Padma Mahanti, as Deputy Director of the Periyar Tiger Reserve, played an important role in developing its eco-tourism model. Her compilation of poems, Mist and Musings, tells of her experiences there

The Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) won the U.N.-India Biodiversity Governance award, instituted by the Government of India and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), for the best managed protected area of the country recently.

Padma Mahanti, IFS, who served as Deputy Director, PTR, was hugely responsible for initiating innovative concepts of eco-tourism and in following up effectively some of the programmes introduced at the PTR. Padma was member secretary of the Periyar Foundation. She won the Green Guard Anti-Poaching award in 2007.

Padma, who is now Regional Passport Officer in Odisha, recently released a book of poems titled Mist and Musings, which narrates in verse and interludes in prose the story of her life, experiences in Periyar.

In an e-mail interview Padma shares her memories of Periyar, her thoughts on wildlife management and more.

Excerpts from the interview.

What does Periyar mean to you?

Periyar was my first independent posting after my training at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). And it was love at first sight. The streams that came to life during monsoon fascinated me. I still dream of them. There’s a deep connect with Periyar.

Were you always a wildlife enthusiast or did Periyar transform you?

Wildlife interested me more than the other subjects of forest management. That’s why I went ahead to complete my post-graduate diploma in wildlife management in 2005. Periyar gave an opportunity to implement whatever I was trained for in the WII.

As a wildlife professional, and not as a poet, how do you evaluate your experience here?The job must have been challenging too?

Yes. You had to be on guard always. The problems were undefined. From human-wildlife conflict, safety of tourists, forest fire, poaching, sandal smuggling, pressure on forest land, to the issues of the forest dwellers dependent on the park management for their livelihood, each day was a challenge.

Looking back was it worth the effort?

We achieved a lot, but achievements are not always quantifiable. They are often special moments, endearing memories. And my tenure in Periyar was full of such instances. Yes, looking back it was satisfactory. Training local youth in tiger monitoring through the use of camera traps and GPS, reviving nature clubs, revisiting and modifying all eco-development committees with a plan for five years were some great initiatives.

The tourist is the subject of one of your poems. He can be a source of concern in a protected sanctuary. Were the tourists generally insensitive?

In the Periyar Tiger Reserve tourism was still low impact as it is carried out in about 2.5 sq. km area of the entire reserve. The rest is eco-tourism in its real sense. However, there used to be mindless jeep rides in parts of the tiger reserve by other agencies. I hope it has stopped now or at least regulated.

What steps would you suggest to balance this tourist-wildlife issue, especially in the wake of the new rules framed with regard to tiger sanctuaries?

In the present scenario tourism has to be used as a tool to unite voices for conservation. It should be low impact and responsible; nature friendly and totally guided. Vehicles should never be allowed inside protected areas except the buffer zone. Sensitisation classes should be arranged for tourists before they enter the tiger reserves. They should be made to realise that tourism inside the tiger reserves is a sensitive and responsible job.

The tribes were successfully integrated into the protection and conservation of the jungles. How do you view this move?

Periyar has six indigenous tribes, Mannans, Paliyans, Uralis, Malapandarams, Malayarians and Ulladans. Efforts like organising the Mannan and Paliyan fishermen into eco-development committees and regulation of fishing activities inside the park were taken up. They were trained in research, wildlife health monitoring; protection of park and in hospitality sector.

In Periyar all eco-tourism programmes are protection-oriented and each one was need based. My efforts were to explore linking of local economy like pepper cultivation in the tribal hamlets directly with the global market by weaning out middlemen. Periyar Foundation played a pivotal role in the experiment of pepper export by Vanchivayal tribal colony to Germany.

Poachers were also transformed ?

In 1998, a group of 22 cinnamon bark smugglers in Periyar, were transformed in mainstream society. In 2004, when I joined Periyar as the Additional Deputy Conservator of Forests efforts were on to transform a group of poachers from the neighbouring Theni District, in Tamil Nadu. I was lucky to be a part of this process from the very start. I took it forward by organising these people into an eco-development committee and making them a part of the Periyar Protection Force. This was India’s first trans-boundary initiative in eco-development.

How did Mist and Musings come about?

Writing was a way to escape from the depression I suffered following my father’s demise. It took me 18 months to bring out this book. I felt like I was reliving by life once again. The entire proceeds from the sale of this book will go to people protecting the jungles and to help conservation