Bhoramdeo – The Forgotten Wilderness
Out searching for tigers and their co-inhabitants, Sprih Harsh, Senior Project Offi cer, WWF-India, shares her quiet, unhurried thoughts about a wilderness most people have never heard of, let alone visited.
Photo: Sprih Harsh/WWF India.
We were on our usual daily patrol and had already walked for a couple of hours in the scorching summer heat. Suddenly, the beat guard with us sighted something in the distance and stopped dead in his tracks. “Kya hai?” (What is it?)” I asked, to which he, without saying a word, pointed through the vegetation towards something large and black. My heart skipped a beat. “Sloth bear?” I whispered, waiting for a reply until I discovered with a start that he had vanished in the opposite direction! My flight response kicked in, and I found myself joining the guard as we both bolted to safety. I still have no clue what it was that we saw, but I trusted the guard’s judgement and, clearly, lived to tell another tale!
THE ANONYMOUS WILDS
In Indian mythology, when Ganesh, the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, was asked to circle the world, he walked around his parents declaring them to be his entire universe. In the case of our present day naturalists, I suspect that if they were asked to circumnavigate the ingredients of wildlife conservation in India, they would run a circle around large mammals like the tiger, elephant and rhino. But this circle would only cover the Protected Area network, dominated by tiger reserves, and not the innumerable, little-known wildlife sanctuaries, conservation reserves, reserve forests and wetlands that support so much biodiversity.While many of these spaces are being degraded or encroached upon, there are some that are managing to quietly flourish. The thriving, biodiverse ecosystem of Chhattisgarh’s 350 sq. km. Bhoramdeo Wildlife Sanctuary (BWLS) is one such example. Located in Kawardha Forest Division, the sanctuary is a dry deciduous forest nestled in the foothills of the Maikal range. It gets its name from the Bhoramdeo temple that dates back to the Kalachuri period (10th-12th centuries). Dominated by sal trees Shorea robusta, the forest is interspersed with grasslands. The hills run from north to south, with the Sakri river cutting through the sanctuary. Adjoining the buffer of the Kanha Tiger Reserve along the border of Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Chhattisgarh, this is a vital habitat for the tiger Panthera tigris, which is why we were there.
A multitude of fascinating creatures inhabit this wilderness and in May 2015, I was given a chance to observe their unique lives as part of WWF-India’s ongoing study on the biodiversity connectivity between Kanha in Madhya Pradesh and the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh. The project sought to evaluate the functionality and use of this corridor as a dispersal route for wildlife. Piled into a dilapidated, but functional, four-wheel-drive (Gypsy), our team of five, a field officer, two interns, a driver and I, chose to do this in May as visibility was high and water sources acted like magnets for wild creatures, otherwise not so easy to spot. We scouted for signs of carnivores, using different trekking paths and patrolling roads in the scorching heat. It was an incredible experience, but walking eight to 10 km. on an average each day was not exactly easy. Living like nomads, shifting base every few days, our survey saw us birding each morning in the wildest of wilds, away from the hordes of tourists that have come to characterise popular wildlife havens today. I still treasure my time in those wilds, where even after ‘work’ was done, the remaining time would be spent exploring the forest on any given day.
THE LIVING FOREST
At five a.m. on a cloudy morning, we set out for Sarodha Dadar, a view point that offered a panoramic view of the environs. Before dawn we sat around a small table fashioned from old planks and drank our tea and biscuits. As day began to break, the mountains of the sanctuary came gently into sight. The captivating view was a perfect platform for the incredible morning show put on by nature. We could see a variety of feathered denizens flying from every direction, soaring above us and then darting straight into the forest canopy.
Bhoramdeo is barking deer Muntiacus muntjak country. This animal, being a solitary herbivore, is generally elusive especially when compared to less shy herbivores such as chital. But they have survived here in such great numbers that we encountered them frequently along our survey routes. Where herbivores exist, predators are sure to follow, as we discovered to our surprise and delight when a leopard ambled casually in clear sight, along a grassland. Its easy paced walk and relaxed demeanour suggested it felt secure and confident in what must have been its own territory. Brought up on stories by the hunter-conservationist Jim Corbett, his words rang truer than true for me as I gazed speechlessly at the spotted predator: “Those who have never seen a leopard under favourable conditions in his natural surroundings can have no conception of the grace of movement, and beauty of colouring, of this the most graceful and the most beautiful of all animals in our Indian jungles.”
But we were there to find evidence of tiger presence. We were told that at least four individuals had made this forest their home. And we were lucky enough to find almost 10 signs in 21 per cent of survey sites, with some so fresh, it was as if the cat was very much around, possibly watching us from cover.
Out of breath and winded, each time we saw evidence of wildlife, we discovered new reserves of strength within ourselves as we negotiated Bhoramdeo’s steep trails. Our survey took us through wild country for nine full days, each ending long into the night, with discussions about our experiences. In the process, we were able to experience life the way forest guards do, eating with them, understanding their problems and learning from them through stories they told that never quite reach the books accessible to researchers.
Himanshu Rawal and Nilaykant Saraf, our two interns from the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, proved to be huge assets. They helped us keep to our timelines and their enthusiasm was palpable. For them, working with WWF was an adventure and they had brought new cameras with the hope that they would get plenty of time to shoot scenic landscapes and species. This dream crashed as they came to terms with the reality that 95 per cent of all the images they would end up taking would comprise tiger scats and pugmarks! I could almost hear them think to themselves: “What did we sign up for?” In the early days, they did seem a tad confused about their roles, but very quickly they settled in and I was witness to a beautiful transition in their thinking and work process. They became confident, walking through undulating forest trails, spending time absorbing and understanding their surroundings. At the end of nine days, if I had even the slightest doubt about how they felt about their experience, it was put to rest when they asked: “When can we come on the next survey?” They left feeling accomplished and we felt blessed to have had them with us.
Map Courtesy: WWF.
|THE KANHA – ACHANAKMAR CORRIDOR|
The Pench-Kanha-Achanakmar (PKA) complex is a contiguous forest patch in central India that connects three meta-populations of Pench, Kanha and Achanakmar Tiger Reserves. The Kanha-Achanakmar corridor (KAC) connecting the Kanha Tiger Reserve (KTR) and the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve (ATR) is a very significant portion of this landscape complex that provides dispersal opportunities and serves as a refuge for the spillover population of tigers and other wildlife from the two tiger reserves, KTR and ATR.
THE NEXT MOVE
There are not many wildlife habitats left in India that truly have the potential of turning into recovery sites for charismatic predators such as tigers, or any other large carnivorous species. Bhoramdeo holds that promise. Sadly, however, few long-term scientific studies have been conducted, and for us researchers, what is commonly referred to as baseline data is conspicuous by its absence. This poses a fundamental challenge. What should the objective of the research be? More than anything else, what we need is studies, and interviews with different generations of people in the communities dwelling inside the forest. This would help us contrast present and past scenarios and enable us to piece together the changes and the factors influencing them down the years.
Time is running out for Bhoramdeo. So are our options in terms of solutions that might help us cope with the current problems (largely common to most Protected Areas), which include poaching, hunting, wildlife trade, habitat loss and developmental pressures. All this, while ensuring that the local community is somehow benefited from the process of bringing biodiversity back. Their lifestyles and their security and that of their children must be enhanced. If this apparently difficult task can be accomplished, I have no doubt that the villages that surround the park can and will play a critical role in regenerating the wilderness, to the advantage of their own children and the wild species without which the wilderness has no future.
Bhoramdeo thus stands at a crossroad. Being adjacent to Kanha, it holds out the promise of long-term landscape conservation by facilitating the movement of wildlife through the Kanha-Achanakmar corridor. But all this could come to naught if the serious challenges posed by anthropogenic pressures are not contained.
The Forest Department undoubtedly faces a difficult task but alone it cannot hope to deal with this complicated situation. It needs the participation of all the relevant stakeholders, and positive intervention, political and administrative, from the top, led by the Chief Minister’s Office. The focus of such intervention must be to offer communities guaranteed livelihood security based on options that enhance and not deplete biodiversity.
A measure of tourism, for instance, has begun, but will this tourism genuinely add to the improvement of the living standards and happiness of the community? That is the filter through which future plans must flow.
And to those who ask what benefits wildlife can possibly bring to humans, I would quote Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world”.
HOW TO GET THERE:
By air: Raipur (133 km.)
By rail: Bilaspur (109 km.) and Raipur (140 km.)
By road: Nearest town is Kawardha that is well-connected to both Raipur and Bilaspur.
Best time: The sanctuary is open throughout the year but the best time to visit would be between November and March when visitors can have spectacular sightings.
What to look out for: Barking deer (easily spotted due to their abundance), chital, sambar, nilgai, wild pigs, porcupine, and if one is really lucky then the tiger, leopard, bear and hyaena. Among avifauna, the sanctuary is known for the Streak-throated Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback, the tiny Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Great Tit, Black-lored Tit and Crested Serpent Eagle.
Author: Sprih Harsh, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 12, April 2016.