New Delhi, 2012
(Note: First published here.)
The Kanha-Pench Corridor
The Kanha-Pench corridor in Central India offers crucial connectivity between the two important tiger source populations in Kanha and Pench through extensive tracts of forests. Such forest corridors offer much needed contiguity between different tiger populations, thereby preventing their isolation as well as subsequent loss of genetic vigour, and help in long term tiger conservation.
These corridor forests have water holes that are used by wild animals dispersing through the corridor during the summer months. These spots are vulnerable to poaching as poachers can easily target wild animals, including tigers, coming to drink water through use of traps and poisons. For the past two years, WWF-India’s Satpura Maikal Landscape (SML) Programme staff members have been engaged in extensive monitoring of such waterholes in the Kanha-Pench corridor during summer to prevent waterhole poisoning. The monitoring is done in collaboration with the Madhya Pradesh state Forest Department.
One such crucial water hole is located in the Atarwani beat of the South Seoni Forest Division in the corridor near the Pench Tiger Reserve. During tiger monitoring exercises it was found that tigers and other animals such as gaur, barking deer and several species of birds frequently visited this waterhole during summer.
The Poaching Attempt
On the evening of 29th March, Girish Patel, WWF-India Field Officer, while on his scheduled waterhole monitoring came across a group of villagers at the water hole. As he recounts, “I saw a group of villagers from different villages namely Atarwani, Sakhadehi, Dhobisara and Darasi. Curious, I asked why they were sitting there. They replied that they were just passing by. So I started moving towards the waterhole and to my surprise they followed me and I suddenly saw nets set up with bamboo near the waterhole. In a flash, I understood from my experience working in this area what they were up to. But instead of reacting in shock, I behaved normally and asked them about the nets. They admitted that they setup the traps for small mammals and birds. I casually took photographs and shot some video for documentary evidence. I soon left and immediately informed the Range Officer of that place as well as the Divisional Forest Officer and my seniors”.
Unfortunately, by the time Forest Department personnel reached the spot the suspected poachers had decamped but the traps setup around the water hole were confiscated. Due to the documentary evidence collected by Mr. Patel an arrest warrant was later issued against the suspects and the case is currently under investigation.
Prompt and decisive actions such these will create a deterrent among potential poachers and hence reduce the frequency of such incidents. Increased vigilance in this area will lead to better protection of tigers and other wildlife which in turn will improve the functionality of the critical Kanha Pench Corridor.
I’m pretty sure you must be a woman created by women because no sensible man would ever conceive you unless they were drunk, brain dead or bewitched by some woman. Let me ask you straight up. What, in all that is good in this beautiful world’s name, is the life threatening, earth shattering necessity to marry? More than that, why on earth are Indians, in particular, so bent on getting married as soon as the number 2 enters in front of their age? Is it some national cultural genetic switch that gets turned on as soon as we enter our twenties? And then every woman and man transforms into this partner seeking missile that will not rest until it has homed in on its equally clueless but activated target.
I understand marriage is an important legal institution that is perhaps the backbone of modern civilization. But please, my dear relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues, family friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, uncles and aunties, and random well wishers, let me choose the time when I want to marry. Do not hound me at every random marriage of the second cousin of my mother’s first cousin with questions about how I’ve not settled down yet! Please stop pestering my parents too. And please, pretty please with nice Belgian black chocolate wafers on top, do not offer to look for women for me or upload my profile on some random matrimonial website. I’m all of 31 years old and therefore an adult by every possible legal, biological, social and cultural definition. Let me find my own woman, dammit!
It is another point entirely that sensible women who do not melt at the very thought of marriage and do not go weak kneed at the very sight of a child are so rare to find in India. I mean, for god’s sake, maine pure Hindustan mein chaan bheen kar liya, but so far only have inflated travel bills and a carbon footprint that will scare the bejesus out of the climate change advocates to show for my efforts.
Let me ask you dear goddess, since you being of the other sex, why are almost all Indian women so enamored to commit themselves to the slavery of man and become factories of reproduction? I’ve seen women give up their careers, their individuality nay their very freedom to satisfy their man and keep some archaic institution called marriage going. Have they really been brain washed by all the brainless bollywood Shah Rukh/Karan Johar combo romances into blind submission?
And men, my poor dear comrades-in-gender. Alas! What is wrong with you? On one hand you sing paeans to the joys of bachelorhood and beer drinking and then in an instant you bind yourself to the boring, mundane anonymity of marriage. And your stock answer is, “Mummy ne bola tho shadhi kar liya, aur kya karoon?” Aur kya karoon? Don’t you have a brain crazy person?
You see dear goddess, there is no hope left in this world. One ofter the other, I’ve seen my friends take the plunge and disappear into some strange alternate universe that is peopled with only other married people who all speak the same weird language of “nahi yaar, aaj nahi, ghar mein wife wait kar rahi hai”, “no dude, I’m no longer lucky like you, she will have my balls if I go home late” and the saddest of all “arrey, woh din tho gaye ab, home minister wait kar rahi hai ghar par, jaana padega dost”.
Is this what I also have to look forward to? A life of rigid discipline, unending nagging and constant arguments? Whatever happened to companionship, mutual space, trust, and those two most abused four letter words in the world – true love? Call me old fashioned, foolishly romantic or if you are being very uncharitable a ch***ya or a f**king stupid idiot but I firmly believe that if you cannot find the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with then you have no right to get married, leave alone let your parents find you your life partner!
You must be wondering, dear goddess, after reading about 700 words so far, what is the blooming point of this letter? Worry not madam…point pe aa raha hoon main. Please spare me dear goddess from this torture until I want it! Since even the gods need a lit bit of give and take, let’s make a simple deal…I’ll find all the bakras you need from both sides of the gender divide to keep your business going. In return you spare me from the stupidity of never ending questions from all and sundry. Isn’t this a win-win deal?
Thanking you for your earliest attention.
2011, New Delhi.
An eye witness account of the translocation of rhinos carried out in Assam between 27-29 Dec 2010 and 17-19 Jan 2011.
Note: An edited version of this was first published as a special feature in the Jan-March 2011 edition of Panda.
It is 5 am on a Tuesday morning, towards the end of 2010, and a thick fog conceals the vast grasslands of the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, located about 60 km east of Guwahati. I’m on the back of an elephant, for the first time in my life I should add, sitting behind the mahout and hanging on for dear life with one hand while trying to shoot with a video camera with the other hand. We are following three elephants, each of which has one veterinarian equipped with a tranquilizing gun. Much ahead of them, lost in the gloom of the fog, is the locator team. Waiting behind at the elephant camp is the logistics team along with forest department officials and guards, WWF and other NGO staff as well as a host of other support staff. All of them are part of the team tasked with translocating rhinos from Pobitora to Manas National Park in northern Assam under the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020, see below).
The sun is still not up but a faint glow suffuses the fog. An occasional bird call and grunts of the elephants disturb the stillness of the early morning. I slip into a pleasant limbo induced by the gentle rocking of the elephant. But it does not last long. A burst of static shatters the stillness. The locator team is contacting the veterinarians through the wireless. And they have some good news. They have found a couple of rhinos and apprise the team of the location. We rush together into the fog. By this time the sun has risen and is a pale disc hanging low in the sky. Suddenly, a little ahead of us, a silhouette resolves itself into the thick outlines of a rhino. Behind it is another rhino.
The First Attempt
The elephant I’m on falls back a little while the elephants of the tranquilizing team take up a triangular position to box in the rhino and enable correct targeting. Each tranquilizing gun is loaded with a diluted solution of the powerful narcotic-Etorphine. I’m told one undiluted drop of which if exposed to bare skin is capable of killing an adult human within minutes! However, the rhino doesn’t play to their plan. It quickly cuts through the fourth side before the doctors can take proper aim. We follow him and there begins a fruitless chase that lasts more than an hour and a half. By this time the sun has climbed the eastern sky. The fog has also cleared improving visibility. The tranquilizing team decides to leave this unsporting rhino alone and they move to a different location with the locator team. I return to the base camp to join the remaining translocation team there. I’m actually grateful for the chance to dismount the elephant, even if it was an enjoyable experience, as it was not easy shooting with one hand while hanging on to only a rope with the other hand.
The Second Attempt
The locator and tranquilizing teams then move off to a new location in another part of the sanctuary in the hopes of having better luck at finding rhinos. But little did they know that their luck would stay rotten until early afternoon. After a series of near misses, partial hits and uncooperative rhinos the tranquilizing team finally meets with success and manages to tranquilize a female. The rest of us rush to the new location to find the rhino tottering with her concerned calf hovering nearby. A decision is taken to tranquilize the sub-adult rhino also as it is a female too and more importantly would keep the mother and her calf together.
The mother quickly falls asleep and the logistics team swings into action. A bulldozer is brought in to dig a shallow trench next to the tranquilized rhino so that a platform can be placed there onto which the rhino can be rolled. This is soon accomplished.
Meanwhile, the doctors conduct a quick examination of the rhino including measuring its length and breadth, taking a blood sample and clipping a piece of the ear for later identification. A radio collar with a GPS locator is affixed around the neck of the rhino to facilitate tracking of the rhino post-release in Manas.
After the examination, the rhino is rolled onto the platform and the bulldozer then moves the platform to where the crate that will be used to transport the rhino is located. Next, a carefully coordinated exercise is undertaken which first involves bringing the rhino into the crate with the platform followed by administration of the revivant and removal of the platform once the rhino is awake to fully close and lock the crate. An exercise that involves at least 20 people, two bulldozers and ropes and chains to execute in the correct way. A crane is then brought in to carefully raise the crate and lower it onto a truck. Throughout this whole operation the rhino is watered at regular intervals to keep it cool. The same sequence is repeated for the sub-adult female as well. Once the rhinos have adjusted to the crates we retire for a quick lunch and a trip back to our rooms to pack our luggage.
It is time now to start the long road journey through the night to Manas National Park, located about 260 km away in the north of Assam. The convoy starts with a police van in front providing security followed by the trucks with the rhino crates behind which the various other vehicles such as the veterinarians and us follow. Except for a temporary breakdown of one of the rhino trucks and the crane driver getting lost and finding the rest of the convoy again the journey through the night passes off uneventfully. We reach Manas just as dawn is breaking at around 5 am.
Everything is ready. Two ramps have been hollowed out for the trucks to facilitate the release of the rhinos. Everyone takes a short break as the trucks make their way to the release site. The release site is a small clearing in front of dense grasslands. The trucks are in place. The post release rhino monitoring and tracking teams are ready on elephants nearby. We make our way to one of the machans set up next to the release site to observe and record the proceedings below. The crates are then lowered from the trucks by the crane. The doctors do one last check of the rhinos within. They seem to be fine and look ready to get out and explore their new home. People are cleared from the site. It is time.
First, the gate of the crate containing the calf is raised. She comes out, understandably a little miffed at being confined in a crate for the night. So she tries to bite the truck. She then turns around and runs to her mother’s crate, which is also being raised. The calf passes in front of the mother and veers off. However, in the heat of the moment and since rhinos have poor eyesight, they both miss seeing each other and the calf vanishes into the jungle. The released mother instantly goes over to her daughter’s cage. She then wanders over to some feed from her daughter’s cage kept under a machan. There are about 10 people on the machan including me observing and recording the proceedings. She is huge and fills the viewfinder of my video camera. For a moment I’m stunned as the sheer size of the rhino belatedly hits me. Quite literally, as if reading my thoughts, while turning away from the machan the rhino below us does hit one of the wooden pillars of the machan with her side. The whole machan is rattled and sways but fortunately for all of us the rhino moves forward and the machan stays. The rhino is presumably following the smell of her calf as rhinos have an excellent sense of smell, better than their eyesight.
The rhino then moves to the truck of her daughter again but this time approaches the driver’s window. The poor driver inside is shocked to suddenly find this huge rhino filling up his window. He shrinks back and the rhino disturbed by his sudden movement also moves away. Now, some colourful plastic chairs placed a little distance away from the release site attract her attention. She charges them and plays the rhino version of football with them, shattering a few chairs instantly in the process! She soon settles down though and veers off into the adjacent grasslands and eventually into the forest. The post-release monitoring and tracking team soon sets off on elephants after her to track her by her GPS radio collar and check if she has united with her calf.
We all heave a sigh of relief and the translocation team is happy that, except for the brief period of excitement towards the end, everything has gone to plan. The story has a fitting end with the news coming in a few days later from the post release monitoring team that the mother and daughter had united and were settling down in their new home. Happy endings happen in the natural world too.
A second phase of translocation soon followed in the New Year from 17th to 18th January 2011 and this time a total of 4 rhinos were translocated in one shot that included 2 females, one male and one sub-adult male. In spite of the huge task of translocating and releasing 4 rhinos, never done before in India, the Translocation Core Committee ensured that everything went without a hitch.
A Chronological Photo Essay of the Translocation
Hover your mouse over the thumbnails for photo captions.
The IRV 2020 is a joint programme of the Department of Environment and Forests – Government of Assam, WWF-India and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) with support from the Bodoland Territorial Council, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the local communities. The programme’s vision is to increase Assam’s rhino population to 3000 by 2020, which will be done by wild-to-wild translocation from Kaziranga National Park and Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary to Manas and Dibru Saikhowa National Parks as well as Laokhowa and Burachopari Wildlife Sanctuaries.
Assam accounts for the largest population of Indian rhinoceros. Though rhino numbers in the state have grown from 2000 in 2005 to over 2200 in 2009, more than 90% of these live in just one Protected Area, which is the Kaziranga National Park. The IRV 2020 programme aims to secure the long-term survival of wild rhinos in Assam by expanding their distribution to reduce risks like disease, in-breeding depression and mass mortality.
Under this programme, the first phase of wild-to-wild translocations was carried out in April 2008 when two male rhinos were re-introduced into Manas National Park from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. The current translocations are a part of phase two of the translocations. During this second phase, a total of eighteen rhinos are proposed to be translocated from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary and Kaziranga National Park to Manas National Park in batches.
(Note: a modified version was first published here.)
Advocacy to protect an important forest block in Central India’s Kanha-Pench corridor
The importance of corridors
Tigers need space due to their territorial nature. Sub-adult tigers are forced to move away from their birth ranges to adjacent protected areas to establish new territories. In this process they make use of available corridor forests that connect protected areas. The Kanha-Pench corridor covering an area of 16,000 sq km in Central India offers such crucial connectivity between the two major tiger source populations in Kanha and Pench through extensive tracts of forests. Together with the Kanha-Achanakmar corridor in Chhattisgarh, these forest tracts form one of the most important tiger habitats in the world. Such forest corridors offer much needed contiguity between different tiger populations, thereby preventing their isolation as well as subsequent loss of genetic vigour, and help in long term tiger conservation.
The Kopijhola Forest Block
The Kanha-Pench corridor is made up of different forest administrative blocks. One such important forest block is Kopijhola-Sonekhar, covering an area of 182 sq. km. The Kopijhola village has a population of about 450 people who depend on the forests for livelihood. In spite of the human settlement, the area around Kopijhola has good bamboo forests, mixed forests and teak plantations.
A survey on tiger occupancy by Wildlife Institute of India and WWF-India recorded the presence of tiger in the Kopijhola-Sonekhar block, including a direct sighting. This forest is also home to other wild animals like leopards, hyena, wild dogs, sambar, four-horned antelope, spotted deer and palm civet, to name a few. Subsequent to the tiger occupancy survey, WWF-India’s Central India field team consisting of Senior Project Officers-Sanjay Thakur and Jyotirmay Jena undertook a rapid survey of the Kopijhola Forest Block to assess its biodiversity and current status. During the survey, apart from megafauna, the team also recorded 30 species of butterflies and 57 species of birds. River Hirri flows across the forest block and has water availability even in summer. This availability of a perennial water source has resulted in the presence of sufficient prey base for tigers.
But worryingly though, the team came across logging activities in this forest block and adjoining beats by the Madhya Pradesh State Forest Corporation (MPSFC), an enterprise of the Forest Department that extracts forest timber and other forest produces to be sold commercially. Nearly 5600 hectares of forest had been handed over to the Corporation in 2009 and 2010. In addition, the whole Kopijhola-Sonekhar forest block was proposed to be handed over to Forest Corporation to start commercial production operations.
As this transfer would have led to a rapid loss of the forests in the block and fragmentation of the Kanha-Pench corridor, WWF-India’s team presented the results of the tiger occupancy survey and the rapid survey to Mr. L.K. Chowdhary, IFS and Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF), Seoni Circle, Madhya Pradesh Forest Department and recommended that this handover be stopped. Not only did the CCF act on the survey results and WWF-India’s recommendations, he also put an end to all existing logging activities in it. This decision will help in keeping the forest block intact.
Going forward, WWF-India is working with the Forest Department to ensure the activities of MPSFC are limited to the existing plantations and all new felling and planting activities are regulated throughout the Kanha-Pench corridor. This will maintain the connectivity between the important tiger populations of Kanha and Pench, thereby contributing to the dispersal of tigers and long term survival of their populations in Central India’s forests.