Abohar, Oct 4 (IANS/ 101Reporters) An unobservant traveller, driving from Rajasthan and entering Punjab through the city of Abohar in the Fazilka district, might completely miss the fact that they are passing through a wildlife sanctuary.
The animals know to keep away from the open and busy roads criss-crossing the land. And there are no forests here, only farmlands.
The sanctuary is essentially a close-knit community of nearly a dozen densely populated villages where hundreds of the rare blackbuck roam fearlessly in the fields amidst the bustle of agrestic life.
The forest department does not own any land in this area and yet there is a thriving wildlife sanctuary, home to thousands of wild animals.
The sanctuary, which begins from the Punjabi village of Bazidpur Bhoma, is also home to over 30,000 people of the Bishnoi community.
The Bishnois are a Hindu sect founded in the late 15th century in Rajasthan and are well-known for their fierce love for the environment and all things living.
The Bishnois here in Abohar have solidified that legacy over the last century by allowing their private land to moonlight as a special reserve for the protection of the Krishna (blackbuck) and Chinkara deer (Indian gazelle).
Establishing a 'private' sanctuary
The person credited for the founding of the sanctuary is Chaudhary Sant Kumar Bishnoi of Dotaranwali village, born in the year 1915.
Sant Kumar grew up in the tradition of wildlife preservation; his father and grandfather were persistent in their patrols to drive poachers out of the area.
Sant Kumar was more radical and started fining the poachers and handing them over to the police. He mobilised people in the surrounding villages to become more proactive in protecting the deer, eventually forming the All India Wildlife Defense Bishnoi Committee (AIWDBC).
At the request of the Bishnois, the Punjab Government issued a notification in the year 1975, declaring the villages of Raipura, Dotaranwali, Rajwali, Sardarpura, Khairpura, Sukhchain, Seetoguno, Maharana, Himmatpura, Rampura, Narainpura, Bishanpura and Bazidpur Bhoma as the Abohar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Sant Kumar was felicitated with the Indira Gandhi Environment Award in 1992, and he passed away six years later.
In 2000, the 13 villages were legally declared a sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
Ashok Bishnoi, the grandson of Chaudhary Sant Kumar and a retired forest range officer, is now the National Vice President of the AIWDC.
He told 101Reporters: "Thousands of people of the Bishnoi community are involved in protecting wildlife.
They guard these creatures day and night. As a result, this is the only area in Punjab where blackbucks are now found."
Guardians of the blackbuck
The Bishnois are zealous in their mission to protect the wildlife here and have been managing the sanctuary with the support of the forest department.
The Forest Department has deployed 11 employees in the sanctuary and, together with 10 daily wage contract workers, they oversee the vast reserve spread over 46,513 acres.
But the real deterrent for hunters and poachers are the Bishnois who number in the thousands.
The other communities living here, though small in number, have assimilated into the Bishnoi way of life and are just as committed to the cause.
RD Bishnoi, head of the Punjab branch of the AIWDBC, said that many a time unarmed Bishnois have caught gun-wielding poachers and handed them over to the police.
When the wildlife is in any perceivable danger, even women single-handedly take on the hunters, he said.
Anita Rani, Acting Range Officer, Punjab Forest and Wildlife Protection Department, credits the Bishnoi community for the lack of poaching in the area for several years now.
"The people of the Bishnoi community have saved these innocent creatures. They are always ready to protect them from poachers and provide first aid if they get injured," she told 101Reporters.
For the last 26 years, Rajendra Bishnoi has been guarding the sanctuary.
He said: "The forest department and the villagers work day and night. We have no fixed work hours. As soon as there is information about a wild animal being injured, we immediately reach the spot. If it is a minor injury, the animal is treated on the spot and freed. If it is serious, it is taken to the rescue centre for treatment. Many times we have even taken injured animals to Ludhiana."
Apart from the blackbuck, other animals such as nilgais, pheasants, hares, jackals, wild cats, porcupines, wild boars and black ducks are also found in abundance.
The community here takes efforts to make arrangements for food and water for the animals at different places in the fields.
From birth to death, the Bishnois nurture the wildlife around them like they are part of a large family.
RD Bishnoi said that the community performs the last rites of animals killed in accidents. Sometimes, after the death of a female deer, villagers are known to bottle-feed the newborn fawns.
"Visitors come here in large numbers and find inspiration to protect nature," said Kuldeep, the watchman at the Shaheed Mata Amrita Devi Bishnoi Park that was inaugurated last year by former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
The state government spent Rs 10 crore to construct this memorial in Maharana village to honour the sacrifice of 363 Bishnois in Jodhpur three centuries ago, who laid down their lives to protest the felling of trees by the king for his new palace.
In the shadow of this memorial, the Bishnois continue to cement their legacy.
A dogged situation
The sanctuary also has its fair share of difficulties and a recent development has left the Bishnois between a rock and a hard place.
Attacks by stray dogs on deer are increasing. Also, the barbed cobra wire that was installed around the fields to protect the crops from wandering animals has been causing fatal injuries to the deer during dog attacks.
RD Bishnoi said: "When we raised our concerns, the administration banned cobra wire. So far, most of the cobra wires have been removed. But the dogs are still a threat as their number is increasing exponentially. These dogs attack the deer whenever they get the chance. In the last two years, about three dozen deer have died in dog attacks. Many nilgais have also been killed by dogs."
With the last wildlife census conducted in the area ten years ago, there are no recent numbers to drive home the seriousness of the situation and, in fact, there are conflicting views.
According to Rani, when the census in 2011 found about four thousand deer in the sanctuary. She believes that this number has not decreased as the Bishnois have consistently protected them. But RD Bishnoi said that the number of deer has been falling due to the dog attacks. Rani promises a new census soon. "We had sent a proposal to the Wildlife Institute of India Dehradun in this regard, which they have accepted," she said.
Ashok Bishnoi considers the increasing number of stray dogs a major threat to the sanctuary. "For us, all living beings are equal. We cannot protect the deer at the cost of harming or torturing the dogs. The administration should come up with a safe and speedy resolution for the stray dog problem," he said, highlighting the helplessness of the Bishnois in handling the dog attacks.
Forest department officials have taken up the issue with the district administration who are considering a sterilisation drive for the stray dogs.
But in the meanwhile, the number of dead blackbucks and nilgais are piling up, according to locals.
(The author is a Hanumangarh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)