From a land well known for the hunting hound – the Mudhol hound – pulling off a Chinkara Sanctuary does not just speak of the efforts of humans, but also the tenacity of our wildlife to survive despite all odds.
As I chronicled the consolidation of an area for the conservation of the Chinkara (Gazella benettii), also known as the Indian Gazelle, I realised that every battle for conservation is hard fought with sustained efforts. This effort spans over four decades concerning a small patch of forests of around 10,000 Ha in the Bilgi and Mudhol taluks of Bagalkot district in Karnataka.
Google map of the same area, a small stretch of low hills form the major portion of the sanctuary.
The Chinkara is one of the most beautiful antelopes in India. It was quite common in old Bijapur and parts of Belgaum districts, which were in the erstwhile state of Bombay before the 1956 re-organisation of states. One used to come across them in forests as well as in agricultural fields bordering the forest areas. Wood cutters, shepherds, gum collectors and other people working in the forest frequently spotted new born fawns, which were irresistible to them. So it was not uncommon to see Chinkaras as pets in the villages, temples and other religious places. Although it was difficult to wean them and mortality was high, many were reared successfully and they thrived. They made for affectionate pets and mingled with domestic livestock. Unlike Blackbucks, they never ventured into the cultivated lands on the plains, although they were seen in the cultivated fields adjoining the forest during early mornings and late evenings.
A Chinkara fawn which was captive among cowherds, a rallying point to find out more.
Interestingly, this antelope did not show up in any of the wildlife surveys done in Karnataka from the 1980s and wildlife biologists had declared it extinct within the geo-political boundaries of Karnataka.
Over-exploitation of forest resources started at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially during the periods of war. Even scrub forests were not spared. Specific areas were earmarked for extraction of timber and other forest produce. Even today we can see the remnants of the roads built expressly for these activities. However, one must admit that the post-independence era saw major destruction of forests. In the late fifties and early sixties, the Ghataprabha left bank canal system was built. One major branch cuts across the entire length of the forest in the Mudhol and Bilgi ranges, where the Chinkara sanctuary is now being established. The disturbance caused by such projects, especially blasting etc. was too intense for a narrow strip of forest surrounded on all sides by thickly populated and cultivated areas. The activities of the ever increasing human population added to further degradation of the habitat. We could see a clear decline in wildlife population. Leopards have not been seen here since. Wild Boars and peafowl almost disappeared. Wolves and hyenas were rarely sighted. Chinkaras retreated to some interior pockets.
Landscape of the Chinkara Sanctuary
During the dry season temperatures are high and water is scarce, making it a very challenging landscape.
In mid and late seventies, the forest department fenced some areas with barbed wire. In these protected areas there was a good growth of trees, bushes, grass etc. This provided an ideal shelter for all kinds of wildlife, and the population in general began to increase. Simultaneously, from the mid-seventies, with the help of a group of enthusiastic youngsters, we started to try and create awareness about the necessity of conservation. The people who were engaged in activities that damaged the area, like illicit distilleries, were motivated to take up some other livelihood. The response was good in some areas and not so good in others. However, we are proud that it did spread the message of conservation. But for this small initiative, the gene pool of the Chinkara would have been exterminated, as it has happened in most of the places. Looking at the tremendous improvement in wildlife population and increased activity around the fenced areas, we decided to provide pockets of protected enclosures in different areas. In 1985, DCF Bagalkot sanctioned the construction of dry stone walls around water holes etc
The first ever camera trap image confirming the presence of a wild population of Chinkaras.
Dung pile or community defecation points are the best places to capture Chinkara in the camera traps
In March 1986, the Additional Chief Conservator of Forests Wildlife Preservation Bangalore directed DCF Bagalkot to submit a proposal for constituting a nature reserve to represent scrub forests. Bilgi range was selected for this purpose in the process of constituting national parks and sanctuaries in different ecosystems. At the request of the DCF Bagalkot, I submitted a report in May 1986, explaining the faunal diversity, a brief history and the potential of the area. DCF submitted a proposal to ACCF wildlife in August 1986. In June 1989, ACCF wildlife visited the area and was convinced about the potential of the habitat to develop in to a wildlife reserve. He immediately directed DCF to prepare a proposal along with a map and all the necessary details. In August, the proposal was submitted to the Conservator of Forests, Belgaum circle. It was followed by another letter of request in January 1990. In February, DCF Bagalkot issued directions to the RFOs of Bilgi and Mudhol to start the construction of stone wall. So in 1990, this work, which was initially started in 1985, started again, but did not continue.
The Indian Gazelle now sticks to scrub forests and avoids the plains in the foothills in the fear of persecution.
Pairs of individuals, sometimes including young ones, have been encountered highlighting that they are doing well.
Unfortunately, for one reason or the other, there was no further progress and the proposal literally went into cold storage. In 2002, for the first time, water was stored in Alamatti reservoir. Many nalas and back waters in Krishna and Ghataprabha valleys got submerged. The trees and bushes in these nalas and back waters were the major source of fuel wood. Having lost these sources, the people started to look at forests for their daily needs. This further increased the pressure on the forest and aggravated the problem. For quite some time shortage of staff in the forest department adversely affected it’s functioning.
I am happy to say that now we have turned a corner. We have some qualified, enthusiastic and proactive staff at all levels. Since 2010, we have been collecting data about the flora and fauna. Modern technology in the form of GPS, camera traps, wider usage of mobile phones and vehicles has helped a lot. Earlier, we had to depend on field craft to collect data on activities of wildlife. Camera traps make the job much easier and accurate. GPS helps accurate marking and mapping. Mobile phones and vehicles are a great help in effective guarding, forest fire control etc.
A defining moment in the conservation circles in North Karnataka, a male Chinkara walks towards a camera trap.
Not just the Chinkara, but hyenas too have shown a resurgence in the area.
With the help of all this gadgetry and the tech-savvy staff to handle them, things finally started progressing. The project report was prepared and submitted to the PCCF wildlife. In September 2015, the State Wildlife Board approved the creation of the Sanctuary. A long cherished dream has become a reality.
The best offshoot of the conservation initiative is the recharge of the aquifers. After a gap of 9 years, this dry stream bursts to life.
M.R Desai in the field with the staff of Karnataka Forest Department.
Now, the effort will focus on creating awareness about the importance of nature in the area and work towards consolidation. The vote-centric political scene of our country makes gaining the confidence of people crucial for the success of any programme. And our focus is on the younger generation.