Published: 18th December 2020
How this 30-year-old from Chhattisgarh ensures that no animal, tiger or deer, loses its life to a snare trap
To this effect, M Suraj has won the Conservation Hero Grant of Rs 10,00,000 from The Habitats Trust so that he can continue his anti-snare walks and involve and more and more people. Read his story
The haunts of wildlife, those areas in the forest where they used to dwell freely, are now laid with traps. These snares are waiting to entrap them all — from lowly and meek rats to the high and mighty tigers. In one such entrapment at the Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve, Chhattisgarh, the tiger Bhushan was caught and met his death.
M Suraj mourned the death of this beast who he had been tracking since 2018. "Not just me, the whole team was attached to this particular tiger," he says. But the 30-year-old did not just grieve, he decided to ensure that no other animal would suffer the fate of Bhushan. Thus, he conducted anti-snare walks as a pilot programme last year. In January 2021, with the help of The Habitats Trust, an organisation to support such conservation efforts, and the grant programme they run, he will be able to launch anti-snare walks again.
This engineer-turned snake rescuer-turned-conservationist would have never imagined this is where his destiny will lead him. After pursuing his Bachelor's in Mechanical Engineering from Chhattisgarh Swami Vivekanand Technical University, his journey towards conservation started with snake rescuing in his own city of Durg. The youngster's fame spread from his city to his district and to other districts as well. "That's when one of the DFOs (Divisional Forest Officer) asked me, 'Do you want to rescue snakes all your life or would you like to do something else too?'," shares the youngster, laughing. Hence, in 2016 he was involved in the estimation of tiger population in various areas across Chhattisgarh.
Suraj | (Pic: M Suraj)
Four years ago, the tiger count in the state was 46, while last year it fell to 19. "If you Google Chhattisgarh, there is every chance that you will encounter the word Naxal too. It is true that there are areas in the state which suffer from political unrest because of which law enforcement becomes a task. This lays a fertile ground for hunting and poaching," rues Suraj. Another reason for the dwindling tiger population is the dwindling population of its prey base itself, the herbivores the tiger eats. This coupled with Bhushan's death encouraged the youngster to walk the path of conservation.
Walk the talk
In the hope of initiating a serious intervention and nudged on by grants from Wildlife Trust of India and David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Suraj initiated a six-month pilot anti-snare walk in two critical zones and one buffer zone of Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve with the help of 14 villages. They even built a ten-member informer network who continue to help them with human-elephant conflict mitigation till date. They identified 300 snare site locations and confiscated snares deployed for spotted deer, wild pig, sambar deer and rats. Even a few mouth bombs were removed. Clearly, the pilot was a success.
Therefore, now Suraj wants to enlist the help of the forest department officers so that they can be trained and carry out anti-snare walks across 22 ranges of the national park. "The traps are deployed between dusk to dawn. Hence, we want to work with the forest department who will, once a week at random, walk around their beat and search for snares. Slowly, the locals will be involved as well. The idea is to use the primitive knowledge of the locals and the work culture of the forest department to remove as many snares as we can," he shares.
Suraj with officers | (Pic: M Suraj)
Involving the local community in the project is a battle they continue to wage. Suraj gives the example of the Kamar tribe, one of the 75 primitive tribes in India. "Their knowledge of the jungle is at another level. Yet, if you suddenly ask these tribes to not hunt, they grow furious as they have been hunting for a long time now. So we need to sit with them and really understand their problems. Sometimes, in a state like ours where livelihood options are very few, we have anecdotal information to prove that the demand for meat of endangered animals is coming from the cities. So maybe there is a demand-supply issue. One needs to understand all these aspects," he points out. "No doubt they are stakeholders, but our forest and wildlife numbers are not what they used to be hence, they must understand that hunting is no longer an option. They are not in the wrong, but things need to change," he asserts.
Suraj was chosen by The Habitats Trust from around 4,300 applications for the Conservation Hero Grant of Rs 10,00,000. The youngster is grateful and is positive that it will help him go a long way.