Sanctuaries

Breathing room

Print edition : August 22, 2014

Jai the tiger moved out of Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary where it was born when it was four years old and travelled about 120 km in the safety of tiger corridors to Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary, where it found a mate. Photo: Praveen Singh Pardeshi

Flamingos at the Sewri mudflats in Mumbai. Photo: PTI

The Sewri-Nhava Sheva Trans Harbour Link road bridge project, which will connect Mumbai island with the mainland, posed a threat to the Sewri mudflats. The Forest Department worked out a plan under which it set aside 0.015 sq. km of the mudflats for the project and 15 sq. km for a marine sanctuary.

With the creation of two new sanctuaries, Maharashtra shows the way for a fresh approach to conservation.

JULY brought good news for conservationists in Maharashtra: the creation of two more wildlife safe areas. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) notified the existing Bor Wildlife Sanctuary in Wardha for tiger conservation, making it the State’s sixth tiger reserve after Tadoba Andhari, Melghat, Pench, Nagzira and Sahyadri. It will be India’s 47th tiger reserve.

And the second new wildlife safe area is the Sewri mudflats, where migratory flamingos assemble every year. The area was being threatened by the Sewri-Nhava Sheva Trans Harbour Link bridge, but the decision to create a marine park brings relief to birds and conservationists alike.

With the approval given by Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, 138 square kilometres of Bor Sanctuary, New Bor Sanctuary and New Bor Extended Wildlife Sanctuary were declared a core, or critical, tiger habitat, and 16 sq. km was also added to this newest of tiger reserves. Bor is the smallest such reserve in India and currently holds an estimated four tigers. It seems doubtful whether 154 sq. km is enough area for the animals to range, considering that the National Tiger Conservation Authority recommends an area of 800 to 1,000 sq. km for all the ecological supports a tiger requires for its survival. But perhaps the fact that Bor is in the Satpura-Maikal landscape makes the plan viable because the sanctuary is a crucial part of the all-important wildlife corridor between the Tadoba Andhari and Pench Tiger Reserves. Just the creation of a corridor is itself a boost to conservation.

While a decision on Bor was on the cards, the one on the Sewri mudflats was unexpected. Thousands of flamingos winter every year in Sewri to escape the extreme temperatures of the Rann of Kutch. They have been taking this route for more than four decades. Of late, the birds have been facing threats such as hunting, polluted feeding grounds and, of course, the proposed Sewri-Nhava Sheva Trans Harbour Link bridge. The six-lane bridge spanning 22 km, to be built by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), would have interfered with a part of the area where flamingos traditionally converge. The project has been a matter of dispute between its promoters and conservationists for the past three decades. Pleas to realign the bridge by a few metres were rejected until finally the Forest Department worked out a plan under which 0.015 sq. km of the mudflats was given to the MMRDA on condition that the remaining 15 sq. km would be turned into a marine sanctuary, the State’s second marine sanctuary. Declaring it a sanctuary under the care of a conservator or deputy conservator will go a long way in protecting flamingos and other migratory birds, mangroves and the general ecological health of the area.

The declaration is timely since there have been increasing reports of flamingos being hunted for their meat. The bird is not an endangered species, but hunting migratory species is illegal. This year about 25,000 flamingos have been sighted in Mumbai. The ebb and flow of the tides leaves exposed vast stretches of mud rich with algae and other nutritious feed. And the slight indentation of the coastline protects the birds from the elements. Until about a decade ago, this part of Mumbai’s coast was untouched since it bordered dockyards and rail lines. But the city’s insatiable real estate needs have made it inevitable that the Sewri mudflats would be exposed once the old warehouses of Sewri became redundant and made way for new construction. It was equally inevitable that Sewri would be the point of link between Mumbai and the mainland. The boom in growth is evident from the fact that at the Sewri end of the bridge would be the newly opened up lands, including the mill lands of Parel, and at the Nhava Sheva end would be the industrial belt of Raigad and the proposed education park on the more than over 7,000 acres (28.328 sq. km) owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and others.

The newly extended Bor will add to the overall ecological security of the area, and the State Forest Department took the opportunity to extend the safe zone further along the coast. A 10-km stretch covering an area of about 8 sq. km further along the coast at the Vashi and Airoli creeks has also been declared a protected area, which will help save mangroves and the scattered flocks of flamingos and other birds that land there.

Conservation model

Maharashtra has gradually emerged as something of a model for wildlife conservation. The State has 10 major sanctuaries, and of the country’s total population of about 1,700 tigers, 200 are in Maharashtra. It was not always so, and the present situation is the result of some serious long-term planning and thinking between committed bureaucrats and conservationists. Long-term planning is actually the key to a successful conservation strategy. “We are trying comprehensive and out-of-the-box strategies... long-term strategies when it comes to conservation,” said Praveen Singh Pardeshi, Principal Secretary, Forests. He is a pragmatist and believes that there can be no long-term conservation without the involvement of local people. “They should own and not be in conflict with wildlife,” he said.

With this in mind, his department looked at the existing sanctuaries and found them to be “small, pocket-sized”, their size essentially proving to be “counterproductive” when it came to conservation. The main thing was to stabilise existing populations of animals/tigers, so the Forest Department identified the smaller sanctuaries, extended and protected them, and then set about making them contiguous. Thus, from a tiny 149 sq. km, Nagzira became 400 sq. km; Navegaon grew from 130 to 260 sq. km; and the latest entrant, Bor, was also extended.

Jai’s story

The story of Jai the tiger is a validation of what is being done. Last year, the presence of a new male tiger was recorded in the Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Maharashtra. He was identified as Jai, one of the two male cubs born to the tigress Mai in Nagzira. Jai, now four years old and looking for a mate, travelled about 120 km from Nagzira to the Paoni range where Umred-Karhandla is. Jai’s journey took him through the newly created corridors, farms, fields and even led him across national highways and train tracks before he reached his destination and found his mate. Jai is actually one of the star attractions at Umred and has added considerably to the revenues of the local people who operate the sighting safaris.

But plans like this come with a “heavy cost”, as Pardeshi said, and there was initial resistance when cattle were not allowed to graze, fuel wood gathering was banned, and so on. He said, “strong mitigation was required... some sweetener was required for the local people”. The “sweetener” came in many forms: the management of wildlife tourism lodges was handed over to local people, with women handling the catering and others being trained as guides.

It turned out to be very successful, with tremendous long-term prospects. For example, Pitezari village in Nagzira sanctuary now earns Rs.1 lakh a year from tourism. “The tiger is paying them,” quipped Pardeshi. The payback principle is simple—an area is declared a sanctuary, so animals are protected and their visibility increases; simultaneously, a local person is trained to be a guide: the more the tiger is seen, the more guide’s income rises.

The strategy so far is akin to the Forest Department putting itself in the villagers’ shoes. In order to halt the need-based activities such as illegal felling of trees and people entering no-go areas to collect firewood, the department arranged for cooking gas connections. In the last three years, 61,000 families in the protected areas of eastern Maharashtra have received cooking gas connections. They will get free refills every month for the next five years, and this one act has ensured that their “interface with the jungle is less because they are not dependent on it for fuel”.

Other happy outcomes: women spent less time collecting firewood, so there was a reduction in injuries caused by animals into whose zones humans trespassed. There has also been an increase in fees collected from tourists. Pardeshi said: “Tadoba revenue increased from Rs.41 lakh to Rs.3 crore [annually], and the revenue is shared with 79 villages in the Tadoba buffer.” They have moved from extractive forestry to tourism. It’s a new sort of dependence or rather, as Pardeshi said, “it’s independence from dependence”.

In Tadoba, you see tigers outside the sanctuary too. So, people in villages outside the core area are told to start safaris on village trails. They have a positive stake in it, so the tiger benefits too.

Kishor Rithe, president, Satpuda Foundation and former member of the National Board for Wildlife, attributes the increasing success of conservationists in the State to a spirit of cooperation. It involves a tightrope act in which conservationists drive hard bargains without compromising. Rithe, who is also on the State Board for Wildlife, said there were no project applications pending with them. “We don’t say no to development projects. For instance, there was a gas pipeline proposal and we cleared it because it was going around Bor sanctuary. But when mining proposals come up, we are firm. And that is when we expect politicians to understand our point of view as well.”

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