All for a Good Cause
Human-wildlife conflict can carry many different facets, each of equal importance, and which, if not handled properly, can lead to major negative repercussions. Prachi Mehta of WRCS India, tells us about their ongoing struggle to sustain co-habitation of both.
“When elephants enter our crop fields and damage our crops, they become our enemy. All other times we don’t mind their presence” said a visibly upset Nagesh Gaonkar, a farmer from Janshetikoppa village in North Karnataka, who had lost half of his paddy to elephants. Similar sentiments are shared by farmers when they lose crops or human lives due to elephants or there is human death or livestock killed by carnivores. Local communities who live in close proximity to wildlife habitation are waging a daily battle to protect themselves and their assets. For them, discourses on biodiversity conservation or celebrating tiger or elephant day is of little practical relevance. This situation prevails through the country. Resolving human and wildlife conflict is a complicated ecological issue with no easy solutions.
While working on ecological research on elephants, owls and tigers, we realised that local people living in wildlife areas perceive the presence of wildlife far less enthusiastically than those living in the cities. This is one of the places and reasons why the wildlife is losing out. Further introspection led us to realize that wildlife needs a serious image makeover. But how could we do this? One of the most pressing needs of the rural and forest-dwelling community is generating income. If people start getting economic benefits from wildlife presence, it may help to reduce their animosity. Over a period of time, this feeling may turn into tolerance and acceptance. There was no way to tell if this would work. The only way to find out was to try it. So we decided to give it a go at some of our project sites.
The Story of Airavat
North Kanara District located in Northern Karnataka is home to about 70 elephants. Through most of the year, the elephants reside in Kali Tiger Reserve (erstwhile Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve) but from August to January they come out of the forest to feed on paddy, sugarcane and banana. Like Nagesh, thousands of farmers are aggrieved about their annual crop loss to elephants.
While visiting the farmers, I observed that the women in the villages were fond of stitching and embroidery. That seemed like a good starting point. We decided to train the local women in making hand-stitched products having elephant motifs. This would help them to earn income, which they would associate with elephants. We introduced this idea to the women in the villages affected by crop damage by elephants. Amidst a lot of speculation and doubts, the women agreed to form ‘self- help groups’ (SHGs) and work with us.
We started our training in select villages. Teething problems lasted longer than expected. Our objective was a combination of conservation and livelihood so we needed to give equal weight and consideration to both.
We trained the women to draw, cut and stitch elephant appliqués and prepare different products. We purchased the finished products from them immediately so that they could get money into their hands. The women were happy to earn some income by making the handicraft items. The elephant themed products are being marketed under the brand name Airavat to keep the elephant connection alive. As of now, there is considerable peace between people and elephants in villages where we are working. The intervention helped to build trust with the community and families started participating in project activities. Motivated by the income that their wives were earning the farmers started using the simple crop protection measures that we were promoting and were able to reduce crop loss due to elephants.
I have often seen these women giggling, admiring and showing off their elephant appliqués to each other. When I heard Seema bragging to her group, “Look, my elephant is more beautiful than yours” I knew elephants would be safe in this village.
More on this initiative can be read in an article by Nidhi Jamwhal https://scroll.in/article/817273/karnatakas-siddis-dont-see-elephants-as-the-enemy-anymore-heres-why
For the Love of Athena
Until I started my long-term study on owls in Central India, I thought owls were real avian superstars with no natural enemies. I realised my mistake soon enough. Owls are one of the most misunderstood birds. People in rural, as well as urban areas, do not like to have owls around them. Farmers are not keen on having owls’ nests in their farms as they fear it will bring death in the family or bad luck for their crops. At many places owl nests are slashed, eggs and chicks are stolen, traded and used for black magic. These beautiful birds, though so majestic, are badly mistreated.
At our owl ecology project sites in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, we have trained the women in making Owl-themed craft items. While the women are earning money through owl themed products, their husbands have assured us that they are willing to protect the trees with owl nests in their farms. The owl products are named Athena, after the Greek goddess of wisdom and craft. And true to her name Athena is showing the way ahead for the conservation of owls in the area.
We have similar stories from our projects on tiger conservation in Melghat Tiger Reserve and Forest Conservation in Koyna region of Sahyadri Tiger Reserve. In Koyna, women are also being trained in making food products from natural fruits. We are confident this approach will help us in the conservation of species and landscapes we are working with.
The Airavat, Athena and Anjani articles made by the women have a rustic flavour and are appreciated by those who value genuineness. The products are simple yet artistically done. They make excellent personal use items, and gifts for festivals (both personal and corporate), and conferences. Establishing this process is akin to setting up an industry – delivering the raw materials to the women in remote villages, training the women in making the products, transporting the finished goods back home and then marketing the products to reach customers.
All this and much more is being done to help local communities to offset the losses incurred due to wildlife. In return, they are providing support for conservation of the species. The success of this program is a team effort between our office team and the women at the project site. Marketing the products has been the toughest challenge and we have a long way to go to ensure sustained demands of the products. We hope to develop and strengthen this initiative so that it can benefit the community and the wildlife. After all, this is for a good cause which everyone believes in.
Photo: Women with tree-shaped bags | Credit: WRCS(Wildlife Research and Conservation Society)
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