With all of the dire news about the poaching of elephants and rhinoceros recently, it is easy to forget that there are also conservation success stories for some of these species. Mongabay just published a great article on Jaldapara National Park in West Bengal, India, which has led a highly successful effort to protect the greater one-horned rhinoceros or Indian rhinoceros — also known by its somewhat fantastical scientific name Rhinoceros unicornis. The greater one-horned rhinoceros used to range across the entire northern portion of the Indian sub-continent from Pakistan to the India-Burmese border (and possibly in Myanmar, Indochina and China), but due to habitat destruction, hunting and climatic changes the species was on the brink of extinction by the early 20th century – with less than 50 individuals in 1910. Through intensive conservation efforts (including protecting the rhinos and their habitats), India and Nepal rehabilitated the species’ population to 1,250 individuals in 1980 and over 3,500 in 2015. The rhino’s status has now been upgraded to Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Naure (IUCN). Jaldapara National Park in West Bengal, India has the second largest rhino population, standing at over 204 rhinos today and up from 14 in 1985 — although neighboring Kaziranga National Park has by far the largest population (over 2,400). Jaldapara’s success is due to a number of factors, the greatest of them being:
- better protection mechanisms against poaching
- better habitat conditions
- strengthened relationships with nearby communities
The protections against poaching are complex — and I would suggest reading the article to get a clear picture of them, and efforts to improve the habitat by ensuring there is a sufficient abundance of plant food species are also important.
However, what I would like to talk about here and what really makes this park unique is its close relationship with the local communities and their extensive involvement in protecting the park and engaging in economic activities that are directly reliant on and supportive of its well-being. As the Chief Wildlife Warden of West Bengal himself stated, “Rhinos come as close as 100 meters to human habitations and villages, hence without the cooperation of local people it is impossible to protect them.” Many in the local communities see it as their duty to protect and co-exist with the rhinos and this ethic, along with their vigilance, creativity and hard work, has been absolutely critical to the success of this park. The park interfaces with the communities through 63 Joint Forest Management Committees with a total of 11,000 members. Local youth and other community members (including former loggers) are involved in the park as forest guides who keep a constant watch “on the landscape, uncanny activities or rhino sightings.” This network of sentinels around the park is probably more efficient than any technology or patrol unit could be in keeping the park’s managers up to date on happenings in the area and keeping poachers out.
Just this year the state’s Forest Department upped the amount of the park’s tourist revenue that it shares with the communities from 25 to 40%. Local villagers are also hired as jeep drivers for rhino safaris, and local women recently formed 6 cultural groups to earn additional income from tourists through traditional music and dancing performances.
This is a real example of community-based eco-tourism and conservation, which is emerging as one of the most innovative but difficult-to-execute strategies of conservation around the world. Community-based tourism and ecosystem management is inherently different from former strategies because it relies on local communities’ ability to envision, create, own and manage the processes of development and conservation — and often to own (or at least manage) the land. It requires a high amount of trust and cooperation between state government, local government and local communities, but its payoffs can be huge as local communities are the “natural sentinels” of the world’s ecosystems and can effectively manage vast areas of land and protect them from intruders and exploiters — if we support them.
This also stands in pretty strong contrast with the neighboring Kaziranga Park’s top-down, militarized and aggressive form of protection, which involves a shoot-on-site policy and evicting or ignoring the rights of local communities. There is a growing awareness that Kaziranga’s practices are inhumane, unjust and, in the case of local communities, pointed in completely the wrong direction. According to Valmik Thapar, an Indian naturalist and writer:
“In some exceptional cases you can use the gun against the gun, but in other places in India you need to use community intelligence, because the local community are the eyes and ears of the forest.”
This is what Jaldapara National Park seems to have realized, and their cooperation with local communities in the “conservation” process (really a process of enabling humans and the environment not just to co-exist but to sustain each other) is paying off big time as local communities are creating a strong intelligence network and a buffer against poachers and the communities are developing new economic activities. I hope this is a sign that the world is finally beginning to understand the value that local communities to conservation and that models like this, and the community-government relationships they embody, spread to other parks in India and beyond. The fate of rhinos and humans depends on it.