By Kedar Gore
“There is a tiger in the forest above our village,” Dipak Vishe, a young man from Sonawale village near Malshej Ghat, said excitedly. I suggested it might have been a common leopard, but Dipak who was attending a nature guide training programme being conducted by The Corbett Foundation (TCF) and the Thane Forest Division (TFD), was insistent. A promising candidate from among 20 or so youths from nearby villages, I did not want to dismiss his claim, so we got permission from Dr. Jitendra Ramgaokar, the then forest officer in charge of TFD, to survey the areas around Sonawale.
After discussions with RFO Hirave, Zeenal Vajrinkar, a TCF biologist and Rajesh Sakat, a sociologist, we designed a transect and camera trap plan. Dipak, who knew the forest well, became Zeenal’s field assistant. Two interns, Aparna Rao and Anuja Sukumaran, from the SIES College of Arts, Science and Commerce, joined the survey team.
A total of 16 camera traps were positioned for eight nights in a row at locations based on tracks and signs. We did not find any signs of the tiger but found leopard scats. Though we did not get camera trap images of leopards, we got a host of other images including those of Indian crested porcupine, small Indian civet, southern plain langur, bonnet macaque, wild pig, ruddy mongoose, southern tree shrew and a rodent we have still not identified. What really thrilled us was an image of the little-studied, nocturnal mouse deer or Indian chevrotain, India’s smallest hoofed mammal, this close to one of largest metropolises in the world.
Our cameras also picked up images of locals collecting firewood, water and other forest produce that sustained them. TCF team also saw evidences of fires intentionally lit, to clear the forest floors to plant crops and much evidence of hunting, including temporary hides near small waterbodies with bows and arrows used by the Katkari community. Forest burning in the summer months flushes out hares and wild pigs that are hunted, but all too often the fires rage out of control, taking a heavy toll on the forest, ultimately harming the communities themselves. Clearly, anthropogenic pressures on the forest were high and not surprisingly, two of our cameras were stolen near Nagzira, a water source where our cameras picked up most of the images including villagers with guns.
Three weeks of field work with 16 camera traps around the Thitbi village of the Thane Forest Division divulged the presence of several species including the barking deer. Photo:The Corbett Foundation/ Maharashtra Forest Department.
Encouraged by our findings, we decided to extend the survey to forests around Thitbi, a Warli tribal hamlet of around 50 households below Malshej Ghat, nestled against a backdrop of the mighty Sahyadri. The Kalu river originates in the dense forest of the Kalsubai-Harishchandragad Wildlife Sanctuary that is connected to the Thane Forest Division. The Kalu river eventually pours into the Ulhas river, which empties into the Arabian Sea. Along its course, the Kalu flows along the village, cutting through basaltic rock, to create small and very picturesque gorges.
We set up our field camp near Thitbi. Three weeks of field work with 16 camera traps revealed the presence of most of the species we had recorded near Sonawale. Our cameras also captured the Indian muntjac or barking deer and the four-horned antelope or chousingha, an endemic to the Indian subcontinent, and the only one in the world that possessed two pairs of horns!
We were all understandably delighted, but then our delight multiplied. As we crowded around the results, we discovered an image of the world’s smallest felid -- the rusty-spotted cat Prionailurus rubiginosus. This had never before been recorded from the Thane Forest Division. Nothing could offer greater proof of the vital importance of protecting fragmented landscapes outside the umbrella of India’s Protected Area (PA) network. Our record was published in the Spring 2019 issue of Cat News, a newsletter of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Cat Specialist Group and we intend to undertake more studies here and in other areas of western Maharashtra and Konkan together with the Maharashtra Forest Department.
One morning, as walked along the Kalu river, we heard the unmistakable, loud tok-tok call of the Indian giant squirrel. We spotted it on an Indian laurel Terminalia alata tree. The State Animal of Maharashtra, this species is endemic to southwestern, central and eastern peninsular India, in the Western Ghats, Satpura Range and Eastern Ghats. The arboreal squirrel builds large globular nests of twigs and leaves, placing them on thinner branches, safe from large predators. Since they rarely step down to the forest floor, these exquisite mammals are in deep trouble at the hands of habitat fragmentation, hunting and logging for timber extraction.
During our transect walks, included in the 65+ avian species we documented were the Vigors’s Sunbird, Orange-headed Thrush, Black-naped Monarch, Streaked Fantail Warbler, Jacobin Cuckoo, Malabar Whistling Thrush and White-rumped Shama. Our reptile sightings included the common rat snake, beaked worm snake and a species of the fan-throated lizard.
The host of images recorded on camera traps offer evidence of the thriving biodiversity of these forests. Seen here a ruddy mongoose. Photo:The Corbett Foundation/ Maharashtra Forest Department.
The forest-dwelling communities are our best hope of living with and protecting India’s biodiversity because nature worship has been a part of their cultures for eons. But today, they are the ones paying the greatest price by way of damage to their crops and livestock, and often their lives.
Worse, they are perhaps forced into human-wildlife conflict because even in their backyards, the one source of income that could come to them, nature tourism, largely benefits those living far away in our cities. Why should their children not enjoy basic amenities – clean water, education, healthcare, and the first right to income from sustainable tourism?
Given the recent reports coming in from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) on the imperative of protecting wild species to rein in climate crisis and pandemics, it is vital that we look upon local communities as partners in the protection of such vital biodiverse areas. Without these communities it would be impossible to protect the biodiversity that exists outside our Protected Area Network. Let me put it bluntly. Involving local communities in conservation is not a favour we do for them, if the IPBES report is to be believed (and we must all accept its veracity) rural communities, now suffering joblessness and negative human-animal interactions, are vital to the survival of us all.
Wildlife survives cheek-a-jowl with communities dependent on the forest for their own survival. However, in the absence of other food security safety nets, some resort to poaching, an issue that could be tackled if priorities include making locals the primary beneficiaries of the biodiversity next to which they live. Photo:The Corbett Foundation/Maharashtra Forest Department.
There is another factor at play. In 2018, a youth from Singapur village in TFD was arrested along with three others while attempting to sell a leopard skin near Junnar. Maharashtra Forest Department officials caught them red-handed. There is enough information available to suggest that there is a strong link between unemployed local youth and poaching syndicates willing to take advantage of their predicament. The lack of viable livelihood opportunities, including farming, which too is now a victim of the vagaries of a climate wronged is one of the biggest conservation challenges we have to deal with in the days ahead.
Think also of the frontline Forest Department staff, often members of the same community whose youth fall prey to the designs of the illegal trade. A forest guard must deal with poachers, timber mafias and other anti-social elements in extremely trying situations. Their families too are dependent on failing farms and many members suffer the consequences of joblessness. Apart from capacity building, training and motivation of our frontline staff, so essential to the protection of our most precious biodiversity vaults, it is vital that the way be paved for harmonious coexistence of humans and wildlife near their homes, outside of sanctuaries, national parks and the thousands of lesser-known biodiversity microhabitats that are fast vanishing.
This is not wishful thinking, it is a critical imperative for the people of the Indian subcontinent. I refer again to the IPBES report here. We all tend to live in silos, but can ill-afford to do so much longer. Nature conservation is no longer the luxury it was once believed to be. The IPBES findings are focused not merely on the ‘welfare’ of biodiversity, but on the impact (loss or resurrection) of biodiversity and its resultant ecosystem services on human well-being. Seen in this light there is probably no human right more definitive and central to life and dignity than the protection of biodiversity. I hasten to add, that the biodiversity I refer to ranges far beyond the tiger, elephant and rhino that right away come to mind for most. The real biodiversity we need to protect includes soil microflora and fauna, without which we have no hope at all of improving our lot. This quote from one of the first drafts of the IPBES report is telling:
The existing economic system of capital-intensive exploitation of nature, extensive international trade and their telecouplings (socioeconomic and environmental interactions between distant coupled human and natural systems), and wide-ranging inequality between countries and between peoples within countries, is not a system that is natural, or to which there is no alternative. To the contrary, such an economic system has evolved over time due to human interventions, institutions, policy choices and options, and as such, can be transformed just as it was created.
The forests of Thane are contiguous with the globally important Western Ghats ecosystem, represented by the Sahyadri range. These forests offer refuge to populations of mammals, herpetofauna and birds that spill over from better protected biodiversity hotspots. Photo:Kedar Gore.
The wildernesses I have written about above are all part of the Thane Forest Division and they extend to over 3,300 sq. km. Yet they are not part of Maharashtra’s PA network. Nevertheless, they are an integral part of the Western Ghats and harbour high biodiversity. They act as corridors and/or dispersal areas for the wildlife of the Bhimashankar and Kalsubai-Harishchandragad Wildlife Sanctuaries, and are therefore extremely key ecological units that need as much if not more protection than Maharashtra’s PAs. Although leopards were not captured in the camera traps, leopard scats were seen in several areas but no direct or indirect evidence of the tiger was found in TFD during the survey. The forest habitat of TFD and its surrounding areas, though fragmented is still a viable habitat for large cats. However, rewilding, protection and management of habitat for wildlife is essential for enabling this. Sadly, next to no biodiversity studies have been undertaken in this region, and consequently, little information is available. Hunting, firewood collection, livestock grazing, unsustainable traditions such as the burning of farmlands, coupled with agricultural encroachments under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, are serious conservation issues, which will ultimately harm local communities because they are even now dependent on the health of a fast-degrading forest ecosystem. The already threatened species such as the leopard and the smaller felines such as the rusty-spotted cat (see box below) will vanish if we allow the degradation to continue unchecked. The natural prey base of the large carnivores in the area is low, but as we have seen in across the country, with a little protection and reduced human interference with the natural order of things, forests will regenerate on their own, with comparatively little financial investment.
The Thane Forest Division is a part and parcel of the Western Ghats, and it needs our positive attention. Wild species do not recognise administrative boundaries and it makes good sense for the Wildlife and Territorial Divisions to work in unison to bring biodiversity back to the region as an article of faith, guided by the knowledge that this is probably the most pressing developmental need of the day for locals, for the state of Maharashtra and the country.
The IPBES conclusion, puts it best by succinctly stating that: “Designing such an integrated world economy that values nature and its contributions in pluralistic ways, recognises their long-term importance to human quality of life, and rightfully prioritises them as public goods above private profit is a long-term vision that will require innovative, imaginative and adaptive ways to transform our current economic and governance systems.
A fan-throated lizard basks on a rock, possibly awaiting a potential mate. Upon spotting her, the male will unfurl the drooping skin on his neck to create an attractive and colourful fan or ‘dewlap’. Photo: Kedar Gore.
A fine naturalist with a keen interest in bird ecology, Kedar Gore has been involved in the conservation of India’s wildlife and wilderness for over two decades. He is currently the Director of The Corbett Foundation.