By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Bastar (Chhattisgarh), Sep 10 (Ajit Weekly News/ 101Reporters) Mahendra Kumars day begins at 5 a.m. Armed with binoculars, he roams the Kanger Valley National Park in Bastar the whole day, checking on the Marsh crocodiles, a freshwater species listed as ‘vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“All my time is spent trying to spot the crocodiles in their assigned areas. I am here till dusk, though I take a nap at the forest patrolling camp after lunch,” says Kumar.
Like Kumar, his friend Somdar Nag has begun to enjoy his work tracking crocodiles, something he had no experience in. He regularly stores details in NoteCam, an app used for storing photos, coordinates, dates and time, besides keeping an eye on poachers.
Altogether, six youth — they have all passed Class 12, have basic digital literacy skills, and know the area like the back of their hands — are engaged in the conservation of Marsh crocodiles, also known as muggers or broad-snouted crocodiles. Their beat areas extend from 5-10 km.
Tribal communities inhabit the villages in and around the national park. They cultivate paddy in the kharif season, a time when the park remains closed due to rains, and do odd jobs to sustain themselves. Kumar and Somdar, who hail from villages located two km apart, have found their job as ‘mugger mitras’ (friends of the crocodile) emotionally and monetarily rewarding. They joined in May for a monthly salary of around Rs 10,000.
Dhammshil Ganvir, the national park’s director, is keen to rope in as many local youth as possible for the conservation effort. “We have a crocodile population in Kanger, but it is not uniform. There are some patches where the reptiles are seen basking on protruded rocks and surfaces. Overfishing and hunting/poaching by a few locals are grave issues here, and community help is the need of the hour,” he elaborates.
Why community is the key
According to Ganvir, securing the habitat of crocodiles is possible only with the help of locals. In accordance with this principle, people in the surrounding villages have been asked not to catch fish from the nullah that winds through the park.
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Apart from regular fishing and hunting, there is also a demand for crocodile scales and skins among quacks and traditional healers. The forest department has involved mugger mitras to discourage such practices by constantly monitoring 15 potential nesting and breeding spots. “For the first time, we have seen the crocodiles lay eggs in six locations, and some have hatched too. It boosts our confidence,” Ganvir says.
The initial funding of Rs 12 lakh for the project was provided through the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management And Planning Authority. Based on the initial success, the mugger mitra project has been extended for another two years.
Though poaching is still a threat, the mitras help counter it through community engagement activities in villages during weekends, especially targeting children.
Providing alternative livelihood to the people here by encouraging coffee plantations and promoting tourism initiatives like homestays, employment as trek guides and safari drivers could help better protect the mugger population in the park.
For instance, 11 women, primarily homemakers and farmers, have formed the Lal Gulab Swayam Sahayata Samuh, which runs a canteen serving tea, coffee and light snacks to those visiting the park. They formed the self-help group in November 2018, under the guidance of the forest department. On an average, the women earn Rs 10,000 per month from the canteen, which is a welcome additional income for their families.
Mynah mitras show the way
The inspiration for the Mugger Mitra Project came from a similar initiative taken up earlier to conserve mynahs at the national park. Gajendra Nag, one of the 12 mynah mitras, tries to spot the Bastar hill mynah, Chhattisgarh’s state bird known for mimicry. Hailing from Milkulwada, Nag joined a year ago and draws a monthly salary of around Rs 9,000.
“I begin my work at dawn and patrol the forest till 10.30 am. After a break, I resume my duty from 3 pm to 5 pm. I send daily updates about the birds spotted to the ‘Bastar hill mynah’ WhatsApp group. Sighting is good in winters, and they are usually seen near water sources,” Gajendra says.
The mynah mitras not only conserve the jet black bird endemic to the valley, but also work with tribal communities and urge them not to kill the birds using slingshots during the hunting festival held around June every year.
“Sensitisation is important, and it cannot happen unless locals are involved. Besides tracking the movements, the youth employed at the park also hold awareness camps among the villagers to enlighten them about the conservation efforts,” the park director explains.
Lauding the dedication of the youth, Shivbhadrasinh Jadeja, a Gujarat-based ecological researcher who has made the national park his focal point for conservation work on muggers, says: “Preliminary survey and secondary information suggest the presence of 12 to 15 crocodiles, but individual monitoring and camera trapping are needed to ascertain the exact numbers along the entire stretch of the Kanger nullah.”
Though crocodiles have not been seen in large numbers here, Jadeja feels due protection is necessary as every animal has a specific role to play in maintaining the natural balance in ecosystems. Muggers are currently found in at least 15 states in the country.
Marsh crocodiles need soft soil and a lot of leaf litter. The females require humidity and temperature regulation for hatching eggs. Temperatures actually decide whether eggs will produce males or females.
“It is important to protect the eggs from predation by raptor birds, stray dogs and monitor lizards. That is why females prefer leafy spots, which act as good camouflage. Open areas are too dangerous for laying eggs,” explains the freelance researcher, who first came down to Kanger Valley three years ago.
Though food in the form of fish is available in the nullah, identification of critical patches through GIS mapping is important to carry the conservation work forward.
However, the most important component is the community involvement. “A few years ago, we used to see very few mynahs here. A social initiative was started to draw in the youth, and now the bird population has increased substantially. It is only by involving the community that we can ensure the project is sustainable beyond the two or three years of its run time,” Ganvir says.
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
–Ajit Weekly News
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