Conservation initiatives, particular in remoter areas, rely heavily on local community engagement if they are to be successful.
The Western Himalayas provide a mix of habitats for a diverse range of breeding birds. Many of these habitats are under threat due to increasing human population which brings with it pressures such as development projects (e.g. hydro-electric power projects), road building and land use change. In order to develop sustainably, we must find ways to protect and conserve habitats without impeding economic growth.
The Sainj Valley is remotely situated in Kullu District of Himachal Pradesh, India. A large part of the Sainj Valley falls within the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area (GHNPCA) which has recently been given the prestigious tag of UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognising the importance of the region for its biodiversity. However, the Parvati Hydro Power Project is under construction within the Sainj Valley (one of three in the Kullu District) which has has affected the habitats of many Himalayan bird species in the area (V. Jolli in litt 2014).
In an attempt to educate rural communities regarding the rich biological diversity of their region, a project was launched with the support of The Rufford Foundation (UK). The project aims to establish a community based monitoring network in the Sainj Valley. This includes engaging local school students in activities that include bird counting and vegetation sampling along with the distribution of education awareness material.
Students were selected from different Government Schools in the Sainj Valley. In the winter, students were given pre-training in bird identification, bird counting and vegetation sampling. Later, in spring, students were asked to count and identify birds independently. The bird counting was conducted in Sainj, Raila, Sharan, Shansher, Shanghar, Deohri and Kanon villages in lying within the Sainj Valley. In total 22 students participated with great interest and have been enthusiastic. They have now started observing birds in their backyards. It appears that the project has been successful as students are now appreciating the rich biological diversity of their region.
To educate local rural communities we had a stand at the Sainj Fair. This is a famous four-day fair held in May each year to which people from adjoining villages bring their deities for worship. During the four days we were overwhelmed by the positive response of local Sainj people who were very willing to discuss issues such as hunting, their rights for collection of non-forest and timber produce, etc. with us.
To further promote, encourage and engage local youth in nature conservation activities, we organized a program on World Environment Day on 5 June 2014 in the Great Himalayan National Park Community Complex in Ropa. We invited village pradhans (village heads) and their representatives along with social activists and community leaders. The program was headed by Great Himalayan National Park, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Shri G S Chandel, who delivered a lecture on ‘Current and future challenges for the Great Himalayan National Park biodiversity conservation-. After the lecture he interacted with local people and listened to their problems. He urged them to cooperate with GHNP in protecting the forest and its wildlife.
We acknowledged the participation of school students and awarded them certificates during the program. One of the students, Meena Thakur of Govt Sen Sec School, Sainj shared her experience with the audience. She said that ‘. . . since the beginning of this project, we have got to know many new facts and information about our birds and environment. Before this project we were only familiar with crows, sparrows and pigeons and even if we knew or had seen the birds we only knew its common name. But under the guidance of Dr Virat we were able to identify more than 25 bird species of our backyard. It was totally a new experience for us-. Students like Meena now wish to learn more about the environment and want to work for the protection of the GHNP. Though it is a small-scale project, we have demonstrated that by engaging local communities (especially the youth) in biodiversity conservation will ensure long term benefits to society. The participation of local people in the project will open new opportunities for employment in eco-tourism and will also aid GHNP in monitoring of birds in the region.
It is wisely said that no conservation work can be successful without the participation of local people. Therefore in upcoming years we will expand the project to other parts of Western Himalayas affected by hydro-electric projects.
Virat Jolli Impacts of Pravati hydro-electric project development on the critical habitats of montane birds of Western Himalaya. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of Delhi, 2014.
Images: Verditer Flycatcher Eumyias thalassina © Virat Jolli
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