DEER COUNTRY

Print edition : July 02, 2010

The national park harbours excellent wildlife habitats and a wide variety of faunal species.-

IT was a cold morning in late December. The sun had already risen over the distant, hazy forested hills, and its slanting rays were reaching the Sonf meadow through a grove of stately sal trees. The meadow was shrouded in a light mist. Sitting in the Gypsy, I was scanning the meadow through my binoculars.

The rutting calls of the hard-ground barasingha ( Cervus duvauceli branderi), an endangered deer species now geographically endemic only to the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh, resounded through the valley, heralding the onset of the courtship season.

The handsome hard-ground barasingha is endemic to the protected area, and the conservation of its small population is tremendously inspiring.-

I focussed on a dominant stag with large and well-branched antlers, which was passionately indulging in various courtship activities, trying his luck with one or the other of the several adult females of his small harem, while the sub-dominant stags in the herd looked on, waiting for an opportunity. The stag raised his head, or rather nose, in a characteristic way just for a few seconds, and I instantly perceived what would now follow. He again raised his head and started giving forth a bugle-like call, starting on a low pitch and swooping up to high, clear notes, the last of which were long-drawn-out.

All of a sudden, amid the frenetic calls of black-faced monkeys, there was a ruckus in the herd and the animals darted in almost every direction. By the time I could focus my binoculars, a huge tiger had pounced upon a doe and pulled her down to the ground. Anthropomorphically, romantic longing and instant killing, the cruel paradox of the jungle. That too, involving two endangered species at two trophic levels in the Kanha ecosystem.

In a typical barasingha habitat.-

While the remarkable success of its conservation effort has made the Kanha management proud, the pressure not only to ensure the survival of the deer but also to maintain a steady increase in its population is making it a bit anxious.

One of the finest protected wildlife areas of the country, the Kanha Tiger Reserve forms part of an eco-region that was renowned internationally for its rich flora and fauna. Nestled on the northern slopes of the Maikal hills of the Satpura range in the central Indian highlands and falling administratively in the Mandla and Balaghat districts of Madhya Pradesh, the tiger reserve and its surround were proud witnesses to an amazing era in conservation history.

A pair of tigers looking for prey.-K.R. DEEPAK

There is an enormous body of writings diaries, memoirs and books by Indian and British wildlife conservationists, forest and Army officers and, of course, huntsmen, on the wide spectrum of wildlife species and their abundance in these forests. These forest tracts were regarded as some of the finest and hitherto untouched wilderness areas in the country. Many widely travelled Indian and British conservationists, who had also enjoyed the finest wilderness areas of Africa and Europe, were in awe of this region and have expressed their feelings in their accounts.

Until the first two or three decades of the last century, the human population in and around the Kanha Tiger Reserve was not a serious threat to its natural heritage. Increasing biotic pressure, however, quietly started giving indications of the shape of things to come.

The conservation history of Kanha is actually that of the Banjar and Halon valleys named respectively after the rivers that flow through them which form the western and eastern parts of the tiger reserve. Acclaimed as excellent shikar blocks in the 1930s, parts of these valleys moved up in conservation status and became wildlife sanctuaries and later formed the present national park in 1955.

A tigress with its cubs. The park has excellent natal areas for tigers.-

The potential for tiger conservation here was so great that the national park was listed also among the first nine to be included in the ambitious Project Tiger scheme (now rechristened the National Tiger Conservation Authority) in 1973. Probably the only tiger reserve in the country to be managed under a classic and effective core-buffer strategy, the 940-square-kilometre national park is surrounded by a buffer zone of 991 sq km.

The Kanha landscape consists mainly of forested shallow undulations, hills with varying degrees of slopes, plateaus and valleys. While the vegetation is comprised mainly of sal trees and miscellaneous crops, 13 types of vegetal cover have given rise to several settings and transitions within the Kanha ecosystem. These, in turn, have resulted in excellent mosaics of wildlife habitats and major variations in faunal species. The habitats themselves provide a range of micro-habitat niches which are also valuable for lesser fauna.

A co-predator of substance. The leopard and the tiger follow the tactic of mutual avoidance.-

Though the national park was managed under the existing policies and the Wildlife and Forest Acts and Rules, it received the much-needed impetus only after it came under Project Tiger. Protection of wildlife and its habitats was accorded the top-most priority. Programmes were undertaken systematically for the eradication of weed and brushwood species in order to ensure good health of the meadows, precious to the herbivore populations. Availability of water was also ensured throughout the protected area. There were once 45 forest villages inside the national park, and their residents typically practised agriculture and animal husbandry thereby exerting immense biotic pressure on the habitat. Now, 27 forest villages have been relocated outside the protected area, and the abandoned village sites have morphed into wonderful grasslands.

In short, the national park has gradually recovered from the past onslaught, and the systematic conservation initiatives under various management plans have ensured the restructuring of the Kanha wildlife ecosystem.

One of the finest examples of in situ conservation practices in Kanha aims at the maintenance of species diversity and the prevention of species extinction, which are central to biodiversity conservation. Besides the critically endangered barasingha and tiger, the protected area also supports a wide range of wildlife species, some of which figure prominently in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Data list. These include the wild dog, the Bengal fox, the sloth bear, the smooth-coated otter, the leopard, the gaur and the Indian python. Besides around 45 mammal species, 25 reptile species and a wide range of insect species, there are over 325 species of birds in Kanha.

Bringing down a male Indian bison. Regular monitoring of the evidence of tigers is undertaken in the park.-

The national park also harbours around 850 species of flowering plants belonging to 390 genera and 105 families. Seventeen species of pteridophytes belonging to 11 genera and nine families are also found in Kanha. The fact is that there is still ample scope for intensive floral and faunal surveys to assess and evaluate the status of the protected area before pronouncing on it with any finality.

The resurrection of the majestic hard-ground barasingha in Kanha is by far one of the most inspiring success stories in the history of wildlife conservation in the country. Recognised as a sub-species of the nominate species of the swamp deer ( Cervus duvauceli duvauceli) in the sub-Himalayan terai of North India, the barasingha of Kanha is a food specialist with a narrow niche and an exclusively graminivorous deer species. Though it has adapted itself to the hard-ground conditions of central India over hundreds of years, the species still shows an evolutionary affinity for water and swampy areas.

Earlier, the population of this royal deer was distributed far and wide; they occurred in many districts of undivided Madhya Pradesh and also in Maharashtra, Bihar and Orissa. In the Kanha eco-region, the barasingha roamed the grasslands in large numbers and had safe and unobstructed access to most parts of the habitats for foraging, breeding and parturition.

Kanha supports a good population of the Indian bison.-

Consequently, the large population of the deer, albeit fragmented, with good additions every year could survive the slow but sure onslaught of poaching and habitat loss due to encroachment for agriculture and altered land-use patterns. In 1938, a census of the deer population conducted in and around the Kanha National Park indicated that there were around 3,000 animals.

In spite of the several Acts and laws relating to forest and wildlife protection, the wildlife remained under increasing pressure from hunting and poaching.

Wildlife habitats were subjected to felling of trees, encroachment, cattle grazing and fires. Shifting cultivation, or slash-and-burn agriculture, practised by the local tribes, especially the Baigas, was another major reason for habitat destruction. Large chunks of forest were clear-felled and meadows converted to agricultural lands to grow marginal crops. Such lands were retained only for three or four years and abandoned for new ones. Besides, such destruction got more and more mechanised and efficient.

The axis deer is the most numerous of all ungulate species. Here, an aggregation during the rains.-

While some good steps were taken, they were too late to be effective, and poaching continued unabated, restricting the barasingha population to the Kanha National Park, where it had declined to an all-time low of a mere 66 animals in 1970.

The sharp decline was noticed at the national and international levels. Wildlife activists pleaded with the Central and State governments to take corrective measures to reverse the trend. The Forest Department undertook short-term conservation plans. The Kanha management took many systematic initiatives to protect the species and its habitat. After initial increases and later fluctuations due to predation by carnivores and selective predation of newborns by jackals, the barasingha population gradually increased. It has been hovering around 350 for the past several years.

Proactive strategies

The tiger is regarded as a highly endangered species in the world and is precariously restricted to only a few tiger-range countries, India being one of them. The animal is deeply embedded in the human psyche as a living symbol of power, grandeur, ferocity and magnificence and is central to innumerable myths. No other species of wildlife has captured the imagination of the international community in the history of conservation as spontaneously and powerfully and evoked as much response from all quarters concerned, as the tiger.

A pair of dholes, or wild dogs, playing in a water saucer provided for them in the summer months.-K.R. DEEPAK

As far as the Indian sub-species is concerned, barring only a few representative wildlife ecosystems tiger conservation is still fraught with uncertainties and upsets. Against this bleak backdrop, Kanha supports a viable population of the super predator.

Stringent protection throughout the year under various proactive strategies and an effective network of patrolling camps in the national park have played a very important role in tiger conservation in Kanha. The build-up of a good prey base, ensuring people's cooperation by undertaking eco-development in the buffer zone, and paying timely compensation for cattle kills have significantly complemented the protection aspect. Regular scientific monitoring of the evidence of tigers is also undertaken.

All the past conservation initiatives have ensured the availability of excellent natal areas for tigers in the protected area. While revengeful killing of a tiger does occur sometimes, there are absolutely no organised or commercial tiger killings in the reserve.

The management of the Kanha National Park presents a fine example of discipline, dedication and camaraderie. Managing the tiger reserve under tremendous human and livestock pressure is a formidable task.

Unlike general forest areas, the tiger reserve is perceived by the common man as being characterised by only restrictions, threats and a cold attitude towards the public at large. All this invariably makes wildlife managers the most unpopular lot of the Forest Department.

Besides, the tiger reserve presents the most demanding service conditions. It calls for a great deal of one's attention and involvement in management, not a mere discharge of routine responsibilities. What is more difficult, yet essential, is having respect and receptivity for others' opinion and the readiness to work cohesively as a team for the larger cause of conservation. Cultivating such a mindset is also crucial for working with the front-line staff, including a large number of daily wagers who form the backbone of wildlife protection.

The Kanha Tiger Reserve management has been headed by a succession of brilliant officers who have always striven to inculcate a sense of team spirit, cohesion and harmony in the Kanha family. This has tremendously boosted the morale, especially of the front-line staff who answer the call of duty under difficult living conditions. Being posted away from family in demanding and frighteningly isolated areas makes the staff susceptible to stress-related and other problems.

Besides, long spells of stay in remote camps expose them to polluted water, mosquitoes and malnutrition, causing gastrointestinal diseases, malaria and general indisposition. It is only the spirit of teamwork that can ensure the best performance in such difficult circumstances.

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.

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