At 11 am on April 24th, a devastating attack by armed groups at Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, led to the loss of 12 armed park rangers and numerous other park staff. It was a significant setback for Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse national park, home to a quarter of the world’s endangered Mountain Gorillas.
While one might ascribe the attack to local factors in the DRC for the tragedy in Virunga, there is no denying that ever since the outbreak of COVID-19, the frontline of defense for endangered wildlife and sensitive ecosystems has been under siege.
Poaching of wildlife and the destruction of habitats have seen a sudden alarming spike globally, with elevated ranger mortality being a renewed harsh reality. Much has already been said of the wet markets of East Asia, yet they are symptomatic of a much bigger problem. It is the destruction of ecosystems that has brought us to this point, and we are repeatedly warned that unless we halt such wanton destruction, frequent outbreaks of zoonotic diseases are more likely to be the norm rather than the exception.
Six critically endangered Black Rhinos have been poached in the Okavango Delta in Botswana since March. Cambodia has seen the poaching of three critically endangered Giant Ibises for bushmeat in April. A pair of Jaguars, an Ocelot, and a Puma were also poached in the Colombian rainforest. The sudden spike in numbers is staggering and if this new wave of emboldened poaching is allowed to continue, it is liable to undo decades of milestones in the conservation of wildlife in a matter of months. With governments stretched thin and hard-pressed for resources during the pandemic, this is indeed a frightening prospect.
Wildlife and its protectors in India have also not been spared the axe and bullet. As recently as May 4, an unarmed 24 -year-old forest guard named Dipu Rana was murdered by poachers on the lookout to poach Nilgai antelope for bushmeat in the forests of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. After a year of no poaching in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, an Indian One-Horned Rhinoceros was gunned down and had its horn hacked off by poachers armed with assault rifles on May 10. There are also reports of poaching for bushmeat in the forests of Karnataka, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and other parts of India.
The histories of man and nature are interwoven seamlessly in Ranthambhore, earning it the distinction of being India's premier tiger reserve. Photo Credit: Abhinav Dhar
Even the crown jewel of tiger reserves in India, the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, has witnessed a sudden increase in incursions by poachers, woodcutters and other interlopers since March. Yet here, the stories ended very differently. There were anti-poaching raids, arrests, prosecutions, and the status quo was ensured. Business as usual, one might argue. This was possible thanks to a team of 50 vigilant pastoral village youth, who traverse the peripheries of the 1700 km2 Tiger Reserve, armed with nothing more than smartphones, motion sensing camera traps, and motorcycles. These are the Village Wildlife Volunteers.
A Village Wildlife Volunteer installing a motion sensing camera trap to detect tigers. Photo Credit: Tiger Watch
The Village Wildlife Volunteer Program commenced in 2013, under the stewardship of the NGO, Tiger Watch Ranthambhore, and the Rajasthan Forest Department with the explicit purpose of monitoring the Tigers roaming outside the protected areas in Ranthambhore. The program recruits pastoral villagers (mostly from the Gurjar community) on the peripheries of the Tiger Reserve, who are innately skilled trackers and only have to be given a brief technical instruction in the operation of motion sensing camera traps and GPS systems. The Village Wildlife Volunteers now monitor close to 50% of the Reserve’s Tigers. The program quickly grew to also include pre-emptive anti poaching and the mitigation of human wildlife conflict, setting new benchmarks for the protection of wildlife in India. It is perhaps the most successful public-private partnership in the field of wildlife conservation in India today.
Armed poachers camera trapped in the dead of the night on the peripheries of Ranthambhore on April 1st 2020. They were arrested on April 3rd. Photo Credit: Tiger Watch
At 1 am, on April 1, the Village Wildlife Volunteers motion sensing camera traps picked up two armed poachers from the Mogya traditional hunting tribe in a peripheral area of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. The Village Wildlife Volunteers were closely monitoring two Tigers in an ecologically sensitive area at the request of the Rajasthan Forest Department. By virtue of belonging to local communities, they were able to quickly identify the poachers, who were then arrested by the Rajasthan Forest Department on April 3. On April 27, the Volunteers provided critical intelligence that led to the confiscation of an illegal firearm in an anti-poaching raid on the peripheries of the Tiger Reserve. They have also been monitoring two Ranthambhore origin Tigers in the neighboring district of Dholpur and training the local forest staff there to track Tigers safely since February. Clearly, the pandemic has not slowed the Village Wildlife Volunteers in their protection efforts.
According to Dr. Dharmendra Khandal, Conservation Biologist at Tiger Watch Ranthambhore, “Such an intervention is not slowed by the pandemic because despite being an empowered essential service, it is local community led and not diverted in the manner of a government agency”.
While government agencies might be overwhelmed or redirected during a crisis like COVID-19, a state empowered but local community-led conservation intervention is able to carry on unhindered. Therefore, it provides an unshakable line of defense to a fragile ecosystem full of endangered species, all the while providing government agencies the flexibility to be redirected for COVID -19 relief efforts if need be. The very purpose of the Village Wildlife Volunteer Program is to be able to address issues and operate in areas the Forest Department cannot do so directly.
The pandemic has proven the program to be robust in the face of an unprecedented crisis plaguing India’s wildlife. A new model for the protection of wildlife and habitats is worthy of consideration not only in other wild landscapes in India, but across the world, now more than ever before.
(Ishan Dhar graduated from the George Washington University with a Bachelors in Political Science in 2015 and has participated in Tiger Watch's conservation interventions since 2014. He has also co-authored the titles Wildlife Warriors and Jhalana: Leopard Forest in the Pink City).