The Sanctuary-ABN-AMRO Wildlife Awards highlight the fact that nature conservation in India is in the hands of ordinary people.
THE unmistakable impression one gathers from the briefest of conversations with the 11 winners of the Sanctuary-ABN-AMRO Wildlife awards for 2004 is that they are, without exception, just doing what they believe is right: conserving the earth with deep commitment. Some of them are known within the parks and sanctuaries they work in, others for their extensive research work. But none of them is known outside the wildlife conservation fraternity.
The awards, the brainchild of Sanctuary magazine editor Bittu Sahgal, were instituted by the ABN-AMRO Bank in 2000 with the primary aim of rewarding ordinary people who "protect our wilderness area and ensure that India's rich natural heritage is bequeathed in good health to future generations". But the record of the recipients of this year's awards - K.M. Chinnappa (Lifetime Service Award), Sonam Wangchuk (Green Teacher Award), Charudutt Mishra and Aparajita Datta, Niren Jain, Ratan Singh, Pankaj Sharma and Manglu Baiga (Wildlife Service Awards) and Aaron Lobo, Indrapratap Thakare, Rahul Alvares and Maan Baruah (Young Naturalist Awards) - is far from ordinary. They have engaged in armed confrontations with poachers, fought legal suits and faced threats to themselves and to their families. The hope they offer makes up for the governments' and the public apathy towards wildlife. Bittu Sahgal said, "The idea behind honouring Earth Heroes is to make people aware how every one of us can help to preserve nature in our own small way."
The awards spotlight field workers so that they do not feel they are working in isolation. The sponsors want to keep conservation issues in public consciousness. By involving big business houses they hope to promote the idea that good business need not be destructive business.
When Chinnappa is asked about his confrontations with poachers, the cases pending against him or the burning down of his house, he brushes them aside. "It is all in the past," he says. "What matters is that things are changing and the work we are doing is seen as important. That is a great difference." For 30 years the lanky forest guard battled to save the Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka from poachers, corrupt politicians and even his superiors, from whom there was little support. Helped by a small group of ill-equipped assistants, Chinnappa battled the timber and wildlife mafia. He took early retirement when his house was burned down, but left an inspirational legacy and is credited for the high prey density that Nagarhole is known for. Now associated with Wildlife First, he has spearheaded its successful campaign against government timber logging inside protected areas.
Chinnappa's efforts have ensured that a specialised wildlife wing of the Forest Department controls almost all protected areas in Karnataka. Although he is facing charges of trespass made by officials of the Kudremukh National Park, he says they will not be able to prevent him from achieving his goal of stopping mining and tree felling in reserve forests.
Sonam Wangchuk is the Founder-Director of the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). The Movement was started in 1988 by a group of students who had become `victims' of an alien education system that was foisted on Ladakh. SECMOL strives to rebuild the self-confidence and self-sufficiency of Ladakhis through its educational reforms programme "Operation New Hope". Commenting on the existing educational material, Wangchuk says it "confuses children who live at an altitude of 12,000 feet by giving them lessons on how to plant coconut trees". The Movement's educational reforms include changing the school calendar so that children go to school in winter and stay outdoors in the summer agricultural season. The SECMOL campus has benefited from Wangchuk's training in engineering. A low-cost solar heating system and structures designed to trap heat during daytime ensure that the 20,000 sq ft building does not use any fuel for heating, even in the winter months when temperatures are as low as -25C.
The choice of people for the Wildlife Service awards illustrates Sanctuary's belief that the ordinary person is a hero. Manglu Baiga, the septuagenarian who says he "may still be in [his] 60s", is the dream of every wildlife enthusiast and scientist. A superb tracker from the Baiga tribe, he knows the jungles of his native Kanha in Madhya Pradesh like the back of his hand. He claims he can lead blindfolded. Nobody who knows him would dispute that. In 1973, when the Project Tiger programme was announced, Kanha was declared as one of the first tiger reserves.
It was Manglubhai who led the first Field Director of the project through Kanha's 940 sq km of mountains and meadows. From performing a clean autopsy to contributing expert knowledge on refining the pugmark census method, Manglubhai's skills are wide-ranging. He says he is happy to share all he knows if his home, the forest, can be saved.
Using the law to deter wildlife warriors is nothing new and the likes of Niren Jain are undeterred. With a never-say-die attitude he dismisses the numerous cases of trespass against him. An architect by profession, he is dedicated to halting ore mining in the rainforests of the Kudremukh National Park in Karnataka. His efforts have paid off with the Supreme Court ordering an end to mining activities in Kudremukh by the end of 2005.
As part of a survey to map Kudremukh, Niren Jain trekked the 600-odd sq km of the park area and used the data to establish anti-poaching camps. He also used the information to monitor the mining sites and expose the offences of the mining company. While educating the local people to help save the park, he helped start a unique voluntary resettlement effort using private donor funds. This delivered genuine social justice to people wishing to move out of the park.
Pankaj Sharma has been a ranger in the Assam Forest Department for over 20 years. His efforts have resulted in raising the rhinoceros population in the Kaziranga National Park to over 1,800. Encounters with poachers have been a part of his postings at the Laokhowa Sanctuary, the Kaziranga National Park and the Nameri Wildlife Sanctuary. The region, according to Pankaj Sharma, is infested with well-armed poachers who are part of an international network trafficking in animal parts. The density of the parks attracts poachers, he says. Currently posted at the Dibhru-Saikhowa Sanctuary, he plans to restock it with some of Kaziranga's rhinoceroses.
The husband-wife team of Charudutt Mishra and Aparajita Datta has focussed on understanding human impact on high-altitude wildlife, the ecology of human-wildlife conflicts, large herbivore community ecology and carnivore ecology. Charudutt has helped set up experimental community-based wildlife conservation programmes in the mountainous areas in India and has been engaged in post-conflict wildlife assessments in Afghanistan on behalf of the United Nations. He persuaded the local people to set aside grazing-free areas, a move that resulted in a successful livestock insurance programme. Charudutt Mishra and others are also credited with the discovery of the Chinese goral, Nemorhaedus caudata, a new record for the subcontinent, as well as a species of macaque in 2003, recently named the Macaca munzala.
Aparajita Datta has worked in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh for nearly a decade, studying and helping conserve their rich wildlife. Following a survey on hunting practices among tribal communities, she undertook foot surveys with tribal hunters and discovered two species of deer previously unknown in India, the leaf deer, Muntiacus putaoensis, and the black muntjac, Muntiacus crinifrons. Blending her twin concerns, for Arunachal Pradesh's tribal people and its wildlife, she runs programmes in the Namdapha National Park and the Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary that integrate the needs of both.
With his hat at a jaunty angle and with his natty jacket, Ratan Singh has a faint resemblance to the Bollywood heroes of yesteryear but his achievements are far more substantial. In his 25 years in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. Ratan Singh, now a guide, has also been a boatman and a cyclerickshaw driver. A resident of a village situated near the Keoladeo National Park, he was involved in two programmes initiated to improve the relations between the villagers and the Forest Department. One project restored the relationship, which had deteriorated when grazing in the park was banned. This was achieved when the Forest Department invested Rs.175 out of every Rs.200 received from foreign tourists towards the entrance fee to the sanctuary to create common village utilities. Poaching activities decreased when an alternative economy was created by introducing cyclerickshaws to ferry tourists. Over 100 cyclerickshaws now ply in the Bharatpur sanctuary, each fetching about Rs.4,000 a month.
Of the four Young Naturalist awards, the one for Young Naturalist of the Year went to 22-year-old Maan Barua whose home is the Kaziranga National Park. Introduced as one of India's most promising ornithologists, he has devised and taught field identification skills and basic ecology to youth from villages around Kaziranga so that they are able to act as guides.
With his trademark kaadi or stick in his hand, Indrapratap Thakare is a common sight in the Melghat and Tadoba Tiger Reserves in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. With a talent for collecting information on illegal activities, this 21-year-old helped crack a network that smuggled the ayurvedic medicinal plant musali from the Gugamal National Park. He has helped in identifying the rare forest owlet and tracking the endangered wild buffalo. While doing his B.Sc. in Agriculture, he is also working on a joint project of the Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Satpuda Foundation to assist in the rehabilitation of six villages outside the reserve.
The son of conservationists Norma and Claude Alvares, it is no surprise that Rahul Alvares took an interest in conservation issues. With stints at the Madras Crocodile Bank and the Pune Snake Park, Rahul began rescuing snakes, conducting snake talks and assisting in turtle conservation as soon as he was out of school. He is currently doing M.Sc. in Ecology and Environment.
Sea snakes rule Aaron Lobo's life. He studies them, writes dissertations and makes presentations on them, and, of course, handles them with enviable ease. He is a post-graduate student at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun. His current project involves a survey of aquatic snakes.