Nature Without Borders

The complex people-wildlife relationships in India

In India, people and wildlife share common spaces. But as development gets fast-tracked, the delicate, value-based balance is tilting; This year-long project explores the complex relationships between Man and Nature

Kalyan Varma
Environmental Photojournalist

My engagement with Nature began with a fascination for wildlife and with remote areas far from the chaos of the city.

This led me, almost exactly a decade ago, to the BR Hills in Karnataka, and since then I have criss-crossed India exploring, learning, documenting, photographing and filming.

My search for ‘wild’ places and virgin forests led to two life-changing experiences. The first was when I met communities leading lives that seemed so much a part of Nature; these people had hearts as giving as Nature itself. Living in and off the forests was Second Nature to them; they had been co-existing in the wilds for centuries.

The second discovery – more of a gradual realization – was that Nature is part of us, and we are an integral part of nature. We are not two distinct entities. Nature does not know that it is supposed to exist only within a designated National Park or a Wildlife Reserve. Nature is everywhere; it surrounds us, it is amidst us, and it knows no borders.

I realized over time that while the setting aside of Protected Areas was probably done with good intentions and backed by science with the intention of conserving nature while promoting ‘development’, a delicate connection  was severed as a result. Fault lines have widened, conflicts escalated, harmony shattered – perhaps for ever.

A decade after that first trip to the BR Hills I am setting out again, with a more open mind, to explore those areas where man and nature are in closest contact.

Across India, the future of conservation is shaped by the tolerance of those people who have to live with wildlife. India has enough protected areas in the country, but if we have to recover numbers when it comes to the likes of tigers or endangered birds, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we have to reassess our strategy. We have to look at, learn from, traditional models where people and wildlife share the same landscape.

Through this series, Second Nature, I will document the different kinds of human-animal relations and the conflicts that arise between the various players. These include:

  • Those who wish to conserve biodiversity (the public, conservation organizations),
  • Those charged with enforcing these values (i.e. Forest Department officials and staff), and
  • Those who must live alongside oftentimes dangerous animals (villagers, farmers, plantation workers, etc).


I will also document long-standing traditional conservation models that people have been practicing.

Historical Context

In India, which has villages and towns in juxtaposition to vast tracts of forests, seeing a predator in one’s backyard was normal. People depended upon the forests fringing their villages for food, fodder, and fuel. The forest was an essential resource for the people.

Things began to change in the late 1800s, when the British formed the Imperial Forest Service. It was set up to manage the forest resources, and was focused mainly the value of timber in the forest. Taxes were levied on people who used these resources. This put a considerable strain on the indigenous people, who had depended on these forests for centuries.

This, along with the princely hunting reserves, formed the first protected areas and, with the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, forests suddenly became state property. Fences came up around these protected areas; people moved out, and the wildlife was hemmed in. A  lakshman rekha was drawn, and it demarcated the “inside” for wildlife and “outside” for people.

This concept was alien for both the people and the wildlife.

Animals drifted outside the artificial boundaries while people, who had no alternative state-sanctioned source of food or fuel, crossed into those same boundaries in search of their traditional resources. But now, their usage of forests was “illegal.”

This created an increasing, intensifying animosity between the state and the people, and this has over the decades led to a reduced tolerance for wildlife.

These fault-lines – cracks in a once peaceful fabric that deepen and widen by the day – are what I hope to explore over the next year and more.

One thought on “The complex people-wildlife relationships in India”

  1. varun joshi
    June 30, 2015

    I as a wildlife lover and as person who wants to make sure that Animals and human survive together would like to ask you IF I CAN HELP in any way.