Predators turned protectors: India, Pakistan involve communities to save endangered species

By Arslan Sheikh, Farkhanda Ashfaq, Shahzaib Naik and Tanishka Mehtani

Separated by the perennially hostile Radcliffe line Pakistan’s Multan and India’s Sawai Madhopur share a unique example of conserving endangered wildlife. These two regions in the sub-continent stand tall for turning indigenous groups, which were once considered imminent threats, into major stakeholders responsible for conservation of biodiversity they live in.

Sharing a rich biodiversity, Multan, Punjab (Pakistan) and Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan (India) are home to the endangered Indus River dolphins and Royal Bengal tigers, respectively. The animals make for a global attraction, and drive ecotourism in the areas. However, not long ago, their numbers were fast declining. In such a critical situation, local communities, who used to be part of the problem, are emerging as the solution.

In early 2000s, tiger population in southeastern Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park had fallen to an all-time-low of 17. This was in line with the nationwide trend of rapidly declining tiger population. The alarmingly low population prompted Rajasthan’s Forest Department to spring into action, and adopt new strategies to protect India’s national animal. Today, the park is home to 67 tigers.

A key driver of this change is the local Mogya tribe, erstwhile notorious for poaching tigers in the name of crop-protection. The forest department, with the support of Tiger Watch, a local NGO, unearthed a distinct pattern among poachers who had been arrested; an overwhelming majority belonged to the same local tribe — Mogyas.

Mogyas reside in makeshift tents and mud houses in an enclosed space, safe from wild animals.

Dharmendra Khandal, who spearheads Tiger Watch, says, “We realized that our approach of putting the poachers behind bars was ineffective, as they went back to the same profession.” Tiger Watch, along with the Forest Department, were able to dissuade Mogyas from hunting animals, by employing them in conservation activities and

Around the same time, 400 miles northwest from Sawai Madhopur, officials at the Sustainable Tourism Foundation Pakistan (STFP) were facing an equally grave situation. Indus River Dolphin, a rare species which can only be found in the Indus river in Pakistan, was on the cusp of extinction.

About 80 kms from Multan, in Pakistan, Taunsa Barrage is a tourist destination popular for dolphin safaris.

Not long ago, these dolphins could be found in abundance from the Indus estuary up into the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. Locally known as Bhulan, the dolphin is currently the second most endangered species of freshwater dolphin in the world. The primary reason for this population plummet apart from poaching, is dolphins getting caught in the cast nets laid out by local fishermen.

Javed Iqbal, in-charge of Taunsa region for STFP, says, “A few years ago, dolphin population at Taunsa Barrage had gone as low as 800. Today, things are much better and Bhulan population has shown a healthy upward trend in recent times.” According to the latest WWF survey, there are more than 1,800 hundred dolphins at the Taunsa Barrage.

A sneak-peek into the conservation efforts

Javed Iqbal, head of Taunsa region, is associated with STFP since 2013.

Iqbal believes that community involvement in conservation activities has played a key role in this. STFP has started a dolphin safari programme which provides alternate employment to the fishermen. “Dolphin safaris are conducted using boats of local fishermen. This gives them employment and an incentive to help authorities in conservation activities and rescue operations,’’ adds Iqbal.

Khandal’s Tiger Watch has employed 50 locals — mostly Mogyas— who reside along the periphery of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Further, they have established a school for young Mogya boys. Local women have also been employed in a handicrafts business by Dhonk, the business arm of Tiger Watch.

The volunteers  are paid to monitor the movement of tigers and other animals of the park, through camera traps and digital heat sensors. “In the past, we used to study tiger-movement from their pug-marks, which was highly inaccurate and flawed. A widespread network of local tribesmen who live along the border of the park gave us the manpower and reach to employ accurate and modern techniques of studying animal movements,” says Khandal.

Dharmendra Khandal has installed several camera traps to monitor tiger movement at the periphery of the reserve in Sawai Madhopur.

Mogyas are an indigenous semi-nomadic hunting tribe who, for generations, relied on their tribe-specific work of ‘crop protection’ as the only means of earning a livelihood. In addition to the widely-recognized meaning, the term ‘crop-protection’ has a unique connotation to it in this part of the world; it involves killing of wild animals who are seen as intruders and potential threats to crops.

Lakhan Singh, an elderly Mogya, explains that they were born into this profession and stuck to it, not to smuggle bushmeat but to make ends meet. A resident of Halonda, a small village on the periphery of the reserve, Singh was among the first to sign up for conservation efforts. A now-changed man, he says, “We don’t hunt animals anymore because our livelihood doesn’t solely depend on it now. We have a respectable alternate which helps the animals and in turn helps in clearing our muddy name.’’

Caught off guard: Lakhan Singh and his family share moments of quiet just before dusk in Halonda, Rajasthan.

Boat-owner Afaq Siddiq makes anywhere between PKR three and four thousand ($20-$30) per safari.

Thirty-five-year-old fisherman, Afzal Khalid, inadvertently, echoes Singh’s sentiments as he says that they were simply working when laying nets; they intended no harm. Riding with him on this wave of change is Afaq Siddiq (24), a boat owner of Taunsa, who is happy that not only have the dolphin safaris brought money, but also empathy towards dolphins. “It feels good that we are helping the dolphins. The safaris are seasonal for now. If these tours take place throughout the year, it will really help us, we will have a regular income,’’ says Siddiq.

These men are part of a changed breed, who are being given their due importance as catalysts of change. Their influence is gradually trickling down to the youth, as they pursue education and alternative career paths. Abhishek Baore, a young Mogya studying in class nine at the school run by Tiger Watch, says, “My father, like his father, was paid for protecting the villagers’ crops from animals, which sometimes meant killing them.”

Representing a significant shift in their mentality, Baore vehemently opposes the killing of animals, and dreams of one day becoming a forest guard.