For someone like me, who thinks bitterly of humans, going about conservation through the medium of people was a repulsive idea. But then, Madhu Ramnath’s talk about ‘his people’ in Bastar turned me into a new person and as fate would have it, I got a chance to work with a community myself!
A friend, Jayashree, contacted me to conduct a nature trail for the tribal kids of villages around Jawhar. It is one of the few remaining tribal communities of Maharashtra and well-known for the lively ‘Warli Art’. An NGO named ‘Vayam’ works with the people there, organizing various activities for their welfare. I immediately agreed and for the next few days, I regularly came up with queries, such as what the people are like, what would they expect from me, how many kids would come, etc. having absolutely no clue about how to prepare for this trail, I resorted to reading about the native flora, leaving the fauna to a friend who accompanied me on this venture and set out for Jawhar.
To my surprise and disappointment, the town is semi-urban but retains the rural flavour in the form of a bustling bus station, scarce ‘pickups’ (private vans) and a different dialect of Marathi. After the formalities of meeting the workers of Vayam, we hired a pickup and travelled, losing track of time, to ‘Pimpurna’, our first destination. We were so excited and nervous about meeting the kids that we forgot to wait for the boy who was supposed to be our guide. The poor chap had to run to catch up with us while I tried talking to the shy ladies, completing their chores in their courtyards, struggling to tell them who I was and who I was looking for!
One thing that absolutely warms my heart are trees being referred to as landmarks. Our guide took us to the designated Mango tree near the small dam (this walk itself was an adventure), where the kids had already gathered for the ‘Vanabhojan’ (Forest feast). All dressed up in their best clothes, they were stealing glances at the odd looking outsiders (us) and hid behind each other when I smiled at them. The local volunteer and Jayashree started the ice breaking session to make the kids comfortable. To ease our interaction, we also played a game where the kids told us names of 4 legged animals, 2 legged animals, birds they hunt, plants used by them and so on. Their knowledge was staggering and we realised, all we have to do is, listen to them, make them tell us about their surroundings and appreciate them every oncein a while!
After a meal of Rice and ‘Udid’ dal cooked with vegetables, everyone ran to the water. Jayashree explained it’s bath time for them. The people here take a bath in the afternoon, as washing themselves before going to work in the fields only to get soiled makes no sense. So we saw the kids jump fearlessly into the water and splash around for some time. To our relief, they came out when we asked them to and the trail finally began.
Since it was their first ‘trail’ on their usual path, they walked fast and without much chatter. I had to run from one end of the line to the other to talk to them, make them identify and tell me about the trees around. The highlight of this trail was their busy yet skilled hands. They would pluck young pods of Senna tora ( tarota as they call it) and braid them together. The boys were even more adept at this than the girls, which I found quite odd! I tried cajoling them to teach me this skill but apparently they wanted to keep it a secret! The trail got little more interesting when we spotted a Red- naped Ibis in a nearby field, which they referred to as a karkocha (Crane). When I took out the binoculars to have a better look at the bird, one of the kids screamed ‘Camela!’Their eyes twinkling. I was pleased as binoculars rarely get this reaction from the kids in an urban setting (overexposure to technology is to be blamed). Everyone was eager to see the bird through it. They would point it anywhere in the space and when asked “Can you see the bird?”, they would bob their heads, smiling! The trail ended with a group photo and laughter, as out of habit, I shouted “ready?” which translated as female Buffalo in Marathi!
With some experience and a little more confidence, we reached our second destination the next day – Kashtipada, where kids from 2 other villages were to gather for the feast. It was a Sunday and our plan got a little postponed as the kids had ‘sanskaar varga’ (A session of prayers and mantras intended for the early and overall development of children). The kids were all up and ready, running to their class. Waiting for their class to end, we roamed around, taking in the beauty of the pristine fog-clad green slopes, wondering why people would want to go to abroad for landscapes, This place was heavenly!
After the walk, we returned to the village where kids and chicks and kid goats were running around in the morning sunshine. When more kids started pouring in, I had to abandon cuddling the goat babies and get into ‘trail guide’ mode. We followed the long line of the decked-up excited kids, heading down a slope, towards the river.
We did the usual round of introductions (I managed to make them talk to me this time) after which I took my group of 40 little kids and started our walk. They told me about the tarota, saadada, jhaal trees and I told them a few facts about them. The discovery of the day for me was their fukandri ( Ipomoea carnea or Bush morning glory for us). They take a leaf from the bush, break the twig near the leaf base such that a loop forms and blow through the film of the sap to make bubbles! We spent quite some time enjoying this activity and even managed to video record all this fun while the poor bush was left leafless!
After the refreshing bath, walk along the river and the hectic (only for me) river crossing, we had a rice meal prepared by the kids and the local volunteers. We left the happy kids with heavy but content hearts.
To say I learnt a lot is an understatement. Jayashree told us things that she learnt from her work with the people- about hunting, man-animal conflict and political issues. The most amusing information she gave us was about Leopard intrusion. An elderly lady literally laughed when asked if they try to harm the leopards when they enter their colonies and with a chuckle explained to us that the animal comes for the cattle, why should we be worried, let alone harm it? What a sense of understanding! We, the ‘educated’ people of Mumbai, surely have a thing to learn from these people.
The only factor to ponder upon would be their hunting. Before our lunch the second day, a bunch of kids shot a Jacobin’s cuckoo and brought their ‘catch’ to show us. When put on ground in front of me, the bird rushed towards me trying to hide. The African migrant was probably on it’s way back home. It’s left wing was bleeding. My friend told the kids all about the bird, trying to make somebody to come forth to care for the bird till it healed. But it was simply ‘food’ for them and as is known, it takes time to alter perspectives. So we returned the bird to those who had brought it to us, who then feasted upon the ‘chicken lollipop’.
There can be an argument on both sides – these people live ‘sustainably’. They aren’t uncouth or uncivilized but only more directly dependent on the forests. They give back to nature much more than we urban folks do. Hunting for bush meat is their traditional occupation, that has been passed down through generations. Unless their hunting patterns are studied for a longer duration and the impact it has on the eco- system, it would probably be unfair to criticise their traditional occupations. However, once the connect with the locals has been formed, relevant information about which species to avoid hunting can be communicated to them, without coming across as prudes trying to change their cultural heritage.
Working with communities is tough. But it is a necessity. It is the most sustainable path to reach the common goal. And it is definitely rewarding. More naturalists need to consider adapting to this method of working. This experience has changed me forever and for good.