Valmiki Tiger Reserve spreads across 880 sq km in West Champaran district of the northern Indian state of Bihar, along the Indo-Nepal border, contiguous with Chitwan National Park and Parsa Wildlife Reserve in Nepal.
Despite being one of the 11 Level-1 Tiger Conservation Units (TCU) identified in the Indian sub-continent, Valmiki was largely neglected by authorities and heavily exploited by local people. This not only threatened the tigers in Valmiki, but also posed a grave threat to the tiger population of the entire landscape unit.
Although Valmiki was declared India’s 18th Tiger Reserve in 1994, there was a lack of scientific data on habitat, population and distribution of the tiger and its prey, which was also one of the main hurdles to effective management of the reserve.
The situation was aggravated by the intense biotic pressure from about 140 villages located just within a few kilometres of the reserve boundary. Disturbances from a cluster of 22 villages in the Done valley, a precarious incursion into the core of Valmiki, specifically, necessitated urgent remedial actions.
Done Valley (circled), a cluster of 22 villages situated in an incursion into the core area (shaded pink) of Valmiki Tiger Reserve
Additionally, Valmiki was also vulnerable to threats from poachers and illegal wildlife traders, who capitalised on the porous Indo-Nepal border and general low enforcement in the area.
Ten years and counting
In 2003, WTI in collaboration with Bihar Forest Department initiated the Valmiki Conservation Project with the support of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. The project aimed to revive interest in conservation of Valmiki and to facilitate recovery of the area as a viable tiger habitat.
A study was conducted by the project to generate the first ever baseline information on biotic disturbance, habitat, distribution, relative abundance of prey species and distribution of large predator species in general and tiger in particular, in Valmiki.
Villagers in the Done Valley gather to learn about husk stove operation. WTI with the support of USFWS has introduced husk stoves as a potential alternative to firewood for cooking, in the Done Valley.
The study indicated that Valmiki had diverse prey species, but indiscriminate hunting for generations and deterioration in habitat had taken a toll on their populations. A tiger distribution map was also prepared on the basis of sightings, photo-captures and indirect signs recorded in different parts of the reserve.
Likewise, a socio-economic survey was conducted in a total of 107 villages situated within 4 km of the park boundary. It revealed that about 74% of the villagers depend on forest for fuel wood, bamboo and small timber. While agriculture was the main source of livelihood, about 95% of the villagers reared cattle, with about 40% of them dependent on the forest for grazing and fodder. The survey also revealed lack of awareness regarding the conservation value of the reserve; about 90% considered forest as a source for firewood, fodder and housing material.
The outcome of the study stressed the need for urgent interventions to salvage Valmiki’s status as a tiger habitat. It was also observed that density estimation of tigers as well as their prey would be necessary for implementation of effective wildlife management measures. Regular monitoring would be needed to evaluate the progress of the interventions.
Currently Valmiki Conservation Project has three components:
The Tiger and Prey Monitoring component is now undertaking tiger population density estimation through photographic capture-recapture sampling method, generating abundance indices of principal prey based on dung/pellet count, and attempting calibration of pellet-based abundance indices with line transect based density estimates of prey species. Analysis of tiger scats is also being done to determine composition of prey species in tiger diet.
‘Community-based Conservation in Done Valley’ is the second component; it aims to bring about eco-development and conservation awareness in nearby villages to minimise human disturbances in Valmiki. For initiation, a total of eight villages (Naurangia, Gardi, Piparahawa Tola, Khairahni, Matiarawa Tola, Simrahani Tola, Kamarchinwa and Majuraha) of the 22 in the Done valley were selected, based on their proximity to the core areas and their dependence on the forests. Surveys, Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRAs) and Focussed Group Discussions were conducted to understand resource availability, socio-economic conditions, conservation aspirations and awareness of the residents, problems faced by them and their perceived solution to these problem etc. The central theme of this component is to encourage and facilitate community participation in the process of tiger conservation and habitat protection.
Looking back over the decade
• Most recently, Valmiki was in the news because three new species had been identified through camera traps, which had not been recording in the reserve before. Another was photographed by WTI’s regional head in Bihar, Samir K Sinha.
• Along with the Bihar Forest Department and with the financial support of USFWS, WTI set up a long-term recovery plan for the tiger in this neglected and forgotten tiger reserve.
• The project helped demonstrate through science that tigers were still present in viable numbers.
• It helped stablishe - through legal processes - that the staff who protect species must also be looked after.
• The project Included people in the conservation process through community work. This has shown that there is hope in recovering even a highly beleaguered tiger habitat with ground level work.
• A community development fund has been established. A contribution of about 25% from the net profits that the villagers earn from businesses established with the help of WTI and USFWS will ensure sustainability of this fund.
• Have helped build confidence and some modules to ensure their economic upliftment and reduce their dependence on forests. Villagers have started supplementing alternative fuel like paddy husk with firewood.
• WTI has established husk stoves as a potential alternative to firewood. WTI tested the acceptance of husk-stoves by the people and, when proven successful, trained a villager for its local production for sustained availability of the device. Monitoring shows decline in firewood consumption in the beneficiary households. Active involvement of womenfolk in the firewood dependency reduction measures is also a good sign.