Meet Roheet Karoo – The Man Behind The Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary
Photo: Bhushan Pandya/Sanctuary Photolibrary.
He was nominated as Sanctuary Asia’s Young Naturalist of the Year in 2012 and has been credited with working toward the declaration of one of India’s most unlikely new Protected Areas, Maharashtra’s Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary. Gifted with the ability to win friends and influence people ranging from politicians, villagers and even human rights’ activists, he had been crying hoarse for months that the forest next to which he lived had tigers and needed protection. But no one believed him. Until he met Praveen Pardeshi, Principal Secretary, Forests, Maharashtra, who decided to act on Roheet’s urgings. The result was the creation of a new tiger habitat that will soon rival India’s best. Roheet’s drive, purpose, and single-minded devotion will certainly give the tigers of the Tadoba Landscape an extra edge on life. He met Bittu Sahgal in the Umred Karhandala Sanctuary and painted a picture of hope for tigers.
Roheet you have done what very few people have been able to at your age. How did all this begin?
Very quietly. I was born in Vasco-da-gama (Goa) and come from a very simple family. My father retired as a clerk with BSNL after 33 years of service and we had to move each time my father was transferred, but this is where I was raised, where my forefathers lived and where I studied.
So who injected you with the wildlife ‘virus’?
My teachers from my school in Umred (Jeevan Vikas Vidyalaya) would routinely organise short trips to the jungle that lay just 30 minutes from where we lived. When I was younger, I used to rescue and release snakes that would otherwise be killed for entering homes. This Umred Karhandla jungle became a second home for me.
Any one individual who showed you the way forward?
Yes! Nitin Desai, Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. Without him I would never have learned the basic discipline and strategy without which any work I wanted to do to protect wildlife or wild habitats would have been impossible. I actually credit him with making the Umred Karhandla Sanctuary declaration dream come true. Besides him, I have been fortunate to have mentors like Suhas Bokade and Pravin Nagdeote, a dedicated official working with the Maharashtra Forest Department, whose values and priorities have become my own.
Any one incident that pushed you in the direction you have taken?
A painful one. I will never forget the day I saw the horrible sight of a dead tiger outside the Government Veterinarian Hospital in Umred. I was just a class seven student. I think that dead tiger decided what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
Are you a loner or do you have a team to work with?
We are a team. Back in 2007-08 we randomly used to monitor tiger and other wildlife movements at Umred Karhandla. I then started the Wildlife Conservation and Development Centre (WLCDC), which gave all of us young people a focus. Today, seven years later, I can say that the systematic work we did in those early years, with help from senior conservationists, helped us to win sanctuary status for Umred Karhandla.
Photo: Nayan Khanolkar.
You have done much more than merely win sanctuary status! Umred was recently discovered to attract the third highest number of tiger tourists in Maharashtra after Tadoba and Pench.
It’s true. And for this I must acknowledge our gratitude to a tigress called Chandi (silver). When we first saw her, she was a mere cub, just 18 months old. We could hardly believe our eyes when a year later she delivered her first litter of three cubs. She was the one that convinced everyone that this forest was worth saving, not us.
Roheet, very experienced conservationists have failed to get new wildlife sanctuaries declared in recent days. Surely you must have had help?
We did. When we met the Honorable Finance Minister of Maharashtra, Rajendra Mulak, he responded in a way that we had not even dreamed possible. He himself asked why don’t we have the forest protected as a sanctuary. He helped us by speaking to the Chief Minister and even Jairam Ramesh who was then the Central Environment Minister. Both were equally enthusiastic and supportive, particularly since our Principal Forest Secretary, Praveen Pardeshi showed on file how this could be done without any displacement of villages, or even any inconvenience to them.
It must surely have taken more than that?
Of course. We had to work very hard on preparing the case for the sanctuary to be created. After more than a year of ground work, I submitted my research data and ground reports at an official meeting in December 2011 when the Nagpur Assembly Session was on. Different government officials including Pardeshi Sir and Minister Rajendra Mulak were convinced and they supported the proposal.
And that was the birth of the Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary?
Yes. Within only six months, in June 2012 the paper work was done, consultations with locals were completed, entire records and even the history of the area including conflict reports helped establish that creating the sanctuary would actually improve relationships with locals by reducing human-animal conflict. In the process a very vital corridor with Tadoba and the Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserves was established.
This was then the birth of the Greater Tadoba Landscape too? And how did tigers respond?
By moving in from different parts of the landscape. One particular tiger, Jai was our superstar. What a tiger! He was born in the tourism zone of Nagzira to a locally famous tigress called Mai and a male called Dendu. As a cub, with his brother called Viru, he had become habituated to tourist vehicles and to people. In fact visitors used to call him a ‘male model’ because he would literally pose for them, changing position and offering different angles all within a few metres of their vehicles. This was in June 2013. Then, suddenly, he shifted residence to Umred Karhandla.
That Roheet, is a distance of more than 100 km., across highways, rail lines and populated villages and farms.
True. In August 2013 a spate of cattle kills began to be reported from the Pauni Range of the Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary. Some officers informed me that they were seeing this huge tiger sitting on the main roads and that he would not even move when they approached within a few metres of him in their vehicles. I knew all the Pauni Range tigers and could hardly believe they would be so trusting.
How did you get to the bottom of this?
By using camera trapping on every single cattle kill. I then compared the images we obtained with those of Jai who meanwhile was missing from Nagzira and was feared dead. My friend Sawan Bahekar, the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Gondia, sent the images to Srinivasa Reddy, the Field Director and Conservator of Forests, who confirmed the identification positively. It was Jai. Reddy Sir knew him because he was the Field Director of Nagzira before moving to Pench Maharashtra and he was overjoyed that Jai was well.
Photo: Nayan Khanolkar.
What I find quite surprising is how the Forest Department and officials were able to reduce human-animal conflict and improve relations with surrounding locals. Tell me a bit about that.
Well, in the early days before the sanctuary was notified, people did enter the forest for firewood, tendu, mahua and other forest produce. When these activities began to be restricted, the conflict rose for a while, but Reddy Sir and his staff decided not to use the usual strategy of fighting to keep people out, without getting involved in improving their lives or understanding their problems.
What exactly did they do?
In a sentence, they performed a miracle. They not only began securing Umred Karhandla as a habitat for tigers, but additionally they began to sit with every village family to solve their problems through what we call Ecological Development Committees or EDCs. In short order, around 2,000 LPG cylinders were distributed to 2,000 families at heavily subsidised costs. Their reliance on fuelwood from the forest for their kitchens dropped drastically.
And what did they do for cash income, which must have come from the sale of wood to Umred too?
As many as 300 local youths were sent for high quality ‘Hospitality Training’ with help from the Hemendra Kothari Foundation and in a short span many of them were placed with four and even five star hotels in different parts of India. Money has started flowing into their economies through gainful employment. What is more, four more entry gates were opened at different ends of the park and 70 young boys were trained and employed as nature guides. Small homestays and lodges owned by locals began to spring up on their own, and local villagers found themselves earning money as suppliers for provisions that tourists needed. More than all this, the relationship began to undergo a change. Instead of villagers feeling that they had to pay the price for wildlife populations rising by way of livestock killed or crops raided, they began to sense that the forest could actually be a source of income.
Your plans for the months and years ahead?
It’s straight forward! To deliver real justice to villagers living right next to the tigers I protect by making them the principal recipients of incomes from tourism and other sundry incomes that come from wildlife conservation.
But would they want to move away from farming?
Many definitely would. They have told me that. Still others really have no choice because their farms are totally unproductive and are barely able to even feed their families, leave alone earn money for childrens’ education and health.
What does the future hold for the villagers who ring this forest and for Jai and Chandi – the tigers that are rewriting its wildlife history?
The future is bright. Our ambition is to make Umred Karhandla the safest place for tigers in India. And the happiest imaginable place for local villagers whose livelihood will come from regenerated biodiversity.
As for Jai, he is the dominant ruler of Umred and Chandi is his queen. Plus I see many more cubs on the horizon, fathered by other male tigers in the vicinity. Umred Karhandla is an exciting tiger habitat and Jai defines the ideal tiger conservation success because he transported his genes from distant Nagzira where he was born, to Umred. Here he displaced other males and this will serve to revitalise the gene pool of the larger Tadoba Landscape.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 3, June 2014.