Partners in conservation
That wildlife conservation efforts cannot succeed in the long term without the proactive involvement of local communities living in and around forest areas has been a well-established fact. The latest lion census conducted in Gujarat reaffirms this. The exercise has shown a 27 per cent rise in the feline's numbers, which now stand at 523, compared to 411 in 2010. Forest officials acknowledge that this conservation success story would not have come about without support from the Maldharis, a nomadic tribe of cattle-rearers, and also farmers living in the vicinity of the Gir National Park. Lion territory in Gujarat spans some 22,000 sq km across four districts — Junagadh, Bhavnagar, Amreli and Gir-Somnath. This covers 2,600 villages with an approximate population of 7,00,000. Lions now frequent more villages than in the past, with about 167 of them found roaming outside the protected forest area, creating hardly any conflict situations. The lions have actually helped control the population not only of nilgai, its principal source of food, but also of wild boars, which frequently destroy standing crops. Thus, they have benefited the local communities. These communities have reciprocated by protecting the animals from poachers, resisting retaliation when lions prey on cattle, and even building parapet walls around farm-wells to minimise the accidental death of lions that may fall into them.
Although humans and animals have coexisted for ages, the story has not always had a happy ending. Challenges posed by human casualties, and damage to crops, buildings and so on from wildlife intrusions have led one group of conservationists to argue that villagers residing in forest areas ought to be sent out. But another group insists that such a move will result in the loss of goodwill of local communities, impeding conservation efforts. The question is how goodwill could be generated when fear of the animal itself looms large. In Gir, it has become possible to inculcate a sense of pride and ownership among local communities regarding the animal. They share a virtual spiritual bond with the lion. Down south in Valparai, Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, there has been a gradual decline in human fatalities caused by wild elephants after early-warning systems that use text messages and flash light alerts were deployed with help from forest-dwellers within a 2-km radius of herd locations. The Nature Conservation Foundation that has been working on this has found that often it is lack of awareness about the animal's presence that results in casualties. When the 2006 Forest Rights Act upheld the forest-dwellers' traditional right to land, conservationists resisted it over concerns of habitat fragmentation. But as testimonies from Gir and elsewhere demonstrate, making local communities active partners can create a win-win situation on the conservation front.