Archive for June, 2011

the dying delta


Spread over some 10,000 sq km of which 40% lies in the Indian state of West Bengal, Sundarbans is the largest river delta in the world as also the largest mangrove forest. It is one of the most fascinating and unforgiving places on earth which epitomizes the struggle for life to the core and has weaved for itself a fine balance between nature and all that man (and his activities) stands for. Of late, that thin line seems to be crumbling. It is a world where man and animals have been living since eternity. It is not the usual kind of place one travels to. For visitors Sundarbans might look like a pristine labyrinth of rivers, their branches, creeks, islands, mudflats and never-ending greenery full of some of the world’s most exotic animals but for the people living there it’s a different story. It’s a story of endurance, of life and death, of faith and expectations.

sundari tree (genus heritiera)

How Sundarbans got its name is a question that has been puzzling researchers for quite a while now. Some say it simply stands for beautiful forests (sundar in Bengali means beautiful and bon means forests) while others say it’s a corrupt form of the word samudraban (samudra in Bengali means sea and bon means forests) while yet others says it has been named after a primitive tribe, Chandrabandhe. But the most accepted logic is that the delta has been named on the dominant tree of the region, the sundari tree (trees of genus Heritiera).

map of sundarbans

The Sundarbans of West Bengal is located near the Global City of Kolkata and thus the biotic pressure on the forestland is immense. Though human habitation is almost negligible in the core area of the forests the fringes hold some 4 million people who greatly depend on the forest for their survival. Most people are indulged in agriculture, fishing, honey collection, firewood collection, tiger prawn seed collection for which regular foray into the forests becomes a necessity. It thus becomes a matter of grave concern on how the dependence of man on the forest and its mutual adverse affects are tackled in the near future.

tiger prawn collection

Much of Sundarban’s fauna has become extinct since independence but it is still home to the Royal Bengal Tigers, perhaps the most popular animal in the world, besides a host of other animals and birds. Tigers of Sundarbans are unlike anywhere else in the world. Their coats and stripes are darker, they themselves are a tad smaller but owing to the difficult terrain they are the most adaptive. While the Indian leopard, the Javan rhino and some others perished over time, the tigers devised a way to survive. Whether it flourishes here or not is relatively unknown owing to the fact that animal survey in this part of the world is immensely difficult. Tigers are extremely territorial animal (much like all other carnivores) and because their scat markings get erased with the constant ebb and tide of water (here at Sundarbans) physical dominance and aggressiveness have become the norm. While in other parts of India, tigers are either revered or feared or even looked upon in awe, the mere word is considered a taboo for the villagers who enter the forests.

a royal bengal tiger in sundarbans

With bleak employment opportunities in the hinterland and embankments for agriculture breaking down (scarcity of funds and political negligence) getting inside the forest for honey and firewood becomes indispensable for survival and tiger attacks become inevitable. The honey collectors, who are the most prone to attacks by not only tigers but also saltwater crocodiles, devised a way to fool the tigers by wearing masks on the back of their heads (since tigers mostly attack from the back) but the tigers soon discovered the ploy and attacks continued. With herbivore population on a constant decline inside the forests and villages having a healthy stock of cattle, tigers often get lured towards the villages and tiger deaths in retaliation is common to hear. But over the past half a decade with enhanced vigil by the forest guards and better packages for the villagers (in terms of employment, better insurance cover, prompt livestock kill compensation, etc), fatalities have reduced but one still gets to hear stray news of man-animal conflict. This is not good for anyone. It’s thus a battle of necessities from both the ends.

honey collectors of sundarbans and their back masks

Sundarbans is a world in itself. Its flora and fauna is enchanting and so are its stories of earthly balance. It is a protected area with the Sundarbans National Park (since 1984) forming the core area of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (since 1973). It’s a UNESCO world heritage site (since 1987) and also a biosphere reserve (since 1989). The constant rise in sea-level possesses a great threat to the delta since most of the islands would submerge if a significant rise is to happen. Sundarbans is like a shield for the hinterland against the cyclones that rise in Bay of Bengal. If it were to go it would take away with it not just the tigers and all its animals and tress but would also hamper nature’s cycle and in such a way that it would be impossible to recover. It’s not only our heritage but also acts as our lungs. The people who live on the fringes and their requirements need to be understood and it must be ensured that there is minimal or no interference between man and the wild.

sundarbans

Sundarbans is a world of strong faith where people, irrespective of their religion, do not go into the forests without taking the blessings of Bonbibi. They go with a clean mind and take only what is required. This was the pact that legends talk of. The forests and the tigers symbolize the tyrant Dakkhin Rai with whose mother Bonbibi had a pact that humans must be spared so far they venture into the forests with a mind sans greed. The faith is so strong that even if a man dies of tiger attack villagers think that there must have been some fault with them. Such is the world where the tiger epitomizes something so powerful and fearful and still the balance is maintained but the pact will stay intact only if humans understand that the world beyond greed is the world where the tigers live in and if the tigers were to go, there would be nothing to talk about.

bon bibi

My motive of writing this piece was to highlight the fact that the happenings of the world are so interlinked. One can’t blame the people of Sundarbans for venturing into the forests nor can one put the blame squarely on the tigers for getting into their villages or attacking them in the forests. Nature is detoriating and while we might have alternatives, the wilderness has none. It’s our prerogative to understand our heritage and save it. The onus completely lies on us, the most intelligent species on earth. The only way to save Sundarbans would be minimal interference in the ways of the wild while providing those 4 million a way out for decent life. Total rehabilitation is next to impossible but much is to be done for them. The wild has its way of regeneration but if we don’t provide for the villagers of Sundarbans then the thin line that separates them with the dangers of the forests would keep crumbling and one day it would come to a naught and that I dread of.

N.B: All the pics have been sourced from Google and in case anyone in particular owns a photograph kindly let me know. I would mention the name.

palamau tiger reserve


This was a letter I had written to PTR’s Field Director to which he gave a very positive reply.

To end it all, when there is hope, there is a way, and where there is a way, there is no looking back.

Sir,

I have recently returned from a visit to the Palamau Tiger Reserve (PTR) and I would like to share certain things from you. This is not a complaint letter because I realize the enormous problems faced by PTR. This is just some of the things I would like to bring to your notice, which am sure you must be already well aware of.

I have read so much about PTR and have been enamored by the likes of Sir S P Sahi since long. I know of the problems plaguing the reserve and also well aware of the efforts by the authorities to provide a governing framework despite all odds. I have no doubts regarding the sincerity of the ground staff or the officials who work in the unfriendliest of terrain, habitat and amidst constant danger. I salute all the people who are tirelessly working for the betterment of the reserve. The flora, fauna, the people associated with the forest, the nation and humanity at large feel blessed for having people like you working for a cause like PTR despite being well aware of the fact that most Indians do not even care to find about the health or problems of PTR.

I would nevertheless like to bring out certain reservations I have regarding PTR (Betla NP, Palamau WS and Mahuadanr WS)

a) I witnessed grave anomalies at the Garu Police check-post. Locals carrying goats and chicken were openly “looted” of their belongings. Incidents like this anger the localites and I am sure the insecurity harboured would be further fueled by the extremist groups breeding in the area. I was a tourist so I would not have much news on the effectiveness of policing in this area but considering the very fact that corruption and bribing is rampant in Indian police forces I would not hesitate to say that this is one of the gravest areas that require checks and balances.

b) While at Mahuadanr, I got to hear from certain shops that on the name of conservation of the Indian Wolf, police and forest officials alike, collected goats from the local villagers (which I don’t understand why) but instead of using that as bait they themselves partied on it. This was one of the most shocking things I came across. Considering the management of Mahuadanr Wolf Sanctuary is a prerogative of PTR I am sure such a thing would be known to the higher authorities and it would be very kind if the last (and as such, the only) bastion of protection accorded to the vulnerable animal stays safe. I fear to think the kind of impression such news would create on the mind of wildlife enthusiasts. I didn’t have the time to look or inquire further into the health of Mahuadanr WS but I would return back for more field work at a later point of time.

c) The brochure on PTR mentions that the Budha Ghagh (Lodh Falls) is situated inside the PTR. It is definitely a reality but the fact could have easily been done away with. There is also a board of the waterfall outside the PTR check post at Betla giving an impression that it is very much nearby. Not only the brochure and the board keep a degree of secrecy on its location, it also fails to mention that people must go there at their own risk. Most drivers from Daltonganj, Ranchi or Netarhat have no idea whatsoever regarding where the waterfall is. There are no signboards even at Mahuadanr to help hapless tourists who defy all odds to come to such a place. I would have missed the highlight of my trip had it not been for my tiger-willed determination or the information I had collected before hand from my friends. Countless stories of loot, murder, danger and rape abound in this part of the world but no such mention of caution is made anywhere.

d) Checking with the prices mentioned in the information booklet I am shocked to say that despite no surety of food, water or electricity, hotels near the immediate vicinity of Betla ask for at least double the price. I can understand that tourists hardly visit the place but asking for such exorbitant price from tired tourists who come in the middle of night hardly serves the purpose of the park’s dying popularity.

e) Almost all the rivers and water sources within the park had dried up (understandable since it was almost the end of May) and the provisions provided were adequately sufficient for langurs, macaques and chitals. I was wondering about what would happen to the larger animals? What about them straying in villages and thereby enhancing the chances of Human Animal Conflict? Stumps of trees smuggled away didn’t leave a good impression on tourists though I perfectly understand that PTR has had to suffer a lot in the past and is still suffering owing to apathy and neglect from the government and civil society at large and to add to it the problems of left-wing extremism.

f) The safari elephants, Anarkali and Juhi, were in terribly bad condition with inadequate supply of food, water or medical intervention. I was shocked to see them being fed water by a hand pump. They go without bath for days (maybe months). The caretaker (Mr Mohammed Sharif) is poorly paid but I must laud his utmost dedication and passion for serving the pachyderms. I am thinking of collecting funds for the elephants and the caretaker.

g) The information brochure and the newly built Nature Interpretation Centre, though beautifully laid out, have certain gross anomalies in terms of grammatical mistakes and the information provided. PTR had 38 tigers a long back ago but the time period is not mentioned keeping tourists in dark. The estimate of 215-260 elephants as of 2004 doesn’t help seven years hence. The presence of 60 leopards, 250 gaurs and chausinghas is taken with a pinch-of-salt. Moreover, I am unsure if tourists to the tune of 15,000 to 20,000 visit the park annually. Most alarmingly, the problem of water scarcity is hidden and a picture of “all-is-well” is painted which is far from reality. I agree that not everything needs to be told to tourists who come picnicking but there ought to be greater transparency.

I can understand that with close to 1 lakh people living in some 200 villages and with a cattle population of some 86,000 the biotic pressure on the park is immense. Too add to it, the problems of not getting funds on time and insignificant tourism. It would be unwise for me to comment on the workforce of PTR considering the dangers of left-wing extremism.

I also realize that it is easy for me to write such a lengthy note on the anomalies and concerns and not be present in person to face the daunting task of revamping things and bring back PTR to its previous glory. But I write in the capacity of a person who has immense love for our nation’s wildlife, forests and heritage and would do anything to bring about a positive change. I also write because I believe in change and share the optimism harboured by the governing authorities of the park.

Palamau, am sure, in times to come, will take center stage yet again. Problems and challenges are many but if we all are untied then a solution would be forthcoming.

Sorry for the overdose of enthusiasm on my part and kindly excuse me if I went overboard on certain issues. It’s plain and genuine concern, nothing else, and I would be more than happy to provide any kind of assistance (in my own personal capacity) in the near future. It is an earnest request from an anonymous wildlife enthusiast who loves visiting the unknown and dying forests of India, “Please don’t let Palamau die.”

N.B. The two email ids mentioned in the PTR information brochure (dtj_fdptrpal@sancharnet.in and fdptrpalamau@yahoo.co.in) don’t work