Villagers around Ranthambore Wildlife Sanctuary have developed a protective ring to protect tigers

Photo by Aditya Singh.

Villagers around Ranthambore Wildlife Sanctuary have developed a protective ring to Save tigers.

Ranthambore is one of the major wildlife sanctuaries in India, where tigers can be seen roaming during the day. It is a tropical forest area spread in the Sawai Madhopur district of Rajasthan, which is named after an ancient Ranthambore fort here. The forest around Ranthambore Fort, once a private hunting ground for the royal families of Jaipur, now appears a new group of warriors – who are trying to protect wildlife. They are part of a village wildlife volunteer program started by Tiger Watch, a local NGO.

The program now has a team of about 50 volunteers, who share real-time information about the movement of wildlife to forest officials. These volunteers have developed their own network, working for wildlife conservation, involving the larger community around the Ranthambore tiger reserve. The efforts of these volunteers in Ranthambore and its surrounding areas have reduced the incidence of poaching. The movement of wildlife can be tracked more efficiently. This program has better addressed human and wildlife encounters. With the effect of this program, the local hunting community is also slowly changing its path.

There is a village named Khohara on the outskirts of Ranthambore Tiger Sanctuary, Rajasthan. Just one kilometer from this village, Dharm Singh Gurjar saw the tiger's pug-mark and said, "There was a tiger here … and it was not long ago." He noticed that there were more pugmarks in the direction the tiger was going and he immediately took a picture with his mobile camera. Subsequently, Dharam Singh Gurjar shared the picture with Dharmendra Khandal of Tiger Watch, a non-governmental organization working on the issue of wildlife conservation and welfare.

Dharam Singh Gurjar is one of a team of 50 people who live around the Ranthambore Tiger Sanctuary, trained by Tiger Watch and their team. These 50 people are part of the Village Wildlife Volunteers team of Tiger Watch.

Village Wildlife Volunteers programme .Photo by Mayank Aggarwal

Under this program, NGO Tiger Watch's Dharmendra Khandal has been working on it for years and includes a group from Ranthambore. The group consists mostly of Van Gujjar communities, which are nomadic buffalo-shepherds. This group of this NGO now stands with a team of 50 people. The group in a way acts as the eyes and ears of the forest department which is monitoring and reporting tigers in and around Ranthambore. The team has installed around 50 camera traps in the tiger territory and periphery of the tiger reserve to monitor the movement of tigers in and out of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. This monitoring of wildlife is very important as security. This will increase the number of dwindling tigers.

Dharmendra Khandal of the organization said that these volunteers have become a kind of protective wall around the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. They monitor the movement of tigers. Camera traps have been placed around the Ranthambore tiger reserve so that information about wildlife can be given to the forest department from time to time. This will help curb poaching in Ranthambore as the volunteers have a strong network. They help the villagers get compensation for the cattle killed by tigers in the villages around Ranthambore. In this way they also prevent the incidents of revenge by the villagers from the forest department. According to Khandal, the Village Wildlife Volunteers program was started in 2013 to involve the community in the conservation process.

A tiger caught in a camera trap set by the Village Wildlife Volunteers programme. Photo from Tiger Watch

Khandal stated that "Volunteers work for the protection of the tiger reserve and also bring the problems of the villagers to the authorities and the institution. In return for this work we give them a monthly stipend and this increases their income. He further said that we have tried to streamline their issues regarding compensation of cattle killed by wild animals. We have included the villagers in this and the reason behind their inclusion is that people will listen to them when they know that someone is among them.

He revealed that due to the efforts of the volunteers and the information given by them, over the years, forest officials have caught about 40 poachers.

"But an important fact, which often gets scant attention, is that they have taught and informed us a lot about wildlife in the area. We have discovered a breeding population of about 30 Gharial and critically endangered animals in a river near Ranthambore because of them. They also assist researchers in fieldwork. They have their own network of villagers and thus they have formed a large decentralized group, which involves more people in the conservation process, "Khandal reported.

He explains that Tiger Watch often hosts informal social events, where they invite their network of volunteers and villagers to try and make them feel connected.

Conservation biologist Dr. Dharmendra Khandal said that volunteers give us information about things we never imagined. For example, we came to know that the Kailadevi Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the best and safest wolves' habitats in India. This sanctuary is a part of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. They also give us invaluable information about the behavior of wild animals and their movement. It is a reality that there can be no wildlife protection without involving local communities and these people are proving it.

Villagers being trained under Tiger Watch's Village Wildlife Volunteers programme. Photo by Aditya Singh.

Dharam Singh Gurjar stated that "he joined the program after completing his graduation. Dharmendra sir told us about the need and importance of protecting wildlife and forests. This was the first time anyone had talked to us about this. I also did some camera trapping as part of the program. "

Gurjar told in an interview that now we visit schools around Ranthambore Tiger Sanctuary, so that we can spread awareness among students about the importance of wildlife, forests and environment. We provide information about environmental protection to the students studying in the rural environment as well as the villagers. We also showed him many pictures of pollution in Delhi to explain the importance of clean environment and forests.

The program of village wildlife volunteers is financially supported by some hotels in Ranthambore. This program is also unique because it involves a large community, NGOs, local businesses and forest departments. In fact, it is a program that is run by all stakeholders in the region.

A local hunting community in the Ranthambore region brought to the program

Khandal further stated that there is a hunting community in the Ranthambore region and has also been brought into the program for the last few years.

"There is a special traditional hunting tribe called "Mogyas" which are few in number but their influence as a hunter is huge. The economic condition of this tribe living in the forests is very bad. Once we met a Mogia family in the forest. We saw that they ate their first meal that day when a member of that family came back home after doing some work and brought something to eat together. It was noon in the day. Those who cannot meet their basic needs and are hungry cannot be taught the lesson of conservation. Therefore, we have started dealing with their issues one by one. For example, we started a healthcare program to keep them healthy and involved the women of their community in handicraft work to ensure their steady income." said Khandal.

Children from the Mogya community. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal

The institution has now opened a small hostel for about 40 children of the Mogya community where the children reside and is given formal education. These children are studying in various schools and pursuing their interests like painting and music.

The Nature guides accompanying tourists during the Ranthambore Jungle Safari are also related to the local community. The forest department has provided employment to local people so that wildlife can be protected. Most of the nature guides are from the rural areas which are located along the border of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Overall, most of the people associated with Ranthambore tourism come from the surrounding countryside.

A tiger's pugmark in a village bordering the Ranthambore tiger reserve. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal
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Tuesday, 26 January 2021