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The empty forest syndrome

The empty forest syndrome
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By: Kanchan Basu

“Three miles from our winter home, and in the heart of the forest, there is an open glade…. It was in this glade…. That I first saw the tiger who was known Provinces as ‘The Bachelor of Powalgarh’, who from 1920 to 1930 was the most sought-after big-game trophy in the province,” wrote Jim Corbett in Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944). The Bachelor, described by hunters to be “as big as a Shetland pony” was arguably one of the biggest tigers to have ever lived. He met his end at the hands of Corbett in the spring of 1930.

Thirty-three years later, and seven years before tiger hunting would be banned in India, in another spring, in another land, more than a thousand kilometers away from the cool greens of the Shivaliks, a hunter was hot on the heels of a massive tiger that had been leaving “tracks almost the size of soup plates”. Like the Bachelor, this giant, too, was no man-eater, though much like the Bachelor he, too, liked a few buffaloes every now and then. When the hunter, a maverick man named Syed Askari Hadi Ali Augustine Imam, finally saw the tiger for the first time, he described him as the size of “a polo pony”. This tiger too met his end, almost in the exact manner as the Bachelor – a bullet to his head that went through his skull.

“The Kul (Tiger) has been gone for many years now. Pothiya (Leopards) are also no longer heard of. All the large wild animals that we once had in plenty disappeared over the years,” says Lambu, one of the last of “native shikaris” – a term used by British for the Adivasi trackers and hunters whose jungle-craft was the key to any hunt – waving his hand towards the forests at a distance as he warmed his feet over the dying embers of a fire. It was in these forests around his village Jarwadih that the Bachelor of Hazaribagh was shot at a place called ‘Chunakhan’. Lambu, a Santhal Adivasi, was a permanent member of Tootoo’s team of trackers and had been instrumental in bringing Bachelor to the gun. But that was then. In the decades that followed, the wilderness of Hazaribagh and Powalgarh that birthed the two Bachelors would traverse two vastly differing trajectories.

The forests of Powalgarh, now an eponymously named conservation reserve, continue to reverberate with the roars of the tiger. Abutting the famous Corbett Tiger Reserve, they still harbor one of the highest densities of wild tigers in the entire world. Moreover, Powalgarh’s forests are an integral part of Uttarakhand’s massive tiger landscape that spans across the Shivaliks of Dehradun district in the west to Nainital in the east, beyond which it merges seamlessly into the Terai tiger landscape of Nepal and Uttar Pradesh.

The home of Hazaribagh’s Bachelor, however, withered away long ago. It has been decades since the tiger’s roar fell silent not just across the forests of Hazaribagh, but the entire length and breadth of the Chota Nagpur plateau, of which Hazaribagh was an integral part. Tigers were practically wiped out across Hazaribagh’s forests by the late 1980s, and the last resident tiger of the forests of Hazaribagh Wildlife Sanctuary disappeared in 1994. Poaching was the primary reason. The destruction of wildlife, however, didn’t stop at tigers.

Hazaribagh was once famed across Chota Nagpur not only as the land of thousand tigers, but also as the stronghold of the sambar deer, the primary prey of the big cat. The abundance of prey-species in Hazaribagh allowed it to harbor a very healthy population and diversity of predators – leopards, large packs of wild dogs as well as wolves.

However, within a decade of the tiger’s disappearance, these forests had been emptied of all its sambar deer, and the cheetal deer were reduced to a few dozen animals. With them disappeared the predators. With the forest department turning a blind eye, rampant bushmeat hunting wiped out nearly all medium and large mammalian fauna across Hazaribagh. It was a complete collapse of the food chain. Today, the 186.25 sq km Hazaribagh Wildlife Sanctuary, once the beating heart of Hazaribagh’s larger wilderness that spanned more than 3,000 sq km, is a classic example of the “empty forest syndrome” that afflicts nearly all of Jharkhand.

Apart from wild boars, a rare barking deer, a few captive deer and nilgai in an enclosure at Rajderwa – named so after the hunting lodge of the Raja of Ramgarh who once owned these forests – is all that the sanctuary has to show for its ungulate fauna. A few of these captive-bred cheetal were released into the sanctuary in recent years but it hasn’t made any difference to the steady ecological decline of the forest.

However, while the roars of the tiger and sawing of the leopards might no longer echo through the forests of Hazaribagh, these forests have not been quiet. One can hear the massive crushers from the many stone quarries that persistently chip away at the edge of the forest right outside the sanctuary, leaving behind ugly barren craters in their wake. One can also pick up the drone of vehicles as they whiz through the newly-constructed four-lane expressway that cuts through the heart of the sanctuary.

Elsewhere, in many of the district’s forests, one can hear the distant blasts emanating from lands that were once cloaked with forests but are now hollowed out for the “black gold” in their belly. Thousands of large Hyva trucks tar hinterland forest roads black with coal dust. The patch of forest which once pulsated with the call of the Bachelor of Hazaribagh in the early 1960s now trembles with the ceaseless tremors of convoys of coal-laden Hyvas passing through it during the day and into the night.

I remember the words of Francis Bradley Bradley-Birt, a British bureaucrat, who had described Hazaribagh thus more than a century ago – “This is the garden of Chota Nagpore, and that the motto over the old gateway of the Emperors at Delhi might well be written of Hazaribagh: ‘If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here.” No sooner had I remember it that a little voice suddenly whispered the words of a forester into my ears – “It’s all gone now, all gone.”

(The author hails from Kolkata)

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