In order for any conservation effort to succeed in our jungles, the local communities from the surrounding areas need to be made equal partners. This instils in them, the sense of ownership and the sense of belonging, says Chaoji, explaining the secret of the success of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve model. When you look at the local villagers as cheap labour for your business activities, they feel cheated, he states, indirectly pointing fingers at tourism experiments facing resistance from local communities at many places.
Although Chaoji has no claim that the TATR efforts have accomplished 100% success, he feels that there has been a significant lowering of antagonism between the stakeholders over the years. This has also helped in creating a solid base for Eco-tourism in an important tiger reserve of the country, in the last few years. “It’s not easy to rewrite a ‘difficult’ history of over 200 years, overnight. It’s definitely a work in progress. We have achieved at least 40%,” he says in a no-holds-barred conversation.
Ever since a visionary Principal Secretary Forests, Maharashtra, Pravin Sinh Pardeshi envisaged a ‘new’ model to build linkages between the Forest Department, tourism and the local villages, the atmosphere has undergone a dramatic change. It has created a healthy and sustainable ecosystem in Tadoba. “It’s a brilliant model that we showcase from Tadoba,” he says. The sense of belonging, bonding and the sense of ownership of the forest is so intense in the local community, that they are literally the eyes and ears of the forest today. The forest dwellers do not allow any illegal activity to happen in the forest.
Unlike other Tiger Reserves, in Tadoba the visitor experience is not confined to Safaris in the core. For Safari enthusiasts, the Safari activity can be experienced through as many as 20 gates, both in the core and the buffer with the same elan. Apart from Safaris, there are 12 other activities that visitors can indulge in while at Tadoba. These include bird watching, boat rides, cycling, etc. “This increases the overnight stays of visitors in the Park, which benefits the local hoteliers, homestay owners and local villagers,” he says.
“Each of the 20 gates supports people from at least two to three villages, for their livelihood,” he says. This interdependence helps the conservation of the forest and the wildlife. The locals understand that if wildlife is reduced, tourists would stop visiting the place. That will put their livelihood in jeopardy.
While livelihood opportunities are ensured, in Tadoba these are backed up with a robust capacity building programme for the villagers. This helps the villagers to aspire for better opportunities. “They realise that there is an opportunity for growth and also an incentive for growth. We tell everyone to upgrade,” he says.
In Tadoba, all the birding guides are women from the villages. “They were housewives just over a year ago.” Today, these birding guides can identify and explain the key features of at least 150 bird species seen in Tadoba, to the visitors. That has given a purpose and confidence to them, he says.
As a conservationist, Chaoji doesn’t believe in closing down parks for whatever reasons. “Such acts of closure of parks obstruct the livelihood option of local communities for a few months at least,” he opines. In Tadoba Andhari since the activities in the buffer continue unabated all the 12 months, the Park closure does not adversely impact the life of the local communities, he states.