Whether it be the Green Army or his work at SGNP, Sunil Limaye has believed that effective conservation can happen only when all affected people are involved.
He has a spider and a lizard named after him – Jerzego sunillimaye and the day gecko respectively. Perhaps he is the only forest officer, or the first Indian even, to have such a distinction. The honour bestowed on him can be traced not only to his dedication at work but his efforts to support research work and engage with all sections of society to encourage conservation.
“It is indeed very gratifying,” says APCCF (Wildlife) Maharashtra, Sunil Limaye, to a question on what this token of immortality means to him. “I am not into research but being a life science graduate I knew how difficult research work can be in the wilderness and supported those doing the same. They, in turn, have named the two species in recognition of my help.”
Known for his work during the stint at Sanjay Gandhi National Park where he, along with wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya, in 2011 started the ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’ project to spread awareness and reduce human leopard conflicts, today he is a happy man that the situation is far less tense than it was back then. It was this initiative to involve all stakeholders from the public to the police, revenue and municipal authorities that helped send across the message that conservation is not the sole prerogative of the forest department.
“We told the police that it was their job to control crowd during a conflict situation, while the municipal authorities were told to keep the urban areas clean of garbage which attracted the feral dogs and pigs, and in turn the leopard. Open defecation was another issue. It was not because the leopards did not have food inside the national park, but that a more easily available prey could be found in the urban areas,” says Limaye, adding that the media was also roped in to send across this message, and not show wildlife in a bad light. He is satisfied that deaths and injuries in leopard attacks today are few and far in between. In fact, he believes it was this work at SGNP that was his biggest contribution so far.
Ask him the major challenge facing wildlife in the country, and Limaye says it is the encroachment of space by humans. “It is so difficult to convince people that the very little space left for wildlife needs to be left intact. Wildlife needs very little space but we are not able to even leave that untouched. As you know, hardly 4% of the land is protected and that too gets eaten up due to human demand for space. Due to this conflicts increase,” he explains. “Despite that, we still have so much more wildlife here in India than in the west, and it is thanks to various factors like tolerance and cultural binding to animals as is seen in Maharashtra.”
Addressing the issue of space, one of the solutions has been to create inviolate spaces for wildlife while also helping people move to a better life. Voluntary relocation of people from the six tiger project areas in the state have been proceeding well due to adoption of models that not only pay a financial compensation but also provide the people with land to practice agriculture. “It is necessarily voluntary by nature and as per the demands of the people. Unless we give them what they want, they will return back to the forest. For instance, in Tadoba most of the villages have been resettled and two remaining are in the process of being moved. As the forest minister is also the finance minister, we have had no dearth of finance for relocation projects.”
Even in SGNP there have been similar successes with over 12,000 families moved to apartments built by the government. Another 13,000 are in the process of being built for the remaining. But over and above this are those who have encroached the land beyond the cut-off date. These people are being evicted and removed, says Limaye.
The department continually works to spread awareness among the public and as part of this when joint forest management committees meet, they are encouraged to also look into the needs of the wildlife, Limaye adds. “When people complain of wild pigs destroying their crops, we try to ensure compensation is paid adequately and in time, and we also try to reason with them against killing the pigs which are one of the major prey for the tiger. It takes time convincing.”
The forest department in Maharashtra offers an opportunity for interested people to take part in a nature experience opportunity called Nisarganubhav. What was earlier the waterhole census conducted in May, is now a chance for wildlife lovers to see the kind of species that visit waterholes. “It is not about counting animals anymore but to witness the diversity and see how waterholes help wildlife,” explains Sunil Limaye, who believes in spreading awareness among people to inculcate a love for nature and wildlife.
He is optimistic that the Nature Interpretation Centres at the parks and sanctuaries can educate the wildlife lover and help him/her understand a whole gamut of wildlife beyond the tiger. “Wildlife tourism is a good thing but everyone wants to see a tiger and nothing else. This tiger-centric outlook must be corrected to expose them to the whole diverse web of species. We also need to have a threshold or carrying capacity of tourists for every park.”
Limaye is happy with the models of eco-tourism at some of the sites in Maharashtra, like Melghat, and Tilari at Kolhapur. “Eco-tourism must help maintain ecology and also benefit the local people if they are to be involved in conservation. We must encourage homestays run by locals instead of five-star hotels where people come to see only the tiger!” Some of the places along the coast have such examples of locals involved in hosting and introducing the tourists to the magic of hatching of Oliver Ridleys, he notes.
No less than 65 lakh people have enlisted to the department’s Green Army initiative to build an army of volunteers who are being prepared to help the department when the need arises. The target is to have a crore volunteers, Limaye says. That apart, there is also the 24-hour distress call number 1926 that anyone can call to report any untoward incidents like tree cutting or forest fires and encroachments seen in the forests.
As part of greening the state, the forest department has been continuing with its ‘Green Maharashtra’ project of planting 50 crore saplings in three years. This year the target is to complete 33 crores in three months by the end of September. “This is not just in forest land (that is only 20 percent in the state) but we are asking for gram panchayat areas, roadside, canal side, any place with potential. The project also involves monitoring of the sapling as the GPS coordinates at the sites are uploaded on our website for anyone to check. We also undertake a survival count of the saplings later in the year and this figure too is uploaded.”
The 1988 batch IFS officer had his eye on the Indian Army and it was by a chance of fate that he landed in the forest department. But there are no regrets and he is happy to be a forest officer. “Being close to nature was something I always enjoyed right from my college days and that has come true with my job.”
Written by Jayalakshmi K