Wildlife initiatives

Print edition : December 23, 2016

A herd of gaur in the Kanha sanctuary. One of the special management initiatives of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department is the reintroduction of the gaur in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. Photo: Suresh Deshmukh

After relocation of villages, a vast stretch of grasslands are available for wildlife. The mango trees indicate that a village had existed there before. Photo: A.J.T. JOHNSINGH

On the excellent model of wildlife reintroduction and conservation practices of the Kanha Tiger Reserve.

WHEN the renowned wildlife conservationist Dr George B. Schaller planned to study the tiger and its associated species in the early 1960s, he quickly surveyed several protected areas in India, which included the Hazaribagh National Park in Bihar; the Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh; the terai and bhabar tracts, including the Corbett National Park, along the Himalayan foothills, which have a high density of large mammals but are difficult places for continuous observation because of extensive tall grass habitats; sanctuaries in Rajasthan; the Shivpuri National Park in Madhya Pradesh; and the Sundarbans and the hill forests in the vicinity of Darjeeling. Eventually, he settled for the Kanha National Park in central India, which has vast meadows (short grasslands) and abundant wildlife for easy observation. Edward Pritchard Gee, an Anglo-Indian planter and conservationist from Assam, had called it the finest reserve in India. Archibald Alexander Dunbar Brander, a British forest officer, served in this landscape in the early 1900s and was instrumental in the declaration of the Banjar valley as a protected area in 1933. The valley is now part of the tiger reserve.

Jasbir Singh Chauhan and Rakesh Shukla, authors of the book under review, are serving forest officers and were trained in the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. Chauhan, an Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer of the 1987 batch, did a nine-month diploma course in wildlife management at the institute in 1994-95. Rakesh did a three-month certificate course in 1987. I have taught both of them in the classroom and have walked with them in the forests many a time. Chauhan is Field Director of the Kanha Tiger Reserve and Rakesh Shukla, who has a doctorate degree in the ecology of the Pench Tiger Reserve, has been working as research officer for the past two decades.

The authors rightly write in the preface to the book that this iconic landscape and its wildlife were disturbed and decimated by legal and illegal felling, hunting, poaching, encroachments and devastating forest fires. Eventually, the conviction that sound conservation is vital for the landscape enabled both the wildlife and the local people to grow stronger. Several wildlife areas in the central Indian tract got notified as wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves. Prominent among them is the Kanha Tiger Reserve.

The reserve has a core, or critical, tiger habitat of 917.43 square kilometres and a buffer zone of 1,134 sq. km. While the core zone is almost free of villages (over the decades, 36 villages have been translocated by the reserve management through incentive-driven voluntary resettlement), the buffer is pock-marked with villages and revenue land. The forest area in the buffer zone is only about 52 per cent and the rest is constituted by private and revenue land. There are 161 forest and revenue villages inhabited by a large number of people and their livestock. Gonds and Baigas are the native tribes of the area.

The book has several extremely valuable and readable chapters with beautiful pictures and informative captions. The chapters are an overview of conservation, focussing on the crisis of tiger conservation and the historical retrospective, which includes information on the visit of Sir Dietrich Brandis, the legendary German botanist and forester who is regarded as the father of Indian forestry. An account on the landscape has a section on the Gond and the Baiga tribes. The forests and vegetation section has a note on the sal borer beetle ( Hoplocerambyx spinicornis), which can reduce century-old stately sal trees to powder and kill them. The account on wildlife species includes not only the tiger, but also on lesser mammals such as the giant squirrel ( Ratufa indica centralis) and the flying squirrel ( Petaurista philippensis).

Conservation practices mention the eco-development programmes and efforts to control unpalatable plant species (weeds), which can significantly reduce the carrying capacity of wildlife habitats. The account on the recovery of the hard-ground barasingha population and tiger dynamics, with a rare picture of a tiger feeding on the rump of a gaur bull, which is still alive, is extremely valuable. Other chapters are on biodiversity conservation and conservation science, which involves the use of modern gadgets such as camera traps and radio-telemetry. The concluding chapters are conservation commitments with special reference to obligations to the brave and dedicated frontline staff who are the unsung heroes of wildlife conservation, special management initiatives and ecotourism. One remarkable aspect of people management in the Kanha landscape is the various employment-oriented training programmes offered to tribal youth in the buffer zone, which enable them to get jobs even in far-off cities. The programme is so remarkable that even tribal girls are willing to go and work in cities in the hospitality sector.

The special management initiatives give a picture of the dynamic nature of not only the Kanha management but also of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department. Three examples of the special management initiatives are, one, the successful attempt in re-wilding orphan tiger cubs, which have contributed to the population and genetic diversity of the tiger in the Panna Tiger Reserve, where its population was almost decimated by poaching; two, the reintroduction of the gaur in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, where the small migratory population became extinct as a result of the loss of the corridor to development; and three, the reintroduction of the barasingha in the Satpuda Tiger Reserve. The tiger population in the Panna Tiger Reserve is around 35, the gaur population in Bandhavgarh in spite of predation by the tiger has increased to more than 100, and nearly 35 barasingha are ready to range into the forests and grasslands from the predator-proof enclosure in the Satpuda Tiger Reserve.

Wildlife reintroduction

My hope and suggestion is that this excellent model of wildlife reintroduction and conservation should be followed by other States. The important reason for the success of wildlife management and conservation in the Kanha Tiger Reserve is that only exceedingly dedicated officers are posted as Deputy and Field Directors and they are encouraged by the government to continue to work there for a decade or so. Some of the officers who fall in this category are H.S. Panwar, A.S. Parihar, Rajesh Gopal, Himmat Singh Negi and K. Naik, and, hopefully, Chauhan will join this group soon. This is an important aspect of wildlife management, often neglected in India, as officers need the time to understand the staff, the local people and the landscape for successful management. The reserve management takes care to maintain cordial relationship with several conservation organisations such as the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-India, the Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Wildlife Trust of India and the Royal Bank of Scotland, and, in turn, these establishments support the reserve in several ways. It is one of the strengths of the Kanha Tiger Reserve.

My association with Kanha started in the early 1980s and my recent trip was in November 2015 when in the company of Chauhan, I watched a tigress walk towards our vehicle, as if to say hello to Chauhan.

During our visit to the grasslands, Chauhan was worried about the abundant growth of Terminalia tomentosa, an extremely important forage species. He stopped worrying about it after I sent him a picture of a young sambar stag gingerly rising on its hind legs and feeding on the leaves of T. tomentosa. The reserve management, however, has to worry about the invasion of numerous unpalatable species such as Cassia fistula, Desmostachya bipinnata (an inedible grass), Flemingea bracteata (dominates the understory in the sal forest), Hyptis suaveolens, Lantana camara, Parthenium hysterophorus, Phoenix acaulis (invades the grasslands) and Pogostemon benghalensis in both the core and the buffer zones. In fact, the problem of invasive species of plants and animals (largely fishes), which drastically reduce the carrying capacity of the terrestrial and freshwater habitats across the country for valuable species should be a cause for worry.

Field managers and those interested in wildlife conservation will find the information provided in the book highly valuable.

Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru and WWF-India

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