PALAMU TIGER RESERVE- THE LAST BASTION OF JHARKHAND’S WILDLIFE

It was December 2012. The two of us were accompanying a couple of Palamu tiger reserves’s trackers…..the fog enveloping us like a cloak. We listened in trepidation as Salim mian,one of the trackers,told us in a hushed voice of how a big bull elephant had killed 4 people in and around Kerh village over the past couple of weeks. I was figuring out likely escape routes in case the bull chose to make an appearance. Then we descended down a steep bank to Nau Bandh,a large water body frequented by animals. No wild animals were to be seen however,only the stumps of what were once grand teak trees and tracks of cows and buffaloes were visible. I expressed my despair at the present status of the reserve’s forests and wildlife to Salim mian,who nodded in assent,but also said that there was still some wildlife to be found. As I challenged his latest statement,he promptly lifted a large leaf which he had kept on the ground to keep intact something precious……a set of three day old tiger pugmarks. I then realized how there was still some hope to be found here,even though the reserve is but a shadow of its once glorious self.

The tiger pugmarks which i saw in Betla.

The tiger pugmarks which i saw in Betla.
Pic : Soumya Banerjee

Palamu tiger reserve straddles some 1,130 km2 of Sal,Sidha,Kamal,Kusum and Khair forest in western Jharkhand. It stretches across the state’s Latehar,Palamu and Lohardagga districts.Within the reserve lies Jharkhand’s only National Park(Betla). It was one of the 9 original Tiger Reserves(that is,it was notified as such back in 1973,immediately after Project Tiger’s inception).But Palamu’s reputation as a wildlife stronghold goes back much further than 1973. Its forests constituted the easternmost limit of the Asiatic lion,which were reported till the early 19th century. Asiatic cheetahs were also reported there till the late 19th century. The forests of Palamu played host to the world’s first organized tiger census,which was carried out under the auspices of and Mr M.Sarif Khan(the then officer-in-charge of Garu range) in 1932. They estimated the presence of 55 tigers in only 297.8 km2 of Palamu’s forests!!! Sadly,those days of plenty have come to an end……

Nevertheless,Palamu is still home to some 47 species of mammals,174 species of birds and 970 species of plants . Among the mammal species are many globally threatened species. Some of them-Tigers,Elephants,Mouse Deer and Pangolins to name a few-are species which have been mentioned in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife(Protection)Act,1972.

Palamu’s forests form a vital catchment for the region’s main rivers-the Auranga,Burha and Koel-and their numerous tributaries. The forests themselves are mostly of the Tropical Moist Deciduous type.

Most of Palamu’s people are tribals.The predominant tribes in the region are Parahiya,Bhuia,Kharwan,Chero,Oraon and Birhor. Many of these tribes receive mention in the ancient epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The ruins of the Palamu fort are an indication of the long-lost power of the tribals. The fort was built in the 16th century by the Cheros and served as a seat of Chero power. The best known Chero king was Medini Rai,who also helped in the completion of the fort’s construction and its extension. The fort was captured by the Mughal governor of Bihar in 1662,before its final conquest by the British in the 19th century. Other tourists attractions include the Lodh and Sugabandh waterfalls,and the Tatta Pani hot spring.

Palamu Fort Pic : Soumya Banerjee

Palamu Fort
Pic : Soumya Banerjee

During the time of the British,Palamu’s forests were exploited for timber and bamboo and also by hunters. 6 shooting blocks dotted the area,one of the most famous of which was at Baresand. They were demarcated separately of the district administration.

Presently,the reserve is divided into 2 Forest Divisions-the core and buffer areas. The ranges of Betla ,Kutku and Chipadohar(East and West) are included within the reserve’s core,while the buffer comprises of Baresanr,Garu(East and West) and Mahuadanr ranges. The core area covers 414.08 km2,while the buffer covers 715.85 km2.

THE PRINCIPAL THREATS TO PALAMU’S FLORA AND FAUNA AND THE PRESENT STATUS OF ITS WILDLIFE

How did this rich forest reach its present degraded state????  Where to begin in describing Palamu’s numerous problems????  The large,splayed out hoofprints of cattle greeted us at almost every nullah and streambed. At almost each outing,we used to hear rustles and see large-bodied black figures trundling through the forest. Our hopes of these figures being bisons or elephants were dashed when we saw the bells dangling from the necks of what were cows and buffaloes. Such sights were especially common at Betla.

Another painful reminder of the years of suffering inflicted upon Palamu were the numerous stumps of what were once khair and teak trees. Timber smuggling was rampant in Palamu (I say “was” as there are hardly any trees of economic value left) ,and when the then DFO of South Daltonganj forest division took on the timber thieves,his gypsy was blown up in a landmine attack. It was believed that the timber thieves had contracted a Naxal dasta to act on their behalf. The driver of the jeep and a tracker died,while the DFO himself had a narrow escape.

Fortunately,large-scale tree cutting appears to be restricted mostly to Betla at the present. Perhaps Naxal diktats banning tree felling have worked to some extent. But the removal of dry branches for firewood goes on unabated,in the absence of alternative sources of fuel.

However,large scale grazing has resulted in the proliferation of weeds, lantana and other unpalatable species. The reserve is home to a large number of villages- 199 to be exact- whose populations of cattle and humans has risen exponentially over time.

Another huge threat to the reserve’s fauna is poaching. The reserve is,as has been mentioned,home to many tribals. Ritual hunting is deeply ingrained in the culture of these tribal people. Killing of large mammals occurs for the pot,for sport,and as well as to supply the burgeoning illegal wildlife trade- the movement of Bahelias (traditional hunting communities who are believed to be targeting tigers in order to supply smugglers with their skins and other body parts) was also reported recently from Palamu . As a result,large tracts of the reserve have seen an enormous reduction in populations of large mammals,especially ungulates. Though there are signs of some species staging comebacks,the reserve’s ungulate population is certainly many many times lower than what it should have been to support a healthy population of tigers.

Naturally, given the large human and cattle populations,man-animal conflict is common. A sloth bear was killed in Garu on the 30th of November during a botched-up attempt by villagers to capture it. Man-elephant conflict is perennial, with people often shooting at elephants in retaliation for raids on crop fields. And due to the lopsided ratio of cattle to wild ungulates,it is not surprising that the vast majority of tigers and leopards prey almost exclusively upon cattle. Fortunately, the Forest Department has been pretty successful in promptly compensating affected villagers. But the threat of poisoning of tigers and leopards continues to remain a very significant one.

8 km of the rail line connecting Ranchi to Delhi lies within the reserve,and is used by as many as 70 up and down trains in all. Several elephants have been mowed down by elephants on this route,with a sharp bend near the Jawa overbridge accounting for the largest number of fatalities.

The killer tracks which pass right through the heart of PTR. Pic : Raza Kazmi

The killer tracks which pass right through the heart of PTR.
Pic : Raza Kazmi

As if all these threats weren’t enough,there are plans to revive the Kutku dam,whose partial construction on the North Koel river was carried out a couple of decades back. The dam could end up submerging 119 km2 of wildlife-rich forest as well as land belonging to 17 villages. Though the latest efforts to make the dam operational have been stymied,one can expect some more arm-twisting by the powers having vested interests in its construction..

The biggest stumbling block to the resolution of these highly significant threats is the large number of vacancies among field staff. As of 2011,the reserve had only 39 Forest Guards against a sanctioned strength of 175,with most ranges having ONLY A SINGLE OR TWO FOREST GUARDS!!!Equally shocking is the fact that the reserve is staring at 100 % VACANCIES AMONG FIELD STAFF within 5 years!!! No fresh recruitment has been carried out since 1987,and the state of Jharkhand is yet to frame rules for the recruitment of frontline staff even though 12 years have elapsed since the state’s creation.

Release of funds by the Jharkhand Government was also a huge problem till recently. Given the large number of vacancies among frontline staff, daily wage staff,recruited among local villagers,form the backbone of Palamu’s protection force. However,the non-payment of their salaries resulted 150 of PTR’s daily wage staff going on a strike in February last year.

The law-and-order situation is obviously a huge impediment to wildlife conservation,and its genesis and consequences have been discussed in a forthcoming section. The law-and-order situation,coupled with administrative apathy and callousness has resulted in the present-day degraded status of the region’s wildernesses.

Given this unbelievable profusion of problems,is it even possible that wildlife will continue to survive in this park and its ecological sanctity maintained??? In 2011,soon after a change in management of the park,efforts were made to ascertain the status of the park’s wildlife even in areas which had been out-of-bounds for the administration for over a decade. And the results of that and following surveys-which have seen the use of camera traps and DNA analysis of scat samples-while not exactly cheering,have shown that the region’s fauna is far from finished. For example,Sambhar, Nilgai and wild dogs were widely believed to have become locally extinct. However,a nilgai calf was camera trapped in 2011,and during my brief forays into Chipadohar’s forests,I was informed of recent sightings of Nilgais, and was shown their dung pellets and hoofprints . Sambar have been sighted too,and a leopard was camera trapped over a sambar kill last year.

Wild dogs are around as well,having been sighted in PTR’s Chetma forests in 2011,and recently,they were reported to have attacked livestock in PTR’s Rud forests. The Field Director also saw a few dholes on the Garu-Betla road at night in January this year.But yes,their populations are only a fraction of what they once were.

Probably the most resilient large mammal of our forests is the common leopard. This is borne out by their status in Palamu…with numerous signs of these graceful felids being found at most nullahs and streambeds. Initial camera trapping surveys saw the capture of 4-5 mating pairs upto 10 individuals in only 100 km2 of forest!!!! Leopardesses have been captured feasting at kills with litters of 2 or 3 cubs on several occasions. The flip side to this abundance of leopards is that it is an indicator of low tiger densities throughout PTR.

Another species whose population has gone up over the years is the elephant. Elephant numbers increased from 115 in 1992 to 241 in 2012. Palamu’s elephant population is characterized by a large makhna (tuskless male) to tusker ratio. Especially during summers,large herds are met with near large sources of water.
Fair numbers of sloth bears continue to exist,especially in the hillier regions which have large tracts of dense forests. However,the degradation of forests,especially in the Betla National Park, as well as man-animal conflict, are serious threats to the existence of this species.

One of PTR's elephants. Credit : Soumya Banerjee

One of PTR’s elephants.
Credit : Soumya Banerjee

Chital are almost ubiquitous in Betla National Park,with large herds of upto almost a hundred individuals being reported during the hot summer months.

However, chitals, like most other ungulates,are conspicuous by their scarcity in other parts of the reserve. No doubt large-scale poaching has reduced their populations quite a lot. Nevertheless,during my stay, I saw several camera trap pictures of chital which were taken in the Garu ranges. Efforts by the park management to develop grasslands and water sources appear to be bearing fruit,as ungulate signs are being observed more frequently nowadays in the relatively impoverished areas. Recent camera trapping efforts have also thrown up pictures of several sounders of wild boars. But it will take a long time before a reasonable prey base can be built up for tigers and leopards in the reserve’s Garu, Chipadohar and Baresand ranges.

A chital stag at Betla. Pic : Soumya Banerjee

A chital stag at Betla.
Pic : Soumya Banerjee

Palamu tiger reserve was once famous for its large Bison(Indian Gaur) population. The 1992 census estimated the presence of 727 bison. The sad present-day reality is however,that bisons,like most other ungulates,have seen their populations spiral downwards over the years. Fewer than a 100 bison survive in Betla National Park,with some estimates suggesting that as few as 60 remain. And while bisons continue to observe a tenuous existence in Betla, they have almost been wiped out in the park’s other ranges. Baresand’s famous Kujrum forests were once strongholds of these magnificient bovines; they have all but disappeared from there(for which Latoo,Serendag,Karamdih and Mahuadanr’s villagers are often blamed). A glimmer of hope,however,was shown by Garu’s forests,where a small group of bisons were seen by trackers in 2011.

The ever-resilient jackals, hyenas and foxes continue to be numerous,and are frequently camera trapped and their signs are often met with. Jungle cats and rusty spotted cats have also been camera trapped. The existence of the latter species was not known prior to its showing up in camera traps!!!!

One of Palamu’s endangered denizens which has fared surprisingly well- the Indian grey wolf(Canis lupus pallipes). The scrubs and grasslands of Mahuadanr are their strongholds,where the Forest Department’s beleaguered staff are trying bravely to monitor their lairs and prevent the overuse of the grasslands there. We came across a pleasantly large number of wolf scats and their numerous pugmarks adorned Mahuadanr’s ravines and riverbeds. Most of the scats contained traces of sheep and goat hair,indicating,once again,of how man-animal conflict threatens this large canid.

A wolf camera trapped in Garu's dense sal forests. Pic : Jharkhand forest department

A wolf camera trapped in Garu’s dense sal forests.
Pic : Jharkhand Forest Department

Among other wild denizens of Palamu are giant squirrels,pangolins,civets,hares and over 200 species of birds. Betla’s Kamaldah lake attracts many species of waterfowl each year.

Have I left out anything??? Ah yes,the tiger….that iconic large cat,which lies at the very top of the food chain and on whose presence depends the health of the ecosystem.

Well,for a reserve where tiger presence has always been doubted over the past few years,there’s both a good and bad side to the present status of tigers. The good thing about the present status is that there are still a few tigers. Unfortunately,there aren’t enough for the population’s long term viability to be ensured. An enumeration attempt in 2011 using scat analysis estimated the presence of 6 tigers in 3 of the reserve’s ranges. But given the incredible litany of threats,it will probably require a lot of luck for these tigers to survive. It is difficult to give exact estimates of the total population because of manpower constraints and the vast area of the landscapes,but according to the management, the there are no more than 10-12 tigers. What’s worse is that no concrete evidence of tiger breeding has been obtained after 1997. News of cubs being sighted comes through from time to time,but none have been camera trapped yet. The reserve was home to some 35-40 tigers in the late 90’s.

The reasons for the decline are not too hard to seek. The destruction of the natural prey base could have led to many tigers dying from retaliatory poisoning. Poaching for skins and body parts, though not as widespread as the killing of ungulates for the pot,has been reported from Palamu in the past and could have also been a contributor. Large-scale human-induced disturbances have made Palamu’s last tigers almost completely nocturnal. Of course,signs of hope do crop up from time to time to time….a tiger was reported from Netarhat last year for the first time in several decades,and their presence in the Kumandih forests(which were recently added to the reserve) has come to light. A new male,larger than previous reported males(going by the size of its pugmarks)was reported from the core area of the reserve recently.But the present situation is such that it will take a miracle for Palamu’s tigers to survive into the next decade.

The first camera trap pic of a tiger from PTR. Pic : Jharkhand Forest Department

The first camera trap pic of a tiger from PTR.
Pic : Jharkhand Forest Department

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS AND EFFORTS TAKEN BY THE FOREST DEPARTMENTS TO HALT THE DECLINE

One of the reasons for the continued existence of tigers in this reserve is their natural resilience. The other is because,the Department,atleast of late,has been trying hard to conserve wildlife. Prior to 2011,almost half of the reserve was out of bounds to Forest Department personnel. Fortunately,that is no longer the case. Even though there is a huge shortage of trained frontline staff,efforts are being made to monitor key species. Attempts to control the degradation of wildlife habitats by cattle appears to be paying off atleast in some areas. In Saidup forests of Chipadohar East range,a large 16-hectare grassland called “Lukaiyakhaad grassland” is being zealously protected,and signs of chital,barking deer and even nilgais are being seen there. Infact,2 female nilgai were sighted in those very grasslands by a forest guard in January.

Camera trapping was carried out in Palamu for the first time in 2011. A tiger was camera trapped in June that year. Even though the total number of camera traps is not high, and the law-and-order situation,as well as the shortage of trained field staff has restricted the deployment of camera traps,as many as 2 dozen species of large mammals have already shown up. Among other initiatives has been the setting up of a Tiger Foundation,which will ensure that the reserve’s authorities will get their funding directly from Project Tiger.

Efforts have also been made to convince the villagers of some of the remoter settlements of the necessity of relocation. Some of the villagers have even been taken to the Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, where 3 villages have been successfully relocated recently. Some 104 km2 of forests from the Latehar and Ranchi West divisions have also been added to the reserve. Presence of tigers and elephants has been reported from these forest areas.
Ecodevelopment activities are being carried out with the dual purpose of gaining the local’s goodwill as well as to reduce their dependence upon forests. The management has also managed to renovate the destroyed Maromar and Kujrum FRH’s…

Of course,a lot,lot more needs to be done,but given the law-and-order situation,the reserve management needs to be commended for its achievements. The present determination among field staff is a welcome change from the extreme apathy and laxity which was characteristic of the Department during the early 2000’s, which no doubt accelerated Palamu’s decline.

NAXALISM AND PALAMU

The issue of Naxalism is central to the reserve’s present condition and to its future. The history of the Naxal movement as well as the various armed uprisings orchestrated by the CPI(Maoist) and their various factions is known to most and I will not be delving into it in this article. In Palamu, Naxalism first began spreading its influences in the late 80’s. . Then in 1995,miscreants stole elephant tusks and a leopard skin from Betla’s Nature Interpretation Centre. They were later apprehended by Naxals,who took possession of the articles. The intrepid DFO then managed to get hold of them after personally meeting the Naxals!!!! This same DFO also spearheaded the Forest Department’s efforts to check timber smuggling during the same period. The smugglers then contracted a Naxal dasta to eliminate the DFO. The official’s gypsy was ripped apart by a landmine blast near Chungroo village on the 16th of February, 1998. The DFO had a miraculous escape,but his driver and a tracker died. By then,the insurgency had spiraled out of control. Forest staffers curtailed their movements to avoid further attacks and large tracts became out of bounds. Later,in 2004,another FD pick-up truck was blown up in a case of mistaken identity and 2 more staffers were killed. The Mundu FRH was blown up by Naxals in 2006. And in 2007, Maromar’s famous tree house and the Kujrum FRH met the same fate. The FRH at Maromar (adjoining the tree house) was also seriously damaged in an attack.

This is all that is left of the legendary Maromar tree house. Pic : Soumya Banerjee

This is all that is left of the legendary Maromar tree house.
Pic : Soumya Banerjee

Frequent attacks on security personnel have also taken place in Palamu’s forests…6 policemen were killed in a landmine blast in 2003 and 13 people were killed on December 4th,2011,during an attack on MP Inder Singh Namdhari’s convoy. And the latest attack occurred early in January 2013,when a party of CRPF personnel on combing operations were attacked by heavily armed Naxals near the Phulhar plantations in the Karmatiya forests of PTR. 10 CRPF jawans were killed,along with 3 villagers (reports suggested that 2-3 Naxals were killed as well). This incident became infamous after a live IED was found planted in a jawan’s body by Naxals….

As of now,an uneasy,unofficial truce exists between the Forest Department and Naxals. The Forest Department’s ecodevelopment efforts,as well as the reputation of the present Field Director as an honest,upright officer has earned them some goodwill among locals. This has led to the non-interference in FD work by Naxals. They have also allowed camera traps to be set up to monitor wildlife. Though initially misinformation on the Naxal’s part led to them confiscating some camera trap units(as they believed that the camera traps had been set up to take their pictures and enable the police to identify them),these “stolen” units were later returned to the FD.Fortunately,the reds have never been reported to have been involved in the direct poaching of wildlife (unlike the Karbi or Bodo militants),the movement of large bands of armed men naturally disrupts wildlife activity. Several posts have been set up by policemen and the CRPF,leading to the degradation of several acres of valuable wildlife habitat.

Such runs the story of Palamu Tiger Reserve…once one of east India’s most prosperous wildlife habitats,now ridden with innumerable problems. Yet,inspite of the manifold factors which threaten to swamp this reserve,lies some hope,however faint…hope that is embodied by the tiger pugmarks which I came across at Betla,and also by the news of nilgais and wild dogs being sighted. However,unless immediate attempts are made to redress the various threats,the remnants of Palamu’s and indeed Jharkhand’s once flourishing faunal populations might fade away into oblivion.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS : In writing this article,I am hugely indebted to my dear friend and fellow wildlife lover Raza Kazmi and his family,for the love and warmth with which I was treated during my stay at Palamu. A special note of thanks to the incredible Mr S E H Kazmi, Field Director,PTR (2011-14), Mr A K Mishra, DFO (Buffer),the various Range Officers,Foresters,Forest Guards,and,last but not the least,the incredible team of trackers of PTR. I wish all these people the very best in their endeavour to preserve Palamu’s forests. A big thanks to my parents and my brother for their support and encouragement,and lastly, to Nirmalya da, the editor of Jungle Rhythms, an e-magazine where this article was first published, for his graciousness and generosity.

Author’s Note : This article was written in March 2013, based on observations made during a December 2012 field trip. A few changes have occurred since- Mr Kazmi, the Field Director, was transferred in mid-2014 following security concerns. Naxalism continues to rage rampant in Palamau. A few tigers continue to hold out, though for how long, is anybody’s guess. A tourist from kolkata sighted a tiger in Betla National Park in May, 2015. Whether tigers will still be sighted in Palamau a decade from now is anybody’s guess. Tiger presence was also reported from Ranchi forest division, to the south of PTR, in 2015, probably a case of a tiger straying from PTR itself.

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