Achanakmar – A forest like no other
Text and photographs by Prodipto Lahiri
It was the peak of summer and even though the sun had almost set, it was one of May’s hottest, most humid days. I was driving through a dense forest patch where clear daylight visibility was not much more than five metres, when suddenly around a bend, not more than 10 m. away, I spotted an animal crouching down, looking straight at me. In the fading daylight, it was difficult to identify it, but judging by its size, I assumed that it was a tiger. I moved a little closer and as soon as I flashed my lights on the animal, it quickly leaped and vanished into the thickets but not before I saw that it was actually a leopard. I have seen quite a few leopards in different parks in our country but this was undoubtedly one of the largest. I knew Achanakmar had a robust leopard population but sightings of the big cats are rare. My late evening sighting reaffirmed my belief that the managers of this lesser-known reserve are doing a commendable job.
A SPECIAL RESERVE
Situated a mere 60 km. from Bilaspur, the scenic 914 sq. km. Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in Chattisgarh is a tropical moist deciduous and tropical dry deciduous forest. 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. Wild fauna found here includes the tiger, leopard, bison, flying squirrel, Indian giant squirrel, chinkara, wild dog, hyena, sambar, chital and over 150 species of birds. Even a short trek through this park easily reveals its extraordinary beauty and biodiversity.
One night I was out patrolling the forest with the dynamic and very able park superintendent, B. P. Singh. We started at around 11 p.m. and in just over four hours, we saw three leopards, a group of 80 bison, three different species of owls, an Indian hare, a pack of 20 wild dogs and hundreds of chital. We covered most of the known tiger territories in the park but were unable to spot the secretive striped predator. As a tigress with two cubs had been reported in the Diyabar beat a few days earlier, we decided to check that area before calling it a night.
Just before the Diyabar waterbody, there is a small stream flowing from Katami to Diyabar and just as we were crossing it, we heard the cries of two tiger cubs. We waited for a long time, expecting them to come out into the open. They called at regular intervals but we were unable to spot them. By the calling pattern, it was clear that the mother had left them to secure a kill and that she would return sooner or later. Though we were unable to see the cubs, we were delighted to be able to confirm that a new generation of endangered tigers was being raised in the secluded habitat of the Diyabar
beat. The last tiger census in Achanakmar reported 18 to
24 tigers, excluding cubs below 14 months of age. We had seen pugmarks of tigresses with cubs below the age of one in four different parts of the park and we believe around 10 cubs are being brought up throughout the park.
SOURCES OF WORRY
While wildlife in Achanakmar is doing well, it is not without its share of problems. Imagine entering the park when the sun is about to meet the horizon, expecting to see chital quenching their thirst on the serene banks of the Maniyari river, hoping to hear langur and sambar call out in alarm, watch birds return to their nests and dream of inhaling the moist cool breeze of the dusk… What you see instead is a haze of smoke with giant sal, haldu and bija trees ablaze and the jungle scattered with dead animals. During summer, this is a common sight in Achanakmar. Cattle grazers from nearby villages are the main perpetrators. They ravage the jungle to get good fodder for their cattle. Forest fire workers must inevitably battle for days to counter the flames, but this recurring problem can only be solved by providing alternate sources of livelihood and by relocating the villages outside the PA.
The park has always been under pressure from villages in and around the reserve. The locals mostly belong to the Gond and Baiga tribes. There are 22 villages inside the park and most of them are inside the core area, because of which it is impossible to stop even strangers from infiltrating the park as they claim to be relatives, or friends of residents. Understandably, poaching (by villagers or outsiders) is tough to check. The largest village, Katami, consists of more than a 100 households. The livestock owned by these villagers are inviting targets for large cats. Every week, the administration compensates livestock losses but the incidences keep rising. While locals have shown an interest in moving away if they are provided better facilities and proposals to shift eight of the 22 villages have been sanctioned by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), the plans are still pending before the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee, which is overwhelmed with a flood of forest and wildlife applications.
Ironically, though the Central Government has declared the park as a tiger reserve, the state government has not yet issued a formal notification to this effect. The Bilaspur-Amarkantak National Highway that runs from Bilaspur to Jabalpur via Achanakmar cuts right through the park. Officially, the forest administration has prohibited the entry of heavy vehicles from sunset to sunrise, but carcasses of chital, jackals and even hyenas, victims of road kills, are a common, tragic sight. Though proposals for alternate routes for the road have been suggested, they remain embroiled in the quagmire of government red tape.
Achanakmar is a part of the large contiguous forest tract that forms the Central Indian tiger heartland. The Kanha-Achanakmar corridor links the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh to the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve. This contiguity is vital for the movement of the tiger and its prey and to ensure the survival of genetic linkages between adjacent populations of wild animals. Better facilities and suitable land must be offered to the villagers for them to be able to live a dignified life away from the forest. If this is done, barren lands can be converted into open grasslands and meadows for wildlife. Sustainable tourism that allows local communities to be the main beneficiaries must be encouraged.
The management of the reserve has been working hard to mitigate threats but has an uphill task ahead. The field staff is inadequate and cannot effectively monitor and protect such a vast area. Illegal encroachment by villagers is on the rise. Local politicians prevent stringent action from being taken in the belief that the Forest Rights Act will soon gift much of the forest to villagers anyway.
Achanakmar has not been a popular tourist destination as sightings are not as easy as in Kanha or Corbett. As can be judged by the narrative at the start of this piece, the thick forest density makes it difficult even to spot an animal just a few feet away, leave alone take an acceptable photograph. What is more, the hilly topography and difficult terrain make travel difficult. A distance of just three kilometres takes almost half an hour to traverse.
Five watchtowers have been built in the reserve to make it easier to view wildlife. One of them, Tangli Pathar situated in the Lamni range at a height of 1,039 msl., provides a stunning view of the entire forest. The handiwork of CCF Kaushlendra Singh, the park has benefitted from the hard work of such dedicated foresters. British-built forest rest houses inside the park, Achanakmar, Lamni Chaparwa and Surhi, are well maintained with basic amenities. But the bane of insensitive tourism keeps rearing its head, particularly over weekends when taxis with blaring music speeding down the highway and weekend picnickers scattering plastic litter is par for the course.
Nevertheless, for the most part, Achanakmar is still pristine and wild and for now, still safe from the world of garish tourist lodges and garrulous shopkeepers who hold sway in the tourist hubs of so many of India’s most popular Protected Areas.
Being a native of Chhattisgarh, I have been intimately connected with this land and its culture. I have roamed through the bylanes of this forest time and again, and while I may be accused of being biased, I doubt that there is any park as beautiful as Achanakmar. I dream and hope that this forest is soon returned to its rightful, original inhabitants – the wild animals that it has sheltered and nurtured for eons.