Article – Dudhwa Tiger Reserve: Conserving a fragile Paradise

Just 200 Kms from the hustle and bustle of the state capital lies a pristine wilderness. The Dudhwa Tiger Reserve is a mosaic of dense sal forests, rolling grasslands and marshy ‘taals’ stretching across 1300 sq/km. It comprises the Dudhwa National Park, Kishanpur and Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuaries spread across Lakhimpur-Kheri, Bahraich and Shahjahanpur districts. Apart from preserving one of the most unique habitats, the sub Himalayan terai, the alluvial plains of the Suheli and Geruwa Rivers support an incredible diversity and concentration of wildlife. Dudhwa supports a majority of UP’s 117 Royal Bengal Tigers (Census 2014). Its wetlands are the last stronghold of the magnificent Soft-ground Barasingha or Swamp Deer and many other endangered species like Asian Elephant, Gangetic Dolphin, Hispid Hare, Fishing Cat and the critically endangered Gharial and Bengal Florican.

It is also the site for one of the most successful reintroduction projects of the Great Indian One Horned Rhinoceros. Historically, the rhino was present throughout the terai but was hunted to local extinction in the 19th century. In 1984, few rhinos were relocated from Pobitora Sanctuary in Assam and Nepalese terai in a 27 sq/km enclosure, fortified with electric fencing. Today there is a breeding population of 34 rhinos and park authorities are ready with the second enclosure in the Bellerian area.

However, this paradise is in danger. Dudhwa, while relatively safe from organized poaching, faces a lot of threats in terms of habitat degradation, depleting forest corridors and man-animal conflict. Here is a look at the key problems and their possible solutions.
In terms of Habitat, dudhwa has many wetlands/grasslands of international significance which have degraded over the years. A case in point being ‘Sathiana’, which along with the neighboring ‘Ghola’ used to support 60% of the park’s Swamp Deer Population. Noted Conservationist George Schaller wrote about counting nearly a thousand swamp deer here in 1963, but as per a recent WWF report in 2005, less than 150 are left. Primary reason for this decline is that the Ghola region, being at higher elevation was the refuge of swamp deer when Sathiana was flooded during monsoons, however Ghola did not become a part of Dudhwa National Park and was lost to cultivation. Dudhwa’s famous conservationist ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh had suggested in his book “A Tiger’s Story”, that 300 acres of farmland in ‘Ghola’ can be reacquired and ‘Sathiana’ can be returned to its past glory. Such wetlands can be given the benefit of international funds and best practices by approaching the ‘Ramsar Convention’, an international body that manages over 2000 wetlands worldwide. India currently has 26 ‘Ramsar Sites’, which includes Upper Ganga in Uttar Pradesh, Dudhwa’s wetlands can also be nominated to become ‘Ramsar Sites’.

Dudhwa is a part of the Terai Arc Landscape, an area of 5 million hectares spanning 14 protected areas across India and Nepal. Preserving forest corridors connecting these large forest tracts is important for dispersion of elephants and tigers. Dudhwa is separated from Kishanpur by 15 Km of farmland, but this can be reclaimed with help of private funding from organizations like the World Land Trust, which has recently acquired 2 Cr worth of private land in Kerala and handed it back to the forest department. Reviving habitat alone will not bring back the wildlife to its historic numbers, human intervention in the form of captive breeding and relocation is required for endangered species such as swamp deer, hog deer and Bengal florican, just like the captive breeding programme for gharial established at Kukrail which saved them from extinction.
One of the most serious problems is man-animal conflict. In Dudhwa, human settlements are present inside the core area along with numerous villages clustered within the 2 km radius of the park boundary. While the forest suffers from overgrazing, illegal logging and in extreme cases poaching using local snares, the villagers also suffer from wild animals raiding their crops and tigers preying on cattle. Looking at national best practices in mitigating man-animal conflict, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) is distributing rice husk stoves to villagers in Bihar’s Valmiki Tiger Reserve to reduce dependence on firewood, while WWF India & Uttarakhand Govt. are jointly distributing cattle feed to reduce grazing in the Corbett Tiger Reserve. MP’s Pench Tiger Reserve authorities have made conservation clubs comprising village youths to monitor fire incidences, illegal grazing and tree felling etc.

Apart from ground level work, we the citizens of UP need to start an awareness generation movement by involving students of schools and colleges, to showcase the ways in which these forests impact human lives. Dudhwa has numerous wetlands, and a study by WWF reveals wetlands act as giant sponges, soaking up rainfall and slowly releasing it over time, as well as absorb chemicals, filter pollutants and neutralize harmful bacteria. Similarly, a recent study by the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM) done in 6 tiger reserves placed their economic valuation at 1.5 Lac crore which included water provisioning, gene-pool protection and carbon storage etc. An ideal starting point would be training ‘Eco Volunteers’, regularly carried out in Karnataka’s Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, where students get to spend a week in the forests along with the rangers and get hands-on education.
Lastly, responsible eco-tourism should also be encouraged as it boosts the economy of the area and provides valuable employment to locals. Dudhwa has got tremendous tourism potential, one can come face to face with the Royal Bengal Tiger, spot the Great Indian Rhinoceros wallowing in the marshes, Wild Elephants trampling through the forest, Swamp Deer in the hundreds locking horns at Kishanpur’s ‘Jhaadi Taal’, Bengal Florican doing its brilliant mating dance and dolphins diving in the Geruwa river. It’s a wildlife experience that can match and even exceed the best tiger reserves in India.
It’s worth saving at any cost, it’s worth fighting for!!


Copyrights of all images with Shikhar Ranjan. Year: 2017

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