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Hunters turn protectors

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Mar 15, 2014 | From the print edition

Traditional hunters Phase Pardhis are part of an initiative to save critically endangered lesser floricans

image“You will not find grass growing like this anywhere in this region,” says Sewa Pawar laughing, standing knee-deep in soft, swaying swathes of golden grass. It is not difficult to see he is right. All around the 60-odd acre piece of land the undulating terrain is bereft of vegetation, scattered scrub bushes being the only green things in sight. “We Phase Pardhis and the tanmor (grassland bird lesser florican) are very similar,” says Pawar. “We both live off the grass.”

Pawar and his village of Wadala in Akola district of Maharashtra are part of a unique process that not just combines livelihood with conservation, but also marks a significant transition for the Pardhi community in terms of its image—from hunters to protectors of the critically endangered lesser florican (Sypheotides indicus).

In January 2014, a draft plan was submitted to the Maharashtra forest department for the conservation of the bird. The plan has been prepared jointly by the forest department, the Pardhi community (represented by Himmat Pawar from Shisha-Masa village of Akola district and a group of community members) and non-profit Samvedana, which has been working with the Pardhis since 1990s. The plan, probably for the first time in Maharashtra, recognised the importance of the traditional knowledge of Phase Pardhis in conserving one of the three bustard species found in India (see ‘Pardhis crucial to conservation efforts’). Once finalised, the plan could set an important precedent in community-based conservation in the country.

Pardhis crucial to conservation efforts
 

imageThere are three aspects to protecting the lesser florican—conserving the grass variety, the landscape and protecting the nests. Only Pardhis know how to locate nests and where to sight the bird. They also understand the landscape where the floricans breed. Therefore, their importance in conservation of the landscape , in nest protection, and in counting of the bird is invaluable. Out of over six types of grasses found in the region, the florican nests in just one (see above), but the clump has to be of the desired thickness and the location has to be just right—part farm, part grassland

The Pardhi community in central India has been a nomadic community of hunters. Phase Pardhis, one of the sub-groups within the community, were known for their skill in catching birds with phase (traps). K C Malhotra, an anthropologist and former head of the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, has estimated that seven per cent of India’s population comprises nomadic tribes, but there are no clear census estimates for the population of Pardhis. In Akola and Washim districts of Maharashtra—area that the plan targets—an estimated 5,000 Phase Pardhis live in 61 settlements, as per data given by Samvedana.

Florican conservation in this area was initiated in the late 1990s by coincidence. “At that time,” recalls Kuldeep Pawar of Wadala village, “many people in our community were considering cattle rearing as an alternative to hunting, but the question was where to get fodder from?” In 1997, Nagpur-based conservationist Kaustubh Pandharipande was surveying birds in the area. He was finding it impossible to sight a florican till Himmat Pawar helped him. By 1999, Pandharipande had taken a decision to work on florican and grassland biodiversity conservation with the Phase Pardhi community. The residents of Wadala and some nearby villages also decided to conserve grass on forest lands surrounding their village to get fodder for cattle rearing. To this end, Pandharipande, suggested a participatory conservation model. “The two needs dovetailed perfectly,” says Kuldeep, “The tanmor nests in kunda grass (Ischaemum pilosum) and we realised that if we make a little effort to conserve kunda, we and the birds could live off the same land in harmony.”

Unique conservation model

Initially, the villagers tried conserving one large area of grassland for the use of the entire community but it did not work as the labour requirement was high. It was not also possible for all families to spare labour as Phase Pardhi families migrate for agricultural labour and trade. It was, therefore, decided that individual families should conserve patches of grass adjoining their farm lands for their own use. This system, since it did not involve extra labour, worked out well.

Landless families, whose numbers are larger—in Wadala only 19 of 73 families have small pieces of land—are also free to conserve their own patches of grassland in forests. Grass is used to feed cattle during the summer when fodder is scarce in the forest. A system of sharing benefits with those unable to protect their own patches was also evolved. “Grass harvest time coincides with the harvest time in agriculture,” says Baban Rathod of Wadala, “Hence it is difficult for farming families to harvest their own grass.” The families which cannot protect their own grasslands share grass with those who provide them labour. This year, for instance, Kanta Raisingh Rathod’s family harvested the grass conserved by Kuldeep’s family, and got half the grass. “My grass stock will feed my three cows throughout the summer,” says Kanta. Bhimrao Raodasa Rathod of Wadala who conserved about one hectare of grasslands this year, says his grass stock will feed his six cattle for the summer, and he has already earned Rs 10,000 from selling the extra grass.

In Shisa-Masa, a village that has only six Pardhi families and no forest land available for conservation, people conserve grass on fallow agricultural land and small patches of common land. “The farmers are happy to receive their share of grass for their animals,” says Himmat Pawar. Drawing inspiration from the Pardhi community, many farmers have also resurrected the old custom of maintaining kuran—a boundary of grass around each plot of farmland. “This not only provides fodder for the cattle, but also provides safe nesting places for the tanmor,” says Himmat. At present, four villages including Shisa-Masa and Wadala, are involved in conserving the grass. The results have been very good. In Wadala, almost all families own cattle now. A total of 20 cows and 50 goats were purchased out of grass sales in the village. Each family involved in the conservation work is earning around Rs 2,000 per month in direct and indirect income.

The efforts appear to be bearing fruit in the area of florican conservation as well. In the past few years, Samvedana and the Pardhi community have reported eight to ten sightings a year. In 2007, a florican nest was found in Barshi Takli tehsil of Akola district, followed by three more in 2009, 2010 and 2011, in the same region.

“It is now certain that the florican is breeding in this area, which is a positive sign,” says Pandharipande. “It is estimated that 17-18 birds are now present in three blocks—Akola and Murtijapur in Akola district and Karanja Lad in Washim district,” says V K Sinha, assistant principal chief conservator of forests, ecotourism and wildlife management, Maharashtra.

Government efforts

imageAnother attempt to protect endangered birds in Maharashtra was undertaken in 2012 when the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) asked Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to prepare a plan. The plan was part of a larger initiative by International Union for Conservation of Nature. The BNHS plan, which was made part of MOEF’s Guidelines for Preparation of State Action Plan for Bustards’ Recovery Programme, accepted Pandharipande’s contention that Pardhi traditional knowledge must be part of the conservation model. He was a member of BNHS’ temporary steering committee preparing the plan.

The recently drafted joint plan of January 2014 has identified 20 villages in an 800 sq km area for grassland regeneration, out of which just 1,200 ha is forest land. The plan lays as much emphasis on grassland development and support for optional livestock-based livelihood for Phase Pardhis as it does on florican conservation—a landmark in conservation policy history in the state.

“There are many reasons the forest department’s conventional inviolate sanctuary model will not be effective in case of the florican, and bustards in general,” says Pandharipande. “Firstly, bustards and grassland species in general have always shared common space with humans. They need a mosaic landscape, comprising grasslands where they nest and farmland where they feed on crops,” he says. “Another strong reason in support of participatory protection is that Pardhis are the only community with traditional knowledge of conservation. It is virtually impossible to sight a florican or locate their nest without help from this community,” he adds.

Pandharipande says providing livelihood options to the community is crucial, else they may be drawn to work for poachers. “Pardhis have been linked to tiger poaching in Madhya Pradesh,” says Sinha.“If Maharashtra is to prevent that, we must find a space for their traditional skills,” he cautions. He says, the plan is likely to be finalised and forwarded to MOEF for sanctioning in February or March.

“We once hunted the tanmor,” says Himmat Pawar, “But now government appears to be ready to recognise the role of our skills and knowledge in protecting the bird. For us, our skills are precious and at last we can use them for something positive.”

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