We pause for a minute at one of the higher bends of the ghat to take in the view before we begin our descent from the Malai Mahadeshwara temple in the Male Mahadeshwara Hills (MM Hills) Wildlife Sanctuary of Karnataka. In front of us lies the magnificent Erkyam Valley—a dense, lush valley, and ahead of that, the state of Tamil Nadu. Further on the road, there is an obscure diversion to the left, a narrow, unpaved uphill slope. In the monsoons, villagers walk up to this road head as the rains sweep away the road. As we venture deeper, down winding slopes, past trees and hillocks, a hamlet of sparsely populated houses comes into view. This is Kokkabare, one of the many villages within the MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary.

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"As we venture deeper, down winding slopes, past trees and hillocks, a hamlet of sparsely populated houses comes into view." Photograph courtesy of Team Holématthi Nature Foundation

Kokkabare is a textbook Indian village. Women ploughing their land, children chasing each other through paddy fields. Like most villages in the region, the women here largely depend on firewood and grass fronds collected from the forests to fulfil their domestic and economic needs. These communities form a crucial part of the landscape and share a close bond with the surrounding forests.

Here's the catch though, spread across 906sq.km., the sanctuary is home to hundreds of species of wildlife, some even endemic to the region. MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary forms a part of one of the largest stretches of contiguous forests in all of India—hosting an incredible amount of diversity and density in terms of forest types, geology, wildlife and ecology, ranging from dry deciduous forests to lush riverine ecosystems.

Kokkabare, MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary
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Kokkabare is a small hamlet of isolated homes in the MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary. Photograph: Santosh Kumar

Reducing Instances of Human-wildlife Conflict

Back in 2015, based on the surveys conducted by our team members at Holématthi Nature Foundation, we found these villagers to be harvesting 19 of the same tree species that were used by herbivores in the region. Furthermore, the bark of the Dwarf Date Palm (Phoenix humilis), fronds of which are used to make brooms, were important fodder for elephants. Some of these trees are important nesting sites for birds like the vulnerable and endemic White-naped Tit. Over a period of time, continued harvesting in one region can lead to habitat fragmentation and loss of crucial tree species therein.

Aerial photograph of an elephant herd
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Our surveys showed that herbivores in the region rely on many of the same species harvested either as fuelwood or for economic reasons by local communities. Photograph courtesy of Evanescence Studios

Venturing deep into these forests has other drawbacks too. Our surveys show that women spend close to 800 hours annually walking through forests in search of firewood, which increases the possibility of chance encounters with wildlife that occupy the same landscape. As for the non-timber forest produce they rely on, the effort is hardly worth the outcome, with the income being meagre and seasonal, mainly hitting a high during the pilgrim season at the MM Hills temple.

American lawyer and jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” The team of conservationists at Holématthi Nature Foundation, working in association with sister organisation Nature Conservation Foundation, the Forest Department, and most importantly, the local communities, needed a sustainable, workable solution to address all the issues mentioned above. These interventions can go a long way in defining the kind of attitudes communities build towards wildlife in the region. After months of surveys, research, monitoring, conversations with partners, and trials, we developed a two-part solution.

Cooking in a rural kitchen in India
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The particulate matter released from earthen stoves negatively impacts the respiratory health of women. Photograph: Smitha Tumuluru

To address the problem of firewood collection, we started providing LPG connections to the families in these remote villages—ensuring support through every step of the process—from registering for the connection, and its installation, to even getting refills. Often, this last mile support is what becomes a key challenge in sustaining an initiative, particularly in remote, inaccessible locations like this one. Hence the model had to be designed accounting for these challenges. It was developed on a cost and responsibility sharing basis. Over the last five years, as of June 2022, we have provided LPG connections to over 2100 families spread across 130 villages, positively impacting the lives of over 7000 people. Post-intervention surveys also show stabilised lung capacity among women. According to the latest Lancet Commission on pollution and health, the burning of biomass in households was the single largest cause of air pollution deaths in India in 2019. Starting this year, we are providing fuel-efficient water boilers to all villages in the region

Creating Alternate Opportunities for Livelihood

As we move through Kokkabare, we come across a small workshop perched atop a tiny hillock. A group of women, and two men, are busy tailoring metre after metre of fabric into beautiful cotton bags. It is a new assignment that has come in, and everyone has a designated role to play. I see samples of the previous designs they’ve worked on—hand-stitched masks, embroidered fabric pieces, and backpacks made for the forest department, among others. There is visible progress in the finished products from the earlier lot—the consistency of the stitches, uniformity in the final products, and even colour schemes.

A member of the Alternate Livelihoods Program with a drawstring bag she stitched herself for forest frontline staff
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One of our team members with a drawstring backpack she stitched herself, which were given to the forest frontline workers as a part of their field kits. Photograph: Smitha Tumuluru

These women are part of the Alternative Livelihoods Program started by the Nature Conservation Foundation and Holématthi Nature Foundation. Started just before the pandemic, the project not only managed to stay afloat but found new footing, catering to the critical need for masks during the time. The bags crafted by these women also became a part of the field kits distributed among frontline forest workers in the nearby forests. As word spread, more and more orders kept coming in, and the women always rose to the challenge. This is now a team of motivated, confident young women working in a stable and more comfortable environment. The vision is to set up a few more self-sustainable centres in the neighbouring villages.

Jaya Mary, a member of the Alternate Livelihoods Program, works at a local petrol station
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Jaya Mary, who would once venture deep into the forests in search of firewood, can now save hours in a day due to her LPG connection. She uses this time to work at the local petrol station, which has become an additional income source for her family. Photograph: Smitha Tumuluru

When tackling something as complex and multi-faceted as wildlife conservation, sustainable and lasting impact can only be achieved through communication and collaboration between all involved entities. Unfortunately, these communities often tend to be overlooked when decisions are made regarding their surroundings, home and livelihoods, leading to a negative perception of wildlife. When provided with solutions, patient and persistent efforts can lead to change and can help bring people together in achieving a larger conservation goal.

To find out more about Holématthi Nature Foundation and to contribute to their efforts, click here.