A project with real bite… TOFTigers
In India’s Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, a new programme has turned the villagers who once hated and killed tigers into their protectors.
Ancient, water-carved sandstone cliffs stretched in front of me, natural ravines that reminded me of wild parts of the Zambezi River. I was following two villagers, Hanuman Gujjar and Amar Singh Gurjar – both in white cotton dothi pants, neck scarves and sandals – who occasionally scrambled up to look over the sides of the ravines with awe and wonder at the surrounding landscape. These crevices, which reach from the sandy banks of the shallow Banas River to the Keladevi plateau to the north, lay just a few hundred yards away from the border of one of the most visited national parks in India, Rajasthan’s Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Yet the camera-laden tourists who gather there rarely see the beautiful environment that forms the buffer zone around it.
“Ruko, idhar aao. Stop, see here.” Hanuman pointed to the dusty trail beneath our feet.“Bagh. Tiger.”
We stood still. There, imprinted perfectly in the sand, were the huge paw prints of a tiger, deep and clear beside the delicate crescent-shaped hoof marks of its prey, the spotted deer. Two days before, the guides had positioned a camera trap on this trail, 10 yards away from where we now stood. With feverish anticipation they jostled to get the memory card out to see which tiger had strode past their lens. A few years ago, these villagers would have reacted very differently to the paw prints of a magnificent tiger. Their livelihoods then were based on goat herding, tailoring, tractor driving and small-scale farming, and the presence of a tiger in their midst would have given rise to fear, and worry for the safety of their animals and families.
Tiger paw prints
Outside the unfenced Ranthambore park boundaries, historically little was done to prevent the poaching and killing of wildlife. At the turn of the 20th century there were around 100,000 tigers in India, but their population has been decimated. Wild tiger skins, penises, claws and bones have become increasingly valuable in the markets of China and the Far East, helping to drive the wild Bengal species to the edge of extinction, a fate that had already been achieved in Bali, South-east Asia, the Caspian region and China. In 2004, Ranthambore was on its last legs, all but poached out, and down to just 11 individual wild tigers. Its neighbour, Sariska Tiger Reserve, reported its own extinction of tigers in a blaze of global publicity and government recrimination. Something had to be done.
So in 2015, a new conservation scheme, the Village Wildlife Volunteer programme, which TOFTigers has funded since it launched, started recruiting ordinary villagers from numerous villages bordering the park. Now 30 of them – including my guides Amar and Hanuman – have become avid guardians of the species, and skilled trackers of individual wild tigers.
Incentivised with cash rewards and bonuses for information and local intelligence, the team of villagers follow and monitor young males relentlessly for weeks or even months at a time, as they seek fresh territory across intensive farmland and wastelands. As well as tracking tigers, leopards and wolves using only smartphones and camera traps, they also help to resolve wildlife-related conflicts in the villages, watch over livestock kills to ensure angry villagers do not lace the bodies with poison, and capture poachers.
Tigers in Ranthambore National Park
The project, run by Dr Dharmendra Khandal, a biologist and director of wildlife conservation organisation Tiger Watch, and YK Sahu, Ranthambore’s field director, has had undeniable success. It has filled a hole left by the overstretched Forest Department, which simply could not manage the work, despite India’s tigers having protected species status. Today, Ranthambore has 68 wild tigers, and a few more were moved to Sariska and other nearby parks. Others have found their own way to new home territories, often hundreds of miles away in places like Kuno Palpur and Kota.
The advent of a large nature tourism industry in India over the last decade has provided some much-needed economic glue – or what I term ‘Tigernomics’ – to make long-term forest conservation financially viable. There is hope, even against a deafening crescendo of calls by governments and industry to sacrifice more and more wilderness to development, roads, dams and agricultural canals – all death traps for wildlife, and unpassable for species on the move, like big cats.
These tigers and other species that live around them cannot continue to thrive here without the continuation of this programme and the protection of the animals’ territory, nor without nature tourism’s contributions, and villagers willing to live alongside the wildlife they once feared, and to fight for their new livelihoods because a tiger is worth more to them now alive than dead.
Cox & Kings was a founding member of the TOFTigers campaign, launched by writer Julian Matthews. The alliance of travel companies relies on donations. For more details see toftigers.org. Donate to the project at toftigers.org/donate