How a Tiger Reserve Is Saving an Indian Village From Sex Work
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Thanks to wildlife conservation, Tikarpada now welcomes visitors of a different kind.
The village of Tikarpada in the eastern Indian state of Odisha is no stranger to visitors. In the 1950s, the area’s geographic remoteness and a booming bamboo industry introduced the village to commercial sex work that continued for decades. But when we travel to the village nestled on the banks of the Mahanadi River in early 2019, we find a different set of visitors.
Today, Tikarpada sits 15 miles inside Satkosia Tiger Reserve, a conservation project that draws throngs of tourists hoping to spot rare wildlife as they take scenic boat rides on the river. But the reserve also offers something you won’t find with other conservation initiatives: a chance to see how wildlife tourism can transform a community dependent on sex for money, by giving it an economic alternative.
Spread across 372 square miles in four districts of Odisha — Angul, Cuttack, Nayagarh and Boudh — the reserve is located at the intersection of two of India’s landmark geological features: the volcanic Deccan Plateau and the hilly Eastern Ghats. The Satkosia Tiger Reserve was created in 2007 by bringing together two earlier conservation initiatives — the Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary and Baisipalli Wildlife Sanctuary.
Villagers work as cooks, caretakers and guides at the hotels and wildlife camps. Some have opened shops and eateries.
What sets this reserve apart: It’s not only saving wildlife, it’s also providing jobs for more than 200 villagers with few employment options. “We were forced to [take up sex work] in order to make ends meet,” explains 36-year-old Sangeeta (name changed to protect identity), who now works in construction at the reserve. She earns around $3 per day, close to the per capita average. Other villagers work as cooks, caretakers and guides at the hotels and wildlife camps. Some have opened shops and eateries.
River cruises are also particularly popular — around 20 Tikarpada families operate them for tourists, says Panchanan Nayak, a village resident who also runs a boat cruise. The hour-long rides, which cost $8-$10, offer opportunities to spot wildlife and migratory birds like the ruddy shelduck, bar-headed goose and fulvous whistling duck. Visitors walking the nature camp trails might see deer, elephants, crocodiles — and if they’re lucky, a tiger.
Being a resident with tigers in your backyard, however, can be problematic — and deadly. A tigress named Sundari (“Beauty” in Hindi) that had been moved to Satkosia from Madhya Pradesh killed two people in villages close to Tikarpada in 2018. Angered villagers responded with protests against the relocation of animals. The forest department is now planning trips to established tiger reserves to demonstrate how local communities can successfully coexist with animals.
Meanwhile, villagers have been adapting in other ways, such as learning new hospitality skills and tailoring local foods to tourists’ tastes. “We serve chicken, curries, rice, pulses, fresh fish from the river on guests’ demand,” says Laxman, a caretaker at Tikarpada Nature Camp.
And two years ago at a village council meeting, villagers decided to put an end to sex work as their community’s economic engine, says Srikant Hembram, a Tikarpada resident.
The reserve is evolving too. Visitors can now book tickets online, says Gajendra Behera, a forest ranger at Satkosia. The region around Tikarpada, which is the most popular among tourists visiting Satkosia Tiger Reserve, received 67,000 visitors in 2017, according to the Odisha Tourism Department. And visits contribute to more than wildlife conservation: They also help pull Tikarpada from its difficult past.
Go there: Tikarpada Nature Camp
- Directions: The camp is a four-hour drive from the Biju Patnaik International Airport, Bhubaneswar (Odisha) or an hour’s drive from Angul railway station.
- Accommodations: Government-run Swiss cottage tents with twin beds can be booked online (around $56 per day). The area is barricaded with wire to prevent animals from entering, and there are badminton and volleyball courts and areas to enjoy serene views of the mountains, river and lush greenery.
- When to go: Peak season is December to February. Visit in November for spring vibes and April for fall colors.
- Pro tip: On the way to Tikarpada, check out some of the heritage villages, such as Raghurajpur in the Puri district, where villagers turn waste materials into art.