Uday Kumar Varma
A visit to Kanha after a gap of almost forty years must surely excite. The heightened anticipation of the transitions in this pristine and premier patch of undisturbed and serene forest, that the intervening four decades may have fashioned, makes the sojourn even more engaging.
Sprawling and Splendid
The Kanha Tiger Reserve, commonly referred to as Kanha National Park is situated in the Maikal hills with an altitude between 450 and 900 meters from MSL. Maikal is one of the hill ranges of extensive Satpuras that girdle Central India.
These hills are basaltic having origin in volcanic extrusions and eruptions some 65 million years ago. Over years the hills were layered with laterite and bauxite, formed because of weathering of rocks over thousands of years.
Tall, elegant and lush green canopy of trees dominated by Sal (Shorea robusta) frame the contours and core of the forest. Other mixed tropical species, many of them deciduous, complete the bouquet and add to the colour and complexion of this uncommonly peaceful and tranquil show-piece of natural splendor.
Kanha is the largest National Park in Central India. Spread over 940 sq. km. that form its core area, it comprises of two valleys formed by rivers Banjar and Halon. Surrounded by another over 1134 sq. km. of buffer area, Kanha is regarded as one of the best preserved Tiger reserves in the country.
It was declared a National Park in 1955 with a notified area of 252.97 sq. km. Ten years later in 1964, another 128.24 sq. km were added. It further expanded to 446.6 sq.km in 1970.
And in 1973 it was declared a Tiger Reserve.
While part of the area under the Reserve today was declared a reserve forest in 1879, it continued to be treated as a shooting block till 1933. That year it was notified as an absolute sanctuary with 233 sq. km area, reduced to 134 sq. km ten years later in 1943.
It continued to be a premium shooting area, and a haven for Shikaris. Between 1947 to 1951, Maharaj Kumar of Vijayanagaram is reported have shot 30 tigers here. And two years earlier 250 Cheetals (Spotted Deer) were shot near Shravan Tal area in just one year-1945.
Situated in Mandla and Balaghat districts of Madhya Pradesh that once formed part of CP and Berar during British rule, civil servants who had done commendable work in their careers were rewarded by being posted as Collectors in these districts for relaxing and indulging in such luxuries as Shikar and Camping in the forests. This tradition continued till much later even in the first few years of formation of the new state of Madhya Pradesh.
Kanha’s saga of distinctions is long. Way back in 1977-78, it was awarded Indian Board of Wild Life Board’s Chairman’s Challenge Trophy for the Best Managed National Park/Sanctuary. The Awards have since consistently been bagged on several counts. It has been adjudged the Most Tourism Friendly Park several times including the 1999-2000 National Tourism Award and the latest in 2018 for a Coffee Table Book under the ‘Best Publishing in English Language’. In 2012 it was conferred the ‘National Tiger Conservation Authority Award for excellence in Habitat Management, and in 2014 it bagged India-UNDP Biodiversity Conservation Award.
Famous, celebrated and highly regarded as one of the best Tiger Reserves in the country and the world, one needs to understand what makes Kanha different?
Diverse and Rich Wild Life
In terms of diversity of wild life, the unique animal species that distinguishes Kanha is Hard Ground Barasingha (swamp deer), scientifically called Rucervus duvauceli. Under serious threat of extinction, till only a few years ago, the state animal of Madhya Pradesh seems safe at present. Its relocation in other wild life reserves is also underway. A large population of black bucks, once, dotted the landscape but has since dwindled rapidly. The other uniqueness is the presence of Wild Dogs. Their number also seems to have come down over the years.
Kanha needs recognition for an innovative technique Boma and non-invasive capture technique for translocation of Hard Ground Barasingha. So far over 40 members of this species have been translocated to other sites. This followed an unsuccessful translocation efforts of the past where the animal was placed under tranquilizer and then transported, which faced serious casualties. The Reserve boasts of having translocated tigers as well as Gaur to other National Parks. These practices, the foresters prefer to call Active Management.
The other usual attractions like Gaur, Langurs and Cheetal, and birds of diverse kind also abound. Even sloth Bear and Wild Boar are not uncommon.
Teeming with Cheetals
The Spotted Deer (Cheetals) abound in this Park. Numbering in thousands, they offer a welcome sight as their herds bound across paths and meadows at any time of the day. Those of the visitors who get the splendid but unusual opportunity of visiting the Forest Rest House at Kisali in the night, and sit in its verandah, can witness an unearthly, magical and spectacular sight of thousands of them gathered in the meadows in front. As the evening descends, hundreds of them congregate in the meadows. Handsome and swaggering Bucks, beautiful and comely Does, accompanied by frolicking Fawns begin to settle on the ground. A little later as the darkness envelopes the surroundings, the meadow transforms into a sea of Cheetal population. And when a torch light scans the meadow, an impossible sight presents itself. It appears that the meadow has transformed itself into a firmament aglitter with thousands of blue and green twinkling stars as the eyes of the sprawling multitude lit up in the torch light. The sight is heavenly, ethereal and as mesmerizing as any that human eyes can ever witness.
And The King
But the animal by whose name Kanha acquired world- wide recognition named the Tiger, still attracts most of the people visiting Kanha. According to latest reports there are close to 100 (adults 96) and another dozen of young one (14), taking the tiger population over 100, yet in terms of density per unit of area, Kanha’s position has got relegated lower down among the tiger reserves of the country.
The pristine quality of Kanha forest has continued over the years. The core area is free of all human habitation, no villages, no settlements. Only the forest staff in the camps for monitoring, maintenance and other regulatory chores.
It will be fair to credit the successive Kanha Management to sustain the spirit and soul of the place. The forest continues to be as pristine and as undisturbed. The flora, the trees, the shrubs, the under-cover have remained largely un-interfered and have enjoyed the protection of the sane and wise in the Forest hierarchy of the state and has largely escaped rather short-term, insensitive, capricious but decidedly brilliant populism of a political system, and institutions held captive to such a system. Therefore, all those who have helped Kanha continue to largely remain what it was once upon a time, deserve our gratitude and profuse thanks.
A Sore Sight
The calming, uplifting, gratifying sublime experience is however, rudely shattered as one encounters the convoy of gypsies, hundreds of them raiding the forest territory like an advancing army.
Morning and evening, day in and out, hundreds of men and women set out to conquer the forest, with the sole aim of cornering its monarch. The primacy of tourism over world life conservation is not only grossly disturbing, it is severely worrying.
The mushrooming of commercial outposts all around the Reserve, dotting the periphery of the core park area, may make the stay of tourists comfortable but are slowly but surely diminishing the distinction between a metropolitan luxury; and the peaceful proximity to the magnificence of a captivating wild.
The tourism activities in private hands now, managed by private entities who the Forest Department encourages, endorses, patronizes, even trains, are firmly in control. Not without the many adverse fall outs of this arrangement, new opportunities of employment to local and adjoining population remain the highlight that offers a rallying point for those who will want tourism to ever overwhelm any other concern.
Tale of Resorts, Gypsies and Tiger Tourism
The resorts are in turn owned mostly by politicians, government servants, many of them retired forest department officials, businessmen. Most of the properties are benami, the investments having been made in names other than who have really provided the finances.
The most apparent fall out of this arrangement is the interference in the running of the reserve by these interests. One very palpable dimension is marketing of tiger tourism.
Most people visit Kanha as they are promised certain sighting of tiger. Less than 10% of the visitors are however, able to spot a tiger. The private operators create myth and often misinformation about other groups having spotted tiger. The false hope and perpetuation of this misinformation, often as it amounts to empty boast of seeing a tiger, among friends and acquaintances back home, is sustaining the flourishing wild life tourism.
The numbers and the range of tourists who many times take these trips as a purely pleasure trip and seek a safari more for a joy ride confine their interest only to sighting a tiger. This attitude has perpetuated, sustained and strengthened the current form of wild life tourism.
A Plea for A Rethink
I do wish to argue for a more balanced approach between promoting tourism and conserving the wild life reserves. Today it seems heavily tilted in favour of tourism.
Hundreds of gypsies running on defined routes carrying hordes of people every morning and evening, is something that is converting these reserves into Zoos, albeit a huge one. The attendant and often deleterious impact of such large number of comparative affluent and resourceful persons cause a huge strain on the carrying capacities of conservancies and local facilities. Garbage is ever on the increase and dumps near the conglomerates of resorts can be easily seen like ugly ulcers.
Notwithstanding the compulsions of development, creation of employment and bringing welfare to people in the vicinity of the reserve, the economic and financial benefits and gains flow back to those who are already resourceful, namely the owners and managers of resorts, and the creators of luxury wild life tourism. The ones whose gains are trumpeted to justify the overwhelming tourism paradigm of wild life adventure only have to be contained with fringe and nominal benefits but they are the shoulders, often ignorant but willing, to carry out the more pervasive and even pernicious agenda of a nexus that is both powerful and influential and capable of creating a narrative that suits their interest.
A radical rethink is required if Kanha has to preserve its reputation of pristine and undisturbed forest cover and a destination where the encounter and interaction with nature and the denizens of the jungle is both calming and enlightening, a soul-satiating experience and not an extension of the luxuries of life packaged in an uncommon format.
The day when a trip to Kanha brings a wee bit better realization of the necessity and the urgency of preserving nature, the day when a visit ceases to serve merely as a piece of boastful conversation back home, the day when the respect for plants and animals and birds sustains even after the visitors are back to their own milieu, that day will be the real redemption of triumph of Conservationists and Wild Life enthusiasts, and of those who claim it as their passion and purpose.
When a visitor to the Park feels as excited and exhilarated on spotting a pug mark of a tiger as if he has come face to face with a tiger in the wilderness, that day will be the day when the purpose of a nature reserve shall find fruition and fulfilment.
The author, Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.