The BiligiriRangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (BRT) is located between 11–13´ N latitude and 77–78´ E longitude in the southeast corner of Chamarajanagara district in the state of Karnataka, India. The sanctuary is a confluence of the Western and Eastern Ghats, with a number of hills with an average elevation of about 1350 m. The annual rainfall is 1362 ± 159 mm.
Ramesh (1989) broadly categorized the vegetation into five forest types: 61.1% dry deciduous forest, 28.2% scrub jungle, 6.5% evergreen forest, 3.8% savanna, and 0.8% shola. The BRT is rich in biodiversity, with 776 species of higher plants, more than 36 mammals, excluding bats and rodents, 245 species of birds, and 145 species of butterflies. The area has significant populations of elephant, tiger, gaur, sambar deer, barking deer, mouse deer, and spotted deer.
The Soligas are an indigenous tribal community who live in the BRT. Approximately 6000 Soligas live in forest villages called podus (tribal settlements). Traditionally, the Soligas were hunters and shifting cultivators and collected a wide range of non-timber forest products (NTFP). When the BRT area was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1972, shifting cultivation and hunting were completely banned, and the Soligas were allocated small pieces of land to practice settled agriculture. The Soligas retained the sole right to NTFP extraction under the aegis of tribal cooperatives called Large-Scale Adivasi Multi-Purpose Societies (LAMPS). Extraction of NTFP is a major source of income for the Soligas.
Previous research has explored Soligas’ dependency on NTFP and the resulting consequences for sustainable resource use and conservation: ATREE studied the density and diversity of NTFPs, regeneration patterns, impact of harvest of NTFPs, and socio-economic issues concerning the Soligas’ use of NTFPs. Local communities were involved in the biodiversity conservation and non-timber forest products through participatory resource monitoring. ATREE, in collaboration with Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK), is also looking at alternative livelihoods such as agro forestry.
Invasive species have been recognised as a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Invasive species, such as Lantana camara, have been a focus of ATREE's research in BRT for more than a decade. Long-term monitoring of study plots in BRT provide important insights into the patterns of spread of lantana, pinpoint sites that are vulnerable to invasion by lantana, and examine how native biodiversity is affected by lantana invasion. Research to understand the processes that enhance lantana's invasive capabilities are also underway. Research on processes such as soil seed bank ecology, and lantana-frugivore interactions have vital management implications and could help us pin down the actual mechanisms of lantana success. Lastly, in partnership with the Karnataka Forest Department, ATREE researchers are examining native-species restoration options for regeneration in areas where lantana has been experimentally removed.
Ecotourism has emerged in recent years as a promising tool of conservation and development. ATREE is looking at its utilization and implementation as such a tool in the BRT wildlife sanctuary. The various stakeholders in this process include the forest department, which is promoting ecotourism as an alternative livelihood option to counter historic people-park conflicts, the Jungle Lodge Resorts, which is a government undertaking, tourism employees, the local community, the tourists and CBOs and NGOs. ATREE’s study scrutinizes the construction and perception of this phenomenon, the meaning and importance attached to it by these different stakeholders, and the corresponding benefits accruing to each.
ATREE mapped sacred natural sites in BRT wildlife sanctuary to understand the historical and cultural ecologies of the Soligas who have inhabited the landscape for centuries. The process, while documenting and archiving a vast resource of places and stories, also provided a critical understanding of the ways Soligas interacted with the landscape. ATREE used formal cartographic instruments such as GIS-enabled devices, to locate places and names that Soligas identified with in mainstream maps. ATREE has developed maps - Kannada, English - presenting the Soliga narrative in consultation with Soligas. These are available as posters for wider dissemination. This is the first effort by Soligas to re-engage with the landscape after their displacement and curtailment of rights since the establishment of the protected area. They perceive the map as a reassertion of their rights within the landscape. The RFRA recognizes such evidences and also provides space for asserting such rights.
The Conservation and Livelihoods programme’s focus on co-management finds resonance in the recently enacted RFRA 2006, offering policy space to strengthen community initiatives in governance, while also providing for secure tenure for tribals and traditional forest dwellers to stake claims over land they have cultivated since centuries.
After the enactment of the RFRA in December 2006, several workshops and meetings were organized in BR Hills to disseminate information on the Act among community leaders and members. Among the significant initial workshops include a workshop organized in collaboration with Soliga Abhivruddhi Sangha (SAS), Vivekananda Girijan Kalyan Kendra (VGKK) and Kalpavriksh towards disseminating the key features of the Act among members of the Soliga community. Subsequently ATREE, in collaboration with SAS, organized several workshops to develop capacities of Soligas towards claiming rights under the Act.
A multi-pronged strategy was adopted to reach as many hamlets/settlements and people as possible. Intermediate processes were clarified: the District Commissioner (DC) issued letters to Panchayat secretaries to convene gram sabha for the formation of the Forest Rights Committee (FRC). This was preceded by a day-long workshop on orienting panchayat secretaries and other concerned functionaries about the Act and its provisions. In this meeting, the chief executive officer of the Zilla Panchayat clearly mentioned that traditional/hamlet level gram sabha are to be considered for the formation of FRC, unlike the gram sabha of the Panchayats.
As part of evidence and rights to access places of cultural importance, the mapping of sacred sites, initiated with ATREE, was also seen as an important activity that would provide evidence about Soliga presence in the landscape, their access to, and protection of sites of cultural importance.
Clarifying stand on RFRA in protected areas, the Chief Secretary recently issued a clarification that the Act is to be implemented in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks also. At the District Level Committee meeting, the decision to grant community rights to Soligas in BRT has been agreed upon in principle. Surveys for individual claims on land are ongoing.
Conservation education in BRT has been a means of reaching larger audiences. One of its achievements has been establishing conservation priorities and sharing research findings on resource management with the community. Collaboration with a strong community-based organization like the VGKK (Vivekananda GirijanaKalyana Kendra) has helped in reaching the community better.
Networks with other organisations have been a strong point of the BRT conservation education effort. Kalpavriksh, in collaboration with ATREE and VGKK, prepared a teacher resource handbook and CD on conservation education, called 'Forests Alive'. The handbook represents participatory experiments and exercises carried out in BRT with the Soliga community. It can be easily adapted to different contexts too.
A mix of field training and exposure sessions, to preparing training manuals for dissemination of information, to using folk theatre and street play involving children to reach out to a larger audience base, organising 'jatha' on forest conservation with the involvement of Soliga elders, have moved the conservation education efforts forward.
Currently, ATREE is developing assessment modules to strengthen conservation education in the region.
Area limit for CE activity: Protected area, BRT Wildlife Sanctuary.