Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Privately owned sanctuaries in Karnataka have emerged as an alternative model for forest conservation in the Western Ghats

IIPM Mumbai Campus

They are men on a remarkable mission. What they do for a living individually is none too unusual. G.N. Ashokavardhana owns a small book shop and Krishnamohan Prabhu is a surgeon. But together, they represent a whole new movement. The duo takes care of a private forest reserve in the Western Ghats. Importantly, they neither receive nor expect any help from the government.

Having jointly bought 15 acres of land in the Bisle reserve forest, Ashokavardhana, owner of Athree Book Centre in Mangalore, and Dr Prabhu have set out to preserve the biodiversity of the area. Bisle, located near Kukke Subrahmanya, a small hamlet in the Western Ghats, has one of India's densest rain forests. The ecology here is extremely fragile and under constant threat from city dwellers who frequent the many resorts that dot the reserve forest today.

It isn't as if Ashokavardhana and Dr Prabhu are sitting on pots of money. What drives them is grit and commitment to the cause of environmental conservation. They decided to pool their resources together as neither could have taken the onus of running a private sanctuary single-handedly. “We learned about a scenic stretch near Bisle reserve forest, which was being eyed by a party that wanted to set up a resort. We decided that something needed to be done to protect the sanctity of the forest. Hence this joint venture,” says Dr Prabhu.

The duo has left the land exactly the way it was when they bought it. “We may now be legal owners of this glorious patch, but we would like it to remain a natural forest,” he says. So no barricades have been put up around the land nor has the stretch been altered in any other manner.

Says Ashokavardhana: “Preserving this sacred forest in the face of indiscriminate commercial activity is the need of the hour. Nature lovers can visit the forest on foot and enjoy the wilderness on their own. Who needs a resort in the middle of the forest to attract travellers? If you want to drink and dance, you can opt for any commercial outlet in the city. Leave the forest alone.”
While Ashokavardhana owns nine acres of private forest land in Bisle Ghat, Dr Prabhu has the remaining six acres.

They aren't the only ones in this domain. Another private reserve forest, the much bigger SAI Sanctuary, is located in the heart of the watershed area for the entire peninsula and UN-designated biodiversity hotspot.

From the initial purchase of just 55 acres of private forested land in 1991, the sanctuary has grown to more than 300 acres. Its positive influence is being seen and felt in the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that border Brahmagiri, Nagarhole and Bandipur.

Uttar Pradesh-based Anil Kumar Malhotra, founder-president of SAI Sanctuary Trust (SST) bought 55 acres of private land when he decided to move to Coorg 18 years ago. But he did not alter the land for plantation or any other purpose. Instead, he just enriched it further by adding acreage as time went by. He wanted this land to be just the way nature meant it to be. As a result, the 300 acres of private land is richer in terms biodiversity than the surrounding government sanctuaries like Nagarhole and Bandipur.
Many naturalists and scientists have over the years done research within its grounds. Today the sanctuary has a rich variety of flora, including hundreds of different indigenous trees and plants – many with medicinal value – as well as numerous rare and threatened species of animals. The sanctuary is home to river otters, civet cats, giant Malabar squirrels, lesser loris, various types of deer, monkeys, and snakes (including the Indian King Cobra), dhole (Indian wild dog), foxes, jackals, leopards, the Asian elephant, and the Royal Bengal Tiger. The forest canopy is frequented by over 300 different kinds of birds, including the one that is on SST’s logo – the paradise flycatcher. Many of these species of both flora and fauna are found nowhere else on the planet.

SST is a registered nonprofit organisation originally formed to run the sanctuary. From different countries and cultures and from various walks of life, the trustees and advisors of SST include businessmen and educators, writers and speakers, veterinarians and naturalists, scientists and environmentalists. Protection of forests and their wildlife is the link that has drawn these trustees together. “We have kept our land as pure as it was earlier. Many scientists and like-minded people who come here for research and other reasons take great pleasure in discovering the rare flora and fauna, ” says Kashi, manager of Sai Sanctuary.

Government-owned forest land has been overrun in recent years by commercial establishments out to profit from the wanderlust of tourists. As part of this kind of tourism promotion, sprawling resorts and guest houses have come up in the forests, endangering their flora and fauna. Ashokavardhana alludes to the popular Bhagavathi Nature Camp, a resort run by the forest department near Kudremukh town. “It started as a small camp but as its fame grew the place has turned into a source of great disturbance in the once-peaceful forest,” he says.

Men like Ashokavardhana and Dr Prabhu are determined to make a difference. But how do they manage to maintain their little private sanctuary in the absence of monetary gains? The answer is simple. They say: “Preserving forests and wildlife requires no cost. Just leave the natural forests as they are and do nothing. Why do we need money?”

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