Terai Field Book
The Terai is a highly unique grassland habitat of our country and our authors take a tour through some of the most critical Terai landscapes and explore its beauty, as well as the issues that plagues them and why they must be addressed immediately.
The jungle in mid-March on a late winter morning was alive with the crowing of red jungle cocks, the miaoov… miaoov calls of peacocks and the cooing of ring doves. Racket-tailed Drongos and Golden Orioles hunted in the forest canopy that was largely dominated by the stately Sal (Shorearobusta)trees. Enjoying the warmth of the rising sun, and accompanied by plantation watcher Babu Singh, we were surveying a grassland in the Madhwalia range in Sohagi barwa Wildlife Sanctuary (390 sq.km) in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
SOHAGIBARWA WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
One of the more neglected sanctuaries in the country,it was notified in 1986 and is divided into seven ranges. The Sanctuary is a mosaic of woodlands (80 per cent) dominated by Sal and some terai grasslands (13 per cent).
The forest department continues to function under the wrong notion that grasslands are waste lands and keep planting trees there to keep up with the annual plantation targets. An estimated 4000 saplings of tree species, such as jamun (Syzygiumcumini) and khair (Acacia catechu), were to be planted in the Sonari compartment grassland where we were walking. During a discussion with Thomas Kuruvilla, Chief Conservator of Forests, Gonda, Dr Johnsingh suggested that if tree planting had to be conducted,then the list should include species such as Indian plum (Ziziphus jujuba), red silk cotton (Bomb axceiba)( flowers are avidly eaten by ungulates) and Indian banyan (Ficusben ghalensis) – fruits and flowers of which are consumed by ungulates and birds in some form or the other. Indian plum and red silk cotton trees are the characteristic species of the terai grasslands in the floodplain grasslands of northern India.
The highlight of our visit was the sighting of an all male group of nearly 15 Nilgai. We also saw a female nilgai and a fawn and a magnificent sambar stag in the same locality. Sambar do well in hilly areas and the lack of such terrain in the Uttar Pradesh terai is the major reason for the rarity of this extremely valuable prey species for the tiger, as during the entire survey we had seen only one sambar.
We ended our visit to Sohagi barwa WLS with a visit to a compartment in Nichlaul range where a parasitic climber species had killed a large number of Sal trees. The species was later identified as Gajapippali (Scindapsus officinalis) by G. S. Rawat of the Wildlife Institute of India.
Sohagi barwa WLS should not be neglected as it has the potential to house tigers, and swamp deer and rhino populations can be established at the Singh rana and Dargenia lakes in this WLS. The protection and management of Sohagi barwa WLS can be significantly improved if it is managed as a buffer to Valmiki Tiger Reserve.
SUHELWA WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
The Suhelwa WLS in Balrampur and Shravasti districts of Uttar Pradesh is 480 sq. km. in area (108 km long and 4-5 km wide). Biotic pressures (grazing, fodder and firewood cutting) from Nepali settlements along the northern boundary and Indian settlements along the southern boundary are enormous, as the people here are exceedingly poor.Such narrow forest areas when subjected to such pressures cannot hold on to their biological values fora long period of time, as is evident in Suhelwa WLS.
Tiger occurrence has become exceedingly rare. As a result of the unabated poaching of wild ungulates, leopards often raid huntsmen in the fertile agriculture landscape along the southern boundary for livestock and even carry away children. Common langur were frequently seen, but only six chital were encountered during our 250 km drive through the Sanctuary. A group of 11 griffon vultures were seen perched up in a dead tree as though waiting for the existence of the Sanctuary to end. The major ecological role of Suhelwa WLS in the terai landscape is that it serves as a long corridor between the Bardia and Chitwan National Parks of Nepal via India. The westernmost tip of Suhelwa WLS (West Suhelwa Range) is connected to the newly declared Banke National Park in Nepal through a 3.5 km stretch of Nepalese community forests constituting the Suiya and Maha devpuri forest block. This is known as the Kamdi corridor that enables few elephants to periodically visit Suhelwa WLS from Nepal. Sadly, this fragile connectivity will be broken if the proposed ill-advised border road is built between Nepal and India. We visited the Bhaisahi Nepali village on the northern boundary of Suhelwa WLS and along the planned border road. We were shocked to find that the villagers there were raising a large number of goats and lopping all the fodder trees in the vicinity of the village. We are not sure as to the extent to which the villagers of Nepal have penetrated inside the wildlife sanctuary for grazing and fodder collection. The habitat is also adversely affected by the massive spread of the invasive weed wild sage (Lantana camara).
Mrs. Niharika Singh is a local conservationist and has been working hard to promote Suhelwa WLS as a bird tourism destination. She has seen the glorious days of the Sanctuary when tigers often used to walk through her farm that was located at the southern boundary. Rajat Bhargava, researcher, Bombay Natural History Society, reports that the Sanctuary is home to critically endangered (e.g., Slender-billed Vulture),endangered (Yellow-breasted Bunting), vulnerable(e.g., Lesser Adjutant Stork) and near threatened birds (e.g., Red-headed Falcon and Ashy-headed Green Pigeon). Before leaving Suhelwa WLS we politely reminded Niharika that unless the problems of enormous firewood extraction and the impacts of Nepali settlements on the narrow Suhelwa WLS are not addressed, even the threatened birds will eventually disappear from there.
KATERNIAGHAT WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
Our journey to Katerniaghat WLS (400 sq.km.), part of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, was via the Shravasti and Bahraich districts. According to Dhananjai Mohan who served in Katerniaghat WLS as its Divisional Forest Officer in 1997-98, this grassland was once home to some blackbuck. They survived as long as cattle were grazing and keeping the grassland short. Once cattle grazing was banned, the grass grew high and gradually, the blackbuck disappeared from the area.It is possible to bring back the Blackbuck, provided the grassland is artificially managed, as grazing cannot be permitted in a tiger reserve.
Conservationists intended to disown Katerniaghat WLS as a tiger habitat till Ramesh Pandey, a young IFS officer took over as the Divisional Forest Officer in January 2005. During his three-year tenure, hear rested and sent 250 offenders to jail and removed numerous snares and jaw traps, and confiscated several illegal guns. The prey populations recovered and so did the morale of the staff. Tiger numbers increased to 20 largely as a result of the immigrants from Nepal along the Khata corridor. Regretfully, this corridor is highly encroached and will be entirely broken if the proposed border road is built.
One of the showpieces of Uttar Pradesh is the six kilometre stretch of the Girwariver (known as Karnali in Nepal) in Katerniaghat. The Girwa has abundant fish, including the beautiful golden mahseer, a population of the endangered Gangetic river dolphin and the fish-eating gharial. Katerniaghat exemplifies another ‘protected area’ in the country facing immense pressures.
Flocks of red-winged parakeets flew overhead as we, with Dabeer Hasan, Project Officer WWF India,crossed the Girwariver by boat and visited Bhartapur village across the river. The plight of the villagers was dire. Bhartapur is the only village that is located within the core area of Katerniaghat range and has the Girwariver on the east and the Kaudiyala river along its north-west. During the rainy season, therefore,the entire village of around 130 families, are forced to leave their fragile thatched huts and take shelter in the school and temple buildings for several weeks. Their crops are often raided by elephants, wild pigs and rhesus monkeys.
Interestingly, some elephant bulls have also taken to robbing people who cycle the five kilometer distance from the boatyard to the village. The bulls rush on to the road upon hearing the sound of the cycle, causing the cyclist to drop their belongings and run away. The elephants then feed on the market produce that the villager was taking home!
The entire population is keen to be relocated, but the conservation community has ignored this vital issue for several decades now. Once the village is relocated, nearly 60 sq. km. area will be free of human disturbance, particularly from grazing. This will result in a better habitat for the small population of rhinos and elephants that have immigrated here from Bardia NP, Nepal. The habitat between Girwa and kaudiyala is marshy, with extensive patches of cane jungle (Calamustenuis), making it excellent for these pachyderms. Some swamp deer can also be introduced here.
DUDHWA NATIONAL PARK
Within India, Dudhwa National Park (684 sq.km) is an almost isolated protected area, but for the fragile link it shares with the Katerniaghat WLS all through Nepal,along the Basantha forests, Churia hills, Bardia NP and the Khata corridor. Kishanpur WLS (200 sq.km) is a part of Dudhwa TR and located around 15 km south of it, but the habitat between the two is fully under cultivation and human settlements. Unexpectedly,our first sighting of a tiger pug mark in the terai was in Dudhwa NP. It was a soul-soothing experience to see over 30 rhinos that grew from the small number of seven rhinos (two males and five females) that were introduced from Assam and Nepal in the mid-1980s. Rhinos had become extinct in the Dudhwa landscape nearly 200 years ago and are now kept in a 27 sq.km. enclosure. Names of J.B. Sale and Samar Singh will always be associated with this farsighted and successful reintroduction.
Dudhwa NP is known for its magnificent Sal forests(which cover about 60 per cent of the Park in its northern part), water bodies and swamps. During a single day’s drive, we saw 55 five swamp deer and hog deer. Sal forests, while being beautiful, contain a number of species in the shrub layer that are inedible to the wild ungulates. The numbers of the wild ungulates, thus, are exceedingly low here, resulting in a lower number of tigers in Dudhwa – about 15.
Poaching of prey by snaring all along the periphery of the Park, is another problem that has contributed to the small population of tigers. The human population in and around Dudhwa NP is five lakhs, largely tribals and poor, who crave for meat. According to VK. Singh, Deputy Director of the Park, some 40-50 elephants that earlier used to migrate between Dudhwa and Nepal forests, now largely reside within the Park, resulting in conflict with the local residents.The proposed border road that will go across five ranges of Dudhwa NP (Gaurifanta, Bankati, Dudhwa,North Sonaripur and Belrayan) will spell an early death for the Park.
KISHANPUR WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
Groups of swamp deer totaling nearly 200 feed in the swampy areas of Jhadital (lake) which has an abundance of of tall grasses such as Phragmiteskarka, Saccharum bengalensis and S. narenga. Nearly 100 lesser whistling teals in different flocks flew around, unmindful of the brahminy and spot bill ducks foraging in the water. We drove 10 km around the lake and counted nearly 60 chital and spied on a group of Nilgai rapidly moving away from the road. The abundance of prey and excellent cover make Kishanpur WLS the finest tiger habitat in Uttar Pradesh. The reported tiger population here is 25. Jhadi Tal has the potential to support at-least 10-20 rhinos.
PILIBHIT TIGER RESERVE
The 60 km drive from Kishanpur WLS to Chuka Ecotourism Centre in the Mah of Range of Pilibhit TR(730 sq.km, established in 2014), is through one of the finest and most extensive stretches of Sal forests in the country. We sighted more than 100 chital and several nilgai on our the drive. Our two-day survey in Pilibhit TR enabled us to understand the Reserve much better. Biotic pressures, particularly wood cutting and grazing are high, and cattle and chital were the most common prey seen (144 chital), followed by nilgai (17). We saw very few barking deer and hog deer. The Mah of and Mala ranges, with their tall grass habitat along the Mala river and on either side of Sharada canal, together form an excellent tiger breeding habitat. There is potential to increase the swamp deer numbers and rhinos could be reintroduced. One major hazard for rhino reintroduction here would be the Sharada canal, as this cumbersome animal may invariably fall inside it. There is low prey abundance due to poaching, and the Deoria range (98 sq. km.)is isolated from the main part of the Tiger Reserve.Yet, tigers use the Deoria range across the highly disturbed Garah-Lalpur corridor and it will be a challenge to revive this corridor. According to Pranav Chanchani, WWF-India, who has carried out extensive research here, poaching of both tiger and prey are the major issues.
While driving through terai, we observed that most of the ponds and lakes along roads and villages are in a pitiable state of neglect as indicated by their misuse for solid-waste dumping, effluents and are additionally, heavily infested by water hyacinth (Eichhorniacrassipes) and pink morning glory (Ipomoea carnea). Human filth was scattered all around the villages. These wetlands need to be restored under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to promote livelihood options like fisheries and duck rearing for the benefit of the local people.
This is the second survey of the landscape by Dr. Johnsingh after his first survey in 2002-2003. Grazing and firewood cutting greeted us everywhere as we traveled along the terai habitat, including road side trees being heavily lopped for firewood and fodder. It appears that the trees along the highways are orphans as there is no one to protect them. If firewood cutting from the forests is not arrested we will eventually lose the tiger habitat in the entire terai, just as we lost the Khatima range in Uttarakhand to both Nepali and Indian woodcutters. Camera trap studies by WWF India indicate that a hundred or so tigers occur in the Uttar Pradesh terai and they might occur as three populations i.e. in Pilibhit-Kishanpur-South Kheri, Dudhwa-North Kheri and Katerniaghat. Not addressing these issues will lead to the further isolation of these tigers that will eventually lead to their extinction.
SAVE THE TERAI
Since the entire terai falls in a very fertile area, pressures such as wood and fodder cutting and grazing can be significantly addressed by having extensive plantations of suitable fodder and firewood species. Local people, mostly very poor, should be motivated and trained to accomplish this achievable and sustainable conservation goal. Funds for this programme can be generated by harvesting teak trees (teak being an exotic species here has no fodder value for animals) in the entire landscape and establishing a Conservation Fund. WWF-Nepal, known for its capability to work with people to grow biomass,should be requested to work with the people all along the Nepal border so that their biomass needs are met within Nepal and not from Indian forests.
As we drove out of Pilibhit TR, we saw fresh tiger pug marks going from Pilibhit TR to the highly disturbed Surai range of Uttarakhand along a bridge across the Sharada canal— a clear testimony to the tigers’ efforts to survive in a threatened habitat.It is our duty to make the habitat as secure as possible for the tiger and protect it from all human-induced disturbances.
The views expressed in this article are essentially of the authors and Saevus takes no responsibilities. In case of any clarification or objection the authors may be contacted directly.
Currently working as Landscape Coordinator of Terai Arc Landscape, Uttar Pradesh with WWF India, Dr. Mudit has been involved in the execution and management of the Terai Program in Uttar Pradesh and trans-border coordination for biodiversity conservation in the Terai Arc Landscape since the last 10 years
Dr. A. J. T. Johnsingh conducted the first study on a free-ranging large mammal in India by studying dholes in the Mudumalai-Bandipur landscape from 1973 to 1978. Part of the faculty of Wildlife Institute of India from 1985 to 2005, he has since been associated with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore and WWF-India. Presently heis a member of Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board.He has also authored many popular books, Field Days and Walking the Western Ghats and is thesenior editor of The mammals of South Asia Vol Iand II. He retired as Dean, Faculty of Wildlife Sciences, WII in 2005, and work for the NCF and WWF India as Honorary Scientific Advisor.
DR KAMLESH MAURYA
Dr. Kamlesh began his professional career with the six-years long term project on ‘Endangered and threatened fauna of Kutch: an integrated approach’ for the Wildlife Institute of India. He is currently working as Assistant Manager – Terai Arc Landscape Programme, and is involved in a number of large scale habitat conservation programmes.
This article first appeared in the March 2016 edition of Saevus Magazine