In order for any conservation effort to succeed in the national parks, the local communities in and around the parks need to be made equal partners and instill in them the sense of ownership and the sense of belonging, says Chaoji, explaining the secret of his success in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. When you look at the local villagers as cheap labour for your business activities, they feel cheated, he states, indirectly pointing fingers for tourism experiments facing resistance from local communities at many places.
Although Chaoji has no claim that his efforts have accomplished 100% success, he shared the satisfaction that he has been able to create 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 the history of over 200 years overnight. It’s definitely a work in progress. We have achieved at least 40%,” he said in a no-hold’s barred conversation.
Ever since a visionary Principal Secretary Forests, Maharashtra Pravin Pardesi placed the responsibility on his shoulders to be an agent to build linkages between tourism and the local villages to create a healthy and sustainable ecosystem in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, he didn’t look back. “It’s a brilliant model we are able to present in Tadoba,” he says. The sense of belonging, bonding and the sense of ownership of the forest is so intense among the villagers 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 both in the core and the buffer with the same elan. Apart from Safaris, there are multiple other activities that visitors can indulge in while at Tadoba. These include bird watching, boat rides, cycling, etc. “This increases the overnights of visitors to the Park which benefits the local hoteliers, homestay owners, and local villagers,” he says.
“There are 20 gates for the Tadoba Tiger Reserve. Each gate supports 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 the same is 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 a few years ago.” Today, these birding guides can identify and explain the key features of at least 150 bird species seen in Tadoba to 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 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.