Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Corbett Foundation

Since the Corbett trip was ostensibly an educational foray and not just a chance to look for pretty tigers, one of our stops was the Corbett Foundation (www.corbettfoundation.org), an NGO started by the owners of one of the big resorts near the park. The foundation’s work is focused around the (totally correct!) theory that, unless the villagers who live in and around the reserve support the park and its goals, it will never be ultimately successful as a protected area.

To this end, the Corbett Foundation directs its efforts in three major areas. Medicine, Animal-Human Conflict Management, and Awareness. I don’t completely grasp the direct connection between medicine and the park, but it is definitely true that many of the villagers in Uttaranchal (and all over India) have very little access to fundamental medical care. The foundation started out small—providing first aid kits and a Hindi translation of a well-known first aid manual to 50 villages around the park. Since then, they’ve expanded to provide medical care camps situated in several of the outlying villages. They’re also working on a TB eradication program.

Animal-human conflict may be the largest area of difficulty. Since the park isn’t fenced or blocked off in any way, there’s nothing to keep the animals from wandering through the villages scattered around the periphery. So elephants come through and destroy crops, tigers and leopards raid the livestock, and occasionally a villager is injured or even killed in an encounter with a park animal. All of these events naturally breed animosity on the park of the local inhabitants and their response is frequently to kill the offending animal, particularly the carnivores. And who can blame them? That’s their livelihood and their family members the tigers are eating.

So the foundation makes an effort to mediate that tension as much as possible. They’ve started putting up solar-powered electric fences (how’s that for cool?) around some of the villages and cropland to keep out both the predators and the overly hungry herbivores. And they run a compensation program for when a tiger kills livestock. The government will reimburse villagers for that but it often takes up to a year which is way too long for them to wait. So the foundation pays them immediately and then collects the money from the government. There’s not a lot that can be done in the case of human attacks, but they do their best by providing medical care to victims and what compensation there is to families. It sounds like they’re really having a lot of success, too. Hurrah!

And of course awareness is a big part of any conservation effort. The foundation runs educational programming for both children and adults to inform them of the park’s goals and purposes. And it’s a good thing, too. They did a survey when the foundation was first started to see what the villagers thought the park was there for. The answer? The majority believed it to be a picnic spot for foreigners. So there you go, time to start educating.

It’s very hard for me to imagine what I’ll be doing in the future. It’s pretty cloudy right now. But every now and again, the mists part and I have a view of what I could be doing. Not necessarily what I will be doing, or should be doing—just that I could. And our visit to Corbett was one of those moments. When your heart taps you on the shoulder and says: “Hey, we could be happy doing that. And good at it. What do you say?” And I say: “Maybe. We’ll see.”


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