Bhavna Menon: Saving the Wilderness Through Community Participation

Heart of Conservation Podcast Ep#14 Show Notes (Edited)

Introduction:

Lalitha Krishnan:You’re listening to Heart of Conservation Podcast, Season II, Episode #14. I am your host Lalitha Krishna keeping you informed and connected with the natural world by bringing you stories from the wild.

My guest today is Bhavna Menon. She is the programme manager at the Last Wilderness Foundation, an NGO that works in and around three Tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh. I am doubly grateful to Bhavna because we had to rerecord this podcast because of technical issues.

Thank you Bhavna, for coming on Heart of Conservation podcast for the second time. To begin with, we were talking about how Last Wilderness Foundation has been working in Madhya Pradesh since 2009 and you’ve been engaged with the forest department, urban and the rural l communities over there. So briefly, could you tell me how it all started? What was the goal when you started?

Bhavna MenonSure. Last wilderness Foundation was started in 2009 like you rightly mentioned by an individual called Nikhil Nagle. So, when he met the Field Director of the Bhadhavgad Tiger reserve in 2010, Mr. C K Patil, Mr. Patil asked Nikhil to first send a team to understand the on-ground challenges faced by the villagers in the buffer villages surrounding a tiger reserve. And when we did the survey, of about 33 villages which were in the buffer zone of the tiger reserve, we found man-animal conflict to be the main reason and problem behind working out proper conservation strategy. So what we decided to do was to start a healthy dialogue with the villagers which couldn’t be done by just meeting them. There had to be something more fruitful coming out of it…something more personal coming out of it. So what we did is we took the kiddos of the villages—there are about a 100 odd villages in the buffer zone of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve now—So, over seven years, we took the kiddos inside the park for a safari because it would probably not make sense for us to tell them, save the tiger…save the forest…without them having to experience the forest or an animal.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

Bhavna Menon: We took them on a safari; spent the whole day with them…had lunch with them, we did presentations; we asked them what their idea of forests and forest conservation was and at the end of the end we would try to tell them, “Yes, now that we have experienced the forest together, what can we do to protect the forests?” So many a time kids would come up with solutions. “Plant trees.” “Yes, we should not set fires in the forest”. “Yes, we can perhaps, think about reporting illegal incidents”, which was a win-win situation for us. And via the kiddos, even the adults were getting impacted in a manner because the kids would rush back home and say, “Oh my God, we saw a tiger today and it was harmless. It didn’t do anything to us.” “It was huge and big; it had long claws and big teeth but it only used that to hunt its natural prey.” It walked right past us when it saw us and it was that beautiful thing they saw. Once, a tiger was walking past the Gypsy (jeep) and this kid kept backing into me and finally without realizing she sat on my lap. And she said, “How big it is. How beautiful it is.” She kept whispering that as if she was in bliss. The way the mindset of the community members changed via the kids, via the inclusion of the community members in conservation, we saw a dramatic change.

Another impact that we saw because of the Village Kids Awareness Programme is that it extended to the adults. Once we had gone to this village in the buffer zone called Badwar which was anyway, a sensitive village and there we quite a few incidents of man-animal, man-tiger conflict in that area. So we decided to do the Village kids Awareness Programme in that area. And the day we arrived, we learned of an elderly gentleman succumbing to his injuries because of an encounter with a tiger in the forest when he had gone to… Basically, he was a herder. He had taken the cattle to the forests and he encountered a tiger and a kill and the tiger had attacked him etc. and he passed away. To meet the family members, we visited them, we just sat quietly—no one spoke a word—and we decided, out of respect to the community members, that we could not run the pogramme in the village because it would be very insensitive to work in that village at that point of time and tell them to protect the tiger. But, the most amazing part was, the next morning, this gentleman walks up to our canter…to our car and says, “Why aren’t you guys doing the programme? I want you to do the programme and I want you to take my kids in the first batch of the programme. I want them to learn about the forest and respect the forest and understand why it’s important to protect it.” From then on, we realized that we had opened the channel. Thanks to the forest department and the community this channel was open wherein we can reach out to the main stakeholders of conservation and tell them that we can work together as a team where we could learn from each other and protect the wilderness.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow. Let’s talk about the forest department. I know you said the channels were open but in what way did you interact with them or engage with them?

Bhavna Menon: So,we started working with the forest department by conducting workshops. So although the frontline staff is very beautifully equipped to protect the forest, we wanted to equip them with certain topics slightly more thanks to the experts in the field. Like birding, a little more information about the biodiversity… Then slowly, we moved on to how they could—because we had worked with communities—we gave them a little bit of information on how they could deal with members of the community in times of conflict when we were not there. Our idea was to bridge the gap between the forest department and the community members via these workshops so that even if we are not there, they are not dependent on an external force like an NGO coming there and working. And they could do that themselves. They were their people. So they could have that connect between themselves.

Lalitha Krishnan: Do you think that this connection is now well established and they don’t need outside help so much now?

Bhavna Menon: Well, it’s an ongoing process I would say. It needs constant follow up. You need constant dialogue because they are people after all. People need to communicate. I don’t think it will be a one-time thing. Of course, there’s a huge adhesive that’s come into place but still, we need to do a lot of work. A lot of work still needs to go in.

Lalitha Krishnan: Can we start talking about the communities? Tell me about the Pardis and what initiatives you are taking with them in particular?

Bhavna Menon: Sure. We came in contact with the Pardhis in 2009 when the tigers in Panna (tiger reserve) had disappeared. There were no tigers in Panna. The Field Director, Mr. R. S. Murthy, invited us to Panna to meet with the Pardis to see the forest. And the first thing we heard from everyone is how notorious the Pardhis are. How they are a criminal tribe. How they are hunters and that Panna had suffered a lot because of Pardis. But despite all these preconceived notions I had held about them, as soon as I went to visit the hostels that house the Pardi kids—which in fact, was started by the former Field Director, before Mr. R. S. Murthy, Mr. G. Krishnamoorthy…Mr. Gola Krishnamoorthy, it was his visionary plan to work with the communities at some point and start two hostels for the boys and girls. So the minute I opened the gate of the girls’ hostel, I saw this number of kids rushing towards me who have no idea who I am but they clung to just any part of my body. I found kids hanging from my arms, legs feet…. All they said was, “hello”, “welcome,” “please come and sit”, “have chai”. And I was wondering, am I in the right place? 

But the warmth, the genuine love they showed someone who didn’t even know them was brilliant and that was when I and the Director, Mr. Venkatesh, we decided we needed to do something to secure the future of these kids. So what we did, continuously, from 2009 to 2015 we kept visiting them to understand more about the community, kept an ongoing dialogue with them and in 2015 we ran a vocational training programme which was a two-month training programme with both the boys and girls. Wherein the children themselves choose what vocations they would like to pursue. The girls did stitching and the boys did an electricians’ programme. Local teachers were employed to teach them the same and we really bonded. All of us over two months really bonded. We had volunteers coming in who had also interacted with the kids and the success was that because of these hostels and because of these continuous dialogues, we now have five Pardi students who are pursuing their graduations –higher studies and they are the first line of Pardhis graduates from the Pardi community.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s impressive. It’s something, to be proud of for sure. For them and the younger kids. Very inspiring.

Bhavna Menon: Lalitha, another great success story that has come out of working with the Pardhis is a girl called Reesna, Pardhi from the Pardhi community who has been absorbed by Taj Safaris after an initiative I am going to tell you about so basically when we were working with the kids and the adults saw the success of the programme, the adults in the community started demanding that we work with them as well. They kept saying, “why aren’t you working with us?” So we said, “OK, what would you like to do?” They said, “We like the forest, we like to walk in the forest. We can tell you all about birds and animals and, trees and medicinal herbs.” So I said, “Great”. So then we met with Taj safaris, we met with a gentleman whose extremely pro community. He’s called Mr. Nagendra Singh Hada who is the Area Director of Taj Safaris and because of his excellent team of naturalists, and our volunteers, we trained twelve Pardhi guides for three periods of training and because of that we started something called ‘Walk with Pardhis’.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. I have read about that.

Bhavna Menon: It’s a walk in the territorial area. Guests can go for a walk and there are beautiful gorges you can encounter on your walk there. The animals they (the Pardhis) mimic, the birds they mimic…if you shut your eyes you won’t be able to tell the difference if it’s animal or if it’s a Pardhi guide imitating the animal. It’s super incredible. And because of this, there is a particular girl called Reesna Pardhi who was also trained as part of the Pardhi initiative. The guests loved her so much and Taj saw so much potential in her that she is now working at the Taj Kahna Property, Banjaar Tola. If someone is visiting Kanha, they can most certainly visit Reesna also. She is a lovely, confident young woman now and yes, that’s what we are trying to do with the Pardhis. 

Lalitha Krishnan: So nice to hear. Moving on, the other tribal communities you worked with, the Baiga community and the Gonds. So tell me about the jewellery workshops and the community in general.

Bhavna Menon: The Baiga community-the Baigas we met with-live in the buffer zone of Kanha tiger reserve another beautiful park and there we work with an extremely visionary forest officer called Mr. Surendra Khare who is like this champion for women empowerment In Kahna. I would like to say something before the Baiga community workshop about something they have done in Kahna Lalitha if I may?

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course. Please do.

Bhavna Menon: First time, there was a visually impaired camp that we ran in Kanha with the vision of Mr. Khare. There was this little girl called Tulsa. She is visually –impaired, she called up Mr. Khare Sir once and shed asked. “Why aren’t you showing me the jungle?” He was very puzzled and taken aback and emotional all at once and he said, “yah, actually…why not”? There should be no difference between kiddos wherever they are. We’ve done about three visually impaired camps in Kanha. We run the hearing impaired camp based on sign language. We run the visually impaired camps based on a sensory nature trail, as well as sounds.

Lalitha Krishnan: How many kids came on that (visually impaired camps)?

Bhavna Menon: So the first batch had 23 kids then there was a batch of 40 kids. So different groups had come from NAD(?) Bombay. So one had come from the Netraheen Kanya Vidyalaya, Jabalpur and one was from Justice Tankha Memorial School, Jabalpur and that was a hearing impaired camp. So a different number of people have come to each camp.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s quite the initiative. Unfortunately in our society, challenged people are left on the side or not included.

Bhavna Menon: Yah, and the experience Lalitha…I learned so much from there. I mean, I thought we’ll go and tell them…in fact, there was a time when a tiger was walking by our canter. The kids could only hear it. These were the visually-impaired kids. They could only hear it walking in the grass. They could hear rustling. And they said, “Oh my God, I saw a tiger”. And the happiness was just contagious. Everybody was crying by the end of that camp.

Lalitha Krishnan: I can just imagine. Just visualizing it in my head I’m thinking, what a joy to hear something like that.

Bhavna Menon: They were just bouncing around camp and they’re happy and they’re singing and they’re not…I’ve never seen them feel sorry for themselves. And this was because of Mr. Khare. Had it not been for that Officer, none of this would have happened. This again is an extract of what the forest department is doing. After doing these camps we realized there was a lot of more work to be done in Kanha and Mr. Khare encouraged us since we had already worked with communities and we had had a dialogue with the people. He encouraged us to work with the Baiga community who live in the buffer zone of the Kanha Tiger Reserve. They are very dependent on the forest produce as a source of livelihood. Women usually visit the forests and collect a leaf called Mahul. It’s a creeper with a very big leaf. They make little plates and bowls of those which are then sold in the market for Rs. 30/- 40/-. So you have to collect a whole lot of them to make plates for which they used to spend the whole time in the forest which encourages encounters with wild animals and encourages the chance of a conflict. So Mr. Khare said, “why don’t you work with these ladies concerning livelihood. We spent three-four months discussing and visiting the ladies and we finally chanced upon an elderly lady in the village who was wearing very beautiful silver coin jewellery. We said, “Okay, where did you find this from?” She said, “No we made it.”

“Wow, with what machinery?”

“No, we make everything by hand. Nothing is machine-made. Nothing is bought except the raw material.”

We said, “Okay, that’s brilliant, Can you make this for us?”

A group of 10 women started laughing and saying. “Who do you think is going to wear this in the city? No one’s going to wear it. It’s a village thing, it’s a tribal thing”. They sometimes feel shy that people will make fun of them. In fact, they have amazing tattoos on their body. Baigas are famous for tattoos on their body. But unfortunately, the younger generation is refraining from doing it because everybody will tease them in school and colleges saying, “Oh, this one’s is a Baiga”. So that also hit us and we said, “No you should be proud of this.” So we started giving them ideas: “You can make bracelets, necklaces.” So we started giving them the raw material. We have a branding partner called “Natureworks India’ which helps us sell the jewellery and the response has been beautiful. We are working with some 40 odd ladies now across four villages. Reduction in the forest has happened drastically because ladies can now sit at home instead of being in the forest. They can sit at home and make jewellery, It’s a whole day’s work. They get paid on the spot…as soon as they make the jewellery. The beautiful part is men used to mock them. “Why are you making this jewellery? Who’s going to buy it?” They’ve seen their wives being successful in business. When their wives are ill or pregnant, the men sit and make the jewellery.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really? That’s a change. That I’d love to see.

Bhavna Menon: Youshould see the men running around carrying necklaces instead of the women.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good news. I have seen them (the jewellery) on social media and they look fabulous And colourful.

Bhavna Menon: Yes. Veryhappy.

Lalitha Krishnan: There’s some mention of the Gond tribe or community you work with.

Bhavna Menon: Yes,that’s in Basically, what I’m trying to do also Lalitha, is to include guests and tourists to visit community members. What hit me once was when I was on a safari, a very happy guest said, “Oh we saw five tigers today”. 

I said, “Lovely. If you have time, why don’t you visit a village?

“What? They have villages here? I thought there were only forests and resorts.”

“No, no. There are lots of villages and lots of amazing people you can meet if you can step outside the confines of your resort.”

“Wow. What are the activities you offer?”

Then and there, Vidya and I decided to pen down a list of activities guests can do while they are visiting the tiger reserves. I am happy to say those tour operators especially, who are helping us with this do encourage guests to do these activities. We have village walks, we do lunch, breakfast, dinner with villagers if you choose that an option. We have jewellery making workshops wherein you can go to the village, sit with the Baiga people and make jewellery. And then we have the tribal dance. People while eating their dinner or while they are having chai, can sit and watch the dance. More often than not, guests are dancing themselves. It’s a contagious dance. They get up and start dancing themselves.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great and is homestay a possibility or not…because they are living on the fringe?

Bhavna Menon: Homestay is a possibility. It requires a little bit of work as we need to speak to the community members. Because community members need to be comfortable with strangers staying in their houses as they are in remote areas. So the idea is to get them on board. A lot of them in Panna and Bandhavgarh are on board with this idea. We’ve been in talks with them. They want to be trained in regards to hospitality so we will be exploring this and maybe in the next few years when you come to Central India, we can put you up in a homestay.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I look forward to that. So what other outreach programmes or initiatives have you’ll be taking in these areas.

Bhavna Menon: So we run the nature education programme in these areas in association with the forest department, with the help of brilliant volunteers in Kanha. The nature education programme is very very similar to the Village Kids Awareness Programme of Bandhavgarh that we had started in 2012. Where kids from the buffer zone are taken inside the forests and we tell them about the interconnect of denizens of the forest. Apart from that a very important programme that we run from the conservation point of view is the Forest Fire Prevention Programme in Pannah. That again, Mr. K S Bhadoriya who is the current Field Director of Panna…he’s been extremely supportive and he’s been practically part of each and every session that we do with villagers. He travels for one hour and comes down every time and sits with the villagers. So the idea is to understand/ first talk to the villagers about their challenges and then tell the villagers. “Now that the tigers have a magnificent comeback in Panna, we need to protect them.” The biggest problem in Panna is fire. It is an extremely dry landscape. So we need to talk to the people with special emphasis on how to prevent forest fires in the landscapes. Whether via reporting fires to the fires department or patrolling teams and helping the forest department in helping different regions for fire and other illegal activities. We are encouraging community members to do so via our sessions.

Bhavna Menon: 

Lalitha Krishnan: Ok. And these fires you are talking about. Do they happen in April…the dry seasons?

Bhavna Menon: It happens in the summer months andacres and acres of forest get burnt becausethe landscape is so dry and it is completely grassland. So, one spark can actually ignite the whole forest. It’ happened in Panna before but I’m very happy to report that since we started working in 2019 there hasn’t been a case of forest fires last year. We’ve done two sessions with the villagers in 2019 and 2020 and covered almost 37 villages and 1200 villagers. There hasn’t been a case of forest fires. We are hoping to God, fingers crossed that there won’t be any forest fires this summer.

Lalitha Krishnan: Fingers crossed and congratulations to you and your team for making it possible.

Bhavna Menon: Thank you

Lalitha Krishnan: 1200 people is a big number. You were talking about volunteers. I wanted to know if anyone wanted to volunteer in any of these camps or places that you work in how long would they have to stay and what sort of work would you expect them to do? What are the options for anyone who is interested or goes to your website or connects with you? This is just to give them a feel for what it will be like.

Bhavna Menon: Ideally we call upon volunteers when there is a project in place. Suppose there’s a Nature Education Camp in place like the Visually –impaired Camp. We had volunteers for that also. Then, mostly conservation outreach programmes, even the forest fire prevention programme we had volunteers coming in and helping us. When we were training the Pardhis, at that time also we had volunteers who were staying on for two-three weeks and helping us see the project through. That’s how volunteering works. But suppose people want to write to us irrespective of an ongoing project, so we may shortlist them later, they can write to us on an email Id that we’ve provided on the website. It’s called conservarationatthelastwilderness.org. All the details of our project and the email id is mentioned on our website.

Lalitha Krishnan:  That’s good to know. You mentioned Bhavna that you’ve been working for nine years or around nine years. First I want to know how you started working for this organization and for you’ve been personally affected. You did say a bit of that but you can expand.

Bhavna Menon: I’ve always been interested in wildlife and conservation, forest and people. I’m very interested in meeting people but I was never a science buff. I was always an English Literature buff. I did Psychology for three years. And it was when I moved to pursue my post-graduation in journalism from Xaviers in Mumbai, this came after my college ended. This came as a college placement. Our founder Director Mr. Nikhil Nagle was looking for media students to help him put together a comprehensive website on wildlife and communities, and conservation efforts in different areas because he said, “there isn’t a good enough website as of now, which gives all this information.” So when he hired us, he hired some students from Sophia’s, some from Xaviers. We were a biggish team then. Now we are an extremely big team of two people. We started working then. We travelled to tiger reserves and collected the information. Every time we would come back and tell Nikhil about the different efforts being taken, he thought to himself and then he said it out loud to us: “You know, why don’t we give back to the forest as well?” Because, the tiger, he claims has given him so much in life—such happiness—he wanted to give back to the tigers as well. So that’s how we started work. We all build the NGO together and that’s how we started conservation.

Lalitha Krishnan: And do you want to tell me what the experience has been like for you?

Bhavna Menon: I think when I started out in this field I came from a lot of privilege. I carried with me a whole bag of preconceived notions but the day I walked out from the field, all of that just vanished into thin air. I realised that I knew nothing. I unlearnt and learned a lot of things thanks to the community members and they grounded me. I felt grounded when I realized the challenges people faced n villages and how they live. I always say this to people, even though it sounds real clichéd, that the real India is in the villages. The cities are beautiful yes but India exists in the villages. In the past nine years, I have changed a lot and I have learned to accept people for who they are. I’ve not been judgemental of people and I come with a very broad mind thanks to conservation.

Lalitha Krishnan: Excellent

Bhavna Menon: But the only thing I want to say is none of this would have been possible, like I said before, without our field coordinators. We have had some brilliant field coordinators like Indrabanji who handles Panna and Pushpenderji who handles Bandhavgarh. Disksha, she used to work in Kanha. Now we have Mr. Ram Kishore who works with us and volunteers. It sounds great that we are doing a brilliant job but it’s a huge team that’s behind this…

Lalitha Krishnan: I’m sure. So, how many people actually work in your office?

Bhavna Menon: Just me and Vidhya. Vidhya is my Director and I am the Programmes Manager for the organisation.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. Hats off to you guys.

Bhavna Menon: All of two women team

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s amazing. I want to know how FWF is funded and whether you require funding and how does it work if somebody is interested in funding you?

Bhavna Menon: Yes. As an NGO we are definitely looking for funding because a: we definitely want these projects to be sustainable in the long term. We wouldn’t want them to stop because we don’t have funds. Secondly, we are slowly expanding. We are working with more and more community members for which again, we need funds. So if anybody wants to contribute or wants to donate either their time or financially support us, they can again, write to us at conservation@thelastwilderness.org or they can directly contact me. I am available on social media and mail.

Lalitha Krishnan: One last question. I always ask my guests to share a word that is significant to them or to conservation. So what is yours?

Bhavna Menon: Right. Mine would be inclusion and acceptance. Actually two words maybe, almost meaning the same thing. It’s a word I choose or associate with conservation very deeply because had I not accepted the people/community members around tiger reserves for whom they are…because Last Wilderness believes you should not change people. You should work with them to understand them and then find a solution together. So acceptance and inclusion are extremely important. They have accepted me for who I am so and so have I…which has helped me work for the past nine years 

in conservation and enjoy every bit of it.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was going to say, it works both ways for the people involved. That’s lovely. Such a pleasure talking to you! Thank you so much.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation Podcast. You can listen to it on Google podcast, Spotify, Apple podcast and many other platforms. If you know somebody who is doing interesting work and whose story should be shared, do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. And keep listening. Bye for now.

 Introdcution:

Lalitha Krishnan:You’re listening to Heart of Conservation Podcast, Season II, Episode #14. I am your host Lalitha Krishna keeping you informed and connected with the natural world by bringing you stories from the wild.

My guest today is Bhavna Menon. She is the programme manager at the Last Wilderness Foundation, an NGO that works in and around three Tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh. I am doubly grateful to Bhavna because we had to rerecord this podcast because of technical issues.

Thank you Bhavna, for coming on Heart of Conservation podcast for the second time. To begin with, we were talking about how Last Wilderness Foundation has been working in Madhya Pradesh since 2009 and you’ve been engaged with the forest department, urban and the rural l communities over there. So briefly, could you tell me how it all started? What was the goal when you started?

Bhavna Menon: Sure. Last wilderness Foundation was started in 2009 like you rightly mentioned by an individual called Nikhil Nagle. So, when he met the Field Director of the Bhadhavgad Tiger reserve in 2010, Mr. C K Patil, Mr. Patil asked Nikhil to first send a team to understand the on-ground challenges faced by the villagers in the buffer villages surrounding a tiger reserve. And when we did the survey, of about 33 villages which were in the buffer zone of the tiger reserve, we found man-animal conflict to be the main reason and problem behind working out proper conservation strategy. So what we decided to do was to start a healthy dialogue with the villagers which couldn’t be done by just meeting them. There had to be something more fruitful coming out of it…something more personal coming out of it. So what we did is we took the kiddos of the villages—there are about a 100 odd villages in the buffer zone of the Bhadavgad Tiger Reserve now—So, over seven years, we took the kiddos inside the park for a safari because it would probably not make sense for us to tell them, save the tiger…save the forest…without them having to experience the forest or an animal.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

Bhavna Menon: We took them on a safari; spent the whole day with them…had lunch with them, we did presentations; we asked them what their idea of forests and forest conservation was and at the end of the end we would try to tell them, “Yes, now that we have experienced the forest together, what can we do to protect the forests?” So many a time kids would come up with solutions. “Plant trees.” “Yes, we should not set fires in the forest”. “Yes, we can perhaps, think about reporting illegal incidents”, which was a win-win situation for us. And via the kiddos, even the adults were getting impacted in a manner because the kids would rush back home and say, “Oh my God, we saw a tiger today and it was harmless. It didn’t do anything to us.” “It was huge and big; it had long claws and big teeth but it only used that to hunt its natural prey.” It walked right past us when it saw us and it was that beautiful thing they saw. Once, a tiger was walking past the Gypsy (jeep) and this kid kept backing into me and finally without realizing she sat on my lap. And she said, “How big it is. How beautiful it is.” She kept whispering that as if she was in bliss. The way the mindset of the community members changed via the kids, via the inclusion of the community members in conservation, we saw a dramatic change.

Another impact that we saw because of the Village Kids Awareness Programme is that it extended to the adults. Once we had gone to this village in the buffer zone called Badwar which was anyway, a sensitive village and there we quite a few incidents of man-animal, man-tiger conflict in that area. So we decided to do the Village kids Awareness Programme in that area. And the day we arrived, we learned of an elderly gentleman succumbing to his injuries because of an encounter with a tiger in the forest when he had gone to… Basically, he was a herder. He had taken the cattle to the forests and he encountered a tiger and a kill and the tiger had attacked him etc. and he passed away. To meet the family members, we visited them, we just sat quietly—no one spoke a word—and we decided, out of respect to the community members, that we could not run the pogramme in the village because it would be very insensitive to work in that village at that point of time and tell them to protect the tiger. But, the most amazing part was, the next morning, this gentleman walks up to our canter…to our car and says, “Why aren’t you guys doing the programme? I want you to do the programme and I want you to take my kids in the first batch of the programme. I want them to learn about the forest and respect the forest and understand why it’s important to protect it.” From then on, we realized that we had opened the channel. Thanks to the forest department and the community this channel was open wherein we can reach out to the main stakeholders of conservation and tell them that we can work together as a team where we could learn from each other and protect the wilderness.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow. Let’s talk about the forest department. I know you said the channels were open but in what way did you interact with them or engage with them?

Bhavna Menon: So,we started working with the forest department by conducting workshops. So although the frontline staff is very beautifully equipped to protect the forest, we wanted to equip them with certain topics slightly more thanks to the experts in the field. Like birding, a little more information about the biodiversity… Then slowly, we moved on to how they could—because we had worked with communities—we gave them a little bit of information on how they could deal with members of the community in times of conflict when we were not there. Our idea was to bridge the gap between the forest department and the community members via these workshops so that even if we are not there, they are not dependent on an external force like an NGO coming there and working. And they could do that themselves. They were their people. So they could have that connect between themselves.

Lalitha Krishnan: Do you think that this connection is now well established and they don’t need outside help so much now?

Bhavna Menon: Well, it’s an ongoing process I would say. It needs constant follow up. You need constant dialogue because they are people after all. People need to communicate. I don’t think it will be a one-time thing. Of course, there’s a huge adhesive that’s come into place but still, we need to do a lot of work. A lot of work still needs to go in.

Lalitha Krishnan: Can we start talking about the communities? Tell me about the Pardis and what initiatives you are taking with them in particular?

Bhavna Menon: Sure. We came in contact with the Pardis in 2009 when the tigers in Panna (tiger reserve) had disappeared. There were no tigers in Panna. The Field Director, Mr. R. S. Murthy, invited us to Panna to meet with the Pardis to see the forest. And the first thing we heard from everyone is how notorious the Pardhis are. How they are a criminal tribe. How they are hunters and that Panna had suffered a lot because of Pardis. But despite all these preconceived notions I had held about them, as soon as I went to visit the hostels that house the Pardi kids—which in fact, was started by the former Field Director, before Mr. R. S. Murthy, Mr. G Krishnamurthy…Mr. Gola Krishnamurthy, it was his visionary plan to work with the communities at some point and start two hostels for the boys and girls. So the minute I opened the gate of the girls’ hostel, I saw this number of kids rushing towards me who have no idea who I am but they clung to just any part of my body. I found kids hanging from my arms, legs feet…. All they said was, “hello”, “welcome,” “please come and sit”, “have chai”. And I was wondering, am I in the right place? 

But the warmth, the genuine love they showed someone who didn’t even know them was brilliant and that was when I and the Director, Mr. Venkatesh, we decided we needed to do something to secure the future of these kids. So what we did, continuously, from 2009 to 2015 we kept visiting them to understand more about the community, kept an ongoing dialogue with them and in 2015 we ran a vocational training programme which was a two-month training programme with both the boys and girls. Wherein the children themselves choose what vocations they would like to pursue. The girls did stitching and the boys did an electricians’ programme. Local teachers were employed to teach them the same and we really bonded. All of us over two months really bonded. We had volunteers coming in who had also interacted with the kids and the success was that because of these hostels and because of these continuous dialogues, we now have five Pardi students who are pursuing their graduations –higher studies and they are the first line of Pardhis graduates from the Pardi community.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s impressive. It’s something, to be proud of for sure. For them and the younger kids. Very inspiring.

Bhavna Menon: Lalitha, another great success story that has come out of working with the Pardis is a girl called Risna Pardhi from the Pardi community who has been absorbed by Taj Safaris after an initiative I am going to tell you about so basically when we were working with the kids and the adults saw the success of the programme, the adults in the community started demanding that we work with them as well. They kept saying, “why aren’t you working with us?” So we said, “OK, what would you like to do?” They said, “We like the forest, we like to walk in the forest. We can tell you all about birds and animals and, trees and medicinal herbs.” So I said, “Great”. So then we met with Taj safaris, we met with a gentleman whose extremely pro community. He’s called Mr. Nagendra Singh Hada who is the Area Director of Taj Safaris and because of his excellent team of naturalists, and our volunteers, we trained twelve Pardi guides for three periods of training and because of that we started something called ‘Walk with Pardis’.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. I have read about that.

Bhavna Menon: It’s a walk in the territorial area. Guests can go for a walk and there are beautiful gorges you can encounter on your walk there. The animals they (the Pardis) mimic, the birds they mimic…if you shut your eyes you won’t be able to tell the difference if it’s animal or if it’s a Pardi guide imitating the animal. It’s super incredible. And because of this, there is a particular girl called Reesna Pardi who was also trained as part of the Pardi initiative. The guests loved her so much and Taj saw so much potential in her that she is now working at the Taj Kahna Property, Bunchar tola. If someone is visiting Kahna, they can most certainly visit Reesna also. She is a lovely, confident young woman now and yes, that’s what we are trying to do with the Pardis. 

Lalitha Krishnan: So nice to hear. Moving on, the other tribal communities you worked with, the Baiga community and the Gonds. So tell me about the jewellery workshops and the community in general.

Bhavna Menon: The Baiga community-the Baigas we met with-live 

in the buffer zone of Kahna tiger reserve another beautiful park and there we work with an extremely visionary forest officer called Mr. Surendra Kahrey who is like this champion for women empowerment In Kahna. I would like to say something before the Baiga community workshop about something they have done in Kahna Lalitha if I may…

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course. Please do.

Bhavna Menon: First time, there was a visually impaired camp that we ran in Kanha with the vision of Mr. Karhe. There was this little girl called Tulsa. She is visually –impaired, she called up Mr. Karhe Sir once and shed asked. “why aren’t you showing me the jungle?” He was very puzzled and taken aback and emotional all at once and he said, ”yah, actually…why not”? There should be no difference between kiddos wherever they are. We’ve done about three visually impaired camps n Kanha. We run the hearing impaired camp based on sign language. We run the visually impaired camps based on a sensory nature trail, as well as sounds.

Lalitha Krishnan: How many kids came on that (visually impaired camps)?

Bhavna Menon: So the first batch had 23 kids then there was a batch of 40 kids. So different groups had come from NAD Bombay. So one had come from the Netrya vidyala, Jabalpur and one was from Justice Tanka Memorial School, Jabalpur and that was a hearing impaired camp. So a different number of people have come to each camp.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s quite the initiative. Unfortunately in our society, challenged people are left on the side or not included.

Bhavna Menon: Yah, and the experience Lalitha…I learned so much from there. I mean, I thought we’ll go and tell them…in fact, there was a time when a tiger was walking by our canter. The kids could only hear it. These were the visually-impaired kids. They could only hear it walking in the grass. They could hear rustling. And they said, “Oh my God, I saw a tiger”. And the happiness was just contagious. Everybody was crying by the end of that camp.

Lalitha Krishnan: I can just imagine. Just visualizing it in my head I’m thinking, what a joy to hear something like that.

Bhavna Menon: They were just bouncing around camp and they’re happy and they’re singing and they’re not…I’ve never seen them feel sorry for themselves. And this was because of Mr. Kahre. Had it not been for that Officer, none of this would have happened. This again is an extract of what the forest department is doing. After doing these camps we realized there was a lot of more work to be done in Kanha and Mr. Karhe encouraged us since we had already worked with communities and we had had a dialogue with the people. He encouraged us to work with the Baiga community who live in the buffer zone of the Kanha Tiger Reserve. They are very dependent on the forest produce as a source of livelihood. Women usually visit the forests and collect a leaf called Mahul. It’s a creeper with a very big leaf. They make little plates and bowls of those which are then sold in the market for Rs. 30/- 40/-. So you have to collect a whole lot of them to make plates for which they used to spend the whole time in the forest which encourages encounters with wild animals and encourages the chance of a conflict. So Mr. Karhe said, “why don’t you work with these ladies concerning livelihood. We spent three-four months discussing and visiting the ladies and we finally chanced upon an elderly lady in the village who was wearing very beautiful silver coin jewellery. We said, “Okay, where did you find this from?” She said, “No we made it.”

“Wow, with what machinery?”

“No, we make everything by hand. Nothing is machine-made. Nothing is bought except the raw material.”

We said, “Okay, that’s brilliant, Can you make this for us?”

A group of 10 women started laughing and saying. “Who do you think is going to wear this in the city? No one’s going to wear it. It’s a village thing, it’s a tribal thing”. They sometimes feel shy that people will make fun of them. In fact, they have amazing tattoos on their body. Baigas are famous for tattoos on their body. But unfortunately, the younger generation is refraining from doing it because everybody will tease them in school and colleges saying,” Arey this one’s is a Baiga”. So that also hit us and we said, “No you should be proud of this.” So we started giving them ideas: “You can make bracelets, necklaces.” So we started giving them the raw material. We have a branding partner called “Natureworks India’ which helps us sell the jewellery and the response has been beautiful. We are working with some 40 odd ladies now across four villages. Reduction in the forest has happened drastically because ladies can now sit at home instead of being in the forest. They can sit at home and make jewellery, It’s a whole day’s work. They get paid on the spot…as soon as they make the jewellery. The beautiful part is men used to mock them. “Why are you making this jewellery? Who’s going to buy it?” They’ve seen their wives being successful in business. When their wives are ill or pregnant, the men sit and make the jewellery.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really? That’s a change. That I’d love to see.

Bhavna Menon: Youshould see the men running around carrying necklaces instead of the women.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good news. I have seen them (the jewellery) on social media and they look fabulous And colourful.

Bhavna Menon: Yes. Veryhappy.

Lalitha Krishnan: There’s some mention of the Gond tribe or community you work with.

Bhavna Menon: Yes,that’s in Bandhavgarh. Basically, what I’m trying to do also Lalitha, is to include guests and tourists to visit community members. What hit me once was when I was on a safari, a very happy guest said, “Oh we saw five tigers today”. 

I said, “Lovely. If you have time, why don’t you visit a village?

“What? They have villages here? I thought there were only forests and resorts.”

“No, no. There are lots of villages and lots of amazing people you can meet if you can step outside the confines of your resort.”

“Wow. What are the activities you offer?”

Then and there, Vidya and I decided to pen down a list of activities guests can do while they are visiting the tiger reserves. I am happy to say those tour operators especially, who are helping us with this do encourage guests to do these activities. We have village walks, we do lunch, breakfast, dinner with villagers if you choose that an option. We have jewellery making workshops wherein you can go to the village, sit with the Baiga people and make jewellery. And then we have the tribal dance. People while eating their dinner or while they are having chai, can sit and watch the dance. More often than not, guests are dancing themselves. It’s a contagious dance. They get up and start dancing themselves.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great and is homestay a possibility or not…because they are living on the fringe?

Bhavna Menon: Homestay is a possibility. It requires a little bit of work as we need to speak to the community members. Because community members need to be comfortable with strangers staying in their houses as they are in remote areas. So the idea is to get them on board. A lot of them in Pannah and Bhandhavgad are on board with this idea. We’ve been in talks with them. They want to be trained in regards to hospitality so we will be exploring this and maybe in the next few years when you come to Central India, we can put you up in a homestay.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I look forward to that. So what other outreach programmes or initiatives have you’ll be taking in these areas.

Bhavna Menon: So we run the nature education programme in these areas in association with the forest department, with the help of brilliant volunteers in Kahna. The nature education programme is very very similar to the Village Kids Awareness Programme of Bhandhavgad that we had started in 2012. Where kids from the buffer zone are taken inside the forests and we tell them about the interconnect of denizens of the forest. Apart from that a very important programme that we run from the conservation point of view is the Forest Fire Prevention Programme in Pannah. That again, Mr. K. S Badhoria who is the current Field Director of Pannah…he’s been extremely supportive and he’s been practically part of each and every session that we do with villagers. He travels for one hour and comes down every time and sits with the villagers. So the idea is to understand/ first talk to the villagers about their challenges and then tell the villagers. “Now that the tigers have a magnificent comeback in Pannah, we need to protect them.” The biggest problem in Pannah is fire. It is an extremely dry landscape. So we need to talk to the people with special emphasis on how to prevent forest fires in the landscapes. Whether via reporting fires to the fires department or patrolling teams and helping the forest department in helping different regions for fire and other illegal activities. We are encouraging community members to do so via our sessions.

Bhavna Menon: 

Lalitha Krishnan: Ok. And these fires you are talking about. Do they happen in April…the dry seasons?

Bhavna Menon: It happens in the summer months andacres and acres of forest get burnt becausethe landscape is so dry and it is completely grassland. So, one spark can actually ignite the whole forest. It’ happened in Pannah before but I’m very happy to report that since we started working in 2019 there hasn’t been a case of forest fires last year. We‘ve done two sessions with the villagers in 2019 and 2020 and covered almost 37 villages and 1200 villagers. There hasn’t been a case of forest fires. We are hoping to God, fingers crossed that there won’t be any forest fires this summer.

Lalitha Krishnan: Fingers crossed and congratulations to you and your team for making it possible.

Bhavna Menon: Thank you

Lalitha Krishnan: 1200 people is a big number. You were talking about volunteers. I wanted to know if anyone wanted to volunteer in any of these camps or places that you work in how long would they have to stay and what sort of work would you expect them to do? What are the options for anyone who is interested or goes to your website or connects with you? This is just to give them a feel for what it will be like.

Bhavna Menon: Ideally we call upon volunteers when there is a project in place. Suppose there’s a Nature Education Camp in place like the Visually –impaired Camp. We had volunteers for that also. Then, mostly conservation outreach programmes, even the forest fire prevention programme we had volunteers coming in and helping us. When we were training the Pardhis, at that time also we had volunteers who were staying on for two-three weeks and helping us see the project through. That’s how volunteering works. But suppose people want to write to us irrespective of an ongoing project, so we may shortlist them later, they can write to us on an email Id that we’ve provided on the website. It’s called conservarationatthelastwilderness.org. All the details of our project and the email id is mentioned on our website.

Lalitha Krishnan:  That’s good to know.You mentioned Bhavna that you’ve been working for nine years or around nine years. First I want to know how you started working for this organization and for you’ve been personally affected. You did say a bit of that but you can expand.

Bhavna Menon: I’ve always been interested in wildlife and conservation, forest and people. I’m very interested in meeting people but I was never a science buff. I was always an English Literature buff. I did Psychology for three years. And it was when I moved to pursue my post-graduation in journalism from Xaviers in Mumbai, this came after my college ended. This came as a college placement. Our founder Director Mr. Nikhil Nagle was looking for media students to help him put together a comprehensive website on wildlife and communities, and conservation efforts in different areas because he said, “there isn’t a good enough website as of now, which gives all this information.” So when he hired us, he hired some students from Sophia’s, some from Xaviers. We were a biggish team then. Now we are an extremely big team of two people. We started working then. We travelled to tiger reserves and collected the information. Every time we would come back and tell Nikhil about the different efforts being taken, he thought to himself and then he said it out loud to us: “You know, why don’t we give back to the forest as well?” Because, the tiger, he claims has given him so much in life—such happiness—he wanted to give back to the tigers as well. So that’s how we started work. We all build the NGO together and that’s how we started conservation.

Lalitha Krishnan: And do you want to tell me what the experience has been like for you?

Bhavna Menon: I think when I started out in this field I came from a lot of privilege. I carried with me a whole bag of preconceived notions but the day I walked out from the field, all of that just vanished into thin air. I realised that I knew nothing. I unlearnt and learned a lot of things thanks to the community members and they grounded me. I felt grounded when I realized the challenges people faced n villages and how they live. I always say this to people, even though it sounds real clichéd, that the real India is in the villages. The cities are beautiful yes but India exists in the villages. In the past nine years, I have changed a lot and I have learned to accept people for who they are. I’ve not been judgemental of people and I come with a very broad mind thanks to conservation.

Lalitha Krishnan: Excellent

Bhavna Menon: But the only thing I want to say is none of this would have been possible, like I said before, without our field coordinators. We have had some brilliant field coordinators like Indrabanji who handles Panna and Pushpendrji who handles Bandhavgarh. Disksha, she used to work in Kanha. Now we have Mr. Ram Kishore who works with us and volunteers. It sounds great that we are doing a brilliant job but it’s a huge team that’s behind this…

Lalitha Krishnan: I’m sure. So, how many people actually work in your office?

Bhavna Menon: Just me and Vidhya. Vidhya is my Director and I am the Programmes Manager for the organisation.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. Hats off to you guys.

Bhavna Menon: All of two women team

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s amazing. I want to know how FWF is funded and whether you require funding and how does it work if somebody is interested in funding you?

Bhavna Menon: Yes. As an NGO we are definitely looking for funding because a: we definitely want these projects to be sustainable in the long term. We wouldn’t want them to stop because we don’t have funds. Secondly, we are slowly expanding. We are working with more and more community members for which again, we need funds. So if anybody wants to contribute or wants to donate either their time or financially support us, they can again, write to us at conservation@thelastwilderness.org or they can directly contact me. I am available on social media and mail.

Lalitha Krishnan: One last question. I always ask my guests to share a word that is significant to them or to conservation. So what is yours?

Bhavna Menon: Right. Mine would be inclusion and acceptance. Actually two words maybe, almost meaning the same thing. It’s a word I choose or associate with conservation very deeply because had I not accepted the people/community members around tiger reserves for whom they are…because Last Wilderness believes you should not change people. You should work with them to understand them and then find a solution together. So acceptance and inclusion are extremely important. They have accepted me for who I am so and so have I…which has helped me work for the past nine years in conservation and enjoy every bit of it.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was going to say, it works both ways for the people involved. That’s lovely. Such a pleasure talking to you! Thank you so much.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation Podcast. You can listen to it on Google podcast, Spotify, Apple podcast and many other platforms. If you know somebody who is doing interesting work and whose story should be shared, do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. And keep listening. Bye for now.

Photo Courtesy Bhavna Menon

Birdsong by hillside residents


Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guests featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organisation, committee or other group or individual.

One thought on “Bhavna Menon: Saving the Wilderness Through Community Participation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s