Many moons ago, a debate over a wildlife conservation issue with a forest officer led to an unusual invitation. He told me that if I wanted to report on issues related to nature conservation and what goes into managing or protecting a national park, I needed to spend at least one month in the field with forest staff. He added that weekend getaways to the forest, however frequent, would not help me understand the nuances of life inside a national park.
It was an invitation too good to turn down.
At the time, I was working with an environmental non-governmental organization, and we were allowed to take the stipulated three weeks’ annual leave for voluntary work in the field.
Needless to say, the time I spent in the nature reserve had a lasting effect. Tracking and observing wildlife on foot deep inside the forest, especially predators like tigers and their prey up close, provided invaluable lessons on how tough life can be in the wild. Each day was an eye-opener—a nugget of information from a forest officer; traditional knowledge shared by forest guards on animal and bird behaviour, even trees. In my spare time, I would sketch the birds that visited the spartan forest camp that was my home for that month.
Now, wildlife enthusiasts in West Bengal have a rare chance to see nature up close. On 16 March, the state forest department launched the Honorary Wildlife Volunteer Service Programme (HWVSP), or Bonya Pran Sathi Prokolpa, to garner public support for wildlife conservation. Volunteers will be awarded certificates.
My own biggest learning from the month I spent volunteering was that fieldwork is not easy. It is not as simple or as romantic as it’s made out to be in today’s television shows. It is hard work—you have to adapt to extreme and unpredictable weather, live with bare necessities, get used to rationed meals at stipulated times and long, arduous treks. The camp at which I volunteered had no electricity.
Volunteering in the jungle is like a litmus test—if you pass, you are hooked for life. Today, when I am asked by a nature lover how he or she can work for nature and wildlife conservation, my answer is, “Volunteer.”
From time to time, state forest departments do come up with initiatives that require a large number of volunteers, especially during annual animal census projects, though you may be asked to sign an undertaking that you’re aware of the risks, and that the forest department will not be held liable for loss of life or disability.
“Wildlife conservation cannot be done in isolation; we need to involve local communities and nature enthusiasts to understand nature, protect and conserve and create awareness,” says Pradeep Vyas, principal chief conservator of forests and chief wildlife warden, West Bengal. “Through the HWVSP initiative, the forest department plans to engage civil society—professionals, students and others—to work in protected areas (national parks and wildlife sanctuaries) and fulfil their passion for nature conservation.”
The programme is open only to residents of Bengal over the age of 18, and they will have to bear the expenses for participation. Selected candidates will have to pay a fee of Rs15,000 for the first year and undergo orientation training and medical examination. They will be required to do voluntary service for a few days in a year.
G.V. Reddy, chief wildlife warden, Rajasthan, says: “This is a wonderful initiative by the West Bengal forest department to connect people with wildlife conservation. These kind of programmes are the need of the hour for civil society to understand the myriad challenges in wildlife conservation. We are going to launch a similar programme in Rajasthan.”
The forest department in Maharashtra started a similar programme in January, called the Green Army, with the aim of registering 10 million volunteers—and overcoming the issue of insufficient manpower. One of the first planned initiatives by a forest department, the programme aims to use volunteers for a large-scale afforestation plan that aims to increase the state’s forest cover from 20% to 33%. The plan is “to create a social platform to involve people in activities relating to forest and wildlife (conservation, protection and preservation)”, states the department’s website.
By February-end, 600,000 people had signed up for the Green Army. “We are expecting a boost in numbers in the next couple of months when school and college examinations are over,” says Sunil Limaye, state chief conservator of forests (wildlife).
It can be fun as well as an opportunity to learn. I remember staying awake for 24 hours at a time on a makeshift scaffolding (machaan) in peak summer to observe and document the species that would come to a particular waterhole. I went on dawn-to-dusk treks manoeuvring thick undergrowth, wild lands and swamps. But I also got rewarded by priceless moments—of being scolded by a tiger (a friendly growl) when I accidentally trespassed into its domain, and being subjected to a few mock charges by wild elephants in herds during fieldwork deep inside the forest.
Unfortunately, I have seen so many people join wildlife and nature conservation programmes with enthusiasm, only to call it quits in a day or so. Sadly, many seem to join them for photography opportunities. Forest departments are beginning to realize this. The HWVSP programme, for instance, will only allow the use of mobile phones for visual documentation.
Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.