The Heroes Of Conservation

The role of indigenous peoples and communities is crucial to preserving fragile ecosystems
A tribesman from the Rabari community
A tribesman from the Rabari community Photo: Shutterstock

My favourite kind of traffic halt is one caused by a large flock of sheep on a cloudy monsoon day.

We were driving from Bhuj to Mandvi on the approach road to National Highway 41 when we came upon the flock. They seemed to like my father’s blue WagonR, which he had lent me for my fieldwork.

The flock moved at its own pace, like changing seasons, brushing against my car, not particularly curious about the vehicle blocking their grazing path. Once in a while, some of them would look up at their shepherd, a leisurely gentleman from the Rabari indigenous community of Gujarat, and blink, seemingly in approval of the route he had taken.

My co-researcher and co-passenger (in the car and life), Manya, clicked some nice pictures of the sheep.

The role of Indian indigenous communities in conservation has largely been ignored. Our school textbooks don’t mention them, our wildlife parks have had a history of displacing them, and our caste-based society has always marginalised them. It is shameful that it took me—an upper-caste, ex-software engineer—a career change and a stint in the conservation sector to know more about them and how they help preserve our natural resources. Also known as “Scheduled Tribes” in India, these communities have always lived as one with nature.


I find long drives along the countryside particularly therapeutic. My mind appreciates everything I drive past—trees, lush farms, sheep, cattle, colourful trucks. For some reason, all the nice things I appreciate on the way remind Manya of work.

“We have to draft the Himalayan goat proposal!” she says, freshly inspired by sheep. I want to enquire if she thinks the highway is the ideal workplace for that, but there are no pauses when Manya is drafting plans to change the world.

“There are academic studies about Himalayan pastoral tribes and communities, but we need citizen-friendly awareness materials that illustrate the effect of climate change on pastoral routes. Sadly, one doesn’t have the budgets to study these things,” she says.

Budgets are hard. So is tackling climate change and the loss of biodiversity. The grazing routes of the sheep we just crossed have kept grassland ecosystems healthy over decades. However, introducing alien plant species like gando bawar (Prosopis juliflora) has negatively impacted the native vegetation. Plants like kher, kendoori, gargeti, gundi, luski, khejdi, bordi, kerdo, vedho and vikro are on the verge of extinction, say Rabari elders.

While “educated” researchers like us have to learn about invasive species such as the Prosopis juliflora through Google Scholar, Rabari elders have traditional knowledge about what grows best on their land. Unfortunately, funding in current conservation seeks numbers and undermines traditional indigenous knowledge.

Manya often questions our positionality, mostly when I’m driving.

Artwork by Dhaniya Shyam, 10x14 inches, acrylic on paper
Artwork by Dhaniya Shyam, 10x14 inches, acrylic on paperCourtesy: Gallery OED

“As researchers, can we invert knowledge creation in a way that the lived knowledge of indigenous communities has the same credibility as academics who write and publish about them?” she asks. I find myself changing gears and entering the lane of existential dread.

Before India adopted the idea of notified protected areas—wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves—nature was central to the culture of almost all our tribes.

In Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh, the Apatani tribe practises sustainable agriculture techniques of wet rice cultivation to retain soil fertility. Here, populations of the Himalayan squirrel are protected through a mechanism called “dapo,” where the headman of the tribe lays down rules on hunting and extraction. Non-adherence to these diktats lead to penalties.

In Rajasthan’s Sirohi, the Garasia tribes have extensive knowledge about the ethnomedicinal plants, many of which are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The stewardship of natural resources by indigenous peoples is increasingly being recognised as a crucial priority in efforts to prevent climate change, safeguard biodiversity, and preserve fragile ecosystems.

“In an ideal world, risks that are taken daily for conservation by tribal groups should be budgeted and compensated to them,” says Manya. She is right.

Odisha’s indigenous Dongria Kondh community fought against a bauxite mining plant on their sacred Niyamgiri hills that is home to over a 100 perennial streams and rivers. It is where the Vamshadhara river flows, providing drinking and irrigation water to hundreds of people in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

In the Narmada Bachao Andolan movement, it was mainly the tribal groups (Bhils and Rathwas) who were at the forefront of the opposition to the dam.

And while we take pride in the recent increase in tiger numbers, we have to consider the displacement of people who were coexisting with tigers in the first place. We often overlook that tigers have lived as companions to the Baiga, the Mising, the Chenchu, and the Soliga tribes.

Our tribes and their link to the land are visceral and the key to the survival of our biodiversity.

I slow down and park the car. We walk to a roadside tea stall. Three Rabari women serve us tea made with goat milk. Small talk about the weather ensues. We thank them and return to the car. When I turn on the engine, Manya’s mind reverts to work mode.

“We need to unlearn so much to learn from tribal knowledge and be ready to change rather than preaching change in spaces where their voice is missing. The question is not if our tribes can survive without nature; it’s whether nature can survive without our tribes,” she says.

Aditi Patil is pursuing MPhil in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge. She studies ecosystems to understand threats faced by biodiversity and works towards addressing them.

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