Abohar (13 Villages)

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 Location  Ecosystem Type    Conservation Type    Area(hectare)  Legal status 
Ferozepur, Punjab  Forest  Species Protection  7000  Wildlife Sanctuary

Case Study (2009)


The Bishnoi community occupying parts of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana is known for the absolute protection they offer to the blackbuck and the khejari tree, as also protection of other plant and animal diversity within their village boundaries. Khejari is a multipurpose legume tree valued by the villagers for its pod (used as food), leaves (used as fodder and manure) and branches (used as construction material). Blackbuck and chinkara have on the other hand been placed in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act because of their high conservation value. The habitat at Abohar is represented by semi-arid plains with scattered sand dunes, acacia trees, beri bushes and weeds. The dominant flora is Acacia nilotica, Dalbergia sisso, Prosopis cineraria and shrubs include jungli ber and species of cacti and succulents. The fauna includes Indian peafowl, partridges, blacknaped hare, jungle cat, nilgai, etc. The Bishnois are largely a farming community with fairly large landholdings; they meet most of their biomass requirements from their own fields. The dependence on the surrounding forest is not very high. After the construction of Rajasthan Canal and Bikaner Canal by the government, this area has plenty of water and is being cultivated with wheat, gram, bajra, jowar, etc. Large landholders keep about 10–12 buffaloes and cattle per family, whereas the landless keep around 2 goats or cattle per family. Some families also keep camels.

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 

The efforts of the Sabha have resulted in maintaining a high population of blackbucks. In 2000, about 4,000 blackbucks were counted in the sanctuary.4 The Bishnois conserve all kinds of flora and fauna in their area, and because of their efforts the villages and surroundings are green oases in the desert, with Indian peafowl, chinkaras and blackbuck, nilgais and other animals roaming freely and even approaching people fearlessly.

Conservation of ungulates like the blackbucks comes with its own set of problems. These animals cause significant damage to the standing crop. The community appears to be more tolerant of the damage caused by the blackbuck as compared to the other animals, since they consider this loss as a religious donation. They also believe that the crops sprout better if grazed by blackbuck. However, increasing pressure on land (due to increased requirement of foodgrains for the growing population, conversion of crop areas into orchards and division of landholdings with increasing family size) have led to conflict situation with animals, especially the nilgai, for which there is no natural predator in the area. Reportedly, this conflict is slowly beginning to weaken the Bishnois’ commitment to protecting the animals. They still would not think of killing them but they do shoo them away from their own fields, with their neighbours probably shooing them back!5

Since the Bishnois do not kill any animal, the increasing numbers of feral dogs in the sanctuary poses a serious threat to the blackbuck populations. Local people feel that effective methods to control the dog population in the area need to be devised. The dogs feed on blackbuck fawns as they are small in size but do not attack the fawns of nilgai because of their larger size. This is another reason for the increase in the number of nilgai as compared to the blackbuck.

A broad water-drainage channel, constructed by the irrigation department, has divided the area into two parts despite a Bishnoi protest. This has restricted the movement of blackbuck in the sanctuary and could adversely affect their distribution and reproductive habits. Additionally, there is an increasing trend to establish narma and kinnow crops (orchards). Such gardens are affecting the habitat of the blackbucks.

Despite all the above problems the community members still propagate conservation values. They express their limitations due to financial and language constraints, which restricts them from spreading the message of conservation to a wider audience. They are still in unison in wholeheartedly saving the blackbucks, nilgai and green trees. But this enthusiasm seems to be much higher among the elders in the community rather than the younger generation, who are less tolerant towards the damages caused by the wild ungulates.

Abohar Sanctuary is currently under the process of denotification. The government intends to renotify the sanctuary as a ‘Community Reserve’ under the amended Wild Life Protection Act 2003, which would mean that the local institutions would formally be handed over the responsibility to protect and manage the sanctuary, which was not possible till now under the Act.

Over many generations Apatanis have evolved an intricate system of natural resource management. These include efficient forestry and agricultural skills. There is a strong sense of belonging even today because of the critical cultural, religious and biomass dependence on the ecosystem. Under the influence of modern education and changing socio-cultural scenario, some of the traditions seem to have weakened. However, the fact that the villagers have realised the damage such changes can bring about to their ecosystem and have initiated the village forest protection committees is a strong indication that community-based conservation can be a success in the area if the right conditions are provided. One such condition could be a positive wildlife conservation policy, which would take into account people’s participation in the management and protection of the ecosystem rather than alienating them by creating conflicts, such as creation of the sanctuary without their consent or information.

  This case study was contributed by Dr. Neelima Jerath, Puja Ahluwalia, and Arshdeep Kaur, for this Directory in 2001 and further updated in 2006. Neelima Jairath is the Principal Scientific Officer (Environment) and Arshdeep Kaur is Junior Research Fellow at the Punjab State Council for Science & Technology (PSCST). Pooja Ahluwalia is currently with the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

Shri. Hanuman Parshad Bishnoi, Secretary,
Shri Sant Kumar Bishnoi, President,
All India Jeev Rakhsha Bishnoi Sabha,
Street No. 13, Abohar, Dist. Ferozpur-152116, Punjab.
Tel No.-01634-220774/272202
Bishnoi Jeev Rakshan Sabha

Dr. Neelima Jerath and Arshdeep Kaur
Punjab State Council for Science and Technology,
Sector 26, Adjacent to Sacred Heart School, Chandigarh.
E-mail: [email protected]

Puja Ahluwalia,
Research Associate,
Centre for Public Policy,
Indian Institute of Management,
Bannerghatta road,
Bangalore – 560076
Email: [email protected]

1 E-mail correspondence with Madhu Sarin, an independent researcher based in Chandigarh, on 23 April 2003.

2 Gurpreet Singh, ‘No weapons to keep poachers off’, The Tribune, 11 February (2001). Also in Protected Area Update: News and Information from Protected Areas in India and South Asia, No.32, August (Kalpavriksh, Pune, 2001).

3 Anon., ‘Maneka promises hospital for sanctuary animals’, The Tribune, 11 December 2000. Also in Protected Area Update: News and Information from Protected Areas in India and South Asia, No.32, August (Kalpavriksh, Pune, 2001).

 4 Anon., ‘Black buck (Antilope cervicapra) census in Abohar Sanctuary (Ferozepur), Punjab in 1988–89’, Report by Dept. of Forest & Wildlife (1989); Maniram Bishnoi, ‘Vanya Jeevan ev Vrikshon ki Raksharth Bishnoion Ke Saake’ (Hindi), Amar Jyoti, Vol. 52, No. 2-3: 2-13 (2001).

5 E-mail correspondence with Madhu Sarin, an independent researcher based in Chandigarh, on 23 April 2003.

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

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