This article is part of the Tiger Series and an exclusive extract from the author’s forthcoming memoir, Environment Through Finance Eyes.
Continuing with Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR), for me, another highlight was seeing the efficacy of Lantana eradication. Dr. C. R. Babu who joined us the morning next, showed me around the different areas in Dhikala and in Jhirna where Lantana grass, a biological invader, had been successfully eradicated, thereby facilitating habitat improvement and growth of natural grassland, so essential for the herbivores, and kick-starting the cycle of optimal ecosystem services.
Put simply, Lantana camara, the scientific name of Lantana, native to Central and South America, has invaded and wrought havoc across global tropical/sub-tropical regions. It has disrupted ecological services, affectinkng forest ecosystems benefits, and adversely shrunk wildlife habitats. The wild-lifers, if one may say so, have naturally strayed off their habitats, spurring frequent man-wildlife conflicts. Dr. Babu, Chairman of the Ministry’s Centre of Excellence – Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Eco-Systems (CEMDE) – and his research team, working on Lantana’s taxonomy, biology and ecology, succeeded in evolving a simple but effective management strategy to contain this eco-scourge: extirpation of Lantana through cut rootstock method; weeding out of seedlings/young plants from bird droppings under perching trees and surface run-off channels; and eco-restoration of weed-free landscapes to native grasslands/forests. This was first tried out in CTR, and with resounding success.
Dr. Babu is a byword in the field of Lantana eradication. A month later, on a short visit to the ICFRE in Dehra Dun, after the official engagements, I found a couple of hours to myself. I snuck out to the Rajaji National Park. On the way the traffic slowed us down and by the time we reached the Park, it was pretty dark. In the headlights of the vehicle it was hard to see the habitat I was interested in. Instead, I settled discussing with the officers of the Park. I asked for the Annual Plan of Operations (APO) and browsed through it. Lantana removal was among the important activities in the Park, parenthetically to be carried out through the Dr. C.R. Babu style of Lantana-eradication! I was pleasantly surprised and happy. I came back and called Dr. Babu to compliment him that his Lantana-eradication technique has already been memorialised at the Rajaji National Park!
But staying with Lantana, I must confess that although Lantana is indeed a bio-invader and tells on habitats seriously damaging the grasslands, many wildlife experts evince widely varying sentiments. Foresters in Kanha Tiger Reserve for example seem rather paternalistic about Lantana, because as the story goes, many years ago a tiger had littered amid the Lantana weed and the sanguine sentiment has held. Similar sentiment could be found with others who temper it with obtuseness that of course Lantana, a bio-invader, cannot be allowed to overrun the park, and will need to be managed!
The issue of leveraging solar energy is of much salience in Tiger Reserves as I soon realised while visiting other reserves. Nowhere was its need perhaps more than in the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (STR), a vast reserve spread across the humongous delta formed by several rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal. Inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, STR is estimated at about 4,200 sq, km. Of these, about 1,700 sq. km are water bodies in the form of rivers, canals and creeks, varying widely from just about a few meters to several kilometres.
The STR is intersected by a complex web of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands that are flush with mangrove forests. The interconnected network of waterways makes the mangrove forests – habitat of the eponymous Royal Bengal Tigers – mostly accessible by boats. They serve as crucial bio-protectors against floods and cyclones for inhabitants living in and around this substantial deltaic plateau. Not to forget that the national park sprawled out in this unique ecosystem acts both as lung and kidney in flushing out effluents and pollutants as the rivers drain out into the Bay.
Given the geography and topography of STR, the region seemed hostile in performing the arduous task of tiger protection. The four protection camps I visited – Kendo, Haldibari, Neti-Dhupani, and Dobanki – were way far out in the Bay where Forest Guards and Watchers live and work. Kendo is the last protection camp closest to the Bay of Bengal, about 90 kilometres (two hours by speedboat) away from Sajnekhali, which acts as the gateway to the Sunderbans National Park. Fairly inaccessible and with no population around, the protection camp had just about enough solar PV panels to illuminate the building with a few lights, but not enough to power a few fans.
The place in the midst of water is rather humid except during the winter months; the rest of the year the weather challenges them to their bones. The need to improve the living condition of the people manning these outposts was paramount. This is where solar power can help in a big way. I was pleasantly surprised that despite the inhospitable and challenging conditions, these people live and work day-in and day-out – their spirit was upbeat and their morale high. The Field Director, Soumitra Dasgupta, an Indian Forest Service officer of 1989 batch, [presently IG (Wildlife) in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change – just the perfect fit to revamp the Wildlife Division], ever gung-ho, led by example and helped buoy their spirit – his passion and good cheer rubbing off on his officers and staff, and spurring them on.
I came away with the feeling that since these are non-family stations, to mitigate the problems of these personnel, we could consider granting them ration (as done for the police, the armed forces and the Special Tiger Protection Force) and separation/hardship allowances from the project funds. To boost the morale of these personnel, it would help if the possibility of even getting their families over to these places for short durations could be explored. Such inexpensive appliances like Mitti-cool, a refrigerator made of clay, that needs no electricity, could as well be considered to provide cool drinking water to people working in adverse and hostile environment. I am glad that we worked out the details and sanctioned ration allowance within a couple of months.
There was need, too, for a few more Floating Patrolling Camps in this waterscape, where water seemed the defining image in this vast landscape. With rain falling in buckets a good 6-7 months of the year, the difficulties of patrolling the national park seemed a big challenge. Quick and ready access to this remote and inaccessible topography, especially during the monsoon months, posed challenge to patrolling. We discussed this issue at length, almost at every patrol station we visited. Thinking aloud, I even suggested providing financial support for chopper service for monitoring, surveillance, and rescue operations on contractual basis from the PT funds, as and when the need arose.
The Kaziranga National Park (KNP) is yet another unique national park formed by a river – Brahmaputra -when it spills over its banks during monsoon and inundates the park. The receding river water leaves behind in its trail umpteen mudflats. KNP is home to a mega-biodiversity that includes the putative one-horned rhinos and tigers. Unfortunately, the rhinos are poached upon with the intent to harvest their horns that command astronomical prices in the international black market, purportedly for its aphrodisiac property. They are poached on all sides of the park. E-surveillance, the kind started in the Corbett Tiger Reserve to keep vigil 24×7, seems the only way forward here.
Of all the tiger reserves and national parks that I visited, Kaziranga is non-pareil. Standing on a watch tower, I surveyed hundreds upon hundreds of wild animals – rhinos, swamp deers, Hoolock Gibbons, elephants, pangolins, and a score of others I can’t put a name to – on the flat mudflats, as though served on a platter by an unstinting host! It was the closest to any wildlife African safari that any tiger reserve or national park in India could offer and was a feast for the eyes. Only the tiger was missing! And that’s what makes it so elusive and the reason why human beings hanker after it.
My visits to Kaziranga and Sundarbans, preceded by my earlier visit to Corbett, and coupled with my interface with sundry files that came to me in steady, timely schedule and the numerous discussions with the tiger-men helped me appreciate that tiger conservation encompassed a host of benefits not ordinarily known to the common man: clean air, clean water, more fish catch with higher fertility and productivity, employment and poverty alleviation to local population, and forest protection; also, that tiger conservation subsumes conservation of other flagship species like rhinoceros, elephants, and barasingha.
As I wound down my visit to Kaziranga and on the drive back to Guwahati, still rolling and processing my newly-acquired empirical experiences and the teeny-weeny bit I knew about Nature’s requite instinct, for no particular reason that I could figure out, I felt a faint disembodied thought of inadequacy colonising my mind. Hasn’t something inscrutable gone missing somewhere? I tried hard, but couldn’t. And then unbidden, quite serendipitously, it pitter-pattered in my mind; it wasn’t the inscrutability of the wild, but something more earthy and mundane: Ain’t calling our Centrally-Sponsored Scheme (CSS) by the eponymous rubric, Project Tiger, rather inadequate, diminishing the full import of the range of activities done under PT? Was that it? I asked myself. Yes, indeed. Hasn’t the time then come to more aptly call it, possibly even more unreservedly, something like Tiger Eco-System Services (TESS) that faithfully and fulsomely captures the range of activities done under the PT scheme to keep the forest eco-systems alive and uptick? I couldn’t help mutter my thoughts, and also said it in my tour note. I left it to the experts in Project Tiger to reflect over the suggestion.
The writer, Sudhansu Mohanty, is an acclaimed author and, among other assignments, also worked as Additional Secretary & Financial Adviser to the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change.
This article is based on his experiences during this stint, and is the second installment in his 7-part Sunday Feature series about Tiger Reserves.
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