Home People Interviews Meet Govardhan Meena – Tiger Defender, Conflict Manager, Quiet Changemaker

Meet Govardhan Meena – Tiger Defender, Conflict Manager, Quiet Changemaker

Meet Govardhan Meena – Tiger Defender, Conflict Manager, Quiet Changemaker

Born to a Meena tribal family living on the outskirts of Ranthambhore, Rajasthan, this quiet wildlife defender is the epitome of what anyone could want tomorrow’s wildlife conservationist to be. A virtual Pied Piper for the children around one of the world’s best-known tiger habitats, he has dedicated his life to helping village children around Ranthambhore renew their bonds with wild nature. With a single-mindedness that is rare to see in this age of distractions, he works 24x7 to build bridges between people and parks and is respected as much by the park authorities as by the village communities he serves. Often a first-responder when human-animal conflicts take place, the park authorities consider him a ‘go-to’ person when straying carnivores, and other wildlife enter the human domain. A pacifist by nature, Govardhan Meena speaks here to Bittu Sahgal, about the trajectory of his life, his passion for wildlife and his hopes for tomorrow.

The quiet wildlife defender, Govardhan Meena, is the future of conservation. Steadfast in his purpose, he works round the clock to build bridges between people and wildlife in one of India’s prime tiger habitats, the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Photo Courtesy: Govardhan Meena

Govardhan, tell us something about yourself.

I was born in Ranthambhore in a quiet little village in the Raval tehsil of Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan. We come from a farming family and were brought up to love and respect nature. Even when our farms were raided by animals, I remember my mother saying: “Even the birds and animals have to live, God provides for everyone, so we should do them no harm.” I have lived all my life in Ranthambhore where I went to school in Kundera village and then in Sawai Madhopur. My wife Nisha and I are bringing up my two sons Hemant and Vishal to respect nature and it is my hope that they too will dedicate their lives to protecting the tiger.

So how did the tiger enter your heart?

For this I have to thank the Ranthambhore Foundation started by Valmik Thapar. I used to sit and listen to him and Fateh Singh Rathore and wanted to grow up to be like them, do what they did… to protect tigers and the beautiful forest of Ranthambhore. Whenever they organised wildlife events in the villages around Ranthambhore, I would be there with my school friends, participating in wildlife art and cultural programmes and even rallies to spread awareness in villages and in Sawai Madhopur. Some of the prizes and certificates from the Ranthambhore Foundation that I got are still my most prized possessions. I cannot say when the tiger entered my heart, but it still lives there. Even today when I sleep, I sometimes dream of tigers.

When did you see your first wild tiger?

I will never forget that day. It was in 1995 and Nitin Pandyaji of the Ranthambhore Foundation took me and a few other children for a Gypsy ride in the forest. At the Rajbagh lake Nitinji said: “Dekho tiger!” At first I could not spot it and then I saw it there, sitting by the water. I thought I must be dreaming, but it was true. Since that day I have only one purpose in my life… to protect the tiger. It is my God.

Govardhan’s activism dates back to the days of Project Tiger. Here, the gangly young man stands with Ranger Jodharaj Singh Hada, who amongst many others, helped Govardhan stoke his fire for the wilds. Photo Courtesy: Govardhan Meena

Fateh Singh Rathore introduced me to you. “Bada achha larka heh! Tiger ke liye kuch bhi karega” he said. How did you meet him?

I met him at the Ranthambhore Tiger Mela that you organised in the year 2002. Before that I used to always hear his name “Fateh Singhji. Fateh Singhji” but after I met him, I never let him go. Whenever I could I used to sit at his home and listen to his stories about the forest and its animals. He planted the seed of my love of nature in me.

He was right about you being a good boy! Today you are planting such seeds in thousands of other Ranthambhore children.

Yes. I want them to be as fortunate as I was. I wish all of them could have met Fateh Singhji. He asked me to become part of Kids for Tigers and then when I met you, I knew where my life would take me. Today, just as I was introduced to nature, I am introducing children to nature every single day of my life. As part of the Kids for Tigers Vanar Sena. I take them to the forest, introduce them to forest guards and officers, involve them in guided forest trips, even take them on nature walks and clean ups. Like me they love wildlife discussions, competitions, dramas, film shows, songs, and writing poetry about nature. If we plan a march through the city of Sawai Madhopur, twice as many turn up than what we expect. They know more about forest, water and wildlife than their parents.

At one time their elders were literally at war with the Forest Department.

Yes, that is right. But at that time things were really bad. People were stopped from getting wood. Animals used to destroy crops. Forest guards were not friendly. Today, slowly a lot of things have changed. Many people living around Ranthambhore are being able to support themselves. Children are growing up with different values and they are going to school. When animals raid crops, compensation is given, though not enough.

Former environment minister of Rajasthan Bina Kak launches the Tiger Express in Jaipur. Since then Govardhan and his Tiger Express van have been traversing the landscape of Ranthambhore, taking villagers, including women and children on awareness journeys into the forest. Photo: Govardhan Meena/Sanctuary Asia

So, do you believe that the children you are mentoring around Ranthambhore will become guardians of the tiger?

I believe that the students who have been linked to the environmental education work, will become rakhwalas (guardians). There are very solid conservationists in our villages. Much stronger and better than me, even though you considered me good enough to present me with a Sanctuary Wildlife Award. The new generation of Ranthambhore children need very little support, but they need encouragement and appreciation. Even more than city children, village children are ready to work to protect forests and even help to fight fires, remove plastic and other litter that outside people drop in the forest. They are true dharti rakshaks (protectors of the land).

What do your relatives and friends think of your work? Are they happy or angry with you?

They are very happy. I am loved and respected even in villages far from my own.  There will always be some people who are angry, but even with them I sit and talk and their anger is reduced. Even if there is a big wildlife issue in the village, because their children love what we do, their parents are happy to meet us as friends. It’s all because of the children. They love the films we show, they listen quietly when we teach them, and they are hungry to learn more. Their greatest joy is to be able to go into the forest. It would be great if every single child in every single village was able to go at least once a month into the forest. That would create a real protection force for the future.

You are best known for working with children, but you also work on animal rescue, right?

I do. But always by assisting forest staff. When a leopard or tiger comes into a village, many times it is my children who send messages to everyone to go inside, stay safe and not try to harm any animal. Often, we suffer from droughts and animals then come for water and also raid our crops; so, we call the forest staff on the mobile and they help to drive the animals back to the forest. For me, every animal is equal. With our volunteers we have helped rescue tigers, leopards, pythons, sloth bears and even sambar and nilgai that are sometimes injured. Many times, injured peacocks come to the village and people give them shelter, water and food.

Govardhan along with his mother and wife Nisha, are raising two responsible young boys, who he hopes will follow in his footsteps. Photo Courtesy: Govardhan Meena

You never take any credit for your work, but you are always there when some help is needed.

Anyone who loves wildlife will help. I am not so special. Around three years ago, for instance, a tiger fell into a well in the Khawa village. One of my young volunteers found it and quickly passed the message to our team. We then asked the Forest Department officials to rush to rescue it. They had to tranquilise it and then transport it to safety. It was revived and treated and then released into the forest the same day. It made me feel grateful to be alive. There are people who do this work every day of their lives, but their service is not recognised as desh seva. If the government wanted to, they could get full support of the tribal village community to help with such rescue missions across India. I know that in Gujarat this is a common occurrence.

Govardhan, who inspires you?

One person who changed my life was Hanuman Prasad Sharmaji. He was a teacher working with the Ranthambhore Foundation and he came to our school in Rannel. Whatever I am today I am because of him. He taught me not only about wildlife and nature, but about life also. Someone else also. But even though you told me not to mention him, I will. He and Hanuman Sharmaji were and still are my greatest heroes and gurujis. His name is Bittu Sahgal of Sanctuary Asia magazine who I met 16 years ago. He gave me a new way of thinking and gave me a platform that has guided and guides every day of my life. He is my energy source. A third person is Madhu Bhatnagarji. She brought a group of students from the Shri Ram School Delhi to Ranthambhore as part of the Kids for Tigers programme. Then they invited 10 of our children to Delhi for the Tiger Mela organised by the school and the children immediately became like a family to each other. For me Madhuji is still like my mother. She is a wildlife defender and educator from her atma (soul).

Tell me Govardhan, what do you think should really be done to save the wildlife of Ranthambhore?

The animals do not need much care. We need to make sure that people who live around the park are happy and respected and can live comfortably. If we really offer them sufficient income from small cottage industries, handicrafts, and can help to reduce their dependence on fuelwood and grazing we can change everything in one generation. Ranthambhore’s children and their families are ready to work with wildlife conservationists across India and the whole world. However, families need proper education, medical care and employment opportunities. Any parent wants that for their children. If the thousands of crores of money are not wasted and even a little is spent honestly for the welfare of communities by giving them solar power, pumps and subsidised fodder for their livestock, the whole of Ranthambhore will benefit.

Govardhan and a team of assorted villagers carry out a rescue mission for a sloth bear. Quick on their feet, they created a makeshift stretcher to carry the animal to safety. Photo Courtesy: Govardhan Meena

What about the field staff and officials?

They have a very tough job. Many department employees come from our own villages. It is difficult sometimes for them to balance what their village wants and what the forest officials want. But my relationship with the forest officials has always been very good. Not even once have I not received their cooperation when I tell them we want to give the children of this village a good experience in the forest. And if they ever ask for our help, even in the middle of the night, we will go with them to put out fires, or help with crowd control when necessary.

Is there more you might want from the Forest Department?

We do not want more from them, we want to do more for them. We want to help them because we know that protecting the forest is protecting our own future. Our wells are full because of the water that comes from the forest. Until my dying day I will always work for wildlife and that means with my friends in the Forest Department.

Do they feel the same way about you and your work?

Yes, they do. Not only our work, but so many other organisations working in Ranthambhore are given help if needed by the Forest Department. One of the best things is that everyone from the DFOs, CCFs and even Range Officers to forest guards feel happy when they see village children in the forest. Sometimes of course, problems occur, but these are easily solved by sitting together.

Former Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar presents Govardhan with an award for his outstanding contribution to the field of environment and conservation in Jaipur. Photo: Govardhan Meena/Sanctuary Asia

Last year one of the village girls from Ranthambhore was presented an award by Sanctuary in Mumbai. What was the reaction of her family and other villages?

They were so proud that even one year later when she goes to meet them, they ask her to take them on nature walks and to come home and sit with them and eat a meal together like a family. She is going to be a very important conservationist when she grows up. Today, it may seem like a small thing, but when the Forest Department offers free safari rides for villagers and children, they are changing the whole face of conservation in Ranthambhore.

If you were the Field Director of Ranthambhore, what would you do to secure the park?

I cannot become such a big man, but from a villager’s point of view I would first secure the outside of the park by working with them to stop cattle from entering the forest. Not only is grazing a problem, tigers also kill cattle and anger villagers, which then leads to conflict. I would also work to improve the availability of water outside for villagers as this is a major problem for them. But I would also see to it that water sources of wild animals in the forest are well developed, so they do not come outside into human areas.

The most important thing is that when losses of crops or livestock takes place, compensation must be provided. Also, many villagers actually want to move to places where their children can be educated, and they can get better jobs. This will make people happy and also benefit the wildlife of Ranthambhore.

These are only my ideas, and I am just a villager who loves wildlife. It is the people who have resources and decision-making power who you should ask. They are the ones who will choose where and how to put money to save wildlife. I will work with anyone who helps the tiger and the children of our villages.

Govardhan shares a moment with his inspiration – wildlife legend Fateh Singh Rathore. Photo: Govardhan Meena/Sanctuary Asia

Auhtor: Bittu Sahgal First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 12, December 2018.


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