Article by Sourabha Rao
A vast tiger reserve with its dense, green-black depths. In this forest have long-lived its ‘children’ who know their habitat intimately. We are talking about India’s largest tiger reserve, Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR), and the tribal people called the ‘Chenchu’ who have been an integral part of it.
While the frontline staff of the forest department is relentlessly committed to the well-being of this tiger reserve, the department also accredits another driving force with the tiger’s rising numbers – empowering the local community of Chenchu for tiger protection. The Chenchu are the original inhabitants of the Nallamala Hills. The tribal name translates to ‘children of the forest’. Known to be a primitive vulnerable tribal group, they have always dwelled deep inside these forests.
The Chenchu live life with exemplary simplicity. Most of them still gather food from the forest, and roam in it to find things to meet their needs.
Mr. Vineet Kumar, Divisional Forest Officer of the Nandyal Wildlife Division, NSTR, says, “For the longest time, the Chenchu have coexisted with wildlife in what can be called a symbiotic relationship. The landscape of NSTR – the Nallamala Hills – is their home. When you consider this, any conservation effort can only be successful if the local community of the Chenchu is involved.”
He continues, “The forest department, Government of Andhra Pradesh, has employed the Chenchu as protection watchers in the basecamps. They reside in the basecamps that dot the deeper parts of NSTR, very similar to how they otherwise live in the forest.”
Imran Siddiqui, our Programme Head of the Eastern Ghats team, who works extensively with tribals in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana observes, “We cannot imagine Nallamala forests without Chenchus, they are the habitat people and perhaps the oldest aborginal people in South India. Their knowledge of forests and wildlife is key for managing the unusually large tiger reserve.”
A typical day in a protection watcher’s life involves patrolling the forest, recording any animal movement or its evidence (such as scat) they come across, checking all the vulnerable routes and the designated patrolling tracks, and checking on water bodies. In a way, as Vineet Kumar observes, this life is similar to their earlier ways of roaming the forests for non-timber forest product collection.
The Chenchu have also adapted to using modern technology for conservation. They use M-Stripes mobile app to keep track of every movement, every track of the tigers.
“Their primordial connection with the forest has been the game-changing force in the protection of tigers in the NSTR. They continue to follow their daily schedule, only now, assisting the forest department while doing so. They also keep an eye out on the outsiders’ movement in the tiger reserve. I am in fact delighted to say that the Chenchu are a vital reason behind the successful story of tiger conservation in NSTR,” asserts a pleased Mr. Kumar.
This collaboration has proved to be fruitful for both conservation and the Chenchu. The patrolling team emphasises on the fact that they all have jobs because of the tiger. And they acknowledge how the forest department takes care of them well. “Saving the tiger is our responsibility,” they profess their love for the apex predator.
The forest department has been providing the Chenchu protection watchers who are living in the basecamps with basic amenities. It is done primarily to enable them to perform their daily duties efficiently.
Apart from the rising numbers in the tiger population of the NSTR, there is now a separate breeding population in the corridor area. The other significant outcome of empowering the Chenchu for tiger protection is the bolstered peaceful coexistence of forest-dwellers and wildlife.
(We thank all the gracious Chenchu people featured here for permitting us to photograph and interview them.)