Where Valmiki Sings The Blues
A telling portrait of people, landscapes, wildlife, and the problems they face is presented by Pranav Capila, who asks that Bihar’s Valmiki Tiger Reserve is better protected.
Photo: Samir Sinha.
A north wind breathes blue and hard through the West Champaran district in Bihar. Walking through the twisting lanes of Naurangia village, Done (rhymes with 'groan') Valley, I fight the persistent urge to confirm that my nose is still attached to my face.
But it's not my nose (or my nethers, similarly numbed by a rattling 20 km. ride down a dirt road from Harnatand village) that I'm particularly worried about – it's my brain. It seems to be moving, on this cold morning, even slower than its usual chug.
First there was the shock of Done Valley itself. I mean, there you are on a motorbike in a tiger reserve, the jungle flashing by in full technicolour glory – thick groves of sal, myriad shades of green, soil of dark loam and ferrous red and chalk white – and then, just as you should be in the deep, dense core of the forest, you burst onto the tawny stubble of harvested sugarcane fields, and cattle, and mud-and-thatch villages.
And then there's the stove. The mud stove.
I'm in the Valmiki Tiger Reserve, easternmost limit of the Siwalik-Gangetic landscape; northwestern limit of the gaur; home to leopards, wild dogs, sloth bears, king cobras, crocodiles, gharials and 28 tigers; a 3,550 sq. km. (taken with Nepal's Chitwan National Park and Parsa Wildlife Sanctuary) Level-1 Tiger Conservation Unit; I'm visiting Wildlife Trust of India's (WTI) Tiger Conservation Project, and what WTI assistant manager Kaushik Deb is pointing towards is... a mud stove?
"Not just a mud stove; a smokeless fuel-efficient mud stove," Kaushik asserts. "Think of it this way: the Tharu tribe has been settled in the Himalayan foothills for 400 years. They are spread across 25 villages in Done, in the heart of Valmiki. They depend on the forest for a number of their daily needs, from fuel and water to cattle grazing. Our aim here is to lighten that footprint as far as possible."
The community component of WTI's tiger conservation project has been running since 2005 with support from Tata Trusts; now, through 53 Self Help Groups (SHGs) it covers nearly 700 families across seven villages. As we move through these villages, Kaushik shows me, in SHG households, solar lanterns, smokeless and biogas stoves, a solar-powered irrigation pump here, a community fruit and herb garden there.
In village Gardi, we meet SHG volunteer Panmati Devi, who has been trained to provide medical aid for small livestock and has taken a course in basket-weaving as a green livelihood. We also speak with SHG leader Jarima Devi, who builds smokeless stoves and can repair solar lanterns. "Food cooks faster on these stoves," she says, "and while earlier we needed about two to two-and-a-half kilogrammes of firewood per day for two people, we now need just one kilogramme."
Photo Courtesy: Pranav Capila.
Back at the WTI field station in Valmikinagar, regional head Dr. Samir Kumar Sinha breaks it down for me: "Your initial reaction wasn't unusual," he laughs. "The first thing we did in Done was construct community bathrooms. And people asked me: 'bathrooms and tiger conservation?' But it helped us build a rapport with the community. Besides, if the villagers have toilets where they live, they won't go into the jungle as often. And if they have solar water pumps they won’t divert forest streams for agriculture. And if through animal husbandry they breed livestock that provide a better yield of milk, they'll need to keep fewer animals, and graze fewer animals. We’ve taken a non-antagonistic approach to these permanent forest dwellers: we try to improve their quality of life while decreasing the biotic pressure on the surrounding forest land."
WTI has been working in the Valmiki landscape since 2003 and their focus has shifted from camera traps and tiger density estimations towards habitat improvement, Dr. Sinha says. The ecological component of the project now centres on the status and management of grasslands, forest fire mapping, and a comprehensive habitat suitability mapping for prey species across all eight ranges.
I wonder, though, if it sometimes feels like plugging a dam with a finger. I tell Dr. Sinha about my conversation with Ramji Kazi, a farmer at Gardi village, who had expressed the hope for better amenities at Done: a metalled road, a hospital, electricity. I also saw a two-storey concrete structure – a hotel, no kidding – coming up in the central 'chowk' area of the valley. "All the more reason that we keep doing our part," he says; "but yes, I worry what the needs of a growing human population will trigger. You'll see what has happened to Madanpur."
Photo Courtesy: Samir Sinha.
A TAIL THAT WON'T WAG
The Madanpur Range dangles off the western edge of Valmiki like a misshapen, nearly severed tail. It is flanked by the Gandak river on its west and a procession of villages on its east.
A thin tract of forest, it is nevertheless extremely rich in biodiversity. "Madanpur has the highest wildlife density in the reserve," says 53-year-old Range Officer Anand Kumar; "it has the highest prey base, four-five tigers, leopards, mugger crocodiles, rock pythons... rhinos from Chitwan used to come to the grasslands in the south... but because of its geography, it also has the most human interference. We have issues with encroachments on forest land, with theft of firewood, timber and cane smuggling. Some 35 people have been arrested for smuggling cane to Nepal in the six months I've been posted here."
"There are over 6,000 hectares of forest land to patrol," he adds, almost embarrassed to say it, "and just me and two untrained forest guards as permanent employees."
The lack of permanent staff – and especially of young persons who can stand up to the rigours of a forest posting – is due to a longstanding freeze on recruitments in Bihar. In Done, I'd met IFS officer Shashikant Kumar (in training as Harnatand Range Officer; at 25 one of the rare young ones), who affirmed that there was a "90 per cent staff shortfall" in Valmiki. "We use daily wagers to take up some of the slack," he said, "but often they belong to the same villages as the offenders, and that can cause problems."
Madanpur's issues are amplified because it is almost completely cut off from the rest of the reserve, by several canals, agricultural lands and the busy Bagaha-Valmikinagar State Highway. A six kilometre stretch on the Bagaha-Chitauni rail link also partitions the range like a steel tourniquet, sundering 1,700 hectares of lush grasslands to the south. This railway line has become, over the last two decades, a shining example of the boneheadedness of certain 'developmental initiatives'.
When the tracks were laid in 1996, the embankment on which they were set, blocked the passage of two perennial nullahs flowing from the north. Some 1,600 hectares of forest land were (are) flooded upstream, 50,000 trees were destroyed, and the ecology of the region changed from thick jungle to wet grassland. Then, as rail traffic increased on the segment down the years, so did the number of train hits: 57 wild animals were killed on the tracks in the last decade, including two rhinos and, just this September, a tiger.
The Railways, funded to the tune of Rs. 20 crores by the Forest Department, began constructing concrete walls and underpasses below the track. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) stepped in to halt this activity, having determined that it actually worsened the impediment to animal movement in the area – especially since the proposed underpasses were too narrow. The NTCA's evaluation team, of which Dr. Sinha is a member, has announced a slew of short and mid-term measures to reduce animal fatalities on the stretch – including a further reduction of train speeds (endorsed in October by the Patna High Court) and the construction of properly-designed underpasses. "In the long term, though," Dr. Sinha says, "they will have to do what they should have done in the first place: shift the railway line out and around the forest, not through it."
"I've studied this landscape for over 13 years now," he muses as we walk through the grasslands south of the railway line; "I've seen how the forest has shrunk. In 2011, a tiger from this range was seen way down in Hajipur. That's how bad the fragmentation is: he could make a 300 km. journey along the Gandak almost all the way to Patna, but he couldn't find a way to get from Madanpur to one of the other ranges in Valmiki."
Photo: Pranav Capila.
THE LAST LOST LANDSCAPE
The Gandak runs broad and blue along the Madanpur Range. We float mid channel in an inflatable raft, simultaneously in Indian and Nepali territory. Upriver on the barrage, young men on motorcycles queue up at the border, waiting to undertake their first transnational trip of the day. Deprived of meaningful employment, the youth of Valmikinagar occupy themselves with a slick petrol smuggling racket: they line up at local pumps to have their motorbike tanks filled, drive across the barrage into Nepal and siphon out the fuel to sell at a premium. Then they return and do it all over again. (One must imagine Sisyphus happy.)
A few kilometres downstream we are already in a different world. As the Gandak sprawls into an ever-widening floodplain, the sights and sounds of people diminish until we are in a vast flatland where, turning 360 degrees, we can without effort believe ourselves to be the last human survivors of some sublime apocalypse.
Around us the river gurgles and sings. We see the perfect grey crescent of a leaping Gangetic dolphin (the endangered Platanista gangetica), and then another, and then another. A Brahminy Duck flashes russet and deep green as it takes flight; a Red-wattled Lapwing suns itself on a sandbar. As we lunch on fish and rice on the far shore – the river now flowing between Valmiki and the Sohagibarwa Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh – two Himalayan Griffon Vultures wheel overheard while a lone White-rumped dries its wings in the distance. Dr. Sinha tells me about the Gharial Restocking Programme being run in these waters by the Bihar State Forest Department with WTI’s assistance. Thirty gharials, captive-bred at the Sanjay Gandhi Biological Park in Patna, have been released into the Gandak over the last two years; the idea being to supplement a remnant wild population that was recorded during a river survey in 2010. The sub-adults selected for wild release were acclimated at an off-display enclosure at the Biological Park, and a habitat study in early 2014 determined suitable release sites along the Gandak
"This part of the river is pristine and particularly free of anthropogenic disturbances, since it falls between two Protected Areas," says Dr. Sinha. "And though our gharials have dispersed up and down the river we are usually able to spot some here."
Photo Courtesy: WTI.
We resume our lazy downstream course, scanning the shoreline for logs that aren't. Two kilometres up from Basahi Ghat, WTI field assistant Rajkumar sees what our binoculars haven't: "there!" he whispers and points. And then we see it: basking just above the waterline on the far shore; open jawed, with the distinctive thin snout; a full-grown, dark tan adult of about five metres; magnificent. It allows itself to be admired for a while and then, as our raft drifts closer, flicks its tail and melts into the water.
The gharial restocking initiative is completely funded by the Forest Department and has the manifest support of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Alarmingly, even that level of political patronage seems not to be enough. A January 5 report in the Hindustan Times (Patna) suggests that the Central government has cleared the setting up of river ports at Bagaha and Valmikinagar. The ports would "turn the area into a major business hub," the report says, and "open up employment opportunities" for activities such as "dredging, barge construction and terminal construction."
What that will mean for this virgin riverine ecosystem, and for the local population of critically-endangered gharials, isn't hard to imagine.
Photo: Samir Sinha, WTI.
WHAT THE SAGE SINGS
During a walk in the forest on the last morning of my visit, I come across an anthill, Martian-red and massive. The sage for whom this tiger reserve is named got his name in turn from the anthills that built up around him as he meditated. He was literally 'born of a maka, an anthill', hence 'Valmiki'.
He is celebrated as the author of the Ramayana but is also known as the adi kavi, the ‘first poet’ of Sanskrit literature, since it was he who invented the epic metre of the shloka.
I don't know what the ants whispered to him, a former thief and hunter, in their long months together under the earth. But that first shloka he composed was this message:
You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity.
For you killed a bird in love and unsuspecting.
I wonder what the great sage would have made of the current unenlightened strangle of his forest. Perhaps, he would have given up his epic metre; he would have just sung the blues.
The author is a consulting editor with the Wildlife Trust of India and a trustee with the BAGH Foundation.
Author: Pranav Capila, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 2, February 2016.