In the great epic of Ramayana there is reference to a densely wooded region of India where lord Rama, his spouse Sita and his younger sibling Laxmana spent a major part of their exile from Ayodhya. This great forest was described as ‘Dandakaranya' where many dramatic events were encountered by these three. Mythology apart, these forests were believed to be one of the densest jungles of India and harbored many wild animals. The forests of present-day Koraput, Malkangiri districts of Orissa, parts of East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh and the Bastar district of Chattisgarh are believed to be the same forest as ‘Dandakaranya' of Ramayana. Till the late fifties this vast expanse of jungle was literally untouched and virgin, the aborigine tribes such as the ‘Koya',‘Bonda',‘Poroja' and ‘Kondh' being the only dwellers. It is said that just prior to independence, when a major chunk of this region was under the princely state of Jeypore, the Maharaja of Jeypore used to pay a forest revenue that was more in comparison to the agricultural revenue he was paying to the British government. You can very well imagine the forest scenario then. Though the ‘Koya' and ‘Bonda's mainly survived on hunting and collection but the ‘Kondh' tribe lived on shifting cultivation or ‘Podu' as it is known in colloquial language. Podu way of cultivation harms the jungle to a great extent. However till that time the jungles were not at all adversely affected owing to these practices by the tribes. The simple reason was-the population was meager. Then with independence came the various projects which could not have materialized without much damage to the flora and fauna.
First of its kind was the Dandakaranya project under which the Bengali refugees (displaced by the partition that created East Pakistan or present day Bangladesh) were given a new home in our big nation with even a much bigger heart. The procedure was to clear off the priceless pristine forests, convert them to agricultural land, and distribute them to the countless homeless refugees. This process of denuding the forest was very idiotically termed as ‘reclamation'. As if the forests once upon a time were fertile agricultural land and then the forest had swallowed them for some reason. In the whole process hundreds and thousands of square kilometers of Sal and bamboo forest came crashing down under bulldozers, rendering thousands of wild animals homeless and finally falling prey to the guns and arrows. Great beasts like the Tiger, wild Buffalo and the majestic Indian Bison were part of this list. Better not to mention of other innumerable small creatures. The forests near Umarkot, Raighar of present day Nowrangpur district, most part of Malkangiri district and parts of Kondagaon area of Bastar almost disappeared, thanks to the Dandakaranya project. It is not possible to assess the damage that must have been done to the ecosystem throughout the process of clearing forest to settle more than five hundred villages for the rehabilitation of refugees. This was one heart ripping tale of destruction.
Second to follow was the construction of an ambitious hydroelectric and irrigation project at Balimela in existing Malkangiri district. This claimed the home of the wild buffaloes along with many other herbivores and carnivores as the Kondakamberu valley submerged after the construction of a dam at Balimela on the river Sileru. One of the finest but lesser known tiger habitats of the country went under water and subsequently the buffaloes were wiped out of the face of the district. Gradually other wildlife such as tiger, sambhar, spotted deer etc. faced similar fate.
Now whatever was left after all this turmoil could have been saved. But the lack of farsightedness in the then governments resulted in continuous exploitation of these forests and wildlife. Huge forest resources attracted many people to the region. Every one wanted to make a quick buck out of timber. Then some paper industries started to take advantage of the abundant bamboo that was available in the region. These semi deciduous forests constitute of a variety of trees that have many industrial and domestic utility as timber, fuel etc. Nexus between forest officials, timber mafias and some big names in local politics proved to be a force too much against Mother Nature. There are instances where some irresponsible and dim-witted politicians for the sake of vote bank gain encouraged tribals to encroach and cultivate forest land so that they can claim a right over the land and a valid right of record will be issued to them afterwards for the extent of land they have under their possession. The outcome is all but obvious. Every one wanted to have a piece of land as big as possible under their possession. Once again the forest and thousands of its denizens were at the receiving end.
Such molestation to the forest continues till date. Another problem that has come up in recent time is the naxal menace. Fear of naxalites has adversely affected the forest conservation as the forest officials are apprehensive of going on regular beats in to the forest which has turned home to the naxalites. The poachers and timber mafia take this opportunity to carry out their depredation.
Apart from all these factors another thing that has a telling effect is population. Mainly the number of forest inhabitants has grown exponentially over the years and so has their demands and dependence on forest. With so many people residing inside the forest and depending on shift cultivation, it has taken its toll on forest. To make both ends meet people have started cutting trees for commercial sale of wood which is not at all good news. These people earn a decent sum by the sale of charcoal, young trees which are transported clandestinely to urban centers for house construction. All these activities are carried out right under the nose of enforcing authorities and sometimes with their aid. Had the dependence on forest been confined only to fire wood collection and house hold use of the forest dwellers, the forest would have recuperated itself easily. However the commercial exploitation has made matters still worse.
All these things collectively have led the Dandakaranya to shrink only to a few pockets. But still there is a lot that can be saved and protected. The pronouncement of Kanger Valley of Chattisgarh as a National Park really was a commendable gesture in this regard. More than 200 square km of forest has been protected under this park since the eighties. This forest still is the roaming ground for tigers and herds of bison. A healthy population of bison and a considerable number of tigers can be encountered here. The park harbors a rich biodiversity. This is evident from the presence of a balanced mix of herbivores and carnivores .The river Saveri or Kolab forms the eastern boundary of the park and also serves as the border of Chattisgarh and Orissa states. Though the forest on Chattisgarh side is highly under protection, situation on the Orissa side is too gloomy. If we follow the river downstream from the Kotpad block of Orissa it has a very good forest growth on both banks. For the first 10-15 kms the river flows through Orissa. After this it traverses a good 30 kms through dense forest and crossing a few rapids in the course. The holy limestone cave of Gupteswar, which also happens to be a tourist place of repute, is situated on the eastern bank and mid way on this 30km stretch. On the Orissa side there is a contiguous belt of dense forest that follows the river from north to south. First comes the Sindhigaon RF. Bordering it and separated only by the road from Boipariguda to Gupteswar is the Dandarkol, Dharamgarh RF, adjacent to these is the Sarangapalle RF. Dandarkol, Dharamgarh and Sarangapalle are the name given to three different areas of a single tract of forest by the forest department to lay down the jurisdictions. The first four reserved forests are in Koraput district and the last one belongs to Malkangiri district. Except the Tulsi RF, the other four lie on the Eastern bank of the river. The landscape here is breathtakingly beautiful. From the plateau at an altitude of 600 meters above mean sea level, the undulating hills after a series of descent give way to the 200 meter plateau on the western side of the great eastern ghat mountains. These hills are a major source of water that feed the important river of Godavari that is a life line of south India. Sal is the predominant tree in these forests. There is also representation of valuable timber like bamboo, Mahogany, Indian Rose wood, Ivory Wood, Ptero Carpus, Sterculia etc. Put together these forest cover a good five to six hundred square kilometers of contiguous forest, which is rare to be found anywhere in the country today. Small hamlets and villages are scattered in remote corners of these forests. Clearings have been made in between for cultivation but mostly on grounds that are relatively flatter. Main river that drains the plateau is Saveri. Saptadhara and Kanger from Chattisgarh are the major tributaries of Saveri. Saprtadhara itself is fed by numerous hilly streams. Saptadhara flows in a roughly east-west direction before it empties into the main Saveri river at the end of the Sarangapalle RF. It can be said to have formed the southern boundary of the Sarangapalle RF and also the vast stretch of forest we are talking about.
And to talk of wildlife there are still considerable number of Leopards(Panthera Pardus), Wild Boars, Barking Deers, few Sambhars, Sloth Bears, Hyenas and Langurs. Tigers occasionally visit the adjacent parts of Kanger Valley NP. Spotted deer are found in small numbers upstream and downstream of Gupteswar. Among the smaller animals such as Porcupine, Pangolin, Indian Jungle cat, Red Indian Fox etc. are commonly found. It really is an Ornithologists paradise. Some of the rare birds like the Paradise Fly Catcher, the Racket Tailed Drongo, both the Lesser and the Pide Hornbill, the great Serpent Eagle are also seen. Peafowl and Red Indian Jungle fowl can be easily spotted foraging the clearings in the forest at daybreak and sundown. Water of river Saveri is home to the Mugger crocodile and they are found at various places, basking themselves in sun.
But absence of any kind of protection has facilitated indiscriminate poaching of animals and birds alike. The difference in wildlife between a protected area and an area where no protection has been offered can be remarkably noticed in a place called Kechlakadak in this region. This place is about 10 kms upstream of Gupteswar. On the Chattisgarh side of the forest, which falls with in the Kanger Valley NP boundary, there is a teeming population of spotted deer where as just on the other bank of the river, on the Orissa side, there is hardly any spotting. All that we have to do is to offer protection to the forest against felling of trees and poaching of wildlife. This can be done by declaring the forests on Orissa side as a wildlife sanctuary. This step can definitely save one of the few remaining patch of forests of Orissa. It's a matter of pity that nothing noteworthy has been done so far towards the conservation of forest and the diverse wildlife in this region. Rather we can say that the conservation action is in a state of doldrums. There are no sanctuaries or national parks in the very district which is known through out the state for its forest resources. This is high time that some drastic measures have to be taken by the central and state governments to establish at least one wildlife reserve in this part of the state to protect the wilderness that otherwise will perish right before our eyes. This, from the tourism point of view, will also be an added attraction to the eco tourism of the region. The tribals and residents of the region will certainly reap the benefit out of it. Active involvement of NGOs and conservation forums is highly called for in this matter. Cooperation from institutions like Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Indian Institute for Wildlife (IIW) can give a positive direction to this cause. Their help may come in the form of a master plan for the establishment of the sanctuary. Filling up of vacant post in the forest department cadre and deployment of special task force to prevent poaching and illegal timber peddling also has to be done in a resolute approach. Koraput and Malkangiri being amongst the most backward regions of the state the majority of tribals are illiterate and unaware of the dire consequences the destruction of forest and wildlife can have on their lives. To make them literate and aware will also help a lot in saving our forest resources. This is where various NGOs can play an instrumental role.
Some governmental policies also need to be rethought of. Sustainable development is the order of the day. Governments at the centre and states are emphasizing on sustainable livelihoods, sustainable energy generation and everything sustainable. On the contrary the government also has passed an act to provide right of record to scheduled tribes cultivating forest land. Such a step, apart from not being a sustainable way to development, will further provoke widespread destruction of forest in the lieu of agricultural land. This act should be revoked if we are to board the train to sustainable development because we are damaging the same track that can lead us to our destination.
Therefore here I am making an appeal to all the visitors of this site and the lovers of wilderness to extend a helping hand for this cause in their own ways. My love for the forests of my district is beyond words. But I don't really know where to start from, to protect the forests I love so much. I am really looking forward for the valuable suggestions and help from the readers of Sanctuary and the visitors of this site. We have to save the beautiful forest and animals for our descendants so that they don't have to see them only in lifeless pictures or who knows whether they will be there to do so. We already have lost a lot but let's not lose anymore of it. We have to make sure that, one day, lest we, the human beings, not be the only creatures left on earth. Because, Alone, we cannot survive even for a day. For all that the plant and animal kingdom has been giving us all these times, its our turn now, to pay them back A little space for them on this vast earth of ours. A little space for them to live, to grow, to roam about and to make our lives a lot easier. Let us come together to protect our forests and secure a greener and blissful tomorrow for ourselves and our children and their children to come.