Sentinels Of Wild India – The Sanctuary Wildlife Awards 2014
In a country where people are known to wring their hands and fatalistically accept whatever comes their way – whether it is a factory spewing out chemicals in their backyard or powerful project proponents usurping their land, these men and women stood up for their beliefs and values, and encouraged others around them to do the same. This select group of people comprises India’s true protectors. Meet this year’s earth heroes – the winners of the Sanctuary Wildlife Awards 2014.
LIFETIME SERVICE AWARD
We were in search of a true hero – someone whose life’s purpose and respect for nature could be held out as an inspiration to the youth of India.
Erstwhile royal. Conservationist. Wildlife expert. Former bureaucrat.
If India’s conservation community had to name a superhero, surely the man of steel would be M. K. Ranjitsinh. For over half a century, this cultured visionary has walked India’s wilds, drafted ground-breaking policies, catalysed action for lesser-known endangered species and initiated pioneering conservation projects.
A scion of the erstwhile royal family of Wankaner in Saurashtra, Gujarat, Ranjitsinh was recruited into the Indian Administrative Service in 1961. The rest, as they say, is history. As Collector of Mandla, he was responsible for the initial efforts to save the central Indian race of critically endangered barasingha deer Rucervus duvaucelii. At the same time, he facilitated the first-ever translocation of a village outside a national park, thus paving the way for future rehabilitations. As Deputy Secretary, Forests and Wildlife of the Government of India, he drafted the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, a piece of legislation that is, till date, the saving grace for India’s wildlife. He was the first Director of Wildlife Preservation of India under this Act, and developed schemes to provide financial assistance to states from the Central Government to establish national parks and sanctuaries. Later, as the Member Secretary of the task force that formulated Project Tiger, one of the world’s most successful conservation projects, he helped identify India’s first tiger reserves.
M.K. Ranjitsinh is as daunting in the boardroom as he is in the field, and it was his relentless efforts that led to a ban on the export of snake skins, crocodile skins and furs from the country. Equally enamored by all wild animals, he also launched successful captive breeding and release programmes for all three species of Indian crocodilians. Then, from 1975 to 1980, this one-man army served as the Nature Conservation Adviser in the Bangkok Regional Office of the United Nations Environmental Programme and rendered invaluable services to countries of the Asia-Pacific Region. On his return to India, he oversaw the notification of as many as eight national parks and 11 sanctuaries. He went on to extend the boundaries of three other national parks in Madhya Pradesh, during his tenure as Forest Secretary of the state.
Ranjitsinh is further credited with the crucial amendments to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 that placed a complete ban on the trade of wildlife species in India. He also established Project Snow Leopard, and drafted the first guidelines on wildlife tourism in the country. His appointments, past and present, are quite literally too numerous to list, but most notably he chaired the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), was the Director of the Ganga Project, a member of the National Board for Wildlife, the Director and Regional Coordinator of WWF-India and currently Chairs the Board of Trustees of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). M. K. Ranjitsinh is an institution unto himself. Without his imprint, India’s wildlife conservation track record would have been considerably poorer.
For this, we honour him.
Photo Courtesy: WTI/File Photo.
WILDLIFE SERVICE AWARDS
We were in search of inspired wildlifers, forest employees, researchers, villagers... anyone currently involved with in-situ nature conservation who have displayed extraordinary courage, dedication and determination and set high personal standards for others to follow.
Hornbill Nest Protectors’ Team
Nyishi tribals. Determined conservationists. Futurists.
The forests of Arunachal Pradesh’s Pakke Tiger Reserve seemingly breed not just wildlife, but also conservationists.
Ten years ago, Pahi Tachang crested a hill near his village on the border of Pakke, and came eye to eye with the nest of a Great Hornbill. Delighted, the Nyishi tribal decided to cut the tree and kill the bird to acquire a new bill for his bopiya (traditional headdress). But even as he readied himself to deliver the first blow, his father warned him that killing a hornbill in the breeding season is a grave sin. And so Pahi Tachang desisted. A decade on, ‘Pahiji’s tree’ is still standing, home to a romancing hornbill couple, and Pahi himself ensures that no one approaches it with either bow or axe.
Established in 2011 by visionary scientists, village heads and forest officers looking to protect Pakke’s four hornbill species, the Hornbill Nest Protectors’ Team is an exemplary model of community conservation. The 11-member-strong team locates and monitors hornbill nests on the fringes of the Pakke Tiger Reserve. Comprising only Nyishi tribals from local villages, many of them erstwhile hunters, the team has since overseen the successful fledging of hornbill chicks for three years, with 90 per cent nesting success in the last two years. Each member monitors specific trees and ensures that no harm comes to the birds. Such measures are helping protect hornbills and their habitat outside the park, where tree felling and other human activities are prevalent. The success of this programme has been supplemented by a pre-existing community ban on the hunting of hornbills and the acceptance of fiberglass hornbill casques as a replacement to real hornbill casques for their traditional headgear.
Team members include elderly men with unparalleled jungle skills and educated young boys that wish to become researchers, guardians and trackers all rolled in one. They are undoubtedly the best custodians for the exquisite avians of the emerald forests that surround Pakke. The protection of these hornbills will no doubt result in the regeneration of the land since hornbills are among the most prolific of seed dispersers. However, threats to the forests outside the Protected Area continue to persist, and need to be addressed.
In 2013, Gingma and Tade, two members of the hornbill team responded reassuringly when asked whether the birds would really be safe: “Madam, please don’t worry any longer. Now that the entire village knows that they are our hornbills, no one will hurt them.” Seconds later, the harsh call of a Wreathed Hornbill echoed through the valley in apparent concurrence.
Scientists may well quantify their success by numbers, but it is the spirit of the Nyishi tribals that truly sets them apart.
For this, we honour them.
Photo: Aparajita Datta.
Binod ‘Dulu’ Bora
Animal rescuer. Wildlife expert. Braveheart.
Dulu Bora is a resolute defender of the wilds. One of the driving forces behind Assam’s Green Guard Nature Organization, he works in the dense tiger and elephant hill-forests of Karbi Anglong, just south of the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. This region is notorious for its militancy and from time to time, Dulu encounters members from these separatist groups. To them he poses a simple question in response to the spate of animal deaths in the area, including rhinos brought down using AK-47 assault rifles: “Ok, so you have a problem with some people, but why take it out on wildlife?”
A passionate problem solver, he engages daily with communities living cheek by jowl with wild elephants and leopards. His work has significantly reduced conflicts between people and wildlife. An inspirational mentor, he recruits local college and school students to his cause and trains them to care better for our wild heritage.
Dulu has become a local hero of sorts and is well known for his often-dramatic escapades involving leopard cub, bear and king cobra rescues that would have gone a tragic route if not for him and his colleagues. Earlier this year, it took all his powers of persuasion to convince villagers from Mezigaon to give up an abandoned wild elephant calf because some individuals in the village insisted the calf was a reincarnation of their devi (goddess). It took several exhausting hours for him to calm the locals and escort the tired baby elephant to safety.
A man of the soil who walks to nature’s rhythm, Dulu Bora is the quintessential daredevil, a man on a mission whose dream is to protect the wildernesses of Northeast India for posterity.
For this, we honour him.
Photo: Raju Borah.
Dr. Pramod Patil
Doctor. Scholar. Ornithologist. Activist.
Dr. Pramod Patil is all these and more.
His empathy for grasslands and all the forgotten large and small species that depend on them has carried him far from the sterile confines of city hospitals. A full-time conservationist now, Patil has been appointed an Advocacy Officer with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and works holistically on all issues related to the protection of the Great Indian Bustard. Tackling policy and habitat management issues, grassland restoration and conflict mitigation with equal passion, he and the group of people he works with are now making steady strides towards securing the future of India’s grasslands.
Patil is a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission of India, where his vast knowledge on the behaviour and ecology of the bustard has helped formulate creative solutions that are now being implemented by central and state governments on whose committees he serves. When he’s not ideating in conference rooms, Pramod is out in the field conducting awareness programmes for the public and implementing capacity-building exercises for forest staff. His persistent efforts to save the Gangewadi grasslands near the Nannaj Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra won official protection for this crucial breeding habitat and he is currently formulating grassland revival plans for Rajasthan.
Realising that individuals must have institutional support for massive undertakings such as saving charismatic species like the Great Indian Bustard, Dr. Patil, an affable, but relentless communicator, also works closely with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Birdlife International, U.K. While fatalists have begun writing lengthy eulogies for the endangered Great Indian Bustard, Dr. Pramod Patil remains determinedly adamant to reverse their decline by winning the support of local communities, government officials and experts in the task of protecting the bird, together with its vanishing grasslands.
For this, we honour him.
Photo Courtesy: Dr. Pramod Patil.
Chewang Motup Goba
Explorer. Mountaineer. Entrepreneur. Climate change activist.
It’s difficult to slot Motup Goba. He grew up on the banks of the Nubra river, in the shadow of the subcontinent’s largest and most troubled glacier – Siachen. Imbued with the spirit of adventure, at 13 he climbed his first mountain and at 19, he badgered his family and friends for funds to climb Mount Everest. He never crested the famed peak, but took to ferrying loads across the perilous Khumbu Ice Fall on support and rescue missions. His raw talent and bravery caught the attention of an army colonel, who in 1986 recruited Motup to be a part of the first team to traverse the not-yet-fully-militarised Siachen glacier. The vast expanse of ice and the stark beauty of Siachen stole Goba’s heart. When he returned to Siachen in 2002, the glacier of his dreams had turned into a nightmare. Militarisation and climate change had wreaked havoc on the pristine ice. The glacier had shrunk dramatically and was strewn with plastic, tins, toxic chemicals and fuel drums.
Spurred by his love for the mountains, Motup became an advocate for sustainability, reaching out to the armed forces and locals without whose help, he says, nothing could hope to be accomplished. To sustain his work, he started an eco-adventure company called Rimo Expeditions and pioneered ‘Leave No Trace’ camping in India. Motup’s team organises clean ups of camping sites, constructs toilets along popular trekking routes, holds medical camps across remote Ladakhi villages and in 2013, they carried down an astounding four tonnes of garbage from Mt. Everest! Rimo Expeditions’ guides collectively rescued hundreds of people when the climate-change-triggered disasters struck first Ladakh, then Uttarakhand and, most recently, Kashmir. Motup’s strategy of empowering local youth through sustainable job opportunities is working. Young Ladakhis are learning to play ice hockey and they participate in the annual Ladakh marathon that he started to draw attention to their fragile land. The slow devastation of Siachen weighs heavily on Motup. He asks for the declaration of Siachen as an International Peace Park, and improbable as it may sound in these days of chest-beating and war drums, he says he and his people will scale that mountain too.
For this, we honour him.
Photo Courtesy: Motub Goba.
Zeeshan Mirza and Rajesh Sanap
Explorers. Conservation biologists. Wildlife photographers.
Zeeshan Mirza and Rajesh Sanap say tigers are just great, but they find creatures that creep, crawl and slither far more intriguing. Having rejected the trappings of city life in favour of exploring the hidden natural treasures of India’s far-flung forests, this young duo are at the very start of their conservation biology careers. Together, they have already discovered and described an astounding 23 species of lizards, scorpions and spiders that science never even knew existed, and are in the process of describing several more.
Having grown up on the border of the biodiverse Aarey Milk Colony in Mumbai, their love for nature’s small wonders saw their friendship and association flourish through the documentation of Aarey’s biodiversity. Both currently work as Research Associates with the National Centre for Biological Sciences and are involved with the documentation of the herpetofauna of Tripura, and the scorpions and tarantulas of India. Conservation biologists in the best sense of the profession, they are fighting against the illegal wildlife pet trade, which is plundering Indian forests of its most striking arachnids and reptiles. Convinced that India is losing some of its most important secondary predators to habitat destruction and uncontrolled pesticide use, they are working to win public and legal support for tarantula spiders that they say should be listed under Schedule 1 of India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
For this, we honour them.
Photo Courtesy: Zeeshan Mirza.
GREEN TEACHER AWARD
We were in search of an individual with missionary zeal and a proven environmental track record, who set an example for other educators to follow.
Naturalist. Photographer. Author. Teacher.
The greatest teacher is the eternal student, and that perfectly describes Isaac Kehimkar, widely referred to as India’s ‘Butterfly Man’.
Having grown up in Mumbai long before technology took over our lives in the shape and form of smart phones and televisions, Kehimkar says his childhood was spent wandering the wilds of Deonar. A Political Science degree notwithstanding, Isaac Kehimkar’s love for the natural world determined his career choice when he ditched a marketing job selling cosmetics for a life surrounded by nature. In his father’s words: “It’s more difficult to find a job that will make you happy, than one which pays you well. If you follow your heart, the money will eventually follow.” That light guided him to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), where he served as a Library Assistant for years. This is where he says his true schooling took place. With an entire library at his disposal, like a sponge, Kehimkar absorbed reams of research findings and natural history information over the decades. And he made it his life’s mission to share his knowledge with others. Today, as the General Manager, Programmes, with the BNHS, he continues to write about the small wonders of nature – butterflies, reptiles and plants, and has been published in national newspapers and magazines, including Sanctuary Asia. He has also authored two comprehensive field guides – Common Indian Wildflowers and the Book of Indian Butterflies.
He travels around the world, explores nature constantly and has passed on his love of the wilds to his two sons, Sameer and Amitiah.
Today, Isaac Kehimkar is committed to popularising the concept of butterfly gardens in urban areas as a way to bring young people closer to nature. Having worked closely with the likes of Dr. Sálim Ali, Humayun Abdulali and J. C. Daniel, this naturalist-teacher generously passes on both knowledge and values to generations of young Indian conservationists.
For this, we honour him.
Photo: Aarti Bhat.
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.
Researcher. Herpetologist. Conservationist.
Nirmal Kulkarni started out as a snake handler and nature photographer, but now dons multiple hats as the Director (Ecology) of the Wildernest Nature Resort, Chairman of the Mhadei Research Centre, Team Leader of the Hypnale Research Station, Senior Researcher at Madras Crocodile Trust and a Promoter of HERPACTIVE, a study initiative on herpetofauna.
All this was only possible thanks to the unstinting support of Captain Nitin Dhond, of the Merchant Navy, who decades ago purchased a parcel of degraded, mined and deforested land in Goa’s Chorla Ghat area. This is now a private, biodiverse, nature conservancy in the Swapnagandha valley of the Mhadei bio-region, at the tri-junction of Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Capt. Dhond put his entire life’s earnings into this land, devoting much of his monthly salary to acquire smaller adjoining parcels as they became available. He met and employed Nirmal in 1997 and together over five years, through selective planting of local species and by encouraging natural regeneration, they transformed the valley into a 450-acre nature conservancy of incomparable worth and incredible biodiversity, and enabling two rivers, the Haltar nullah and the Valvanti to spring back to life. On five out of the 450 acres, they set up Wildernest, an eco-lodge, which employs locals and whose carbon footprint is lower than the carbon their land sequesters and stores each year. In doing so, the project has also helped protect and conserve a vital corridor for large mammals that is now being increasingly acknowledged by researchers as a crucial link between the forests of Maharashtra and Karnataka.
The Wildernest Eco-lodge encouraged Nirmal to establish the Mhadei Research Centre to document and conserve the biodiversity of the Mhadei bio-region. A second, the Hypnale Research Station was established at Kuveshi, Karnataka and scores of aspiring young conservationists now use these institutions to work for the conservation of the Western Ghats.
Nirmal has been credited with the discovery of several species and is associated with multiple national and state organisations including the Goa State Wildlife Advisory Board. His team also works with other groups seeking to protect tigers in Goa. It is their united effort that resulted in the declaration of the incredible Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary.
Nirmal Kulkarni has had to face all the challenges that conservationists routinely face on a daily basis, including funding gaps between conservation imperatives and budgets, a lack of support from government agencies, inadequate field equipment, and more. However, fully supported by Capt. Dhond and the Wildernest team, he presses on and says that nothing will stop their ongoing mission to protect India’s wilds, one valley at a time.
For this, we honour him.
Photo Courtesy: Mhadei Research Centre.
YOUNG NATURALIST AWARDS
We looked for young naturalists or conservationists, 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.
Artist. Conservation biologist. Researcher.
With a Masters in Conservation Biology in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, science meets art meets heart in the work of Arjun Srivathsa. A school trip to the Bandipur National Park in December 2002 gave this young crusader his first taste of the wilds, and ignited a passion that led to a series of volunteer stints during his undergraduate years. From herpetology workshops at the Madras Crocodile Bank in Chennai to assisting with a radio-telemetry study of king cobras in Agumbe, and surveying gharial populations in the Chambal river, he acquired a wide range of experiences. In 2009, under the guidance of Dr. Krithi Karanth, Arjun entered the field of conservation-oriented research and carried out extensive surveys on wildlife conflict and tourism in six of India’s Protected Areas. Just one year later, he was awarded a fellowship to examine forest degradation around the Kanha Tiger Reserve and spent several weeks scouting these central Indian forests. Eager to expand his horizons, Arjun was accepted into the prestigious postgraduate course in wildlife biology and conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, and by 2012, he was studying dholes back in Bandipur- where it all started for him. Today, Arjun is a Research Associate with the Wildlife Conservation Society – India, and under the mentorship of Dr. Ullas Karanth, carries out studies on dholes, leopards, tigers and other mammals of the Western Ghats landscape. While not analysing data, Arjun’s intellect is channeled into the arts, and hisworks – ranging from witty caricatures to evocative line drawings – all related to conservation have been widely published. His outstanding work ethic and his determination to stay the course and work towards the protection of the wilds that he loves makes him a young leader on whom the hopes of India rest.
For this, we honour him.
Photo Courtesy: Arjun Srivathsa.
Vikas Madhav’s quest to unlock the mysteries of nature began when he was a toddler. An unquenchable curiosity for the natural world fired his young mind. Little creepy-crawlies attracted him at first, and then he was drawn towards the creatures of the ocean. By the time he was a class 1 student, he decided that it was the avian world that fascinated him most. Their proximity to his urban home probably had a lot to do with his decision, but his determination carried him much farther afield.
Today as a 15-year-old, class 10 student of Chennai’s Sishya School, Vikas has already ticked around 560 species of birds in India off his checklist and around 70 species of butterflies in Chennai alone. That places him on the very top of India’s naturalists’ mound! His intuitive ability to correctly identify birds with routine accuracy surprised Reginald Victor from the Centre for Environmental Studies and Research in Oman, who instantly paid for this young naturalist’s admission into the Oriental Bird Club, U.K.
His sighting of the vulnerable Indian Skimmer at Mudhaliar Kuppam in the Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu, the first in the state in modern times, and the second-most southerly sighting ever recorded, was published in Birding Asia in December 2010.
Vikas has extensively campaigned for the protection of the Pallikaranai marsh in Chennai, where degradation and encroachment is the order of the day, despite it being designated as a Protected Area. He wrote to the International Journal of Environmental Studies to draw the attention of the international birding community towards this haven for wildlife in the midst of the urban sprawl of Chennai. He managed to record as many as 64 species of water birds from the Odiyur Lagoon in two birding trips in December 2012 and February 2013, and his list featured prominently in a Rapid Assessment Study report conducted jointly by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the Madras Naturalists’ Society (MNS), both organisations seeking to save the lagoon from the proposed Cheyyur Thermal Power Plant.
An avid writer, he is a classic example of the truth that age is no obstacle, provided you have the passion to perform. Vikas Madhav is already a conservation force to reckon with and is destined to be one of India’s key conservation voices for tomorrow.
For this, we honour him.
Photo Courtesy: Vikas Madhav.
Encouraged by a far-sighted family, she was a part and parcel of Kids for Tigers, the Sanctuary Tiger Programme and was selected to be a National Tiger Ambassador way back in 2004. Since then her intellectual growth and her resolve to bring science to bear on the protection of nature has grown ever stronger. Today Keerthi has evolved from a young girl who loved all forms of life, to a focussed woman whose priority is to contribute to the conservation of reptiles and amphibians. After finishing school, Keerthi obtained a bachelors degree in Plant Biotechnology, while continuing to keep her boots well-muddied by rescuing snakes, volunteering at the Madras Crocodile Bank, participating in wildlife estimations, and organising Earth Hour campaigns. Post her graduation in 2012, Keerthi snapped up the opportunity to work on a project to characterise the amphibian chytrid fungus in the Western Ghats, under the aegis of the Wildlife Information Liaison Development Society (WILD) and the Zoo Outreach Organisation (ZOO), Coimbatore.
She has spent the past two years undertaking fieldwork in 39 Protected Areas and 19 other sites within the Western Ghats landscape. Using a non-destructive protocol, she has collected skin swabs from as many as 2,000 amphibians. Through molecular analysis carried out at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research at Pune, she and her team were able to confirm that this particular chytrid fungal strain is a widely distributed Asian endemic strain. These findings were published in the prestigious journal PLoSOne. Subsequently, Keerthi received two research grants from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, which served to fuel her drive and enabled her to move even faster in her chosen direction.
Hardy in the field and meticulous in the lab, Keerthi has trudged through kilometres of wild habitats, from leech-laden shola grasslands to tick-infested, dry deciduous forests, while broadening her own understanding of India’s conservation scenario through interaction with local tribals, bureaucrats, IT professionals and scientists.
Fuelled by an insatiable curiosity, this young woman is a role model for children, especially young girls eager to spread their wings and opt for ‘unconventional’ careers. She reasons that sound scientific backing is critical to the protection of wildlife, and seeks to fill some of the vast data gaps in terms of undiscovered species, taxonomic ambiguities, unexplored areas and infectious diseases. This will surely keep her busy for years as she helps build a stronger, more rational and nature-sensitive India.
For this, we honour her.
Photo: Varsha K.
SPECIAL TIGER AWARD
We looked for individuals who are working quietly to give the tiger what it needs: space, isolation and protection
Women of Maharashtra’s Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF), Gajendra Narawane and S. D. Shendre
Photo: Mayank Mishra.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with their male comrades, the women of Maharashtra’s Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) have helped staunch the unbridled poaching attacks launched on tigers and other wild species across Maharashtra by the malevolent wildlife crime nexus. These highly trained women conduct raids, fight fires, dismantle snares and patrol our finest tiger forests. For rallying against patriarchal social norms, and for undertaking risky missions with grit and grace, they have come to be known as ‘Durga Shakti’ – the invincible, all powerful incarnation of the devi who ruthlessly obliterates those who wrong her.
If there is one thing that forest guard S. D. Shendre from the Pench Tiger Reserve has learnt from the tiger, it is to fiercely protect his territory. Twenty-four-year-old Shendre displayed exemplary courage and dedication when, unarmed, he confronted five poachers with two guns that he spotted while patrolling his beat. In the tussle that followed, Shendre was shot and very nearly died. A lesser-man may have gone down, but Shendre, despite bleeding profusely and being in acute pain, then walked the two kilometres to the closest protection hut and called for medical aid. The poachers were later arrested.
Photo: Shahid Parvez Khan.
Practical solutions are the forte of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve’s Deputy Conservator of Forest Gajendra Narawane. One of the architects of Tadoba’s increasingly successful community conservation initiatives, he has been working over the past year to device ways to turn enhanced biodiversity into better living standards for locals. For instance, the earthen roads that had earlier been cut for timber extraction have now been designated as wildlife safari routes that allow communities to profit from tourism. His efforts have significantly reduced human-wildlife conflict and are helping to bridge the gap between people and protected forests.
The winners of the Special Sanctuary Tiger Award are brave, intelligent and dogged in their pursuit of a better life for both humans and wildlife.
For this, we honour them.
Photo: Hans Dalal.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 6, December 2014.