By Dr Samir Kr Sinha
A beautiful expanse featuring seven types of forests on the rises, valleys and floodplains of the Himalayan foothills, Bihar’s Valmiki Tiger Reserve is today a Protected Area that wildlife lovers and conservationists see as an exemplar of success. July 2017 brought another laurel to its credit: it was selected for the prestigious ‘RBS Earth Guardian Award’ for 2017, which will be conferred in a ceremony in New Delhi in October.
Even about 15 years ago, however, Valmiki was derided as the ‘tiger reserve without tigers’. Sure, there were over 50 tigers on the Protected Area’s official files, but these figures were skewed – an obvious overestimate probably resulting from the pugmark census method, with all its innate weaknesses, that was used to count big cats.
Bullets and Bandits
Valmiki was declared a tiger reserve in 1994, but by the turn of the century it was apparent that while the forest itself was healthy, the very thin herbivore population was affecting tiger density. Management and protection were also at their lowest ebb, for obvious reasons: the staff guarding the approximately 880 sq km Protected Area used to get their salary at an interval of 12 to 13 months and no full time field director had been appointed!
The late Ashok Kumar, eminent conservationist and Wildlife Trust of India’s Founder-Trustee, took the matter before the Hon’ble Supreme Court through a Public Interest Litigation in 2001-02. This proved to be a turning point in Valmiki’s history, forcing the state government to be more attentive to the needs of the tiger reserve. By mid-2003 Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) had also started a long-term conservation project in Valmiki in partnership with the Bihar Forest Department and with funding support from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I was given the opportunity to steer the project on the ground, receiving additional support from the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), Germany; the Prince Bernhard Nature Fund; and Tata Trusts.
Gangs of armed bandits occupied the forests when I first began working in Valmiki in 2003. The threat of being kidnapped for ransom was always on one’s doorstep.
Gangs of armed bandits occupied the forests when I first began working in Valmiki in 2003. The threat of being kidnapped for ransom was always on one’s doorstep until 2006-07, when the situation was brought under control thanks to the changed governance in the state. At this time, though, the threat of left-wing extremism began rearing its ugly head in the area – and Valmiki once again offered a convenient hideout. All of this, as you can imagine, made the working conditions quite unfavourable! On our field walks, during the course of which we traversed hundreds of kilometres (the exact figure from my data sheet comes to 467 km), on at least two occasions we were hurt due to stone pelting by people collecting the ‘Medh’ bark and asparagus – two important Non-timber Forest Produce of Valmiki – whom we encountered near Daruabari village. But the support of the local daily wage forest staff helped us a lot in overcoming such hurdles.
The anthropogenic pressure exerted by the inhabitants of the approximately 150 villages located on the fringes of the tiger reserve was another major concern. Working with the local communities was important, yet so was ensuring protection. Between 2004 and 2006 forest officials diligently worked to curtail the rampant illegal boulder mining, especially in the eastern part of the tiger reserve. The late BP Sinha, the Divisional Forest Officer during this period, fought day and night to stop illegal mining. During a raid on a mining operation he narrowly escaped a bullet targeting him, fired by a member of the timber mafia. The bullet hit one of the daily wagers, Pashpat Baitha, but fortunately he survived after a major surgery at Patna.
Initially, I found signs of tiger presence almost throughout the reserve, except in Chiutaha, a small forest range. However, the low frequency with which I encountered such signs suggested a low tiger density. Later, in 2005-06, I got a couple of camera traps and successfully photographed a tigress with her two cubs. The trap cam photographs finally defied the perception of a ‘tigerless Valmiki’!
Family and Friends
With the appointment of a full-time field director in 2004-05 and the creation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority in 2005, the situation became more favourable for the tiger reserve in terms of the flow of funds. During the period between 2005-06 (Rs 91.5 lakh) and 2016-17 (Rs 515.91 lakh), funds received from central assistance have increased almost six-fold. This has given impetus to habitat management, protection, monitoring and community work, which has been diligently implemented by the authorities.
WTI has supported the tiger reserve throughout these years with an array of long-term activities including wildlife population monitoring, research to aid management decisions, community dependency reduction, capacity building and morale boosting of frontline staff, and legal interventions to safeguard habitat. It was an especially tough task to build a rapport with the villagers in Done Valley – a 45 sq km area which has 25 villages with minimal facilities, where we have implemented dependence reduction measures. In such a remote location, finding a place to set up a field station and placing a sociologist was a challenge. However, my colleague Kaushik Deb made it happen. He lives among the villagers and has secured a social space for himself in the area. Now, ‘our family’ in the valley extends to 53 women Self Help Groups with a membership of 700 households across seven villages, who are adopting various measures to reduce their dependence on the tiger reserve.
Further, by restocking gharials in the Gandak River that flows contiguous to the Protected Area, WTI, with funding support from the Bihar Forest Department, has ensured that Valmiki flourishes not only as a tiger habitat but also as a landscape conserving other threatened species.
The RBS Earth Guardian Award has increased expectations from Valmiki Tiger Reserve and now is certainly not the time for the authorities and stakeholders to be complacent.
In Valmiki’s resurgence, the personal interest shown by the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar, the Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi, and the former forest minister Jagdanand Singh in matters related to the tiger reserve has been of vital importance. The role of Valmiki’s foot soldiers has also been paramount, with some daily wagers such as Harihar Yadav and Dharamdev Mahto even losing their lives while defending the Protected Area from poachers. The attitude of the fringe villagers towards the reserve, following the curtailment of their privileges of resource extraction from the reserve due to legal implications, has also been changing gradually, which is a great support. More effort is needed, however, to improve the situation further.
The RBS Earth Guardian Award has increased expectations from Valmiki Tiger Reserve and now is certainly not the time for the authorities and stakeholders to be complacent. The weaknesses and threats to this magnificent Protected Area need to identified and addressed meticulously, for there is plenty of room for improvement – especially in the deployment of permanent frontline staff, which is long awaited and critically required. This recognition, while it is well deserved, is based on past performance. The initiatives taken in the present will decide the awards and rewards to come to Valmiki in the future – as the RBS award is being celebrated, this too needs to be cogitated.
The author is Deputy Director and Head – Species Recovery and Protected Area Recovery, Wildlife Trust of India. He also heads the Valmiki Conservation Project.