A MELANCHOLIC HOMECOMING
Return to Palamau Tiger Reserve(PTR)--The Heartland of Wildlife and Naxalism in Jharkhand
First of all let me briefly introduce myself and my relationship with the Palamau Tiger Reserve—A neglected Tiger Reserve that seems to have been forgotten and abandoned by all—Conservationists, Officers as well as the General Public. I am a 19 year old Engineering student, a huge wildlife enthusiast and a I.F.S. aspirant. And all the credit for my unconditional love towards the forest and its denizens goes first of all to my father who himself is an I.F.S. officer and then to this place-Palamau Tiger Reserve(PTR).My father whom I consider one of the most honest and upright I.F.S. officer and a huge wildlife enthusiast himself was posted as the D.F.O. of PTR from 1991-1998.He introduced me to the forest--its noises, smells, its inhabitants and the nuances of its conservation at a very young age. My mother contributed equally in all this and even though I fail to mention her as often as I mention Dad, she always encouraged me in this field and her love for forest and wildlife has been a great inspiration. One of my earliest memories of PTR is walking about 20 kms with Abba and the forest staff when I was just 4 year old, as they went about dousing a forest fire in an interior part of the Reserve. My determination towards preserving such places for posterity increased exponentially when I saw how honestly and arduously my father worked for this. Apart from working day in and day out with his dedicated staff to improve the Reserve, he literally put his life on the line thrice—firstly when he went alone to recover some tusks from a Naxal Dasta(a few weeks before this they had killed a government engineer by calling him alone to give back some stolen goods), on the second instance he did an undercover operation disguising himself as a client and nabbed a gang of armed poachers with huge cache of skins; and finally when he barely survived a landmine blast in the PTR triggered by the Naxals on 16th Feb 1998(in which his driver and a tracker died)who were in turn ransomed by the timber mafia because of his work against them. I was deeply inspired and moved by the compassion and respect he exhibited for the martyred foot soldiers of Reserve when he single handedly amassed 3 lakhs each for the family of the deceased driver and tracker within a month of the incident . He did this by contributing himself and sending out an appeal (http://ces.iisc.ernet.in/hpg/envis/doc98html/biodjp69.html) to all the Forest Staff and Officers, organizations working for the cause of wildlife, conservationists and his relatives narrating the incident and asking them to donate for the families of the deceased. The government had refused to compensate the victims on the grounds that they were daily wagers(even they had been working for roughly 20 years).Just after 20 days of the blast he went back to the PTR and spent two weeks visiting every part of the Reserve. But by this time i.e. April 1998 the insurgency was spiraling out of control, engulfing large chunks of the Reserve into chaos and anarchy. In late April of 1998 he was transferred to Hazaribagh (where he was again captured by Naxals in 2003 but released after a few hours when the Naxals found out in their “Jan-Adaalat” of the immense goodwill he held among the people living around the forests).He and PTR together not only instilled the love and respect I have for nature but made me understand how tough, demanding and dauntless job it is to save such places. I can go on and on about my Father whom I love and admire a lot; not just since he is my Father but because he has worked arduously for conserving the flora and fauna of the places he has been posted to, without ever publicizing his work to gain attention and fame. I don’t know about others but he is a legend for me and I hope to carry on his legacy.
Now, I won’t go into the history of the 1026 sq. km Reserve as all that is available on the net. I shall let you know of the current situation of the Reserve which once had around 55-60 tigers in 297.8 sq km of its area i.e. one-fifth of the Reserve[This was the figure recorded by Mr J.W.Nicholson (first forest officer of Palamau) and his Range officer Maulvi Muhammad Shareef Khan in their Tiger census of April 1932 in Maromar, Sahdhup and Baresand range of PTR].
Today the Reserve is in absolute shambles, it has become the headquarters of the Naxals in Jharkhand, Officers refuse to go in because they fear for their lives, Conservationists share the same concern in addition to their false belief that Tigers have been exterminated from the Reserve and so expecting tourists is an imbecility.
Even though after his transfer Abba had visited Palamau on a few occasions, I deliberately avoided coming back as I did not have the heart to see a place I loved in its current state of devastation. But finally, I mustered courage to brace up to the reality of PTR and to make a very difficult journey back to my beloved Palamau after 11 long years so that I could see the destruction for myself. We started our 4 hour journey from Ranchi on 19th August, 2009 and reached Betla National Park (core of PTR as well as the entry point) at around 1 p.m. As soon as we hit the road leading up to Betla I could feel butterflies in my stomach while I saw flashes of my childhood journeys to Betla. Immediately I felt a pang of sadness because as I remembered those good old childhood days I spent here, I realized that nothing would be the same. I mulled over the sad fact that the place I was going back to was no more the same PTR as I remembered it. This place was now the den of Naxals in Jharkhand and one of the most dangerous places in the state. We knew that we could be ripped apart by a blast at any instant as the road on which we were traveling was laid with landmines that could have been triggered by Naxals whenever they wanted to do so. Just a year ago 6 police personnel’s had been killed on this very stretch of road by a landmine blast triggered by the Naxals. While I was cogitating on all this, I suddenly saw a herd of Cheetals on the right side of the road—we had arrived at Betla. As we entered the forest rest-house and looked at it, I again saw flashes of my past—I am playing merrily in the verandah of this rest house, swinging on the branches of the old Gulmohar tree, and this is when I come back to the present—the Gulmohar tree isn’t there---I ask the familiar faces I see there about the tree. Those faces look elated at our arrival and the one of them asks me to first eat something and then have a look around. On my persistence he tells me that the grand old tree was uprooted a year back during the monsoons. I feel depressed and again reiterate to myself that everything has changed. Among the many familiar faces I see at the rest-house I finally managed to recognize one of them—it’s Khairul Miyan, the cook of the Resthouse. I greeted him and asked his wellbeing. After a brief exchange of courtesies with the others present (among them was Shankar ji whose father-in-law served the rest house before him) there we rested for about 2 hours. Then we went into Betla and were immediately greeted by a herd of Cheetal. I cannot describe how I felt as I went back into the park after a wait of 11 long years. I was surprised that even after 11 years of separation I immediately started recalling that which dirt road led to which area of the National Park. I was feeling on top of the world while we drove through the forest roads. We saw a sub-adult Bison and a sub-adult male elephant in addition to the numerous cheetals, langurs, etc. And then finally we saw the pugmarks of the lone male tiger of Betla on an animal track near the road. It was an exhilarating & a spine-tingling moment, and at the same time it finally put an end to all the speculations regarding the presence of Tigers in PTR.
By the time we returned it had gone dark and this is when I first sensed the uneasy calm of the place; a tranquility that seemed to conceal something baleful. As I and Abba sat in the benighted rest-house, we noticed huge searchlights being flashed across the dense forests to our right. These searchlights belonged to the Police picket just a few meters from the Betla entry gate. This was being employed by the already intimidated Police personnel’s to look out for Naxal movement in the night in order to prevent ambushes and planting of new landmines on the already landmine ridden road. There are a number of such police pickets on the main road that runs through the reserve but the irony is that these guys are so scared that they refuse to wear their uniforms and never ever venture out of the pickets with their weapons. Frequent attacks on these pickets by the rulers of Palamau is the order of the day. The eerie silence of the place would only be breached by an occasional call of the Cheetal, the sound of a breaking branch, faint voices of the inhabitants of the sleepy Betla village and the yelling of the guy handling the searchlight calling out to his partner “Ae Dilpwa re….So gaylinhi kaa re…jaag re jaag….light maar light maar”. Abba said-“Can you believe that we are in India,it rather feels as if we are at the LOC”. He had hit the nail on the head---sitting there I could not believe that this is India and not some foreign land. The other very obvious sign of fear of Naxals was that we could count just 2 vehicles crossing the main road after 6 p.m. This road used to bustle with activity in our days (I haven’t mentioned it yet but this road is a very important road as it’s the only road that connects two small but very important towns of Jharkhand viz. Daltonganj and Mahuadanr).
After a long discussion with Abba on the current situation of the Reserve and the days gone by, we finally headed to sleep at round about 12 a.m.
On the next morning we headed for the forbidden areas of the PTR i.e. those area of PTR that are out of any form of government (whether administrative or departmental) control for about 6-7 years. I knew that this was going to be the day I dreaded the most as we would see the mayhem Naxals have caused for ourselves. As we hit the lonely main road with two most trusted forest guards of Dad (Mr. Shyam Vyas Rai and Mr. Vijay Singh) ; I was filled with excitement, extreme nostalgia as well as apprehension.
We first visited what was once the Mundu Rest House (a beautiful quondam rest house that was situated just on the right of the main road leading from Betla to Maromar).The Rest house was blown up by Naxals in 2007 after it had been forcefully taken over by police personnel’s for camping operations against Naxals. As soon as we reached the spot, Abba and I were completely heartbroken. The rest house had been decimated and had turned into ruins, yet the tell tale signs of that black day were still visible in the form of the black soot that still covered the barely surviving skeletal of the building. Abba reminisced along with the two forest guards of the days when they would camp in this rest house for weeks. This was also the place where a very notable case of the poaching of a huge tiger in 1995 known as “Barkaa Baagh” was solved by Dad and his staff when they nabbed the poacher and brought him here for what he regrettably recalls was “merciless beating” in order to recover the skin. Finally the man led them to a water hole in the forest where he had buried the skin along with the weapon used to carry out the poaching.
We then moved forth and visited the house of Sukhdeo Parahiya(the tracker who died in the landmine blast of 1998) located in a village about 10 kms from Mundu .Here we met up with his second son( the eldest had been killed by Naxals in 2007) who is studying at a college in Barwadih.His youngest sister is also studying(in 11th ) while the elder has been married off. All the expenses of the studies and marriage were paid from the money that Abba had raised for the family in 1998.He was unbelievably shocked and at the same time extremely pleased and humbled to see Abba. I could see tears rolling down his cheeks as he was hugged by Abba. Abba gave him his personal number and was reassured that whenever he needs any help, he should simply give a call on this number. After a brief stay at his house we moved on.
As we drove on, Abba and the two guards recalled old days while I prepared myself for worse—we were now heading towards the Maromar Forests in Garu Range(which is considered the bastion of Naxals in the Reserve and has been out of control of the department for 8 years now) to see for ourselves the remnants of my beloved Kusumi Tree House which Abba got constructed during his tenure and which was visited by renowned stalwarts Mr. Valmik Thapar and Late S.Deb Roy during their visit of PTR. This tree-house cum rest-house was my home in the PTR; we used to stay here for weeks at a stretch observing for hours the Cheetal and Elephant herds foraging down in forests, savoring each and every second of that sight. I never imagined that one day I would see this place as I saw it on that day. The tree house had been completely blasted and burnt down by Naxals exactly two years ago i.e. on 21st Aug 2007---four concrete pillars, the burnt Kusum Tree and a few feet of stair-railing along with two steps was all that was left of the structure that was so close to our heart. I felt a lump in my throat as I gazed at the incinerated structure and reminisced the days we had spent together. I saw Abba with tears in his eyes as he too gazed blankly at the ruined structure while one of his most trusted erstwhile forester Mr. Shyam Vyas Rai narrated the events of that fateful night. He and Abba had selected the site for the construction and both of them had it built as one would build his own house—both of them going to shops to buy the bolts, knobs, curtains ,etc. and overlooking the construction for hours so that the end product was perfect. Indeed it was. As we kept on staring the tree which looked right out of a haunted movie, I thought —“Perhaps this burnt tree is symbolic of the devastation of Palamau Tiger Reserve, perhaps it’s emblematic of the wipeout of fauna from the Reserve, symbolic of the death of governance and a sad reminder of what havoc Naxalism causes wherever its tentacles reach”. The other parts of the Rest house such as staff quarters, wireless rooms, etc. bore a deserted and haunted look. We were told that nobody had visited or stayed at this rest house since 1999 and the only time this rest house was visited by officers was in 2007 (for a 5 min visit) when the place was burnt down. We left the place teary eyed and choked with emotions as we bid farewell to a place that was my home in the forests.
By the time we made it back to Betla, it was dusk. I reflected on what all I saw in the day while Abba attended the beaming staff members who had come from all over the Reserve to meet him. As darkness once again set in, every event of the previous night was repeated---the eerie and creepy tranquility, panning of searchlights, occasional calls by various inhabitants of the forest, mumblings of the village folk, the guy handling the searchlight again yelling out at his comrade and the long discussions with Abba on various issues pertaining to PTR and wildlife of India in general with long pauses in between when both of us would sit quietly and just hear the sounds of the night, reflecting on things we witnessed during this extraordinary journey.
This was our last night in the Palamau Tiger Reserve.
Now, the Summary of the bare facts I noticed on this 3-day trip (19th Aug-22nd Aug 2009) with Dad (especially regarding the current situation of fauna of PTR) are:
- The Reserve is in absolute ruins with the authorities having absolutely no control over roughly 60 % of the reserve for more than 5 years now, having partial control (i.e. parts of the reserve where even though officers don’t dare to go but the trackers and forest staff can manage to go in if forced to do so) over 30-35% and having complete control over just 5% of the Reserve (this includes two compartments of the Betla National Park).
- The Forest is more or less still intact even though profitable trees that were abundant in our time (like Khair,Teak,etc.) have completely disappeared. These trees were used by Naxals for financing their insurgency.
- Majority of the ungulate population now survives primarily in the few compartments of Betla National Park (core of PTR) and they have been all but wiped out from the rest of the Reserve.
- The Elephant population has increased even though the already meager Tusker population has been further depleted.
- Dholes mysteriously disappeared from Betla National Park(we were used to seeing healthy packs of Dholes in Betla and in Kujurum Forests in the interior of PTR) in 2002.There other prime habitat in Kujurum Forests has been out of the control of the authorities for more than 5 years and there hasn’t been any assessment of the population that used to exist there. Reports from the villagers that live there indicate that they have vanished from Kujurum too. A FEW STRAGGLERS MIGHT HAVE SURVIVED BUT IN ALL LIKELIHOOD DHOLES MYSTERIOUSLY WENT EXTINCT FROM THE PALAMAU TIGER RESERVE SOMEWHERE AROUND 2002-2003. The amazing part is that no inquiry has been carried out into their disappearance and this is because the officers don’t even know that dholes were distributed in PTR and that they have gone extinct.
- The Indian Bison or Gaur is also showing a decreasing trend and without remedial action, will go extinct in the near future as it has been wiped out from most of its former ranges in PTR. The bulk of the population survives in Betla and a few individuals are reported by locals from Kujurum Range.
- One of the most wildlife rich range of PTR--Kujurum Range- which used to be a prime habitat of Sambar, Bisons, Dhole, Bear, Elephants, Leopards and Tigers apart from its other lesser denizens has been completely destroyed due to the insurgency. This range has been out of authoritative control for about 8 years. Most of its wildlife has been wiped off. The forest rest house in Kujrum was also blasted and burned down by Naxals on the same day as the Kusumi Tree House in Maromar i.e. on 21st Aug 2007. I remember seeing huge sambars and bisons and large herds of elephants in the Budha river(which runs through the Kujrum Forest) here when we used to visit these forests. Today the place has become almost inaccessible and the dilapidated roads are full of landmines. The staff(even the local trackers) don’t dare to enter Kujurum. So one of the most important forests of PTR has been emptied of its great fauna.
- The status of Wolves in unknown as the Mahuadanr Wolf Sanctuary (managed by PTR administration) as it hasn’t been visited for a decade and the sanctuary is entirely in Naxal control.
- Other fauna of the Reserve primarily survives in the Betla region with other areas of the reserve having almost all its fauna annihilated.
- And now on to the status of the most important fauna of the PTR--- The TIGER….
The good news is that in spite of all the odds Tigers do survive here and all the reports that they have gone extinct from the PTR are absolutely wrong.
Its nothing short of a miracle that Tigers still survive here and it is a testimony to the fact that how resilient a species it is ,waiting for just that one chance to bounce back. However this is perhaps the only silver lining. The rest of the story is very alarming and ominous. Betla National park has a single male tiger. The shocking part is that the park authorities believed it to be a female tiger by the name of “Rani” (she was born in 1996 and I saw her once back then when she was a cub).Interestingly they came to recognize this blunder when the DNA sample results of this tiger came back from WII in late 2009.So this automatically implies that Rani disappeared (in all probability poached) somewhere between 1999-2009.Nobody noticed such a huge gaffe for over 10 years. It is baffling as to how the experienced trackers of PTR also failed in recognizing the sex of the big cat. Maybe the imprint of Rani was so strong in their minds that they unconsciously considered the pugmarks of this male to be that of Rani. And the funny part was that the reason for no cubs being born in Betla was attributed to a belief that she is sterile, without anyone realizing that the tiger wasn’t Rani but a male. Anyhow we did come across fresh pugmarks and scats of this male in Betla. Apart from this male there are two more male tigers in Sahdhup forests and Morwai-Sindhorwa forests respectively of the PTR. We saw the pugmark casts of the two tigers which were picked by a tracker (Mr. Bairam Khan) a few weeks back. Apart from that there is a tiger reported from the Maromar Forests (Garu Range) by the locals and its movement tracked by some local trackers. These four tigers are the confirmed ones in the regions that at least accessible to the trackers. According to reports by locals from the 55-60% of the reserve that is completely inaccessible to even the trackers, there maybe roughly 4-5 tigers in these areas. But there cannot be any substantiation of claims because of the inaccessibility to these areas. We can only hope that these claims are true.
So this puts the total tiger population of PTR at roughly 9-10 individuals(11-12 at most and 4-5 at least).Out of this population we could only get confirmed validation of 4 individuals though the Forest Department claims that there are 6 individuals in this area(i.e. the 35-40% area where trackers manage to venture).
The alarming and foreboding signs are that there hasn’t been a single cub sighted or reported by trackers in over 5 years. However there have been a few alleged sightings of a female with 2 cubs in this time period (in Saryu forests of PTR) even though it hasn’t been substantiated by either the department or the trackers. The other worrying fact is that out of all the tigers there are hardly 2-3 tigers that survive on their natural diet. The rest survive by hunting down cattle of the locals because as I already mentioned, the ungulate population of these areas has been almost wiped out due to poaching. This puts the already fading population in greater threat as they may be poisoned by angry cattle owners. And given the situation of the reserve there is absolutely no chance of apprehending such individuals if the authorities do find out about it (in all probability they won’t even be able to find out if such an incident occurs). So the survival of 90% of the existing individuals is extremely precarious.
There isn’t much to state. On the last day of our visit I went into Betla at 6:00 am with 3 trackers. One of them was Hasan Miyan, a second generation tracker whose 73 year old tracker father Omar Miyan had been trampled to death in 2008 by a herd of Elephants in Betla. Just after 10 minutes of tracking we came across barely 4-5 hours old, huge pugmarks of the lone male of Betla along with fresh scat. I hoped that this guy makes it through in the years to come, but somewhere deep down I knew that this was just wishful thinking. After about 2 hours of tracking in Betla coming across an array of birds and other inhabitants of the forest, I decided to return. In the meantime Abba bid farewell to a huge gathering of staff (both working and retired) as well as a bunch of villagers who still remembered him as their “D.F.O. Saheb”.
From this very short 3-day melancholic homecoming I realized one thing for sure--- Palamau Tiger Reserve is already in shambles and ruins and it has absolutely no future if the problem of Naxalism isn’t sorted out. With each passing day a new nail is being hammered into the coffin of Palamau Tiger Reserve and its moving one step closer to the lurking doom.
We finally said goodbye to Palamau Tiger Reserve at about 9:00 am. As we were leaving the place with a heavy heart, reminiscing the heydays of PTR, it started raining and the forest sparkled in brilliant green. I felt as if the Gods were asking us all to give Palamau a new lease of life, wash off and heal all the bruises we humans have inflicted on this forest and its inhabitants. I hope we heed to this plead before it’s too late.