Banj Beasts and People

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 36 No. 8, August 2016

By Upma Manral

When I opened my eyes, it was only seven a.m. but everyone seemed busy already. The rays of the sun filtered through the window of my room and just outside, a Himalayan Woodpecker ceaselessly knocked on a dry branch. It sounded like the drumming of a jazz musician. The sound of ringing bells on a pair of bulls in the neighbouring field and the unremitting piho-piho of a Great Barbet from a distant tree added to the symphony. I came out and took in the surroundings, gazing at mud-houses and freshly-sown fields with the oak forest framing the village. I was in Ransi, a Garhwali village in the Madhyamaheshwar valley, located inside the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, one of Uttarakhand’s largest Protected Areas (PAs) and home to the endangered Himalayan musk deer.  

The Kalpavriksha of Hill folks

My host, Kamla di and her daughter Meera, along with their neighbours, were about to enter the forest for fodder and wood and as we had agreed the evening before, I joined them. Walking along a narrow, dusty path, ours was a motley procession of young girls chatting excitedly, older women talking light-heartedly and me diligently noting down the names of all the birds I could see. Streaked Laughing Thrushes hopped about on the ground, while a lone Black-headed Jay looked down at us from its perch. A flock of Russet Sparrows and Yellow-breasted Greenfinches picked seeds in a field. Above us a White-eyed Buzzard was being harassed by a pair of Common Kestrels, as a few Himalayan Griffons glided over the valley on thermal currents. A sudden movement from behind a Berberis bush revealed, to my delight, a yellow-throated marten, which threw us a quick look before escaping into a maze of boulders and bushes. 

We stopped at a point where a stone indicated that we were now entering the sanctuary. I chatted with the girls, asking them about their plans after completing school. One of them replied, “Even after higher studies, we will have to go to the forest as we go today. What difference would battling books bring to our lives?” Her statement reflected the grim reality of the isolation and remoteness of many Himalayan villages that has resulted in an economy intimately associated with mountainous forests for subsistence and livelihoods. In such a scenario, Banj oak forests constitute a crucial component of the socio-ecological system for communities. During winter and summer, when next to no fodder is available for livestock, Banj leaves mixed with dried grass and agricultural by-products constitute the primary fodder source. In the early summer, the new leaves of Banj are collected in large quantities as fodder. With its associated vegetation, Banj also happens to be the primary energy source for locals who use the wood as fuel to cook and to heat their homes. The leaf litter serves as bedding material in cowsheds, and turns into excellent manure after being mixed with cattle dung. Banj forests are also a source of numerous springs and streams that hill folk depend on for their water needs. 

Clearly Banj is the kalpavriksha (mythological tree from heaven capable of fulfilling all human needs) of legend for the locals here.

Banj forests are an important source of mountain streams - both big and little. Photo Courtesy: Upma Manral

We had walked almost a kilometre from the forest edge. The forest that looked dense and healthy from the outside now appeared wounded and decidedly distressed from inside. Kamla di said to me: “I must travel further now to obtain fodder, compared to when I was a young bride. The village population has almost doubled and the young do not understand that if they cut trees mercilessly, there will be no fodder and fuelwood in the future.” Her statement accurately describes the current situation with regard to the degradation of Himalayan forests at the hands of both humans and a changing climate. 

As we reached the site of the resource extraction, my companions began work in earnest. Meera and her friends climbed huge Banj trees and began lopping branches, while their mothers gathered leaf litter from the forest floor. Meanwhile I kept a look out for the winged creatures that sprang from branch to branch. A Bar-tailed Treecreeper, an Eurasian Jay and a pair of White-tailed Nuthatches scurried up and down a tree trunk. A flock of White-throated Laughing Thrushes flew noisily past from a nearby perch. A pair of Verditer Flycatchers lured me off the track where I saw a Himalayan langur searching for Banj acorns on the forest floor. The tiny acorns are vital to wild herbivores as they are easy to find and highly nutritious. Once the women had gathered all they needed, it was time to walk back home.

The magnificent Chaukhambha massif, named for its four prominent summits, as seen from the Buda-Madmaheshwar temple inside the park. Photo Courtesy: Upma Manral

Wildlife in the backyard

Without a shadow of doubt, a rising human population coupled with excessive extraction has created stress between wildlife and local communities in recent decades. I asked my women companions about this as we walked. One woman told me how a bear had eaten the corn and pumpkins from her kitchen garden the previous night. Another bemoaned the fact that wild pigs had raided her finger-millet fields just prior to the harvest, resulting in a loss of 20 per cent of her crop yield. On hearing the discussion, more women joined in, each with an unhappy story to tell involving losses at the hands, or rather jaws, of Himalayan black bears, wild pigs, porcupines, Himalayan langurs and rhesus macaques. Some years ago, such crop raids were restricted to fields relatively close to the forest, but with every passing year wild animals have taken to moving closer to their homes. An elderly lady said with both anger and sadness: “We sow the seeds and nurture the plants, but all is taken by the wild animals. Bears take our corn, wild pigs eat our millet and paddy and dig up our potatoes, and porcupines consume our lentils. We are left with nothing.” Among all the animals, the women despised rhesus macaques the most. They come in troops, pick the sown seeds, pick off the young shoots and devour grains before these can be harvested. 

Banj trees form a significant constituent of agro-forestry systems in villages at higher elevations. Photo Courtesy: Upma Manral

The situation is no better when it comes to attacks on livestock. Half the women present there had lost some animal or the other to leopard attacks. Though most of the incidents took place in the forest, attacks inside cowsheds or in the fields were not unheard of either. In one incident, a leopard took three heads of cattle that were grazing in the fields at dusk. The monetary loss on account of the death of such animals varies from Rs. 2,500 to 1,75,000 (in case of mules) per animal, per household. And the losses on account of crop raiding range from Rs. 300 to Rs. 4,500 per household, per year. These losses may seem small in an urban context, but can be a crippling burden on rural households who must subsist on a meager income.

Though the Forest Department compensates the loss of livestock, the women were less than impressed by the schemes said to benefit them. To some extent this may be a result of a communication gap between villagers and the Forest Department, as women complained of complicated procedures, delayed and inadequate compensation amounts, and the insensitive intimidation from forest staff members. Those who did in fact receive some compensation said that delays caused them much grief and in any event the amount was much lower than the actual value of their loss. Everyone agreed that the situation was getting worse and that human-animal conflicts were getting more frequent. Locals felt that this was a result of a combination of factors including increased human numbers, forest degradation and the ban on hunting. The lack of fuel and fodder alternatives have forced them to be even more dependent on forest resources than they once were. 

Turning the waves of disapproval

The general belief is that natural resources need protection from the destructive actions of people. But they are doing the best they can to manage their natural resources with very little effective, external help. In many rural communities of Uttarakhand, economic structures and social organisation is founded on a strong tradition of harmony with nature. But we have a problem here. The rationale of creating Protected Areas that seek to isolate communities from the resources upon which their daily existence depends is creating a phalanx of hostile communities around our most precious biodiversity areas. This is why, when a conflict situation arises, people refer to the problem animals as “your” (Forest Department’s) wild animals and “our” domestic animals and “our very lives”. 

The formula is not working. The exclusionist policies are alienating local communities who must be recognised as potential allies in the joint objective of conserving forests upon which both people and wild species depend. It may not be easy, but unless a social wall is created to protect natural resources, with local communities at the centre of such plans, the sense of belonging that people shared with the forest will be lost forever. 

Sitting there with the simple, life-loving women and men of the villages that so generously took me in, I listened to the words of just one among hundreds of Kumaoni folk songs that embody the sentiments of local communities. Resurrecting such ancient relationships could help us cut the Gordian Knot that currently defines the ill-fated people-park relationship that ends up harming both people and nature. 

A line of village women, doubled over under the weight of their load, stream back into their village after collecting fodder from the forest. Photo Courtesy: Upma Manral
join the conversation