Monday, July 06, 2009

Paradise Lost? A Similipal Story

This article of mine was originally published in the Sanctuary Asia magazine's June 2009 issue

A majestic tusker walks down the Devasthali meadow, Upper Barhakamuda Range, Similipal Tiger Reserve

I sat huddled over the dying embers, listening to the trumpeting of irate elephants and hooves of jittery sambar deer. Within an hour, I knew, the moonlit forest would be swept by a dense shroud of fog. Suddenly, barely 200 m. away, I heard a noise that warmed me to the core, despite the 4 ºC chill- the roar of a tiger. As I watched, the elephants responded by bunching even tighter together to keep their young safe from attack. It was magical. For over 30 minutes, I listened quietly to the hypnotic calls of the tigress. I felt no fear, just awe. Such were the sounds that dominated the Earth before humans came to dominate all else.

That was January 2009 and I was in the Devasthali Beat House in the Upper Barhakamuda range of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, as part of a tiger estimation being conducted by the Forest Department involving NGOs like Wild Orissa, NEWS, Angul and the North Orissa University, Baripada. A report by the Wildlife Institute of India had suggested a worrying figure of less than 30 tigers, and we wanted to verify this.

We walked through the best parts of Simlipal for a week, starting early each morning to traverse paths known to be frequented by tigers. At strategic spots, ‘Pugmark Impression Pads’ or ‘PIPs’ had been laid, and we would stop at each such point to look for animal tracks. If we saw tiger or leopard tracks we traced it and made a plaster cast. We would average around 20 km. a day, returning to the beat house, mine overlooking a meadow, for lunch. There were a few saltlicks in the meadows and these encouraged wild animals to concentrate near the Devasthali beat house throughout the night. I could get used to this. Morning walks to estimate the frequency of predator movement and evening ‘tea with wildlife’ sessions to estimate the abundance of prey species. What a wonderful life!

The Similipal landscape

A view of the high altitude sal forest landscape near Devasthali, Similipal

Similipal is a rolling expanse of endless sal Shorea robusta forests interspersed with a blend of Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats and sub-Himalayan trees. The tiger reserve encompasses 2,750 sq. km. (core area 1,195 sq. km.) and is part of the Mayurbhanj Elephant Reserve (7,043.04 sq. km.) and the Simlipal Biosphere Reserve (5,569 sq. km.). Parts of the park, especially in south Similipal, experience frost and this causes the sal to be stunted and appear conifer-like- a phenomenon called ‘sal die-back’. These ‘frost valleys’ – Devasthali is one such – with their expansive meadows are a sight for sore eyes, especially in winter. The abundance of fodder and water sources holds great potential for supporting abundant prey base and makes Similipal an ideal large carnivore habitat.

Apart from tigers, the park supports a multitude of life forms, including a substantial elephant population (said to number over 500), leopards, sloth bears, chital, sambar, gaur, muntjac, mouse deer and chousingha, plus lesser carnivores such as fishing cats, leopard cats, (possibly) caracals, the endemic Joranda civet Paradoxurus jorandensisand stripe-necked mongoose (one of Orissa’s only two known populations). Similipal’s varied birdlife includes rarities such as the Collared Falconet. An endemic frog Phillautus simlipalensis, mugger crocodiles, mahseer fish populating the many streams, and as many as 3,000 plant species including 94 orchids, rare wild rice and aquatic grasses are found in this botanical wonderland.

That was the good news. Sadly, however, the park is deteriorating. There are as many as 65 villages in its buffer, four in the core. Extremist groups take full advantage of these villagers and have a free run of a park that was once considered a jewel in Project Tiger’s crown. A combination of poorly-managed tourism and resource-constrained park management hardly helps. Those of us who know how unsupported they are, take issue with people who automatically point fingers at the Forest Department and look forward to the day when field forest staff receive the respect and support of a nation whose very future depends on protecting our threatened forest ecosystems.

On Foot in South Similipal

Pugmark of a tigress near Devasthali, Similipal

To the north – in the tourism zone, much of it lying in the buffer – the prey base has been decimated and consequently carnivores are few and far between. Little wonder then that a tourist visiting Simlipal today must remain content with waterfalls, paddy fields and livestock, rather than the wildlife that once regaled visitors.

South Simlipal is another matter altogether, particularly the Upper Barhakamuda range. With the ever increasing anthropogenic pressure of 65 villages in the buffer zone, four in the core and free reigning extremists, tiger occupancy has been squeezed into this, the most remote part of the inner core. This is a great shame and it should be the objective of all who seek to prevent the extinction of tigers to help this population spread over the rest of the park and to return tigers to the northern aspects of Simlipal where habitats like the famous Chahala meadow used to report regular sightings all the way to the mid-1990s.

Walking daily with Barik, the forest guard of Devasthali and with Dasmat, a watcher, I covered Nuagaon, Mahabirsal, Golkund meadow, Bachhurichara meadow, Sulmundi, Dhudram Kachha and nearby areas. We frequently came across pugmarks, scats, scrapes and other evidences left behind by the resident Devasthali tigress, whose territory around the beat house sported large herbivore concentrations. Apart from her, we came across pugmarks of at least two other tigers, far from Devasthali. One of them, possibly a male, had huge, broad pugmarks, easily twice the size of the ones we usually saw around Devasthali. The other, narrower and longer was that of a female. Barik had previously informed me that three tigers occupied his beat and it looked like we had found them all.

Surprisingly, we didn’t come across even one leopard track and we hoped that it was tigers that were responsible, not poachers. We saw no sloth bears, hyena or jackal spoor. Could this be because the hilly areas (970 msl., frost valleys, stunted sal trees) was not favoured by them? Fruiting trees, I observed, were few and far between, and consequently birds and langur were also relatively rare, compared to the lower elevations. Wild dogs, we had been informed, went extinct (unmourned) in the ‘90s and I came across only two gaur tracks in the entire period.

Evening congregation of Sambar begins at Devasthali saltlick. Decent ungulate densities in the less disturbed parts of the reserve support its last tigers.

The saltlicks at Devasthali and Upper Barhakamuda, however, attract large congregations of herbivores. Sambar herds of 300 plus individuals have been seen in Upper Barhakamuda and I often saw over 100 sambar grazing at Devasthali. Elephants visited Devasthali each evening and their tracks and dung were ubiquitous, as were those of chital and barking deer. The habitat here doesn’t support as many chital as it does sambar and it is common to see sambar herds far outnumbering chital herds. I was able to see considerable evidence of porcupine and ratel movement.

I found this freshly made tiger kill on my last morning in the reserve.

On my last morning in the park, I came across a freshly killed sambar stag not far the beat house. I guessed it had been ambushed while retreating to the forest from the meadow at dawn. I positioned myself near the kill for the rest of the day, but saw neither hair nor hide of its attacker. As luck would have it I was informed the very next day, January 11, 2009, that Barik and a forester saw the Devasthali tigress sprawled beside the half-eaten carcass! She turned out to be one of the dark striped individuals peculiar to Simlipal.

Forest Wrongs

Clearly Devasthali and its surrounds hold a substantial density of tigers that comprise a source population for Simlipal. This is not surprising, because the area supports a decent prey base, which in turn is because south Simlipal has fewer villages and, consequently, less human disturbance such as livestock grazing and encroachment of meadows for agriculture. If the villagers in the core area – Jenabil, Jamuna, Bakua and Kabataghai – could be convinced to move, an ailing Simlipal would be given a new lease on life.

Though admittedly I did see signs of an abundance of wildlife in this section of the reserve, what worried me was that the movement was almost completely nocturnal. It seemed that no mammal, including elephants, ventured out before late evening. In any event, we did not come across any elephants during our walks in the area and we sighted just two barking deer and four chital during walks through the entire week. The evidence was clear as day -- human persecution was at work. It is vital that this peace and solitude be restored to this sanctum sanctorum and the only way to do this is to create a physical separation between the human and wildlife communities.

The next time anyone thinks of criticising the field staff of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, I would suggest they first consider the fact that more than half the posts remain unfilled. This is like Sanctuary trying to bring out the magazine, with half its staff missing. The job may get done, but can it be done well?

Simlipal is the pride of Orissa. These vast forests play a role in moderating climate and actually impact the Indian monsoon through transpiration and convection. Yet its officials are overage, underpaid, overworked, underpowered and hence, under-motivated. Local villagers, largely tribal, have ancient hunting traditions and they have of late discovered that commercial poachers pay better wages than officials who at best distribute marginal daily wages for ad hoc forest works. The meagre 40 guards or less that patrol the huge 3,000 sq. km. reserve, find themselves overwhelmed by locals who often enter the park en masse to loot timber, poach, or light fires to make it easier to find fallen fruit a week later.

Forest Departments across India inevitably fall prey to the short-term benefits that accrue to the political system and to profiteers from ‘development’. This must change, as the Department is entrusted with the greatest resources any nation can have -- far more important than our political boundaries and GDP are the sources of our air, water, climate and storehouses of our carbon. We must treat the department that protects these sources with far more respect and far more importance than we do now.

Finally, the fuse blows

The shoddy treatment of Simlipal at the hands of the State Government – staff shortages, delay in relocating villages, poor intelligence gathering and non-existent implementation of law was directly responsible for a brutal attack on the Forest Department in March 2009. Extremists, presumed to be Maoists, stormed the park, burning Forest Department buildings and threatening personnel and tourists alike (see box on page ). The attack was supported by locals who – unlike their ancestors – no longer wish to protect either the forest, or wildlife. Poachers, timber mafia and local land encroachers enjoyed a field day following the invasion as all forest personnel were forced to flee their positions. Ominously, dark parallels can be drawn to Manas when extremists created havoc and in their wake, poachers mopped up over 100 rhinos.

Simlipal will suffer a similar fate because the park continues to reel under the impact of the attack and if the state government does not quickly wake to its abdication of duty, the forest will be emptied of its endangered wildlife. What a tragedy that would be when Simlipal in fact cries out for the nation to recognise its value and work unitedly to revive it, a task that could be accomplished within a short span of five years, provided it is protected assiduously.

Regaining paradise lost

Me and Balu Nagrajan, a fellow wildlifer from Wild Orissa, spend a typical evening at the Devasthali Beat House.

With a core area larger than most reserves, a diverse and flourishing prey base, Simlipal could easily hold the largest source population of tigers in India. But this would only be possible if a holistic, long-term revival plan involving the swift relocation of villages, filling up vacant posts and beefing up anti-poaching and conservation activities is undertaken. Towards this end, the creation of an armed Tiger Protection Force is long overdue, though a flushing operation to rid the park of extremists who are working with poaching mafias may now be unavoidable.

Quite separately, there is a great need to improve tiger monitoring at the chowki or beat level in the park. The field staff requires much better training and sensitising on tiger monitoring as well as dealing with local communities. They also need able leadership that understands and is able to implement modern wildlife conservation strategies.

Clearly however, Similipal cannot be treated as ‘yet another conservation problem’ to be dealt with through ineffective ‘eco-development’ solutions. The four villages in the core will need to be shifted with a package that motivates people to ask for relocation. This will necessarily involve land for land and generous financial compensation. Tourism too will need a mind shift away from ‘waterfalls and picnics’ to true wildlife tourism along the lines of Corbett and Kanha, but without the dangerous tendency to overload the park. Rather than use the park's captive elephants for joy rides, they need to be devoted to patrol difficult terrain and monitor the nucleus tiger population. And yes, the tourism complexes, like the one at Gudgudia inside the park, must be moved out. Simlipal needs to be inviolate.

While their service rules may not permit them to express opinions as strongly as I have done, I know that the officers, senior and junior, in the Simlipal Forest Department agree with the prescriptions listed above.

A peacock in the reserve, shortly after the extremist attack- an apparent gesture of hope.

Returning Similipal and other vast forests like it across the country to health, in my view is not a matter of choice. It is an imperative if India is to escape destruction at the hands of an ecological meltdown of the subcontinent.


Well known journalist, author and wildlife conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra had written a piece on the shameful take over of Similipal Tiger Reserve by extremists, which appeared in a box with the above article. Prerna and I had visited the park a few weeks after the attacks to make a first hand note of the state of affairs there... here's her article:

Under attack

by Prerna Singh Bindra

At 8:30 p.m. on March 28, 2009, the VHF tower at Meghasani, Simlipal’s highest peak was destroyed. The first strike was a masterstroke, effectively cutting off all communication. Over the next few hours, extremists systematically pillaged and burned leaving in their wake the shattered dreams of conservationists and an uncertain future. Forestchowkis, vehicles, rest houses were ransacked and set aflame and rangers, forest guards and tourists were bound and beaten. A department tusker whose last ‘job’ had been to chase away some timber smugglers and crush their bike was shot and left to die. Posters demanding the “death of Project Tiger” and threats to destroy the entire forest were put up. While the attacks were all across the 3,000 sq. km. reserve, they were concentrated at its most vulnerable points in the core area -- Chahala, Upper Barhakamuda, Devasthali, Gudgudia, Patbil, Jenabil, Joranda – where much of the wildlife is concentrated. The motive was clear -- the carnage was aimed to break the back of forest administration and thereby ‘free’ the forest of any control whatsoever. Police sources confirmed that the Naxals had the tacit support of local forest dwellers and tribals, who regarded the Forest Department as an impediment to their activities be it ritual hunting, or tree felling, a sentiment exploited by the Naxals. The timing of the attack is suspicious too, on the eve of the akhand shikar -- a month-long annual ritual of the local tribals who go on a mass hunting spree.

Simlipal was a tragedy waiting to happen. The Mayurbhanj district has long been a haven for left-wing extremists, given its contiguity to Saranda -- once the finest salforest in Asia, and the largest-in Jharkhand – which has been relentlessly ravaged. If intelligence sources are to be believed, they are attempting to create a red corridor that connects Jharkhand with Keonjhar and Jajpur, where the Naxals are well-established.

It’ doesn’t look like the problem will be curbed since the left wing activists enjoy the covert support of the current government in power. In the last decade, roughly the time the BJD government has been in power, the number of Naxal-affected districts in Orissa has grown from three to 20. We have already lost Indravati (in Chattisgarh) and Palamau in Jharkhand to Naxals, and Nagarjunasagar are largely under their control too. Valmiki and Udanti-Sitanadi, a newly-declared tiger reserve in Chahatisgarh have also been infiltrated and some estimates suggest that we have a third of our reserves to the red cancer.

Prerna blogs at


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Images © Aditya Chandra Panda, 2009