Santragachhi Jheel, one year on

Very rarely can thriving wildlife habitats be encountered in and around bustling metropolises. Even more rarely does their quality improve with the years. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the recent “cleanup” of Howrah’s Santragachhi Jheel has enthused birdwatchers.

Last year, large stretches of the 1.3 lakh sq. feet lake were found to have been taken over by water hyacinth, greatly reducing the habitat available for waterfowl(link). The Jheel also has to contend with the ever-rising levels of water and air pollution, a natural consequence of its location in the middle of a congested neighborhood. Many felt that waterfowl would stop visiting the lake altogether.

The worried Green Tribunal, a bench of the Kolkata High Court ordered the Howrah Municipal Corporation and the West Bengal Forest Department to keep the jheel clean throughout the year. And for once, the latter seem to have paid heed. The local Chottodal Club, Indian Railways(the lake’s nominal custodian)  and a number of environmental NGOs have participated in the largest cleanup attempt at the Jheel since 2011.
The results have been striking. Lesser Whistling Teals have always been the dominant waterfowl species of the Jheel.This time, the SundayWatch team’s Christmas day visit found over 3,500 of these gregarious ducks. Winter migrants were also noticeably more numerous this time around, with a total of over 100 Northern Pintails and Gadwalls being sighted. Last year, they were numbered only in the low dozens. And that’s not all-the Near Threatened Ferruginous Pochard(Aythya Nyroca) also kept its date with the Jheel, flying in from distant Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Other exciting sightings included those of Garganeys(Anas querquedula), Common teals(Anas creccha) and Eurasian wigeons(Anas penelope).

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A Pintail swims past a large flock of Lesser Whistling Ducks

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Garganey and Ferruginous Pochard, Pic credit: Rikhi Banerjee

 

Overall, the team, of which i was lucky to be a part, sighted 70 species this time, of which 27 were waterfowl. The complete list, a shining testimony to the Jheel’s incredible potential as a biodiversity haven, goes as follows: (numbers in brackets)

1)Lesser Whistling Duck (3500+)
2)Fulvous Whistling Duck (2)
3)Cotton Pygmy-goose (2)
4)Gadwall (45)
5)Eurasian Wigeon (2)
6)Garganey (2)
7)Northern Pintail (35)
8)Common Teal (3)
9)Ferruginous Pochard (4)
10)Asian Openbill (3)
11)Indian Pond Heron (8)
12)Purple Heron (1)
13)Cattle Egret (15)
14)Little Egret (1)
15)Little Cormorant (10)
16)Indian Cormorant (15)
17)White-breasted Waterhen (2)
18)Common Moorhen (6)
19)Bronze-winged Jacana (4)
20)Stork-billed Kingfisher (1)
21)White-throated kingfisher (6)
22)Common Kingfisher (4)
23)Red-rumped Swallow (4)
24)Barn Swallow (12)
25)Western Yellow Wagtail (2)
26)Citrine Wagtail (2)
27)White Wagtail (3)
28)Spotted Dove (12)
29)Eurasian Collared Dove (5)
30)Yellow-footed Green Pigeon (30)
31)Common Pigeon (50)
32)Rose-ringed Parakeet (4)
33)Common Hawk Cuckoo (1)
34)Asian Koel (3)
35)Greater Coucal (1)
36)Little Swift (15)
37)Asian Palm Swift (25)
38)Green Bee-eater (12)
39)Lineated Barbet (1)
40)Blue-throated Barbet (5)
41)Coppersmith Barbet (15)
42)Lesser Goldenback (2)
43)Ashy Woodswallow (1)
44)Brown Shrike (2)
45)Black Drongo (8)
46)Indian Golden Oriole (1)
47)Black-naped Oriole (1)
48)Black-hooded Oriole (5)
49)Rufous Treepie (4)
50)House Crow (250)
51)Eastern Jungle Crow (1)
52)Red-vented Bulbul (12)
53)Red-whiskered Bulbul (1)
54)Plain Prinia (2)
55)Yellow-bellied Prinia (1)
56)Common Tailorbird (2)
57)Jungle Babbler (2)
58)Common Myna (20)
59)Jungle Myna (10)
60)Asian Pied Starling (25)
61)Chestnut-tailed Starling (12)
62)Oriental Magpie Robin (4)
63)Taiga Flycatcher (4)
64)Pale-billed Flowerpecker (1)
65)Purple Sunbird (3)
66)Purple-rumped Sunbird (1)
67)House Sparrow (50)
68)Western Yellow Wagtail (2)
69)Citrine Wagtail(2)
70)White Wagtail (3)

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Passerines, such as the Green Bee-Eater(Merops orientalis), also throng the Jheel

This list is certain to warm every birdwatcher’s heart. However, one can notice a few omissions compared to last year’s list. For instance, the much-anticipated Common and Swinhoe’s Snipes failed to make an appearance this year. Likewise, the distinctive chacking calls of the Phylloscopus warblers were conspicuous by their absence.

Interestingly enough, the cleanup process might have contributed to this, since they are heavily dependent upon reed beds and water hyacinth-dominated areas. And even waterfowl aren’t out of the woods yet, with large amounts of plastic garbage dotting the lake. The cleanup doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on them, though it would perhaps be unfair to wholly blame the competent authorities ; the urban sprawl around Santragachhi is increasing day by day. Plastic continues to be dumped in large quantities, and noise pollution has long passed tolerable levels.

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Plastic waste is a common sight at the Jheel

One hopes that the lessons of 2011 and 2016 are learnt and fully incorporated into a holistic long-term conservation strategy. Only then will the lake continue to be a stronghold of birds, and not garbage.

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The feathered friends i meet everyday

Kolkata, the city where i live, is frequently portrayed as an ill-planned, congested city, with little in the way of natural beauty. This portrayal is not too far off the mark–the city, does have very little in the way of green cover. Rampant tree felling, in order to feed the real estate boom, has left the city with a tree cover of only 4.79%, in comparison to the national average of 19.49%.

Nevertheless, tiny patches of green, hemmed in by grey concrete blocs, continue to exist. These are best represented by the numerous gardens and empty spaces in one’s backyard. Many of these host a significant amount of biodiversity-ranging from caterpillars, butterflies and millipedes, to birds and even a few mammals, such as bats, rodents and civets. Some of the more extensive patches even contain jackals, fishing cats, and the endemic marsh mongoose, a subspecies of the small Asian mongoose.
On a normal wintry day, upto 30 species of birds can easily be observed in my locality, which includes my own little backyard, and a small park which fringes a pond which is still rich in fish. Some of these are :

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Indian Pond Heron(Ardeola grayii)

The Indian Pond Heron is commonly met with at ponds(yes, its that obvious) and other small water bodies. This drab-looking bird likes sitting motionlessly at the edge of water bodies, often striking out to catch molluscs, crustaceans, fish and tadpoles. Their white wings show up prominently upon flight. These semi-colonial breeders are also known referred to as the “paddybird”, because of its tendency to frequent flooded paddy fields. They are arguably the most numerous of Indian waterbirds.

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Brown Shrike(Lanius Cristatus)

The brown shrike is a small passerine which is a winter visitor to South Asia. Its breeding grounds lie in Northern Asia, from Mongolia to Siberia. Distinguished by its dark back and the distinctive “shrike-like” mask, it is similar in appearance to the red-backed and Isabelline shrikes. Like other shrikes, it preys mostly on insects, which it impales upon thorns. The numbers of this winter migrant need to be monitored carefully, for they are a useful indicator as far as the impacts of climate change are concerned. Already, some trans-continental migrants, such as the gadwall and garganey, are showing a dip in numbers at their wintering sites in India.

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Jungle Babbler(Turdoides Striata)

Resident to the Indian subcontinent, the Jungle Babbler is commonly met with in city gardens and orchards. They are referred to as the “sat-bhai” in Hindi, an allusion to their gregarious habits. This bird is frequently found in flocks of 8-10 birds, which are easily located by the birds’ noisy chattering. Jungle Babblers are primarily insectivorous, but also feed on grain and berries.

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Rock Pigeon(Columba livia)

The familiar Blue Rock Pigeon, also known as the “Common Pigeon”, is a familiar sight in cities, and many of the ones which we come across are feral birds(though its natural habitat does encompass South Asia). The Blue Rock Pigeon has been introduced in many cities worldwide, and it breeds in the eaves and ledges of houses. It normally feeds on flocks.

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White-breasted waterhen(Amaurornis phoenicurus)

The white-breasted waterhen is a small rail which frequents water edges, especially in places where reed beds and other forms of vegetation are common. Unlike most other rails, however, it is extremely bold, sometimes even crossing busy streets which pass by waterbodies. They feed mostly on molluscs, insects and other invertebrates, and sometimes even catch fish. Their harsh and repetitive croaks are commonly heard just before the onset of the breeding season, whose beginning is marked by the first rains.

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Purple Sunbird(Cinnyris asiaticus)

This is  no hummingbird-in fact, there aren’t any in India. The Purple Sunbird(Cinnyris Asiaticus) is a common sight in groves and gardens throughout India. Voracious nectarivores, they are the most important pollinators of Acacia, Butea monosperma and Woodfordia sp. They are thus an excellent indicator of ecosystem health.

These are just a few of the common birds that regularly grace my neighbourhood. The complete list includes:
1)House Crow
2)Long-billed Crow
3)House Sparrow
4)Oriental Magpie Robin
5)Common Tailorbird
6)Rufous Treepie
7)Coppersmith Barbet
8)Blue-Cheeked Barbet
9)Spotted Dove
10)Eurasian Collared Dove
11)Blue Rock Pigeon
12)Black Kite
13)Black-crowned Night Heron
14)Pond Heron
15)Common Kingfisher
16)White-throated Kingfisher
17)Stork-Billed Kingfisher
18)Brown-Winged Kingfisher
19)Spotted Owlet
20)Barn Owl
21)Long-tailed nightjar
22)Eurasian Hoopoe
23)Common chiffchaff
24)Blyth’s Reed Warbler
25)White-breasted Waterhen
26)Greater Coucal
27)Lesser Flameback
28)Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker
29)Rose-ringed Parakeet
30)Common Myna
31)Jungle Myna
32)Asian Pied Starling
33)Chestnut-tailed Starling
34)Jungle Babbler
35)Brown Shrike
36)Long-tailed Shrike
37)Yellow-footed Green pigeon
38)Greenish Warbler

But who can say if  these species will continue to  thrive in an oasis of green amidst climate change, increased tree-felling and never-ending soil and air pollution?

At Santragachhi Jheel

Cities are typically considered to be centres of intensive human activity—the very antithesis of what a nature lover would strive for. However, even in and around our busiest cities exist a few precious patches of biodiversity. This is true even for a super-congested megalopolis such as Kolkata, where as many as 14 million people dwell in the city and its suburbs. Inspite of the inexorable growth of fringe neighbourhoods, a number of tiny green patches, which host a surprising amount of biodiversity, continue to exist. The city and its suburbs would be a much poorer place without them.

Santragachhi Jheel ( Jheel means “lake” in Bengali) is one such biodiverse location. Located in the municipality of Howrah -Kolkata’s twin city- the lake is easily accessible for Kolkatans, being located only 8 km from the city centre. The lake plays host to large numbers of waterfowl in winter. These belong to many species-some of which are local migrants, whereas others come from distant Europe, North America and Russia. In addition, several exciting year-round residents are commonly met with.

 

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Santragachhi Jheel

 

 

On the 20th of December 2015, an opportunity to accompany  Kolkata-based NGO Naturemates on a birdwatching tour to Santragachhi Jheel arose. The lake is situated right beside the railway station, and is sandwiched between it and several densely populated residential localities and a railway engineering yard. There is little green cover surrounding the Jheel, which itself is owned by Indian Railways. At 1.375 lakh square feet, it is not exceptionally large, but there are several small islands of vegetation which host thousands of waterfowl.
As soon as we entered a small tree-sheltered compound which has been created specifically to allow birders to watch waterfowl at close quarters, we came across a large flock of Lesser Whistling Teals on an island barely 50 feet away. Soon, we began coming across huge flocks of these ducks, which are the dominant species of the Jheel. These noisy waterfowl breed in India, but undertake local migrations in winter.
Shubhankar Patra  of Naturemates has estimated that atleast 4000 of these medium-sized ducks are inhabiting the Jheel at present. In addition, we came across smaller numbers of Gadwalls, Northern Pintails, Ferruginous Pochards (considered to be “Near Threatened” by the IUCN) and Common Teals. These species breed in distant countries -mostly in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere -and cross large distances to reach the same wintering sites year after year.
The Naturemates team, which featured accomplished naturalists such as  Patra and Animesh Manna, were able to identify the various species effortlessly. Among the highlights of the trip was the sighting of the cryptic Swinhoe’s Snipe, another winter migrant which could hardly be made out among the similarly coloured vegetation!!!
Another was the sighting of an interesting-looking Gadwall  which had a chestnut head, similar to that of a Lesser Whistling Teal’s!!! Beyond these Gadwalls were swimming several Common Teals, another rare winter visitor which was unknown to the Jheel till a few years ago.

 

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A gadwall swims past a small group of Lesser Whistling Teals

 

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Lesser Whistling Teals were everywhere

 

 

A birdwatching trip to Santragachhi is not all about the sighting of aquatic birds-several interesting species of passerines can also be found flitting about in the few trees bordering the lake. Among the ones we saw were winter visitors such as the Blyth’s Reed Warbler and the Taiga Flycatcher. It was indeed a great experience to accompany birdwatchers who were capable of distinguishing the various species of warblers merely by listening to their calls!!!
Overall, 69 species were observed during the day-long trip. Year-round residents such as Bronze-Winged and Pheasant-tailed jacanas, Shikras and Common moorhens were also met with. It is indeed nothing short of a miracle that a small lake located in the midst of overbearing humanity continues to host so many exciting species!!!

 

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A Brown Shrike at Santragachhi.

 

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A Common Kingfisher with its catch

 

 

The long-term viability of this natural marvel is, however, in doubt. This year, a large portion of the lake has been taken over by water hyacinth, an invasive species which is notorious for choking to death entire ecosystems. The water hyacinth-dominated areas are naturally not inhabited by waterfowl. Moreover, a significant amount of garbage continues to be dumped into the lake.
Local pride regarding its fame unfortunately doesn’t translate into a concerted anti-garbage effort. We saw several ducks swimming amidst plastic bottles and paper plates. Large sections of the lake were horribly discoloured. In addition, noise and air pollution levels are very high-as can be expected in a place where the rumbling of passing trains, the honking of autorickshaw horns and the bellowing of heavy machinery drowns out the whistles of innumerable teals. At the end of a rewarding day of birding, we were left pondering about the Jheel’s long-term viability.

 

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Water hyacinth has taken over much of the Jheel.

 

 

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A depressingly common sight at the Jheel

 

 

Santragachhi Jheel is one of the last remnants of the great wetlands which once dotted South Bengal. Its loss would be a huge blow to Howrah and Kolkata, for beneath the dusty veneer of these megalopolises lies a beating heart which is made up of ecosystems like the Jheel.  One hopes that initiatives like Naturemates will continue to  bring together the city’s wildlife lovers to explore and protect biodiverse areas like these.

An exhaustive checklist of the birds seen, as created by the Naturemates team
1. Lesser Whistling Teal.
2.Cotton Pygmy Gose
3.Gadwall
4.Northern Pintail
5.Common Teal
6.Ferruginous Pochard
7.Indian Pond Heron
8.Purple Heron
9.Black-crowned Night Heron
10. Cattle Egret
11.Little Egret
12.Intermediate Egret
13. Oriental Darter
14.Little Cormorant
15.Indian Cormorant
16.Black Kite
17.Shikra
18. White-breasted Waterhen
19.Common Moorhen
20.Bronze-winged Jacana
21.Common Snipe
22.Swinhoe’s Snipe
23.Spotted Dove
24.Eurasian Collared Dove
25.Rock Pigeon
26.Yelow-footed Green Pigeon
27.Rose-ringed Parakeet
28.Common Hawk Cuckoo
29.Asian Koel
30.Greater Coucal
31.Little Swift
32.Asian Palm Swift
33.Stork-billed Kingfisher
34.White-throated Kingfisher
35.Common Kingfisher
36.Green Bee-eater
37. Lineated Barbet
38.Blue-throated Barbet
39.Coppersmith Barbet
40.Lesser flameback
41.Ashy Woodswallow
42.Brown Shrike
43.Black Drongo
44.Indian Golden Oriole
45.Black-hooded Oriole
46.Rufous Treepie
47.House Crow
48.Eastern Jungle Crow
49.Cinerous Tit
50.Barn Swallow
51.Red vented Bulbul
52.Red whiskered Bulbul
53.Plain Prinia
54.Common Tailorbird
55.Blyth’s Reed Warbler
56.Common Chiffchaff
57.Booted Warbler
58.Common Myna
59.Jungle Myna
60.Asian Pied Starling
61.Chestnut-tailed Starling
62. Oriental Magpie Robin
63.Taiga Flycatcher
64.Pale-billed Flowerpecker
64.Purple Sunbird
65.Purple-rumped Sunbird
66.House Sparrow
67.Citrine Wagtail
68.White wagtail

A massive thanks to Mr Subhankar Patra and the Naturemates team for their guidance. Pic credits : Aditya Banerjee, Subhanwita Basak and Soumya Banerjee. 

The Ken-Betwa river linking project : a death knell for the Panna tiger reserve?

September 2005 : Panna’s tigers were mysteriously disappearing at a rapid rate. Eminent tiger researcher Raghu Chundawat realised that 19 of the 22 breeding females he had radio-collared and tracked since 2000 had gone missing.
Voicing his fears to the Forest Department only led to the termination of his research contract by the authorities, who continued to claim the presence of 34 tigers in the 543 sq. km area. Meanwhile, large-scale human disturbances and the operation of notorious tiger hunters of the Baheliya tribe within the core area of the reserve continued unabated. The result? By 2009, all of Panna’s tigers had disappeared.

September 2015 : The reserve’s population has bounced back rapidly after the reintroduction of tigers in March 2009. The first tigers to be reintroduced were T1 and T2 , formerly residents of Bandhavgarh and Kanha Tiger Reserves respectively, with a male tiger from Pench being reintroduced in November. These tigers, along with others that have been reintroduced since then have bred frequently,and currently, the reserve is home to over 30 tigers, including cubs. The preybase has also bounced back, following the relocation of  16 villages, and the strengthening of protection norms.

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T6, a tigress from Pench NP, was released in Panna in January 2014. She gave birth to a litter of 3 cubs in 2015, and symbolizes the success of the Panna Tiger Reintroduction Programme. Pic credit : hindustantimes.com

 

However, dark clouds are on the horizon for Panna once again. This time, the threat comes in the shape of a river inter-linking project- the Ken-Betwa project. The project’s aim is to divert the surplus waters of the Ken river to the “water deficient” Betwa basin. This massive project, a brainchild of the water resources and river development ministry, is the first of as many as 37 river interlinking projects, all of which have been criticised as being ill-conceived, costly and environmentally destructive by noted hydrologists.

At 543 sq. km, Panna is one of the smaller reserves. The topography of the reserve is undulating, marked by the Hinauta and Talgaon plateaus, and the relatively low-lying Ken river valley. The Ken river is the chief source of water for the reserve and flows for a distance of about 55 km through the reserve, from north to South.

River Ken at Panna Tiger Reserve

The Ken River Valley in Panna TR, picture by thinkingparticle.com

It is this river valley which will be affected the most by this project. Its overarching aim is to divert the surplus waters of the Ken basin to the “water deficient” Betwa basin.The project itself envisages the construction of an earthen dam on the Ken at Daudhan, in the heart of the reserve.
The dam, which is 77 metres high, will siphon off 660 million cubic metres of water from the Ken river. The creation of two power houses-one at the foot of the dam, and the other at the end of a 2 km-long tunnel, has been envisaged. All this, in addition to the creation of an irrigation colony, are all likely to adversely affect the viability of tiger habitat in Panna Tiger Reserve.

This project has come under heavy criticism from noted hydrologists, environmentalists and social scientists for a variety of reasons. Hydrologists at the SANDRP (South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People) had shown, back in 2005 itself (when an MoU for the implementation of the project was inked between the governments of MP and UP), that figures had been fudged to show an immense disparity in the water levels of the two rivers; such a disparity is unlikely to show up in an objective study.Infact, the so-called water deficit in the Betwa river (and thus, the planned cultivable area to be serviced by the project), is highest in the Upper Betwa basin, a segment of the river from which no water can be drawn by the project!!!
Furthermore, as SANDRP has highlighted, the use of relatively more sustainable programmes, such as rainwater harvesting, has not been envisaged in order to meet the demands of MP and UP’s water-deficient districts.

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The Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, by NWDA.

 

The project’s flaws don’t end here. The environmental impact on the entire Ken-Betwa ecosystem is likely to be disastrous. The total submerged area is a whooping 90 sq. km, of which 52.58 sq. km is forest land. Out of this, 41 sq. km belongs to Panna Tiger Reserve-thus, almost 10% of the entire reserve will go under water. Panna itself is part of a relatively isolated patch of forest, with its connectivity to other tiger source populations being under severe biotic pressure, and exists in the form of stepping-stone patches of forest (as opposed to large, contiguous blocks of habitat).
But even this fragile connectivity is set to be severed forever by this project-the corridors to the west, which link Panna with the forests of Central Madhya Pradesh, will cease to be viable if the project goes through. This may greatly affect the long-term survival of tigers in this landscape ; for long-term viability, exchange of genes among tiger populations is a must. Most of India’s tiger landscapes are small, hosting only a handful of breeding females, and are thus heavily reliant on such corridors.

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Highlighting the corridors used by tiger T3, in its dispersal from Panna Tiger Reserve. Pic : WWF-India and newsroom24x7.com

The cliffs overlooking the course of the beautiful Ken river are also the nesting grounds of many species of vultures. The diclofenac crisis of the mid-90’s caused the populations of the Gyps species of vultures in India, in particular, to hit rock bottom. Panna, however, continued to remain a key vulture stronghold and the 2015 census saw the reserve’s population of critically endangered Long-billed and White-backed vultures post a significant increase.
However, this rosy scenario may soon be a thing of the past if the river interlinking project goes through. Upto 60% of the vulture nesting area may be submerged, and the resultant disturbances may spell a death knell for these endangered birds in this landscape.
Numerous other species, both big and small, will be impacted. The nearby Ken Gharial Sanctuary is a crucial habitat for the critically endangered gharial, as well as for several otter species. Unfortunately, the project will wreak havoc with the hydrological regime of this important habitat, and consign the few surviving gharials, muggers and otters here to local extinction.

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Vultures at the Panna Tiger Reserve, by J.S.Jagat

Every major project requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to gauge the extent to which it adversely impacts the environment(legal provision for this). The EIA for the Ken-Betwa project was done by the consulting authority Agricultural Finance Corporation of India (AFC India). Read on if you are in need of a few grim laughs-the EIA can rightly be considered to be a work of comedy!!! After all, what else can one say about a body of work which claims that the sangai , the slow loris  and the slender loris  occur in the project area!!!
The EIA even claims that the project will benefit tourism by allowing for more sport fishing within Panna TR ; this only displays the consultant’s ignorance, as sport fishing is completely banned within Protected Areas in India.

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There are no slender lorises present within a 1500-km radius of the project area. Pic : wikipedia

And that’s not all. Numerous hydel projects in wildlife-rich areas have been passed off as having been “beneficial” to wildlife by providing species with a reliable source of water, as if this compensates in any way for the cutting up of the Panna landscape.
Furthermore, the high-handedness of the officials involved was further exposed when the public hearing for the project was carried out in a highly improper manner. According to the amended EIA regulations laid down by the MoEF in 1997, every EIA must incorporate a public hearing involving all those who are likely to be affected by the project, on a village-by-village basis.
However, on this occasion, as on many others, tardiness by local officials saw much of the information about the project not being put up on the public domain. In one instance, activists of the ruling party prevented the villagers from raising objections. All this made a mockery of the democratisation which public hearings are supposed to achieve.
The State Wildlife Board hurriedly cleared the project on the 22nd of September, and the National Board is unlikely to behave any differently. The objections of the few truly independent members of the board were quickly shoved aside, and were not even recorded in the minutes of the meeting.
Gone are those days when these Boards acted as genuine watchdogs; they act as notional rubber-stamping agencies now, the urgency of whose members is felt only when “important” projects like these need to be cleared.

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Locals protest against the project at a public hearing, as reported by a newspaper. Pic : SANDRP

Indian planners continue to view environmental laws as a key obstacle in the path of big projects which seek to bring about “development”. In the long run, most such projects hardly ever succeed in attaining the grand objectives which they are designed to meet.
River interlinking projects definitely belong to this category. These will disrupt entire hydrological regimes, for each river sustains a unique ecosystem based on its flow, which in turn is dependent on a variety of factors, such as the climate of the source region, the topography of the watershed and the nature of the tributaries joining the main river.
Playing havoc with such fragile systems could lead to massive long-term disasters and divert the attention away from relatively sustainable water harvesting methods, such as groundwater recharge and watershed development. As Dr Latha Ananta, director of the River Research Center has rightly pointed out, “a river isn’t a pipe that we can control”.

Unfortunately, the hubris of planners, in India and elsewhere, causes entire living ecosystems to be trod underfoot, as the seemingly inexorable march of development continues. The conservation of biodiversity and habitats continues to remain a concept only on paper, to which mere lip service is given, while Homo Sapiens continues to exchange long-term viability for short-term gain.

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Can the NGT stop Panna from going underwater?

It would indeed be a great tragedy if Panna’s tigers were to have dodged the poacher’s snare due to the undying efforts of the Forest Department, only to have their territory washed away in the name of “development”.

India’s leopards are in a (s)pot of bother

The Sardul Kheda leopard, with its head stuck in a pot Pic : ndtv

Pic : ndtv.com

The leopard in the above picture is the very embodiment of helplessness and misery. A young subadult, no more than 3 years old, it probably made its way from Rajasthan’s Kumbhalgarh National Park to Rajsamand district’s Sardul Kheda village, where its head got stuck in a pot, probably while it was looking for water.
This story has a happy ending ; the villagers who found the shell-shocked leopard roaming around with its head trapped in the pot informed the Forest Department, whose personnel tranquilized the leopard and set it free in Kumbhalgarh’s forests.

But numerous incidents of leopard “straying” dont end in the same way; in June this year, a leopard that had entered Tatuarah village in West Bengal’s Purulia district was brutally killed and strung up on a tree. Its paws and tail were hacked off. In August, another leopard was beaten to death in Assam’s Sivasagar, which has been a hub of man-leopard conflict for a long time.

The Purulia leopard, which met a grisly end Pic : deccanchronicle

The Purulia leopard, which met a grisly end
Pic : deccanchronicle

According to estimates by the NTCA, India’s forests may host 12-14000 leopards,
though there is a lot of debate surrounding the veracity of this figure, as it is based on the arbitrary extrapolation of an estimated population of 7,910 leopards dwelling in tiger habitat.

One of Bandipur's leopards, caught in a camera trap. Pic : Ullas Karanth

One of Bandipur’s leopards, caught in a camera trap.
Pic : Ullas Karanth

The most adaptable big cat, leopards are capable of residing in almost every conceivable type of habitat, ranging from the tropical evergreen forests of the Western Ghats and Arunachal Pradesh, to dry scrubland surrounding villages in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and the tea gardens of Assam and North Bengal. Leopard-human conflict is extremely common, as more and more of them are forced to dwell cheek-by-jowl with humans who destroy their forests and hunt their prey. For instance, upto 18 percent of the Reserve Forests surrounding Guwahati have been encroached upon. These forests are home to a sizable number of leopards. Not surprisingly, man-leopard conflict has shot up greatly in recent times, with 6 major incidents being reported in the first 3 months of 2012 alone. Similar trends are being reported from across the country-a spate of leopard attacks on humans has been reported from Southern Karnataka recently, where forests are under severe threat from cattle grazing, the timber trade and encroachment.

Panicked residents of cities and villages who spot the big cat in their midst frequently attack it, without realising that the vast majority of leopards don’t see humans as prey. Untrained, under-equipped and overstretched forest department personnel are often forced to confront bloodthirsty mobs without police support. The ever-increasing nature of human population means that such incidents are becoming more commonplace. Leopards also frequently hunt livestock, provoking the ire of farmers and herders, who then demand that the Forest Department trap and remove leopard which “belongs to them”. The trapping and release process, which is often marked by the arbitrariness of the release location, only further exacerbates conflict, and trapped leopards tend to be involved in conflict situations far more than normal ones.

It doesnt always have to be this way, though. The ever opportunistic felines have always dwelt alongside humans. A 2009 camera trap survey in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar by eminent wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya found a high-density (about 7-9/100 sq. km) population living in sugarcane fields, with the nearest forest patch being over a 100 km away. The situation there is truly one of co-existence, for hardly any of the thousands of humans who work in the fields daily, or live near them, have ever been mauled by the big cats. Similarly, frequent reports of leopards and their cubs from tea gardens abutting the forests of North Bengal and Assam seem to indicate the presence of resident populations within the gardens themselves.
Thus, an absolute spatio-temporal separation between man and leopard may not always be possible.
But does this mean that lynchings of leopards in human habitations are bound to happen? The novel “Mumbaikars for SGNP” initiative seems to think otherwise. The 103 sq. km Sanjay Gandhi National Park(SGNP), is located in the heart of Mumbai-one of the only instances in the world where a major patch of natural habitat is located within a bustling megalopolis. Sanjay Gandhi, and the adjoining Yeoor range are home to as many as 35 leopards, and these spotted felines frequently enter urban neighbourhoods in search of their favourite prey-feral dogs.

Leopard habitat in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Pic : wikipedia

Leopard habitat in Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
Pic : wikipedia

A steady rise in encroachment on this last, great patch of urban forest, coupled with a steep increase in the feral dog population, as a result of improper garbage disposal have caused man-leopard encounters to become more frequent. In 2004, as many as 10 residents of mumbai’s suburbs were killed in leopard attacks, and while the number of fatalities has fallen since, the threat of conflict has by no means abated; 3 children were killed in as many weeks in 2013.

A leopard unsuccessfully tries to hunt a pet dog in a Mumbai suburb. Pic : ndtv

A leopard unsuccessfully tries to hunt a pet dog in a Mumbai suburb.
Pic : ndtv

MSGNP aims at documenting the park’s leopard population in detail, in particular, focusing on monitoring those leopards which live near human habitation. MSGNP also reached out to forest officials, the civil administration, the police, and most importantly, the people living in and around SGNP, involving them in conserving the park’s habitat, while disseminating awareness regarding man-leopard conflict. Bilingual posters containing a list of “dos and donts” as regards the sighting of leopards were created. Locals were encouraged to refrain from harassing or chasing leopards, while reporting sightings to the Forest Department. The police was made aware of its role in ensuring crowd control in the event of man-leopard conflict, while Forest Department personnel were urged to give up on ad-hoc translocations of leopards trapped in human habitations.

A map on Google Earth of Mumbai's Sanjay Gandhi National Park, depicting the steady rise in human settlements along the park's periphery.  Pic : Mumbaikars for SGNP.

A map on Google Earth of Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, depicting the steady rise in human settlements along the park’s periphery.
Pic : Mumbaikars for SGNP.

As a result, there has been a general rise in awareness among all stakeholders regarding man-leopard conflict. Previously, the very sighting of a leopard near human habitation would lead to demands by desperate residents for the trapping of the concerned animal. Now, however, residents are aware of the fact that the vast majority of leopards don’t consider humans to be prey. Trapping itself is an extremely risky process, that often inadvertently leads to the death of conflict animals.
This success story needs to be replicated everywhere. A generally high level of cultural tolerance for big mammals has enabled India to hang on to  4 of the 5 species of big cats that have historically existed here. This tolerance, which is under strain due to anthropogenic strain on natural habitat, needs to be harnessed in order to provide a safe future for India’s leopards, tigers, lions and last but not the least, of its 1.2 billion people.

The White Bellied Heron : The Imperial bird with a faltering empire

The foothills of the eastern Himalayas is one of the biggest strongholds of biodiversity in South Asia. Steep differences in altitude and climactic variations have given rise to great variation in vegetation types- with hillsides clothed in tropical deciduous forests, and wet grasslands making up the plains (though these have largely been lost as a result of centuries of development), which are watered by numerous rivers. This river-forest-grassland complex hosts numerous endangered species, some of which most people haven’t even heard of . One such species is a large heron, whose regal bearing and distinctive coloration has led it to being called the Imperial Heron, or the White-bellied Heron.

A white bellied heron hunting its prey, in Bhutan's Punakha. Pic : Yann Muzika

A white bellied heron hunting its prey, in Bhutan’s Punakha.
Pic : Yann Muzika

The Heron is a habitat specialist, with most studies indicating its preference for frequenting the banks of fast-moving mountain streams which flow through the East Himalayan foothills. It has been reported from altitudes of upto 1500 m. At times, it has also been sighted in marshes located in  wet grassland patches. For nesting, however, it chooses tall trees located in subtropical forests, with isolated trees on riverbanks being particularly preferred. It preys on a variety of fish, amphibians and reptiles, which are grabbed from fast-flowing streams by seemingly near-impossible stabs of its agile bill.
Hunting the few, small, fast-swimming fishes of the hilly streams, however, is no easy task, and places great demands on nesting herons. The difficulty in procuring prey is probably a reason for this bird never having been particularly numerous or widespread. Currently, fewer than 250 herons survive, and, in view of the magnitude of the threats faced by this tiny population, IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and natural resources) upgraded the threatened status of the species to “Critically Endangered” in its Red Data Book.

The Noa-Dihing river in Namdapha Tiger Reserve. Pic : Rohit Naniwadekar

The Noa-Dihing river in Namdapha Tiger Reserve.
Pic : Rohit Naniwadekar

Currently, the heron’s geographical distribution is restricted to three countries-Bhutan, India and Burma. Stray birds probably still  make their way to north-eastern Bangladesh every now and then, though the last confirmed record of the heron’s presence there was in 1988. The largest populations are thought to occur in the Punatsang chu river valley in south central Bhutan, with breeding sites being reported from the banks of the Pho Chu river. The total number of herons in this landscape is thought to be about 30-50, though only a small proportion are regularly sighted.

In India, white bellied herons have historically been reported from Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. However, their continued existence in Bengal is doubtful, with few confirmed records since the 1950’s. In Assam, they have been reported from the Manas Tiger Reserve, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, Kaziranga NP, and Dibru Saikhowa NP, with occasional historical records from outside protected areas, such as the Sadiya forests(which reported several breeding pairs between 1922 and 1930).
They are most frequently sighted in Manas, in patches of subtropical forest bordering the Manas river, and its tributaries, the Beki and the Bholkaduba.

A map of the Manas Tiger Reserve. Pic : Wildlife Protection Society of India(WPSI)

A map of the Manas Tiger Reserve.
Pic : Wildlife Protection Society of India(WPSI)

Several key habitats of the heron lie in Arunachal Pradesh, with the Deban and Noa-Dihing rivers in Namdapha being their chief stronghold. It is here that a ZSI survey succeeded in finding the first nest of this critically endangered heron outside Bhutan, in 2014. A detailed study by Gopinathan Maheswaran, however, found that even this key habitat probably has no more than 6-8 herons in all. Though the 1,985 sq. km Namdapha has low levels of human disturbance in its interior parts, large-scale hunting by the Lisu tribe based in Gandhigram has severely depleted the populations of most species of mammals and birds in the reserve.
Besides hunting, other factors which contribute to the endangerment of Namdapha’s white-bellied herons include fishing in the Noa-dihing river and the movement of villagers between Gandhigram and Vijaynagar. Its nesting patterns are likely to be adversely impacted by such human activities.

Namdapha's first recorded breeding pair. Pic : Gopinathan Maheswaran

Namdapha’s first recorded breeding pair.
Pic : Gopinathan Maheswaran

And these are just a few of the threats which this species has to confront throughout its ever-shrinking range. The fast-flowing rivers, which the heron is greatly dependent upon, are also seen by the developers of India and Bhutan as a great way of generating hydroelectric power. Bhutan aims at generating about 10,000 MW of hydel power from the heron’s chief stronghold in Punatsang Chu, by 2020. Surveys by the Bhutanese government and NGOs involved in wildlife conservation has indicated a marginal decline in nesting, as well as overall heron populations since 2009, indicating that the species is not safe even here. The construction of dams, irrigation canals and power-houses is likely to cause a significant amount of habitat destruction, while altering the delicate riverine ecology. Any adverse impact on fish populations and breeding patterns is likely to hit heron nesting hard.

Likewise, the Indian Government has also invested greatly in developing infrastructure for hydel power in the ecologically fragile Northeast. Billed as India’s “future powerhouse”, as many as 168 large hydel projects are slated to be constructed there, with a total generating capacity of 63,328 MW.
The Brahmaputra, the lifeline of the region, will be dammed, as will many of its tributaries, such as the Subansiri, Siang and Dhansiri. The resulting impact on heron habitat and ecology, both in the foothills, as well as further downstream, is likely to be severe.

The 2000MW Subansiri lower project. Pic : velvetrocket.com

The 2000MW Subansiri lower project.
Pic : velvetrocket.com

Moreover, large-scale clearing of lowland forests in Assam’s Sonitpur, Udalguri, Darrang, Baksa  has compounded the unfolding ecological disaster. The political violence of the 90’s encouraged massive encroachment of what was once vibrant habitat for elephants, tigers and White-bellied herons. The timber mafia operated with impunity, as the entire 81 sq. km Charduar was taken over by encroachers in the late 90’s, with not a single tree left standing. Other tracts, such as Balipara RF, which forms the buffer of Nameri Tiger Reserve, Biswanath RF and Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary, also suffered greatly.
Even critical wildlife habitat, located in the heart of Tiger Reserves has not been spared misery, with a 4 sq. km of the Bhuyanpara range having been encroached upon. Ultapani and Kachugaon Reserve Forests, located in the buffer of Manas, has also seen large-scale encroachment and consequent clear-felling in the recent past.
These ecological disasters have placed the White-Bellied Heron, and its fellow critically endangered denizens of the forests of the region in great peril.

Encroachments in the Balipara RF. Paddy fields have replaced forestland. Pic : hindustantimes.com

Encroachments in the Balipara RF. Paddy fields have replaced forestland.
Pic : hindustantimes.com

Several conservation actions have been initiated to pull the herons back from the brink. The chief conservation actions involved include the protection of heron habitat, and the monitoring of its populations and nesting sites. Paucity of information regarding the heron’s ecology and its status is a major stumbling block as far as conservation is concerned, and in 2007, IUCN called upon range states to do more in this regard. One of the most significant is one that started in Bhutan in 2003, spearheaded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), Bhutan, and backed by  the World Wildlife Fund, the Felburn Foundation and the International Crane Foundation.
This project has been monitoring Punagstang Chu’s herons assiduously ever since, and among its highlights was the hatching of a White-Bellied Heron in captivity for the first time in May 2011. In September, it was released into the wild. The project also aims to spread awareness among forest-dwellers regarding the plight of the heron, besides attempting to engage with key stakeholders such as developers, forestry officials.

A conservation project for White-Bellied Herons has also been taken up in Manas Tiger Reserve, led by NGOs ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment) and Nature’s Foster, with the help of the IUCN . Several villagers, living in the landscape, who have been designated as “Heron Guardians” are playing an active role in spreading awareness among fellow villagers, besides monitoring heron populations and habitat.
In 2007, New Horizon, another NGO closely involved in White-bellied heron conservation in the Manas landscape, succeeded in rescuing and releasing a heron that had been captured by a Bodo villager in the Koilamola range. Nature’s Foster also reported sightings of the heron from the Subankhata RF in 2013, and efforts are underway to secure the help of  the autonomous BTC (Bodo Territorial Council), under whose jurisdiction Subankhata falls, to conserve the forest patch for White-Bellied Herons and other endangered species of wildlife.

Bijoy Choudhury, one of Manas's

Bijoy Choudhury, one of Manas’s “Imperial Guards”.
Pic : ATREE

Tigers, elephants and rhinos may dominate the conservation discourse, but there is a great need to secure entire ecosystems, with a focus on lesser-known and studied species such as the White-Bellied Heron as well.
Above everything, the large-scale dissemination of awareness regarding the heron’s plight is the need of the hour, to ensure that it doesnt meet the same fate as the dodo. The conservation of this species, and its fragile habitat, will ensure  the safeguarding of the water resources of Northeastern India, on which millions of people depend.

What’s wrong with Buxa tiger reserve?

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.

The entrance gate at Rajabhatkhawa.

The entrance gate at Rajabhatkhawa.

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.

A hazy pic of one of Buxa's transients, taken by FG Manindra Sarkar in 2010. Pic : Manindra Sarkar and TelegraphIndia

A hazy pic of one of Buxa’s transients, taken by FG Manindra Sarkar in 2010.
Pic : Manindra Sarkar and TelegraphIndia

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.

The Buxa Tiger Reserve, with individual forest blocks highlighted. Credit : West Bengal Forest Department

The Buxa Tiger Reserve, with individual forest blocks highlighted.
Credit : West Bengal Forest Department

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.

A leopard pugmark on the Jainty riverbed.

A leopard pugmark on the Jainty riverbed.

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).

A hoary-bellied himalayan squirrel.

A hoary-bellied himalayan squirrel.

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.

The hoofprint of a deer, sighted on the Jayanti riverbed.

The hoofprint of a deer, sighted on the Jayanti riverbed.

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.

Cattle grazing is rampant in Buxa.

Cattle grazing is rampant in Buxa.

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.

One of the elephants which died in Buxa in 2013, after being hit by a train. Credit : wrrcbangalore.com and PTI

One of the elephants which died in Buxa in 2013, after being hit by a train.
Credit : wrrcbangalore.com and PTI

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.

Adma, a forest village in north BTR.

Adma, a forest village in north BTR.

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 .

A homestay near Buxa Fort.

A homestay near Buxa Fort.

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.

The Buxa landscape, as seen from Buxa Fort, with the Bhutan hills in the background.

The Buxa landscape, as seen from Buxa Fort, with the Bhutan hills in the background.

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.

This pic, taken in August 2014, marked the first time a clouded leopard was photographed in Buxa in 10 years.

Credit : West Bengal Forest Department and NEWS

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.

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A forest road in Buxa.

A forest road in Buxa.

Asha- The Last hope for Central India’s Wild Buffaloes?

The boma in Chattisgarh’s Udanti Wildlife Sanctuary has a unique resident-  Asha, one of Central India’s last wild buffaloes. At first glance, she looks strikingly similar to her domestic kin, but a closer inspection reveals the massive spread of her horns and huge bulk, which are unmistakeable characteristics of the wild buffalo.

Asha’s proud ancestors would once have roamed across much of Central India and Northeastern India. The eminent hunter-naturalist Dunbar-Brander, writing in the 1920’s, wrote of their abundance in the forests east of Balaghat, with their biggest stronghold being Bastar.

Unfortunately, the wild buffalo’s range and population have undergone a massive contraction since. A survey in 2007 by the NGO Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), estimated their total population in Central India as being less than 50 individuals. Indravati, home to the largest population ( of about 25-30 individuals) , was in the grip in left-wing extremism, and hence, no conservation programme could be taken up there. Udanti in Raipur district was found to have 7 wild buffaloes, of which only 1 was female. The decline has been particularly steep in recent times, since in 1993, Chattisgarh itself was believed to be home to around 250 buffaloes, with both Indravati and Udanti having approximately 100 individuals each. Healthy populations of these giant bovines continue to exist in quite a few Protected Areas in the Northeast, such as Kaziranga, Manas and Dibru Saikhowa in Assam, Balpakram in Meghalaya and Dayang Ering in Arunachal Pradesh.

A wild buffalo with its calf in Kaziranga National Park. Pic : alamy.com

A wild buffalo with its calf in Kaziranga National Park.
Pic : alamy.com

However, many of the Northeast’s 3000-3500 wild buffaloes are believed to have been adversely affected by interbreeding with their domestic kin, and the remaining populations are also threatened by the destruction of their wet grassland habitat and poaching.

Asha, with one of her calves, at Udanti. Pic : Dr R.P Mishra, WTI

Asha, with one of her calves, at Udanti.
Pic : Dr R.P Mishra, WTI

WTI, with the assistance of the Chattisgarh Government, swung into action immediately. A “Wild Buffalo Conservation Project” was framed. Conservation initiatives could be undertaken only in Udanti, as it was the only habitat of wild buffaloes which was free of naxal violence at that time (sadly,  naxals have extended their control over much of udanti, and neighbouring sitanadi, since 2009-10. However, attempts to conserve the wild buffalo continue).

Given the very low population in Udanti, conservationists were determined to prevent any unnatural deaths, which could lead to the extinction of the population there. A “boma”- an artificial enclosure was constructed for the last female buffalo of Udanti, aptly named “Asha”, or hope. She has given birth four times since. Conservationists, however, could truly rejoice only when she gave birth to a female calf, named “Kiran” for the first time earlier this year. Her previous three calves had all been male. The male calves grew up in the boma with her, before joining the herd, which spends most of its time in an adjoining grassland, with some boisterous males frequently visiting the adjoining villages to mate with the female domestic buffaloes there.

One of Asha's calves gets a health check-up. Pic : Dr R.P Mishra, WTI

One of Asha’s calves gets a health check-up.
Pic : Dr R.P Mishra, WTI

Not wanting to take any chances, Karnal-based NDRI (National Dairy Research Institute) cloned Asha in January 2015, producing a female calf named “Deepasha”. These three females represent the last hope for Chattisgarh’s beleaguered wild buffaloes. Asha herself is 13 years old, and a female wild buffalo is normally reproductively viable for about 15-17 years of her lifespan, which is usually 20-22 years.

Even though administrative apathy and a steady rise in naxal presence in the surrounding forests have stymied initiatives, several attempts have nonetheless been made to preserve the buffaloes of Udanti. These involve the inoculation of livestock residing in fringe villages, the deweeding of grasslands, and the providing of incentives to villagers encouraging them to sell off domestic buffaloes, so that interbreeding between domestic and wild buffaloes, leading to a contamination in the genetic stock of the latter doesn’t occur. Attempts are also being made to procure genetically pure wild buffalos from the Northeast to boost Udanti’s tiny population.
In spite of so many measures, however, the path ahead is still treacherous.

In 2009, a tiger reserve, covering 1,842 sq. km (with a core area of 851 sq. km) was eked out of Udanti and adjoining Sitanadi wildlife sanctuary. The Udanti-Sitanadi tiger reserve suffers from several management lacunae, however. These include a highly complex administrative set-up which is not conducive to tiger conservation, with the Field Director’s office being located in distant Raipur. Moreover, protection infrastructure such as anti-poaching camps and vehicles for patrolling, is severely lacking. The DFO’s managing these sanctuaries are often burdened with non-wildlife conservation related tasks, dealing with the management of the surrounding territorial forests. A massive overhaul of the protection mechanisms currently in place need to be carried out by the State Government.

This will be very hard to carry out, however, given the ongoing naxal insurgency in the landscape. Udanti-Sitanadi should not be written off, however. Along with the contiguous Sunabeda-Khariar forests in western Odisha, it forms part of a compact forest block extending over 3000 sq. km, which serves as an important habitat for many species of Central Indian flora and fauna. Proposals to denotify such “lesser” forests are based on a poor understanding of their ecological potential, and should not be acted upon.
Tigers with cubs have been reported from Udanti and surrounding forests in recent times, and, for the first time, a tiger was camera trapped in 2014, an event which put to rest niggling doubts regarding the presence of tigers in the landscape.

A map of the Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve. Pic : cgforest.com(Chhatisgarh Forest Department)

A map of the Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve.
Pic : cgforest.com(Chhatisgarh Forest Department)

Attempts have also been made to conserve the other viable population of wild buffaloes in Central India, in the Indravati landscape. Indravati itself may be out of bounds to the Forest Department,  but neighbouring Kolamarka,  in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, frequently plays host to a couple of herds. A 181 sq. km area in Kolamarka was declared a conservation reserve in 2013, for the conservation of wild buffaloes. Inspite of recurring incidents of naxal violence, a dedicated team, led by RFO Atul Deokar, have been diligently monitoring the wildlife of the region, while undertaking numerous conservation initiatives with the help of the local villagers. Kolamarka is also an important habitat for Maharashtra’s state animal, the Indian giant squirrel ( Ratufa Indica). To sustain these initiatives, support from the State Government is key. Kolamarka’s forests are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching, and conserving the small wild buffalo population here (estimated at around 10-15 individuals), will be a stiff challenge.

“Treasures of Kolamarka”-a book detailing the biodiversity of Kolamarka conservation reserve in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli and is a product of the untiring efforts of RFO Atul Deokar and his team.
Pic : RFO Atul Deokar

Of late, the Central Government has also taken an interest in wild buffalo conservation, with the buffalo being one of the five target species for which recovery programmes have been implemented. Moving these plans from the cramped confines of the bureaucrat’s office to the field in the badlands of Udanti-Sitanadi is of the utmost essence.

The Central Indian wild buffalo has never received the same amount of conservation support as the tiger or the elephant, with the result that it is poised on the brink of extinction in a region that was once its historical stronghold.

Asha, the last adult female of Udanti, embodies the hope that the noble bovine will recover from the brink of extinction, and reclaim those forests which they once lorded over.

Memories of a tiger census in the Sunderbans

After filling up our boat with foodstuffs and water, we – myself, two forest guards, the owner of our launch, and his assistant, bid adieu to civilisation, leaving the small town of pakhiralay (located opposite to the entrance to Sajnekhali wildlife sanctuary) far behind, as we journeyed into the heart of the throbbing wilderness that constitutes the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. This reserve, spread over 2,585 sq. km, is the only place in the world where wild tigers exist in a mangrove habitat. We were participating in the initial phase of the quadrennial tiger census carried out by the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority).

The world's only mangrove tigerland.

The world’s only mangrove tigerland.

Enumerating wildlife scientifically involves demarcating “transects”, or pathways, in the forest and then noting down signs and direct sightings of the various species which are encountered while the transect is being negotiated. In the Sunderbans, the various transects coincide with the innumerable creeks which dot the mangrove forests.

A map showing the transects in Panchamukhani block of Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary.

A map showing the transects in Panchamukhani block of Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, STR.

Our transects lay mostly in the Panchamukhani and Pirkhali forest blocks, a part of the 362 sq. km Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, which forms the north-western part of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve.

We had to fill up several forms stating the time and GPS location of each of our sightings of the various species and their signs. At half-hour intervals, we also had to state details of the flora noticed- the various mangrove species encountered, how tall they were, etc.

Such sheets needed to be filled diligently!!!

Such sheets needed to be filled diligently!!!

We negotiated each river bend in extreme caution, hoping to spot tigers at the very next one. Unfortunately, the big cat itself remained elusive. But tiger pugmarks were everywhere-we even saw the pugs of a tigress and her three cubs at a riverbank. Another set of pugs appeared to belong to a mating pair. These are the welcome signs of a thriving population.

Pugmarks left by the king of the mangroves.

Pugmarks left by the king of the mangroves.

Not that this population isn’t affected by any threats, though. Man-animal conflict is a significant problem in the Sunderbans, for this is an ecosystem where man is still preyed upon by quite a few species- the Bengal tiger and the estuarine crocodile being the foremost among them. We saw two crocodiles during our boat survey, however, they were extremely wary and rushed into the water as soon as they saw us.

An estuarine crocodile basks in the sun opposite the Nature Interpretation Center at Sajnekhali.

An estuarine crocodile basks in the sun opposite the Nature Interpretation Center at Sajnekhali.

The vast majority of those who get killed by tigers and crocodiles in the Sunderbans are honey-collectors and fishermen. Crab fishing often yields fair returns, but it is an extremely dangerous occupation, which, sadly, the poorest of the poor have no option but to take recourse to.

Numerous ecodevelopment initiatives have been launched by the authorities in the fringe areas of the Sunderbans in the recent past; however, many people continue to remain heavily dependent upon the forest. Sometimes, poachers sneak into the reserve in the guise of crab fishers. While the direct targeting of tigers for their skin and bones has never been a common occurrence in the Indian Sunderbans, there should be no let up in vigil.

The fisherfolk of the Sunderbans.

The fisherfolk of the Sunderbans.

Naturally, there are few permanent residences for the forest staff of the Sunderbans which lie on terra firma. Several boats have been converted to “floating anti poaching camps” , for more effective patrolling. Nevertheless, the average age of a forest guard in the Sunderbans is 52 years, and several posts lie vacant.

After having met no humans during the first day of our survey, we stopped at the first floating camp we came across on the second day. The guards there told us that a tiger had crossed the creek where the camp lay only half an hour ago. And sure enough, we saw his huge saucer-shaped pugmarks on the opposite shore.
Our next encounter with Homo sapiens was of a different kind, for a boatload of tourists chanced upon us, as we were headed off towards our next transect. They initially thought that we were an errant tourist-carrying boat that had strayed into  a part of the forests where tourists are forbidden to go!!!

On that very same transect, we came across a small herd of chital- some 4-5 members of the herd were visible. Chital, or spotted deer, form the bulk of the tiger’s preybase in the Sunderbans. Chital sightings in Sunderbans are few and far between, since they are heavily reliant upon the few fresh-water ponds which exist on the Sunderbans. Poaching for meat has also played a significant role in depressing their density, which, at 13.3 per sq. km (according to a WII survey), leaves a lot to be desired.

Chital form the bulk of the tiger's preybase in the Sunderbans.

Chital form the bulk of the tiger’s preybase in the Sunderbans.

Tigers in the Sunderbans also prey on rhesus macaques, wild boar(of which there are few), and monitor lizards, some of which can grow up to 7-8 feet in length.

Rhesus macaques are commonly seen at Sajnekhali.

Rhesus macaques are commonly seen at Sajnekhali.

After 3 days, the hectic census finally came to an end, with our sheets full of data regarding the time and GPS location of each sighting of wildlife and their signs. Even though i am a novice birdwatcher, i was able to identify common sandpipers, great egrets, ospreys, purple herons, golden orioles and 4 species of kingfishers- black capped, brown winged, small blue and white breasted, among others. The Sunderbans, with over 230 recorded species of birds, is a dream destination for a birdwatcher.

A common sandpiper.

A common sandpiper.

Great egret(Ardea Alba).

Great egret (Ardea Alba).

The results of our hard work were made available a year later- 76 tigers were estimated to exist in the Indian Sunderbans, compared to 70 in 2010. The need of the hour is to strengthen conservation initiatives in the Sunderbans, especially when it comes to patrolling and monitoring.

The mangrove tigerland, with its enchanting habitat, fierce tigers, lurking crocodiles, and soaring egrets is a unique component of our natural heritage which deserves to be jealously protected forever.
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Postscript : This article is a tribute to Panchanan Mondal and Ghosh Babu, those awesome forest guards whom i accompanied during the census, and whose dedication and knowledge was a source of inspiration. These brave foot soldiers of the Sunderbans are doing a wonderful job in possibly the most inhospitable tiger landscape in the world- serving with dedication day in and day out, inspite of having lost colleagues to tiger attacks in the past. 
I also thank Joydip and Suchandra Kundu, eminent Kolkata-based conservationists, for their help and support, and Subrata Mukherjee, the then field director of STR, and his team. May they receive all the support they so earnestly need, in their war to protect the mangrove tigerland. 

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.