Reconciling conservation efforts and support for communities impacted by them

Communities marginalized by conservation efforts do not need to live in penury. Here are three cases to prove the point


Members of Green Hub at work.
Members of Green Hub at work.

Communities marginalized by conservation efforts do not need to live in penury, their lives disrupted by the demands of protecting nature. A filmmaker, a forest officer and a wildlife biologist—among many others—show how to educate and empower the marginalized communities for wildlife conservation. We present three such cases, where conservation and support for the marginalized go hand in hand.

Documenting conservation in north-east

Outside Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, 29-year-old Wanmei is at work, armed with a video camera. He is documenting the rebuilding of an elephant corridor around the park, famed for its one-horned rhinoceros. In neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh, Sital Dako, an unlettered mother of two is also out with her camera, documenting hornbill conservation work around the Pakke Tiger Reserve.

Both Wanmei and Dako are among a batch of residents of north eastern states united by their interest in wildlife photography and videography, and brought together in Assam’s Tezpur by Green Hub, an education project for north-east India. This motley group includes Hiskiya Sangma, a footballer from Assam; Khem Thapa, a tree climber and tourist guide from Arunachal Pradesh; Tallo Anthony, a part-time computer operator from Arunachal Pradesh; Longso Wimchunger, a part-time teacher in a mountain school in Nagaland; Zakhuma, a forest guard in Mizoram, and many more.

In June 2015, North East Network, a non-government organization and Dusty Foot Productions, a wildlife documentary film company, launched Green Hub, an education project. Last week, its first batch of 18 students—selected from remote tribal areas and marginalized communities—successfully completed their one-year fellowship in video documentation.

It was a proud moment for these students when Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, visited the Green Hub centre to interact with them and watch some of their films.

“The idea is to engage and empower the youth and community in conservation of biodiversity in India’s remote northeast, through an innovative model of using the digital platform,” says Rita Banerjee, veteran film maker and director, Green Hub. “In a region where violence and political conflict have ruled for the past six decades, the Green Hub seeks to provide opportunities for them to move away from despair and violence, renew their love and respect for nature, and open avenues for wider exposure with livelihood options for a more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable future in the region,” she said.

India’s northeast, a biodiversity hotspot and repository of many endemic species, has been in the news for new discoveries—species of birds, frogs, butterflies and caecilians—all new to science. But most of the northeast has also been inaccessible by modern means of transport. As a result, youth from these remote regions are deprived of opportunity and recognition.

This year, Green Hub has selected 21 students for the 2016-17 fellowship. “There is a need to provide sustainable alternatives, to create livelihoods through the protection of resources rather than its destruction. It is essential to generate more projects based on this ideology and create a wider web of action to give local youth and children more direction. We are trying to build a knowledge centre for conservation outreach,” says Banerjee.

A new beginning in Kanha

The plush interiors of the five-star hotel in Chennai where the young woman works 10 hours a day is a far cry from her modest hut in a forested village, close to the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The park is among the crown jewels of Project Tiger, which was launched here and eight other wildlife sanctuaries in 1973. The girl from Kanha comes from one of the many thousands of families in Kanha which had to pack up and move out decades back to make way for the park.

The Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve consists of a core area of 917.43 sq km and a buffer zone of 1,134 sq km. The fundamentals in wildlife park management revolve around two areas—a core area with a surrounding buffer area. The core area is marked as the habitat for wild animals whereas the buffer, surrounding the core, consists of villages with human habitation.

While opening the tiger reserve, many villages were relocated from the core areas to the buffer zones to create space for wildlife. This created several villages around national parks.

Kanha has around 163 villages in its buffer zone. The villagers belong to either Gond or Baiga, two indigenous tribes of central India. While the core-buffer system helped park managers revive wildlife numbers, it created a new set of problems. The buffer’s carrying capacity became saturated as human population increased over the years. Over time, expanding families and limited agricultural scope created economic constraints.

“Due to economic constrains, the youth from these villages cannot afford higher education or vocational training,” says J.S. Chauhan, field director, Kanha Tiger Reserve. “Most drop out after fifth standard or eight standard. Once out of the village school, they stare at unemployment. The frustration of not being able to earn a living leads the youth to alcoholism and illegal activities,” says Chauhan.

To address the growing problem of unemployment among the youth, the park management signed an agreement with Indian Hotels Co. Ltd and Pratham Education Foundation to select and train young boys and girls in hospitality skills. The district administration also pitched in with financial support.

Started in June last year, the programme has already trained 165 young men and women, who have been placed at various hotel chains across the country. “The core areas of a wildlife forest cannot be secure if the buffer areas are neglected. Our initiative has paid dividends—some of our village youths have been working in five-star hotels like the Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, and currently, a batch of 40 is undergoing training where students aspire to work in Dubai,” says Chauhan.

The Kanha management has collaborated with private security agencies to train young men from the surrounding villages and get jobs for them. The first batch is currently undergoing training, after which they will be employed as security guards for different places through the agency.

Other initiatives include selection of youth to train as masons and electricians. Through Pratham, the first batch of students has completed training and is now employed at various construction sites in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

The Moghiyas of Ranthambhore

One of the most dreaded tribes in the history of wildlife poaching is the Moghiya tribe from Rajasthan. The Moghiyas eked out a living by hunting and poaching wild animals. In fact, the disappearance of tigers from Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan was traced to Moghiya poaching gangs.

In August 2005, when tiger poaching was at its peak, wildlife biologist Dharmendra Khandal, under the guidance of late tiger conservationist Fateh Singh Rathore started the Anti-Poaching Information Network of Tiger Watch, an NGO in Ranthambore.

The organization, along with the state police, carried out an anti-poaching drive around Ranthambhore. Twelve traders and poachers were arrested in a few months, who confessed to have killed 25 tigers in two years inside the core areas of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve.

All poaching cases were traced to the Moghiya families. Khandal and Rathore realized that the only way to solve the menace of poaching in Ranthambhore was to rehabilitate the marginalized Moghiya families with new means of livelihood. In 2006, Tiger Watch started the Moghiya Rehabilitation programme, after realising that the community was forced to poach tigers for livelihood and had to be weaned away from it.

Khandal worked out several programmes to empower Moghiya men, women and children. “Education was an integral part of the programme as that would impact the next generations of the community. So, we set up a hostel for the Moghiyas with nine children initially.”

Currently, the hostel houses 40 Moghiya children. They attend various schools, institutes and colleges in Sawai Madhopur. “Tiger Watch funds their education, plus we have volunteers coming in from across the country and interacting with them on conservation issues,” says Khandal.

Master Jaggu Moghiya, 21, wants to study commerce and join a bank. He is an example of what is possible when a sliver of opportunity is presented to a deserving child. Jaggu joined the Tiger Watch hostel 11 years ago. His hard work fetched him 74% marks in his 12th standard board examination and he has stood fourth in his class. Even better, he has already received a job offer.

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