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Barnawapara – Worth More Than Gold To Chhattisgarh

Barnawapara – Worth More Than Gold To Chhattisgarh

The tigers and wild buffaloes that once roamed the forests of the Jonk Valley have all but disappeared. Raza Kazmi discovers, however, that other wild denizens have replaced them, leaving the allure of Barnawapara strong as ever.

The rich biodiversity of the Central Indian landscape is now largely confined to the 244.66 sq. km. Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary.  A century ago, this habitat stretched farther and wider, and supported thriving populations of wild buffaloes, tigers, and barasingha. Re-building these dwindled populations will need political, social and financial will. Photo: Amit Kher.

The Jonk Valley is a veritable fairyland of changing verdure and home of the wild beasts of the forest. On the plateaux above there is open park-like land orcharded with fruit-bearing mohua, tendu and plum, where black bears roam, sleeping where they eat of the plenty provided, not caring to retire to the thousands of caves at hand save in the stress of weather. Farther down the slopes mighty bison live in peace among the bamboos and sheltering boulders. In the lower valleys there is teak forest of giant size, evergreen sal forest, and masses of almost impenetrable under-growth where a man must often go upon hands and knees to pass through and chance exchanging grins with a tiger. Here there are deer in plenty, the heavy dark sambur of massive horns, the swamp deer with his forest of tines, and the beautiful spotted deer. And the tigers follow them. In the deep natural ponds called sarars near the river wild buffaloes swim and wallow in the sucking mud while frogs rest upon their backs…

… I have never seen such a forest as that for animals. It is the ideal Yellowstone Park for India. It holds every kind of wild animal known in the Central Provinces except elephant. I have seen them all there. I have met a tiger that watched me idly (I was unarmed), then lazily leaped without apparent effort on to a rock twice its own length in height. There seemed to be no preparation for the spring, none of that hesitation of “can I do it?” but just a casual jump, and a glance back at me, almost in contempt. Another time while fishing in the river a tiger found me in possession of its normal drinking-place. The tiger told me in no uncertain tone to clear out. Again I was unarmed – I cleared out.

This is what J.W. Best, I.F.S., saw 106 years ago, when he took charge of the Bilaspur Division in what was then the Central Provinces. Much water has flown down the Jonk river since, this territory of the former Central Provinces has metamorphosed into the state of Chhattisgarh, and much of what Best saw more than a century ago has been lost. Gone are the seemingly endless forests that extended south of the Mahanadi and with them disappeared the wild buffaloes and the swamp deer, and in all likelihood the tigers too. But a small chunk of what Best thought was the “Yellowstone Park for India”, the heart of the once expansive Jonk Valley, has survived in the form of a wildlife sanctuary, little-known outside Chhattisgarh, still watched over by the pristine Jonk.

The sloth bear is one of the park’s star attractions. Once sparsely dispersed in the 1970s, their numbers have risen to the point where villagers call them a ‘nuisance’! Photo: Amit Kher.


The 244.66 sq. km. Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary, named so after the twin villages Bar and Nawapara situated on either side of the sanctuary’s entry gate, was notified as a ‘Game Sanctuary’ in 1971 and then as a wildlife sanctuary in 1976. The entire sanctuary – a dry-deciduous mixed forest dominated by sal, teak, interspersed with bamboo, mahua and tendu and in some parts conspicuously thin due to the proliferation of karra trees, which to the untrained eye might give the forest a degraded look – lies in the newly-created Balodabazar district in central Chhattisgarh, under the Raipur Forest Division. It was created by carving out 97 reserved forest compartments under the territorial ranges of Sonakhan, Lavan and forests being worked by the Madhya Pradesh State Forest Development Corporation (MPSFDC). Back then, Barnawapara was a healthy tiger habitat, and their numbers rose from 13 in 1979 to 17 by 1983. However, it was strongly felt by the management that the sanctuary was too small, that there were still hundreds of square kilometres of rich forests in the Jonk Valley that lay outside the notified area, under various territorial ranges, some of which at least needed to be incorporated into the sanctuary to make the “legal boundary of the sanctuary commensurate with ecological boundary” of the region. The 1989 management plan of the sanctuary, which speaks of this, was in fact written for the expanded Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary, with an additional 135.26 sq. km. added from the neighbouring territorial ranges of Sonakhan, Lavan and MPSFDC area, and this ‘new Barnawapara’ would have the Jonk river as its eastern boundary. Almost 30 years since the management plan confidently claimed that the additional notifications were on the anvil, nothing has changed, and the ‘new Barnawapara’ remains a distant dream, buried inside the crumbling pages of the management plan.

What has changed over the years though, is the faunal composition of the forests. During the days of the Raj, the Jonk Valley forests were the stronghold of the Central Indian wild buffalo, considered to be the purest strain of Asiatic wild buffaloes in the world. “As we marched northward again we entered the valley of the Jonk river, a tributary of the Mahanadi, and here we fell in again with great herds of buffaloes… Around us was a sea of long grass, bounded by low hills and sal forests on the far horizon… When marching in the morning, about a couple of miles from camp we saw a herd of fifty or sixty buffaloes standing up to their knees in a swamp among long grass,” wrote the legendary Captain James Forsyth, in his seminal work The Highlands of Central India (1871). It has been decades since these mighty beasts were forced to abandon this bastion of theirs, and today the entire population of Central Indian wild buffaloes in India – now limited to a small patch of forests along the Indravati in the Bastar-Gadhchiroli forests and a relict semi-wild population in Udanti – is believed to be less than that of the single herd Forsyth saw almost a century and a half ago. The hardground barasingha, now confined to a single population in the Kanha Tiger Reserve (a few have recently been relocated for soft release to another erstwhile habitat of theirs, the Satpura Tiger Reserve), followed suit. Tigers which were once plentiful declined steadily, and after an initial rise post the sanctuary formation, their populations crashed sometime in the 1990s. When I visited this beautiful sanctuary in 2010, old wizened staff and locals alike said that while there was no longer a resident population of tigers within the sanctuary area, they did sporadically show up, at least two to three times in a year. The source of these tigers, I was told, was that old haunt of theirs – the forests abutting Jonk river, forests which would have been part of the ‘new Barnawapara’ sanctuary had the extension happened.

Despite the lows the forest has seen over the years, today it boasts of a healthy prey base and a good population of leopards. But the threat of gold mining projects looms large over the park. Photo: Amit Kher.


Nonetheless, while there have been losses, the Jonk Valley has saved many of its riches. Barnawapara today is synonymous with three large mammals – leopards, gaur and sloth bears. With the decline in tiger population, leopards thrived in this area and their numbers increased from a low 10 in 1979 to over 60 according to the 2010 estimate. Barnawapara offers relatively ‘easy sightings’ of these secretive cats, as attested to by the staff, villagers and tourists – mostly Chhattisgarh residents among whom the sanctuary is quite popular. Could then Barnawapara be India’s answer to Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park? The populations of chital, sambar and nilgai have grown over the years and this is probably why the leopards are doing well. But as I discovered in the course of my visit, the herbivores are skittish, unlike their counterparts in the more touristy parks of India. A sounder of 35 wild pigs I saw at a waterhole, however, seemed pretty unconcerned with our presence, trotting away confidently after slaking their thirst, 13 piglets in tow. Little wonder, then, that the sonkutta, or dhole, is also making a tentative comeback here.

Barnawapara’s biggest success, however, has been the rise in the sanctuary’s gaur population, which rose 500 per cent, from 173 in 1979 to over 600 today. One constantly bumps into large herds of this wild bovine, and I soon lost count of how many I saw over just three days. The third star attraction of Barnawapara is its sloth bears. Back in 1976, they were recorded as being sparsely distributed. Fast forward to 2010, and the villagers and staff alike began calling them a nuisance! A day after I saw one in the forest not too far away from the sanctuary entry gate, a villager from Nawapara narrated to me this rather hilarious tale, while pointing to a large kusum tree abutting the sanctuary’s main gate:

Bears come to this tree often. There was this one particularly stubborn bear, who would always come back no matter how many times we chased him away. Finally I had had enough. So this one time, I see him perched up on the tree, and me and a couple of other villagers howl at him. Seeing us, he starts climbing down. Usually I would shout and scare him away, but since it was not working and he kept coming back every day, I thought I needed to deal with this naughty bear like we deal with naughty children in our village. And so as he descended, I drew my lathi, and just as he touched the ground and turned to run, I gave two solid whacks with my lathi on that bhaalu’s hairy buttocks. I have never seen a bear run faster than after those two whacks.” (The man let out a loud laugh at this point, then paused and continued) “I didn’t want to hurt the poor beast, but he had to be disciplined to avoid humans – that was in the best interest of both of us. He never came back to this tree after that caning. But I miss that clumsy bear sometimes.

Today, Nawapara village, one of the 22 villages inside the sanctuary, is on its way out of the Protected Area after the villagers accepted the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) mandated voluntary relocation package, while Rampur (renamed Srirampur) has already been relocated, and the relocation of Latadadar is nearing completion.  It is worrisome, however, that while villages are planned to be relocated, simultaneously, a significant portion of the wildlife-rich territorial forests of Balodabazar forest division outside the sanctuary may be handed over to Vedanta, to mine sona or gold, after the company won the mining lease for the Baghmara gold mine, near Sonakhan tola, a few months back. It would not be the first time though that gold has threatened these forests. J.W. Best wrote in 1910:

“I have watched the local gold seekers scoop mud from the side of the stream into a wooden pan, wash it in water, pour out the lighter mud, tilt the residue for me to see, and there with a jet-black fringe of iron sand on the outside would gleam the precious gold within.

Gold nearly ruined the place. One shudders to think of ugly shafts and wheels and spoil heaps ruining the scenery; yet it might have come to pass. The shaft was sunk, three white men, they say, toiled for a few months looking for the treasures of the earth, and the shaft only remains, the sordid sight hidden by the jungle. No one could show me where the three adventurers were buried.”

Only this time, the jungle will neither be able to hide the sight, nor recover.

I returned from Barnawapara, a sanctuary I knew nothing about when I unexpectedly landed up there in 2010, enamoured and enraptured. Many years later I would read J. W. Best, who says:  “What a dream of a place, you will say. It is…” Indeed sir, it still is.

Author: Raza Kazmi, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 6, June 2016.


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