The future of our wilderness lies in wildlife startups
There are magical places across India crying out for this change. For example, Jawai in Rajasthan has become a destination to see leopards. Even with no forest department involvement, it is a resounding success. Our coastal areas can also be transformed. The forest and revenue departments need to be the enablers.Updated: Apr 10, 2019 22:26 IST
There are many innovative ways to engage local communities in wildlife conservation, but they have seldom been tried in this country. India has nearly 700 protected areas and all of them have buffer areas but many are degraded and poorly managed. This has created islands (the protected areas) of safety and the animals that slip out of these safe havens often don’t survive. We need an army of village wildlife volunteers to protect these buffer areas and the animals. India can use local communities to take care of its natural resources by engaging them in tourism and allowing them to generate revenues for themselves. There are some experiments already happening around the Tadoba tiger reserve (Maharashtra) and Ranthambore tiger reserve (Rajasthan).
But for such efforts to be successful, there has to be a two-pronged action plan. First, the forest departments have to relinquish their control over these buffer areas, and second, training modules for locals are essential. All residents must get permission to use these buffers areas for building small home stays and to take them around in vehicles. The seed money for both business ventures must be made available through the revenue generated from tourism inside the protected areas. It is like building a wildlife startup for local communities, and I strongly believe such efforts can have an enormous impact on the domestic economy as locals become active partners in protecting and developing these buffers that are fast getting degraded.
Protection of these areas must be done in partnership with the local communities. For example, in Ranthambhore tiger reserve, 55 village youths are protecting and monitoring wild animals. They have the knowledge and passion and their local expertise is unmatched. When they work in tandem with the forest department, they are the most effective force to counter the illegal exploitation and poaching of our natural world.
Sadly, these examples from the Tadoba and Ranthambhore tiger reserves are too few and far between. This is because forest departments don’t want anyone looking over their shoulder. This must change. The future of our wilderness lies in wildlife startups. When connectivity between the protected areas increases, the genetic health of animals improves.
Today, Ranthambhore generates Rs 35 crore each year for the government from just the gate receipts and the town of Sawai Madhopur earns Rs 350 crore each year from tourism (my calculation). Imagine what could happen if the buffer areas are opened up for the local communities. We are talking of at least one million people getting incomes that will have an effect on their families.
There are magical places across India crying out for this change. For example, Jawai in Rajasthan has become a destination to see leopards. Even with no forest department involvement, it is a resounding success. Our coastal areas can also be transformed. The forest and revenue departments need to be the enablers.
Let us never forget that some of the best wildlife areas in Africa are managed by locals. Why are we not attempting the same? We have diversity and richness. All we need is the change in our mindset. We need tourism policies that engage locals and give them the skills to manage, protect and run with it. In India, man-animal conflict is on the rise. These measures will mitigate it. This is the only way forward.
The rough calculations of wildlife and tourism startup in terms of revenue for locals are enormous. The amounts could be anywhere from Rs 35,000 crore to Rs 50,000 crore impacting village economies (my calculation) . So what is stopping us from doing so? It is laziness and ignorance? Or are we just a nation of endless paper pushers with little action for change? This is a wake-up call for politicians and bureaucrats. We need that giant step forward to usher in the biggest wildlife and tourism startup for locals before it is too late.
Valmik Thapar has worked for 43 years with wild tigers. He has also written 30 books on India’s tigers and wildlife
The views expressed are personal
First Published: Apr 10, 2019 22:26 IST