Thursday, April 20, 2006
MIXED EMOTIONS IN CHANDAKA
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.