Local Participation in Biodiversity Conservation: A Tale of Similipal

By Madhusmita Dash

The expansive forest of Similipal, known for its abundance of Simili (Shoreaa robusta or Sal) trees had  captivated the imagination of Kobiboro Radhanath Ray who had immortalized the Simili Hills in his celebrated poem ‘Usha. Decades have passed since. The odyssey of Similipal has been riveting. Life reverberates in every crevice of the hills with the ethereal chorus of colors, sound and light. Nonetheless, an incredible story of human-animal bond that first put Similipal on the world map booms two names: Padmashree Late S. R. Choudhury (the first field director known for his worldwide acclaimed pug-mark method of tiger census) and Khairi, his ‘foster daughter’ the famous tigress. Khairi had been captured by a group of Khadia tribe who rescued the abandoned cub near the river Khairi that flows through the forest reserve.

(First field director of Similipal Padmashree Late S. R. Choudhury with tigress Khairi.) 

Source: www.incredibleorissa.com

The Similipal Tiger Reserve (STR), situated in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, has a long history of management by different  regimes. Similipal was first ruled by two royal families: the Mayuras and the Bhanjas, until the year 1361; later in 1400, the area was named as ‘Mayurbhanj’. The tiger reserve was used primarily as a hunting ground for the surrounding royal families. The STR was formally designated as a ‘Tiger Reserve’ in 1956 and was included under the national flagship conservation programme Project Tiger in 1973. Further, the state government declared Similipal as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1979 with a designated area of 2750 sq km. The reserve has a ‘core zone’ (1194.75 sq km) which has been accorded as the national park status by the state government, without a final notification though, by the central government due to the non-eviction of one village out of the designated park area. The ‘buffer zone’ (1555.25 sq km) surrounds the core zone and the human activities and resource use are managed in a way that reduces pressure on the core zone. The STR along with a ‘transitional zone’ of 2250 sq km has been included as a part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves by the UNESCO in  2009. It encompasses a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. The Similipal forest is  home to many indigenous communities including Kolha, Bhumija, Bhuyan, Munda, Hill Khadia and Mankidia classified as Scheduled Tribes. It is a grand repository of indigenous knowledge pertaining to conservation of biodiversity, ethno-botanical study, and traditional ecological knowledge.

(Brundaban checkgate: One of the entry points to STR)

Source: Author’s field study

Conservation-livelihoods Face-off

Protected areas (PAs) in the form of biosphere reserve, tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuary and national parks form an integral part of the international commitment to conserve biodiversity. However, the objective of PAs often comes in conflict with the communities who live in and around them. The PA policies restrict local people and affect their livelihoods in several ways including restricted access to natural resources, obstructing cultural practices and traditions, displacing indigenous communities from their traditional and customary habitation. In recent decades, authorities, globally, have acknowledged that conservation initiatives must factor in local people as they act as the stewards of natural resources (Behera, 2009; Agrawal and Chhatre, 2006). Half of the PAs across the globe are inhabited and, hence, attempts to exclude local people would be unrealistic and inevitably lead to conflicts and resource degradation. Several studies show that the active involvement of user groups has been consequential in the effective management of natural resources, primarily through informal institutions (Ostrom, 1990; Heltberg, 2001). Unfortunately, the role and contribution of local communities in protecting biodiversity are still absent in most national biodiversity action plans.

Presence of Institutions in and around Similipal

The failure of traditional top-down forest management has induced India to adopt the Joint Forest Management (JFM) mechanism that emphasizes participation of local users in forest protection, development, and management. The Government of Odisha, through its JFM Resolution, 2008, has adopted eco-development as a strategy for securing support from local communities in PA management. The JFM approach seeks to develop partnerships between state forest departments (as owners and co-managers) and local community organizations (as co-managers) for sustainable forest management. Sadly, it was found that most of the eco-development committees (EDCs) were virtually defunct due to lack of funding, awareness and knowledge among the members. The JFM Resolution, 2011 guidelines mandate that the executive committee should have at least 50 per cent women as its members. A female should be the chairperson or vice chairperson in order to promote leadership quality among the women. Contrary to that, it was observed that women participation rate in EDCs is very poor. Besides, improper revenue sharing among the forest department and local committee members resulted in failure of JFM in most of the buffer villages of Similipal.

The villagers of Similipal have a long history of worshiping and preserving nature through Sacred groves, locally known as Jahira. Harvesting activities do not start without performing the community ritual, named Phulbangni. This festival is celebrated when flowers blossom in the Sal trees. The salvage timber and leaves remain virtually untouched. The Dehuri or village priest is the authority who directs the community regarding the use of the salvage timber for some special purpose. One is not supposed to enter the Jahira with shoes on. There is no boundary wall, but the dwellers observe the rituals with dignity.

The traditional healers’ group known as Vaidya Sangha is found to be another prominent informal institution whose aim is to promote local health traditions and preserve wild medicinal plants of Similipal. The annual local festival Chelabasa is celebrated to mark the tradition of vertical transfer of medicinal knowledge from the guru or Vaidya to  young pupils of the community. Another controversial yet widely found informal institution is Akhand Shikar or mass hunting. History recounts that the Kolhas used to accompany and help the Maharajas of Mayurbhanj during their hunting and animal sighting activities (earlier called Khedaoperation). It is also said that the royal family had bestowed the Kolhas with the customary right to hunt during the festival of Pana Sankranti (celebrated around mid-April). The motive was to allow tribes to hunt bush animals (rabbit, wild hen, etc.) once a year. They were asked to consume the hunted animals inside the forest itself and were strictly cautioned not to sell them. Earlier, such hunting used to be a small scale affair. However, gradually, Akhand Shikar has now turned into a threat to wild-animals of Similipal.

(Akhand Shikar activity during Pana sankranti. Earlier people used to kill and eat the bush animals in a group inside tiger reserve; Source: www.incredibleorissa.com) 

Institutional Diverseness Calls for Participatory Forest Management  

A study conducted by the Rights and Resources Initiative in 2018 finds that the success rate of conservation when the forest area is managed by the indigenous communities is much higher than when the conservation is done through command and control measures. Moreover, it is also stated that the local people achieved the conservation target at a substantially lower budget than any other means of conservation.

It was found in the STR that the local informal institutions, especially Jahira and Vaidya Sangha had contributed positively and promoted forest growth. Therefore, it may be argued that institutions created by villagers drawing upon their beliefs, customs and rituals are more likely to generate better forest outcomes than the formal ones. Rejuvenation of such formal and informal institutions in and around the STR will go a long way in promoting forest conservation as well as local livelihood opportunities. Another interesting finding was that a greater distance to the forest department office from buffer villages (which facilitates lower degree of intervention by the forest department) resulted in positive forest growth in Similipal as it encouraged communities to formulate and enforce their own rules and regulations (through informal village institutions).  

In this context, effective implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Recognition Act, 2006 or the Forest Rights Act (FRA 2006) may substantially contribute towards achieving the dual objectives of promoting local livelihoods and biodiversity conservation. The Act necessitates transfer of more usufruct and ownership rights to local people, which in turn may enhance  conservation outcomes. However, it is observed that most of guidelines of FRA 2006 were not followed while relocating villagers from the tiger reserve. Cooperation among state forest department authorities, village institutions and other important stakeholders is imperative for any conservation policy to yield the desired outcomes. Without credible cooperation and collective action among resource users the resource regime may turn into an open access regime in the long-run (Ostrom, 1990).

(Household and focus group discussion with the respondents)

Source: Author’s field study

The way Forward

The Covid-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with the nature. The ecological health of the wildlife habitats is indispensable for the prevention of future epidemics. A study conducted by the disease ecology expert Peter Daszak and his group states that rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people (Morse et al., 2012).” It is imperative therefore, to transform conservation initiatives towards collaborative and rights based approaches. That calls for an earnest joint effort involving the governments, financial institutions, grassroots civil society bodies, and local communities. 

(This blog draws upon my Ph.D. thesis submitted to the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur; I thank my supervisor Prof. Bhagirath Behera for his comments and support during my doctoral research.)

Dr. Madhusmita Dash is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Management, Indian Institute of Technology Bhubaneswar.  Email:  madhusmita@iitbbs.ac.in.


Agrawal, A., Chhatre, A., (2006). Explaining success on the commons: community forest governance in the Indian Himalayas.World Development, 34 (1), 149–166.

Behera, B., (2009). Explaining the performance of state: community joint forest management in India. Ecological Economics, 69 (1), 177–185.

Heltberg, R., (2001). Determinants and impact of local institutions for common resource management. Environment and Development Economics, 6 (2), 183–208.

Morse et a., (2012). Prediction and prevention of the next pandemic zoonosis. Lancet, 380 (9857), 1956–1965.

Ostrom, E., (1990). Governing the Commons: the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Madhusmita Dash

Disclaimer: Views expressed in the blogs are that of the authors and no way represents the position of the Odisha Economic Association. For any copyright materials used by the authors, if any, the authors would solely be responsible


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