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How WTI-ONGC’s Skill Development Training for Nature Guides in Sultanpur Can Help Save Wetlands in Delhi
Sultanpur National Park, February 2, 2017: Today is World Wetlands Day, established as such in 1997 to mark the adoption of the intergovernmental Convention on Wetlands on February 2, 1971. It is a day to raise awareness about the value of wetlands, which provide vital ecological services such as groundwater recharge, water purification, moderation of flood and drought conditions, and preservation of biodiversity.

The WTI team with the trainee nature guides during the monitoring assessment conducted last month

India’s wetlands support a spectacular variety of avifauna – which play an important role as scavengers, pollinators and a natural means of pest control, and are indicators of the water health of a region – yet they are among the most undervalued, neglected, ill-managed and endangered of our ecosystems. Unplanned land use in particular has resulted in the widespread shrinking and fragmentation of wetland ecosystems across the country.

Take Delhi for instance: according to the Delhi Parks and Garden Society there are 1012 water bodies in the national capital, of which 107 are not even traceable, 82 are fully encroached, 70 are partially encroached, 39 have illegal constructions on their area and 78 have legal constructions. In a nutshell, 306 water bodies, 30% of the total, are completely lost while 7% are partially lost. Apart from this, several water bodies have been converted either into sewage dumps, solid waste dumps or are filled with industrial effluents.

With an overflowing population and a decreasing number of viable wetlands in and around the national capital, groundwater levels have seen an alarming decline in recent years. Yet ecologists still believe that if properly managed, Delhi’s remaining water bodies could significantly mitigate the water scarcity in the region.

Located just 50km from Delhi, Sultanpur National Park is situated in a predominantly agricultural landscape crisscrossed by irrigation canals. The national park is known for low lying marshes and forest patches, and as a wetland, has a rich avian diversity including globally threatened species such as the painted stork, black-necked stork, black-headed ibis and woolly-necked stork. In winter the park plays host to over a hundred migratory species including the bar headed goose, grey lag goose, yellow wagtail, wood sandpiper and eurasian wigeon.

(clockwise from top left) A Eurasian hoopoe, an oriental magpie robin and a grey heron at Sultanpur National Park

Sultanpur NP attracts a massive number of visitors from the National Capital Region, especially during the winter months. Such tourism benefits the park itself of course, as well as local communities that provide tourism-related services. Crucially, it also has the capacity to benefit wetland ecosystems in areas from which tourists arrive, by generating an awareness of the beauty and natural value of such ecosystems.

The various State Forest Departments appoint nature guides and naturalists to accompany tourists into national parks and sanctuaries, their role being not just to spot and identify local wildlife but also to educate the tourists in aspects of wildlife conservation and management. A majority of these guides/naturalists are from communities located around the Protected Areas; earning their livelihood in this manner makes fringe communities stakeholders in wildlife conservation.

With this perspective in mind, Wildlife Trust of India, in partnership with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) conducted a comprehensive skill development training programme in which nature guides from Sultanpur NP also participated. Organised in two phases in July and September last year, and followed up with a monitoring assessment last month, the training helped increase the guides’ overall knowledge of ecology (the behavioural study of wetland birds and the ecological attributes of wetlands), wildlife conservation and sustainable tourism. The overarching objective was to mould the trainees into qualified members of a guild of conservation guides, who would not only assist tourists but also serve as role models for other guides and could lead local communities in wildlife conservation.

Since the tourist demand for skilled naturalists / guides is higher, it is hoped that this training will help the guides generate more income, while spreading the wider message of nature conservation among visitors. Thus the nature guides of Sultanpur NP, by educating tourists from Delhi-NCR about the importance of wetland ecosystems, may help in some way to save the region’s water bodies. 
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