With inputs from Aditya Panda.
(This article was first published in The Pioneer dated Aug 29, 2012 under the title ‘Banished from their homes’).
In 1967, a wild tigress from the Chandaka forest on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar walked into the Nandankanan Zoo nearby, lured by the calls of a male tiger in one of the moated exhibits, and jumped in to join him, surely unaware that there was no way out. The tigress –– later named ‘Kanan’ –– lived on in the zoo. Predictably the press went to town about “the wild tigress who voluntarily chose captivity.” For the state forest department it was a bonanza, for the then fledgling zoo got a new ‘free’ tiger. Few thought of the only, lonely tigress..who had simply responded to the call of her own.
She was the last wild tiger in Chandaka.
The forest, however, continued to be a refuge for elephants, leopards, sloth bears, jungle cats and a host of bird species, and was declared the Chandaka-Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary in 1982, intended to protect elephants and serve as Bhubaneswar’s ‘green lungs’.
Over time, the dynamics of the city and the forest have changed. Bhubaneswar today bears little semblance to the quaint Capital built in 1948. In its vision for the coming decades, Orissa aims at transforming the Chaudwar-Cuttack-Bhubaneswar-Khurda urban conglomerate into a metropolis that will replace Kolkata as the ‘hub of the east’. Going full throttle to achieve this vision. the region has seen rapid, and ill-planned expansion..which has isolated Chandaka Bharatpur forest, a part of the Chandaka sanctuary –– juts into the city and has practically been severed from the rest of the sanctuary. Gated colonies, large institutes (Bhubaneswar has over a hundred engineering colleges, plus a number of management and other institutes) and tech-parks have come up in between, leaving a few elephants trapped permanently inside the 10 sq km degraded, weed ridden scrub that is Bharatpur today.
Until 2002, Chandaka had over 80 elephants living in its 190 sq km area. Conflict was a perennial problem in the villages around, and became more severe as the city grew. The relatively new suburbs of the city sometimes had their residents jolted out of primetime TV when a herd of elephants would show up on their driveways. Crackers, crowds, mobs and mayhem invariably followed –– sometimes with tragic results.
The elephants had nowhere to go –– they got little sanctuary in Chandaka. Overgrazed by cattle and exploited for firewood, the habitat itself was turning increasingly unsuitable, even hostile. Villagers had encroached, and when the elephants raided their fields, they were riddled with shotgun pellets. Wounded, over time some elephants died a slow, painful death. In 2002-3, a herd of over 20 elephants migrated out of Chandaka in a southerly direction –– a route never in history known to be used by them. They crossed the busy four-lane NH-5 just outside Bhubaneswar and made for Barunei Hill, moving onwards, traversing villages, cultivation, the Tangi-Ranpur ‘Mal’ forests and into the relatively well protected Barbara reserve forest –– traditionally not known to harbour elephants. When Chandaka deteriorated further, especially post 2006, more herds followed. The desperate, bewildered elephants were on the run, hounded by mobs, harassed by terrified villagers… seeking refuge. Some reached Chilika, a few fell on the wayside, succumbing to sheer exhaustion.
Reportedly, only about 20 of the original 85-odd elephants now survive in Chandaka. The ‘emigrants’ are now constantly on the run ––from one conflict situation to another, across southern-coastal Orissa, where neither can the forests support them, nor are the farmers used to elephants. Conflict has intensified to such an extent in southern-coastal Orissa now, that the state forest department has deployed almost its entire force of captive elephants as ‘kunkis’ in the region to contain the conflict.
The elephants are running out of space… and out of time.
Yet, there is hope. Two-years-back, a herd of elephants from across the Mahanadi came to Chandaka––and went back again after a short stay, proving that old corridors linking Chandaka to the gene pool of the Mahanadi Elephant Reserve––which also includes the Satkosia Tiger Reserve––through the Athgarh and to the Kapilas Hills still persist. Since then, a few more herds have begun using this route. If Chandaka is protected, its habitat restored and the villages inside it rehabilitated, it can once again be a safe haven for elephants. It is equally critical to protect the fragile links of this forest to Athgarh and Kapilas for the long term persistence of elephants in this landscape, and to address and minimise conflict. Interestingly, elephants from the Athgarh-Chandaka region were considered the most ‘robust and strong’, and were much coveted as war elephants.
Saving Chandaka and elephant corridors requires a consistent effort, commitment and a tremendous amount of will but surely in a country where the elephant is worshipped as Ganesha –– and in a state where elephants are deeply rooted in ancient culture, this should be priority. The decay of Chandka and its wildlife is a reflection of the larger picture of our Protected Areas, particularly those which have the misfortune of neighbouring a city. Hardwar and Rishikesh are crowding Rajaji National Park, which must also bear the brunt of the ancillary development of the capital, Dehradun, a mere 35kms away. Dachigaam National Park is a jewel on the outskirts of Srinagar, with the expanding capital pressing in. Conflict with black bears has reached worrying proportions –– with a bear being burnt alive when it ventured into human habitation in 2006. Ratapani, once the hunting grounds of the nawabs of Bhopal, is fragmented by highways, railway lines and the swell of the capital. Reports of a tigress with cubs in Bhopal outskirts have been doing the rounds since last year. Gurgaon has bulldozed the forests of the ancient Aravallis––and with it has gone the unique biodiversity that these hills supported. Water, a gift of the Aravallis, has vanished too. The Aravalli hills are a critical groundwater recharge system in this otherwise arid northwest of India and contain the catchment of Damdama, the last remaining major perennial lake here. Asked the Punjab and Haryana High Court on August 1, 2012 in response to a PIL, “Where will the next generation go if we extract the complete groundwater?”
And therein lies the logic of saving Chandaka and its elephants, Dachigaam and its hangul, Ratapani (and Rajaji) and its tigers. Not only does wilderness provide us”‘precious intangible values”, but they are key to our water and ecological security — and our future.