I am back in South India, this time accompanied by my family, to investigate field sites for proposed collaborative pilot projects with Indian colleagues. We are visiting three locations: a Kuruba tribal community and elephant camp in Nargarhole National Park; an organic farm in the Coorg District of Karnataka; and Soliga tribal communities in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (known as BRT)
We were up before dawn on Monday to look for wildlife with a Soliga guide. I was happy to see just a black-naped hare, but as the drive continued we saw many gaur, India’s huge wild cattle; spotted deer, barking deer and sambar; and then, incredibly, a young tiger 15 metres from us. As I mentioned in my first postcard from India, tigers dominate conservation in India and often problematically. This was reinforced in later conversation with a Soliga elder, who expressed significant concern for the state of the landscape because of the longstanding suppression of fire and prevention of Soliga burning techniques, as well as a perceived sole focus on tigers. Lantana has spread rapidly and extensively in the last 15 years, forming a monoculture understory. Local species used by Soliga have been displaced, to the extent that there are projects to create industries based on lantana as a substitute.
The rest of our discussion explored the history at BRT of relationships between Soligas and the Indian Forest Department (responsible for management of protected areas in India). The advent of the Forest Rights Act has theoretically created the possibility for the return of some rights to Indian Tribal people but it is clear that the reality falls short. We discussed comparisons with the Australian situation of joint-managed national parks, and the possible opportunities presented by the 6th World Parks Congress to be held in Sydney in 2014.
Last week we travelled to the beautiful old capital of Mysore and through classic ‘village India’ landscapes where animals are still the primary form of power on small farms. From Mysore we drove into the Western Ghats in the Coorg District, to stay on an organic farm, Mojo Plantation and Rainforest Retreat, owned by two biologists, Drs Sujata and Anurag Goel. The Goels have spent nearly twenty years developing a complex multi-species intercropping system building on local traditional methods. While running a 25 acre commercial farm and ecotourism operation, they monitor wildlife, with extensive species list of nearly 100 birds and 26 amphibians and reptiles.
This wildlife not only closely shares the landscapes with them, but shares food sources and contributes to pest control. Some coffee plantations we saw simultaneously grow coffee, citrus, papaya, pepper, toddy palm and timber trees in an integrated system. The famous civet coffee is produced here, and the region is the source location for the wild ancestors of several domesticated plants such as cinnamon, eggplant, pepper and cardamon.
Coorg is also interesting as local farming people can get a permit which allows them to own firearms, and most plantations have a shotgun or rifle, used to control wild boar and other crop raiders. Coorg has a long hunting tradition, documented in the Gazetteer of Coorg published in 1870, and in fact the regional crest shows two crossed swords and a rifle.
On our second trip from Mysore our guides were Vidya Athreya, who has done fascinating and groundbreaking work on leopards in human-dominated landscapes, and Ashwin, who has lived with Kuruba tribal people on and off for years, learnt to train elephants, and made several films. At the elephant camp in Nagarhole National Park, my son rode Mary, blind in both eyes from cataracts, and we met Arjun, a big male tusker, famous for his role in the annual Dasera festival in Mysore, where he carries a 750 Kg gold howdah in the procession. We had long discussions with elder mahouts (elephant trainers) about their relationships with their elephants. As an elephant can live to 100 years, and have a working life of 40-50 years, mahouts often spend most of their lives in very close association with one elephant, and each gets to know the other very well. Most of the elephants at the camp have been wild caught as adults.
We are developing a pilot project to investigate Kuruba knowledge of how wild elephants use different landscapes and respond to humans, to contribute to management responses where there is human-elephant conflict. I am interested in further understanding these types of deep relationships between people and animals, particularly at the intersection of ‘wild’ and not wild.