Close encounter of the first kind

Zoya Irshad Tyabji, 2017 CLP award winner, shares some of her memories of the training course that she recently attended, including the unforgettable moment when she came face to face with a live shark.

Just a few months have passed since we received the news of winning the Future Conservationist Award from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP). A few months is a short time, but for us those months were packed!

In July, I had the opportunity to represent my team at the CLP training held in Indonesia. During the workshop, we had sessions where various modules were covered – leadership skills, project planning, behaviour change and communication, and gender and equality. These modules were held unconventionally with activities, ice-breakers and interactions that honed and developed skills both personally and professionally. As a result, I am more confident, aware and motivated, and I definitely took away more than I came with. I will also be implementing most of what we have learnt in order to take our work forward.

Additionally, it was inspiring for me to spend time networking, sharing ideas and listening to the experiences of like-minded people, coming from different places in the world and facing difficult issues – some the same and some different, be it development, management or pollution. I am thankful for the CLP facilitators – Stu, Christina, Laura and Charlotte – who made it comfortable for us and encouraged us every step of the way, to share and be ourselves so that we could take the best from this experience. I am also thankful to the rest of the CLP participants – now alumni and my friends for a lifetime, who have all contributed tremendously to my personal and professional growth and memories during the workshop.

After the CLP training, I got an opportunity to visit Bunaken, a marine national park in Indonesia. Growing up in India, experiences like these are far-removed from everyday life and I have only experienced them while watching the overly dramatic Bollywood films, so I cannot thank CLP enough for giving me this opportunity to star in my own movie. While scuba-diving at Bunaken, we were suspended in the blue, awestruck by the psychedelic colours that the reef threw at us – I was imagining how my friends and colleagues would conduct fish transects here, as the diversity and abundance was baffling. And then, by chance, I happened to look down into the unending depths – and saw something cut through the water gracefully with its white flank and black tips. It was a blacktip reef shark and my first live shark ever!

After sampling over a thousand dead sharks harvested by fishermen at fish-landing sites (which is what my work entails), I had seen my first live shark underwater! The shark was a contrast to the reef in its simplicity of colours and conveyed power and grace as only an apex predator and a keystone species. The moment was a fleeting one, but powerful enough to motivate me to get back to sampling dead sharks in the Andamans in the hope that I can make a difference and enjoy sightings like this one in future during the course of my work there.

Apart from the CLP training and grant, being a CLP alumna and joining the CLP network has opened up tremendous opportunities for my team and me. I recently attended a statistics workshop held by the CLP alumni network of India in Bangalore. Apart from learning statistics, I met other alumni and we discussed past experiences, dealing with multidisciplinary conservation issues, growing as a team and taking away memories. My team members interacted with other CLP alumni from India during the CLP meeting at SCCS Bangalore, in turn developing a good network of conservationists. One of our guides is a CLP alumnus who has provided advice not only with developing our CLP proposal but also for other projects. Networking and collaboration form an important part in any conservation-oriented field and we thank CLP for bringing us all together in order to achieve this efficiently, fruitfully and with a fun-filled journey.

Zoya’s CLP Future Conservationist Award and participation at CLP’s Conservation Management & Leadership training course was made possible thanks to the generous support of Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.

Conservation Agreements: A win-win in the Western Ghats, India  

By: Jayant Sarnaik

People of the indigenous community ‘Mahadeo Koli’ have lived within the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary (BWLS) for hundreds of years. They have rich traditional knowledge and rely on the land and forests for food and income. As an Important Bird Area in the northern Western Ghats of India, the sanctuary is also home to abundant biodiversity including hundreds of endemic plants, birds and mammals.

In recent years, pressure has been increasing both on the local people and on the local biodiversity. When the sanctuary was established in 1985, shifting cultivation became illegal. Shifting cultivation is a practice where an area of land is clear-cut and farmed until the land is no longer fertile. At that stage, a new area is cleared and farming shifts while the first plot is naturally restored. If not managed properly, the practice has negative consequences for conservation: key habitat can be lost and species suffer. In addition, BWLS is a famous pilgrim destination. Every year, over 500,000 tourists from all over India visit the sanctuary. These pilgrimages put additional pressure on the forests.

Communities that were dependent on harvests from shifting agriculture became economically vulnerable. For the younger generation, job options can be further limited due to lack of education. As a result, many young people migrate to nearby urban areas to seek employment.

Since 2007, a team of four people working for the Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF), with many other partners (the S. P. Jain Institute for Management Research, Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology (DICE) and Credit Suisse volunteers), have developed new approaches to balance the needs of communities with conservation in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary. Having won all three awards from CLP (2007, 2009, 2016) the team has used its training and funding to develop and implement an innovative strategy that helps conserve wildlife and provides economic benefits to vulnerable indigenous community members.

This strategy involves asking community members to be part of a Conservation Agreement. By signing an agreement, communities gain access to alternative livelihood opportunities. In return, community members agree to let their land regenerate and to use resources from it in such a way that sustains, rather than degrades, the forest. An example of this occurred in early 2017 when the CLP team proposed a Conservation Agreement to Mr Devram Sagaji Lohokare (age 65) and his family, who had lost the right to practise shifting cultivation on their land in the sanctuary and were searching for a new livelihood.

The CLP team had already undertaken a detailed biodiversity survey of the forest with a focus on the presence of endemic birds. Part of this area included Mr Lohokare’s land. The team sighted 46 bird species during the survey, four of which were endemic – the white-cheeked barbet, white-bellied blue flycatcher, crimson-backed sunbird and Nilgiri wood pigeon.  They found evidence of other important wildlife in the forest, too, including several nesting sites of the Indian giant squirrel and natural beehives. Most importantly, the forest has a water body used by many species. Having discovered that the land was vital for so many species, the CLP team approached Mr Lohokare and his family to consult with them about the prospect of entering into a Conservation Agreement.

During the conversation, the CLP team learned that one of the family members, Tanaji Dhondu Lohokare, was looking for employment. The family was also in need of some vital household utensils. Under the terms of the Conservation Agreement, in return for letting his land regenerate, the team was able to assist Mr. Lohokare and his family with their needs. The CLP team agreed to help train Tanaji Lohokare in conservation and ecotourism and thereby assist him with finding employment. They also agreed to provide the family with much needed utensils including a household stove-heater and solar-powered battery chargers. The agreement was prepared in the local language so that everyone would be able to understand it, and so that Mr Lohokare could help spread the message to others about this approach.

In March 2017, Laura Owens, a CLP staff member based at Fauna & Flora International, visited BWLS. She watched as this agreement was signed. She reflects: “I enjoyed seeing the beautiful bird species already flourishing there and saw first-hand how the land is already starting to regenerate into a good secondary forest.” Through this Conservation Agreement, the CLP team has ensured the conservation of 57 acres of community forest for the next ten years. The team is slowly setting up and entering into new agreements with other community members to create a system that benefits both people and wildlife. To date, 100 acres of land have been protected by seven agreements.

As a separate but related initiative, the CLP team, in collaboration with AERF and DICE, set up an international certification scheme called FAIRWILD in 2015. Local community members who follow certain practices to protect biodiversity achieve the certification and can thereby sell non-timber forest products for a price that is about 70% greater than for non-certified products. Together with the Conservation Agreements, this certification scheme will continue to improve income opportunities for local families going forward.