pig, and the ubiquitous langurs began to show up in the infra-red video cameras set up by our son Nikhil. These also revealed porcupines, civets, owls and a host of other nocturnal creatures. The latest in the list of visitors is a pair of dholes and more than a hundredfruit bats.
Was this very expensive?
Hardly! Anyone who lives next to a biodiverse area can regreen their own land. If barren patches of land are forested simply by protecting them and encouraging endemic species to take root, wild habitat for animals will emerge on its own. Marginal farms on the periphery of reserves and in the buffer are constantly raided by wild herbivores. They are not sustainable because people have to look to government for crop raid compensation for at least some part of the year. If ownership of such lands continues to stay with the farmers and good people work with them to restore their lands to a natural state, the value of their land will rise, and new livelihoods based on ecotourism, and freshly-created conservation work will enable them to climb out of the vicious poverty trap in which they are locked today. The best thing is that given the policies of the government and the upfront mission of so many very dedicated organisations, most of the money spent on rejuvenating their lands will reach families directly in the form of employment and pay-for-services.
Will research, economics, social justice and ecology ever mix and match?
Yes, it has already taken root in Tadoba, though admittedly on a small scale. But the micro-experiment we conducted in Ghosri is really the same as the process that resurrected Ranthambhore, Sariska, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and so many other tiger reserves in the 1980s. Even then it was farms that turned to forests. The difference here is that we do not want people to be amputated from their lands in the buffer zones. The change should be in the crop grown, not the owner. We want them to become the direct beneficiaries of wildlife conservation outside tiger reserves.
What about the human-animal conflict conundrum around Tadoba?
Dispersing young carnivores generally find themselves negotiating survival outside the protected forest, close to human-dominated lands. Some tigers and leopards even breed in forest patches in the buffer and in corridors. Overlapping demands on land and water by wild carnivores and people almost inevitably end up in conflict. Such situations cannot be eliminated but they can be managed. Mitigating measures must naturally be multi-pronged: sensitising and educating local communities, finding ways to prevent habitat fragmentation, offering people a better living by protecting wild nature rather than using it to trade in bamboo, tendu leaf, firewood, timber or wildlife contraband.
Photo Courtesy: TRACT.
Is that then your vision for the Greater Tadoba Landscape? To turn it wild again?
Well, marginal farms converted to forests, protected buffers with local communities benefiting from wildlife tourism sounds like a win-win to us for nature and people. Yes, we see a network of peripheral villages sensitised toward conflict-mitigation measures. We see an inviolate core with islanded villages rehabilitated outside with dignity, where security and lifestyles both improve. The moment incomes come from living biodiversity, half the conflicts with wildlife and with wildlife authorities will end on the spot.
You are describing Community-owned Nature Conservancies (CNCs)? You feel they can work?
We cannot see why they should not. There will be challenges, but those will be less daunting than the ones everyone faces today. Small land holdings will have to conglomerate as cooperatives. Communities at the bottom of the economic rung will have to be recognised as key to conservation. Human health will improve, with pesticides no longer in use. Dignity will return to the people with economic self-sufficiency. The key to the success of these conservancies lies in their being financially self-sustaining and the area forested as conservancies being large tracts of land. So the financial viability of such conservancies will need to pass the test of time, but we believe this will happen. In fact, it is inevitable.
What processes do you see in play? What is key to the resurrection of the Tadoba Landscape?
The Tadoba core is a well-protected area. The notified buffer, though vulnerable to threats, is ready to serve organised local communities as an income source. Being animists, the understanding of these communities and their tolerance of wildlife is high. With no crop-raiding to worry about, their ancient knowledge and relationship with nature will quickly come into play. What we have to see is whether the initial kickstart funding, without which this could all just be a mirage, actually emerges. Communities must be sustained until they become economically sound and independent.
What about the Forest Department? Will they play ball?
Why shouldn’t they? If tiger reserve buffer areas begin to reduce tourism pressures on the cores; if they become an additional home to expanding herbivore and carnivore populations; and if human-animal conflicts are reduced as local communities are involved in tourism-based employment-generating activities; and if their need to exert pressure in the habitat decreases, managers of the reserves will have a far easier time of it. Large carnivores in the fringes will still pose a problem, but can be managed with awareness about mitigating measures within the community. With habitat fragmentation on the mend, park managements will be able to focus more steadily on core areas and breeding populations, instead of being diverted by human-animal conflicts on the periphery. But none of this will happen, we reiterate, without community participation born of self-interest, particularly during the transition period.
And non-government wildlife organisations? Will they ever truly work in unison?
The creation of Community Nature Conservancies will see wildlife managers, communities and NGOs coming together because the very nature of wildlife conservation has metamorphosed. Core areas have been protected and now the task is to deliver equity, dignity and security to communities who are the main stake-holders and must become the primary beneficiaries of wildlife conservation. This initiative has the capacity to unite the most visionary human rights and nature conservation organisations too.
Photo Courtesy: TRACT.
What can ordinary people do to help make Community-owned Nature Conservancies a reality?
Bittu, we are the ordinary people you speak about! Every visitor can help, merely by being sensitive to the imperatives of nature conservation, and the rights of wildlife and the human communities around Tadoba. When local cultures and wholesome nature experiences become the norm (without which conservancies really have no hope of success) the “I want to see a tiger” gangs will be replaced by those interested in the local culture, cuisine and the challenges of wildlife conservation. In the fringes of today’s parks, this is what conservancies can offer ‘ordinary people’ – a chance to be part of the solution. Hopefully, time will prove us right and the buffers of our finest tiger reserves will offer people a chance to enjoy wilderness areas by walking, birding, keeping watch at night on machaans. And when they pay for the privilege and such money enriches local communities, then ordinary people will become the solution we seek for wildlife conservation tomorrow.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 1, February 2014.