Impressions on sand

This visit was in March begining..As you will see I had gone to Valmiki with not much expectations, but came back with some hope..then on May 10th came the news-a tiger had been poached in the Madanpur range..it was caught in trap..he -it was a huge male tiger-suffered in agony for hours, his leg entrapped in the jsteel jaw trap, before he succumbed…

hope..such a fragile, fragile creature

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Prerna Singh Bindra visits Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar and comes back with mixed feelings

It is one of those places you go armed with prejudice, and cynicism. Places that in your mind are a write-off — dead or dying — with little or no hope of revival. The prejudices are only reinforced by people with whom you share your destination: Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar. Lawlessness, naxalism, a wasted forest, no tigers — that’s the general opinion. Even the recent Wildlife Institute of India census, which estimated 10 tigers in Valmiki, has been doubted in the case of this reserve. Not possible, say the cynics. Not in Bihar.

Perhaps they are right, I think, when, post-midnight, dacoits enter and loot the train in which I am travelling — but that is in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh. Later, that impression is reinforced when I see hordes of people thronging the nearest — and tiny — station of Narkutiyaganj where we alight from a train that runs on tracks which cut through the forest.

How could tigers survive in this multitude? How could a forest live?

It’s evening by the time we reach the rest house at Govardhana. We promptly leave for a drive, followed by a walk, into the forest accompanied by a forest officer and a forest guard. The forest is beautiful, and I take a deep breath at the wonder before me — tall sal, interspersed with khair, jamun and even the rare rosewood. A canopy of green, stretching as far as the eye can see.

But the problems are not hard to find. Where there should be undergrowth, shrubs and grasses that deer can feed on, there is only weed, the dwarf palm or the Phoenix humilis, which colonises rapidly, not letting anything else grow. Consequently, the prey is scant, too. It is a serious worry, agrees the DFO, who is with us.

There are historical reasons too for less prey density. Like most other protected areas, this was once a hunting ground for zamindars and nawabs. British royalty — King George V and King Edward VIII — have bagged game here as well. For the aristocracy, tiger was trophy. For the locals, wild animals just meant food. The law made hunting illegal in 1972, but here in these badlands, lawlessness was almost a way of life. And it is only in recent times, after Valmiki became a tiger reserve, that its wildlife managed to get some protection.

There are other problems. Staff, for one, says the DFO. It is the usual story that plagues all reserves. No fresh recruitment of forest staff has been carried out for the past two decades, and there is about a 30 per cent shortage. Most forest staff are 50 years old and above, and dispirited and unmotivated. Few of them want to serve here. And those who have no choice promptly go on leave, till the day they can ‘manage’ another posting.

Another problem is the disputed status of the territory. About 4,500 acres of Valmiki in the Madanpur range is claimed by Nepal, making administration, management and protection of this area difficult. Then there is the railway line that cuts through 8 km of the park. Last year, a speeding train killed a rhino — just one among the many other wild victims. The construction of this railway line in the early 1990s has created one more problem, which is has even more far-reaching consequences. It has choked the two nullahs that drained the water when the Gandak overflowed, especially during the monsoons. Now, the choked nullahs have caused the inundation of a large chunk of Madanpur, destroying more than 50,000 trees and changing the ecology of the region.
There is an interesting story about the rhinos of Valmiki. Many years ago, this was part of their historical range, till the Rhinoceros unicornis became locally extinct, wiped out by deforestation — and persecution. They are back now. After a gap of decades, this reserve has welcomed rhinos. These have crossed over — probably because of the unrest and the consequent disturbance, and increased poaching — from Chitwan and Parsa — protected areas across the border in Nepal.

A male, a female-and there are calves. And this is how we welcomed them. The female rhino has been killed.

I am just about despairing at the insurmountable problems, when Jatta, a man who has spent a lifetime here tracking the big cats, points out to distinct impressions on the sand. Pugmarks. Quite fresh. We are late by about an afternoon. But there is no sorrow in that, no regret at missing the King. He was here, in this forest, not too far from where I stood with a motley group of his protectors — forest officer, guard, tiger tracker — all of them who work so hard in desperate circumstances. Now, on the sand beneath our feet is the message that their efforts had not gone in vain. That Valmiki’s tigers have a fighting chance.
It gets better. I see another set of pugmarks, smaller, tapering down to a V. Those of a tigress, criss-crossing the pugmarks of the male. The import hits us: a tiger, and a tigress. Perhaps, a mating pair. Let’s leave, warns the DFO. We do, with a spring in our steps.

Sadly, this range, with its pair of mating tigers, is not yet notified, which means there is no staff assigned to it, and no ranger. They still manage. Somehow.

Why must each good news come with a footnote?

There are other tigers here, in this park. It is a beautiful night and a thousand stars light the darkness. I meet Samir Kumar Sinha, who has been working here with Wildlife Trust of India for the past five years. Ramkumar, his field assistant has just come back with some photographs of animals caught in camera traps — he had gone to the nearest big town a good five hours away to get them developed on the same day. We see a sambar, a civet cat, a porcupine, a leopard cat, and a leopard. And a dead cow. A set of ribs, cleaned of flesh. And, visible through the chalky bones, the magnetic stare of a tawny eye-set and a fuzzy, baby face. A tiger cub.

The next day, we head for the eastern range of the park, along the Pandai riverbed, to Manguraha, up to Bikhanathori on the Nepal border. The threats stay with us — the metre gauge railway line that is proposed to change into broad gauge, just so, for its costs — economical as well as ecological — do not justify its construction. Nor do I see any promising meadow, grasslands where deer — and tiger prey — can flourish. Instead, tall teak trees stand uniformly like soldiers on across vast tracts, testimony to the fact that till as recently as 1994, this forest was commercially exploited. Hence, through the years management plans advised that vast grasslands and old growth forests be cleared and in its place teak — which serves as good value timber — be planted. Ah, the foolish wisdom of bureaucracy!

All along the route, and further inside, are huge mounds of termite hills, a reminder of the fact that the park owes its nomenclature to the humble termite. For, these are the hallowed grounds where the great sage Valmiki did his penance. The word valmaka literally means anthill, and legend says that so deep was the great sage in his meditation that the ants built a mound around him. Hence, he came to be known as Valmiki.

We halt for a while. In the shadows of the greens, the flurried movement of the jungle fowl and the frantic dash of a deer. The barking deer — the shy, lonely spirit of the forest, always alone, always terrified. Was it our vehicle that distressed him … or was it the pair of jackals that followed, in hot pursuit? Can jackals bring down a deer? I wouldn’t think so, but I could be wrong.

Farther, much farther away, vultures, mainly white-backed and some long-billed — at least 25 of them — circle the skies. My heart lifts — it’s a prized sighting in itself, with their populations down by 98 per cent, and declining.

That aside, what the presence of vultures signified was that there was a kill nearby. We could not go there — it was too deep inside — but the lament of a farmer whose cow had been killed indicated that a perhaps tiger — or maybe a tigress — had made this kill.

This was the good news. Now, the bad.

This eastern fringe of the park, along the river Pandai — where tiger, sloth bear, rhino, sambar, cheetal, porcupine, gaur, and over 300 species of birds live — is going to be denotified if the Bihar Government has its way. This area is called the Valmiki Wildlife Sanctuary, and though technically it is not part of the tiger reserve, it is contiguous to it and is administered by the tiger reserve authorities. The Government (vide application No 2070 of 2007) has proposed to denotify this area — no less than 40 sq km of the wildlife sanctuary. They give no concrete reason for it. But it could be no coincidence that another application (IA No 1036, 1037, 1037A of 2007) before the Supreme Court seeks permission for mining in the area.

The reason cited for the reduction in the sanctuary area is “mere modification of the earlier notification on behalf of the respondent State of Bihar”. The reference dates back to 1990 (???, what the confusion), when the Bihar Government sent a proposal to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) for declaring the entire 880 sq km of Valmiki Wildlife Sanctuary as a Project Tiger area. However, the MoEF, it is learnt, under pressure from the powerful mining lobby, only declared 840 sq km of the area as a tiger reserve. Consequently, the Bihar Government, in 1991, sent a proposal to reduce the area of the Valmiki Sanctuary from 880 sq km to 840 sq km. However, the notification related to the reduction of the area was not issued, and it is this notification that the Government is now ardently pursuing, with devastating results on vital tiger habitat.

Boulder mining and quarrying interests have always plagued this part of the sanctuary. In 2002, the Bihar Government appealed to the Supreme Court against an order of the MoEF that allowed mining leases inside the sanctuary — obviously to serve the interests of a powerful mining lobby, with political connections. This order of the MoEF was set aside by the Supreme Court, which directed the State Government to “ensure immediate closure of all mining activities inside the national park and sanctuaries, including within the safety zone around the boundaries of parks and sanctuaries.”

When the mining stopped, wildlife made a comeback. Freed from devastation, grasslands flourished, the deer came back, gaurs became an increasingly common sight and, following the return of prey, tigers returned. The closure of mines also significantly benefited the local populations. The stoppage of mining and quarrying has opened up old irrigation channels, providing water round the year for cultivation in the adjoining villages.

Yet, the mining lobby persists — illegal mining, though contained, continues to be a problem, and just a few days ago the district authorities sought to give three mining leases in areas bordering the sanctuary. And, despite a Supreme Court order, the State Government has not declared the safety zone for the park as yet. But that doesn’t really matter. For, the State Government has proposed a mere 30m as safety zone for the reserve. Need one say more?

It was in these parts too that a tiger skin seizure had taken place in December 2006. Investigations revealed that the main accused was involved in a previous tiger poaching case in Katarniaghat in Uttar Pradesh. The accused had been released on bail on that instance. Again, an oft-repeated story — of repeat offenders. This brings the focus on the conviction rate for wildlife crime which, at less than 0.1 per cent, is shockingly low. Why? Why do we let poachers go free so that they can kill rare wild animals again? In this area, the threat of poaching persists: Birganj, in Nepal, is a hub for illegal wildlife trade, while the accused are still at large.

Then there is Dhon. It’s picturesque country, with miles of green paddy fields and thatched huts. Men — Tharu tribals — tilling the fields; women stacking goithas, or cow dung, so neatly, so perfectly, that it is turned almost into an art.

But the problem is, this cluster of 25 villages intrudes into the park, practically cutting the western edge of Vamiki in half. I see no solution here, the population in Dhon is over 20,000, and while there are problems — the nearest hospital is nearly three hours away, and there is no electricity — the land is still fertile.

It is a complex issue. The people here are poor, but there is no malnutrition, no hunger — the land gives enough. But do these people not deserve the fruits of development? Yet, development, usually haphazard and unplanned, will bring with it destruction, and devastate the pristine forests around. Rehabilitation is almost a moot issue here, considering the numbers and the usual complexities involved. All I can do is dream. Maybe it will happen, the people will be satisfactorily rehabilitated, and the fields will turn into golden meadows, where rare wild creatures may flourish.

I leave Valmiki with mixed feelings. The reserve is in fact just a broken fragment of the once flourishing Terai forests, which have been devastated, degraded and fragmented. Old literature detailing the wildlife of this remote area is missing, but I find clues indicative of the richness of the area in the names. Valmiki is in Chamapran district, which translates to “the forests of Champa”. Its district headquarter is called Betiah, derived from the word bet, or cane, which abounds — or rather, once did — here. Bhaisalotan is the old name of Valmikinagar, and it means “where the wild buffaloes wallow”. Further on, there is Harnatan and Mayuraha, drawn from the words hiran or deer and mayur or peacock. Then there is Bhaga, a small town, just a few miles from the reserve as the crow flies. As you may have guessed, tigers lived there. Once upon a time. Now, it is just another, town, run-down and in a mess.

Once a verdant forest rich with wildlife, Valmiki had been devastated through the years —degraded, fragmented, uprooted, with tigers and other wild animals hunted indiscriminately. Lawlessness reigned, and old timers told me of times, not so long ago, when they dared not set foot in the forest. A DFO who raided a sawmill was attacked.

More recently, the presence of Maoists from across the border has always been a worry, though it is somewhat controlled now with the presence of the paramilitary forces.

It is the hard work and determination of a few, working within a stifling system in the worst of circumstances and in the remotest of terrains that is keeping Valmiki alive, but barely.

The importance of Valmiki as a tiger habitat cannot be stressed enough. This area — comprising Valmiki-Chitwan-Parsa across India and Nepal — has been identified by the United States (???, yes) WWF as a Priority Level 1 Tiger Conservation Unit, one among only 11 in the Indian subcontinent with the maximum possibility of harbouring the tiger in the long run.

Yet, there is hope…so say the impressions in the sand.

4 Responses to “Impressions on sand

  • thanks for writing in..Valmiki was a tremondous experience..India has such a rich natural heritage–and it pains me that we choose to sqaunder ir..

  • good read that…you are right – hope is a fragile animal!!!!!

  • delighted to see your blog… a blog gives one so much freedom of expression…. waiting for more… you’ll always be an inspiration

  • good to read your blog..its sad that politics interferes with wildlife and lives of animals and people..looking forward to reading more of your experiences
    Lakshmi

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