Jagdish is a guard turned conservationist of the Indian skimmer at its habitat, the Chambal River. The migratory bird nests on sandbars. To save the eggs and chicks of the bird, Jagdish with his small team of villagers, protect the sandbars day and night for two months. Illustration by Tanya Timble for Mongabay.

The Indian skimmer’s ‘chowkidar

From a farmer to a chowkidar (guard) and now a conservationist, Jagdish’s journey has had several challenges. He had to leave school while he was in the 5th standard and, along with three other brothers, he started helping his father in farming. The river Chambal played a crucial role in bringing him close to nature.

“The river is an integral part of my life. I used to take a bath and swim in the river in my childhood. Even today, the whole village drinks Chambal’s water,” said Jagdish.

When farming was not enough to make ends meet, Jagdish took up a seasonal job as well. “We are four brothers, and the farms are not sufficient to run the family. I started working as a chowkidar in Chambal safari, run by the forest department. The job lasts only two to three months a year. The rest of the year, I indulge myself in various conservation work,” he added.

The help of the local people is important in this case because locals know the habitat, they know the region and the skimmer is a harmless species right in their backyard, notes Shaikh. “In the Chambal region where I work, there is no record of poaching of the eggs by people,” she says, indicating that a direct human threat to the birds is low. The project helps sensitise the local people and provides a small bit of employment, while the information collected by the guardians feeds into research and scientific data on the Indian skimmer, making it a useful technique “until we come up with the best solution to protect the species,” she says.

A flock of Indian skimmers. The longer lower mandible is used to skim the water as the bird flies low over the river. Photo by Wildmishra/Wikimedia Commons.
A flock of Indian skimmers. The longer lower mandible is used to skim the water as the bird flies low over the river. Photo by Wildmishra/Wikimedia Commons.

Sand mining causing habitat loss

Illegal sand mining in Chambal is a cause for distress in Indian skimmers, gharials, and other species dependent on sandbars. The Supreme Court in 2016 had imposed a ban on sand mining in the Chambal River to protect flora and fauna in the region. After the complete ban, illegal mine operators, the ‘sand mafia’ became active in the region.

“Every year, the Chambal river deposits a large amount of sand, but the whole area is affected by sand mining. Not only migratory birds but the other species may lose habitat due to excessive mining. People involved in illegal mining can attack anyone, even the forest staff, so it is a big concern for us,” said Basavaraj S Annigeri, Chief Conservator of Forest (CCF), Gwalior, who overlooks the Chambal region.

“The Chambal forest area spreads over 420 square km, and it is very rich in biodiversity. Considering the large area, this is very challenging to keep a vigil on illegal activity. However, we are not reporting poaching of birds, but sand mining is still one of the biggest concerns of the department,” said Basavaraj S Annigeri.

Annigeri appreciates the work of Jagdish and said, “Including community in conservation is a great idea. Not only for Indian skimmers but for other species we deployed chowkidars in the area. The department will continue this practice in future,” he added.

Jagdish taking notes near the Chambal river. Photo from Parveen Shaikh.
Jagdish taking notes near the Chambal river. Photo from Parveen Shaikh.

Read more: Nest guardians to keep the Indian skimmer’s eggs safe


Talking conservation to sand miners

Talking about the challenges, Jagdish said, “It is true that sand miners are all over this area, and they are dangerous as well. I encounter them almost every day. I used to request them not to disturb any island with a nest, and they listen to me most of the time. I also explain to them why these species are important to us. However, I can also understand their problem as there are not many sources of livelihood in this area.”

Through a fine balance of trying to do his work, while safely warding off sand miners, he has made inroads in atleast having a conversation with the mining mafia, something that is not easy for officials or researchers in the area.

Jagdish started biodiversity conservation work in 2009. Though he is a school dropout, he knows about many species and is involved in conservation work.“I can read and write Hindi and know basic maths. It helps me work with researchers,” added Jagdish.

Talking about his conservation journey, he said, “For the first time, I worked on the conservation of reptiles. I came to know that despite its size, gharials are not harmful to us. I spread this information to villagers that we need not fear these creatures. Now they are very supportive in conservation work.”

Lakhan Gurjar, Gabbar, and Chhotu, residents of the village, also help Jagdish in his work.

“Two months are crucial for Indian skimmers. We keep a vigil day and night on the nests. Protecting them at night is a little scary, but I always carry a torch with me. Fencing the nest area with natural materials is also part of our work,” said Lakhan Gurjar, another villager from Jaitpur.

“People in this region have worked with gharial nest monitoring before. They have been associated with sanctuary for a while. For birds they were doing it for the first time,” said Shaikh. “Our pilot has shown some level of success. While we can’t say with complete certainty that this is the best practice because the number of islands tested so far is low, it does give an indication but we need to go scientifically and get proper data.”

Shaikh emphasises that India still has hope for the species because there are breeding records in the country, even though a decline has been witnessed. India can take the responsibility of saving the species and the rivers of India are the only hope for it.

The Chambal river near Dhaulpur at the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh border. Photo by Yann/Wikimedia Commons.
The Chambal river near Dhaulpur at the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh border. Photo by Yann/Wikimedia Commons.

 

Illustration by Tanya Timble, a self-taught illustrator based out of Jaipur. Her art is deeply influenced by the rich cultures and traditions the city has to offer. It ranges in a spectrum from unmoving landscapes to trying to capture the ever-elusive human emotion.

Article published by Aditi
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