Category : Blog

1 day, 20 hours ago 0
Posted in: Blog

by Vaishali Rawat

Every Saturday afternoon at 4 pm, a few citizens from Chikmagalur, Karnataka, meet to discuss ongoing affairs of their town. They come from diverse backgrounds–law, medicine, journalism, business owners–and many are students. The common cause that binds them together? Concern for the environment and natural landscapes that surround their hometown. This ceremonial meeting first took place nearly twenty years ago, and the tradition continues till today; its participating members belong to a group called the Wildlife Conservation Action Team-Chikmagalur, or the WildCAT-C.

Known for its abundant coffee estates and exquisite natural beauty, Chikmagalur is a hilly district of Karnataka. The vast mountains systems of the Western Ghats that line it are embedded with Shola forests and are the origins of the Tunga and Bhadra rivers. Flourishing wildlife reserves like Bhadra and Kudremukh also belong to these mountains and are home to multiple species of rare and endangered wildlife like tigers, leopards, elephants, Lion-tailed macaques, hornbills, king cobra, and several endemic plants, reptiles and frogs. The highest peak of Karnataka, the Mullayanagiri hills are a part of the mountain ranges that decorate Chikmagalur, and so are other prominent peaks like Kemmanagundi, Baba Budan Giri and Kudremukh.

 

Shola forests of Kudremukh ©Kiran Yadav

WildCAT-C began as a volunteer-driven group in 1995, with the vision of involving the citizens of Chikmagalur in appreciating rich ecological history of the landscape. DV Girish, a founding member of WildCAT-C recalls, “We were a group of eight or ten like-minded people at the time and were fond of walking through forests and observing wildlife. As teenagers, we began noticing the degradation of these forests and the threats they faced due to encroachment, mining and reckless management. We wanted to expand our team and involve more people to work towards protecting the forests and wildlife of Chikmagalur–this was the idea behind founding WildCAT-C.” In the years since, volunteers who joined the trust have become staunch advocates for conservation of the natural heritage that surrounds them, and passionate about taking this message to their fellow citizens.

Over the years, the group has regularly organised and conducted awareness camps for school and college students, designed to encourage curiosity about natural landscapes and wildlife. Naturally, this includes treks through the forest ranges, lakes, and grasslands that encircle Chikmagalur. In the process, participants are acquainted with the birds, animals and natural landscapes they encounter.

 

Nature camp for college students by WildCAT-C ©WildCAT-C

Every October, the annual ‘Cycle for Nature’ event is organised during Wildlife Week and is a source of much excitement for the town. Manish Kumar, who owns a garment shop in Chikmagalur and is a long-time volunteer fondly recalls the days leading up to the event: “During this event, we organise a cycling competition for children, and the track meanders through the lakes and forests that surround Chikmagalur. Throughout the day, children are encouraged to ask questions about the paths they are crossing. Why is a certain abandoned mine in their path, what are the types of birds that are found here, how many lakes did they come across, why is the passing forest patch dry and degraded? It is rewarding to see them get excited about these observations as they take in the environment around them.”

 

‘Cycle for Nature’ organised by WildCAT-C ©WildCAT-C

Another volunteer Sharath Indavara, currently a student pursuing his bachelor’s degree says, “I never paid much attention to birds before. Now, going to the lakes around Chikmagalur, and observing and recording birds is my hobby. I will never forget the thrill of sighting an Amur Falcon on my path and the elusive jungle cat that once appeared before me!”

While most volunteers are engaged in other professions and contribute to the trust’s activities whenever they can, several also switched to work for conservation full time, and have fought difficult battles against ill-planned infrastructural and real estate projects in the region. Over the years, the natural landscapes, especially the mountain ranges of Chikmagalur district have faced several threats like the encroachment of forest land, reckless management of forests and illegal mining.

More recent threats include the influx of tourist resorts, the proposed expansion of roads, and ill-conceived micro-hydel and wind-mill projects in ecologically sensitive areas. For nearly two decades, members of WildCAT-C have taken up these difficult battles and fought for the protection of the wilderness areas from such ill-planned projects. Several of these ventures are insidiously marketed and promoted as ‘development’ schemes, and often have the support of the public. Members of WildCAT-C have advocated for the protection of the natural landscapes that the projects were proposed in, by fighting multiple cases in court as well as informing the public about their grave ecological costs. Their efforts have resulted in the shutting down of tourist resorts in ecologically sensitive areas, the establishment of a Blackbuck conservation reserve, a stay on the construction of wind turbines in Chikmagalur district and the halting of construction and expansion of roads through reserve forest areas.

In a successful example of sustained citizen participation through generations of volunteers taking forward a shared cause, WildCAT-C continues to engage students and citizens from all walks of life to speak up for nature. Interested in joining them and learning a little about the region’s ecological history? Just make sure you are in Chikmagalur on Saturday around 4 pm – odds are that someone will direct you to the next meeting.

4 days, 15 hours ago 0
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The real Ajoba, caught from a well, in a village north of Pune. ©John Linnel

 

Vidya Athreya (right) and team radio-collaring Ajoba before releasing him at Malshej Ghats. ©Jimmy Bora

An Indian film, where a wild animal plays the central role, comes very close to highlighting the complex issues that surround human wildlife interactions in India, a country which is unique in the way a high density of people share space with large wild animals even today.

Made with a leopard as its protagonist, it is quite heartening as it shows that such subjects can also elicit awe and empathy from today’s viewers.
The film ‘Ajoba’ which means “grandfather” in Marathi is now available on youtube. The story follows the trail of an elderly leopard across 100 kms of terrain, most of which is densely populated by humans. Crossing human settlements, railway tracks, industrial areas, busy highways and finally swimming the Vasai creek, Ajoba the leopard, emerges unscathed as he finally enters what was probably his home – the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

Following his capture from a well in the farmlands of Takli Dokeshwar, north of Pune, the leopard is tranquilised and a GPS collar put around his neck by wildlife biologist and researcher Purva Rao, (played by Urmila Matondkar in the movie) who hopes to study more about this leopard.

He is released about 60 km away at the foot of Malshej Ghats. Expecting him to start prowling the vegetable and sugarcane fields of the region, Purva Rao is taken by surprise when he turns towards the hills and starts one long trek to some predetermined destination.

The movie made by Sujay Dhahake, a national award winner, has all the ingredients usually involved in human wildlife interactions – media baying for sensationalism, converging crowds that make it difficult for the managers to diffuse tense situations, and officers with differing views.

Based on the real life story of a leopard, rescued from an open well in a village of Junnar district, Maharashtra, and radio collared, this was part of a study conducted by Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, to study farmland leopards, an emerging phenomenon in many parts of Maharashtra.

Vidya had radio-collared and studied leopards in western Maharashtra, where these animals, despite sharing space with a high density of humans, preferred to avoid them. In the actual study, four leopards (Jai Maharashtra, Lakshai, Sita and Ajoba) followed over several months, clearly showed no signs of attacking humans, despite living within few metres of habitations. Nor did they show signs of aggression when the cubs were around, in proof of non-inclination to attack humans.

However, Ajoba, the wise grandfather, (so named by Vidya and her team for his elderly and gentle countenance) had other lessons to teach its researcher. He clearly had his mind set on a place, 120 kms away, and that was where he set off to, beginning with a crossing of the Sahayadris, and followed by much-trying landscapes, thick with humans.

Not once in his 29-day journey did he attack any human. This while crossing the busy Mumbai-Agra highway or strolling through the industrial areas of suburban Mumbai. Much to the relief of Vidya, finally Ajoba entered the Sanjay Gandhi National Park but soon enough the GPS transmitter went dead.

The next news from Ajoba came two years later with the death of a leopard, suspected to have been hit by a speeding vehicle on the crowded road near the park. In the middle of the night Vidya was woken up by a phone call from Sunil Limaye, Park Director of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai when he found that a dead leopard hit in a vehicle accident had a microchip. The number confirmed it was Ajoba.

What Ajoba reveals
The story of Ajoba comes with two lessons. One, that leopards are like other wild animals, extremely shy and avoid humans despite living in a landscape full of people. Two, relocation may not be the best solution, especially for older animals as they are territorial and tend to get back to their areas. Other studies carried out by Vidya finds that arbitrary relocation could increase conflict near the site of release of leopards that were caught simply because they were seen and not because they had harmed any human.

Between 1999 and 2005 there were 201 human deaths in Maharashtra alone but this surge could be related possibly to the fact that there was a major relocation of leopards from human landscapes to Bhimashankar and Malshej Ghats during 2001. Relocated leopards tend to be stressed, and the trauma results in aggression, says Vidya.

According to authorities, among the 160 odd leopard deaths in the first months of the year, the maximum number was due to poaching. Hardly a dozen could be attributed to natural causes. After poaching, the next main reason was rail and road accidents, and then human confrontation.

Accidents can be mitigated to a large extent by building landscaped eco-ducts (overpasses) and underpasses along highways, believes Vidya. Confrontations with humans can be reduced by better awareness and response mechanisms by the Forest Department in collaboration with the police and revenue departments.

The Indian leopard is listed as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. It is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Estimates put the total number of leopards at around 12-14,000.

Toons created by Arjun Srivathsa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 week ago 0
Posted in: Blog

MEET OUR STAFF: SRIKANTH RAO

Srikanth Rao in Amrabad Tiger Reserve, Telangana ©Ankur Singh Chauhan

In the moist deciduous jungles of Nagarahole in Karnataka, it was another busy day for field staff of the tiger monitoring team run by WCS India. Srikanth Rao, along with his colleague, was in the middle of the forest collecting camera-trap data, when suddenly he felt his colleague freeze and back away quietly. Then he noticed something towards his right. Standing a bare 25 metres away from them was a tusker!

Srikanth and his colleague started taking steps backward, one by one. Srikanth recalls the thoughts racing in his mind at the moment, “There is no hard and fast rule to handle such situations. We were told by our mentors that during such situations we should think and act on our own and escape. But we were totally blank and did not know what to do!”

To their surprise the tusker just turned around and ran away, rolling up his tail in the air. Elephants do this when they are scared or feel threatened. Srikanth says, “This experience taught us a lesson on how alert and careful we should be in the jungle. Nature is beautiful and pleasant, but utmost care and knowledge on animal behaviour is essential to survive in a jungle.”

This was his very first encounter with a wild animal in a jungle, during the very beginning of his career as a wildlife researcher back in 2012. It however did not deter his wish to work in the field.

Since childhood, Srikanth Rao had a strong passion towards wildlife and nature. He had his own perception about forests as he used go on trekking and bird watching now and then. A commerce graduate, Srikanth worked in various companies in the corporate sector for nearly seven years. He was offered an internship to work in WCS India’s research team in 2012. Without any further thought he left his corporate job and joined WCS India where he is now working as a Research Assistant. He says, “It was my dream job and I got a lifetime opportunity to work with WCS India.”

He had a lot of information on wildlife and forests from the books that he read and this helped him to adjust to an entirely different environment from corporate offices. “We human beings think that we are disciplined and customised. But what I found in my time in jungle is that the discipline, customs, eating behaviour and the life cycle of wildlife are perfectly systemised. Each and every process in nature is linked with one another,” he says.

Today he spends most of his time in the jungles and some time in the office for data analysis.

He started working on small cell occupancy surveys (survey to assess the distribution of tiger prey species) in the Malenad landscape. Later he was assigned to do camera trap surveys, line transect surveys, large cell occupancy surveys and was involved in all WCS India field research work. He has worked in almost all of the National Parks in the Malenad landscape. He has also worked in the forests of Wayanad, Goa, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Kanha-Pench corridor in various research activities.

 

Srikanth Rao setting up a camera trap in Bhadra Tiger Reserve, Karnataka ©Srikanth Rao

When in the jungle, work entails collecting data and that often means travelling long distances. “During line transects every morning and evening, groups of two walk in the jungle. Markings with red paint would have been made, months prior to the walk. We walk along the markings and note the number of prey species sighted directly. Compass and range finders are used to find the bearing and distance of the animal,” says Srikanth, describing line transect survey.

Srikanth has experienced and lived an adventurous jungle life and has travelled around the country more in the last six years than in the rest of his life. He says, “Each landscape is different from the other, working in different types of forests made me learn more new things about forest and wild animals. My city time-table got lost and modified according to the requirements of the jungle. Not only my food habits, my total perspective of forest and wildlife changed after joining WCS India.”

WCS India’s Assistant director Killivalavan says, “Srikanth is one of the very hardworking, dedicated field staff I have worked with. He is very meticulous and does any job given to him with utmost sincerity.”

(Compiled and written by Manish Machaiah)

1 week, 5 days ago 0
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Naik family at their new house in Joida. ©Jayanand Derekar

Situated deep in the Kumbarawada range of Kali Tiger reserve, the Naik family struggled to survive in isolation. Around 14 kms away from the nearest town, in the village of Naifed, the family had a tough life since they had no access to basic amenities such as schools, hospitals, and markets.  This family is one of the several families which approached the Forest Department and WCS –India for their relocation in 2013.

 

Naik’s grandchild is all smiles. ©Vinay Kumar M C

They wanted to live a life away from the forest, in the town, closer to basic amenities. WCS Project staff, Jayanand Darekar and Narasimha Chapakanda jumped into action. The first step taken was securing identities. The family consisting of a father, mother, elder son, daughter-in-law, younger son and two grandchildren stayed inside the forest with no legal papers. Hence, the Gram Panchayat had to be requested for their house number which helped in getting a ration and voter id card made. These identities were necessary to procure an agriculture labour certificate which makes one eligible to buy land for farming.

From 2007 onwards, although several families sought relocation, there was confusion about the package offered and the process involved. The WCS India Project team identified and decided to include these three families as beneficiaries under its privately funded relocation program. A government order issued in 2008 by the Government of Karnataka, empowers and encourages Civil Society organisations to pay compensation to families living inside the Protected Areas. The WCS India team hoped  that the privately funded land purchase would trigger a cascading effect and would eventually lead to a full-fledged Government Sponsored relocation program in the Kali Tiger Reserve.  With this in mind, WCS India offered Rs. 10,00,000 as compensation to each of these three families, at par with the compensation offered by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

In 2013, when WCS had started helping with the relocation process, the father was attacked by a gaur and his hand was injured badly. Human-wildlife conflict was common inside the forest and hence, the family made it a point to not step out after 6pm in the evening. This incident strengthened the family’s resolve to move out of the forest.

 

The house in Kumbarawada where the Naiks used to live. ©Vinay Kumar M C

After helping the family locate land outside the forest in Joida taluk, and getting their houses built on the roughly 2 acres allotted to them, the family was finally shifted in 2014.  Out of the compensation, Rs 16 lakhs was deposited in a long-term fixed deposit in SBM Kumbarawada to ensure they had an income till they started earning from agriculture. After shifting to Joida, the family had access to the hospital, schools, and market (to sell their produce), all within a radius of a kilometre.

The transformation is most visible on the grandchildren. Earlier, very shy and scared of visitors, today they are bright and talkative, having started schooling too.

Voluntary relocation is beneficial to both the people and the forest. Inside the forest, there was pressure exerted by the family through activities like cattle grazing and collection of  NTFP (Non-timber forest produce). Once the family moved out, the forest could flourish without intervention and wildlife move unhindered. In the win-win scenario, the family too has easier access to amenities and is able to live a happy life.

 

Forests take over after the land is vacated. ©Prakriti Srivastava

P.M.Muthanna, Assistant Director of Conservation Operations, WCS adds, “Privately funded land purchase by WCS India in Naifed settlement of Kali TR is the perfect example of private -government partnership.”

WCS strives to conserve, educate, and provide hands on support in the field, so there are more families like the Naik family who can have a brighter future.

Compiled and written by Meghana Sanka

3 weeks ago Comments Off on Supporting livelihoods for families living in Wildlife Reserves
Posted in: Blog

It’s 6 am and Saraswati Rohidas Mirashi, a 35-year old lively woman, wakes up to start her daily grind. A mother of two young children, Saraswati prefers for her kids to stay at their relative’s house, 20 km away from the village. She insisted on this difficult separation, despite the emotional toll of having to spend a life away from her own children, but she believes this is necessary to ensure a better future for them. She was born in a small village called Daria and married into a settlement called Padshet of Asulli village, all of them nestled deep inside the Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. A humble settlement of about four families builds up its population to around 17 people who reside in the heart of this wildlife reserve, many miles away from the comforts of the basic amenities like education, healthcare and markets.

Padshet, where access to basic amenities is difficult. ©Prakriti Srivastava

Saraswati has lived here for many years with no hospitals or schools near her house, no markets for her to sell her agricultural produce, let alone get a fair price for it, and things rapidly get worse during the monsoons when the incessant rains make the commute to see her children nearly impossible.

Padshet is in the Kumbarawada Range of Kali Tiger Reserve (KTR) in North Karnataka, which is home to tigers, leopards, dholes, gaur, chital, sambar and sloth bears, as well as elephants which are limited to a specific part of KTR.  Encounters with big cats are rare, but in villages deep within wildlife habitat, conflict with gaur, chital and other wildlife is frequent. “Herds of gaur often pass through”, Saraswati says, pointing to her fields, “and of course wild pigs and langurs”. Unsaid, but starkly clear, is the hard-hitting loss Saraswati and others face due to crop raids from wildlife.

Envisioning a different life for her children, Saraswati has sent them to live with relatives outside the forest. There, they have easier access to medical care, and to schools and the education she couldn’t secure for herself – even if it meant living away from them. Her son is studying in the 8th standard while her elder daughter is pursuing a Diploma in Computer Science in Govt. Polytechnic, Joida.

Saraswati, tending to the bee keeping boxes, provided by WCS India Program. ©Prakriti Srivastava

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) India Program works to help people like Saraswati through Jayanand Darekar, Community Organiser with WCS India Program. He says, “It is getting increasingly difficult for people living in forest interiors to cope with the difficulties that come with living in such isolation”. He has assisted more than 100 families in availing the benefits of the Government sponsored relocation program while also reaching out to 150 families with support to their agricultural activities. To help Saraswati, Jayanand has facilitated providing of seeds, saplings, agricultural implements, bee keeping boxes and other forms of livelihood support. With this assistance, Saraswati’s family can now grow vegetables, areca nut, banana and coconut, and can undertake bee keeping. Using guano from nearby caves as fertilizer, her entire produce is fully organic. She still has little access to markets, the nearest of which is 10 km away, but she is glad that at least she now has a regular source of income.

Jayanand (centre) with produce from Saraswati’s fields. ©Prakriti Srivastava

“I want my children to have a better quality of life, and to be able to go to schools, colleges, have nearby doctors, and live in a larger community of people” Saraswati says. When asked whether she is happy to be at Padshet, she was quick to respond that she misses her children immensely. She adds that she would prefer to not face the daily difficulties of living so deep inside a Protected Area and would be happy to move closer to where her children live.

Compiled and Written by Vaishali Rawat