Khonoma, India - An idyllic "green village" in northeast India is being hailed as a model of conservation after an innovative project to protect wildlife began to lure tourists to the area.
As World Environment Day is marked on Thursday, India's government is now promoting Khonoma in the remote state of Nagaland as a successful example of what can be done by a small community to tackle hunting and logging and safeguard the environment.
The spirit of conservation has penetrated so deeply among villagers that local youths are signing up to be "wildlife wardens" in the community, 20km from Nagaland's capital, Kohima.
"The whole process has brought about a revolution here, and everyone has started to look at things through the eyes of a conservationist," said Kevichulie Meyase, a member of the Khonoma Tourism Development Board.
In 1998, villagers formed the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS) extending across a hilly terrain of 70sq km.
The whole process has brought about a revolution here, and everyone has started to look at things through the eyes of a conservationist.
The aim was to protect local wildlife including the endangered Blyth's Tragopan, a pheasant that inhabits wooded areas, and the village established strict rules banning hunting and logging.
"If anyone is found coming to hunt in the sanctuary he is fined 3,000 rupees ($50) as a punishment," said Mhiesizokho Zinyu, a conservationist associated with the KNCTS.
In an effort to ensure the bans were strictly enforced, the regulations stipulated that offenders' families would also face the prospect of collective fines.
"All this meant that the villagers complied with the council's strictures," said Pankaj Gogoi, a researcher associated with the non-profit organisation Destination North East, who has worked in the area.
The success of the initiative is striking given that awareness about conservation was almost completely absent in the village until the early 1990s.
The Gujarat-based non-profit Centre for Environment Education (CEE) played a pivotal role in raising local consciousness about the importance of conservation, and this was reinforced by the leading role played by Khonoma's village council.
"I still remember when we had visited the village for the first time in 1994, the residents there threw a lavish feast for us - we were served monkeys and endangered deer meat," said Abdesh Gangwar of CEE.
Gangwar said he is wonderstruck when he sees the conservation efforts now embraced by Khonoma's residents.
|An woman walks down a street in Khonoma village [Reuters]
Soon after establishing the new initiative, the villagers launched a tourism programme to generate income lost as a result of the prohibition on hunting and logging.
In 2003, they formed the Khonoma Tourism Development Board, which now gives local youths and women opportunities to work as tour guides, operators and interpreters.
"This was done so that the livelihood of all those people who were dependent on logging of trees and hunting will not be affected, and it worked out very well," said Meyase. "The sanctuary is ideal for trekking and research work, and it has a variety of ecosystems ranging from semi-evergreen forest to savannah grasslands."
Riding on the sanctuary's success, the government adopted Khonoma as a "green village" and awarded it 30 million rupees ($500,000) to develop infrastructure.
"The money was used to construct footpaths, toilets, roads within the village, solar lights, viewpoints, and for the purchase of trekking equipment," Meyase said.
In tune with their mission of conservation, the roofs of all homes were painted green so everyone knows it as the "green village".
The villagers' efforts have been lauded by Nagaland's state government, and former chief minister Neiphiu Rio has said Khonoma offers the world lessons about what people can achieve while protecting nature.
It has been a great success and can also become a role model for other states and communities as well.
The villagers' efforts are paying rich dividends and the sanctuary has turned into a hotspot for tourists - yielding clear economic benefits.
Visitors who want to experience rural life can pay for "home-stays" - accommodation in a village household costing about $17 a night, enabling them to eat local food and enjoy the natural surroundings.
The tourism board said at least 1,000 tourists - both domestic and foreign - now visit the village annually.
"Payments are made to guides, to performers at cultural programmes, and to individual families who run the home-stays," said Meyase. "This has improved the economic conditions of several households."
Conservationists working in the region say the model established by Khonoma can now be replicated in other parts of India - and beyond.
"It has been a great success and can also become a role model for other states and communities as well," said Firoz Ahmed of Aaranyak, an environmental group.