1 Tahrcountry Musings: June 2005

Sunday, June 05, 2005

tigers in peril

Tiger Conservation- kerala Shows The Way

Tigers are in peril in India. In Sariska, which had 25 to 28 tigers in 2003, the figures went down to 18 in 2004. In 2005 the wildlife institute of India team could not locate even a single tiger. Picture is very grim in Ranthabore also. The Prime Minister of India has called for new initiatives to stem the tide, and bring in new innovative protection and management strategies. The conservationists are aghast at what has happened. It all looks like a bad dream. It is against this backdrop that bold initiatives by young breed of officers, led by Mr Pramod Krishnan.I.F.S, in Periyar, Kerala is bringing in a whiff of fresh air. The initiatives here bring in the support of local stakeholders in protecting the wildlife reserve. While biodiversity conservation is the prime concern, the livelihood of the local population is also factored in. activities like ecotourism is exploited for the benefit of the local people. These activities have resulted in social fencing of the park instead of the routine policing. Local stakeholders under the aegis of eco-development committees hold routine meetings. Forest officials take in to consideration the fears and anxieties of the local people while devising management strategies. Tiger conservation has moved from a state run protection measure to community-protected status. In a thickly populated country like India where livelihood of many people depends on the forests, this experiment is perhaps the only viable alternative, to ensure conservation of dwindling wildlife.

A report from Manoj K Das, Dy.Resident Editor, New Indian Express,Kochi is appended herewith

Saving the wild Saturday June 4 2005 13:56 IST Manoj K Das

A model sanctuary
Tickled by a million raindrops, the Thekkady lake broke into a fizzy giggle to greet another dusk. Ushered in by patches of mist drifting down to the tune of thunders rumbling beyond distant mountains, night seeps in through thousands of leaves. Periyar wakes up to a cacophony of night voices; not distress cries reflecting the panic of ensnared fauna but glad greetings of get-togethers and roll-calls of the wild. Welcome to Periyar Tiger Reserve: India’s model tiger sanctuary where the concept of protection has been totally reconstructed to turn the 777-sq. km thick forests in the Western Ghats into the safest haven for 63 mammals, 323 birds, 44 reptiles, 1,986 flowering plants, 350 medicinal plants and 40 fish swimming in its cool depths. And even as tigers elsewhere in India vanished from their respective greenscape, the species has been safe in Periyar. The last count puts their number at 40. Apart from the string of grass hills, that remind you of a folded football field, Periyar is insulated by a social fence made of local hearts and IFS brains cemented by unadulterated love for the wild. Building this invisible but impenetrable wall around this forest was never an easy task especially a decade back when a few men in khaki thought out-of-the-box to tame hardcore poachers who decimated Periyar’s population. “We even had a trade union of poachers which was affiliated to the Congress. It was more of a quid pro quo. We had to do some dirty work for them for extending patronage to our crimes,” says Naushad M M, chairman of Ex-Wayana Barkers. The name still reminds you what they were once notorious for — stealing bark of the wayana tree. This eco-development committee comprises deadly poachers turned conservation activists. And the Ex-Wayana is the best intro to the story of how Periyar was saved from the claws of destruction that carved into its peace from all sides. Twenty three of the 80-odd brigands were brainwashed to take up forest conservation. “It was not an easy solution to a major threat. The main hindrance was the huge number of cases against each of them. Also they had to be given an alternative source of living,” rewinds C A Abdul Bashir, PTR’s eco tourism officer. From this stemmed the idea of Tiger Trail, an adventurous trekking programme through the tracts once used by the brigands to devour forest wealth. Tourists are taken to dense interiors to experience the forest in the night. They also organise bamboo rafting, a combination of rafting and trekking. “This is a two-in-one initiative,” continues Pramod Krishnan, PTR’s deputy director, “as their presence in deep parts of the forest will keep other poachers away. All programmes organised by EDCs have been designed from the perspective of forest protection.” Whether it’s a plantation trek of Vasanthasena, an all-women neighbourhood group, or a nature walk of Tribal Trackers, a team of forest personnel and tribal guards perambulate corners of the sanctuary every day and night. “Through this we’ve been able to build a network that passes on information about any bid to infiltrate or poach within hours. And this results in speedy action. Also, all the groups carry necessary tools to copy pugmarks to monitor animal movement,” says Radhakrishnan, range officer. The Kerala Forest Department has been successful in involving tribal population in this endeavour. “There is a stratified structure with the mother EDC as the foundation. The subgroups have been classified as professional, neighbourhood or user EDCs. Each of them has been formed with a site-specific purpose,” says Bashir. Citing Graciers EDC, he says: “They cut grass and sell it to fringe population who rely on the forest for running a small time dairy. Through this we’re preventing entry of cattle into forests as they pose the threat of carrying seeds of pandemics into the wild. Similarly, dry grass, that contributes most to wildfire, is cleared regularly ensuring event-free summers.” A lowdown on every EDC gives a similar story. Be it Aranyasena or Vasanthasena, the first priority is to reduce negative dependency on forests. And an EDC like Vasanthasena, an all-women corps, helps inculcate awareness among fringe population, says Girija Pushpan, range officer. “Our effort is to integrate tourism programme with protection. No government measure is complete without local support. Periyar shows how this can be achieved. All EDCs have been given tourism-based programmes to sustain themselves without relying on forest resources,” says V Gopinath, chief wildlife warden, who is all for extending the experiment to other sanctuaries. Originally started with World Bank aid, the project is today run by Periyar Foundation, a government-sponsored concept floated with a view to ensuring its continuity. “We run on park welfare fund created by 10 percent contribution made by each EDC. Another 10 percent goes to the government. The rest is deposited in banks for distributing salary and other perks,” says Pramod. On an average, an EDC member gets Rs 3,500 as monthly salary. “It’s too less when compared to the Rs 30,000-50,000 I used to earn as a poacher but the peace of mind that I enjoy today is priceless and that’s the best perk,” admits Jose, who has bought an autorickshaw using a loan from the Periyar Foundation. If Jose thanks the concept for helping him piece together his shattered life, Panjan, Thevan and Sooryan — all tribal chiefs — thank it for freeing them from sultry motives of middlemen who have been cheating them for generations. “We grow pepper. Traders would give us money in advance in the beginning of every season in lieu of the yield. We’re illiterate and were cheated. But with the EDC in place, we get right price for our produce,” he says. The statistics underscore this statement. The price given to them was just Rs 5 or 10 per kg. This year, they got a price of Rs 19 and the organic variety fetched them Rs 24.50 per kg. We’ve entered into a marketing arrangement in Germany with the help of the CGH Earth (formerly Casino Group of Hotels). If the tribal population has been freed of debt burden, then the local population is enjoying the spinoff of a thriving tourist market. Many have started homestays or small lodges to absorb the heavy rush. Several others have invested in autos, taxis and real estate. “When I came here 12 years ago, a cent of land cost only Rs 10,000. But today it’s worth about Rs 2 lakh. Those days one wouldn’t spot an animal as they were mortally scared. But today we find all species in almost all sorties,” smiles Cherian, a boat driver as he manouvres his 35-year-old boat through century-old stumps of ancient trees meditating in the sunny morning mist transmitting the story of a forest waking up to another safe day.