If the gate at the entrance had never announced that we were about to enter a tiger reserve, then we would probably have been oblivious to our location. A thick, promising clump of sal which started just beside the entry gate was abruptly broken by a small settlement, near which grazed cows. A small group of young men, carrying freshly cut logs emerged from the nearby clearing, over which electricity wires ran to a nearby pylon, signifying that we were in “revenue” land. It was December 2011, and we were in Buxa Tiger Reserve(BTR) in Jalpaiguri District in North Bengal.
Those who know Buxa well, and are familiar with such scenes, will thus not have been too surprised to know that the NTCA has found no trace of tigers there, in recent surveys. Scat analysis has been the preferred option of tiger enumeration there, with no photographic record of Buxa’s tigers having been obtained in recent times- barring a grainy picture taken by a forest guard in 2010. Extensive camera trapping surveys over the years have netted leopards, elephants, deer and even the elusive clouded leopards and marbled cats, but no tigers.
In 2011 and 2012, scat samples sent to the wildlife NGO Aranyak and CCMB, Hyderabad, determined the presence of 12 and 20 tigers respectively, but the scat collection exercises themselves were conducted solely by the local Forest Department, giving rise to questions over the transparency of the practice. Moreover, none of tigers whose presence was enumerated through scat samples in 2011 were found in 2012. In 2013-14, WII carried out its own scat survey in the reserve, as part of the quadrennial tiger census which the apex tiger conservation organisation, the NTCA oversees. 3-5 of the over 70 samples found were established to be of tiger origin, but since photographic evidence of these tigers was not found through camera trapping, the NTCA declared that it was very possible that the reserve did not host a resident population. These discrepancies have evoked concerns over the lack of transparency regarding monitoring efforts on the part of the BTR management, and could be symptomatic of wider official apathy regarding wildlife conservation.
BTR itself extends over some 760 sq. km – of which a 390.58 sq.km area has been declared as the core. The reserve is located in the Northeastern extremity of West Bengal, and it borders the Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan to the north, and the Manas landscape (comprising of the Manas tiger reserve in Assam, and the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan) to the east. Being a part of the IndoMalayan ecozone, with its terrain ranging from steeply hilly in the Buxa Duar and Newlands areas in the north, to flat, narrow valleys of the duars in the south, Buxa is richly endowed with a wide variety of flora and fauna.
This includes over 70 species of mammals and 300 species of birds. Going by the hunting records of the Maharajahs of Coochbehar in the 19th and 20th centuries, it becomes quite clear that Buxa once hosted a magnificent assemblage of megafauna, including some species which are no longer found there now, such as the swamp deer and the wild buffalo. The tiger may also have followed them, to the consternation of all conservationists and concerned citizens.
Some species, however, continue to do well – Buxa has a growing population of 250+ elephants, including some magnificent tuskers. Sadly, they are threatened by man-animal conflict and poaching, with 4 tuskers having been poached over the past 3 years.
In the near-absence of tigers, leopards have become the dominant predator, and during my 2011 trip to buxa, i came across leopard pugmarks in numerous places around the crowded jainty village. The tea gardens surrounding the reserve also have a few resident leopards that prey on the feral dogs and livestock there, especially in the Rydak and Hamiltonganj areas. A 2012 survey by the FD established the presence of 105 leopards in the western part of BTR.
In that same year, dholes were also spotted in the Tashigaon block of the reserve, after a prolonged absence. During my stay in Buxaduar, i was able to interact with the members of a census team, who claimed to have seen 5-6 dholes feeding on a spotted deer.
However, the survival of even these carnivores hangs on a knife’s edge, given the dismal status of buxa’s preybase. Human disturbances, coupled with ungulate poaching, have resulted in very low ungulate densities throughout Buxa. During my 4-day stay there, the only direct sighting of wild ungulates i had was that of a lone wild boar near Santrabari (the only other mammals we sighted were himalayan hoary-bellied squirrels, a Malayan Giant Squirrel and an Assamese Macaque).
We saw a few sambar hoofprints while trekking to the Mahakal cave area in Jainty-however, a couple of hundred metres ahead, we saw some feral dogs gamboling in the riverbed. The presence of feral dogs constitutes a big threat to wild ungulates. Buxa lacks suitable stretches of grassland, for harbouring large populations of deer and wild boar. The few patches of grassland that do exist in Jainty range are unsuitable for ungulates during the daytime due to dolomite mining along the riverbed, and extensive tourist movement.
Moreover, rampant cattle grazing (Buxa is believed to have over 30,000 heads of cattle) is a problem everywhere. A few stall-feeding initiatives have been undertaken by the Forest Department with the help of NGO’s such as NEWS (Nature Education and Wildlife Society), but a lot more needs to be done. The effects of such large-scale disturbance of prime wildlife habitat by cattle is reflected by the poor density of gaurs in BTR, whereas many better-managed PA’s in Bengal, such as Jaldapara and Gorumara, are teeming with them.
At night, i could frequently hear the alarm calls of barking deer, possibly in response to leopard presence. Barking deer are possibly the most widespread species of deer in Buxa, due to their small ranges and preference for wooded ravines, which minimizes the threat due to hunting and habitat loss.
Poaching has also been responsible for depressing ungulate densities. Tigers may not have shown up in camera traps yet, but pictures of numerous poachers, some carrying guns, others carrying bows, have been taken by the camera trap units. Most of them are residents of villages located within BTR, though workers of the fringe tea gardens also indulge in poaching, something which BTR’s successive management plans have noted. 34 tea gardens surround Buxa, many of them lying along wildlife corridors, which naturally makes them hotspots of man-animal conflict. Much of eastern Buxa has been heavily fragmented due to the presence of these tea gardens, with the Bholka blocks in the extreme southeast being totally isolated from the rest of the reserve. Involving the tea garden management and labourers in wildlife conservation is key, and conservation models in place in estates such as Hathikuli near Kaziranga should act as the template.
With as many of 78 out of 233 posts of Forest Guards lying vacant , enforcement of forest and wildlife laws is difficult. Many posts of rangers and foresters also lie vacant. The timber trade is also lucrative, and deaths have occurred due to violent confrontations between timber thieves and forest guards in the past . The porous border between Bhutan and India enables the easy smuggling of wildlife goods.
An 18 km stretch of rail tracks on the Howrah-Guwahati cuts through the Rajabhatkhawa and Damanpur ranges, and has been responsible for several elephant deaths over the years, with 2 elephants being run over in 2014. Speed controls need to be implemented in the Kalchini-Hasimara stretch, with adequate coordination between the forest and railway authorities, so that such incidents do not recur. Unfortunately, the inter-departmental blame game which follows every incident of elephant death precludes any serious steps being taken to prevent wildlife deaths on rail tracks.
Large-scale human disturbance is a natural result of the presence of many villages – a total of 37 in the reserve, of which 9 are present in the core area. Numerous attempts have been made to shift these villages, but only one, Bhutia Basti, lying on the other side of the Jainty river, has been shifted. Some of these forest dwellers are descendants of the Rajbongshi and Koch tribes which are indigenous to the region. Others are Santali and Oraon tribesmen, from the Chhota Nagpur plateau, whose ancestors were brought in by the British to work on plantations. Bengalis, Nepalis and Bhutias also inhabit the forest villages.
Eco-development projects began in BTR as early as 1996- BTR was one of the first locations where the India Ecodevelopment Project(IEDP), a brainchild of the World Bank, was implemented. A total of 64 EDC’s (Ecodevelopment Committees) and FPC’s (Forest Protection Committees) are currently in place in BTR. However, due to extensive politicking and rising populations (and consequently, material demands) of forest villages, anthropogenic pressures on sensitive wildlife areas have not been eliminated by the eco-development programmes.
In 2010, NTCA unveiled a comprehensive relocation package for the forest dwellers residing in the core areas of tiger reserves throughout India. This package, which involved the grant of Rs. 10 lakh for each family unit, has been hugely successful in some areas. In Buxa, steps to relocate forest dwellers were initiated in 2009. While many wished to move out, the apathy of the FD, coupled with the involvement of those with vested interests, such as the tourism lobby, politicians and “tribal activists” have stymied the project. Several politicians have even demanded a redrawing of the core-buffer boundary, so that the villages falling within their respective constituencies no longer form a part of the core area, and are thus exempted from relocation. Moreover, as in many other reserves, there is widespread confusion over whether the sanctioned obtaining of forest rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2008 precludes village relocation from the core area.
Which is of course, no remedy to Buxa’s many ills. The populations of most forest villages has grown exponentially, with some of them having come to resemble small towns. 28 Mile, a forest village in Rajabhatkhawa range, had only 37 households in 1960, but has 110 households now. Others, such as Buxa Sadar Bazar, have 35-odd households, but occupy a large part of prime wildlife habitat, and are in urgent need of relocation. There is very little inviolate habitat in BTR now. The need of the hour is for the Forest Department and NGO’s to talk directly with the forest dwellers about the merits of relocation, and if necessary, to organise trips to relocated villages in Satpura and Melghat, where a marked improvement in the income levels of the residents has been noticed, post-relocation. The socio-economic benefits of village relocation must always be emphasised, in order to prevent those with vested interests from hampering the process.
Another of Buxa’s ills is uncontrolled tourism. Buxa is hugely popular among tourists, being easily accessible via Alipurduar. Numerous resorts and homestays throng Santrabari, the Buxa Sadar Bazar hamlet near Buxa fort, and Jainty, in addition to the rest houses maintained by the Forest Department and its affiliate organisation, the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation (WBFDC) at Rajabhatkhawa, Jainty, Hatipota, Rydak and Raimatang. The FD has repeatedly issued guidelines for the regulation of tourism, but the enforcement of these norms has been poor. In 2010, the FD banned car safaris in the core area of reserve, but a 2012 report by the Times Of India (TOI) paper found that tours are frequently carried out in the out-of-bound areas, often for a “fee”. Even night safaris are sometimes carried out, in blatant contravention of established norms. Even though the growth of homestays in certain parts of BTR is a commendable development, the overall wildlife tourism scenario is characterised by a lack of enforcement of guidelines, the absence of coherent ecotourism plans on the part of the FD, and the lack of effort to determine the ecological footprint of tourist activities .
Reviving BTR is difficult, but far from impossible. Unlike Sariska, which lost all its tigers in 2004-05, BTR is no ecological island. Infact, periodic sightings of tigers indicate that transients from Bhutan frequently visit Buxa. A commendable transboundary conservation pact is in place in the Manas landscape, which allows for a significant amount of cooperation among Indian and Bhutanese authorities in conserving the landscape. A similar pact should be drafted between the BTR authorities in their counterparts in adjoining Phibsoo wildlife sanctuary in Bhutan.
Buxa’s excellent location endows it with many advantages. However, reviving it from its present degraded state will require dedicated long-term effort, and prioritizing the relocation of villages, protection and monitoring is a must. During my discussions with the forest staff, i came to realise that the conservation status of many of Buxa’s threatened denizens, such as clouded leopards, chinese pangolins and Himalayan black bears, is not very well known. Extensive scientific studies need to be carried out in this regard, given the susceptibility of these species to habitat loss and poaching.
An integral part of a highly biodiverse stretch of forest which extends over several thousand square kilometres along the Indo-Bhutan border, dedicated conservation efforts could once again turn Buxa’s forests into the stronghold of numerous species of endangered birds and mammals that it once was. Hopefully, my next trip to Buxa will reveal a forest that resounds to the trumpet of the elephant and the roar of the tiger.