It was more than two decades ago that Sunita Dhairyam decided to make her life in the wild. She ditched the rampant development in Bangalore and bought a small piece of land on the edge of Bandipur National Park. She came for the wildlife but ended up devoting her energies to the people.
While conservationists, she says, often see people as the enemy, Dhairyam, 57, has found that catering to their needs can help conserve the elephants, tigers, leopards, peacocks and more that dot this “magical” land.
Dhairyam took the scenic route to get here. She lived in Zambia as a child but returned to India at age 9. Because her maternal grandmother was English, she had the right to live and work in the U.K., so she was sent there at age 19 — but she “returned like a bad penny” to India. She did move to the U.S. for about nine years after she married an American, but the marriage was bad, and the pull of home again was too strong.
By 1995, she was making plans to move to the wilderness. Dhairyam never saw herself as a conservationist. She was an artist who wanted to be a lone painter in the forest. But her move came at a time when India’s population was growing rapidly and the fight for space was beginning to create immense conflict between humans and wildlife. She couldn’t help herself.
If I had known how tough it was going to be, I would not have done it.
More than 100 villages, some inhabited by indigenous tribal communities, dot the national park and depend on it for firewood and land to graze their cattle. Every third day, on average, a domestic cow is killed by a predator either just within the forest boundary or just outside, around a village. This often ends in grief, anger and frustration on the part of the cattle owners, who have been known to poison tigers and leopards in retaliation when they return to finish the meal. The forest department has documented this for years and offers monetary compensation as an appeasement strategy, but because of corruption and bureaucracy, payment is often delayed for months at a time. In the meantime, people are known to leave a bowl of water with fertilizer in it beside cow carcasses, and hundreds of wild cats have ended up dead as a result.
So Dhairyam decided that she was going to raise money to compensate the villagers in and around Bandipur — by selling her art. She paints walls and murals and designs T-shirts to sell in the touristy parts of the park, putting all her profits into her compensation scheme. She also runs other programs via the Mariamma Charitable Trust to build goodwill among villagers, like giving them free monthly medical camps and care for their domestic animals. She believes that as long as the people are happy, the wildlife will survive. Her hope now is to turn the trust into a self-sustaining entity to carry on the work even after she is gone.
“All this treatment is completely free, and also is almost at their doorstep,” says Dr. Sridharan, a trustee who consults at the clinic. “These people live in the fringe areas of the forest. Helping them will reduce their economic burden on health-related issues and, in an indirect way, empower them to think more positively about the forest and the wildlife.”
There are indications the attitude is spreading. “They are also living beings like us. How can we kill them and live on?” says Chelvamma, 65, who goes by one name, like most local villagers. “We have taken their space. I want all the animals to be happy and well, poor things.”
What worries Dhairyam and fellow conservationists more is India’s rapid development. The country lost 1 percent of its forest cover in 2018 alone to development, and logging and sand mining industries are flourishing. In Bandipur specifically, there has been a spike in tourism, as more people make the five-hour drive from Bangalore to experience safaris, stay in lodges by the forest and go home with a tiger selfie.
“The whole romantic notion of rural India, to me as an artist, was it was such a beautiful image that when I came here, it was literally torn into little shreds and I was brought down to my knees,” Dhairyam says. “I think if I had known how tough it was going to be, I would not have done it.”
Huge plots of land have been written off to homestays and resorts, as well as to aggressive agriculturists who buy land from traditional farmers and put up fences around their properties. The fences block access to elephants, leopards and tigers who once walked freely across this landscape. They have specific territories and migratory paths, and when they come into contact with a new fence, they either knock it down if they are clever enough or end up getting electrocuted.
Dhairyam has now joined a growing number of environmentally conscious individuals in the country and has leased six acres of land right beside the national park — to just let it be. This is a private reserve of sorts, left completely to nature. Dhairyam’s land is a small win for the animals of Bandipur, whose presence can only be seen in the morning by a broken tree trunk, a bit of dung in the mud or the smell of freedom that the air carries across the open fallow land.
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