Wildlife Heroes: Poonam Dhanwatey

A portrait of Poonam Dhanwatey in the field



“One need not be a scientist or a biologist to be a saviour of wildlife or the environment – it only needs the will and the passion to do it,” believes Poonam Dhanwatey, Co-Founder of the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT), part of Born Free’s Living with Tigers programme.

Poonam should know. More than two decades ago, she quit a career in interior design to pursue her passion for tigers. With her husband Harshawardhan, she set up TRACT to conserve wild tigers, their prey and habitat in central India. Since then, TRACT has worked closely with local communities in the forests of Satpuda to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and improve livelihoods. Local community inclusion in mitigation has been the key to their success.

“Every bit of conservation helps and everyone can help,” Poonam explains. “We’ve brought together information about more than 450 attacks on people by tigers and leopards to understand this negative interface better and to find solutions for coexistence. We’ve helped local communities believe in coexistence of people and wildlife.”

Through this work, TRACT has trained leaders and more than 1,700 youths in 250 villages, as well as more than 500 forest personnel. Their efforts have also improved basic amenities in villages through State initiatives such as building toilets and introducing alternatives to firewood for cooking. Not only do these initiatives improve livelihoods and health, they also reduce the need for villagers to enter the forest, therefore reducing conflict with tigers.

This approach is working. According to TRACT, incidences of conflict have decreased in Satpuda, even though the tiger population is on the up.

“Tigers are the most beautiful creatures on Earth,” says Poonam. “I love being in the forest and seeing tigers – and while doing so, the thought of having saved a few of them. The thought that every effort brings a positive change.”

Poonam believes the positive changes TRACT has made in the forests of central India will continue well into the future. Her vision for wildlife 20 years from now is that a ‘social fence’ will surround Satpuda where people and wild animals co-exist peacefully.

“We need to protect the environment – green cover and water – before it is too late,” Poonam adds. “Each of us can do our bit in our own backyard.”

Tiger Research and Conservation Trust

Poonam Dhanwatey walking with colleagues through the jungle A portrait of Poonam Dhanwatey