30 Apr Can a Private Nature Reserve Business Model be an Answer to Land and Wildlife Conservation in the Garwhal Himalayas?
Environmentalist and WWF India Programme Director, Sejal Worah, and her local team have spent the last two years attempting to revive a 400 acres area situated in the Garwhal Himalayas, in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand. From being a degraded and over grazed territory, within two years of conservation efforts the protected area has become a sanctuary for wildlife which hadn’t been reported for years, like the Himalayan black bear and Sambhar.
Woodstock School and Hanifl Centre have used “Flag Hill” for decades as a local learning resource, with our students as well as with visiting school and university groups. These groups have actively supported the conservation efforts of the area by pulling the invasive “black grass” weed. Last year Hanifl Centre made a contribution to support the set up of the reserve. Woodstock School and Hanifl Centre are members of JNR.
Two days before the official opening of Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, an original private conservation enterprise that promises both economic returns and nature protection, we talk with the Director of this unusual initiative, located only half a km from the Hanifl Centre.
What is the story behind what we know as “Flag Hill”, now JNR?
The idea here was to take this area, which we knew was very rich in flora and fauna, but was getting very quickly degraded. We thought we could create an alternative model in which we could bring together conservation and education, livelihoods of local people and substantial economic return so that the owners of this and surrounding areas felt it was worth it to conserve the land.
We knew that trying to combine these three objectives together would only be economically feasible if it had the support of the local community and we wanted to try and redefine the current tourism model of Mussoorie.
What is JNR and how is it different to other nature reserves in Uttarakhand, or even in India?
In India protected areas are generally owned by the government, JNR can claim to be “Uttarakhand´s First Private Nature Reserve”. The land where JNR stands is the private property of a Mumbai resident who has voluntarily given his land and partnered with the initiative to attempt a new sustainable business model which prioritizes land and wildlife conservation. Land owners in this areas usually end up selling it, as they will feel its being wasted, its not generating any income and its just getting degraded as there is no one looking after it.
The private ownership of JNR´s land is unusual and needs acknowledgement, as our bigger aim is to encourage private owners than own large areas of forest to look at conservation as an option when thinking about what to do with their land.
With such a diverse local community- what is JNR´s plan to involve the immediate local population?
JNR has created six jobs in the last two years. We have had short term and long- term employment opportunities; short-term appointments were related to land restoration work, like repairing trails or walls that had suffered throughout the years. In the medium term, we have employed three women from Jabarkhet,who work as our local guards, instead of hiring an external security agency.
We make sure that the people accessing these jobs are local villagers, we really want the people in the area to have the responsibility, after all, JNR is part of their community, its for them. We believe that once they start seeing that there are employment opportunities they will appreciate it even more.
We have also trained local boys to be Nature Guides. One of them, from the nearby village of Kulti, has become an excellent bird watcher and guide! He is now with us full time. We have someone else from Kanda, the village just over the ridge, who has been with us for over a year, and is responsible for the general maintenance of the place, such as filling the water holes and maintaining the trails.
The long-term plan is to create more livelihood opportunities, especially for women. We have some ideas about weed removal and further using it to produce “briquettes” which can be sold, maybe even some local food outlet to popularize local culture and food. Also long-term we want to involve the local villagers of Kulti and Kanda in an eco-tourism venture which includes homestays and campgrounds, in which people can spend the night in the villages and continue the hike the next day. Right now we are at an experimental stage, just getting started. But the vision is big, and I am sure we will get there.
We were privileged to see some stunning wildlife images from camera traps last November, during the Mussoorie Writers Symposium at the Hanifl Centre. Tell us about the animal and plant speciesthis project has brought back, and what will we be encountering at JNR.
When we got started, the first thing we did was to talk to the villagers, to try to control the forest use and the overgrazing by cows – probably the most difficult part. Some areas which were then very heavily disturbed are now protected.
We also created water holes to attract animals, and within a year we started seeing the wildlife coming back to the area. At the beginning of the project wildlife numbers were low and the few that were around were shy and scared, due to intense human activity. Now we are even seeing these animals in daylight!
Currently we are regularly spotting groups of Barking deer, of up to 3-4 (in the past we would spot them on their own, if we were lucky). We have also seen Himalayan goral coming all the way down to the meadow; we thought that they only lived on cliffs, but it was partly because of disturbance that they didn’t come down. Now they are feeling safer, so they are coming further down.
We have regular activity of leopards; we don’t quite know how many there are, but we definitely know that it is more than one.
The interesting thing is that there is no conflict with leopards, because there is so much prey that has also come back, that there is a good balance between all the animals and species.
It was definitely exciting to have the Himalayan black bears come back, for there hadn’t been reports of sightings in this area for a very long time. We also observed that they were staying for much longer periods, for example they arrived in October last year and only left this year in March – almost six full months of stay which show that they feel safe and that there is enough food. We stopped the lopping of the Oak trees so there were a lot of acorns this year, and also plenty of berries. It was just incredible to see before our eyes how nature works when you protect it.
Talking also of flora, the way flowers, plants, mushrooms have come back is just spectacular.
JNR is looking at attracting a regular and substantial amount of visitors to this now protected area. How is the JNR thinking to avoid jeopardizing all the progress made so far?
JNR is a pilot experiment in many ways. It could go either way, either we won´t get that many visitors because people think there is no point in paying for going into nature when nature is all around us in this area, or it could go the other extreme where its so successful that it will destroy itself. We are hoping for something in the middle, and essentially have true nature lovers who will appreciate the place, spend time in it and look after it.
Our business model is based on membership, more than walk-in guests. Through membership we can track down more accurately the numbers and uses of the reserve, and keep control over it. Membership will be attractive both to those who are already nature lovers, as well as those who are looking for an opportunity to engage with nature and learn more about it. We are very conscious that if we start getting large numbers of people flora and fauna will both suffer and everything we have worked for so far will be destroyed.
This is why the role of our guides is key – they are responsible for guiding people and sharing knowledge, but also very importantly of supervising the human activity inside the reserve and to ensure environmentally friendly behavior.
Who can become a member and what is the process to become one?
Membership is open to anyone, whether you are from Mussoorie, Dehradun or even Delhi. Membership is also a way to show your support symbolically- a lot of people believe in this model of land and wildlife conservation and they want to actively support and be part of this effort.
Dehradun and Mussoorie have several of educational institutions, from nurseries to Universities; There are bird watching groups in Dehradun, wildlife photographers, individuals and groups that are genuinely interested in nearby wildlife sanctuaries. We are also targeting few selected local hotels to bring their guests to JNR for daytrips. Though it is not our main value proposition, one day entries will also be available through our website, which will include a Nature Guide and maps.
Sejal you have been working on this project for the past two years, in your scarce free time during weekends. It has been a lot of effort and slow developments. What has been your most rewarding moment or sighting?
There has been many, of course.
Woodstock School people have been coming to this area for many years; About a year ago, a Woodstock School staff member came to me and said: “Ive been coming here for a long time but only now the place feels like its finally being cared for.” There is a completely different feel about nature when its being conserved and taken care of.
I can see all of our ideas and visions coming together in this one project, and what we hope is that with time we can also involve the government, local institutions, etc… so conserve a much larger area. Right now we have 100 acres, it’s a small reserve. The idea is that this model will trigger nearby land owners to understand that land conservation is important and that they have a responsibility to look after their land.
Jabarkhet Nature Reserve will officially open to the public on the 2nd May 2015.
More details are available on the website www.jabarkhetnature.com
“We have facilitated IB and CAS programs at JNR, its an ideal spot for both enrichment and academic programs, i.e.: graded labs. In the long term, this reserve will be crucial in supporting the nearby villages- it will be the only watershed in Mussoorie. If you maintain a forest, the availability of water will be abundant and the fertility of the soil for farming will be preserved.” -Sindhu Clark, Biodiversity & Conservation Educator (Hanifl Centre)