Mission: Melghat A forest to die for By Kishor Rithe Sanctuary, August 1999. Night of the tiger I still remember that day 10 years ago. It was one of Vidarbha‟s hottest summers and water was scarce in the Melghat Tiger Reserve. That was why we gratefully accepted the advice and hospitality of the Field Director who suggested we sit over waterholes on machans, in the hope of seeing a tiger. Dusk had not yet set in and I had dropped off the last of several nature camp participants to selected waterholes after instructing them carefully as to how they should and should not behave. I myself chose to sit with two youngsters at the Fitakaripani waterhole. En route we had seen herds of gaur, sambar, chital and two magnificent barking deer. It had already been a great wildlife outing and whatever else was in store for us would be a pure bonus. We had barely settled down on the rickety wooden platform at 6.30 p.m. when one of Melghat‟s famous early monsoon showers broke. In moments we were soaked to the skin. I was glad for the animals of Melghat. God knows they needed the rain. An hour passed and the forest had turned humid and muggy and tiny biting insects had started to make a meal of us when we heard the sambar alarm 100 m. to my left. Several sambar and langur alarm calls accompanied the cat as it moved slowly towards the waterhole over which we were sitting. As it passed a small clearing, we saw the outline of the animal in the light reflected by the clouds. Then, barely breathing, we heard the tiger lapping thirstily at the water 15 m. from where we sat. It was electric. A reason to live Melghat is more than just home to me. In its forested glades, I feel a sense of purpose and life that eludes me in Amravati, where I teach at the engineering college. I have been deeply involved with Melghat on and off for nearly 15 years. I know this hilly forest well and have watched it emerge from an unknown, disturbed wilderness to become one of India‟s finest tiger habitats. I first came to Melghat as a child of 10 and have been drawn by its magic since. As I grew older, I took to bringing friends, who were equally moved, to „my‟ forest. They are now part of the team that works for Melghat under the banner of the Nature Conservation Society, Amravati. In many ways Melghat‟s anonymity served it well for it was spared the kind of tourism that is the bane of Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Ranthambhore. But there is a downside to its lack of public exposure. Powerful people who have little love for forests or wildlife have been attracted to the mineral and timber wealth of Melghat. Hiding behind a development veil, they rip and tear at its innards. And when an alarm is raised, it is more difficult to enlist public support than for other better known wilderness areas. Harming heaven This has enabled a legion of exploiters to pillage these teak forests in the past few years. It has also allowed a misguided government to push in thousands of labourers and heavy earth-moving equipment to cut crude roads through hitherto undisturbed riverine forests, wetlands and plateaus. Ignoring the damage this does to catchment forests that spread across less than four per cent of Vidarbha, yet supply this dry region over 30 per cent of its fresh water, they now plan to construct destructive hydroelectric schemes such as the Chikaldhara Pumped Storage Project and the Upper Tapi Stage II dam. Together with our group of volunteers, I have sworn to fight these forces with every available resource at my command. Despite these traumas, I hasten to add that Melghat is still alive and parts of it so vibrant that an untrained eye might well accuse people like us of scare mongering. Melghat still has the capacity to take your breath away with its exquisite beauty, amazing wildlife sightings and its austere splendour. But it has undoubtedly been wounded and asks of us now that we leave it in peace to heal. That is why I have put pen to paper... to ask Sanctuary readers to share my pain and to help protect the forest I love. People matter This is the right time for me to acknowledge the debt of gratitude I owe to Mr. M.G.Gogte. It was his talk to us on April 26, 1991 that pushed me towards a mission that has taken over my life – the protection of the Melghat Tiger Reserve. He was then the Field Director of Melghat and he spoke from his heart to NCSA members, including myself , in the open hall of the Nature Interpretation complex at Semadoh: “Project Tiger is not a programme to breed tigers. The tiger is merely a symbol of biological diversity, like an army‟s flag. To protect wild tigers we must protect wild herbivores, the plants they eat and the water they drink. Officers, ministers, and politicians will come and go but organisations like the NCSA and its motivated young members are permanent. Melghat needs you. It will always need you. You must fight for Melghat.” I still have the diary in which I wrote down his words that day. I continue to follow his advice, even though it now pits me against the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden, Gogte himself. Chief Wildlife Wardens are being forced under political pressure to recommend schemes like the Chikaldhara Pumped Storage Project, which they might wish personally to stop. Driving through the lush, steep valley leading to the Rajanikhora stream that channels water down from the Vairat plateau in the Satpura mountains, I thought back to the day in 1987 when I met yet another man who had inspired me – Maruti Chitampalli. A renowned Marathi litterateur, he was the Dy. Field Director of Melghat in 1987 and had won a battle to prevent the shooting of dholes as vermin in Maharashtra. He taught us the value of undertaking field studies and studying empirical data for our conservation battles. Praveen Pardeshi, from whom I have learned almost everything I know about protecting forests, was the Chief Executive Officer of Zilla Parishad of Amravati District when Mr. Gogte was the Field Director in the early 1990s. Together they nurtured Melghat, using people‟s participation to reduce biotic pressures on the forest. Shree Bhagwan, a soft-spoken, but dedicated forest officer showed how encroachments could be freed through sensitivity and dialogue. These people turned me from someone who merely enjoyed nature, into one who lives to defend it. The fall of Melghat And Melghat certainly needs our defence. Herds of gaur that used to be encountered frequently from Semadoh to Raipur and on the Dolar plateau where the core area starts are more difficult to see on account of disturbances. Only in the tiny, peaceful core area of the Gugamal National Park are sloth bears, jungle cats, leopards and tigers easily found. A lack of political support sadly saw 500 sq. km. of the forest denotified. Domestic dogs began to chase wild animals. Fires raged across the reserve in summer. Tiger poachers were emboldened by this lack of control. I was witness to villagers from Pili and Keli transporting tiger skins to Indore in Madhya Pradesh in 1995. A water hole was poisoned on April 21, 1998. A tiger was found dead near Dhargad on June 4, 1998 and near Somthana on June 27, 1998. By mid- 1998 I had been appointed the Honorary Wildlife Warden, Amravati and I began investigating several leads with renewed vigour. Together with some of the best forest officers in the department we made arrests and recently broke vital links in the poaching gangs. Renotifying and recovering Melghat But these on-going problems pale in comparison with the harm done by road builders, miners and dam contractors. As if all this were not bad enough, a few years ago the starvation and malnutrition deaths in the Korku communities (see box) that took place away from the tiger reserve, were blamed on Project Tiger. Both human rights activists and the PWD now began to clamour for roads, without pausing to question the rationale, since none of the villages inside the tiger reserve had been affected. Bridges, electricity towers, quarrying, tree felling, all followed in the wake of these ill-advised demands, attracting still more people seeking to profit from the forest. The trusting Korku people and their forests in Melghat will now almost certainly suffer the exploitation they had so far been spared. And the good work of the past is likely to be undone, unless all concerned – politicians, NGOs, forest officers and the public agree to support sensible steps such as the renotification of Melghat, upgrading anti-poaching and fire protection facilities and the effective removal of roadside encroachments that are creeping up at places like Semadoh. The Collector of Amravati, O. P. Gupta, is an enlightened officer and has said he will help save Melghat. The Maharashtra Wildlife Advisory Board has very recently recommended the renotification of Melghat, and many good forest officers await the day this welcome step is taken. Meanwhile, the Field Director, Mr. Patki, has finally been given full charge of the Melghat Tiger Reserve as of May 1, 1999, after years of vacillation. This will allow him to prevent official tree-felling outside the core area for the first time. A Melghat recovery is on the cards. Provided the political will to save Melghat exists. BOX: Let them eat roads News of widespread malnutrition-related deaths in the Korku community living in the greater Melghat region, outside the tiger reserve, first came to light in 1991-92. The state administration blamed Project Tiger for the tragedy. Subsequently, the Nalinakshan and Sinha Committees confirmed that the geography of infant mortality was outside the tiger reserve in the Dharni and Chikaldhara talukas and that the communities inside were protected from malnutrition because they had access to barks, tubers, creepers, mahua flowers, fish and crabs . Ignoring this vital finding, a proposal was floated to build black-topped roads to 59 villages to „counter malnutrition‟. Rs. 30 crores was spent on 40,000 people who never once in their history had need of tanker water, or emergency food aid from the Maharashtra government. The road construction violated the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980. The construction led to erosion and degradation of scarce water sources. Forest fires were spread by the fires lit by workers along road alignments. Maruti 800s can now access areas where even four-wheel drive vehicles had trouble. Road kills are common. Ironically, the Korkus in whose name the roads were built, do not use the roads, preferring to stay with their shorter, shadier and safer forest paths. They justifiably ask why this money was spent? The ill-advised road building spree will actually encourage inward migration of middlemen in search of profits from timber, resins, medicinal plants and minerals. These trends can only undermine the forest and the food security of Korku families.