Mizoram’s Dampa: A tiger reserve without tigers

Tiger-less for two years, this biodiversity hotspot faces poaching from both sides of the border, but village guards offer hope.

Published : Feb 22, 2024 00:14 IST - 8 MINS READ

The Dampa Tiger Reserve has the highest density of clouded leopards in the world.

The Dampa Tiger Reserve has the highest density of clouded leopards in the world. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

James, a short man with broad shoulders, extends his beefy hand in a warm welcome. “What brings you to Dampa,” he asks with a penetrating stare. I sneak a glance at his pistol, secured in a beige holster around his waist, just before his right hand moves to cover it. James is the range officer here at the Dampa Tiger Reserve, the largest protected area in Mizoram, spread over 500 sq km.

I ramble out my introduction in Mizo, a survival hack I picked up while travelling the State over the past four weeks. It brings a brief smile to his face. I share my plans of visiting all the 10 wildlife sanctuaries and national parks across Mizoram.

Sipping a cup of warm thingpui (tea), I begin with the most pressing question: why are there no tigers in this tiger reserve? He nods slowly. “Yes… we’ve not had a tiger sighting in over two years. But we have the highest density of clouded leopards in the world and there are still a few elephants.” He goes on to explain the biggest threat: poachers, both from Mizoram and Bangladesh across the border. As a result, 160 newly recruited personnel, primarily from surrounding villages, now guard the perimeter of the reserve.

A boy aims his catapult at a bird in the thicket.

A boy aims his catapult at a bird in the thicket. | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

Rifles, snares and daos

James explains that 488 sq km of the reserve’s buffer zonehas been encroached upon for jhum cultivation and palm oil plantations, and the border road and fencing project are not helping the cause either, he adds.

In his quarters, the venue of our meeting, I notice an entire array of confiscated rifles, snares, daos (large knives), and chainsaws. “Most of these belong to villagers living in the buffer zone who enter the forest for firewood and meat.” The foresters’ usual approach is to find a constructive middle ground with the villagers. “But we cannot forgive those who are supposed to be role models, those who are entrusted with educating the next generation,” he proclaims. He refers to a teacher caught in 2022 with two guns, ammunition, and a kill, an Asian palm civet. “There was no forgiving him.”

Also Read | How a Madhya Pradesh tribe’s symbiotic relationship with nature is in peril

Nearly 95 per cent of Mizoram has tribal roots, that is, an ancient and intimate relationship with the forest, something that in the present times can be construed as conflicting with wildlife conservation. Most political promises—of jobs, roads, hospitals, higher education opportunities, and tourism promotion—made over generations, are yet to be fulfilled. In fact, the condition of the highways in the State is so deplorable that it hinders tourism and is one of the reasons why people of this remote land live in perpetual backwardness. Men, women, and children in the villages continue to stroll into the forests armed with axes, chainsaws, and rifles to forage for food, meat, wood, fodder, and medicine.

Residents of the area head into the forest for a hunt.

Residents of the area head into the forest for a hunt. | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

However, the situation around the people has changed vastly. The State no longer permits hunting and logging; most residents recall their parents and grandparents providing for their families with forest produce, until as late as the 1990s. Gravestones on the outskirts of villages have etched testimony of great game hunts: tigers, leopards, elephants. Attempts to conserve wildlife are thus caught in a dichotomy.

Shops without shopkeepers

Mizoram, a biodiversity hotspot, with over 84 per cent forest cover, has the second highest literacy rate in the country, a low population density, no major domestic conflict, shared international borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, and a deep sense of hospitality. It could have been the poster child for ecotourism in the north-eastern region. Shops without shopkeepers, the disciplined hornless traffic, and the numerous tribes—each with their distinct language, art, cuisine, and customs—could have offered something unique. However, this pristine hill State, founded in 1972, has failed to capitalise on its inherent strengths and barely attracts a handful of brave tourists each year.

At the Murlen Wildlife Sanctuary I am fortunate to meet Amit Kumar Bal, 30. Bal is a wildlife biologist pursuing his PhD from Mizoram University, and his research on small and medium-sized carnivores of Murlen has kept him stationed here for over three years.

Horns and skulls at the entrance of a house. From bottom: water buffalo horns, sambar antlers, and barking deer antlers.

Horns and skulls at the entrance of a house. From bottom: water buffalo horns, sambar antlers, and barking deer antlers. | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

Pointing to a picture on his phone of a small, furry primate with big googly eyes and a button nose, he says: “That’s the endangered Bengal slow loris, the only venomous primate in the world. This cute-looking guy nearly killed my friend while he attempted to rescue it from a jhum clearing.” Unlike snakes that have a venom gland, this baby-faced assassin, when threatened, produces venom by licking its oil gland located under its armpit. The saliva mixes with the venomous oil, which is then delivered via its grooved canines. “His face swelled up like a football; he had trouble breathing and couldn’t even sip water. There are no medical facilities in the village, and the nearest hospital is 50 km away.” The poor condition of the road makes it seem more like a hundred. He confesses to being terrified as it was at his request that the rescue was attempted. Fortunately, the medicines he administered from his first aid kit provided relief, but only after three to four hours of trauma that none of them will ever forget.

“Not everyone is so lucky,” he says, pointing to a picture of a young man on the wall in his room. He is living with a family, and the young man was their son, a talented carpenter, whom they lost two years ago. He injured himself while cutting wood but died before he could reach the hospital. The last 14 km to Murlen is still a dirt road.

Also Read | How rising tiger population has made life dangerous for families in Uttar Pradesh

I accompany Bal on his regular 14-16 km walks into the national park to set camera traps and collect scat samples. As we enter the core area, we are surrounded by giant trees that form a dense canopy, their forked branches draped with moss and orchids. The occasional trill of the velvet-fronted nuthatch, the whiny cry of a spot-bellied eagle-owl, and the distant screech of primates break the sombre silence. Spotting a putrid-smelling scat riddled with hair, he scoops out a chunk into a sanitised plastic container, claiming it is from a dhole, an endangered wild dog.

List of vulnerable species

With a rich mix of tropical moist-broadleaf, semi-evergreen and evergreen forests spanning the park’s 100 sq km protected area, Murlen is home to a long list of vulnerable species such as the clouded leopard, the marbled cat, the leopard cat, the stump-tailed macaque, the Sumatran serow (the national animal of Mizoram), and the Himalayan black bear.

Standing on a watchtower overlooking a sea of treetops, he draws a small square in the air with his finger, marking the exact spot where he discovered a new non-venomous snake species that has since been named after the park: Herpetoreas murlen. As we continue walking, Bal spots a flat area where several tracks converge and decides to set up a camera trap on the trunk of a tree, slashing the undergrowth with a dao to clear the field of view. I notice something written on the camera. “Do not be afraid, only your legs will be in the frame so please do not touch,” he translates. It is a message in Mizo assuring hunters that this camera is only for monitoring animals. “As with most things in life, wildlife conservation is about trust. We haven’t lost a single camera in three years and have been successful in bringing about small changes.”

Amit Kumar Bal straps a camera trap to a tree in the Murlen WLS.

Amit Kumar Bal straps a camera trap to a tree in the Murlen WLS. | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

It has taken him three years to build trust and rapport, evident in the way he is greeted by the villagers. You cannot just tell them to stop hunting and expect results, he explains. Social and behavioural changes cannot be achieved overnight. Even awareness and education efforts need to be delivered in an interesting format to have an impact. He emphasises that the road to conservation passes through prosperity. “Look at these people: they don’t hunt and cut trees for fun but to put food on the table. Creating awareness is important, there’s no denying that, but you have to make the case that conservation is beneficial to them, not sometime in the distant future but today. Right now.”

When we return to the village, I ask him about the purpose of his research; is conservation possible in such situations? While wildlife research projects start with varying goals, they usually end with conservation, he says. “And the beauty is that conservation never works in isolation, say for just one species. The interdependence forces a holistic approach.”

With the help of the village council, he has set up a homestay in Murlen, trained two local people as wildlife guides, provided cameras to four youths interested in nature photography, and hosted three groups of visitors. “We conduct nature walks, birdwatching tours, camping, all with the involvement of the villagers. But we have a long way to go,” he says.

Himmat Rana is a writer and photographer on a mission to explore and learn what India is. He has so far trekked over 7,000 km through eight States.

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