Rewilding India

Twelve inspiring wildlife conservation stories from across the country
Rewilding India
Photos: Shutterstock

India is now home to 3,167 tigers, 200 more than it had four years ago, according to estimates from the latest tiger census. Releasing the report in April 2023 at an event to mark 50 years of the Project Tiger campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that "India is considered to be one of the biggest and most secure habitats of the tiger." The campaign to save India's national animal was launched in 1973 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after their numbers became worryingly low. Their population in the wild, estimated in the tens of thousands at the time of independence, had been reduced to around 1,800 only. Several initiatives to protect India's national animal, including a ban on hunting and awareness drives in villages, have resulted in a turnaround.

Project Tiger is just one of the many successful conservation stories in India. In this issue, we look at some of the most unique and impactful conservation stories around the country± from stabilising the more charismatic species such as the tiger to rewilding the unassuming pygmy hog, the smallest (and one of the rarest) wild pigs in the world. Then there is the magnificent barasingha, the state animal of Madhya Pradesh, which has seen a revival in Kanha, after being close to extinction for a long time. Many of these conservation initiatives have been decades in the making, and highlight the collective effort of conservationists and local communities who are working relentlessly to protect endangered species.

Project Tiger's Roaring Success

As a little girl of three, in dungarees and plaits, I was lifted onto an elephant in the Jim Corbett National Park for a journey that would begin a passionate love affair that would shape my life. Swaying with our mount, we moved into tall elephant grass, and there I met my very first tiger. Fifty years later, they still take my breath away and make me forget everything else. This passion drove me to get a doctorate on tiger conservation and management. Later, I was anointed with the title, “Tiger Princess of India.”

As a child, I listened intently to my father and his friends discuss tiger conservation. Eavesdropping on conversations between him and wildlife experts like Dr M K Ranjitsinh, Fateh Singh Rathore, Billy Arjan Singh, Samar Singh, Dr Salim Ali, Dr J C Daniel, and Kailash Sankhala, I learnt about tiger ecology, grassland management, the different types of protected areas and the reality of human-wildlife conflict.

The launch of Project Tiger was a landmark decision by the government of India that would shape conservation strategy in the country, protect thousands of species under its umbrella, and result in the tiger becoming one of the most widely recognised species across the planet.

Initiated in 1972, the programme has resulted in the network of tiger reserves growing from the initial nine to 53 today. The tiger population of India accounts for over 70 per cent of the world’s tiger population, and our reserves offer the best habitat for the long-term survival of the big cat in the wild. The 53 flagship tiger reserves of the country have become a place for cutting-edge research on wildlife conservation where the use of modern technology like camera traps, AI, drones, e-Eye surveillance, and M-STRIPES (a software-based tiger monitoring system), has led to a new understanding of the scientific management of protected areas.

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I recently visited a national park. Sitting in an open safari 4x4 vehicle, I watched the golden rays of the morning sun penetrate the grass leaving dew drops glistening like diamonds. In the silence of the moment, a lapwing suddenly screamed at me—“Did you do it? Did you do it?” Before I had the chance to respond, the grass parted, and a tiger stepped out. She was beautiful, and her orange and black stripes were breathtaking. She padded onto the river bed and tested the water with her back paw. Shaking the water from her paw, she slowly edged back into the river, submerging herself into the water.

We held our breath until she settled down and began to groom. It was for moments like these that I lived in the forests of central India. At the end of the safari, I returned to the outside world and news that yet another human had been killed in a tiger attack. The bubble broke, and reality set in. Human-tiger conflict is on the rise. Poaching continues to plague fragile wildlife populations, and uncontrolled mass tourism is a huge threat to fragile ecosystems. Being one of the most populous countries in the world, our wilderness spaces cannot survive if unabated mass tourism is allowed to proliferate around protected areas. The government has to create a plan for controlled wildlife tourism and tough decisions need to be made about the tourism model we will be investing in going forward.

Over-tourism uses up crucial resources such as water, adds to waste production and escalates the need for infrastructure development, which can threaten essential wildlife corridors.

With India being the only country that offers the chance of seeing the tiger in the wild, there is potential for creating a unique model of tourism in these spaces where local communities can participate and provide experiential immersion into grassroots level conservation.

Additionally, it is crucial to encourage citizen science to complement government efforts, foster private-public partnerships to support conservation, involve volunteers in veterinary care and wildlife monitoring programmes, and collaborate with NGOs to work with local communities and reduce conflicts.

We need to plan for the long-term development of the areas near tiger reserves and corridors. Roads, railways, industries, power projects, airports, forestry and tourism infrastructure need to be planned with mitigative strategies for impact control incorporated into the initial plans.

Strict adherence to climate-friendly and sustainable technologies, involvement of and perceptible benefits to local communities, better equipment and training for field staff, planned distribution of tourism in protected areas, and a dedicated, specially trained cadre of wildlife officials for conservation and for wildlife tourism is the need of the hour.

Latika Nath is an Indian author, photographer and wildlife conservationist. In 2001, she was awarded the title of 'The Tiger Princess' by National Geographic

Rescuing The Rhino

The one-horned rhino found in Assam has been under constant threat from international poaching gangs. Rhino poaching has been a persistent problem in Assam for years, with at least 191 rhinos killed between 2000 and 2022. Most poaching incidents have been reported in Kaziranga National Park, which currently has the highest population of one-horned rhinos, numbering 2,613, as per the park’s official website. Rhino horns are in high demand for traditional medicines in China and Vietnam, making them a valuable commodity on the black market.

To combat this issue, the state government established a task force in June 2021 led by the Special Director General of Police (Assam), which included senior forest officers, police, and armed commandos who were deployed to rhino habitats. Drones and dog squads were also used to track and trace poachers. In 2022, the commitment of the task force and their auxiliary support teams bore fruit, as they accomplished a momentous feat–the absence of any poaching incidents targeted towards the rhinos in Assam. This triumph marked the first time in more than two decades when the state attained such an objective. Visitors to Assam's national parks and sanctuaries can now be confident that these incredible creatures are protected.

Spot Them Here: You can spot the magnificent one-horned rhino at the Kaziranga National Park and Manas National Park in Assam, the Jaldapara National Park in West Bengal, and Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh.

Bringing The Barasingha Back

Kanha in Madhya Pradesh may be known as a tiger reserve, but it is also home to one of the rarest species of deer­—the barasingha. The large hard-ground swamp deer sports a golden-hued coat, and gets its name from the tines on the adult male’s antlers. The state animal of Madhya Pradesh was saved from extinction by successful conservation practices at Kanha National Park.

While it is now easy to spot them playing hide and seek amidst tall trunks of the evergreen sal trees blanketing the reserve, such surprises were sparse in between and, at one point, uncertain. Their rhythmic calls began to fade out in the 1960s, when only 66 barasinghas were left in Kanha, after having recorded the presence of an estimated 551 in 1953. This rapid and sharp decline, caused by rampant hunting, illicit felling and diseases, posed a severe threat to the reserve's ecosystem. This state of near extinction gained urgent attention from top conservationists and the state forest department, kickstarting a conservation project that has earned the status of one of the world's most significant conservation undertakings.

Dedicated conservation efforts, which included improving the habitat, introducing captive breeding, and relocating villages to the periphery, began in phases and continued for over five decades. Today Kanha is the only place on the planet where you can see the endangered deer in the wild. Currently, the area houses roughly 800 deers (as reported in 2020).

Spot Them Here: While the southern swamp deer is exclusively found in Kanha National Park, the subspecies of eastern swamp deer are found across Assam's Kaziranga. National Park and Uttar Pradesh's Dudhwa National Park.

Flight Of The Amur Falcons

Each year, the Doyang reservoir in Nagaland's Wokha district is graced with a stunning sight as millions of migratory Amur falcons gather for a brief respite on their long journey from Siberia to South Africa. However, this was not always the case. In 2016, journalist Bano Haralu and a group of conservationists visited the reservoir to investigate rumours of large-scale hunting of the birds. They discovered that thousands of falcons had been mercilessly killed for meat to be sold in markets across the state.

The Amur falcon is an essential contributor to the ecology and agriculture of their breeding and migratory grounds. The bird, locally known as Akhuipuina, boasts one of the longest and most fascinating migratory paths in the avian kingdom, travelling up to 22,000 km in a year and migrating a vast distance over the sea while continuing their journey at night. They flock to Nagaland and a few other places in northeastern India in October in large numbers.

The horrific images captured by Haralu and her team prompted international outrage. In response to this crisis, they collaborated with the Nagaland government and local communities to launch the "Friends of the Amur Falcon" campaign. The initiative aimed to educate children about the life cycle of these migratory birds. Today, many locals are employed as tourist guides, and hunters have now turned protectors of the birds.

Spot Them Here: The biggest roosting site of the birds is Pangti village in Wokha, Nagaland, while the flock mainly arrives in Manipur and Nagaland on its southbound migration from breeding grounds.

The Tale Of The Turtles

Once a quiet hamlet, the stunning village of Velas in Maharashtra has become a destination for nature enthusiasts due to a little-known annual occurrence.

Every year, in February, thousands of female olive ridley sea turtles return to the beach where they were born to lay eggs deep in the sand.

Two months later, a more captivating moment occurs when the tiny hatchlings emerge from their nests and make their way to the sea. However, these turtles face threats from humans and animals.

Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM), a non-government organisation, initiated the Marine Turtle Conservation Program in 2002 to involve the community in turtle conservation. Volunteers are taught to protect vulnerable nests and transfer freshly laid eggs to hatcheries.

The programme has been successful, and over 35,000 hatchlings have been released into the sea, increasing the number of protected nests to 800.

The programme has also transformed the lives of villagers who once sold these eggs. Now, they recognise the importance of protecting these olive ridley nests. Some have even opened homestays for tourists attending the annual Velas Turtle Festival. Their extra income from the festival also goes to the Marine Turtle Conservation Fund.

Spot Them Here: If you want to spot the olive ridley turtles, head to the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary in Odisha, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Lakshadweep Islands.

The Hargila Army

In the serene villages of Kamrup district in Assam, a group of women have emerged as unsung guardians of a rare and often disregarded avian species. They are the formidable Hargila Army, a determined collective of rural women who work tirelessly to safeguard one of the world's most elusive storks: the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius), affectionately known as “hargila” in the local language, which literally translates as "bone swallower."

However, convincing the local community to value this peculiar bird was no easy feat for Dr Purnima Devi Barman, a biologist and the founder of the Hargila Army. People in Dadara, Pacharia, and Singimari villages in Kamrup district would shudder at the thought of the giant five-foot-tall bird with spindly legs and drab grey feathers that scavenged on decaying flesh.

Through her unyielding efforts, Dr. Barman was eventually able to change the hostile attitude of villagers towards the storks.

This species is currently classified as Endangered by the IUCN, with a rapidly diminishing population of around 1,200 individuals. Given that the adjutant's nesting colonies exist outside of state-protected areas in Assam, community conservation initiatives are the bird's only hope for survival. Through the tireless efforts of Dr. Barman and the movement she inspired, these birds are now protected, celebrated, and are experiencing a resurgence in their population. Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based non-profit organization that focuses on nature conservation in northeastern India, assisted her in launching a formal community-based programs in Kamrup to safeguard the stork in 2009. By 2014, the conservation movement had gained momentum, and the Hargila Army was born. Today, the bird is a cultural icon, appearing on everything from towels to road-safety campaigns. The conservation efforts have also transformed the lives of the women, who now venture into other villages to raise awareness of the birds.

Spot Them Here: To spot the greater adjutant storks, Dadara, Pacharia, and Singimari villages in Kamrup district, Assam are the places to be.

In Search Of Otters

Millions of years ago, the rivers of South Asia were home to Neptune’s Vishnu Otter (Vishnuonyx). This mid-sized predator, whose fossils were found near Himalayan foothills, was the ancestor of otters found on the subcontinent today. In India, the endangered smooth-coated otter and the Asian small-clawed otter (the smallest otter in the world) can be found in the thickets of Goa’s mangrove island—Chorão. Historically, the otters have resided in Khazans—a manmade network of bunds that facilitates agriculture in Goa. But this picture is changing quickly. “A lot of these bunds are getting concretized,” Katrina Fernandez, director of Wild Otters Research, told Outlook Traveller. This is a cause of concern since “it is limiting the access of animals such as otters and crocodiles to their own ecosystems,” she added. Wild Otters Research is an otter specialist research and conservation collective that raises awareness and rehabilitates otters within and beyond the Indian borders. A research-focused organisation, Wild Otters, aims to study the community landscapes influencing otter habitats. Some of their interesting projects include otter behavioural studies and audio analysis of otter vocalisations.

Spot Them Here: The Tungabhadra Otter Conservation Reserve, the first otter reserve in Karnataka and India, is the best location to spot a smooth-coated otter.

Protecting The Pygmy Hog

The world's smallest pig, once assumed to be extinct, is now one of the most endangered mammals on the planet. Found only in the grasslands of Assam, the species was “rediscovered” in 1971 when a group was found sheltering from a grassland fire in a tea plantation. At 65 cm long and 25cm tall, the pygmy hog is known to be the smallest of the wild pig species. The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has been working with pygmy hogs since the 1970s. In 1995, the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme was started to save them from extinction through captive breeding, release programmes, grassland restoration and management. Do watch the excellent film, "Durrells Underhogs," which tells the story of these incredibly shy, and almost never-seen creatures.

Spot Them Here: The Manas Tiger Reserve is the place where hogs for the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme are nurtured.

Comeback Of The Cobras

Nestled in the thickly forested region of Malenadu in the Western Ghats, Karnataka's Agumbe is synonymous with rainforest conservation. A small village, also called "the Cherrapunji of South India" because of the amount of rainfall it receives, Agumbe is also home to the king cobra. A species both revered and feared, king cobras are awe-inspiring, reaching up to 18 feet in length, taking the crown for the longest venomous snakes in the world. Classified as a "vulnerable" species by the IUCN, according to Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), it is a protected species in India. Timid and non-confrontational by nature, the animal’s habitat is threatened by urban development, human-snake conflicts and deforestation. The Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE ), deep in the silvery-fog covered forested land of Agumbe, was set up in 2012 to protect the species. It is among the few research sites in India that welcome people to engage in direct conservation. Agumbe, with its snake population, offers the perfect base for research on king cobras. It was here that Romulus Whitaker, a herpetologist and wildlife conservationist, studied the species, establishing Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in 2005 to formulate a database for the protection of this endangered reptile. At KCRE, researchers can conduct their own studies or assist the team in one of their ongoing projects, such as the "king cobra rescue and relocation and breeding biology" project. Visitors can choose from various camping options available at the centre. They also offer general treks, nature photography, bird watching, herping, specialised workshops focusing on reptile ecology and courses on field techniques for those who wish to immerse themselves in rainforest ecology and wildlife conservation.

Spot Them Here: The king cobra is found in the Western Ghats, foothills of the Shivaliks and Terai regions of Uttarakhand, in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal; in parts of the northeast (Sikkim, Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur), and in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The Gaur Grazes The Wild Again

Dotted with thousands of sal trees, the lush scapes of Bandhavgarh echo with the calls of the wild. The tiger's roar hangs heavy in the air, while the sharp eyes of the elusive leopard capture every slight move. If there's any other animal just as imposing in size and intimidating in its stride, it is the gaur.

The gaur population had faced an alarming decline caused by several factors threatening the ecosystem–habitat loss, poaching, and migration outside the park's boundaries. Moreover, dwindling numbers were recorded across several protected areas, such as Kerala's Thattekad Wildlife Sanctuary and Chhattisgarh's Kanger Valley National Park.

In 2011-12, the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department teamed up with the Wildlife Institute of India and the Conservation Corporation of India to execute an ambitious reintroduction plan. A herd of approximately 20-25 gaurs were tactically reintroduced from Kanha National Park to Bandhavgarh, and their adaptation to the new grounds was monitored closely through radio collars.

Today, Bandhavgarh's gaur conservation project is celebrated for successfully reintroducing them into the reserve and ensuring continued efforts towards conserving its natural habitat. While the official numbers keep fluctuating, given that the gaur is preyed on by the tigers roaming the jungle, it has been estimated that the population has snowballed. Now, a day trip to the forest remains incomplete without spotting these mighty creatures proudly exploring grounds.

Spot Them Here: Known to prefer the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, the mighty gaurs can be spotted in big groups across Nagarhole National Park and Bandipur National Park in Karnataka and Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu.

Housing The Sparrows

There was a time when the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) was a common part of life and culture in India. WWF notes that the sparrow has evolved with humans, known only to live in close contact with us, instead of forests. For years, it has peacefully coexisted with us in our buildings and gardens, but in the last two decades, their population is on the decline in almost every city due to rapid urbanisation. When trees are cut down, and when apartments and houses are built with little leeway for bird nests, where will the birds live? The unfriendly architectural designing of contemporary houses leaves no place for these birds to make a nest. Other detrimental factors that various reports have cited include high pollution levels in our cities, and emissions from cell towers. There has been an 80 per cent decline in sparrow population in the country as per some reports. However, in some parts of urban India, the sparrow is making a comeback, largely due to the efforts of concerned citizens. For instance, Rakesh Khatri, who has created a prototype of artificial nests to help them survive. His "Save the House Sparrow Programme" has spread to many cities, with a network of volunteers and students. Then there is Nashik-based environmental conservationist Mohammed Dilawar who has pulled in many citizens to set up nest boxes, bird feeders and water bowls in urban spaces. And it looks like these efforts have paid off. In 2022, several naturalists at Salem Ornithological Foundation tracked the sparrow on eBird, an online database of bird sightings across India. When they checked for sparrow sightings across Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, they found that their population was stable. The government too is stepping in to do their bit. Last year, a "Goriaya Gram" came up in Garhi Mandu city forest to protect and conserve the bird. Several other places in the capital have been reserved for building such "sparrow villages."

Bringing Back Vultures From The Brink

Hitopadesha Tales, a collection of 12th-century Sanskrit fables, narrates the story of a blind vulture tricked by a cat. In the story, the cat secretly preys on birds, but a gullible vulture becomes the scapegoat. Although this fable is a lesson in trust, it also suggests the unjust fate of vultures who are villainised for being scavengers. Over the past few decades, the Indian subcontinent has seen a dramatic decline in vulture populations. Millions of white-rumped vultures, Indian vultures and slender-billed vultures have been wiped out. Despite a nationwide ban in 2016, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) remain the leading culprit. The NSAID, which is used to treat cattle, kills vultures that feed on carcasses. To curb this problem, Dr Vibhu Prakash, Principal Scientist of the Bombay Natural History Society, associated with Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), has been leading breeding in captivity programmes. These captivity programmes are lifesavers for vultures in India. They ensure vultures do not consume poisonous meat and, in turn, stabilise their population. The first centre was set up in Pinjore, Haryana. As of now, West Bengal, Assam and Madhya Pradesh also house a centre each. After a few years in these safe sanctuaries, the vultures are satellite-tagged and released in small numbers. The programme has been successful in keeping a close eye on the mortality rates of these birds. It continues to monitor NSAID-related deaths.

Spot Them Here: Apart from captivity centres, vultures can be spotted in Ramadevarabetta Vulture Sanctuary in Karnataka. It is home to long-billed, Egyptian and white-backed vultures.

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