Text and images by Aditya C. Panda
On its incessant course toward the Bay of Bengal, the mighty Mahanadi crashes through the hills of Central Orissa, carving a stunning, 22 km.-long gorge. The Eastern Ghats biotic province lies to the south of this gorge and the Chhota Nagpur plateau to its north. Here, in the forest of the Satkosia Gorge, the tiger's roar is still heard and the mugger or marsh crocodile still fishes in the crystal waters of the Mahanadi. This is also the southernmost range of the highly-endangered gharial, though only three or four still survive here. Ever since the Hirakud Dam was constructed upstream, the fortunes of the gharial have dwindled, partly because the freshwater ecology changed and also because of competition from mugger crocodiles. The forests that clothe both banks of the river are a stronghold of elephant, gaur, leopard, sambar, chital, barking deer, mouse deer, chousingha and wild pig. And of course, one of Orissa's last remaining viable tiger populations. Sloth bears are still common here and the occasional dhole or wild dog pack can be sighted, though not as often as before. The rich sal forests mixed with luxuriant bamboo, teak and fruiting trees like Asan (Terminalia tomentosa) and Kochila (Strychnos nuxvomica) cater to varied birds including Alexandrine, Rose-ringed and Plum-headed Parakeets, lorikeets, Verditer, Monarch, Fantail and other flycatchers, nuthatches, mynahs, tits, Brown Cheeked Fulvettas… the list is endless. This is a good place to sight giant and flying squirrels too and the forests harbour populations of endangered Hill Mynah and Malabar Pied Hornbills.
I first visited Satkosia, in May 2007, as part of an elephant census team from Wild Orissa (a Bhubaneswar-based organisation with whom I have been volunteering for almost five years or more). I have been smitten ever since and have lost no opportunity to visit the park to help monitor and document its wildlife.
Diptiranjan Patra, a friend and Wild Orissa member, and I reached the rustic, century-old bungalow at Labangi from Pampasar, Satkosia's main entry point, well past midnight. A chital alarm from the hills to our right reminded us that we were in the striped predator's domain and I hoped that a tiger sighting was in my destiny this trip, but the real joy was to be out on foot in the forest as an observer.
A wild animal census is not an exact affair that can throw up definitive numbers of any species, but it does give managers an idea of the density, diversity and spread of animal populations. For obvious reasons, there is a focus on waterholes and salt licks, which are frequently visited by animals. As instructed by the officers in charge of the census, we headed out on foot early in the morning towards the Kantarsingha Game Tank. The path was strewn with ungulate spoor – fresh and old – chital, sambar, barking deer, mouse deer and the occasional gaur. We unwittingly disturbed a herd of chital at the tank. The saltlicks around the tank were replete with activity, we even saw elephant tracks.
A small herd of chital or spotted deer at Kantarsingha Game Tank
Sambar at the salt lick in Kantarsingha (image scanned from older film archive)
The rich birdlife and the presence of giant squirrels indicated a healthy canopy, an increasingly rare occurrence in this era of monoculture plantation forests. That afternoon, we trekked for around 20 km. through dense forests toward Talsera village. En route, we saw leopard pugmarks, but missed seeing elephants by a just few minutes on two occasions and had to be content with the heavy scent they left in the still, sweltering air of a May afternoon. While pugmarks may not accurately help in identifying specific animals, they are certainly vital in indicating carnivore movements and all such data had to be meticulously recorded by all those engaged in the census operation.
The moment we entered the village, we were informed that a tusker was gorging on mangoes in the village grove, half a kilometre away. We hurried to the spot, only to discover that the village kids had scared him away. It had not been a particularly exciting day, but in a sense the very ‘slowness’ of everything was attractive. Unlike the image of forests painted by dramatic documentaries, real life here is slow, somnambulant almost. The drama is, of course, always present (a carnivore kill, the movement of an elephant herd), waiting to burst into the open, after which long periods of stasis are again the order of the day.
Day two was decidedly more rewarding. We were on the Labangi-Tulka road in the Pampasar Range, where we were informed that three tuskers were still in the vicinity. Walking in the safety of a dry nullah, with good visibility around it, we came across the first tusker in less than 10 minutes. He was on a three metre-high embankment and we could barely get a glimpse of him before he turned around and disappeared into the forest. We missed the other two tuskers, but could tell they were there from the rumbling infrasound they made.
We returned in the afternoon with Palia, the game watcher. There was a muntjac at the saltlick, but it bolted on our approach. Clearly, the Satkosia forest could do with more isolation and protection from humans. We did, nevertheless, manage to get in a decent afternoon of birding and saw a giant squirrel intently watching us as we waited for elephants. A herd of sambar – four does and a fawn arrived at the saltlick before where they spent some quiet time till they were alarmed by something a little to our left and behind. Their tails were up and forefeet stamped the ground with exaggerated deliberation to the accompaniment of loud alarms. They all looked fixed in the direction of the threat (a big cat?) before walking back in the direction they had emerged. A minute later, a muntjac called from the direction of the 'threat' and left us guessing. Did the two different species of deer merely scare each other, or was there indeed a predator on the prowl? As always, watching the forest come to life at sundown was a breathtaking experience. As darkness crept in and night sounds replaced the more familiar sounds of day, we walked back to camp, following the fresh tracks of a lone elephant that had visited the area while we were at the game tank.
That evening I made careful notes in my field diary, which I would later transcribe into a standard format for the authorities. I was glad to play a small role in helping protect and manage this wilderness and knew that this is what I was destined to do for the rest of my life.
The next day, the final day of the census, we were asked to take the morning watch atop the watchtower. The first two hours yielded 11 barking deer and miscellaneous bird life, but no elephants! In the afternoon, Palia and I went to the nearby game tank and stopped some metres away listening to the low rumbling typical of an elephant. The sight we saw was enough to gladden any heart. It was a particularly content elephant vocally splashing about the pool, literally playing in its own private, natural spa, wet mud and all. We crept up the tower and watched, completely mesmerised, as the young tusker celebrated his existence. I doubt that that memory of Satkosia will ever be lost to me. If at all there was any doubt that Satkosia was a vital elephant habitat that was dispelled the next morning as we watched yet another young tusker gorge on the fruit of a village orchard, downing mangoes and jack fruit at will for over an hour. .(Add one or two sentences on the result of the census)
A few days later, as I read the census figures in the newspapers back home, I was content to note that Satkosia Wildlife Division alone had close to 200 elephants. Combined with Baissipalli Wildlife Sanctuary and other forests of Mahanadi Wildlife Division and surrounding territorial forests that constituted the Mahanadi Elephant Reserve, the number of elephants in these forests was said to exceed 500
A Panthera tigris stronghold
A couple of months before this trip to Satkosia, a young tigress, said to be between two and four years old, was sprayed with 11 rounds of buckshot by a poacher who had gone into the jungle in search of deer. She was found in the Purunakote Range and was transported for care to the Nandankanan Zoo in Bhubaneswar, where, even today, she lies in a tiny cage, paralysed below her waist, with painful bedsores, far away from the forests she once roamed. In my view, she would be better off dead.
At Wild Orissa, we have always known that Satkosia was a crucial tiger breeding habitat and that it needed much more protection. But it took 11 long years of intensive lobbying to get Satkosia declared a tiger reserve. In December 2007, I made another long trip to Satkosia, this time to the proposed core area of the tiger reserve, to document and collect data on tigers and their prey. With me was friend and fellow wildlifer with Wild Orissa, Dayani Chakravarthy from Mysore and Satyabrata Mishra, also a member from Bhubaneswar. We based ourselves in Tulka, in Purunakote Range, for the first half of the trip and then in Labangi, in Pampasar Range.
In and around Tulka, we saw many tiger pugmarks, fresh and old. On the main jeep track, we saw the fresh pugmarks of a tigress followed by a lone cub! The size of the prints suggested that the cub was no more than three or four months old. Interestingly, the pugmarks were superimposed on our car tracks, which meant they had passed just the previous night or early that morning because we had arrived around midnight. We knew that there was a tigress in Purunakote Range with two cubs, but they were almost a year old then. This was a different tigress and it had a new cub in tow! All this spelled good news for Satkosia.
Apart from the two breeding females, we found the pugmark of yet another lone tigress and the pugmarks of two different males in different parts of the range. All this in the vicinity of the Tulka and Purunakote villages! In all likelihood, the high density of tigers is because of the healthy gaur population in the reserve. Not surprisingly gaur kills by tigers are frequent. The reappearance of dholes in this area is also a very welcome sign of the increasing prey base. Through our stay, we heard alarm calls of chital, sambar and langur daily. On our third morning in Tulka, as we were returning to the bungalow after our morning romp in the forests, we were treated to the most awe-inspiring sound in the world – the call of a male Royal Bengal tiger! He called for almost half an hour, at intervals of 5-10 seconds. The whole atmosphere was electric! In my view, if there is any real future for the tiger in Orissa, it is here. Even more so than Similipal (which is neck deep in controversy about its tigers now), though both reserves must, of course, receive the highest level of protection.
The significance of Satkosia
The location of Satkosia’s rich forests – in the very heart of Orissa – makes it an extremely vital biodiversity vault. It has direct or indirect corridors with almost every other major forest patch in the state. The Satkosia-Baissipalli belt, together with adjoining Reserved Forests has been declared as the 1,000-plus sq. km. Mahanadi Elephant Reserve, which houses close to 500 pachyderms. To the south, the Satkosia belt (which includes Baissipalli) is directly connected to the Ghumusar North and South Reserved Forests. Indirectly, corridors also connect the Nayagarh-Daspalla forests. And the park is well linked to the forests of Western Orissa, particularly the Khalasuni-Badrama (Ushakoti) section, which also harbours a tiger population.
I have visited this forest frequently and have come to know it well. Elephant and tiger movement frequently occurs between Baissipalli and the Tarasingh Range of Ghumusar North. Ghumusar is one of the few forests outside the Protected Areas that contains a breeding tiger population and should quickly be listed as a critical tiger habitat for the long-term survival of Panthera tigris in Orissa. Leopards are also doing well here, though their poaching is getting increasingly frequent in the region. The success of the Satkosia Tiger Reserve would be greatly shored up if Ghumusar could be readied to accept Satkosia's spillover tigers. This would also serve the additional purpose of refreshing the gene stock of both tiger populations.
The Ghumusar forests are in turn well connected with the Kondhmal (Kandha referring to a predominant tribe here, mal meaning mountains) forests (Phulbani and Kalahandi) and the historically rich and very remote ‘Dandakaranya’ (at the junction of Orissa, Andhra and Chhattisgarh). This area has historically been known for its tigers and its wild, untamed terrain. On the western side, the Boudh and Rairakhol forests connect Satkosia to the wildlife-rich jungles of Ushakoti-Badrama.
To the north, the regular movement of elephants (and tigers) between Satkosia and Similipal through the Kapilas Reserved Forests was badly affected by the NH-42, which links Cuttack and Sambalpur. Whatever little migration was possible was wrecked by the construction of the Rengali Canal. Such shortsighted and ecologically damaging projects could so easily have been better planned, if only developers had the sensitivity and ecological intelligence that is going to be so critical to the survival of human populations on the Indian subcontinent.
It is impossible to underestimate the value of the Satkosia forests, which are, incredibly, also linked to the coastal forests of the Cuttack and Khurda districts.
The Satkosia Tiger Reserve
A decade of solid work put in by Wild Orissa's finally paid off in 2005, when the Central Government gave an ‘in-principal’ approval for the Satkosia Tiger Reserve. However, it was not until December 31, 2007, that the Orissa Government actually formalised Satkosia’s declaration as Orissa's second tiger reserve. Hopefully, the Orissa Forest Department will now ensure that this decision translates into greater protection for tigers. It’s not going to be an easy task because timber theft and poaching are rampant here. Twenty tigers could be lost in the blink of an eye if we lose our focus. All it would take are a few jaw traps and a few pesticide bottles.
The other critical effort will be the building up of herbivore populations through protection. This happens to be one of the most neglected aspects of wildlife management in India and it troubles me when forest officials treat anything other than tiger and elephant poaching as ”petty crime by locals”. Whoever indulges in the killing of wild animals, rich or poor, tribal or non-tribal, should have the book thrown at them. This is because killing of deer and wild pig directly affects the food availability of carnivores. And when food is short, not only does the breeding success of carnivores fall, but incidents of human-animal conflicts automatically rise.
Habitat management, of the kind that parks such as Kanha have so effectively implemented down the years, is vital for habitats such as Satkosia whose prey density will surely rise if we create and maintain the meadows that had long ago been lost to the teak plantations planted by the British. Apart from encouraging prey densities to rise, meadows will also encourage both carnivores and elephants to stay inside the park and will greatly reduce the man-animal conflict that has become a part and parcel of the life of those living on the fringes of Orissa protected forests.
Late in January this year, I returned to Satkosia for a short trip. In a little over two days, I was able to spend time watching for raptors including a really good Crested Serpent Eagle sighting. Other birds I enjoyed watching were the Blackheaded Bulbul and Monarch Flycatcher. I followed up on a report of a leopard that had killed a goat in a village near Jagannathpur on the way to Purunakote and was able to follow the day-old pugmarks of another leopard along the road to Asurakhola. Jungle paths always tell interesting stories and as I followed the leopard’s pugmarks, I saw older tracks of a lone tiger going in the opposite direction. I did an about turn and discovered where the tiger had scraped the soil beside the path at frequent intervals. Near one of the scrapes, I discovered a scat that seemed to suggest that the tiger had made a chital kill, but to be absolutely sure, the hair would need to be examined under a microscope. A little ahead, I found fresh bear scat with termite heads in it, but missed the sloth bear that others had seen ahead of us.
I spent the second morning in Tulka where, the forest watcher, Ganga, had found tiger pugmarks three to four days ago, probably of the resident Tulka male. I spent the day at Tikarpada and walked along the opposite bank of the river, watching river lapwings and a particularly large mugger crocodile. Our boatman said he had seen tigers on the Mahanadi's banks on a few occasions. I also heard of villagers who had scared off a tiger that had a charged a grazing herd of buffaloes.
The most promising tiger habitat here is the Labangi-Tulka-Purunakote patch, which has a fairly decent prey base. However, this area is not going to be sufficient for new cubs because when they grow up they will need independent territories, which will be hard to come by. All the truly suitable tiger habitats in Satkosia are already occupied and, under present conditions of habitat and protection, both predators and prey seem to have reached a level of saturation. Without improving the habitat by drastically reducing human, and especially, cattle pressure, improving vegetation and forage for herbivores and increasing protection, there is little scope for the carrying capacity of these forests to increase any further. From here on it is up to those who control the destiny of India to make up their minds whether they wish to see the tiger quietly die out, or whether it is worthwhile to encourage some key villages to move away from critical tiger habitats with their domestic livestock, so that tiger numbers can rise and the forest can perform the water harvesting and climate control role it had been performing for eons.
The problem is not with the villagers for they have already said they would be happy to move. In fact even those villagers living in Revenue Villages along the Pampasar-Tikarpada State Highway that bisects the Satkosia Sanctuary have agreed to move and some such as Raigoda have put this intent in writing over five years ago. But the Orissa Forest Department has not been able to provide an effective relocation package. Purunakote, tired of losing their crop to elephants and ungulates, also now wishes to relocate. The condition of forest villages such as Tulka, Labangi and Chotkei is even worse and they would surely jump at the chance to move closer to markets, where jobs and medical facilities for their families are much easier to access
Incidentally, the Forest Rights Act which is likely to devastate forest lands when brokers and middlemen misuse it to access timber and other forest riches, has no roll to play in the relocation of the Revenue Villages such as the ones mentioned above because these communities already own their lands, which they would gladly sell, provide they were assured of equally fertile lands elsewhere and of a financial package that enabled them to improve the lives of their families. The Satkosia Tiger Reserve has 106 villages strewn across it. Five of these are in the core area of the Tiger Reserve and the rest 101 one lie in its buffer. Rehabilitating these out of the Tiger Reserve will have an immense positive impact on the wild fauna and flora, and, at the same time, provide the people with better opportunities to live a much happier life.
Organized wildlife poaching is another serious threat. This has become a chronic elephant poaching zone and poisoning of tiger kills also happens. The porous southern and eastern boundaries of the park, easily accessible through the Mahanadi, let the notorious wildlife/timber mafia based in Narsinghpur and Badamba villages of Cuttack district have a free run of these forests.
At the time of writing one hears of the Rs. 600 crore financial package that could be allocated for the long term protection of forests such as Satkosia. Another sum of Rs. 50 crore is said to have been allocated for tiger protection in the country in the Union Budget 2008-9. If these funds are used to benefit the wildlife and are not misspent, I have no doubt that Satkosia will turn into a park that could rival any Kanha , Corbett or Nagarahole. Officers of the likes of ex-DFO Sushanta Nanda and his team of rangers (whom I credit with the revival of these forests over the past year and half or so) need to be posted for continued competent and dedicated administration of the park.
My images from the Satkosia Tiger Reserve can be seen here
*Not applicable to some images