Of Teaks and Tigers

Located at the southernmost tip of the large central Indian Tiger landscape, Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary in present-day Telangana, became India’s 42nd Tiger Reserve in 2012. With its gigantic teak stands and varied endemic fauna, the reserve forms an important corridor not just for tigers, but for several other flagship species whose range is otherwise decimated due to encroachment and change in land use patterns in the area.

My tryst with Forsyth’s forests was kindled long ago through the books of Rudyard Kipling. Visits to Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench, Tadoba, Palpur-Kuno and Panna forests had familiarised me with the central Indian plethora of biodiversity. I was on the field at the Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR) in Andhra, when I got an opportunity to work in the 42nd tiger reserve of the country. NSTR was poles apart from Kawal Tiger Reserve (KTR) in terms of legacy, size and terrain. Anticipating new challenges, I grew both apprehensive and excited in equal measure.

Welcome to Kawal

During my first stint at KTR from April to June 2014, I saw it grow into Telangana’s sole tiger reserve. Located in the Adilabad district, Kawal was made into a game reserve in 1964, as it harboured plenty of wildlife. It was declared as a wildlife sanctuary in 1999, and a tiger reserve in 2012. Kawal did not experience any detailed wildlife surveys before it was declared as a tiger reserve, which raised questions about its inclusion as one. With only a few occasional sightings in the past, KTR does not harbour any resident tigers currently. But the location of this forest in the ‘central Indian tiger landscape’ is crucial, with Tadoba-Andhari TR (TATR) about 100 km away and Indravati TR approximately 150 km away. Kawal thus has high potential of acting as a sink for dispersing tigers in the future and the facilitating corridors have also been identified. Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society (HYTICOS), which has been actively involved in highlighting the ecological significance of the area, has been carrying out prey estimation and camera trapping exercises in the forest. Their camera traps in the area between TATR and KTR have revealed the presence of three individual tigers, thus giving this an active corridor status. Providing a good habitat is not sufficient for big cats; because of their large size, they easily come in conflict with humans. And in this landscape such conflicts are imminent, as forests are losing their ground to agriculture land, livestock grazing zones, and eventually settlements. The chances of these large cats being poached also cannot be ruled out. This lingering threat to the dispersing tigers was highlighted and the requirement of protection was reasoned out, consequently making Kawal a tiger reserve. Due to reported Naxalism in the area, this forest previously lacked conservation efforts. These also got impetus with its upgradation as a tiger reserve, giving this lesser known wildlife sanctuary national recognition.

Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) in flight | Photo: Nilanjan Chatterjee

Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) in flight | Photo: Nilanjan Chatterjee

Ruling out the tiger statistics, the floral and faunal diversity of this pristine forest is phenomenal. Teak dominates the forest, with some very old forest or tree stands which must have been here for centuries. Like in other forests of the state, there are bamboo patches, with occasional Terminalia and Anogeissus trees. I was amazed to see the girth of some of the Mahua, Terminalia, Mitragyna and Arjuna trees, which are also present in good numbers. Because of the encroachment of the villages, wildlife sightings were few and far in between. So whenever we did spot some wildlife, it was always a pleasant surprise. One late evening, we saw an Indian fox in the headlights of our vehicle in the Pandavapur beat. We were actually on the lookout for a Leopard which frequently visited the area, but the sighting of this small carnivore was enough to make the whole day’s fatigue vanish. Only once had a colleague of mine seen an Indian wolf in the Dostnagar beat; it had always eluded the rest of us. We even tried to increase our chances by waiting near the waterholes early in the morning, but without any success. Asiatic wild dog yelps and sightings were quite common in the Narlapur area. Once on the way back from the Narlapur beat I got startled by the shrill cry of these whistling dogs while they were enjoying an evening bath at a waterhole. The pack regularly sighted at Narlapur has seven dogs. Among ungulates, the gracious Four-horned antelope was sighted throughout the park. Gaur, the largest herbivore of the forest, was seen once in the Dostnagar beat, but there were reports of them from other parts of the park as well. Nilgais and Sambars were also sighted in Dostnagar and Narlapur beats. Seeing a Sambar was a bit surprising as this was not the species’ preferred vegetation type or habitat. Surprisingly, Cheetal or Spotted deer, which are very common in most protected areas in our country, were very rare here. We saw them occasionally only in Rampur. But being an avid birdwatcher, I simply fell in love with the avian diversity in the forest. Raptors, water birds and terrestrial birds gather all around Kawal; Grey Heron, Greater Painted-snipe, Lesser Whistling-duck, Black-headed Ibis, Asian Openbill, White-eyed Buzzard, Crested Serpent Eagle are some of the many. Not being an expert on reptiles, I wasn’t able to identify most of the scaled animals through fleeting glimpses, but Fan-throated lizards were seen regularly at our base camp.

Work in progress

The present efforts of the forest department are concentrated on bringing KTR at par with other tiger reserves in the country. This includes chalking out plans and strategies for eco-development, tourism, protection, village relocation and research. The inclusion of KTR in the 2014 all-India tiger census is a step taken towards this effort. The tiger reserve is composed of 893 sq km of core area and 1,123 sq km of buffer zone. The widespread dry river beds in the Teak- dominated forest indicate that the park used to lie in the catchment area of the Godavari. The Kadam dam, constructed at the confluence of Godavari and Kadam rivers, plays a crucial role in water distribution in the forest. The river, Peddavagu, also nurtures major portions of the reserve. These rivers harbour a lot of flora and fauna, but also attract agricultural and pastoral communities. Rich, lustrous fields in and around Indanpally range is a very good example of this. Along with the Gonds, Kollams, Niakpods, Pardhans and Lambadas – the traditional communities of this area – pastoralists from Mathura have also settled along the rivers in the core area of the park, as the land here is highly fertile. The tribal groups use forest and forest products as an integral part of their culture and this doesn’t seem to hamper the balance of the forest. But agriculturalists and pastoralists, who have settled from outside, put a long-term pressure on the forest by changing the land use patterns. Still, instead of habitat loss, poaching is considered to be the major reason behind the local extinction of the tiger. Hunting communities, like Paradhees and Bahelias, have been reported from the corridor areas. Besides, the pastoralists keep dogs for guarding the livestock, and these domestic dogs are even trained to hunt. During my field work, I had once observed six dogs tracking a Nilgai. They are not only competing for resources with the carnivores of KTR, they may also have been the reason behind the diminishing populations of less dominant carnivores like hyenas and jackals. Carcasses consumed by these domestic and feral dogs negatively affect the scavengers, as the dogs are directly competing for food with them.

The largest Asian antelope, the Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) can be seen in Kawal’s teak forests | Photo:

The largest Asian antelope, the Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) can be seen in Kawal’s teak forests | Photo: Nilanjan Chatterjee

At present, labelling KTR as a forested island in a sea of human-dominated landscape would not be entirely correct. A state highway passes through the core area of the sanctuary and this road, connecting Hyderabad, Adilabad, Mancherial and Nirmal, witnesses heavy traffic. I have observed road kills of coucals, rollers, spurfowls and macaques and heard of reports of Chitals and foxes found dead on the road as well.

In the present scenario, Kawal’s full potential can be attained in two categories – tourism and research. With large patches of human settlement, tourism cannot be promoted for carnivore and ungulate sightings. Moreover, tourism requires road connectivity which will also increase the road traffic from the villages to the cities and enable smuggling of sand and logs. But closer to the passing highway, there are water bodies which can be havens for bird watching. The rich avifauna will attract birdwatchers from Hyderabad and Adilabad, looking for a respite from the hectic life of the city. A few pockets of forest also witness the most pristine tree stands. The aesthetic value of these areas can be promoted through tourism, as well as wildlife outreach programmes to infuse the love of nature and wildlife among students of this area.

Calling for researchers

The true potential of Kawal at the moment, however, lies in research. With village relocation plans being underway, the reserve provides the perfect opportunity to keep baseline information of present habitat and diversity for post-relocation studies. Currently, the Gaur is distributed in various pockets of the reserve. The ecology of the Gaur, especially the diet and habitat, can be a good research topic, which can help in the formulation of management plans for the Gaur post relocation, as well as in other forests across the country.

Camera trapping work in progress at the reserve.

Camera trapping work in progress at the reserve. | Photo: Nilanjan Chatterjee

At KTR, the ranges of the two junglefowls of India – Red and Grey, overlap. Till recent past, neither one of the two could be branded as a dominant species, as both were present in equally healthy numbers. But as the hunting of the Red Junglefowl increased, the Grey Junglefowl has turned out to be a dominant species. The domestication of the fowl and the genetic variation among the two species can be researched into. Also, if the villages are relocated, the area has the potential of becoming a grassland. It has been observed that agriculturalists here are more tolerant of wolves as they keep ungulates from the fields. This might give a clue; maybe they are staying in the fields, but this cannot be confirmed without evidence. Anthropological studies can also be carried out here to study the diverse tribal communities. The Fan-throated lizard, a popular entity among herpetologists, can be studied here.

KTR is definitely in need of more attention, especially from the perspective of research. Making the Gaur and the Indian wolf the flagship species of Kawal, efforts can be made towards improving the ecosystem. The increase in the population of ungulates will definitely change the habitat. To keep a check on them, relocation of the tiger should be proffered by the management. The risk of poaching of dispersing tigers from TATR would be minimised if KTR is ready to act as a sink. But for this to happen, village relocation should be prioritised and protection should be strengthened. In doing so, we would actually be protecting what is left of the southern extent of the central Indian landscape. A holistic approach of conservation will help this novice establishment ascertain a stronghold in the world of tiger reserves.

This article was originally published in Jan 2015 issue of SAEVUS Magazine

Cover Photo: Kawal Tiger Reserve is one of the richest dry deciduous Teak forests in the state with dense pristine areas free of human disturbance | By: Nilanjan Chatterjee

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About the Author /

A wildlife research biologist working with Wildlife Institute of India, Ridhima is currently pursuing her PhD. Her main interests lie in understanding carnivore ecology, exploring the wilderness of lesser-known protected areas, and bringing forth their stories to readers.

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