The Last Migration
June 2011: It was an early April morning drive in the Dalma Hills and there was a strong musky ‘elephant odour’ lingering around. We knew he was close. Within a couple of minutes, Sagarji, the driver, maneuvered the jeep around a sharp turn and came to an abrupt halt.
By far the largest tusker I had ever seen in my life stood less than 10 m. from us. He was around two and a half metres tall at his shoulders, had two enormous tusks and a prominent forehead with musth fluid (temporin) oozing from both sides of his head. The sharp bend made it impossible to navigate a hasty retreat, to our right was a deep valley and to our left, a sloping hillside. And there in front of us was the tusker. My sister and mother murmured a prayer, while my father and I anxiously kept an eye on the towering figure.
I took a few photographs but stopped when I saw the tusker shaking his head from side to side, ears perked, as he advanced slowly towards us. Sagarji stepped on the gas pedal and the engine roared in response. The loud engine caused the tusker to pause but only for a couple of seconds. As he moved forward another step or two Sagarji gunned the engine again. The huge fellow now stopped in his tracks, one massive foot poised in mid air. Eventually, after what seemed like a lifetime, the elephant chose to move a few metres up the slope and I heard my father whisper urgently, “Nikaal lo” (take it through).
With the elephant behind us, we all breathed a sigh of relief. It was an amazing experience but it could have turned bad. Even my father who has often been charged by elephants while on Forest Department duty patrolling the forests of Jharkhand said quietly, “This was close!”
And then, to our utter surprise, just a few hundred metres ahead, we came across a team of forest road reconstruction workers. In response to our warning about the elephant they smiled and said, “We just run down the valley if a bull or herd comes too close.”
What differentiated our encounter from most wildlife experiences was the fact that it did not take place in some remote Northeastern forests... we were in the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary just 20 km. from one of India’s most industrialised cities – Jamshedpur!
We had been driving through Dalma, a nationally obscure but locally well-known sanctuary, that extended across two districts – East Singhbhum and Saraikela-Kharsawan. Named after Dalma Mai, a tribal forest goddess, the 193 sq. km. sanctuary is part of the larger Singhbhum Elephant Reserve, home to over 300 elephants according to the 2007 elephant estimation and one of the last bastions for the Asian elephant in southeastern Jharkhand.
Dalma’s forests serve as a summer retreat for 60-70 elephants that migrate annually across a now-degraded territory that once extended uninterrupted between West Bengal and Orissa.
DALMA MUST LIVE
Over the years, I have had several memorable Dalma elephant experiences including watching a herd of 40 to 50 elephants foraging around the Manjhala Talaab and spending hours watching a mother with her two calves at the same waterbody… surely one of the most vivid, affectionate and heart-warming visuals of mother-calf bonding I’ve ever seen.
Apart from elephants, Dalma is also home to a few leopards, bears, hyenas, foxes, jungle cats, barking deer, wild pigs, civets, pangolins, macaques and an array of birds. Giant squirrels can be seen racing up and down canopy branches right next to the old forest rest house at Pindrabeda, their loud calls resonating through the forest. In Dalma it is also possible to see the elusive mouse deer or ‘Mirgi’ as locals know it.
The late S.P. Shahi (see Sanctuary February 2011, Vol. XXXI No. 1) hand-reared a mouse deer or chevrotain Moschiola indica for a year after rescuing it from a group of tribals who had trapped it during their traditional hunt. In his day, these diminutive ungulates were plentiful but today, thanks to hunters and forest degradation, they are rarer than rare. But several other animals are even unluckier. In the 1950s, gaur and sambar abounded in Dalma’s hill forests and chital were abundant in the foothills. All these vanished by the mid-1960s. And, not surprisingly, Dalma’s largest predator, the tiger, went with them.
Incredibly, in 2004, for the very first time in almost 40 years, Koleshwar Oraon (a native of Rud village in the Palamau Tiger Reserve), an experienced forest guard, actually spotted a tiger at Dalma’s Manjhala Bandh. But he never saw it again. In all probability, he suggests, the tiger strayed into Dalma from the forests of northern Orissa or Similipal. But the incident raised the (slim) hope that with proper protection and management, Dalma could once again come alive with the tiger’s roar. Realistically speaking, however, given what I can see of the manner in which this amazing forest is being treated today, the chances of tigers returning seems more like wishful thinking. Working to invite tigers back, however, is probably the best way to bring life back to Dalma.
EASIER SAID THAN DONE
The reality is that we are moving away from that dream, not towards it. The steady growth of village hamlets, an encroaching industrial city, 60-70 per cent Forest Department staff vacancies and, most importantly, a rapidly deteriorating law and order situation, are only some of the multifarious problems Dalma faces.
The raging Naxal-paramilitary conflict (Dalma runs contiguous to the infamous Lalgarh forests, the epicentre of pitched battles between Naxals and the government) has left the forests and wildlife totally unprotected. The Pindrabeda Forest Rest House was attacked by Naxals in December 2006 and the staff tied up and beaten. It seems some local boys who a forest staff member had reprimanded, joined a Naxal Dasta and used the unrest to settle personal scores. But the damage was done and all staff members were forced to leave the sanctuary for months. Though there have been no attacks since, Dalma’s forests continue to be used by Naxals to organise training camps and as transit routes (they thoughtfully ‘inform’ the forest staff not to patrol some areas for the duration they are there).
And then we have the Sendra or Akhand Shikar, a traditional tribal-hunt carried out in April each year. This involves hundreds of tribals entering the sanctuary and killing every edible creature they can. Mercifully, this ‘festival’ is slowly losing its popularity, to a large extent thanks to the fact that over the last few years the Forest Department has successfully negotiated a ‘truce’ with some local tribal leaders and also because the sheer number of animals available to kill has plummeted dramatically. Tribal youth have been heard complaining that they do not wish to toil the whole day under the scorching sun for little more than a giant squirrel! But until Sendra Shikar is totally abandoned, which along with other protection plans, is an extremely tough task, Dalma will continue to have the sword of Damocles hanging over its future.
A TRUNK-FULL OF PROBLEMS
Dalma’s wildlife, particularly its elephants, must contend with even more threats. National Highway 33, for instance, runs along the southern boundary of the park along the foothills. We now hear of a proposal to four-lane this road and the single track railway line along the western end of the sanctuary is to be turned into a double track. Play games today at the best kizi games. Because these kizi games are really good and engaging, so you will fall in love with them almost immediately. The mother of all threats is, of course, the controversial Subarnrekha-Multipurpose project (see box), which has been partially constructed along the foothills of Dalma Hills. The project was started in 1982-83 in violation of wildlife and forest laws and later ‘somehow’ managed to get the Stage-1 clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The canal construction has been more or less completed in non-sanctuary areas (which includes both forest and non-forest lands). Once this canal is completed, several smaller canals will be constructed to provide irrigation water. This will completely fragment this area and basically destroy this ancient corridor forever.
The effects of this canal have already been catastrophic on the annual elephant migration to Dalma. Recently, herds of migrating elephants were stranded as their traditional routes into Dalma had been blocked. The bewildered herds raided crops and villages, sparking great animosity towards the pachyderms. The future of Dalma’s forests and its elephants seems bleak as conflict is bound to increase in the coming years due to the construction of the canal.
Elephants, like other species, are vital to human society, although their value cannot be expressed in monetary terms. Jharkhand has immense potential to capitalise on its natural wealth by travelling down a sustainable development path. I hope that the people of Jharkhand will understand how fundamentally linked their lives are to these elephants and other wildlife and find it in their hearts to allow them a safe haven that will stand the test of time. Dalma must live and this cannot be the elephants’ last migration.
THE SUBARNREKHA-MULTIPURPOSE PROJECT
The Subarnrekha-Multipurpose project has been constructed on 145 ha. of forest land, some of it inside the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary and some outside in the Territorial Division. Though the Forest Department has not allowed the concretising of the canal area within the wildlife sanctuary, this is little consolation. The concretising process has already been done in the surrounding territorial forests, the construction of a dam in the same area, namely The Chandil Dam, has been completed and the Ichagarh Dam is a work in progress. A Wildlife Department proposal to declare an area of 10 km. around the sanctuary as Eco-sensitive was rejected by high ranking state officials under political pressure. The facetious argument presented was that the areas around Dalma were already degraded with civil constructions around it and were not being used by elephants or other wildlife.
Recently, the project officials agreed to construct 12 over-passes on the canal for safe wildlife-passage but this is a symbolic step and whether the elephants will even use such artificial constructions remains to be seen.
It is Sanctuary’s firm belief that the Subarnrekha project is detrimental not only to wildlife in Dalma, but to India itself. We want the government to announce an immediate moratorium on further construction. What is more, we support the author’s suggestion that reparation must be done for the damage already caused over the last 30 years:
Another 9,000 ha. of territorial forests that are regularly used by elephants and other wild animalsin the adjoining Chandil Range and the Saraikela-Kharsawan Division must be merged into the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary, something that has been hanging for ages.
Two Reserved Forests adjoining the Chandil and Ichagarh Dam (also regularly used by elephants) must be given sanctuary status. The combined area of these two additions would be roughly 200 sq.km
Staff vacancies in the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary must be filled immediately.
by Raza Kazmi