Lessons from Uttaranchal

Print edition : July 15, 2005

The State government sets an example by reviving the tiger and elephant populations in the Rajaji National Park by resettling most of the shepherd families from the park.

At a waterhole in the Rajaji National Park. Since buffaloes belonging to Gujjar families pollute the water in summer months, elephants are forced to drink from tiny springs.-JUSTUS JOSHUA

UNMINDFUL of the midday heat, the magnificent bull tusker Tippu came over to the forest road close to where we had parked our open jeep, in the Rajaji National Park in Uttaranchal. What surprised me was that even at the end of April this 55-year-old elephant was still in musth. The last time I saw him was nearly six months ago. He was in musth, and came charging at me and my colleague Bivash Pandav unprovoked. When we radio-collared him 10 years ago, and tracked him for a little over two years, his rutting season lasted from 12 to 14 weeks. I wondered whether his capability to stay in musth close to 24 weeks was related to the undisturbed conditions prevailing in the Chilla range of the national park, where he was seen frequently.

The undisturbed conditions, created as a result of the resettling of the pastoral Gujjars, have had a noticeable effect on the elephant and tiger populations of the range.

Three notified wildlife sanctuaries in the foothills of the Shivaliks and the outer Himalayan range were combined to form a large protected area covering 820 square kilometres in 1984 and to be named the Rajaji National Park. But the final notification is yet to come, largely owing to the Gujjar settlements in the park.

Conservation of the park is of paramount importance as it forms the northwestern end of the area of distribution of the elephant and the tiger, both endangered animals.

Many enterprising Gujjars have taken up agriculture successfully in the Ghaindikatha settlement.-

The Gujjars came to the Shivaliks from Jammu nearly 200 years ago as part of the dowry of a princess of Nahan in present-day Himachal Pradesh. Their population increased rapidly throughout their new habitation. In 2000, nearly 6,000 Gujjars with about 13,000 livestock lived in deras (shelters) along the watercourses in the park. In addition to the Gujjar-owned livestock, 3,000-odd head of cattle grazed in the park. Over the years, overgrazing by this large population of livestock depleted vegetation and allowed the growth of weeds. Since the park falls in the bouldery, low-water-table bhabar track, the availability of water in the summer months is restricted to certain locations. And even these waterholes are polluted by the dung deposited by the livestock and the water becomes unfit for the elephants.

Gradually, an inevitable change in the pastoral lifestyle of the Gujjars happened. Owing to protests from graziers in the high-altitude areas of the Himalayas, among other things, most of the Gujjars stopped their summer migration to the alpine pastures. They began to stay in the Shivaliks throughout the year. This deviation from the traditional pattern meant that their buffaloes grazed in the park throughout the year, resulting in poor regeneration of food plant species.

`Hill Top' tigress before it became pregnant.-BIVASH PANDAV

Lack of sufficient forage forced the Gujjars to lop off even fruit trees such as bher (Zizyphus mauritiana), amla (Emblica officinalis), Bridelia retusa and figs (Ficus religiosa and F. rumphii). In the course of time, the people started to complain that it was becoming difficult to get sufficient fodder throughout the year. This implied that they did not have a long-term future in the park, even if they were given total freedom to use the forest.

The first attempt to resettle the Gujjars was made in 1984, by the Uttar Pradesh government. This resulted in the relocation of 512 families in the fertile Pathri forest block in the Haridwar forest division, adjacent to the park. This resettlement had a few drawbacks. The concrete houses built for them, without their consent, became furnaces in the summer months. Owing to the lack of sufficient water in the new settlement, the buffaloes, which need copious water, started dying. This forced the residents to take back their livestock to the forest and leave them in the custody of those residing there. Although sufficient land was given, the Gujjars, in the absence of guidance and care, could not make a smooth transition from a pastoral to an agricultural way of life.

The Chilla-Motichur corridor between Haridwar and Raiwala. It is vital for establishing connectivity between the forests on the west and east banks of the Ganga.-

Meanwhile, the new State of Uttaranchal was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000. Nav Prabhat, Minister for Forests and Urban Development, and A.S. Negi, the then Chief Wildlife Warden of the State, decided to resettle the 1,300 Gujjar families remaining in the park, amid the eucalyptus plantations in the Ghaindikatha forest block along the southern fringe of the Chiriyapur range in the Haridwar forest division. This time the Gujjars were fully involved in the resettlement process. All the 150-odd families living in the 150-sq km Chilla range on the east (left) bank of the Ganga were relocated in 2002-03.

The resettlement package was attractive. Each family (even a young man of 18 was considered a family unit) was given a little over two acres (0.8 hectare) of arable land. So, if a man had five grown-up sons, which was the case in many families, he would get 12 acres (4.8 ha) of land, all in one place. Each family was also given a house site and Rs.2,000 to shift its belongings to the new site. The families were also permitted to collect from the nearby forests the timber and thatch necessary to build their deras. Some wealthy Gujjars even bought construction material from the market.

The end of grazing in the Chilla range is leading to a rapid recovery of the chital population.-

The Uttaranchal government, guided by the Forest Department, takes care of the welfare of the Gujjars in the Ghaindikatha colony, providing amenities such as water, medicare, roads and school. Augmented water supply is also extended to the Gujjars at Pathri.

The Chiriyapur range is at the junction of the bhabar and the terai (which has a high water table). Sufficient water for drinking and irrigation purposes, therefore, is available at depths ranging from 50 to 70 metres. Many enterprising Gujjars have taken up agriculture successfully, besides rearing buffaloes. Gujjars from three more ranges, Ranipur, Motichur and Kansrau, on the west (right) bank of the Ganga, have also moved to Ghaindikatha. Plans to resettle Gujjars from other ranges (Beribara, Dholkhand, Chillawali and Ramgarh from the west bank and Gauri from the east bank) are also making good progress.

Relocation of tribal people from protected areas is a controversial subject. However, this extreme move has been resorted to in order to save some of the precious wildlife species such as the tiger, the elephant, the gaur and the sambar. Ecological and behavioural studies have shown that these species thrive only when there are no disturbances in the core areas of the habitats. Resettlement has to be carried out to make at least 2 per cent of the land totally safe for the conservation of endangered species. It, therefore, becomes vital to study the conservation gains a resettlement programme would bring in. It is also equally important that the information thus gathered is made available to the public so that they support such conservation programmes.

Tippu, in musth, comes charging.-BIVASH PANDAV

Our camera trapping and prey assessment efforts gathered momentum when two of the WII's postgraduate students, Abhishek Harihar and Amit John Kurien, and a Gujjar field assistant, Imam Hussain, started working with us. In mid-January, we got a photograph of another lactating female, which we named "Mundal" tigress. We eventually discovered that at least four tigresses used the Chilla range. Interestingly, the sneaky male was not photographed during this effort.

The task of quantifying the conservation gains after the resettlement of the Gujjars in the Chilla range was given to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) at Dehra Dun. The park is the backyard training and teaching location for the the institute.

The presence of Gujjars throughout the range brought in numerous outsiders - on foot and by bicycle and motorcycle - for various transactions, leading to enormous disturbance in the wildlife habitat throughout the year. The study initiated at the WII in 2003, therefore, had components to monitor vegetation, recovery of wild ungulate and carnivore populations, changes in water quality, and habitat use by elephants. Only several years of monitoring would give scientifically valid information on the recovery of degraded vegetation. Although wild ungulates became less shy owing to the absence of disturbance soon after the Gujjars left, it became clear that at least a few years of data collection would be necessary to conclude that the populations had recovered. But the WII's observations on elephants and its monitoring of tigers, with the use of camera traps, have brought some pleasant surprises.

The sambar, being partial to the hills and the most ideal prey of the tiger, is very common in the Chilla range, which is largely hilly.-

Before 1950, the elephant population in what is now the Rajaji National Park ranged into the hills with the arrival of the rains in July, returned to the valley habitats in late winter, and stayed there through the summer (February to June). In summer, they aggregated on the banks of the Ganga. These aggregations came to an end with the developments on the west bank such as the establishment of the Raiwala Army camp in the early 1960s and the settlements of people relocated from the Tehri dam site in the 1970s and the construction of the 13-km-long Chilla Power Channel, parallel to the river, on the left bank in the late 1960s.

The channel is a barrier to the cow groups, not to the bulls. Now the Chilla range and the adjacent Gauri range (within the national park) have a total area of 250 sq km and are contiguous with the Corbett Tiger Range through the Lansdowne forest division. This 250-sq km area has about 150 elephants, which still range into the hills with the arrival of the rains and return to the valley habitats near the channel in late winter.

Tabernae montana, a colourful plant which is extremely rare, in the park. (Right) Although large in size like the sambar, the nilgai is less vulnerable to tiger predation as it occupies open and disturbed areas.-

When the Gujjars were present, the elephants usually emerged out of the forests only late in the evening, when the disturbance died out. As expected, soon after the Gujjars left, there was a notable change in the behaviour of the elephants. In late winter and in summer in 2004, they visited the pools in Luni Nadi, Mundal Sot and Ghasiram Sot (the major rivers which drain the Chilla range) even during daytime. The improved opportunities to see elephants and wild ungulates, and the relatively frequent sightings of leopards, dramatically increased the number of wildlife tourists visiting the range, which has a 30-km circular road to drive around.

IN the late 1980s and early 1990s, I often saw tiger pugmarks on the sandy shores of the left bank of the Ganga but never came across evidence of tigers crossing the river. Possibly the disturbance on the river's islands and on the west bank did not allow them to cross the river, although the water level is low in the winter and summer months as most of the water gets diverted to the channel. Over the years, even pugmark sightings on the left bank declined. No pugmark, for example, was seen in January 2003, when we walked along the left bank three times (a total distance of 18 km) as part of the Terai Arc Tiger Survey. The writing on the wall was clear - even in the Chilla and Gauri ranges, although contiguous with the Corbett Tiger Range, the number of tigers was declining rapidly.

A stream in the Chilla range, which is clean after the relocation of the Gujjars and their buffaloes.-

When the range became totally disturbance-free by late 2003, my colleagues, S.P. Goyal and Bivash Pandav, realised that it would be safe to set up expensive camera traps to try and take pictures of the elusive tigers and other carnivores. We anticipated that the undisturbed conditions and the gradual recovery of prey would allow a few tigers to stay in the range and even stimulate one or two females to breed. The only evidence of breeding I have seen in the Chilla range was about 15 years ago when a three-month-old cub, which was about to die, was found and brought to the WII.

In June 2004, we got the first good picture of a tigress in the range. With a taut belly, it looked like a fine athlete. Since it was photographed on a hilltop, we named it "Hill Top" tigress. As the optimum conditions continued, we expected it to breed in the winter. A photograph taken in January 2005 showed that it was pregnant, and a subsequent picture, taken in February, indicated that it had littered.

The hardy buffaloes belonging to the Gujjars.-

One morning in December 2004, enjoying the warmth of the winter sun, G.S. Pande, the park Director, and I walked from Mithawali to the Rawason valley along the Luni Nadi, crossing a steep ridge at the end of our walk. All along, bher trees were in fruit and there were numerous chital, sambar, nilgai and wild pigs feeding on the fallen fruits. Common langur facilitated the feeding of the ungulates by dropping the fruits or other plant parts.

Tiger, leopard, bear and elephant signs were abundant, and it was difficult to believe that until two years ago the Gujjars and their buffaloes had used the entire area heavily. While stumbling along a deep ravine at the base of the ridge, for the first time I came across Tabernae montana, a plant which was extremely rare in the park.

A view of the Mundal valley in the Chilla range.-

While savouring the scenery and the cool breeze on the top of the ridge, my thoughts drifted to the cubs that Hill Top and Mundal tigresses would possibly be raising. I wondered where the cubs would migrate to when they grew up. They would not be able to go towards the Corbett range, as tigers already occupy the intervening areas. They will not be able to find a safe home in the adjacent Shyampur range of the Haridwar forest division, as it is heavily disturbed by woodcutters from Haridwar, the Gujjars and their buffaloes, and the pilgrims coming to the ashram at Sidh Sot in the heart of the range and to the Chandi temple on its southern boundary. Even in early 2003, we did not see a single tiger pugmark in the Haridwar division when we walked 30 km along the wet, sandy river beds, as part of the terai tiger survey. One direction in which the young tigers could go is across the Ganga, where there is a 1,800-sq km habitat, which, having no link with any source population, is rapidly becoming empty of tigers. But problems such as the stealing of tiger kills by bhabar grasscutters and the poaching of wild ungulates make the habitat unsuitable for tigers.

Yet I am optimistic about the future of tigers in this part of Uttaranchal, between the Corbett range and the Yamuna, an area of about 2,500 sq km, as the conservation-minded Uttaranchal government is keen to establish the long-awaited Chilla-Motichur corridor across the Ganga on a priority basis. This corridor needs a flyover between Haridwar and Raiwala, the shifting of the Army ammunition dump at Raiwala, and the relocation of Khand Gaon III (one of the three villages of Tehri dam oustees) to a site near Rishikesh.

There are also plans to control poaching on a war footing and to ban bhabar grass collection. One can remain assured that all these, with the ongoing and proposed relocation programmes of Gujjars, would enable the young tigers of the Chilla range to find safe homes in the forests west of the Ganga.

A.J.T Johnsingh is Dean, Faculty of Wildlife Sciences, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun.

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