(This note offers a fresh look to a very special sanctuary, which is technically placed in the highest degree of conservation – Critical Tiger Habitat, of the world famous tiger reserve – Ranthambhore. Yet it is one of the most neglected areas towards which conservation managers or organisations hardly pay any heed. It’s time immediate planning and real-time efforts are implemented for the betterment of this rugged piece of land, considering that this area is being touted as the possible future which will sync Ranthambhore National Park and its tigers to surrounding protected areas)
Kailadevi Sanctuary makes up to about half of Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, and most people choose to close the topic by just looking at the barren landscape on Google Maps and label it as a 'No Hope' area for wildlife. On contrary, there are selected few others who look at it as the future for the Tigers of Ranthambhore. I got a chance to explore quite a lot of interesting aspects in my recent visit of this harsh terrain. I witnessed interesting wildlife, amazing landscapes and explored new rock painting sites within the sanctuary.
Kailadevi is named after a famous temple of Kaila Mata (An Indian Goddess) near the main gate of the sanctuary. Once very popular among bandits, the temple is today visited by 2.5 million people annually, mainly from Rajasthan and other states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Vindhayan Hill range is the chief geographical feature of this sanctuary and most part of the sanctuary is either an elevated table top (Dang) of Vindhayan or deep gorges (Kho), so if you need to enter in the sanctuary, you can approach from only two sides, one is the Kailadevi temple side and the other main side is Karanpur Ghati (There are 2-3 more 'kaccha' roads but these are not connected to the main routes). Limited entry points to this large landscape makes it further tough to visit all areas in a single day trip. There are scarcely any basic and safe facilities, where explorers/tourists can stay on long trips in the sanctuary. This fact also implies to conservation managers, as they hardly visit 50% of the Kailadevi landscape, and even the areas that they visit have very low chances of wildlife occurrences. However, this year, a great thing happened which probably opens the avenue for improvement towards the sanctuary’s future. Field director Mr. Y K Sahu developed a 'road'; now usually we 'conservationists' condemn construction of roads near protected areas, but this road is exceptional - as it will help park managers of the sanctuary in monitoring the area much more efficiently. The sanctuary is densely populated with almost 40,000 people and an equivalent or more number of cattle, goat and sheep residing in the area. There is almost double the figure of poeple and domestic animals in the periphery of the sanctuary. The Tiger Reserve authorities decided to relocate 44 villages from the sanctuary to make it more suitable for tigers. And my humble opinion was that I found this task undoable and impractical, so few years ago when Ms. Bina Kak was the Forest Minister of Rajasthan, I showed her a presentation on how they can develop this sanctuary without relocating too many people. The interested Forest Minister accepted the plan and gave us a task to make a precise report on the strategic relocation of Villages in Kailadevi sanctuary. Dr. GV Reddy-CCF (Bharatpur) and Mr. Rajesh Gupta- CF (Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve) steered the work and I provided them Tiger Watch data which my team (Ovee Thorat and Ramjilal Gurjer) collected in 2010, under the guidance of Shri Fateh Singh Rathore. The plan was based on two main objectives- select small village for relocation to get more land and the landscape should be geographically a unit which is naturally, physically (high elevation, deep gorges etc.) protected. Without ecological significance there is no need to select villages blindly like how Forest Department of Ranthambhore did in the past under the guidance of CWLW- RN Mehrotra and DCF- RS Shekhawat. They selected a huge village in Ranthambhore called Hindwad (approx. 600 families), for relocation. And they managed to shift 350 families from Hindwad while remaining 250 families still live there with all the resources used up and no purpose solved, leading to them hardly achieving 1-acre land for the tigers. After spending 35 crore rupees, nothing could be achieved for Ranthambhore tigers, even if they relocate the remaining 250 families, the village may contribute a maximum of 5-hectare land. Besides this, they got difficulties in keeping control over the small pieces of land which they acquired from the shifted families, creating a mosaic of relocated land and unrelocated families. This blunder made them humble enough to listen to advice from people who spoke with logic and data backing. Before Bina Kak's visit, the same situation was about to come up in Kailadevi where the ‘target achiever’ officials were ready to give money to anyone who wanted to go from Kailadevi. They were about to create many Hindwad models in Kailadevi - durin which some landless people were ready to pounce on the opportunity and some landholders were negating. The team changed in a few months, Rajesh Gupta got transferred, Dr. Reddy also got transferred from Bharatpur, and BJP government came in force. And the task remained where it started.
Best thing about Ranthambhore is that it has had a very strong conservation support group that includes conservationists such as Late Sh. Fateh Singh Rathore, Mr. Valmik Thapar et al. I proposed to Mr Thapar the idea of repairing the particular historical road for the betterment of the sanctuary, and as he is a State Wildlife Board Member, under his power he convinced the government for some quick work and action. It was a state time road for connectivity. There is a small guard post indicating the important connections of Karauli district with Sawai Madhopur district in old days. The old Choki (Guard Posts) is near Bheronji Temple of Lundawadi village. Field Director- Y K Sahu ordered that the road should pass through forest guard posts, so that they can control the movement of unwanted people inside the sanctuary. Immediately after the repairing work was complete, I used the road for first time. My team of Village Wildlife Volunteers were ready to support me locally. And for the duratiion of the stay, I decided to camp outside villages near banyan trees, which usually they grow near open wells. From early mornings to late evenings, we explore the area nonstop. The Kailadevi villages are mainly Gurjer community-based, most of who are dependent on livestock rearing.
The more I explored Kailadevi, I realized that the landscape is vast, and the present system of management needs atleast the basic logistic support for managers, as without their presence, it is difficult to improve the sanctuary. The ecosystem here, is completely influenced by livestock and their keepers. During monsoon, thousands of additional cattle and their owners from adjoining or peripheral villages camp inside the sanctuary to gain access to fresh grass. Their temporary camps sites are fixed in certain locations, and they are called 'khirkadi'. Most of Kailadevi villages are small in size, and there is generally increase in cattle populations overall during monsoon as compared to rest of the time of the year.
I witnessed that this area has a very good population of wolves, and a remarkably high number of hyenas, also one can easily spot vultures in decent numbers. On the 1st day itself, I saw 4 hyenas and also many raptors and birds. And I saw 9 wolves on my 3rd and 4th day, both of which were remarkable sightings.
Wolves are very special animals, as they do not need very exclusive landscapes like tigers for their survival, as they can tolerate human biotic pressure more than that of tigers. Though 30% of Kailadevi sanctuary is already deprived of wildlife, the remaining areas supports the wolves quite well. Sooner or later when tigers may occupy this area, these wolves may possibly disappear as well. If this biotic pressure continues in the same manner, the future of wolves here can turn bleak. Around Ranthambhore I have been documenting wolves since a decade or so. And if one wants to observe wolves here, then the terrain of Banas is not an easy area for many people to explore, but in case of Kailadevi it is comparatively an easier and manageable area. Hopefully, in the near future, people may consider Kailadevi as an easy destination to spot Indian Wolves.
The Indian Wolf (Canis lupus pallipes) is distributed in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Rajasthan is largest state of the country and in my opinion, it also holds the largest population of wolves, compared to other states. As per personal surveys, local new paper reports and friends observations suggested that only sand dune areas of Rajasthan lack this species, otherwise their presence is seen in most of the districts of the state. The high density of this species has been observed in Karauli, Dausa, Sawai Madhopur, Baran, Tonk, Bundi, Bhilwara, Jaisamand, etc.
Academically, in the world, wolves have received quite a lot of attention in terms of reserch and conservation. But in our country, it is still in the form of a neglected and under-studied species. Wolves need small areas to breed, and also foraging is not a big challenge for this ecologically flexible species. In last one-year we have Village Wildlife Volunteers collected data of livestock killings by three predators mainly - tigers, leopards and wolves. A Tiger Watch Intern Aristo Mendis analysed the data and found that wolf-livestock predation was strictly restricted to the Kailadevi side, while big cats conflicts were majorly documented from the Ranthambhore National Park side. In between July to November 2015, a total 18 incidents involving wolves have occured in the area and they killed at least 31 domestic animals (18 goats and 13 sheep) majorly in the three villages of Kailadevi - Bajoli, Lundawadi and Bhavpur.
There are many stunning deep gorges in Kailadevi - like Handiya Kho, Dangda Kho, Ghanteshwar Kho, Mahesra Kho and Kudka Kho. When large tracts of Vindhayan hill top (Dang) gets flooded with water in monsoon, it discharges water through these gorges (Kho) and the phenomena of water erosion helps create these canyons. The starting point of these gorges are perineal water points for animals and if you carefully explore this area, you can spot Dusky Eagle Owls, who surely exist here. I spotted three owls in one of these peculiar niches. The largest Kho is Ghanteshwar Kho & there are two adjoining Khos - Handiya and Dangda connected in the same area, below which there is a village called the Kho Gaon. Unfortunate to Kailavdevi, the government was in process of constructing a dam near these 'Khos' which would have left devastating ecological impacts to this landscape. I reported about the concerned matter to present CWLW Mr. Reddy and he opposed the idea of the dam being constructed here, following which he took immediate action to halt construction work. The dam, if built, may fill the Khos with enormous water & a long stretch of forests in Kailadevi would get submerged and disappear. Only time will tell how long construction work can be halted as there is immense local political pressure supporting construction of the dam.
During the visit, I found two very interesting rock painting sites, one of which was in the starting points of a Kho. Sand stone in Keladevi area is very brittle in nature, and the place is also highly vulnerable to movement of heavy water flow in monsoon, and despite all this, my personal experience of exploring to find some rock paintings here was quite thrilling. There were clear depictions of Tiger, Deer and Cattle in the rock paintings, which reminded me of the Bundi-area rock paintings. Fatehji would have loved to see tiger rock paintings in his most loved Tiger Reserve, as he used to explore such sites in Bundi with Kukiji (a rock painting explorer). Few years back Divya and I found a rock painting site near Baler as well, but the figures were new and this particular site, in comparison, seems more primitive.
The 300-400 meter high flat table top is the main feature of this sanctuary, but the edges of these hill tops are constantly eroding due to weathering, ultimately creating several rocky hides in process. All these rock hides provides shelter to many animals like sloth bear, leopard, hyena, wolf and jackal here. So just imagine on the edge of 667 sq. km. sanctuary, how many such shelters/dens/rock hides can possibly be available for wild animals, some of which are easily approachable for carnivores and the rest only accessible to flying avian giants like-Indian vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Bonellie’s Eagles and others. I lost hopes to spot White-rumped Vultures in RTR region a long time ago, but it was heartening to see 4 of them inside the sanctuary, during my visit. Lots of feral cows provide good prey base for leopards and wolves and these cows are probably the only hope for food to the straying tigers in this area. Tiger Watch Program - Village Wildlife Volunteers (VWV) regularly document presence of T72 and T76 from the sanctuary. Presence of T47 now is mostly seen in relocated Padra village area of Ranthambhore, who was once the lone tiger of this sanctuary and used to roam up to Dholpur, Mandrail and Ghanteshwar. He was earlier wrongly identified as female and local people named him chandbai but later on they named him Mohan. T72 is a famous tiger of Ranthambhore, is known as Sultan, and the other tiger is T76, known asTufan (Cyclone) among guards. I also saw pugmark of T72 in an area called Gond ki Telai. The place is just on top of Talra khet from where the tiger T72 regularly climbs up and down through Umar Ghati.
The wolves were the most common carnivore I saw in this area; I spotted 1+2+2+4 wolves in 4 different sightings. The last one was really a remarkable as they were on a goat kill. Their kill was grabbed by a sounder of wild pigs, so when we reached there, they were just roaming around the place. Wild pigs got disturbed when a goat herder reached very close to the place and finally the wolf gang controlled their kill again. It all happened in very good evening light and I got the opportunity to take lots of pictures.
During the survey I met only one Forest Guard (Mr. Ramlal) and one Forester (Mr. Sanwaria) in the Kailadevi field. The Forester was there to supervise the soil and moisture conservation work which i consider is the most crucial work at present, because due to high human biotic pressure, undergrowth has seena sharp decrease here, but there is still rootstock of Dhonk available in most places. If soil and moisture conservation is done, then the available vegetation will grow in the coming time. Along with the officials, a local bandit’s brother was handling this work for Forest Department and they were executing it methodologically. This is possibly the only way to execute work in such areaa. Bandits are common in this region and many a times come from Dholpur, Madhya Pradesh area to take refuge. They can create big problem for the visitors, and without local support, some areas are highly risky for visit. The best way to go there is to meet the Forest Department first and take local people’s assistance. I suggested the Forest Department to involve some local people as guides for the interested visitors.
This road provides connectivity to all managers, conservation organizations and visitors between Kailadevi and Ranthambhore. Time will tell how Kailadevi will fair in the future, but I have a dream, to see it green…