Sustaining Environment And Wildlife Assemblage (SEWA)
In and around Maharashtra’s Gondia district, an NGO called SEWA (Sustaining Environment and Wildlife Assemblage) is helping regenerate tiger habitats, and protecting Sarus Cranes, blackbuck and wolves, writes Anirudh Nair.
Photo: Mayank Mishra.
Located close to the state borders of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Gondia is the gateway to Maharashtra from central and eastern India. It is in this central Indian landscape that Gondia-based NGO, Sustaining Environment and Wildlife Assemblage (SEWA), has been working for wildlife since 2014. Since wild animals do not adhere to human boundaries, SEWA works with communities and forest officials to protect forests, organise anti-poaching drives, conduct mass-awareness campaigns, rescue and rehabilitate wild animals, reduce villagers’ dependency on forest resources and monitor the dispersal of tigers.
Reducing human-wildlife conflict in villages around the Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve is a key intervention. “We began studying tiger dispersal in 2011 to help improve management practices and policies for the long-term survival of tigers in the landscape. We discovered that the predators move from Nagzira to Kanha-Pench towards the north and towards Umred-Karhandla in the south. Protecting these critical corridors therefore emerged as a vital priority,” says Sawan Bahekar, President, SEWA who was presented with a Sanctuary Special Maharashtra Wildlife award in 2016. He adds, “Political will and administrative resolve can turn this landscape into one of the finest tiger habitats in the country.”
SEWA supports the Forest Department and works closely with them towards the objective of securing convictions against poachers. Towards this end a reliable network of informers has been established, which has resulted in raids, arrests and confiscation of wildlife contraband. When the tiger poaching racket in the Vidarbha region involving Baheliyas from Madhya Pradesh was exposed in 2013-14, information provided by SEWA to the Maharashtra Forest Department about the poachers’ locations was a key input. One of SEWA’s advisors, Bharat Jasani says, “The diversity of wetland and land birds found in Gondia makes it an ideal birding destination. Working with a young team has provided meaning to the sunset years of my life.”
SEWA also reaches out to school and college students in Gondia and neighbouring districts. Many of these youngsters from rural areas now protect their natural heritage, and some have become a part of SEWA’s larger informer and volunteer network.
Munesh Gautam, a teacher and wildlifer says, “I have been associated with SEWA for many years and I admire the energy of its young team. Each member brings a unique set of skills to the table and it is always an exciting experience to work with them, especially on protecting the magnificent Sarus Crane, whose population is now flourishing in the region.”
Photo Courtesy: SEWA.
SEWA’s initiative to protect the Sarus Crane in the area has been particularly successful. Their numbers have risen from just two individuals in 2003-04 to over 35 in Gondia. This has primarily been achieved by protecting wetlands upon which both birds and locals depend. In particular, nest-protection (locations kept secret) has proved to be the key to the long-term survival of the tallest-flying bird in the world. Village volunteers were trained and are now the principal protectors of the magnificent birds. When the cranes nest in paddy fields during the monsoon, conflicts with farmers are inevitable. SEWA sensitises farmers, who are now much more tolerant and we see that the birds have now begun occupying areas in the adjoining districts of Bhandara in Maharashtra and Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh. This inter-state work is a significant achievement by SEWA, which facilitates collaboration between different state and district agencies. Already locals have begun to treat the Sarus as a symbol of pride and hold an annual Sarus Festival to increase awareness.
After their initial success, SEWA began working towards creating conditions in which Sarus Cranes are encouraged to occupy still larger sections of their former range. Since 2015 their volunteers have begun removing weeds, introducing native fish species and undertaking other conservation measures in consultation with gram sabhas. Similarly, a project to restore grasslands has resulted in blackbucks and wolves returning to the landscape.
“The abundant biodiversity of Gondia district, coupled with the fact that this landscape had become a forgotten heritage inspired me to join SEWA. Our journey until now has been remarkable. The criticism and failures we have dealt with have only made us more determined to succeed,” says SEWA’s member Ankit Thakur.
Strong on field conservation, and armed with a network of volunteers and informers, SEWA has been able to assist larger organisations including the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Without a doubt, it is now a force to reckon with in this central Indian landscape and we are confident it will grow from strength to strength.
Photo Courtesy: SEWA.
Sawan Bahekar, President, Chetan, Jasani, Vice President, Ankit Thakur, Secretary, Munesh Gautam, Treasurer
Members: Abhay Kochar, Shahid Khan, Shashank Ladekar, Avijit Parihar, Dushyant Akre, Rahul Harode, Dushyant Rebhe, Pintu Wanjari, Ashvinikumar Patel, Gaurav Turkar, Vikas Farkunde, Bablu Chute, Rakesh Doye, Salim Shekh, Sushil Bahekar
Guidance: Varsha ben Patel, Bharat Jasani, Shriram Bhuskute, Sanjay Akre, Ashok Khune, Akhilesh Mishra, Sunil Dhote
Sustaining Environment and Wildlife Assemblage
Address: C/o Keshav Funde, Near Chamat Supermarket, T.B. Toli, Ramnagar, Gondia, Maharashtra – 441614 or c/o Deepak Automobiles, Gurunanak Road, Gondia, Maharashtra – 441601.
Author: Anirudh Nair, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 2, February 2017.