August 2011: It was a surprisingly pleasant morning. As the convoy made its way through the forests of Kawal, the air was thick with anticipation. Their fingers crossed, forest officials scoured the surrounding trees for signs of wildlife. It was June 1, 2011 and Nadendla Manohar, Speaker, Andhra Pradesh Assembly, was visiting the neglected Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary along with members of the Legislative Assembly Committee for Environment and Wildlife (LACEW) including G. Arvind Reddy, the host MLA and M. Rajesh Kumar, the state’s youngest MLA.
I was doubtful that we would see any animals – our convoy alone had 20 vehicles and several more police vans were making rounds in the forest. As we drove past the Kadam canal we spotted a herd of 55 wild pigs and three gaur including a huge male. Just before this, we had sighted a pair of nilgai peeking at us shyly through the trees and very soon, a herd of seven chital in the foliage. From a tourism perspective, this was not much, but for Kawal enthusiasts like us who had seen the area in a horribly degenerate condition, it was a heartwarming sight.
IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Sanctuary readers are well aware of Kawal’s history (Vol. XXX No. 6, December 2010). Once a proud repository of stunning biodiversity, the combination of poaching, indiscriminate land use and government neglect led to its downfall. Forest corridors connecting Kawal to the Tadoba-Andhari and Indravati Tiger Reserves faced severe degradation and fragmentation. Local communities led by some shortsighted politicians took advantage of the Forest Rights Act and carved out large chunks of the forest for themselves. Naxalism had weakened local administration and the influx of migrants in search of ‘land for nothing’ from nearby areas added to the pressure on limited resources. Aborginal Gonds, Kollams and Naikapodus, who the Forest Rights Act wished to benefit, actually faced a major threat to their way of life, just the same way as Kawal’s wildlife did. This anthropogenic pressure whittled the prey base and adversely affected the large cat population. In just one year of patrolling, 400 traps, 12 poaching attempts and 20 smuggling networks were exposed by the Wildlife Trust of India and the Nimmagadda Foundation working under the name ‘Kawal Conservation Project.’ If not for this handful of NGOs and committed wildlife lovers, Kawal’s downward spiral seemed predestined.
Fortunately, Kawal, received a breath of life when the sanctuary was adopted by LACEW as a pilot project. A Kawal Advisory Board was formed and meetings are regularly being held to discuss the fate of Kawal under the chairmanship of dynamic forest officer A.V. Joseph, APCCF. Local administration bodies, community leaders and NGOs including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society (HyTiCoS) lent considerable strength to the initiative. This attention was vital to the beleaguered wilderness. Earlier the Chief Minister promised support for Kawal’s tigers, the first sign that political will might come to the aid of tigers in Andhra Pradesh. The 893 sq. km. sanctuary was proposed as a tiger reserve by several politicians and the Forest Department forwarded an application to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Following a discussion between Nandendla Manohar and Jairam Ramesh, the then Minister for Environment and Forests, an “in-principle approval” was granted.
NOT JUST TIGERS
Kawal witnesses some unlikely range overlaps, for example gaur-chinkara-blackbuck-nilgai and dhole-wolf-Indian fox. The forest is a living laboratory for students and experienced field biologists who can play a huge role in helping to turn Kawal into a conservation success story.
Though difficult to spot, the signs of tigers, leopards, wolves and wild dogs have been regularly encountered along with sightings of chinkara, nilgai, Indian foxes and chousingha. The teak-dominated landscape is interspersed with bamboo patches, grasslands and semi-evergreen forests and is watered by a rich network of streams and waterbodies. The checklist for Kawal includes 250 plus birds, more than 30 species of reptiles and over 20 species of bats. The floral diversity includes 600 species, 250 of which are flowering trees. This picturesque landscape is in the catchment area of three major rivers of Adilabad district, the Peddavagu, Kadam and the mighty Godavari.
THE WAY FORWARD
Progress, though slow, is taking place. The District Collector issued orders to make LPG gas connections available at subsidised rates to villages around the park to reduce their dependency on fuelwood. Elders of two villages have asked that their settlements be shifted nearer to the canal and a stall feeding programme for cattle is underway in one village. The Andhra Pradesh government has put together a tourism development plan for the reserve that positions local communities as the prime beneficiaries. Sixteen anti-poaching camps employing locals have been approved.
The tiger reserve status is Kawal’s best hope for survival. Not opting for protection would deliver the forest into the hands of the timber and mining mafia, to the detriment of both the park and the people living around the park. Without a shadow of doubt, the upgradation will help tribals whose sustenance comes from the forest because this declaration has been designed with them in mind as principal beneficiaries of conservation.
Adilabad is a district south of Maharashtra separated by the rivers Penganga and Pranahitha in the heart of which lies the Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary. It forms a major catchment for the Ganga of the South – the Godavari. Originally Kawal was notified as a game sanctuary in 1965 and was given the status of a wildlife sanctuary in 1973. The final notification was issued in 1999 after settlement of rights.
These are the steps contemplated right away:
A detailed survey of the landscape to identify communities living in and around the park, to document their legitimate needs.
A management plan for the reserve that is grounded in science and such that the benefits of ecosystem restoration are principally fed into forest protection and the local community.
Institute an effective anti-poaching protocol, which can also tackle and expose other illegal activities.
Reinstitute foot patrols to ensure that traps and snares are detected so as to prevent the indiscriminate decimation of wildlife.
Reorganise beats and ranges reducing the average administrative area and filling up of extra posts by offering locals the first option for jobs in the Forest Department and for anti-poaching duties.
A curb on illegal grazing and wood cutting and a programme to incentivise stall feeding and milk cooperatives.
If villages are willing to relocate, baithaks (sittings) to be organised by Gram Sabhas.
In our view, the above steps will define future conservation policies and strategies for most states in India. As for Kawal, we intend to follow through to ensure that the nay-sayers are countered, whether they be industrialists, or short-sighted social activists whose lack of faith in nature prompts them to mislead and instigate communities to reject even such efforts as might greatly improve their lot.
By Imran Siddiqui, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 4, August 2011