Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary has seen several drastic changes in its boundaries. It was originally notified as a game sanctuary covering an area of 127 sq km on 10 May 1956. In 1975, post the euphoria of Project Tiger, it was declared a wildlife sanctuary and its area was expanded to 5,729 sq km. In 1987, to facilitate development projects – hydro-electric, a naval base, roads, transmission lines, mining and other industries – the area of the sanctuary came crashing down to 834 sq km. It was further reduced to 475 sq km through a final notification issued on 09 March 1998.
With the plethora of development activities, Dandeli saw levels of human habitation increase within its limits. In order to maintain a semblance of balance, in 1987, an area of 250 sq km had been carved out as Anshi National Park from Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary. With the higher levels of vigilance and protection afforded to national parks, Anshi had greater hopes of retaining both forests and wildlife.
Balachandra Hegde of Sahyadri Wildlife Conservation Trust partnered with Wildlife Conservation Society – India (WCS India) Program as a keen and passionate conservationist. Growing up in a small village near Sirsi, Balu as he is known, is particularly attached to the Anshi–Dandeli forests. He took up the momentous task of digitising maps of the protected areas and reserved forests in Uttara Kannada. In 2002, while working with him to file a report on the region, we noticed several grating factors… while some forests outside the preserve of Anshi–Dandeli were still pristine, there were areas within the PA that had degraded significantly.
We decided to list a few important factors as we graded the forests in this region — contiguity with PAs in neighbouring Goa, terrain, quality of forest cover, potential as a wildlife habitat, current usage by large mammals, the importance of the forests from the eco-system services point of view (the tributaries of the Kaali river arise from these forests), and the extent of human habitation and development activity within the forest. We then carried out further field surveys in order to produce exact maps of the area.
Balu and I had hit upon a plan. We intended to approach the Forest Department with these maps and suggest an expansion of Anshi–Dandeli to include some of the pristine forests we had seen.
In August 2003, we took our maps and plans and met the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife). This began a long process that would stretch over seven years.
First step: we took RM Ray, who was the then PCCF, to the area. We proposed that about 140 sq km be added to Anshi NP and 452 sq km be added to Dandeli WS. He was convinced. He knew the area well from his work here in various capacities. He then held meeting with field officers to elicit their opinions.
As expected, a couple of the officers opposed the idea, because, with the proposal, they would lose out on areas where logging, bamboo extraction and other extraction activities were carried out. Ray was convinced that we had given him a practical plan with important long-term effects on wildlife conservation. His conviction meant that some officers agreed with him whole-heartedly while others did so reluctantly!
In our proposal, we had also suggested that 65 sq km of forests be removed from Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary limits as these had high human density—seventy-nine per cent of the population within Dandeli lived in these parts, in Ambikanagar, Gund and Kumbarwada. Ambikanagar contained the township of a large power plant. It did not make sense to have such large human settlements within sanctuary limits; it would serve neither an ecological nor a management perspective. In fact, it would pose huge challenges in the management of the sanctuary.
Meanwhile, while rifling through old records, I found a document which would prove very handy in pushing this proposal. It was an old letter for diversion of forest land to build the Kodsalli and Kadra dams. A condition had been clearly laid down then which said that “the forests around the origin of the Kaali River should be protected”. Since the area we had proposed for inclusion into the PA held the origins of Kaali River, we now had another important fragment of approval in our favour.
We joined forces with local officers to develop the proposal and constantly followed up at both the local and state level to ensure that the proposals were sent to the Government. In this long bureaucratic process, some officers ensured that about half the areas we had suggested for inclusion were dropped.
We decided to take a practical approach to this: should we fight the dropping of these areas or focus on getting the remaining areas notified? We went ahead with what the field officers suggested. Our plan was to come back to the areas that had been dropped at a later time, and try to get them included once the first set of forest blocks had been included.
Unfortunately, at this time, the atmosphere at the State level was not very conducive for approval of the project. Sensing this, we decided to withdraw the pitch entirely for a short while so that it would not permanently sabotage the entire proposal.
In 2007, Ms. Meera Saxena became the Principal Secretary — Forests, Ecology and Environment. She was very supportive of conservation issues. As a bonus, Dr MH Swaminath had been appointed Secretary (Forests) and he was equally supportive. We started to follow up with these two officers.
In January 2007, as an impetus to the proposal, Anshi–Dandeli jointly received recognition, getting Tiger Reserve status.
We saw some success in September 2008, about six years after we had met RM Ray, then PCCF. An area of 163 sq km was notified to be added to Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary and in August 2009, 78 sq km was notified to be included into Anshi National Park.
However, our work did not end here.
The newly added areas continued to be managed and administered by territorial divisions. Bamboo harvesting and other activities continued in what was legally a wildlife sanctuary and national park. The forests would be much safer, as we saw it, if they were transferred to wildlife divisions. Under the Forest Department, wildlife divisions report directly to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and the entire focus of this division is protection and conservation of wildlife habitats. In wildlife divisions, there can be no commercial tree-felling and other such activities that are detrimental to wildlife.
We made several representations to transfer the newly added areas to wildlife divisions. However, one officer confided to me that there were committed ‘works’ in those areas hence our representations would be taken up only after those ‘works’ were completed.
In December 2010, when Mr.Kaushik Mukherjee became Principal Secretary – Forests, Ecology and Environment, I requested him to follow up on the issue and he immediately did so with the Forest Department. Finally, in February 2011, the areas that we had fought for were transferred to wildlife divisions.
Recently, we picked up the issue with the Forest Department once again, and another 243 sq km was added to ADTR. Kaushik Mukherjee, (who was now promoted as Additional Chief Secretary – Forests, Ecology Environment), BK Singh, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Dr MH Swaminath, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), and Sunil Panwar, Deputy Conservator of Forests, ADTR were instrumental in this inclusion.
This notification has now connected ADTR to Bhimghad Wildlife Sanctuary and other PAs in Goa to form a contiguous PA network of 2,189 sq km with another 300 sq km of Reserved Forests in Maharashtra.
I hope this area will now be managed with purely wildlife conservation in focus.
We learned several lessons in the effort to add forests to Anshi–Dandeli, a struggle that began in 2002:
- Constant and long-term follow-up is necessary. This is a struggle that requires dedication and commitment from its participants.
- Strong understanding of the issue and its implications locally.
- Understanding of the response of officers to conservation issues. And importantly, knowledge of when to move, at the right time with the right people.
- Very importantly support and working with Government officials is the key to saving wildlife and their habitats.