Vanya – Let The Wild Be Wild
Vanya, which works under the aegis of the Nature Conservation Foundation, was founded in May 2009 by Anup B. Prakash and Praveen Ramaswamy under the guidance of wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi. Its wildlife conservation activities are based around the Bandipur and Nagarahole Tiger Reserves in Karnataka.
Photo Courtesy: Vanya.
The Bandipur Tiger Reserve is one of the most picturesque and biodiverse Protected Areas in India. It has the highest density of tigers in the country. However, this does not make it immune from threats – and one of the main problems is the high number of pilgrims and tourists that visit the reserve. There are as many as 11 major and several smaller temples inside the core area, resulting in a huge influx of devotees, especially on special occasions. Every such visit leaves the forest littered and degraded. Hundreds of vehicles driving through forest roads permanently damage the habitat. A highly-stretched Forest Department cannot monitor the large number of pilgrims and the problems that ensue. That is where NGOs such as Vanya can and have made a huge difference. The Gopalaswamy temple in the core area was a popular trekking and picnic destination that had turned into a hub of illegal activities such as gambling and alcohol consumption. In 2010, members from Vanya discussed these issues with the field staff, rangers and Deputy Conservator of Forests and with their permission attempted to regulate the crowds. Initial attempts were met with severe opposition but after trying out various methods, they settled on a simple technique of barricading coupled with distributing pamphlets and posting volunteers at the location. All vehicles entering the area were screened and only items for the temple pooja were permitted. Today, the number of tourists and picnickers visiting the area has drastically reduced, littering has dropped significantly and the temple is much better organised.
Vanya believes that scientific understanding aided by committed field work and persistent engagement with policy makers can help to better tackle conservation issues. Vanya, which was registered as a non-profit trust in 2011 at Bengaluru, has volunteers from all walks of life working in and around Protected Areas. Praveen Ramaswamy, Arun Simha, Ravi K.N., Chandrasekhar, Venkat Raj are all from the IT sector, while Arun L. and Mahesh Singh are marketing professionals. Together with wildlife biologist Anup B. Prakash, they are Vanya’s core team. They are currently trying to build their volunteer network in the fringe villages of the two reserves.
“We believe that the participation of locals living around Protected Areas is essential to wildlife conservation. We have successfully built a team of committed youth from the peripheral villages of Bandipur, who have been carrying out awareness and capacity building activities along with the Forest Department. We are similarly building such teams around the Nagarahole and Maley Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary,” said Simha, a Vanya trustee.
The initial days of the NGO were about learning the realities on the ground. Members of Vanya were frequently confronted by villagers on issues such as crop raids by wild animals and restrictions on firewood collection.
Vanya’s activities now include conducting conservation outreach programmes in fringe forest villages, supporting the Forest Department during dry seasons to control wild fires and providing assistance in removal of snares.
One of Vanya’s key focus areas has been on conducting public information campaigns at villages around the Nagarahole and Bandipur Tiger Reserves in order to increase support for the protection of these reserves. The organisation has worked in 130 villages around these two tiger reserves on campaigns against poaching, protecting the big cats and supporting the creation of eco-sensitive zones.
The effectiveness of Vanya’s concept of controlling pilgrim numbers was demonstrated on special occasions such as festivals and auspicious days, which prompted the Forest Department to post additional staff at the location and practice Vanya’s model. Prior to 2011, tourists were allowed inside the reserve before the Gopalswamy temple opened at dawn and even after the temple closed at dusk. There was no limit on the duration of a visit, which resulted in uncontrolled crowds in the reserve. Vanya took up the issue with the Deputy Conservator of Forests, Bandipur, Field Director Project Tiger and Karnataka Forest Department, persuading them to issue a new order in May 2011 reducing the time for which visitors are allowed.
These measures have reduced human disturbance considerably. Gaurs, chital, and elephants graze in broad daylight where tourists once flocked. Pilgrims and tourists are now rewarded with a real view of the beautiful landscape and wildlife. These guidelines set an example for management of other temples and the same measures were implemented at the Beladakuppe Mahadeshwara Temple in Bandipur. Around 1.5 lakh pilgrims and 1 lakh cattle converge at the Beladakuppe Mahadeshwara Temple in Hediyala range in the month of Kartik (October-November) when fairs and other cultural events are held, as per the Hindu calendar. The fair acts as a catalyst to attract more people and supplements their stay for a couple of days by providing food, shopping and entertainment options. Religious practices had gradually transformed into a business opportunity for traders, who cashed in on the huge crowd turnout. A visitor to the area during this period would find it hard to believe that Bandipur is a tiger reserve.
Vanya managed to convince the Forest Department to take protection measures. Strict action ensured that commercial activities were scaled down rapidly by reducing the number of shops from more than 300 in 2012 to 50 in 2013 and all pilgrims were routed through only one of the many access roads, thereby isolating the disturbance to one small forest patch during the annual fair. However, these are temporary measures and Vanya hopes to continue to engage with crucial stakeholders such as the Forest Department, villagers, temple trusts and elected representatives for the voluntary relocation of these temples outside Protected Areas or to the forest’s edge.
Vanya’s members have also met with field staff of the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve to inform them about the benefits of group insurance policies, collecting their names and coordinating with the conservator’s office to ensure the rapid implementation of the policy. Today, both permanent and daily wage staff are insured at the reserve.
Photo Courtesy: Vanya.
Vanya has also supported research and conservation activities of the Nature Conservation Foundation by volunteering at the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary and helping in the mapping of forested areas around Bandipur, which were later notified as reserve forests.
Those who wish to help Vanya in their conservation activities can arrange events where members will screen wildlife documentaries and speak about the various threats to wildlife. One can also fund them directly or by sponsoring projects and rallies.
For more information contact
Praveen Ramaswamy: +91 96635 21827
Arun Simha Y.J.: +91 94801 93958
NIGHT TRAFFIC BAN IN BANDIPUR
Vehicular traffic on the two highways passing through Bandipur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. was banned by order of the High Court of Karnataka on March 9, 2010. However, the matter is still pending before the Supreme Court of India in SLP (Civil) 13838/2010, 24865 and 24866/2012. Though the Karnataka government has already taken a stand in favour of the closure of traffic at night, the Kerala government has not and it has instead submitted options, such as using forest officials to escort convoys of vehicles through the forest at night, which are not really viable. Vanya has been closely involved in working on the issue of night traffic. According to Praveen Ramaswamy, “The Karnataka State government had already released Rs. 48 crore for the upgrade of the alternative road passing via Hunsur-Gonikoppa-Kutta-Kartikulam, which is only 30 km. longer and can be used at night. The upgrade of the alternative road is nearly complete.” Sanjay Gubbi added, “From field data and observations, it is very clear that travellers have already adjusted to the night-time closure. Let us provide more space for tigers and elephants at least in this small landscape.”
Author: Anirudh Nair, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII No. 6, December 2013.