Home where the blackbuck roam
ABOHAR Wildlife Sanctuary in Punjab is not your average preserve. The 18,700 ha sanctuary - situated 15 km from Abohar town in Ferozepur district - is spread over 13 villages and is one of only two private reserves in India. The other is the Abubshahar sanctuary in Haryana. And, there is no committee to maintain the sanctuary and neither is there any fencing.
The sanctuary is home to the blackbuck, antelopes that are uniquely endemic to the subcontinent and whose numbers are dwindling. At the time of Independence, the blackbuck population was estimated at about 80,000. By 1964, their numbers had fallen to 8,000. In Abohar, however, the blackbuck are thriving. According to initial estimates of a census carried out in February, the number of blackbuck has increased from 3,500 in 1986 to 4,500 (See box).
The increase in blackbuck numbers has come about largely due to the "positive approach" of the Bishnoi community, which has maintained the sanctuary for almost 20 years now. In 1975, the Akhil Bharatiya Jeev Raksha Samiti Bishnoi Sabha, an umbrella organisation of Bishnois, persuaded the state government to turn the area into a sanctuary.
Animal freeway Animals - mainly blackbuck (krishnamriga) and some nilgai - freely roam the sanctuary, which has a state highway running through it, and even enter villages.
The freedom that the blackbuck enjoy is perceived by some villagers as harmful for the crops cultivated by the Bishnois - wheat and mustard in summer and cotton in winter. However, others say the animals do not harm the crops. "They only nibble at the top," claims Sant Kumar, president of the Sabha. "In fact," he says, "the nibbling is good because yield would drop if the crops grew tall." Wheat and cotton yields in Abohar are comparable to that in any other district in Punjab. But, according to Manoharlal Bishnoi of Khairpur village, the animals sometimes spoil the ripe crop.
Regardless of ho villagers feel about black- buck crunching on their crop, there is little that can be done. Their religion forbids the killing of animals. Says Sant Kumar, "The Blackbuck is an avatar of Shiva for us. The scriptures say, 'Wherever there is the krishnamriga, there is prosperity."' It is this religious sentiment that keeps the blackbuck safe. According to Karni Singh of Sukhchari village, the villagers have not set up any formal body to run the sanctuary. The stress is on open fencing.
Explains Gurmit Singh, chief wildlife warden of Punjab, "The blackbuck restrict themselves to the fields of the Bishnois." They have a highly developed survival instinct and know they are safe in the fields of the Bishnois. There is enough land for them, as each Bishnoi family owns about 140 ha. The villagers have also provided water holes.
The Bishnois do not even want the state to provide guards for the sanctuary because they fear poachers may bribe the guards. Warns Gurcharan Singh Sehgal, wildlife inspector of Abohar, "Any animal that strays into other farmers fields is in danger of being killed." Fortunately, this does not happen too often because neighbouring communities respect the sentiment of the Bishnois and refrain from killing the blackbuck.
Poachers beware However, poaching has not stopped and the Bishnois are constantly keeping an eye out for trouble, says Satpal Bishnoi of Sardargarh village. Sant Kumar says poachers are fined Rs 1,100 for each animal killed. The amount is used to provide for the animals and treat injured ones.
Despite the harmony of humans and animals at Abohar, there are points of contention between the villagers and the administration. The authorities want to kill stray dogs in the villages, which they feel threaten the blackbuck and other animals. "But we cannot do anything because of the sentiments of the Bishnois," says Gurmit Singh. Besides, the villagers domesticate injured blackbuck. This creates problems because these tame animals cannot go back to the wild.
Gurmit Singh says that most of the problems are of a legal nature and arise because the sanctuary is on private land. "Most of the time, we circumvent the rules to help the situation, but this is not always possible," he says.
Because the land is not government-owned, the area has not been notified as a sanctuary. With the villagers unwilling to hand over the land to the government for fear of losing control over the sanctuary, the government has taken the easy way out by notifying it as a sanctuary every five years.
The Abohar sanctuary shows that community-based sanctuary management, with the state playing a marginal role, can be successful.