A long-time visitor to Chhattisgarh’s Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, Prodipto Lahiri still finds himself enchanted by this remarkable forest.
Photo: Gaurav Shirodkar.
e had just crossed the entry gate of the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, and almost immediately, the heat of the central plains of Chhattisgarh diminished. A thick canopy of green, yellow and red covered the forest paths like an umbrella. All stresses left behind, I looked forward to a few hours of quiet pleasure. With me was a trusted and veteran guide of the park, Ravi… already on the lookout for the wild creatures that inhabited this dense sal forest.
A langur atop a mahua tree alerted us to the presence of a carnivore. Camera forgotten, I scanned the foliage and just one turn in the road saw Ravi whisper, “Bagh… Bagh”. I still saw nothing, but a pugmark was clearly visible. I jokingly asked Ravi, “Why doesn’t your tiger give us an appointment?” With a serene smile, he responded, “Sir, unlike other parks, here you have to track your tiger.”
Over the last two decades, I have roamed almost every possible inch of this delightful terrain. The lush green sal and bamboo forests of the fabled Maikal range have drawn me to them time and again. Not the best-known park, the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve is in fact one of the finest of our central Indian forests. Located in the eastern aspect of the Maikal hills of the Satpuda ranges, northwest of Bilaspur, this Chhattisgarh forest is alive with sal, bamboo and mixed forest species and is studded by plateaux that offer the landscape its own unique character.
The Achanakmar Transformation
The densely-populated areas of five villages – Jalda, Bahaud, Bokrakachar, Bakal and Kuba, were relocated in 2010, as a result of which the entire area has transformed. The resultant lush grasslands have enabled wildlife to make a robust recovery. Evidence suggests that possibly 10 to 15 different tigers occupy the rejuvenated areas today. Patrolling guards use solar-powered wireless sets, forest officers are aided by GIS-based maps on which reports from the over 50 guards are plotted, enabling the management to mobilise squads to any part of the reserve within 15 to 20 minutes. New patrolling camps are being built in key locations and these are equipped with basic comforts, water and, of course, wireless systems. In particular, waterbodies are carefully monitored and information gained is diligently plugged into charts that send out alerts to mobile patrols.
The special care lavished on grasslands has a purpose. As has the reliance on GIS mapping of corridors. In recent years, Achanakmar has seen a discernible improvement in herbivore numbers. This welcome development has much to do with the management advice proffered by one of India’s finest grassland experts, Dr. G. D Muratkar, whose work has shown results in Bandhavgarh, Kanha and in the many tiger reserves of Maharashtra.
Driving through Jalda, where tiger pugmarks can be seen easily in the Chaparwa beat, I saw a large herd of chital. Ravi informed me that beat guards had been carefully trained, as had the guides conducting visitors through this verdant haven. Clearly something was working. On one forest drive, a newly-appointed young guide stopped our vehicle within just six metres of the gate and pointed towards a mahua tree, confidently asserting: “Sir, Brown-headed Barbet, photo lena hai?”
The park is truly headed in the right direction.
But there are problems lurking just outside. Chhattisgarh is the first state, and Achanakmar possibly is the first tiger reserve, where detailed studies of the financial, social and economic conditions of every family in villages chosen for relocation have been undertaken. Each family in the six villages that were shifted from the core area were provided Rs. 10 lakhs, plus five acres of land as stipulated by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) guidelines. Basic amenities such as electricity, water supply and ration card allotments too were eventually provided. But the Baiga forest dwellers had no experience with traditional farming, so most handed over such lands to the landlords for “adhiya” for negligible rents. This left the Baigas with no real socio-economic gains. At the end of the day, unless such communities palpably benefit from conservation measures, no long-term solutions will be found. There is no doubt that serious efforts are being made to learn from past mistakes, but this aspect of wildlife conservation must be recognised as the pivot around which we will measure future successes or failures. Both the NTCA and Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) authorities will need to rely much more on social scientists to help implement the many schemes designed to benefit fringe communities if relocation from core areas is to be successful in the months and years ahead.
The core area in question comprises just seven per cent of the total reserve area and includes upland, hilly terrain that is capable of very quick and effective regeneration to its former densely-vegetated state. This process will undoubtedly help to recharge aquifers, rivulets, ponds and even rivers. In turn this will greatly enhance the output of farms owned by communities living far from the forest. That such benefits are enjoyed not just by the immediate community, but by a much wider population, through a series of domino benefits including greater irrigation, agriculture, veterinary and fisheries productivity is seldom taken into account.
In conversation, the Deputy Director, Achanakmar, Mateshwaran V., worried that money may not be available from the NTCA for the next phase of relocation involving the five villages of Sarasdol, Tilaidabra, Rajak, Birarpani and Chirhatta. He hopes that CAMPA is able to come to the rescue. In the balance, he is optimistic about the future of tigers in the reserve. Recent camera trap images, for instance, revealed the presence of a tigress with three cubs, possibly four months old now. Also that of a three-year-old male (with a barking deer fawn in his mouth!). Officials had blocked off the area where the sightings were recorded to keep the new cat family safe. Though I never saw them, the mere sight of the pugmarks lifted my spirits. I have great faith in the figure of 28 tigers in the reserve as mentioned by the MoEFCC.
One more worry, apart from the uncertainty of relocation funding, is the Bilaspur-Amarkantak highway. This divides Achanakmar into two halves. A 90 km. winding road stretches between the first forest check post at Shivtarai, ending in distant Keonchi, the last check post in the reserve. The authorities try to keep unwanted elements away by making the crossing to Keonchi mandatory when entering from Shivtarai. Heavy traffic has been stopped between dusk and dawn. A side benefit has been the fact that the once ubiquitous sight of plastic waste and the heart-breaking incidents of wildlife road-kills have diminished dramatically in recent months. Hopefully, the alternative Ratanpur-Kenda road, in the last phase of finalisation, will soon see the light of day and at this point, Achanakmar will truly get another lease on life.
On my last drive during my visit, I sat on the Majhi Dongri watchtower, mesmerised by the vast expanse of the forests I could see stretching from Achanakmar all the way to Amarkantak, the northern source of the fabled Narmada river. Deep black-blue clouds rolled across the forest and as peals of thunder reverberated through the skies, I sent up a silent prayer, that Vandevi – the forest goddess – would grant me a glimpse of the striped cat on my next visit to Achanakmar.
|The Achanakmar Tiger Reserve|
The Achanakmar Tiger Reserve habitat extends along 914.018 sq. km. with the core zone area measuring 626.196 sq. km. and buffer zone 287.822 sq. km. The forest is a geo-physiographical representative of the Central Indian Highlands. Nestled in the east of the highlands, it occupies the southern slopes of the main Maikal ridge in the Satpuras. The forested habitat of Achanakmar is part of the Maikal landscape and is contiguous with the tiger habitat of the Kanha-Pench landscape in Madhya Pradesh. The vegetation and the numerous waterholes form an ideal habitat for the tiger and its prey. Gaur, chital, sambar and wild pig abound. The reserve is also known for its sightings of several vulture species and mouse deer. The reserve is also a part of the much larger Achanakmar-Amarkantak Biosphere Reserve. Sal, bija, saja, haldu, teak, tinsa, dhawara, lendia, khamar and bamboo thrive here along with over 600 species of medicinal plants. The meandering Maniyari river that flows right through the heart of the reserve is its lifeline. Apart from the tiger, leopard, bison, flying squirrel, Indian giant squirrel, wild dog, hyena, and over 150 species of birds can be spotted here. Even a short trek through this park easily reveals its extraordinary beauty and biodiversity.
As per the guidelines of the NTCA, all guest houses inside the core area have been shut down for tourists. In collaboration with the Department of Tourism, the Forest Department has built an eco-centre at Shivtarai, 30 km. from the reserve. This comprises 26 well-equipped cottages with food and boarding facilities. The campus has a small open stage theatre, where local Baigas provide a glimpse into their art and culture. An online portal is available for resort bookings. Four gypsys, run by the local forest committee, are available for jungle drives.
Author: Prodipto Lahiri, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 8, August 2016.