A young Dutch birder from Amsterdam, armed with an infectious smile and a curiously Indian first name, Arjan Dwarshuis, has just broken the world record for maximum number of bird species seen or heard, recognisably, in a year. Arjan recorded 6,833 species in 2016 by jet-setting across 40 nations and breaking the American, Noah Strycker’s record of 6,042 set in 2015. Of these, as many as 451 species were recorded by Arjan during his India leg of the ‘Big Year 2016’. When he was a baby, his mother literally threw him into the forests; he grew up identifying shell species on the sea shores and at 12, his eyes were roving for rare avian migrants. Arjan is currently a Bird Life International Species Champion supporting the renowned NGO’s ‘Preventing Extinctions Programme’. He has set a target of raising 1,00,000 Euros for the programme that funds those trying to change things at a local level.
Apart from the excitement of numbers and issues of taxonomy, the global birding odyssey has lent Arjan a unique perspective on conservation as one in every eight bird species is threatened. Stressing on eco-tourism, Arjan says “the only reason some patches of forest still stand is because a local guide is engaging their local community in conservation. So, eat local foods, stay at local places. You can show them (local community) they can benefit economically from eco-tourism. Otherwise, the forest is a supermarket (for exploitation).” He is particularly concerned at the rapid decline of African vultures due to the poisoning. That rings an Indian alarm bell, too.
THE JUNGLE’S MATRIARCH
Maya Devi Damdama is not a wilting widow of the countryside, who, like a venerable peepul, must bear final passage with quiet grace. Instead, she carries a rather self-assured air about her, her jaw is staunchly set to challenges and she radiates the energy of a compulsive do-gooder. She directs me to the forests behind her home in Damdama village near Pinjore. “Our forests often catch fire but I do not watch helplessly. We village women use forest produce, so it is our responsibility also to protect trees/bushes and the creatures that live there. I exert all my influence in the administration --- that includes a ‘daroga’ (police inspector) as my brother and a zila parishad member as my son --- to get firefighters to rush here and douse fires,” she said.
Led by this formidable matriarch, Maya Devi’s family enjoys a reputation among locals of extending benevolence towards man and animal. In turn, Maya Devi counts among her benefactors, Haryana’s top forest officer, principal chief conservator of forests, Amarinder Kaur, who has for 30 years worked to empower women self-help groups. Another such woman from Karnal district --- whom Kaur encouraged to grow out from her narrow rural confines --- groomed a son who is now a batchmate in service with Kaur’s own son! “One of the most satisfying moments in my career: to find that our sons emerged from different streams to rub shoulders as batchmates,” quips Kaur.
“I sensed in Maya Devi qualities of leadership and encouraged her. My vision is not only to empower women but the entire family so that we can institutionalise use of forest resources and yet conserve green wealth,” Kaur told me. Maya Devi is thankful for concessional loans extended to women by government, though Kaur adds a caveat: “Loans to women are often misused by the clan, so we find ways to avert such flawed outcomes.”
Maya Devi’s vision is strongly embedded in her granddaughter, Chetna (13). Last Tuesday, the plucky girl saved a Sambar fawn from bloodthirsty stray dogs and people who wanted to kill the deer for churning out pickle. Her son, Bhag Singh Damdama, ensures that every summer tankers deliver water to wildlife spots in the jungle. Stray cattle and calves wounded on roads are special recipients of Maya Devi’s storehouse of compassion; she herself is a Krishna bhakt who without fail makes the annual pilgrimage to Vrindavan.
In last week’s column on tourist responsibilities in core wildlife areas, I published two photographs from the complaint of Gauri Maulekhi (PFA Uttarakhand) to the Uttarakhand and Union Governments. The complaint contended that real estate tycoon, Navin M Raheja, flouted laws in the core Dhikala zone of Corbett National Park by taking his private vehicle (DL3CY5389), not hiring a tourist guide, and dismounting from vehicle with elephants close by.
Raheja’s spokersperson, Dimple Bhardwaj, has responded to this, stating, “We would like to clarify that the picture used in article is an old time picture. We would also like to bring some light on the fact that this picture is of the time when vehicles were legally allowed at Dhikala Zone. Please know that he has been contributing towards wildlife and environment since ages.” She added that Raheja Productions filmed more than 140 documentaries on wildlife/environment and bagged the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards for ‘Environment Reporting’. Raheja himself was awarded the Justice BP Banerjee Green Man Award for the film, ‘The Rise and Fall of Ustad’, and is a former member of the Union government’s Tiger Crisis Cell and Steering Committee, Project Tiger.