Amrit Mahal Kavals are semi-arid grasslands in Karnataka that were set aside several centuries ago, during the Vijayanagara empire, and protected as grazing grounds for a sturdy local breed of cattle known as Amrit Mahal, which was once highly prized as a military draught animal. The protection of these grasslands was continued by subsequent rulers, including Hyder Ali, Tippu Sultan, and the Maharajas of Mysore, as well as the British during their colonial reign in India. Although these grasslands were protected for the purpose of animal husbandry, they also serve as crucial habitat for a wide range of dry land fauna.
Over the years, the extent of this critically endangered ecosystem has declined drastically due to conversion to other uses, including agriculture, developmental projects, rehabilitation of landless labourers, and compensatory afforestation. Karnataka, which had nearly 400,000 acres of Amrit Mahal Kaval at the time of India’s independence in 1947, is now left with just 30,000 acres of fragmented parcels distributed across the state, much of which is encroached or in various states of degradation. Today’s remaining Kavals are managed by the Animal Husbandry Department, which continues to rear Amrit Mahal cattle by engaging Kavalgars (herders) from the local community.
Basur Kaval – a case study in mismanagement
Basur Kaval is a grassland in the Kadur Taluk of Chikkamagaluru District. It is spread over 1820.11 acres and is rich in dry land flora and fauna, including wildlife such as blackbuck, Indian wolf, Indian fox, and gerbil. Bird species that use it include the Indian courser, Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse, painted sandgrouse, pallid harrier, Montagu’s harrier, Eurasian marsh harrier, singing bush lark, Indian bush lark, ashy-crowned sparrow lark, oriental skylark, blyth’s pipit, paddy field pipit, and white-eyed buzzard, all of which are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA). A scientific study by H.S. Sathya Chandra Sagar and Prof P.U. Antoney, published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa in July 2017, estimates a population of about 200 blackbuck in Basur Kaval. WildCAT-C, a grassroots conservation NGO from Chikkamagaluru, proposed to the government that the area be legally protected. This suggestion was accepted, and “Basur Amrit Mahal Kaval Blackbuck Conservation Reserve” was notified under Section 36 (A) of the WLPA in 2012.
Despite protection and monitoring, Basur Kaval and its wildlife have faced several challenges over the years. Besides the Amrit Mahal cattle that graze in the grassland, nomadic shepherds often graze 2000-3000 sheep here, in direct competition with blackbuck. Poaching is another problem. Snares set to catch small ground-dwelling birds and animals injure fast running blackbuck, breaking their legs. Snares set to trap wild pigs end up also killing the occasional leopard. Feral dogs have been observed chasing, killing, and feeding on blackbuck
Mismanagement and needless habitat manipulation have led to the degradation of the Kaval. Planting of Eucalyptus and other exotic species was attempted, but was strongly opposed by conservationists, and is therefore restricted only to the boundaries of the Kaval. However, even this has changed the habitat in certain portions of the grassland. An anti-poaching camp built right in the middle of Basur Kaval is causing immense disturbance to blackbuck movement. To meet the basic requirements of anti-poaching staff, the camp is run with facilities such as bore-wells, fencing, gardening, and planting trees around the camp. Multiple motorbike and jeep tracks leading to the camp are causing damage to ground-nesting birds. The creation of several large, artificial water bodies is also slowly modifying the area.
Basur Kaval has not been spared unplanned developmental challenges either. In 2007, a road that would pass through the grassland was proposed, ostensibly to connect two adjoining villages, even though alternate roads already existed. The proposal was dropped after intervention by conservationists. The latest threat is the construction of the Upper Bhadra Canal, a major project to partially divert water from the Tunga River to the Bhadra Reservoir in Lakkavalli in stage I and distribute it to drier areas of Chikkamagaluru, Davanagere, Tumkur and Chitradurga in stage II. The Animal Husbandry Department has recorded its “no objection” to diverting 39 acres of Basur Kaval and 22 acres of the adjoining Bilvala Kaval to build a 100m wide canal. For the purposes of seeking mandatory permissions for construction projects these precious grasslands are regarded as ‘non-forest’ and ‘barren’ lands, ignoring the fact that all Amrit Mahal Kaval lands in Karnataka are legally classified as “District Forests” as per Rule 33 of the Karnataka Forest Rules, 1969. Therefore, the diversion of Kaval land for construction of the canal has been challenged in a court of law by conservationists, who have suggested a realignment of the canal away from the Kaval.
The tragedy of the Commons
The Planning Commission’s report on grasslands for the Eleventh Five Year plan (2007-2012) hits the nail on the head when it avers that “Grasslands are not managed by the Forest Department whose interest lies mainly in trees, not by the agriculture department who are interested in agriculture crops, nor the veterinary department who are concerned with livestock, but not the grass on which the livestock is dependent. The grasslands are the ‘common’ lands of the community and are the responsibility of none. They are the most productive ecosystems in the subcontinent, but they belong to all, are controlled by none, and they have no godfathers.” This management mess has left the issue of land encroachment in Basur Kaval yet to be settled in a court of law due to differences between the Animal Husbandry and Forest Department about jurisdiction over the land.
Urgent Call to Action
Basur Kaval is a case study to understand the challenges faced by most grasslands in the country, which are widely regarded as wastelands. Some of their many problems include, fragmentation of habitats that are already small, the resultant loss of connectivity, the impact of construction projects on endangered wildlife, and the impact of introducing water in a dry area. Using these ecologically rich grasslands as sites for “compensatory afforestation” is another travesty.
At least now, informed actions need to be taken to save what is left. There is an urgent need for managers to understand that management techniques for woodlands and grasslands cannot be the same and that activities such as planting trees and forming lakes in grasslands can cause considerable ecological harm. There are enough scientific studies on grasslands and their wildlife, which need to be understood and assimilated by the management committees of these Kavals. Most importantly, the government has to take urgent and immediate action to put an end to their diversion for other purposes.
The National Green Tribunal has recognized the importance of grasslands and directed that Amrit Mahal lands should not be diverted further. Since they are already classified as “District Forests”, and harbour many species of wildlife, the Forest Department should be empowered to protect these grasslands, with a strict mandate to maintain them in their natural state.
These Kavals were once the refuge of endangered species such as the great Indian bustard and the lesser florican. If ill-informed management practices and unplanned construction continue, the last remaining Kavals will continue to degrade, pushing more rare grassland species closer to extinction.
As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “The time for action is now. It’s never too late to do something.”