Written by Nandini Velho, photograph by Pooja K

I’m often witness to and an integral part of mini-field disasters, but I learn something each day and that keeps me going. I remember that this particular day did not hold too much promise. We had spent five hours trying to dig the gypsy out of muck. To make matters worse, Tana Tapi (the Divisional Forest Officer of Pakke Tiger Reserve) and I were blaming each other for accelerating in neutral and allowing the tyres to sink deeper.

We somehow finally managed to reach the small village of Langka (fringing Pakke Tiger Reserve). And at the tail-end of the day I saw the implementation of an extraordinary initiative. Two village heads in their red-coats were going to arrest a young lad from Langka for using dynamite to catch fish. As we passed by, Tana Tapi figured out what was happening, then facilitated the process and allowed the village heads to enforce the law.

Tana Tapi would often tell me how he has tried to involve the Nyishi community in wildlife conservation in and around Pakke Tiger Reserve. Pakke Tiger Reserve is situated in western Arunachal Pradesh, nestled in the Dafla foothills. It is home to a healthy population of tigers, interesting species such as the pied warty frog (that hides from predators by resembling bird droppings) and globally endangered species such as the white-winged wood duck.

Surprisingly, the park has managed to hang on to all these species even though it was a hunting reserve till 2001. It also has a history of other extractive regimes such as Departmental Timber Operations for selective logging and leases for extraction of cane. Moreover, Nyishi, a local community residing around the park, is a hunting tribe traditionally. Given this back drop, winning the support of the local community was going to be tough yet paramount for effective wildlife conservation. More so because Pakke was only recently declared a tiger reserve in 2002.

Tana Tapi was instrumental in the formation of the Ghora Aabhe or the ‘village father’ in August 2007. This body borrows from and mirrors the administrative and traditional practices that were already in place at the local level. Village elders or Gaon burrahs (GBs) play a major role in village development and have legal powers to enforce customary laws. Disputes are settled and verdicts are passed by the kebang (or a meeting of the GBs).

Tapping into the existing power of village chiefs, the park management decided to institutionalize their roles and responsibilities towards wildlife conservation. Convincing GBs to be partners in protection was not an easy task, as the Nyishis have not always recognized the ethos of wildlife conservation. Tana Tapi recalled how people would insist that hunting was a part of their tradition and ‘niyam’ (traditional rules). Further, it was customary for GBs to possess a licensed 12 bore single or double barrel guns which they used for hunting.

Tana Tapi had several meetings with GBs from villages fringing the park.  All 25 GBs were present during the initial stages of the discussion. He tried to talk to them about their responsibilities which included intelligence gathering, reprimanding offenders and reporting offences to the forest department. Only 16 GBs agreed to stay on and support the initiative.

Reactions of the local people are varied – in the remote northern boundary of the park, GBs have still not embraced the idea of Ghora Aabhe as they claim that the terms and conditions of the body infringe on their traditional practices. In the southern parts of the park, where the forest department has a considerable reach (because of the presence of its headquarters) people have embraced this initiative whole heartedly. In Langka, which is close to the park head quarters, we witnessed the effective implementation of this initiative.

Women Self Help Groups (SHGs) were formed later in 2007 to broaden the reach of this initiative. Since their duties lay outside the realm of household activities, initially there was stiff opposition from the village male folk. Men prevented women from attending these meetings alone. With time, every married woman in a family was represented in a SHG. This was an entirely voluntary effort that replicated frameworks present in other districts of Arunachal, but absent in and around Pakke. The mantle was then handed over to the District Rural Development Agency and the Panchayat leaders who financially supported these groups. It is not uncommon in Pakke today, to see men who are almost afraid of the more chatty and forthright women folk!

At present there are 17 Women SHGs, while 16 GBs from nine fringe villages comprise the Ghora Aabhe. The Ghora Aabhe has adopted stringent regulations and imposes heavy penalties on wildlife offenders. For instance, the hunting of a species like tiger, placed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, results in a fine of Rs. 50,000/- according to the customary law, which is in addition to the prescribed penalty imposed by the Wildlife Protection Act. The women self help groups provide intelligence on illegal activities such as poaching to the Ghora Aabhe members or to the park authorities. Fifty per cent of collected fines are awarded to Women’s SHGs. This makes reporting of illegalities a positive feed back mechanism which is financially sustainable. So far these groups have seized 36 country made guns from the fringe villages and deposited these arms with park authorities. Most often, offenders are caught by the village folk themselves and then brought to the attention of the Forest Department.

In its nascent stages in 2007-08, the initiative was sponsored by the Wildlife Trust of India. Under centrally sponsored schemes made available by the Project Tiger and assistance given for the development of sanctuaries, the park authorities have locally managed to adjust an honorarium for GBs. The District Administration had been paying GBs Rs. 150/- a month. The park authorities have raised their honorarium to Rs. 1500/- which now enables them to work full time with the body.

This innovative intervention has been beneficial for wildlife recovery. Tana Tapi never forgot that the mandate of this initiative is wildlife conservation. Locals would dynamite rivers previously to kill fish, but now severe punishments serve as a deterrent. Hunting of wide ranging mammals such as elephants that pass through human habitation has almost stopped. In fact elephants are commonly seen in and around the Reserve Forests. Park authorities have tried to make wildlife conservation everybody’s responsibility. The model of the Ghora Aabhe serves as an effective example for the larger wildlife conservation community.

Conservation biologists have started to adopt a multi-dimensional approach to wildlife conservation. Given that local communities are one of the most important stake holders in wildlife conservation, community conservation programs are an important step in this direction. What I learnt that day and from many interactions with Tana Tapi was that as conservationists our goals need to be clearly defined, focused and measurable. Our enthusiasm to go to new areas, work with new tribes and explore possible livelihood options from giving seeds to pumping money; many times results in goodwill programs which end up losing their focus on wildlife conservation.

Tana Tapi, his anti-poaching staff and the village fathers are lead authors of Pakke’s changing history, I am just fortunate to have had an opportunity to learn and narrate their stories.

This article was published in Down to Earth and can be accessed here.