India’s environmental crusader

Five years ago, the Valley of Flowers National Park in India was in a shambles after sustained environmental abuse. Jyotsna Sitling, India’s first female tribal forester, arrived as director in 2002 with the aim of regenerating the area. Three years later the park’s ecosystem was flourishing once again and the site was granted World Heritage Status from UNESCO. Jyotsna, winner of the 2007 Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar prize, India’s highest environmental honour, explains how she did it

Jyotsna Sitling receiving the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar prize. Photograph: supplied by Neeta Lal

I was born into the ‘Lepcha’ tribal community of Kalimpong in West Bengal, a region bordering Tibet. My village Chibbo Busty, though a mere blip on India‘s vast geographic radar, was stunningly picturesque. Rugged ochre and dun-colored hills, an emerald green forest cover and children with beatific faces made it an idyllic place. I remember walking through the village’s misty woods with my parents, extremely curious about the region’s flora and fauna. “What is that tree called?”, “And that flower?”, “Where does mountain snow disappear?” “How do birds feed their young?” I brimmed with queries about nature.

After school, I enrolled at the Darjeeling Government College with botany as my major subject. Nobody raised an eyebrow when I chose forestry as a vocation. As India’s first woman tribal forester, I felt proud to join the Indian Forest Service (IFS) in 1987. My first assignment – as conservator of forests in India’s most troubled state (Jammu and Kashmir) – was a challenging one. There are still just a handful of female foresters in the Indian Forest Service, so in my career’s initial stages I had to work doubly hard to establish my credibility.

I was posted in Uttaranchal as the director of Nanda Devi National Park (NDNP) in 2002. This beautiful park was in a shambles due to rampant environmental abuse. Ensconced within the upper Himalayan ridges at 6,675 metres, the entire area had a cachet of conservation concerns. A shame really, considering the splendid Valley of Flowers National Park (VFNP) in Uttaranchal is one of the world’s most scenic alpine valleys, breeding exquisite floral and avian diversity: 520 species of flowering plants and rare avian breeds like the Scaly-bellied Woodpecker, Great Barbett, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Spotted Dove and the Blue Magpie.

Soon after taking over, I launched a vigorous movement to save the park from further degradation. We first planned to rid it of mountain-high piles of plastic and non-biodegradable waste strewn by pilgrims over three decades of visiting the Sikh religious site of Hemkund Sahib each year. To achieve this, a community-based waste management program involving the local populace was fleshed out. The highly irresponsible environmental behavior of the pilgrim traffic had totally wrecked the beautiful surroundings, resulting in accumulation of tons of putrescent garbage (plastic bags, bottles, rain coats, sundry packets) and non-degradable waste.

The 19km trek route was impacted further by some 400-odd shops illegally installed by locals. Their plastic waste had literally filled the whole area. The region’s verdant slopes, once a green canvas punctuated with sweet-smelling flowers, were transformed into junkyards through a mindless act of man. The fragile eco-system of the entire valley was under duress due to this pilgrim traffic.

Of course it was tough to motivate the local people for the unglamorous task of cleaning up the area, but we just plunged headlong into it. I made the Park staff understand the social and livelihood dynamics of the community which could be decisive in preserving it. This was followed by giving them focused training and mentoring them regularly to equip them professionally to handle community-initiated conservation processes. Being a woman, the male staff saw me as a role model to initiate such processes in the garbage-ridden VFNP.

For starters, we cobbled an eco-development committee (EDC) comprising the local people, especially women and hired garbage collectors who worked on a monthly salary of 1,000 rupees (about GBP11) with an additional commission of 5 rupees per garbage bag. After working tirelessly for 14 months, my team collected a whopping 44 tons of garbage in 14,000 gunny bags. The collected garbage matched the surrounding towering peaks in height.

This garbage was transported on horseback to New Delhi for recycling. The heaps also included tons of mule dung because about 500 mules go up and down this religious stretch from May to October each year – the main five pilgrimage months. Despite the garbage’s volume, we didn’t take any eco-unfriendly short cuts like burning, burying or draining off of refuse.

Cleaning up the area was only part of the problem. A greater challenge lay in convincing the resident business population of about 76 families to demolish their 400 shacks and morph them into 76 shops; that is, one shop per family. This, I argued, would help in the management of the ecologically sensitive area. The entrepreneurs, adamant at first, finally relented and demolished their shacks to build well-equipped shops with proper infrastructure.

We struck upon a “participatory approach” for protecting biodiversity in the sensitive areas. The locals were educated about the benefits of making conservation a socially and economically self-alleviating experience. We worked in synergy with the local populace to hammer out economically viable and sustainable solutions to conservation versus development conflicts. The idea was to integrate livelihood and equity concerns in conservation practices for a sustainable, long-term solution.

Community training was imparted to harness local resources and generate eco-tourism activities. Growing and preserving of medicinal plants, exotic condiments and traditional crops were listed as a priority. This stimulated the avenues connected with the hill economy which helped prevent poaching and illegal removal of herbs from nearby forests. Communities were also encouraged to document and preserve their culture and folklore. Local youth were taught and became a skilled human resource on local bio-diversity, folklore and culture promotion.

The local populace were trained and linked with regulated tourism business opportunities to become beneficiaries and custodians of the NDNP. Years of hard labor started to bear fruit when the region’s ecosystem showed signs of regeneration. Our forest department received a state award and nominated the VFNP to the UN’s World Heritage list in 2002 by submitting a proposal to the World Heritage Centre (WHC). The UN evaluation team visited the VFNP and NDNP in September 2004 to assess its conservation status, its management strategy and the community interface in the conservation of the two parks.

On July 14, 2005, I got that historic call from UNESCO informing us about VFNP being granted World Heritage Status. It was an exhilarating moment. I still get goose flesh thinking about that call, which symbolised our triumph against such massive odds. Apart from bestowing a prestigious global honor, the WHS status has had other positive benefits as well – like attracting a lot more international tourists and global conservation funds. Our unique experiment has proved that there’s nothing that can’t be achieved if people choose to work together, even if the task is of ‘Himalayan’ proportions. Nanda Devi, the venerable Goddess of Uttaranchal, has every reason to smile.

• Jyotsna Sitling was speaking to India-based freelance journalist Neeta Lal. – From Guardian UK

Commercial activity around Corbett threatens wildlife

A view of the Corbett National Park. Unhindered commercial activity around Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand is posing a serious threat to this eco-fragile zone and obstructing movement of animals. File Photo; The Hindu

 From THE HINDU

National Park: 70% of Corbett resorts host parties, races

NEW DELHI: Is Corbett national park, India’s best known tiger sanctuary, becoming a hunting ground for party animals at the cost of real ones? A study commissioned by the Union tourism ministry on Corbett has found that 70% of the resorts around the park are venues for weddings, rain dances, parties, bike races and zorbing rather than for visitors interested in wildlife.

There are 77 resorts in the area with 17 more likely to come up this year alone. Incidentally, the tiger reserve has a ceiling of a maximum of 600 visitors daily.

This rampant commercialisation and mismatch in numbers drawn to Corbett has set off alarm bells within the ministry that is now considering tighter norms for hotels and resorts coming up in ecologically-sensitive places.

The study conducted by the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa surveyed areas around the 10km periphery of the park in December last year.

“The findings are very worrying. We plan to bring this to the attention of the ministry of environment and forests before Corbett becomes another Sariska. There must be stringent guidelines for commercial establishments,” Sujit Banerjee, tourism secretary, said.

Besides indulging in activities like parties and rain dances, resorts keep bright lights on throughout the night. Turning a blind eye to environmental friendly practices, 31% of the properties dump their waste outside while 26% burn it.

About 94% of the properties are fenced or walled. This has resulted in two animal corridors connecting Corbett with Rajaji national park being blocked. The fencing aside, vehicles and encroachment by villagers displaced by the New Tehri dam have also contributed to choking the corridors that are a lifeline for the animals.

Another worrying point is the fact that of the 77 vehicles plying within the tiger reserve, 26 run on diesel. Among steps being taken to check this disturbing trend, officials said resorts and hotels in fragile ecological zones will now have to take the nod from the tourism ministry before they begin commercial operations. These zones – like national parks, hill stations and coastal areas – will be defined in the new set of regulations. The ministry also plans to conduct surveys around other important national parks like Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh and Kanha.

Corbett National Park is becoming a party zone, posing a hazard to the environment. Besides indulging in activities like parties and rain dances, resorts keep bright lights on throughout the night.

Turning a blind eye to environment friendly practices, 31% of the properties dump their waste outside while 26% burn it. About 94% of the properties are fenced or walled. This has resulted in two animal corridors connecting Corbett with Rajaji national park being blocked. The fencing aside, vehicles and encroachment by villagers displaced by the New

Tehri dam have also contributed to choking the corridors that are a lifeline for the animals.

Another worrying point is the fact that of the 77 vehicles plying within the tiger reserve, 26 run on diesel. Among steps being taken to check this disturbing trend, officials said resorts and hotels in fragile ecological zones will now have to take the nod from the tourism ministry before they begin commercial operations. These zones — like national parks, hill stations and coastal areas — will be defined in the new set of regulations.

From TOI

Chennai: Guindy park woos fewer migratory birds

CHENNAI: The northeast monsoon last year did bring above average rainfall in the city and the storage reservoirs have enough water to tide over the summer, according to authorities. However, denizens of the Guindy National Park, the country’s only such facility within a city, may not be as lucky as Chennaiites. The park has water to last only six months.

This is due to the late arrival of the monsoon and availability of less water in the Appalankulam tank in the reserve area, say park authorities. The tank serves as a favourite spot for nearly 132 species of migratory birds. So far during the migratory season (October to December), the park, spread over an area of 2.82 sqkm and having five natural ponds, has attracted fewer than the usual number of birds.

“Although there is minimum water in the Appalankulam pond, we are still hopeful of more birds coming,” says G Kamaraj, biologist at the park. The annual rainfall the park receives is not adequate for migratory birds to stay for a long period, he points out, adding: “Winged visitors from far-off places drop in here for short stays, on their way to Vedanthangal and other nearby sanctuaries that are bigger. During the season, they look for algae formations in the Appalankulam pond as a sign of welcome, and stop over for a while to feed on the fish. The open billed stork, rare painted stork, night heron, pond heron, little egret, dab chick, common teal, whistling teal, gargany and pink-tail duck are some of the regular visitors here.”

After park authorities deepened water channels, four tanks are now brimming with water, enough to take care of the park’s water needs for the next six months. However, the Appalankulam tank, located at one end of the park, depends on surplus water from the other four tanks. The National Park has more than 350 species of plants and 14 species of mammals, including the black buck, spotted deer, jackal, small Indian civet, bonnet macaque, black-napped hare, hedgehog and Indian pangolin. The park attracts an average of 3,000 visitors daily.

From TOI

Eco-Tourism: Karnataka a Tourist Paradise

Both nature and human efforts have combined to make Karnataka a Tourist Paradise. Its long sea shore has silvery beaches. The tall Western Ghats have lush green forests full of varied fauna, flora and a number of east and west flowing rivers emanating from the Ghats, enrich the soil of the land and contribute to State’s agricultural prosperity. The rivers create many water falls which are a feast to the eyes of the on lookers. The plain area is renowned for its beautiful river banks and projecting wonderful stony hills looking like rock parks that are natural creations. The hilly tracks have many Wildlife sanctuaries. The Gangas, Kadambas, Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Hoysalas, Vijayanagara

Rulers, Bahamanis of Gulbarga and Bidar, Adilshahis of Bijapur, Wodeyars of Mysore, Nayaks of Chitradurga and the Keladi rulers have raised wonderful forts, beautiful temples with impressive plastic art in stone and magnificent mosques and mausoleums of Indo-Saracenic style. The advent of the Portuguese and the English introduced European Renaissance architecture imitation of both gothic and Indo-European styles. They built imposing churches and captivating public as well as private buildings in Karnataka. The National Parks, the Animal and Bird Sanctuaries can provide the tourist the sight of wild animals like elephants, tigers, bisons, deers, blackbucks, peacocks and a variety of animals in their natural habitat. The National Parks also acquaint the visitor with a rich variety of flora like tall trees, bushy plants and creepers that try to entwine him. Karnataka is known for its aromatic sandal wood and broad beautiful trees of pipal and banyan with their hospitable  road shade. If one is spiritually inclined, there are living seers, whether Hindu, Christian or Muslim who can provide one with spiritual solace. There are also tombs of great religious leaders of Hindu,  Muslim, Christian, Jaina or Veerashaiva. In the precincts of these tombs even today people seek spiritual solace.

Karnataka is blessed with many waterfalls and the tallest water fall in India is at Jog (Shimoga District) where the river Sharavati jumps from a height of 293 mts. into four cascades of everlasting beauty. Presently the falls will be active with full zoom only during one month following the rainy season (July- October).The Cauvery at Shivasamudra falls (in Mandya district) has twin jumps,

For More Information – Bangalore Orbit