Bengaluru:Punati Sridhar, who took over as principal chief conservator of forests for Karnataka in March, is currently basking in the glory of a summer that has resulted in either zero forest fires or negligent ones across some of the state’s largest forest reserves, including Bandipur, Nagarhole, Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve and Bannerghatta.

However, he cannot afford to let his guard down just yet. His priority list is crammed with plans ranging from reactivating village forest committees to developing more eco-trails for people to trek to expand awareness, and regenerating fodder to feed the constantly-increasing wildlife population of Karnataka.

Karnataka’s forests are home to the largest number of tigers, elephants and leopards in the country. Ensuring the state’s forests and its denizens are protected, without hampering the livelihood of people who depend on or live close to these areas, is the responsibility of Sridhar and his team of 9,000 forest department personnel. In an interview, Sridhar talks about everything from the need to have more citizen volunteers to help spread awareness to Nagarhole’s sole black panther. Edited excerpts:

How important is it to get local communities, who live close to or depend on forests for their livelihood, involved in the conservation process?

Communities are a must to protect the forest. There are more than 5,000-odd village forest committees and about 1,200 or so are active but there are no programmes for them to work with. The National Forest Policy of 1988 made a paradigm change in the approach to conservation by saying we should work with the people. Accordingly, the concept of joint-forest management came in and village forest committees were constituted in each village. However, funding was an issue and they almost became defunct. The plan is to reactivate all of them in a phased manner. We would like to energize those that are active and shape them into role models for the rest. The idea behind these committees is to get their help in regular protection and fire protection, as well as in educating people not to encroach and destroy forests.

You’ve said in the past that you need more participation from citizen volunteers too. What kind of help does the department hope to get from them?

It’s basically about awareness creation. For example, there was a video recently of people throwing stones at an elephant that wanted to cross from one side of the forest to the other. They injured the animal—a rain of stones, imagine, on a helpless animal that was just trying to move to the other side. These things are happening and unless people are educated, they won’t stop.

Sridhar talks about everything from the need to have more citizen volunteers to help spread awareness to Nagarhole’s sole black panther-

For more awareness to be created, we need citizens’ initiative. We would want citizen volunteers to go to these areas, sit with people and talk to them, and bridge the gap between us. We are uniformed people, so there is still a gap. Bridging that gap and participating in our programmes is where we’d like citizens to come forward.

Volunteering aside, a growing number of people want to vacation amid nature. What is your take on ecotourism? Do you view it as a double-edged sword when it comes to conservation?

There is no question of a double-edged sword. Ecotourism will be very useful for conservation as long as we restrict numbers. For example, in each eco-trail that we operate, we’ve decided that we can at most carry about 30-40 people who can trek. Earlier it was unregulated and a lot of people were illegally trespassing into the forest areas, trekking within and even halting the night. We’ve now tried to bring that under control by letting the ecotourism board train people as naturalists or nature guides. It then becomes the role of the naturalist or guide to educate people about the natural surroundings on the trek, and ensure they follow discipline. Most people who were going on these without permission liked to drink and smoke and shout, but those are not allowed. You have to maintain the sanctity of the area.

There have been requests to increase the buffer area for tourism, allow more trips into the forest and give permission for new resorts to be built in the eco-sensitive zone outside protected areas.

About 90% of the core forest is reserve area and 10% is the buffer zone. Safaris are allowed only in the buffer zone, in a limited area. Within the eco-sensitive zone there is no scope for new resorts. We will not issue a no-objection certificate for any new resort. But people are doing it beyond the eco-sensitive zone in the hope that more vehicles are allowed. I’ve advised whoever has asked me not to spend their money on it depending totally on safaris, because too much exposure is not good for the animals.

But critics point to places like Africa as a comparison where a much larger portion of reserves are opened up for tourism.

Africa’s forest types are mostly meadows and grasslands, and their main purpose is tourism. Our main purpose is conservation. You should not open up too much of the forest. You can see some videos, for instance, where tigers are getting very close to the safari jeeps. They should be afraid of people and keep their distance. It is not safe for us. And for hunters it is very easy because tigers won’t run away and they become sitting ducks. That’s why overexposure is not good for conservation. That’s why we stick to that, though there are a lot of requests to increase the number of trips.

Has the wildlife population in Karnataka grown?

The population is increasing. Today, there are 24 tiger cubs in Kabini, Nagarhole and Bandipur, according to our personnel on the ground. This is just in the tourism zone.

Are there any challenges, though, as the wildlife population grows?

There’s a tiger every 6-8 sq. km in Nagarhole and Bandipur. We find more and more tigers growing into adults. If they have to establish themselves, they need a prey base of around 500 chital per tiger. They also need space and because of increased survival, individual territory sizes will either have to come down or the tigers will venture out.

The healthy regeneration of the forest has been hampered and the fodder availability has come down because of lantana. That is one of the reasons why elephants also go out for food. We’ve decided to clear lantana at least along the roads to help regenerate fodder, widen the view line and maintain them as meadows in Bandipur. We’re also doing the same in hudlus (wetlands) in Nagarhole, which have become filled with lantana. Hudlus should have remained as wetlands within the park because apart from moisture, there is fodder availability in these. Weeds are being removed and fodder seeds are being collected and we will broadcast those seeds so that there is more fodder grass availability, which will help ungulates, elephants, and indirectly tigers and other carnivores too.

There is definitely a lot of revival of species that were not easily found earlier also because of protection, but we need time to study those.

But still only one black panther?

We only have one black panther in the entire Nagarhole area. A few weeks ago he was badly injured, but he recuperated and that’s great news because sometimes an injury may not heal completely. It’s up to their body’s immunity, and it affects their ability to hunt, but luckily he’s back.