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Monday, September 20, 2021

Where forest is God: Lessons in conservation from Western Ghats tribes

The ability of the Solega to adapt their own activities to mitigate conflict with wild animals make them ideal partners for conservationists in the fight to preserve local biodiversity, and protect endangered species.

Written by Aswathi Pacha | Kochi |
July 29, 2021 6:55:48 pm
Solega communityThe study aimed to give a voice to Solega people (C. Madegowda)

Goru goru ka gorukaana, kaadu kaapadi madgonaya, sings Dr C Madegowda as he tells the story of his people — the Solega community of the Biligiri Rangan Hills, Karnataka. “Goru Goru is the sound of the evergreen forest or the Kaana. The forest is our God and so is every tree, flower, fruit, and wildlife in it.” Dr Madegowda is a Senior Research Associate at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore.

The Solega are a small community of around 30,000 people, who traditionally practiced a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, along with small-scale agriculture, and now live in small hamlets all over the BR Hills, from the high-altitude evergreen forest to the lowland scrub forests.

Spending several years interviewing the elders of the tribe, a paper published last month details how they perceive wildlife interactions and the recent ecological changes in the region. The study aimed “to give a voice to Solega people, as indigenous voices and points of view are often absent from discourses surrounding endangered wildlife, invasive species, and general biodiversity conservation.”

Most of the animals in the region are worshiped by the community. The tiger is seen as Lord Madeswara’s animal, Pandeswara is the elephant god, the Gaur belongs to Lord Karappa, and the sambar is the animal of Lord Kadodeya Muttaraya.

“During the village festival, we even worship the leaves, flowers and fruits we collect for the rituals. The Solega community has learnt to live in harmony with the wildlife. I think we have a great sense of smell and hearing and can understand if a wild animal is approaching. Recently, to capture a tiger in the Bandipur-Nagarhole region, the forest officials took help from our community as we are born gifted to talk with nature,” explains Dr. Madegowda. He is one of the authors of the paper published in Frontiers in Conservation Science.

Solega community The festival of the Solega community (C. Madegowda)

The paper details interesting stories from the community. One Solega elder narrates how their God protects them from the wild animals:

“Lord Mahadeswaraswamy tells the animals: my children are coming, you shouldn’t be visible to them. The tiger becomes a termite-hill, sloth bear becomes a boulder, elephant becomes a hill and snake becomes a weed. This was the boon that our God gave us… But if you make a mistake (commit a sin), then they will definitely come near you [these animals]. See I must have done something wrong and so the elephants came near my home. “Alright, I have sinned, I will perform a puje (ritual appeasement) in your name, now go” [I said]. This is what we believe. If we sin, we must appease the Gods.”

Even birds play important roles and the calls of certain birds are considered to be portents. The Solega also respond to the birds with their own vocal signal.

“There is no human-wildlife conflict; it is more of coexistence. Of course, there have been agonistic interactions, or aggressive ones — as an elephant raiding their crop, but the community never retaliates with violence. And that is mediated by their religious beliefs,” says co-author Samira Agnihotri, alumna from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore.

She explains how one invasive plant species, the lantana, has upset the tribes. “The community believes that the invasion happened because there was a ban on their traditional leaf-litter fire practices. Every year, the tribes set very low and slow-moving fires to the leaf litter in the forest in the month of January and February. This was before various laws were enacted by the government and the area was declared as protected,” she adds. “There is a lot of sadness in the community about what the forest used to look like, how it is now, and how it has affected the wellbeing of not just their own community but also the wildlife. Lantana overgrowth has caused a lack of many types of grass which are primary food sources for many herbivores including elephants.”

When asked if she plans to continue working with the Solega, Dr Agnihotri says: “We have only touched the tip of the iceberg. There is a huge treasure, or wealth of information that we can all benefit from that is yet to be documented. And it’s rapidly going extinct.”

Co-author Dr Aung Si, from the Institute for Linguistics, University of Cologne, Germany, has also been working with the Solega for many years as their language contains a lot of information about their traditional ecological knowledge.

“The ability of the Solega, like other indigenous communities in India, to adapt their own activities to mitigate conflict with wild animals, along with their extensive traditional knowledge on various aspects of forest ecology and animal behaviour, make them ideal partners for conservationists in the fight to preserve local biodiversity, and protect endangered species. Their presence in the forests of the B. R. Hills should not be viewed as aberrant, problematic or contrary to conservation goals, but as a distinct advantage, given that they have already lived for generations as stewards of the forest,” concludes the paper.

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