Malhar Indulkar is working to conserve otters and their riverine habitats in the Tillari region of Maharashtra. He engages with children in interactive activities such as an ‘otter festival’ and involves fisherfolk to include sustainable fishing methods that would protect fish stock and the habitat too. Illustration by Labonie Roy for Mongabay.

Non-traditional fishing and fish plot conservation

For the past three years, Indulkar has been surveying the tributaries of Tillari river in the Maharasthra region and small streams for the presence of otters. During his surveys, his team found something unexpected: bleach packets and electric coils. These were used for fishing. “We found that the pressure of non-traditional fishing in the streams is quite high there so we started working on that.”

They started awareness programmes in the village where they explained the ecological effects of using bleach and electric coils. When bleach packets are released into the river in high-water streams, this affects fish and other organisms a few kilometres downstream, explains Indulkar. Mass fish kills occur downstream. He told the residents that when one engages in such fishing practices, “you tend to lose fish that are not edible, even the fingerlings (the small, juvenile ones) get killed” which could contribute to reduced fish populations.

Indulkar personally visited 60 families in Konalkatta village to raise awareness for otter conservation and to understand the perception of the residents towards the river. He noted a drop in the number of bleach packets from 10 in his first survey of a 3-km stretch to two in the following year. This could be, in part, due to the awareness programmes.

Another successful initiative was ‘fish plot conservation’. During the early monsoons when fish migrate upstream into fields to spawn, fisherfolk usually catch fish. It’s a social activity for them, says Indulkar. After meeting the local fishermen, his team mapped the fields where fish spawn and approached the owner of those fields to ask if they would be willing to abandon fishing in their plots for that year to ensure a healthy population of fish in the river in subsequent years. The owners agreed after which Indulkar proposed it in the gram sabhas of Hevale, Tervan Medhe and Konalkatta villages where it was endorsed. This way large tracts of plots were conserved, says the young conservationist.

Getting new ideas to conserve otters and their habitat keeps Indulkar motivated. “I have this thing for sacred groves as well, so I keep on thinking if there can be a ‘river sacred grove’” or a ‘mangrove sacred grove’.” Now, he is working on community-conserved stretches along Terekhol River, some of which have the concept of a ‘sacred pool’ where people avoid fishing.

“I am constantly thinking if more such areas can be created along the river.”

Farmers in a programme to decide on fish plot conservation in Tervan Medhe village. Photo by Malhar Indulkar.

A new conservation reserve and more in the offing

Wildlife surveys in Tillari have been scarce and Indulkar feels the region is underrated. Recently, however, some researchers have begun to explore the region. Early 2019, researchers reported sighting the Malabar Tree Toad, which is endemic to the Western Ghats, at a record-low altitude of 113 metres in Tillari and this finding expands the range of this species. Late 2019, a new plant species was described from the high-altitude plateaus of Tillari in Kohlapur district. It was aptly named Chlorophytum tillariense. Only found in an area of 2 sq km, the plant is closely related to another species reported from the region.

Girish Punjabi, a conservation biologist, now at the Wildlife Conservation Trust, had set up camera traps for tigers in Tillari in 2012. “We just wanted to get pictures of tigers moving in that area so we did that for about 2-3 years and in 2014 we got the first pictures of tigers using the Tillari area,” he said. Consequently, the Maharashtra Forest Department (MFD) began an initiative to declare Tillari as a protected area. In 2017, Girish submitted a report to the MFD based on his earlier tiger sightings and the results of large mammal-monitoring surveys in the region, which strengthened the case for a protected area. Other researchers and conservationists were also involved.

“The reason we wanted to get Tillari declared as a protected area was that it is a critical pinch point for large mammal movement between three states, that is, Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. So, if any tiger is travelling from Karnataka into Maharashtra, they have to move through Tillari. Or if a tiger is travelling from Goa into Maharashtra, they have to move through Tillari; there is no other piece of habitat,” Punjabi explains.

A few years passed and there were many legal and land ownership issues. In June, their efforts finally materialised: The Maharashtra government declared about 30 sq km of the Dodamarg forest range in Sindhudurg district as ‘Tillari Conservation Reserve.’ However, lands outside of the conservation reserve are privately owned. “If you look at the outer boundaries of the conservation reserve, the total area is about 110 sq km. So almost 80 sq km of land is not with the forest department or the government, it’s with people.”

In an effort to maintain forest connectivity along the Western Ghats for tiger dispersal, the Maharashtra forest department, this month, further proposed the declaration of 11 conservation reserves (CR). Among them, Chandgad CR at Kohlapur covering an area of 225.2 sq. km has been suggested that connects the Tillari CR with Karnataka’s Bhimgad Sanctuary and Dodamarg-Amboli CR (56.9 sq. km) connecting Tillari with tiger breeding areas of Bhimgad Sanctuary and Mhadei Sanctuary.

Such a move will cease the possibility of mining projects in the ecological buffer areas, says Indulkar, adding that the “provisions under CRs may help raise sustainable livelihoods to local communities living around CRs.”

Neha is a freelance science writer based in Hong Kong who has a passion for sharing science and sustainability stories with everyone. She writes about biology, conservation, and the environment. Before turning to writing, she worked in a cancer research lab and facilitated science learning among elementary school children through fun, hands-on experiments. Her science blog Life Science Exploration covers intriguing posts on unusual creatures and our shared habitat.

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