Using art to save Central India’s natural wealth
Communities and conservation in Central India
The large contiguous forests of Central India have many forest dwelling communities in them, like the Baighas and Gonds, among whom hunting was a common practice. The latter, in particular, ruled an area known as Gondwana. In the northern part of the landscape are the Pardhis who are known since time immemorial for their hunting skills.
The habitat for tigers in the region has shrunk since India’s Independence from the British in 1947. Wildlife that would roam in the wilderness around towns and villages are today seen only in far away forests, that too within the confines of Protected Areas. Tiger occupancy in the forests north of River Narmada in Madhya Pradesh has declined between 2008 and 2010.1 Habitat destruction due to increased population and the resultant expansion of farming into forest areas as well as development activities like mining, road building have contributed to this downward trend.
After the Wildlife Protection Act was enacted in 1972, there have been many efforts by the Government and non-government agencies to control wildlife hunting. But given the background of the communities in the area, forest laws alone will not help in arresting the decline of wildlife. People, particularly the younger generation, need to be encouraged to involve themselves in conserving wildlife.
WWF-India’s involvement with communities in Central India
WWF-India has been involved in the region through its Satpura Maikal Landscape (SML) program since the 1990s. Apart from the support being given to various Protected Areas of the landscape, WWF-India is helping build conservation awareness among key local stakeholders to address conservation threats and is promoting alternative livelihoods for local communities to reduce pressure on forest resources. There are various forms that have been adopted to further these objectives.
Puppetry is one of the earliest forms of entertainment around the world and India is no stranger to it either. People of India have been exposed to puppetry through performances of the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha as well as its use by the different agencies to spread the message of sanitation, prevention of communicable diseases etc. Puppets are also considered good educational tools in schools around the world, which can leave a lasting impact on the younger audience. Keeping this in mind, WWF-India has been using puppetry as one of the tools to educate communities to work for conservation in its Satpuda Maikal
Involving an expert who has experience working with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the field staff from Mandla office of SML trained a group of Baigha tribals to conduct Puppet theatre, in February, 2011. After practicing at village level, in March 2011 they held a show for the staff of the Forest Department at a programme at Karanjiya, in the Dindori Forest Division. This was to educate them on the dangers of forest fire. Encouraged by the response from their audiences, the puppetry group has prepared its own scripts on the issues of wildlife conservation and environmental problems, which it is using to perform in other villages.
According to Manohar, a member of the village Mainjutola, “We have lived harmoniously with nature for ages. Since WWF-India has given us an opportunity to be trained in puppetry we can communicate our cultural harmony to the rest of the world. Also, this will give us some lime light in the region.”
Says Dol Singh of Tarraa Tola village, near Kharidih “After learning the art, we performed a show at the Niek Centre, during Earth Hour 2011. This has helped us canvas our programme in other parts of the region.”
Says Sunny Shah, Sr. Programme Officer, WWF-India, SML “Amarkantak town sees its biggest mela (religious gathering) during the Hindu festival of Shivarathri. We facilitated this puppetry group to be hired by the local administration on an honorarium basis. The response to the show was very encouraging and now they do at least one show a month.”
According to Dr. Chittaranjan Dave, Landscape Coordinator, SML “The event at Amarkantak was covered by local and regional media. I believe this unique way of creating mass awareness for and by tribal community initiated by WWF-India in 2011 will have elevated effect on our conservation mission in the coming years.”
1 Y.V.Jhala, Q.Qureshi, R.Gopal, and P.R.Sinha (Eds.) (2011). Status of the Tigers, Co-predators, and Prey in India, 2010. National Tiger Conservation Authority, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. TR 2011/003 pp-302