Conservation plays a key role in the religion practiced by the Bishnois. Their religion was initiated by their Guru Jambeshwar (or Jambaji) about 500 years ago. The guru propagated 29 tenets, giving his followers the name ‘Bishnoi’ or ‘twenty-niners’. Two of the main tenets are ‘ban on the felling of any green tree’ and ‘ban on the killing of any animal or bird’. Hence, the Bishnois actively protect wildlife and do not permit hunting or felling of trees in their area.
It is said that in 1730 the Maharaja of Jodhpur ordered his men to fetch timber for his lime-kilns from a Bishnoi area. The local people, led by a woman, Attri Devi, hugged the trees to save them from the axe-men, and about 363 of them, mostly women and children, were hacked to death before the king’s men gave up. With a history like that, the sect goes to great lengths to conserve their wildlife. This is evident from the incidents like that of film actor Salman Khan being chased and apprehended by the villagers for hunting a blackbuck in their area. Bishnoi lands stand apart as oases in the largely degraded landscape of Punjab and Haryana and in the vastness of the Thar Desert of Rajasthan.
The All India Jeev Raksha Bishnoi Sabha in Abohar (Dist. Ferozepur) area of Punjab was founded in 1974 by Shri Sant Kumar Bishnoi and began working towards conservation of blackbuck, the state animal. The Sabha does not permit hunting in areas under their influence. The Sabha also organises seminars and public meetings from time to time for their own children and for people from surrounding villages in order to explain the ecological links between wildlife and humans. Attempts are made at these meetings to motivate others to adopt conservation and sustainable development practices.
In recognition of the efforts of the Sabha, the state government declared a 70 sq km area as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1975 under the Wild life Protection Act, 1972. Also under Govt. Notification No. 40/4/98/Ft-IV/11505 dated 7/9/2000, all rights of local people except for hunting, shooting, killing or capturing wild birds and animals have been allowed to continue under section 24 (c) of the Wildlife Protection Act (as amended in 1991). Located in Ferozpur district of Punjab, the sanctuary includes 13 Bishnoi villages of Rajanwati, Raipur, Rampura, Bishanpura, Narainpur, Wazidpur, Himmatpur, Seetoguno, Mahrana, Khairpur, Dotaranwali, Sukhchain and Surdarpur, and and 3 closed areas (Gumjal, Panniwala and Haripura). The uniqueness of the sanctuary lies in the fact that the entire area within the confines of the sanctuary is under private ownership. According to the state forest department staff, the involvement of the forest department in the management of this sanctuary is nearly non-existent.1 Since the area is protected by the Bishnois, villagers have been provided with guns by the department to guard the animals from poachers.
The Forest Department is under severe funding constraints with practically no money for protection and other activities in Abohar Sanctuary. The Bishnoi Sabha regularly helps the FD officials with night patrolling. They also provide the FD with jeeps and armed volunteers when needed. Bishnois have frequently requested the government to provide more staff and resources to the FD so that they can effectively patrol the area and control poaching. In 2001, a decision was taken by the state that weapons confiscated by the state police under judicial orders will be handed over to the wildlife staff in PAs in Punjab.2 Whether this order was actually implemented is not known. In the year 2000, the then Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Mrs. Maneka Gandhi, had promised the Bishnoi Sabha support for establishing a veterinary hospital to treat animals and birds in Abohar Wildlife Sanctuary. She had reportedly offered a grant of Rs 25 lakh for the purpose, along with land for the hospital and an additional amount of Rs 5 lakh for an ambulance. The current status of this project is also unknown.3