Bastar (Chhattisgarh), Sept. 10 (IANS/ 101Reporters) Mahendra Kumar’s day starts at 5 a.m. Armed with binoculars, he travels all day through Kanger Valley National Park in Bastar, watching for marsh crocodiles, a freshwater species listed as “vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.”
“I spend all my time trying to spot crocodiles in their assigned areas. I am here until dusk, although I take a nap at the Forest Patrol Camp after lunch,” Kumar explains.
Like Kumar, his friend Somdar Nag began to enjoy his job tracking crocodiles, a job he had no experience in. He regularly stores details in NoteCam, an app used to store photos, contact details, dates and times, in addition to keeping tabs on poachers.
A total of six youngsters – all of whom have passed grade 12, have basic digital literacy skills and know the area like the back of their hand – are engaged in the conservation of swamp crocodiles, also known as muggers or broad-snouted crocodiles. Their beat zones extend from 5 to 10 km.
Tribal communities inhabit the villages in and around the national park. They grow paddy during the kharif season, a time when the park remains closed due to rains, and do odd jobs to support themselves. Kumar and Somdar, from villages two kilometers apart, have found their work as ‘mugger mitras’ (friends of the crocodile) emotionally and financially rewarding. They joined in May for a monthly salary of around Rs 10,000.
Dhammshil Ganvir, the director of the national park, is keen to rally as many young locals as possible into the conservation effort. “We have a crocodile population in Kanger, but it is not uniform. There are a few patches where the reptiles bask on rocks and protruding surfaces. Overfishing and hunting/poaching by a few locals are serious problems here, and help from the community is the need of the hour,” he explains.
Why community is key
According to Ganvir, securing the habitat of crocodiles is only possible with the help of locals. In accordance with this principle, the inhabitants of the surrounding villages have been asked not to catch fish in the nullah that winds through the park.
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Besides regular fishing and hunting, there is also a demand for crocodile scales and skins among charlatans and traditional healers. The Forest Department has involved aggressor mitras to discourage such practices by constantly monitoring 15 potential nesting and breeding sites. “For the first time, we saw crocodiles laying eggs in six places, and some hatched as well. This boosts our confidence,” says Ganvir.
Initial funding of Rs 12 lakh for the project was provided by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority. Based on the initial success, the mugger mitra project was extended for two more years.
Although poaching is still a threat, the mitras help counter it through community engagement activities in the villages during the weekends, targeting children in particular.
Providing alternative livelihoods to locals here by encouraging coffee plantations and promoting tourism initiatives such as homestays, employment of hiking guides and safari drivers could help better protect the population of aggressors in the park.
For example, 11 women, mostly housewives and farmers, formed the Lal Gulab Swayam Sahayata Samuh, which runs a canteen serving tea, coffee and light snacks to park visitors. They formed the self-help group in November 2018, under the direction of the Forest Department. On average, the women earn 10,000 rupees a month from the canteen, which is a welcome extra income for their families.
Mynah mitras shows the way
The inspiration for the Mugger Mitra project came from a similar initiative taken earlier to conserve mynahs in the national park. Gajendra Nag, one of the 12 mynah mitras, tries to spot the Bastar hill mynah, the Chhattisgarh state bird known for its mimicry. A native of Milkulwada, Nag joined a year ago and is on a monthly salary of around Rs 9,000.
“I start my work at dawn and I patrol the forest until 10:30 am. After a break, I resume my service from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. I send daily updates on spotted birds to the “Bastar Hill Mynah” WhatsApp group. Sighting is good in winter and they are usually seen near water sources,” says Gajendra.
The mitra mynahs not only conserve the endemic jet black bird of the valley, but also work with the tribal communities and urge them not to kill the birds using slingshots during the hunting festival which is held every year around June.
“Awareness raising is important, and it can only happen if the inhabitants are involved. In addition to following the movements, the young park employees also organize awareness camps among the villagers to enlighten them on conservation efforts,” explains the park director.
The environmentalist’s point of view
Praising the dedication of the youths, Shivbhadrasinh Jadeja, a Gujarat-based ecology researcher who has made the national park his focal point for conservation work on the aggressors, says: “Preliminary investigation and secondary information suggests the presence of 12 to 15 crocodiles, but camera monitoring and trapping is needed to determine exact numbers across the full extent of Kanger nullah.
Although crocodiles have not been seen in large numbers here, Jadeja believes that proper protection is needed as each animal has a specific role to play in maintaining the natural balance of ecosystems. The attackers are currently in at least 15 states across the country.
Swamp crocodiles need loose soil and plenty of leaf litter. Females need humidity and temperature regulation for egg hatching. The temperatures actually decide whether the eggs will produce males or females.
“It is important to protect the eggs from predation by raptors, stray dogs and monitor lizards. This is why females prefer leafy patches, which act as good camouflage. Open areas are too dangerous for egg laying,” says the independent researcher, who first came to the Kanger Valley three years ago.
Although food in the form of fish is available in the nullah, identifying critical areas through GIS mapping is important to advance conservation work.
However, the most important component is community participation. “A few years ago we used to see very few mynahs here. A social initiative was launched to attract young people, and now the bird population has increased significantly. Only by involving the community can we guarantee the sustainability of the project beyond the two or three years of its execution,” says Ganvir.
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of local journalists.)