Saturday, April 30, 2011

When the Chenchus get a wildlife award

Three members of the Chenchu tribal community who work as forest guards in the Nagarjunsagar – Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR) were recently award the Sanctuary-RBS Wildlife service award for protecting the forests and the wildlife here. The citation with the award given to Arthi Venkatesham, Bhumani Venkatesham and Damsam Mallaiah is effusive in its praise and appreciation of the three: “They are living proof,” it reads, “that change is possible. Among our nation’s most celebrated tribal communities, the Chenchus were once hunter gatherers. Instead of being lured by the all-powerful wildlife trade, these young men, more visionary than most of their urban counterparts, chose to join forces with forest officials as far back as 2001 and are now key to the park’s anti-poaching strategy… Researchers say that these tribal guards are able to provide them with in-depth information on the behaviour, hunting, nesting and breeding of various wild species…They have demonstrated that yesterday’s traditions and skills can effectively be used to solve today’s wildlife problems. This is why we have honoured them.”
There are at least 300 other Chenchu tribals who work with the forest department here and there are others too who say they are doing a wonderful job. The support and recognition that has been given to members of this tribal community on the frontline of protection is without doubt, most welcome.
The issue however is a more complex and to understand it one needs to look at the larger picture, and the many slippery slopes one has to negotiate.
The Chenchus are a ‘Primitive Tribal Group’ for whom the forests of this tiger reserve have been home for centuries. They have lived life as hunter gatherers long before the formation of the tiger reserve or wildlife conservation became a topic of concern. Nearly 1000 Chenchu families spread over 24 hamlets continue to live here but that could be soon a thing of the past. India’s forest and wildlife laws will not allow them to continue living here because our sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves have to be made ‘inviolate’ in the interests of wildlife.
It is extremely sardonic that three Chenchus have been honoured by a wildlife community that continues, simultaneously, to clamour for their displacement from the very forest they call home. This has been most visibly evident is the vehement opposition to the recently notified the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA for short) that gives the Chenchus and 100s of other such tribal communities in the country, rights that have been historically denied to them. It is more than ironic that Sanctuary Asia, the country’s premier wildlife magazine that awarded the Chenchus has been at forefront of the opposition to the FRA and continues even today to log the notification of the law as a critical marker on its ‘Tiger Doomsday Clock’. They can be given awards for protecting wildlife, but if you give them rights, it’s a step towards doom!
What has been remarkable in the ‘inviolate’ debate is that the burden is repeatedly thrust on the most marginal and vulnerable communities that live in these forests. Mining for uranium, prospecting for diamonds, drilling for irrigation projects and killing of wild animals (including leopards and bears) in road accidents is going on inside the forests of the Nagarjunsagar – Srisailam Tiger Reserve, but for the forest and wildlife establishment it is the Chenchus that have to go. A part of what is now the NSTR was in fact notified as a Chenchu Tribal Reserve in 1942. It was, for reasons not very clear, never renewed after independence.
A situation similar to that of the Chenchu is being experienced by the Soliga tribals that live in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka. The community is opposing the creation of a tiger reserve here and its subsequent declaration as a Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) for fear that the forests will become inaccessible to them. Over 5000 Soligas live in 22 podus (settlements) in what will be the core area and are dependant on these forests for their survival.
A unique long term research project being carried out by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Environment and Ecology (ATREE) in collaboration with the Soligas has shown that their harvest of non-timber forest produce (honey, lichen, gooseberry and shikakai) from the BRT forests is done sustainably. The Soliga Abhivrudhi Sangha has even argued that tiger numbers in the sanctuary had increased in recent years; that they were not consulted before the taking the tiger reserve decision and there can be no justification for the displacement of the community. Nobody seems to be listening however.
The contradictions are clear and lie at the heart of the challenges that conservation in India is going to face in the coming years. We can prevent the situation going from bad to the absurd if we open our minds, recognise our paradoxes and deal with the situation head on. Alternatively, we can chose to bury our heads, duck the problems and institute more awards. The later option may have more takers but will offer fewer solutions! The choice really is for us to make.
An abridged version of this piece appeared in the New Indian Express on 10th April, 2011

Tall Tails

Travel & Error
Tall Tails
A roaring time in tiger country
Pankaj Sekhsaria
Halkat is a word in Marathi that has no English equivalent that I can think of. Lout might come close, but there is something in the sound and usage of the Marathi original that cannot be matched. And when a wildlife guide uses it to describe tiger-crazy tourists in one of India’s premier tiger reserves, it ought to be an interesting story.

It was September 2010 and I was on my first visit to the famous Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in the heart of India. It was our first safari of the trip and there were things we learnt from our guide Bhaskar (not his real name) that will remain with us for a long time to come.

Bhaskar was serious about his job as a wildlife guide and this was evident even as our Gypsy just about crossed the one-kilometre mark. He had shot off on the history, geography and politics of the park even before we had settled in. There was also a lesson on eco-logy—a well-scripted account of how the presence of the tiger meant that the deer were there and that the forests and the grasslands were thriving and how the “forest is the mother of the river”. Soon he was cursing Maharashtra’s politicians and senior forest officials for having failed to support Tadoba unlike their counterparts in Kanha and Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh. Bhaskar had taken over.

Those who speak too much, particularly in forests, do it often to cover their serious lack of knowledge. Bhaskar was an exception. Birds, trees, reptiles and the tigers of Tadoba, he knew them well. “I’ll try to show you the tiger,” he said, “but it’s not in my hands. We guides take the credit, but you know,” he made a profoundly philosophical turn, “nobody shows anything to anybody. It’s your luck—rajyog.” Then poured the anecdotes and accounts incredible—the ‘circuit’ tigress, the royal wild boar, the drongo that dances on the termite mound, the crocodiles in the lake and the pythons by the forest guesthouse.

Bhaskar was enjoying our company and we were now enjoying his. He told us stories with riddles that tested our knowledge of wildlife, recited poems he had written on delicate treasures of the forest, narrated accounts of his interactions with long-lens-wielding wildlife photographers and the young researcher from Pune, who taught him how to handle snakes.

Swati, my colleague, pointed to a bare white tree that we drove past. Bhaskar knew it, of course. He told us that the bark of the tree changed colour at least three times a year. My knowledge of botany (incorrect, as it turned out) kicked in unexpectedly. “It’s the Naked Lady of the Forest,” I said and turned to Bhaskar, adding half in jest, “Why is it called the naked lady and not a naked man?” Bhaskar’s reply was prompt: “It’s the king who decides—and what are we to say?” It was only days later that I realised I was wrong. The tree was the Ghost Tree, Sterculia urens. Bhaskar hadn’t known either.

The serious wildlife lessons, meanwhile, were also getting interspersed with other juicy gossip—about tour operators from Nagpur and beyond, the resort owners around Tadoba and their rich clientele, wildlife researchers and their research, forest staff and their difficult life in the wilds, and how the new reserve director was a good fellow and how his predecessor was shunted out because of differences with the boss in Nagpur. (Now you know why I’ve called Bhaskar, Bhaskar!)

And, finally, about the halkat. We were on the last leg of that morning safari and Bhaskar had been telling us how the forest had so many different things to offer. “I don’t understand,” he said, “why tourists are interested only in the tiger.” As if on cue, a bright yellow Maruti Gypsy appeared around the bend by the stream. “These,” said Bhaskar, as they went by, “are the halkat tourists of Tadoba. They’re after the tiger as if their life depends on it. And look at that vehicle—do you go into a forest with a vehicle that colour?”

Tailpiece 1: Gossip is a wild sword that swings free in the wind. If on your next trip to Tadoba you hear stories of a group of tourists that was less interested in tigers and more in gossip, please let me know at

Tailpiece 2: We didn’t see the tiger during our two-day stay at Tadoba; other halkat tourists did.