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On Bustard patrol

Syed Shaz | Updated on April 01, 2021

Come to the rescue: Radheysham monitors the Great Indian Bustards in the Pokhran region, conducts anti-poaching initiatives and helps with wildlife rescues

Milk vendors, nomadic herders and villagers are the ears and eyes of Radheysham, recently honoured for his efforts at safeguarding wildlife in the deserts of Rajasthan

* Dholiya is a village inhabited by 1,500 Bishnoi families, bound by a common set of values

* Radheysham tours the area in his 4x4 camper and scouts for signs of wildlife

* His efforts were recognised when he recently received Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s “Mud on Boots” support as a project leader for 2021-2022

***

Pokhran, Rajasthan. The dust is thick, the landscape dotted with stunted and prickly vegetation typical of arid regions. The skies are a crystal blue, though — the AQI is still well below average city levels, despite the landscape being perceived popularly as wasteland owing to the lack of tall trees typical of lush forests. And this is actually the umbrella issue that plagues such ecosystems — of being seen as devoid of life due to their appearance.

This is why the story of Radheysham Bishnoi is important.

Radheysham is from Rajasthan’s Bishnoi community which took up conservation issues well before they became the mainstream news they are today. The lanes shorten considerably as I turn towards his village Dholiya — easy to miss on a broad national highway that abuts it on one side. It is not unusual to see cows occupying little nooks and crannies — dairy farming, after all, is the mainstay of the Bishnois.

He is not here, so I have a chat with Dharma, his older brother, in their small makeshift office space. On the walls are posters of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), the region’s flagship species of which only 150 remain today. It takes a while to get Dharma used to the camera. Then, he slowly opens up, narrating the story of Radhey, as he calls him, — and unveiling layers of village politics and perceptions.

Radheysham was always different. In his mid-teens, when many of his peers had turned to intoxicants — a serious problem in the region — he was tending to injured animals — cows, peacocks, deer and birds.

He is now 24, married, and still passionate about animals.

Dholiya is a village inhabited by 1,500 Bishnoi families, bound by a common set of values and like-mindedness. The Bishnoi community, which worships trees, is known for its cultural reverence for animals, but villagers were initially somewhat sceptical of Radheysham’s work for wildlife conservation doesn’t pay rich dividends — at least not in the short term.

Life has not been easy, says Dharma. For one, the family’s dairy business — supplying and manufacturing milk products — demands considerable funds. Second, he adds, Radhey needs money to travel long distances across the vast region to tend to wildlife, for fuel, medical aid and transporting the animals to facilities where they can be looked after.

Dharma’s face lights up as he talks about his brother’s perseverance despite all the difficulties. Radheysham’s efforts were recognised when he recently received Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s “Mud on Boots” support as a project leader for 2021-2022. The “Mud on Boots” programme of the not-for-profit foundation seeks to empower grassroots conservation leaders across India. He has been awarded a fund worth ₹3 lakh which is to assist him in conservation work over 2021-22.

***

The morning sun lights up the village’s centre. A few cows and stray dogs loiter around, peacocks call sitting atop tree branches and human movement is virtually non-existent — life in the village is slow.

Radheysham’s day however starts early. His one-year old son plays on a parked scooter and is occasionally checked by his father for picking up dirt.

Pastoral prism: Dairy farming is the mainstay of the Bishnoi community in the region

 

Gradually, villagers, mostly women and children, start to drop in with carriers of all shapes and sizes — plastic containers, silverware etc — delivering milk. They pour the milk into a small cylindrical plastic vessel hoisted on the weighing scales in one of the rooms.

For someone who is barely literate, Radheysham is surprisingly good with calculations. He takes note of all the transactions in his diary and adroitly tallies the entry at the end of each month. The milk is either processed to make dairy products such as butter and ghee, or sold to sweet manufacturers in the region. He also gets orders for mawa, an ingredient used extensively in sweets.

At around 10 am, a three-wheeler with milk-filled canisters arrives. Once the arduous task of transferring the milk into the refrigerating machine is done, he sits with Sukhram Bishnoi, the vehicle driver.

Sukhram’s area of operation runs many miles across the landscape. As he collects milk, he garners bits and pieces of information from nomadic pastoralists who often traverse across grasslands and shrub forests spread across the region. These are people who literally live off the land since their animals depend on wild pastures many miles from the nearest road or dirt track. This increases their logistical knowledge of the routes and natural features gained over years of tracking the same area repeatedly.

Naturally, this also greatly increases their chances of sighting local wildlife. This includes species that are incredibly hard to monitor and track such as the endangered GIB, as well as heavily poached ones such as the spiny-tail lizard and chinkara. Sanctuary Foundation has lauded Radhey’s work in tracking the GIB.

The Pokhran area of Jaisalmer is home to around 30 GIBs, says the Foundation website. “Radheshyam monitors the GIBs in this landscape, conducts anti-poaching initiatives, and helps with wildlife rescues. Most importantly, he coordinates a network of village volunteers with the aim to develop a GIB-friendly community.”

The area is not a protected reserve, unlike the Desert National Park, 100km towards the international border. Yet the species can be spotted outside the reserve area because of communal grazing lands and locally protected forests.

Radheysham’s milk vendors, nomadic herders and others are his eyes and ears on the field. Through the intelligence shared by Sukhram, Radheysham tours the area in his 4x4 camper and scouts for signs of wildlife. He has a camera fitted with a long lens and a pair of binoculars at his disposal. He often stops a local herder to verify the information he has gleaned from Sukhram.

On spotting wildlife movement or telltale signs of poaching he stops to take notes. His technique is interesting — he simply points the binoculars towards the subject of interest, layers his mobile phone over it and takes a picture.

In the evening he returns from his vigil and again picks up his diary. He pens down the information he has gathered in Hindi, and sends locational data, distance traversed while monitoring, pictures of the species and other relevant information to Sumit Dookia of the Ecology, Rural Development & Sustainability Foundation (ERDS), a non-profit organisation in Rajasthan.

I catch up with Dookia, who is an assistant professor at the Gurugobind Singh Indraprastha University in Delhi, one afternoon. He has just received information sent by Radheysham through social media.

The information gives Dookia and the ERDS a thorough understanding of the vast area and its ecology. It helps him better understand how the landscape is being used by endangered wildlife, the unique or common threats faced by the various species inhabiting it and finally in devising possible mitigation measures that can be adopted to decrease human-wildlife conflict.

He tours the region with Radheysham every now and then, conducting awareness campaigns on wildlife and striving towards involving people from many other local communities spread across the area. He conveys the information that he gets on poaching incidents to relevant authorities — the forest department and the local police, as well as the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in Delhi.

The wildlife of Rajasthan, he points out, is linked to the lives of the people. If grassland habitats and their wild denizens have to survive, the locals across all castes, communities and cultures need to bind their efforts seamlessly — just like the GIB that not only transcends regions but even international frontiers, even one as volatile as the India-Pakistan border.

Radheysham carries on with his passion — wildlife conservation. He does have a substantial following on social media, but his interactions and social circle are limited to the group of people he has around him and the occasional visits of photographers and nature lovers.

Months and years pass by in the village with very little to look forward to. But Radheysham has found his identity — he will continue to do what he is doing, often unrecognised and inadequately compensated. He has to protect the landscape and life around him.

Syed Shaz is a freelance videographer and film-maker from Delhi

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Published on March 31, 2021
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