The Potential And Power Of Conservancies

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 42 No. 4, April 2022

By Joanna Van Gruisen & Raghu Chundawat

In the last four decades India has achieved significant success in conserving nature and wild biodiversity through its Protected Area network. But with a population growing in numbers and aspirations, expanding that exclusive network is now near impossible. However, we can take advantage of our conservation successes and expand the conservation scope over a larger area if we include areas beyond the PAs. These are also human landscapes and we need conservation approaches and models that are inclusive of people and applicable to these areas. We envisage a conservancy/concession approach, outside the present Wildlife Protection Act provisions, where, under an overall conservation agreement, a managing committee will decide the actions and activities possible within the concession area.

Currently such a format does not exist in India. If we can achieve this, it will significantly expand the quality and quantity of habitat available to wildlife in general, whilst reconnecting those remaining fragments of important habitat types, which largely make up the current PA network. This can be of major benefit to a large carnivore like the tiger as it would create stepping stones that provide the animal with sanctuary and allow safer movement between the larger source Protected Area populations.

Through the COCOON Project, Sanctuary will soon work on rewilding and livelihood upliftment initiatives in villages along the wildlife corridor of Panna. Photo: Joanna Van Gruisen.
The COCOON Conservancy
Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s Community Owned Community Operated Nature (COCOON) Conservancies are designed as social upliftment programmes that create sustainable, dignified livelihoods, with rewilding and enhanced biodiversity as measurable, collateral benefits. In Madhya Pradesh, the foundation is collaborating with a local conservation trust, Baavan, Bagh Aap Aur Van to bring synergy between two similar ideas, at a site-specific project in an area that is part of a wildlife corridor of the Panna Tiger Reserve. Baavan has identified two villages, Banke and Ghirauli, which are inhabited by communities dependent on agriculture and livestock, primarily cattle. The vagaries of climate and agricultural insecurity mean it is difficult to make a decent livelihood here. The villages are far from the main tourism zones of the park and currently receive no direct benefit from the local tourism industry. We have surveyed the area and believe that rewilding could help them offer authentic, intimate ecotourism experiences for people dis-enamoured by the “show me a tiger” brigade. Additionally, we envisage supporting Baavan in their programmes designed for community upliftment, including the improvement of school infrastructures, community health, better animal husbandry practices and vocational/skill-based training for youth. Through inclusive conservation programmes, we expect that an organic rewilding could be achieved within five years across 50 sq. km. of land that would allow expanding populations of wild species from Panna to find refuge. A site for the development of a community-cum-conservation centre has already been identified and we intend this facility to become one that encourages women and children to rise to their own potential to the advantage of the entire community. Our local collaborators in Panna are Dr. Raghu Chundawat and Joanna Van Gruisen of the Sarai at Toria and their Baavan Trust. This proposed conservancy will offer us proof of concept by demonstrating that COCOON Conservancies can be scaled up as win-win initiatives for communities and the biodiversity next to which they live.

Rewilding and rebuilding the economy

The economy of villages in and around tiger forests is generally based on agriculture, labour, livestock and forest produce but this economy is not in good shape. A harmony between nature and communities that existed for centuries is slowly deteriorating and resulting in overall ecological degradation of these forested habitats. If a conservation approach can rebuild the economy for local communities in a way that is contemporary as well as conservation- and climate-friendly, we can reverse the ecological degradation of tiger forests and enhance livelihoods to create a win-win situation.

Currently, territorial forests are managed with commercial forestry interest but it is not a profitable venture for the government. Both State and Federal Governments spend more on maintaining the forests than the revenue they generate from them. Furthermore, these revenues are based mostly on extraction and the harvesting of timber, fuelwood and Minor Forest Produce (MFP). Over the last decade, the Government of India has spent on average around Rs. 2,000 crore (US$ 285 million) more than it has generated from these forests.

We suggest that if these forests are managed for conservation purposes through a participatory management system, losses for the Government will be reduced. Our research has shown that tourism provides substantial revenue to rural populations and can be one tool to use for improving livelihoods of rural communities living near wildlife areas. We also see that increased income generation can be significant if, for example, livestock breeds are improved and livestock husbandry is improved. This would result in a reduction in livestock numbers and a move to stall feeding rather than forest grazing. This way the forest will improve along with a rise in family income.

Rewilding degraded lands could provide tourism opportunities that can generate substantial revenue to rural populations and be a tool for improving livelihoods of those living near wildlife areas. Photo: Joanna Van Gruisen.

There are substantial funds and much expertise available outside the protected forest system and these presently lie untapped. In a public private partnership of a conservancy kind, these can be harnessed and used to good effect multiplying conservation areas in the country. Conservancies around the world show that philanthropy can bring in enormous funds and an enhanced ability to expand conservation while bringing appropriate development for the local populace. This is an untapped approach in India as, to date, all wild areas are owned by the government and the scope for other models are very limited. Globally, conservationists, communities, governments and investors have recognised the benefit of joining hands for wildlife and environmental protection and cooperatively managing conservancies to these ends. Management models like these are based on IUCN Protected Area Category (VI) objectives and developed following the principles suggested by the IUCN for this category.

When local communities are partners in conservation, there is little need for outside interventions. When conservation brings value, conflict situations can be more easily dealt with and resolutions and compatible ways of co-existing found. In this way, conservation can expand beyond the boundaries of the Protected Areas in a way not possible with an exclusive approach. Village economies can grow in ways appropriate to the environments in which they live avoiding polluting, extractive environment-damaging industries and ‘development’. Conservancies can bring ecological and economic development and provide win-win solutions for all concerned.

Originally from the U.K., Joanna Van Gruisen has lived in the Indian subcontinent for over four decades. She is a writer, photographer and conservationist. Raghu Chundawat is a noted tiger biologist and author of The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers. The duo run an ecotourism venture near Khajuraho and the Panna Tiger Reserve.


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