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The Jungle Of Barely Floating Hope

The Jungle Of Barely Floating Hope

In Chhattisgarh’s Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve, a small crew works to protect a not-so-charismatic, but highly endangered bovine at the Wild Buffalo Rescue Centre. Pranav Capila trails the team.

Kalia, one of the free ranging males of the Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve, takes a swim. The Asiatic wild buffalo is endemic to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Photo: R.P. Mishra-WTI.

I am a stalk of wild grass swaying in a gentle jungle breeze. I am a stalk of grass... I am a swaying stalk... I...

If my backwards leap onto a different branch of the evolutionary tree seems curious, consider this: I have read, repeatedly over the weeks leading up to this moment, that the wild buffalo is the most dangerous creature one can encounter on foot in the wild in India. And I am on foot, in the wild. And there's a wild buffalo glaring at me from not more than six metres away.

"Don't panic; and don't make any sudden moves," Dr. Rajendra Mishra whispers.

My companion is the regional head of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and heads the undertaking which I'm here to see – the Central Indian Wild Buffalo Conservation Project, run by WTI in partnership with the Chhattisgarh Forest Department. A man, in short, who knows a thing or two about wild buffaloes.

So I stand planted. Gently swaying, or to be more accurate, violently trembling. Hoping to somehow merge with the undergrowth.

Prince, my 800 kg. bovine antagonist, snorts as if to purge his nostrils of a foul smell – which, given that scent supercedes sight in his hierarchy of senses, is probably what I am to him. He stamps a massive white-socked forefoot – once, twice – lowers his head and prepares to charge.

The trek to the rescue centre.
Photo: Pranav Capila.

THE GOLDEN CALF

We are on a jungle trail in compartment 82, Udanti, of the Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh. Earlier this morning we drove down from the town of Mainpur to the forest rest house at Jungad, then began a seven kilometre trek into the most delicious tropical deciduous jungle you could hope to see: sal and teak, bamboo and tendu, bija and saja and mahua; old growth and new growth alike in a steaming monsoon orgy of renewal.

Across the shin-deep Dasin nullah we waded, and then through more jungle, more overflow of life; orchids and lichens and a veritable pharmacy of medicinal plants, here an electric flutter of butterflies, there the urgent march of fierce black ants.

And though journeys end in lovers meeting (every wise man's son doth know) and Prince is my first-ever free ranging wild buffalo, he doesn't seem, you know, quite to be feelin' it like I do.

A chain link fence at my back separates the Wild Buffalo Rescue Centre's boma from open jungle. On the other side, Prince's mother Asha fusses over her six-month-old calf, Kiran.

Quite the prancing diva in her golden coat (her hide will darken by the time she matures), Kiran is a true ray of hope for the project: until she was born, her mother was the only female wild buffalo left in Udanti-Sitanadi. "We had a string of male calves, which given the critical state of the local population has to count as a misfortune," Dr. Mishra says. "A few more females and we would have been in a better position."

The Asiatic wild buffalo Bubalus bubalis arnee is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. But while there is a relatively stable wild population of about 4,000 individuals in India, an overwhelming majority is found in the Northeast, particularly Assam.

The Central Indian population is in dire straits, with a WTI survey estimating that there were not more than 50 individuals across the Indravati National Park, Pamed Wildlife Sanctuary and Udanti-Sitanadi in 2010. (Typical of the problems in the region, a thorough count could only be conducted in Udanti; the other two Protected Areas were deemed too dangerous due to Naxal activity.)

A wild population of 50. And this, the rubber stamped, government approved, state animal of Chhattisgarh.

"What's worse,” Dr. Mishra says, "is that even though the survival of the species here hinges on this one project, and the authorities know it, we still have to scrounge for funds. It's a shame. This magnificent species deserves some attention."

A camera trap captures one of Udanti-Sitanadi's tigers. Photo: Chhattisgarh Forest Department – Udanti-Sitanadi TR.

BUFFALO SOLDIERS

The Wild Buffalo Rescue Centre consists of a simple single-storey building for food supplies and veterinary support, with two contiguous bomas spread over 32 hectares. Six buffaloes are kept in the bomas, Asha and Kiran having the smaller, 10 ha. enclosure to themselves. Five other buffaloes, all mature males, range freely through the forest – though like Prince, they may occasionally drop by for a visit.

Man Singh, aged 50, sun-dried but spry as a new growth sal, is one of four local tribesmen employed as animal keepers at the centre. He is from the nearby village of Deojharamli, where he is considered a holy man, a mahatma.

I don't know quite what he did to earn that title, but I can attest to his merits as a buffalo charmer – it is he who aborts Prince's intended charge, distracting him with a bag of wheat porridge.

"He was born at the Centre so he recognises us," Man Singh explains as Prince dips into the feed bag, "but one cannot think of these creatures as tame by any means. They are notoriously ill-tempered and one has to keep an eye out for them at all times. Mishraji knows; he was thrown (head-butted) by Chhotu some time ago."

'Chhotu', literally meaning 'the small one', was named by someone of limited vision or a twisted sense of humour. As he heaves into view in the larger boma, I see that he is the quintessential alpha bull: powerful, weighing a ton, with a magnificent metre-plus spread of horns – just the most beautiful, awe-inspiring wild creature (even if his white socks and velvet hide create an absurdly prissy counter to his menace). Chhotu is a free ranging bull, but stud that he is, has been brought back to the Centre for breeding duties.

The keepers feed their charges once a day (twice in summer when there is less grass cover in the bomas): a mixture of wheat porridge cooked with salt and jaggery and dosed with Phytocal Plus, a supplement containing vitamins, minerals and calcium.

Four other tribesmen are employed as trackers to monitor the free ranging bulls through the forest all year round. Equipped with GPS devices and wireless sets they work in teams of two, tracking just the animals' hoof prints on most days (so as not to disturb them), but moving in for a visual confirmation of well-being once a week.

Daulat Ram Kamar, aged 44, is one of the trackers here. He belongs to a primitive tribe of traditional hunters and has been working at the Centre for eight years. "Working with wild buffaloes is tough, but there are bigger problems here," he says. “Some four or five years ago it was the Naxals – I felt all of this would be finished, destroyed. Dealing with villagers is our biggest hassle now; they get angry when our buffaloes get into their maize fields and destroy the crops. This happens most often in summer, when there is less wild grass in the forest. But what else will wild buffaloes do if there is nowhere to graze? The forest is shrinking and with it our problems have grown."

The Asiatic wild buffalo's horns may spread as much as two metres, exceeding the largest of any other living bovid. Seen here is Chhotu, an alpha male, chowing down his feed at the rescue centre. Photo: Daulat Ram Kamar/WTI.

AN INVIOLATE ABSURDITY

Over 40 per cent of Chhattisgarh is covered in forests – 59,772 sq. km., or 8.4 per cent of India's total forest cover. Of this an extremely healthy 39,074 sq. km. is classified as ‘dense’ and 'very dense'.

Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve sprawls over 1,842 sq. km., with an 851 sq. km. core and 991 sq. km. buffer. So why do wild buffaloes need to raid crops, I ask Dr. Mishra.

"For that we'll have to take you sightseeing," he says; "then you'll understand."

We drive the next day to the picturesque forest rest house at Karlajhar, 10 km. into the core of the tiger reserve. On the way I understand. The dirt road snakes through thick groves and seasonal streams, jungle as pristine as you could wish it to be – except, suddenly, when it isn't.

Passing the tribal villages of Nagesh and Bamhanijhola we see herds of cattle, areas where trees have been felled and cleared, and acre upon acre of maize fields, stretching from the Udanti river on the right to the distant hills on the left. By the time we reach Karlajhar I have asked, “Is this the core zone?” so many times, my companions are no longer amused.

"This is the core of the tiger reserve, and the core of the Naxal-affected area, and the core of the encroachments," asserts Parmeshwar Dadsena, the forest guard accompanying us.

"This is the core of the problem," Dr. Mishra says wryly. "Because you can monitor and care for each individual wild buffalo, and you can track its every movement, and you can provide it veterinary support, but what do you do if its habitat and food sources are diminishing? These areas were once open grasslands. Their topography was ideal for wild buffaloes. And now look at them."

The long-term success of any conservation project hinges on the support of local populations. Compensation for crop raid; incentivising the removal of domestic buffaloes; vaccination of domestic cattle to prevent the spread of disease; employment of locals, whether as permanent forest staff or daily wagers involved in tracking or de-weeding: all this falls within the ambit of the Wild Buffalo Conservation Project. But the continuing degradation and fragmentation of forest habitat is a major concern.

I have but a tenuous knowledge of the land use rights of tribals living on forest lands, so perhaps I can make just these limited, careful points:

In several areas of Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve – including critical forest corridors linking Udanti with Sitanadi – tribal villagers seem to have encroached on forest land, exceeding the land deeds (pattas) given to them by the government.

The problem has been exacerbated by the introduction of maize into the local cultivation cycle. Simply put, the more land available to plant maize the more money one potentially makes.

Naxal activity in the region further compounds the issue. For one thing, senior officers of the Forest Department are reluctant to venture into the field as often as they ordinarily might. This fear trickles down to all forest staff. Encroachments, therefore, are not effectively policed.

Most important, these things come down to political will and animals, even state animals, don't have a vote. Some 400 forest villages across Chhattisgarh were converted to revenue villages when the present state government came to power in 2013. The party that won the election had fared poorly in tribal pockets, which had the maximum number of forest villages.

In such a scenario, it is wishful thinking to believe that there can be some sort of sustainable balance between jungle and human jungle dwellers; that the relationship will not devolve into an either-or situation.

'Rehabilitation' is a swear word in the lexicon of those who represent tribal rights – and not without reason, since it often becomes a synonym for dispossession, for a fracture from a traditional way of life. But it is also true that as the aspirations of tribal communities evolve, the completely legitimate desires for better roads, or connectivity, or healthcare, or larger landholdings or more heads of cattle, cannot be met without an increased impingement on forest habitats. The pastoral idyll that is often presented, of the simple tribal foraging for firewood, grazing his cattle and cultivating his crops to meet his limited personal needs, living in perfect harmony with the forest, seems predicated on the tribal remaining simple. Add a little ambition to the mix and it all turns to farce.

The team at the Wild Buffalo Rescue Centre. Asha, the buffalo matriarch, can be seen in the boma on the right. Photo: Pranav Capila.

As it is, the idea of the inviolate core, where human presence is minimal and animals have right of way, is already an absurdity in this protected forest.

THE LAST LAKE

On our way back to Raipur we take a detour to the Sondur dam on the Sitanadi side of the reserve.

The dam, Dr. Mishra tells me, is the subject of a running dispute between the Irrigation and Forest Departments of Chhattisgarh – the former having allowed the catchment lake to fill up over the agreed capacity, inundating large swathes of the latter's land. That's more prime forest habitat gone, less area for wild buffaloes to roam.

We watch the rain clouds drift off the hills onto the lake. I cannot tell whether hope floats in Udanti-Sitanadi, or is circling the drain.

Dr. Mishra with the project's veterinarian and Forest Department's Range Officer, giving Kiran her deworming medicine. Photo: Daulat Ram Kamar/WTI.

As for me, my cup runneth over.

Author: Pranav Capila, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 10, October 2015.

 
 
 

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