In a country with a burgeoning human population, creating or extending such protected areas is not feasible. Several Indian communities, like Bishnoi, Maldhari, Mumbai Adivasi, and people of Sundarbans, have deep-rooted beliefs that allow them to live with wild animals, including large predators. Such an attitude toward wildlife has allowed the world’s second-most populous country to protect and preserve its biodiversity to a significant extent. As Indians, we all have a duty and a role to play in fostering community-based conservation in our country to allow our rich biodiversity to thrive in the coming decades.
There was a time when wildlife conservation in India meant relocating local communities to create inviolate spaces for wildlife in protected areas. Such areas allowed no or minimal human activities and had designated forest staff to ensure that wildlife was safe and secure.
However, although hugely successful, this method of protection had its limitations. Today, such protected habitat islands cover only around 5% of India’s geographical area and are not enough to accommodate the growing wildlife populations. It was clear that wildlife needed more space, and in a country with a burgeoning human population, creating or extending such protected areas was not always feasible. Hence, community-based conservation came under the spotlight.
Now, more than ever, it is essential to recognize the role of local communities in wildlife conservation in India and encourage the communities to actively participate in the same. And as Indians, we all have a duty and a role to play in fostering community-based conservation in our country to allow our rich biodiversity to thrive in the coming decades.
India’s Culture Of Conservation
Conservation is not a new thing in India. Thousands of years before the modern Western concept of conservation came into being, the people living in this mega biodiverse country have been practising conservation through their religio-cultural practices. Revering nature and her creatures is an integral part of most Indian cultures. Even today, local communities sharing space with wildlife engage in cultural practices that involve worshipping a variety of animals and plants, and practising rituals and customs that help conserve biodiversity.
Take, for example, Rajasthan’s Bishnoi community. Around five centuries back, their Guru Jambhoji taught them to protect all animals with their life and never to cut a green tree. Even to this day, a Bishnoi village continues to serve as a haven for wildlife. While Bishnoi men patrol the land to protect the antelopes from poachers, Bishnoi women nurse orphaned antelope fawns, sometimes even feeding them their breast milk to save their lives.
In Gujarat, the Maldharis, or the shepherd community of Gir, often come face-to-face with the famous wild Asiatic lions as they take their livestock out for grazing. Occasionally, they also lose some of their animals to lion attacks, suffering a financial loss. Yet, they continue to share space with these predators and even take pride in having such majestic wild neighbours.
In the Sundarbans mangroves of West Bengal, tigers and humans share a predator-prey relationship even today. Villagers entering tiger territory to collect crabs or fish often encounter tigers, sometimes losing their lives to a tiger attack. Despite such losses, these villagers continue to revere the tiger. For them, the tiger protects the forest, and the latter is their source of livelihood. Every time they enter the forest, they worship the Bonbibi, or forest Goddess to keep them safe from the tiger, and if misfortune still greets them, most often, they accept it as fate instead of blaming the tiger for their loss.
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Adding to the list is the Adivasi community of the Aarey Forest of Mumbai. They live with a population of 10 to 14 leopards in their midst. For them, the leopard is God whom they worship in the form of the ‘Waghobha‘. They even have shrines dedicated to their leopard God. When they hear a leopard roar, they break a coconut shell praying to the Waghoba to spare their livestock and take care of the forest, a source of life for all.
This list can continue. But to summarize, all the above communities have deep-rooted beliefs that allow them to live with wild animals, including large predators. And such an attitude toward wildlife has allowed the world’s second-most populous country to protect and preserve its biodiversity to a significant extent.
However, it is also important to note that while these communities follow a culture of conservation, their growing populations and aspirations and the ill effects of degrading environment and climate change might lead them to detest the very wildlife they worship in the near future. Several examples of communities taking matters into their hand and persecuting wild animals have surfaced in recent times, giving popularity to the term ‘human-wildlife conflict’ in India.
Changing Times, Changing Needs
While the protected areas in India continue to harbour the country’s wildlife safely, the growing wildlife population needs extra space. For example, tigers in India numbered only 1,411 in 2006. The creation of tiger reserves across the country as protected inviolate spaces for tiger populations allowed the species’ population to grow to 2,967 in 2018. However, the growing population had to disperse as each adult tiger needed a large territorial space to hunt and mate. And that meant tigers had to exit the boundaries of protected areas into human-inhabited areas. Hence, conservation strategies now have to focus on maintaining a positive relationship between tigers and humans sharing the same space. Creating or extending protected areas as an option is limited by several factors, including the need for space for the growing human population and activities.
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Today, our country’s conservationists and policy-makers are working hard to engage local communities in conserving wild species. While these communities already have the rich traditional knowledge and culture that allows them to live with wildlife, conservation programs also ensure that wildlife becomes a source of income for these people instead of economic loss. Providing them with monetary compensation for losing lives, property, and livestock to wildlife attacks is one proven method of keeping their anger against wildlife at bay. Serving them alternative sources of livelihood that reduce their dependence on forest or animal products also greatly enhances community-based conservation goals.
How We Can Help
The purpose of this article is not just to explain the concept of community-based conservation. It is also about how we, as responsible citizens of India, can and must promote such conservation. There are several ways through which each of us can help:
- Create awareness about the need for community-based conservation in India.
- Donate to NGOs and other organizations working to promote such conservation.
- Staying in homestays owned by local community members when visiting wildlife destinations or selecting hotels/resorts that employ local people.
- Purchasing handicrafts and other produce by the local communities in wildlife destinations visited by us.
- Volunteering to help local communities, like, for example, providing free education to their children.
- Being a responsible wildlife tourist and not luring community members with money to engage in unethical tourism practices.
- Appreciating the efforts of local communities.
- Not giving uninformed comments or spreading rumours about wildlife-human conflict situations involving local community members and wildlife. Doing so may further encourage the negative perception of wildlife by people.
As responsible citizens of India and a species responsible for creating an environmental and ecological crisis on our planet, we must facilitate the conservation cause now. And we can do so by supporting and encouraging local communities to protect and preserve the wildlife with whom they share space and their lives.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are of the author solely. TheRise.co.in neither endorses nor is responsible for them.
About the author
Dr. Oishimaya Sen Nag is a wildlife conservation writer and editor at World Atlas, Canada. She has written several articles on issues related to wildlife conservation and interviewed renowned wildlife conservationists, wildlife biologists, and forest department officials working to protect wildlife across the world.