This blog was originally published on the Conservation Careers website, which can be found here.
Written by Marie Conroy
In this interview, communications specialist Marie Conroy speaks to Vishal Ahuja, a Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) alumnus and teacher turned conservationist, who has dedicated himself to protecting the sacred langurs of Chamba, an Endangered leaf monkey.
By studying their behaviour, engaging local communities and farmers, and restoring their natural habitats, Vishal tells us his story and why he is so passionate about conservation.
When the government of Himachal Pradesh, a state in Northern India, introduced a new land policy in 1968 to help needy people, little did anyone realise the impact this would have on wildlife. As a result of the policy, land was cleared of trees for agriculture and horticulture. At that time, the rezoned land was inhabited by many animals including the now Endangered Himalayan grey langur, a leaf monkey, also known as the sacred langurs of Chamba.
With the loss of its natural habitat, the animals now frequently raid farms for food, resulting in conflict with local farmers, many of whom feel helpless against the furry raiders stealing their crops and impacting their livelihoods.
This is where Vishal Ahuja comes in. Teacher turned conservationist, Vishal has dedicated himself to protecting the sacred langurs by studying their behaviour, engaging local communities and farmers, and restoring their natural habitats for the benefit of all those who rely on it for their existence.
From the classroom to the forest
Vishal grew up in the village of Chamba, surrounded by mountains and forests. From a young age, he was fascinated by the beautiful natural world around him, often questioning why some areas had no trees, and what could be done about this.
Initially his first calling was teaching. This held his focus for some years, going to his classes and passing his exams so he could go on to become a teacher. Only after he graduated did he begin to really look at the natural world around him. “I started hiking around the mountains and I realised we have beautiful forests. I was fascinated by the forest and the wildlife”, he says.
Luckily for Vishal one of his teachers, Dr Bipan C. Rathore was studying conflict between Himalayan brown bears and migrating shepherds. Vishal started to join him when he visited a local wildlife sanctuary, the Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary, collecting data on the conflict. This experience changed him, inspiring him to pursue a career in conservation.
Getting to the root of the issue
When the Himalayan Langur Project was initiated in 2012 with support from the NGO, Wildlife Information Liaison Development Society, and a CLP Future Conservationist Award, little was known about the langurs and the cause of the conflict. The team’s first step was to establish distribution information, map conflict zones and identify other conservation threats in the region.
To do this, they visited over 240 sites on foot. This was difficult work, and they faced many barriers including poor weather conditions, which can lead to landslides, and many villages are under snow cover for months.
As they visited the villages and spoke with the farmers, they discovered that langurs were not the only raiders: black bears, porcupines and macaques were also destroying the crops.
During their work, the project team discovered that one of the causes of deforestation was a previous government policy introduced in 1968, called the Nautor Land Rules.
This policy allowed those earning less than 2,000 rupees to be given land for agricultural and horticulture activities. It also allowed local people to have land cleared of trees. The initiative allowed farming to flourish in the area, but not without consequence on the surrounding environment. There was significant habitat degradation and deforestation leading to fragmentation of the forest and destruction of the natural corridors which the animals relied on.
With the remaining ‘fragmented patches’ no longer capable of providing food for wildlife and their natural corridors destroyed, the animals turn to the farmed crops for food. As described by Vishal, “their natural home has been disturbed. With the loss of many native trees and typical plants, the langurs have to come out of the forest to find food”.
This raiding behaviour led to conflict with local farmers. During Vishal’s visits he found the true extent of feelings against the langurs and the alarming situation that the farmers wanted them removed from the forest.
Fostering human wildlife co-existence
However, now almost nine years into the project, things are beginning to improve as a result of Vishal’s persistent hard work and support from the project founder and mentor Dr Sanjay Molur.
Vishal is working to restore the native forests by sowing wild fruit plants and trying to restore the natural corridors. But restoring lost nature does not happen overnight – it can take a decade or more to see any benefit.
He has built a collaborative relationship with the forest department, sharing expertise and recommendations about the forest. For example, he has highlighted where wild plants are lacking, and the forest department are providing them from their nurseries for Vishal to plant.
Even better for Vishal and crucial to the success of the project is that the local communities and farmers are now listening and beginning to understand the issue. As a result of numerous meetings, he has developed good relationships with them, helping to gain their confidence and build understanding.
While they once were telling him to take the langurs away, they are beginning to understand the need for co-existence. Vishal has helped them understand that the wildlife is dependent on the forest, and if they cannot get what they need from the forest, they will come to farms looking for food.
When I ask him, How does that make him feel? Immensely proud, it turns out: “The fact that they are listening, trust me, and understand the situation makes me very proud. And I feel very proud that the words we are saying are having an impact”.
So, is this a job for everyone?
According to Vishal, it’s not. While the project is yielding some results, it is extremely hard work, and it can take years to see real change. And while it may seem serene to be working in a forest it can be lonely.
And then there is the unpredictable weather. “Halfway to your destination it can start raining heavily and you have to turn back,” he explains. To make matters worse, many villages are quite remote and on arrival, it can happen that either no one is home, or the head of the family and main decision maker is not home.
Not only does Vishal’s work take constant dedication. He often has difficult conversations with farmers who see their livelihoods being destroyed and as a result feel helpless and angry. But he knows it is core to the project’s success that he helps farmers understand what is needed for peaceful co-existence.
And this does not discourage him. In fact, he still says it’s his childhood dream come true. “The fact is, you’re working for the betterment of mankind. If you are passionate about conserving nature and wildlife, if you have that passion inside you, then you can tackle all the challenges”.