In India eco-tourism activities are heavily inclined on tiger reserves, therefore conservation efforts are also more visible, effective and state sponsored as far as tiger reserves are concerned. But for non-tiger range forests, its the community based conservation which upholds and promotes eco-tourism.
When I was planning my grasslands exploration, my idea was to experience the conservation and eco-tourism scenario related to other endangered and vulnerable species of India, whereas otherwise the ecotourism in this subcontinent is typically “tiger centric”. But what I didn’t know was that the grassland is a neglected ecosystem in spite of being habitat of around 56 different species notified in different Schedules of Wildlife Protection Act of India, including some of the most threatened species like black buck, great Indian bustard, lesser florican, Indian rhinoceros, snow leopard, Nilgiri thar, wild buffalo etc.
These species are distributed in various grasslands and deserts of India – dry grasslands and hot deserts of North and Western India; cold deserts of Western and Eastern Himalayas; tropical short grass plains of Western, Central India and Deccan; wet grasslands of Terai and North East India; and shola grasslands of Western Ghats.
Most astonishing fact, I came across was that as per the Report of Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts, published by Government of India in 2006, around 50% of the fodder for the livestock in India, home of more than 500 million livestock, comes from grasslands. These grasslands, habitats of endangered and vulnerable wild life, are major grazing areas and sources of rural economy of this nation.
One such ecologically significant and classic case of community based conservation is Tal Chhapar. Amidst the fiasco of bird-flu, when birds in rural and urban settlements were dropping dead, I landed in pink city Jaipur on 29th January, 2021. Destination was Tal Chhapar, a supposedly classic case of “community based conservation”. As per the environmental portal of Rajasthan Government, nearly 50% of wildlife species in this state are found outside the traditional protected area network. The communities have volunteered to conserve wild life and its habitat in these areas.
In a four and half hours safari on my first day in sanctuary, I saw hundreds of black buck male, female and calves; plenty of nil gai (blue bull) and some amazing winter migratory and indigenous birds of grassland ecosystems. Isabelline wheatear, southern grey shrike, sand grouse, greater short toed lark, lesser grebe, grey and black francolin, flocks of common crane and a very rare migratory bird Stolikza’s bush chat were some of the mention worthy avian species, I spotted with the help of experienced nature guide Anand Prasad. The Stoliczka’s bushchat, also known as white-browed bush chat, is an old World flycatcher in the genus Saxicola. The alternative name is after the discoverer, geologist and explorer Ferdinand Stoliczka. This desert specialist has a small, declining population because of agricultural intensification and encroachment, which qualifies it as vulnerable. A direct victim of anthropocentric ecological conservation.
Presence of vulture population in this sanctuary also delighted me a lot, as first time I saw much talked about cinereous vulture. This bird also sometimes called the black vulture (Aegypius monachus) or monk vulture is one of the largest flying birds and one of the iconic subjects of wildlife photography in this ecosystem, along with other two most commonly found species griffon and Egyptian vultures. Many scientists consider cinereous vulture to be the largest vulture and the largest bird of prey.
Next day at very early morning at 5:00 o’clock we started our journey towards another popular wildlife photography destination created through community based conservation approach and related with legacy of Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner. The idea was to reach Jorbeer vulture conservation reserve of Bikaner, 150 km away from our guest house, before sun rise. The usual time of sunrise here during winter is 7:00 AM.
In Jorbeer vulture sanctuary, Rachel Carson’s deep ecological perspective was resonated in every moment of my stay over there. She fought against usage of DDT and its effect on ecology whereas the conservation reserve in Jorbeer was established to protect vulture population from extinction due to deadly effect of diclofenac. These raptor birds play an important role in the ecosystem by feeding on decaying flesh of dead animals. Egyptian and cinereous vultures are two species found in Jorbeer, which are endangered and near threatened respectively (as per IUCN status) and feeding on carcass of livestock ingested with diclofenac (painkiller drug) is the reason behind that. Impressively, Saravan was well informed about that and during my day long roaming with him, he highlighted that significance of this reserve several times.
Despite of being identified as “neglected ecosystems” of this subcontinent in the Report of Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts, the Tal Chhapar wildlife sanctuary of dry grasslands ecosystems of Rajasthan has done phenomenally well as per as biodiversity conservation is concerned and community participation is undoubtedly one of the key reasons behind that.