[Sustainability Agenda] How The Habitats Trust is trying to change the approach to conservation in India

Rushikesh Chavan, Head of The Habitats Trust spoke to Social Story on the organisation’s mission to become enablers of conservation, and why the world needs to redefine what development means
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According to a 2019 report presented in Parliament by the Ministry of Environment, more than 22 species of flora and fauna have become extinct in India in the past few centuries. The report cited factors such as “competition, predation, natural selection, and human-induced factors like hunting, and habitat degradation” as some of the main contributors to the wiping out of these species. While campaigns to save the tiger, the rhino, the elephant, and the Gangetic crocodile have been in the spotlight, not much is known about the efforts to conserve and protect lesser-known species like the pygmy hog.

“The conservation of these species and habitats, which attract very little attention, is extremely critical to maintaining ecosystems and landscapes,” says Rushikesh Chavan, Head of The Habitats Trust (THT), an organisation that is working towards protecting natural habitats and indigenous species through strategic partnerships and on-ground efforts.

Founded in 2018 by Roshni Nadar Malhotra, the CEO of HCL Corporation and Trustee of the Shiv Nadar Foundation, and Shikhar Malhotra, the Vice Chairman of HCL Healthcare and Trustee, Shiv Nadar Foundation, THT is leveraging technology for conservation and awareness generation. Rushikesh says that their strategy is not to compete with other conservation organisations, but to be enablers of conservation.

Rushikesh Chavan, Head, The Habitats Trust

Driven by technology

“Our grants programme is very well known and highly coveted as we have very stringent selection criteria. Organisations and individuals who are doing some really fantastic work qualify,” he says, explaining that THT focuses on the species and habitats that nobody talks about.

“In June this year, one of our partners who was working with the pygmy hogs released seven or eight hogs back into the wild in the Manas grasslands in Assam. This was a species that was supposed to have become extinct in the 1960s. These kinds of collaborative works are happening, and we are looking at this country's most important areas that need urgent attention, and we are collaborating with people there to protect those areas and species,” says Rushikesh, who holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Sciences and has over 20 years of experience in conservation.

One of his functions at THT is strategising for conservation partnerships collaborations. “We are looking at the grants that we make, and how we can improve the impact of it,” he says. 

With HCL’s backing, technology is THT’s strong forte, and Rushikesh says that they are trying to see how technology can be used for conservation.

With an increasing need to build actionable conservations around the need to protect our wildlife species and ecosystems, THT has produced a documentary series called On The Brink. The  second season, which will air on National Geographic,  largely focuses on individual species that nobody really knows about.

"Through On The Brink, we've brought forward stories of 18 species of wildlife over two seasons, including several rare or critically endangered species. These include the slender loris, the purple frog, the great Indian bustard, the Indian pangolin, gharial... the list goes on. Other than this, we're also working another series of short-films about wildlife species that have not received much attention from the general public or research community," says Rushikesh.

He says THT is trying to make the content freely available for anybody who is just interested in conservation - from students to professionals.  “Though we are just three years old, our work is quite vast and wide, and we have achieved a large impact in a very short period of time,”  he says.

Collaboration and continuance

While technology is at the heart of the work that THT does, collaboration with the people and populations who have traditionally lived alongside these species is critical. Most are extremely marginalised and stay in the remotest corners of the country whether it is a forest or a  wetland or grassland. 

“You cannot do conservation without having indigenous communities involved. And the way to do that is to engage them from the beginning, right when you design your whole programme by doing a consultative process with them and understanding their utilisation,” says Rushikesh, cautioning against a ‘romanticised idea’ of indigenous communities and their lifestyles. 

“You have to engage with the younger generation as well as the older generation and understand their aspirations, and what their basic human needs are. You are the one going into their areas. So our approach has always been to work with them from the beginning,” he says.

“As THT grows, we will have more involvement of the local indigenous communities as we engage not only with them but with the knowledge that they have.”

Rushikesh believes that understanding their habits and dependencies will result in far more impactful interventions. There is also a lot of  intergenerational transfer of knowledge that has been traditionally acquired over centuries. but the younger generation is losing that connection, and this type of learning is becoming more and more patchy. 

The Habitats Trust is supporting conservation efforts across ecosystems

Images: The Habitats Trust

The impact of COVID-19 and climate change conversations

Rushikesh says that the pandemic has severely impacted conservation on all fronts. “To begin with, many people who had moved to cities and towns in search of work were forced to return home. With no money or food, there was increased dependence on hunting and fishing and firewood consumption. This puts tremendous pressure on forests in addition to the livelihoods of people. Conservationists were helpless as they were getting the intel from the field, but were unable to go there and do anything," he says.

"Sadly, many conservationists also passed on due to COVID-19. So it's been very difficult on conservation. No matter whose perspective you want to look at it, whether you want to look at it from the wildlife perspective, the ecosystems perspective or the people's perspective, or the enforcement agencies perspective, all of them have struggled.”

Rushikesh believes that the pandemic is also forcing governments to look at definitions of development. “Across the world, countries are realising that consumption is not an indicator of development. In just two months of the pandemic, health infrastructures and economies were struggling. Trillions of dollars are being lost due to climate change. Development and environment are really concentric and not like circles on a Venn, where only the small intersection is sustainability. India historically has some of the most stringent conservation laws. We need change, be it in the way we do business and in governance at all levels.”

An evolved approach

Speaking about THT’s vision he says that the trustees’ vision is not to compete with others in the space but to mobilise India's conservation movement as one movement. “Roshni and Shiv (Nadar) want to make this a collaborative effort, and not make it about one organisation. THT has grown from giving grants to including more collaborative work. It is looking at firefighting issues. We are studying the core issues and looking at why we are in such shambles today,” he says.

Rushikesh says that THT will change how conservation is being done in India and globally. “It's going to be a path breaker and change how people in conservation work. THT is a vision that is being translated on ground.”

Edited by Anju Narayanan

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