A new Self Help Group named “Kaso Sakhi” was formed on the 16th of November, 2019 with eight traditional women weavers from Biswanath Ghat to make special gamochas (traditional scarves) that promote freshwater turtle conservation in the area. Through a project initiated by the Wildlife Conservation Society/Turtle Survival Alliance India Program that aims to promote economic growth for local and tribal communities whilst safeguarding threatened species, this group was formed with the support from high ranking officers of the Assam Forest Department such as Mr. Mukut Chandra Das; Divisional Forest Officer from Biswanath Wildlife Division and Mr. Nanda Kumar; Assistant Conservator of Forest and Mr. Biswa Jyoti Das; Assistant Conservator of Forest, both from the Sonitpur East Division and VDP Secretary Mr.Prasanta Das
Biswanath Ghat is located on the northern banks of the Brahmaputra River, which flows through Kaziranga National Park. Its high biodiversity has led to it becoming the 6th addition to the Kaziranga National Park. While this is beneficial to the various animal species dependent on the Brahmaputra, it has created a negative blowback on communities in the area who fish as a main source of livelihood, since traditional fishing zones have now become restricted.
Recognizing this issue, Ms. Arpita Dutta and Dr. Parimal Chandra Ray from the northeast team of WCS/TSA India’s Northeast Project opened a dialogue with local villagers, eventually helping them to implement traditional skills into an alternative livelihood option that would allow them to support themselves yet also help to highlight the high turtle diversity of Biswanath Ghat and why it is necessary to protect them. Debajit Mahanta, who is part of the team and Krishna Das, a field assistant who comes from the same village, were instrumental in the success of the project as they brought the eight women together, explaining the concept and also shared designs, made by Debajit, to incorporate turtle images into the scarves. These eight women came together to form the Self Help Group and were able to make these scarves in record time due to their belief in the project. Mr. Chandra Das from the Assam Forest Department was particularly supportive of the community from the initial stages, confident that this would help build eco-tourism in the area, providing further economic stability to these communities.
The WCS/TSA India Program is an NGO focused on conserving threatened freshwater turtles and tortoises in the region. Working in Biswanath Ghat over the past two years, they have established a Nature Discovery Center, leased from Assam Tourism Development Corporation, to promote education, awareness and scientific studies on the biodiversity of Kaziranga National Park. Funded by the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund and Phoenix Zoo’s Conservation and Science Grant’s Program, they conduct research and conservation programs on many turtle species such as the Assam Roofed Turtle (Panghshura sylhetensis) and the Black Softshell turtle (Nilssonia nigricans), as well as community and education initiatives such as this traditional ‘turtle scarf’ project. The aim of this initiative was to facilitate a model for sustainable development for women by incorporating traditional handicraft skills that are a regular part of every household, thus gaining support from displaced communities. With the strengthened relationship between the villagers and the team from the Nature Discovery Center, in no small part due to the efforts of Debajit and Krishna Das, the Northteast team’s next steps will be to build open this model and replicate it amongst other villages within the Biswanath Ghat area to further strengthen regional conservation efforts.