Kishore Rithe, a former engineering professor with a passion for tigers, is creating a network of model organizations to protect India's forests and wildlife. He is helping locals and conservationists work with government, journalists, national and global organizations to save India's fragile ecosystems.
Through the Satpura Foundation, Kishore is strengthening local citizen organizations to make a measurable impact on wildlife protection and forest conservation. He is creating an effective network, connecting local organizations to each other, and linking them to other related organizations in national and international partnerships. Previously, he spent ten years building the Nature Conservation Society of Amravati (NCSA), a tiger conservation program that succeeded because it helped citizens, government, and environmental organizations figure out how to work together. Using the same philosophy and techniques, he has established the Satpura Foundation to build and strengthen local efforts to stop natural resource exploitation in and around national parks and reserves. The Foundation will develop forest and habitat defender organizations in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Among these targeted parks are fifteen tiger reserves in the Satpura mountain range, one of the most biodiverse regions in Asia. Already working in and around seven sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh and eight in Maharashtra, the Foundation plans to reach all forty-four reserves in the region. Kishore's model centers on several key principles. He believes that conservation and protection must be led by locals to sustain their interest and participation over an extended period of time. Also crucial is the support of those who shape policy and public opinion, including government, academics, non-government conservation groups, the media, and the general public. Kishore prevents serious problems by encouraging communication among key stakeholders so that potential conflicts can be detected early on. He is careful to base his advocacy on facts and research rather than politics.
National policy requires India to preserve forests on a third of its land, but despite the dedication of a generation of environmentalists this goal is far from the reality of India's dwindling forest cover. In Maharashtra, only 10 to 12 percent of the region's forest remains and only 2.5 percent of the land is designated as protected wildlife habitat. Erosion, population pressure, and unsustainable development threaten to destroy this small, remaining fragment. Human development is largely responsible for this destruction. New villages have been established inside nature reserves, and uncontrolled fires, dams, and future development pose major threats to remaining reserve areas. Environmentalists are calling for stringent measures to curb these threats and to double the protected areas, but government agencies have not succeeded in initiating or managing long-term participatory conservation programs. As forest officials rotate every three years, they rarely have the in-depth knowledge of local conditions required to effectively solve problems. The lack of adequate resources also constrains their ability to gather vital data and monitor large areas. In addition, development organizations often criticize wildlife conservation efforts as favoring a few tigers over the millions of poor people in India. To many, the priorities seem skewed and the meager results don't seem to justify the great expense. While there are many good organizations doing important work, they haven't succeeded in balancing human development with nature and wildlife conservation on a large scale.
Following the NCSA model, the Satpura Foundation sets up each local organization by building a popular ethic of conservation among people who live near parks and among the public at large. This is achieved by bringing together groups of thirty to fifty people around every park or reserve. Kishore then draws together experts already working on conservation in a variety of ways, such as researchers, academics, government agencies and officials, journalists, and wildlife activists. He also relies on the media for publicity and leverage on important conservation issues. As part of an effort to build a conservation ethic among government officials, academics, and journalists, Kishore runs three-day camps for them to learn about the country's conservation challenges. He believes they must understand and seriously consider the problems faced by people who depend on the natural environment for their survival. These camps are particularly important for political leaders, government employees, and judges who create and implement policies pertaining to wildlife and nature conservation. Finally, Kishore plans to link local organizations with universities to conduct in-depth research through volunteers. NCSA's advocacy efforts succeeded because they were backed by extensive field research. Involving universities will also ease resource constraints by aiding local park officials and citizen organizations in data collection and analysis. Through print and electronic media, Kishore aims to educate the public about threats to wildlife reserves and protected areas. Public lectures, tours of wildlife parks, trainings, and debates are other means to achieve this end. Through his columns in The Hindustan, a local language newspaper, Kishore aims to create general awareness rather than to polarize activists and government officials. Discussion and diplomacy are his tactics of choice in solving conflicts. The Satpura Foundation inherits from NCSA a large network of national and international organizations working towards wildlife management. Among the Indian organizations are Wildlife Trust of India, Bombay Natural History Society, World Wildlife Fund, Sanctuary Asia, Ranthambore Foundation, Wildlife Protection Society of India, Kalpavriksha, the Center for Wildlife Studies, and Wildlife First. Kishore's international partners include U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service, Environmental Investigation Agency, Care for the Wild International, Tiger Protection Fund-Japan, NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai) Network, Smithsonian USA, and the Makarere University in Uganda.
Kishore has been passionate about conservation since childhood, when his mentor, a park ranger in Kishore's small village near a tiger reserve, taught him about the forest ecosystem. At school, Kishore established a student conservation club that grew to include other schools in the region. He remained active in the conservation movement while studying engineering and founded the NCSA in 1990, at the age of eighteen. Through the NCSA, Kishore succeeded in getting villagers, local park officials, and environmental organizations to trust each other and start a dialogue. Prior to that, government directives and plans in the Melghat Tiger Reserve were not being implemented. As he began implementing his ideas, Kishore shared his insights about working with local communities through the media. His early successes gained him recognition from national and international conservation groups. After several years as an engineering professor, Kishore gave up his job to devote himself full-time to conserving India's remaining forests and wildlife.