Wednesday, April 26, 2006


13, 14 April 2006

I had been to Bhanjanagar, in the southern part of Orissa, along with a few colleagues from Wild Orissa in the second week of April. We had been invited by a Bhubaneswar based NGO to a ‘consultation’ on tribal rights vs. wildlife conservation. While the so-called ‘consultation’ turned out to be a complete failure, we stole the opportunity to tour the forests of Ghumusar North and South.

One of the last places in India where the extremely endangered Blackbuck lives safe from poachers and gun toting film stars is the area around the villages of Ballipadar and Bhetnoi. There is no forest here and nor is it a sanctuary. The locals believe that their crops will fail if the antelopes don’t feed from their fields. They strictly protect the animals and even rescue injured and sick animals. This belief has led to what is now a model for community protection of wildlife. Only 4-5 kms after the village of Ballipadar, we were stopped by Amulya Upadhyaya, head of the Black buck protection community. On the roadside, what had to us been just another paddy field scenery, he pointed out to us our first wild blackbuck. It was a splendid male; looking very much like Africa’s ubiquitous Thomson’s gazelle, only black in color. The females are fawn colored with a white belly and a thick black streak separating the two colors. As we tramped the fields, almost forgetting the heat and humidity in our excitement, we saw over fifty or sixty more of these critically endangered antelopes in less than 30 minutes. The locals say that they are even more concentrated in the monsoon and winter but they scatter in search of food in summer. The area is estimated to have around 900 blackbucks (and the figure is growing). In the absence of natural habitat (open grasslands) they are totally dependent on cultivated crops. Talking to Mr. Upadhyaya we learnt that the area was suffering severely due to a shortage of water in the summer and that they had thus stopped growing their summer crop. This is affecting both the people and the animals. With only one crop in a year, the people are finding it increasingly difficult to share their crop with the antelopes. A reservoir is necessary so that the monsoon waters last through the summer and this amiable relationship continue.

We returned to Bhanjanagar in the afternoon to prepare for a visit to the Kaliamba Reserve Forest only 6 kms away. From there we drove through the forest on a dirt track for 7kms to the century old Kaliamba Rest House. The drive yielded no sightings save a couple of spotted doves. There is a huge banyan tree in front of the rest house, which houses a few giant squirrels. The watcher offered to take us for a round of the forest. We asked him to take us on his beat. From the animal tracks and scat on the ground we concluded that barking deer, sambar, wolf and bear were prolific. Elephants are migratory here. We came across one leopard pugmark, a medium sized male, and are unsure of a second, smaller pugmark. The area also holds a few gaur and we saw one hoof mark. It should, however, be kept in mind that this walk lasted only an hour and half and there certainly is more wildlife here than what our search revealed. The last big cat census revealed the area was devoid of tigers but the watcher said he had seen a pugmark just before the census. Leopard sightings are common in the area and cattle kills happen occasionally. The watcher was just telling us about a recent king cobra sighting when we came across the shed skin of a spectacled cobra.

The next day was our day of departure and we made an early start from Bhanjanagar. Beautiful ‘sal’ forests start around 10 kms after Bhanjanagar, on the Bhanjanagar-Dasapalla road. This is the Tarasingh Reserve Forest of the Ghumusar North Division. The road is narrow and with very little traffic and sightings are said to be high on this road. We dropped in at the Tarasingh Range Office and since we didn’t have enough time to tour the forests we had to satisfy ourselves with whatever the Forest Deptt. staff had to say. According to them, the area has bears, wild boar, barking deer, jungle fowl and peafowl. The last census revealed 15 leopards and 1 tiger. The ranger showed me the plaster casts of the pugmarks. The leopards seemed fine but the tiger pugmark was very small and was more likely that of a leopard, exaggerated in size since it was found on sand. They said it could be a tigress but I am still skeptical. The Forest Deptt. is notorious for faking the existence of tigers and this is one example of just how easily they can create fake figures.

The staff showed us a little barking deer fawn which had been colleted from villagers. A villager had trapped it from the jungle and on receiving this information the Forest Deptt. staff proceeded to seize it. They were greeted by a large group of villagers armed with sticks and they finally had to buy the animal for Rs. 400! This is the state of our Forest administration. When it can’t even seize a fawn from a villager, how can one expect the Forest Deptt. to fight gangs of poachers armed with sophisticated weapons? They are given guns but even if they fire it in self-defense, they have to prove this in court. And everyone knows that courts in India can take years for even simple cases like robbery. There is an immediate necessity to give full police powers to the Forest Department and to give magisterial powers to officers above the rank of Conservator.

Both the above areas are highly affected by timber theft and forest fires. Nevertheless, the entire area shows excellent potential for wildlife conservation, if it is declared a sanctuary. It has corridors with other wildlife rich areas like Baissipalli-Satkosia, Dasapalla, Berbera, etc. and these areas, with the exception of Dasapalla, have tigers and elephants which are in desperate need of un-fragmented rich forests if they are to survive.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


23, March 2006

After collecting the required permits I left the DFO’s office at 3:15pm and a forty-five minute drive from there brought me to the Godibari main gate of the Chandaka-Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary and Elephant Reserve, hardly 20 kms from Bhubaneswar. It was already 4:00pm and I had to be back before sundown. I have been visiting this park for many years now but this visit had been after quite a while. In earlier times, even a few months back, sightings were very rare and even a junglefowl sighting was considered something of a success. With so little time in my hands, I didn’t really expect anything more than perhaps a lucky glimpse of a scuttling peafowl. But a drive in a forest, regardless of sightings, is always pure heaven to me. So I drove in through the gate after showing my permits to the guard. I had driven for hardly 200 metres on the soft, red ‘morrum’ road when a group of Forest Department labourers in a tractor coming from the opposite direction stopped me. The driver said that there was a lone tusker ahead on a bend at Ambakhalli. To my query about how the tusker had reacted to their presence he replied that since the animal was used to seeing their tractor on many previous occasions he was quite unaffected. “But”, he added, “I am not sure how he’ll react to the car”. I moved on and at Ambakhalli I saw the fresh tracks of the tusker on the morrum. The soil was soft and tracks wouldn’t last very long on it. This gave me an idea of its freshness. The elephant had crossed from left to right and had not come back. A careful eye scan of the bamboo bushes on the right of the road revealed nothing and since I was already late, I moved on.
On my way to Kumarkhunti I saw a few peacocks and a couple of junglefowl. I had just crossed a dry nullah, which is a landmark to Kumarkhunti, when an orange light on the car’s instrument panel said I was low on fuel. I damned myself for overestimating the car’s fuel efficiency on this kind of road where one can hardly shift over second or third gear. I could not go to the watchtower at Kumarkhunti and had to return a few kilometers before it. On my way back, just after the nullah, I saw two chital does hardly 10 feet away. There still was some sunlight and remarkably the deer didn’t seem very scared. They stood there and looked at the car for about 3-4 minutes before running away to a bush further away and watched me from behind it. This was a very good sign for a forest that was only recently a free-for-all to loot, hunt, chop or burn. The sighting of the deer at that early hour and there behaviour was a sure sign that things had improved since my last visits.
Damning myself a second time, now for not bringing my camera along, I drove on to see even more peafowl and junglefowl. There populations had surely gone up. Back at Ambakhalli I searched the road for the tusker’s tracks again. I was thrilled by what I saw. Superimposed on the car’s tyre tracks were the tusker’s footprints in a direction opposite to the one I had seen earlier. After seeing his tracks for the first time I had been back after hardly even an hour- very little time for the tusker to have gone somewhere purposefully and come back again to cross to the other side. While I had seen his tracks for the first time, he must have hidden behind the bamboos watching the car with suspicion. After I had left, he saw that the coast was clear and got away from there as soon as he could. He was used to the tractor and didn’t run away on seeing it but the car was unfamiliar and he wasn’t sure whether it (the car) was safe. So he decided to hide and watch. I had missed him by minutes.
Then started the sad part of the trip. Ahead on the track a Forest Department jeep was parked. The driver told me that it had carried some staff who were now controlling a forest fire somewhere within. The vegetation was dry due to the summer heat and it wouldn’t have taken long for a villager’s beedi to start the fire. I was pretty close to the exit at Godibari then. At the gate I stopped to meet Motilal, the captive makhana (or tusk-less bull), and for a chat with the guards. Talking of leopards, I learnt that this year’s census revealed a figure of zero. After all that elation due to the sightings, this was a complete downer. With the local extinction of the tiger long back, the leopard had somewhat filled the gap of top predator. Now with the leopard gone too, the whole ecosystem of the park is bound to be affected severely. Come to think of it- an entire trophic level, to be more precise, the top most trophic level is absolutely missing from this ecosystem. How will it sustain itself? How long will it last for? The thought is scary. Chandaka has no predators worth the mention. This, coupled with overgrazing by cattle will destroy these jungles forever. There is no chance of leopards or tigers migrating from the better-stocked forests of nearby Nayagarh, Berbera, Ghumusar, etc. since the corridors have long vanished. The only hope for the short-term future of Chandaka is to reintroduce leopards from the better-stocked forests of Satkosia and Ghumusar North, which are nearby. For Chandaka’s long-term future and especially to end its chronic man-elephant conflicts, there is no option but to re-establish previous corridors with Satkosia, Ghumusar and Berbera via the Nayagarh forests. This will prevent inbreeding among the leopards and elephants and more importantly, will create a large, contiguous patch of viable tiger, elephant, leopard and gaur habitat, which again is the only hope of their long-term survival in Orissa. It goes without saying that such basic measures as proper security and corruption free administration will also be necessary.
Chandaka is nowhere as famous as Sariska, and the leopard might not be as glamorous as the tiger, but the situation is just as bad as Sariska. I might be too dreamy to expect the Forest Department to actually take such a dedicated course of action, but the fact remains that drastic situations need drastic measures and re-establishing old corridors and re-introducing locally extinct species should be the primary course of action now. There are no options left. Re-location of tribal and other local inhabitants may be criticized in the name of human rights and coexistence is the catchphrase of such activists now. But coexistence involves a drastic change in the attitude of the people and this, especially in India, is a long-term prospect. Our wildlife has been ruined close to being beyond repair. We have created this trouble and its we who have to adjust. Such fancies of armchair activists as coexistence will not work in the Indian situation. It is too late to experiment with the current situation. We have to save our wildlife NOW. Period.