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© Chhotu Khan

A day along Kanha-Pench corridor

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The kanha-Pench Walk 2015 in progressThe kanha-Pench Walk 2015 in progress

The freshly flattened grass patch half the size of a badminton court, the discarded leftovers of the stomach and intestine, spilled rumen contents, the skull and the terminal parts of legs with hooves and dew-claws of the boar indicated that the kill had been made by a large carnivore. The staff walking around and locating pugmarks confirmed that the kill was made by a tiger and they were evenabout the identity of the tiger — a mother with three grown up cubsthey had seen in the area few days ago. Red jungle fowls giving agitated alarms and flying up the trees hardly 20 meters from us clearly indicated that the cat family was nearby and possibly waiting for us to move away so that the remains of the kill can be eaten.

The date was 30 October 2015, time was 09:40 hrs, and we were in the Arri Range of the PenchBuffer Division. The team included nearly 70 participants on the ambitious Kanha-Pench Walk 2015. Prominent persons in the team were Mr. Ravi Singh, Secretary General and CEO of WWF-India; Mr. JS Chauhan, Field Director, Kanha Tiger Reserve; and Mr. S Sen, Field Director, Pench Tiger Reserve.

This seven-day walk which covers a distance of nearly 120 km was first conducted last year in the month of October, and aimed at highlighting the importance of wildlife corridors in the country primarily focusing on the Kanha-Pench corridor. One should read about this corridor by referring to WWF-India’s well-written report ‘Lifeline for tigers: status and conservation of the Kanha-Pench corridor’ by Jena, J et al(2011) (See: http://awsassets.wwfindia.org/downloads/kanha_pench_corridor_report.pdf).The report is based on intensive surveys on foot by WWF-India team.

Briefly, the potential and the problems of the corridor can be summarized as follows. Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves having about 120 tigers sustain one of the most important meta-populations of tigers in central India. The corridor forests linking the two reserves are about 1700 sqkm of managed forests in five forest divisions in Mandla, Seoni and Balaghat districts. The corridor is characterized by diverse land use, forest protection regimes and forest dwelling tribal communities. It is used by animals such as sloth bear, hyena, dhole, leopard, tiger, common langur, barking deer, chowsingha, nilgai, wild pig, chital and sambar. Surprisingly there is no report of the gaur in the corridor area, which is found in both the tiger reserves. There are about 440 villages in the corridor forests and so livestock grazing (including by goats, which are enemies of forest regeneration), firewood and timber cutting are rampant around the villages. In fact during the walk, we often realized that we were nearing a village by hearing the ringing of the cowbells.

Greater threat to the corridor comes from the road connecting Keolari with Balaghat via Ugli and the one connecting Nainpurwith Balaghat which runs parallel to Nainpur-Balaghat railway line – they will be broadened as broad-gauge and may even be converted into double lanes; and the broadening of the NH-7, east of Pench Tiger Reserve.

Back to Day 1, the walk had started at 08:40 hrsfrom the cool environs of the Sakata Forest Rest House built in 1903, with a brief introduction by S. Sen about the importance of this corridor.Thiswas followed by inspiring talks by J.S Chauhan and Ravi Singh. Both pointed out the importance of corridors and how public participation, working with the Forest Department and other government agencies can ensure the future of the corridors which are often threatened by growing development and subjected to immense biotic pressures.

Mr. Ravi Singh, CEO and Secretary General, WWF-India, explains the significance of the walk to the participantsMr. Ravi Singh, CEO and Secretary General, WWF-India, explains the significance of the walk to the participants

The participants were wearing WWF-India T-shirts, had binoculars, cameras, notebooks, water bottles and a tribal youth lead the way with a ‘Kanha-Pench Walk 2015’ flag in hand.The participants roughed it out willingly – camping in forest resthouses, schools and tents, wherethe Forest Departmentand WWF-India had organized their stopover along the trail.

I have visited Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves but this was the first time I participated in the walk, albeit only for the first day covering a distance of nearly 22km ending in Kacchar. On the second day, I waited for the group with some forest staff on the bank of Derajhoranallah in the Lalbara Range but the group instead of walking uphill towards the bank walked along the nallah and reached the century old Sonawani forest rest house.

While in Sonawani I could see the teak tree planted by Dietrich Brandis, German forester, in 1867-68 who then worked with the British Imperial Forestry Service. I was also, taken by the staff to see a waterhole in a valley (sadly a tank was built with high walls rather than a saucer shaped waterbody).While on this trail I also witnessed fresh gaur dung. It was pleasing to see Mr. Ravi Singh leading the group and I was told that he continued to do so on the second day as well, trekking a total of 40 km with the team.On both the days, tiger pugmarks were observed in several places.

The mighty teak planted by , German forester Dietrich Brandis in 1867-68The mighty teak planted by , German forester Dietrich Brandis in 1867-68

Yet my brief stint with the corridor gave me ample opportunities to understand the richness and the problems of the corridor.  There was profuse regeneration of bamboo (Dendrocalamusstrictus), which, had flowered, in the early 2000. Abundance of giant wood spider (Nephilamaculata) in the forest was eye-catching. Many of the females were gravid with eggs and Mr.Chauhan said that soon the females will lay the eggs, perish and the spiderlings will appear with the onset of the next rainy season to continue the life cycle.

The villages we crossed had little of plastic, lots of goats, cattle, country chicken, childrenand the rivers although running low looked comparatively clean. The riverine vegetation dominated by tree species such as jamun (Syzygiumcumini), arjun (Terminaliaarjuna) andkadamb (Mithragynaparviflora) were cool and impressive.  Many of the dhobin trees (Dalbergiapaniculata) had a straight bole of 20-25m in height which was notable. Many of the mahua trees (Madhucalongifolia) were large and imposing. Grass growth in un-grazed areas dominated by Heteropogoncontortus was impressive.

A brief discussion with the WWF-India CEO Mr.Ravi Singh during the walkA brief discussion with the WWF-India CEO Mr.Ravi Singh during the walk

The walk brought two suggestions to mind — one about the landscape and other about the walk itself. About the landscape, the dependency of the villagers on the forests needs to be reduced as much as possible by growing firewood and fodder in the village lands and the adjacent forest lands set aside exclusively for this purpose. It should totally be a villagers program assisted and guided by the Forest Department and dedicated not-for-profit organizations like WWF-India and Corbett Foundation.

As for the walk, to improvise on the existing concept, the participants can be provided with a laminated map, displaying the trek route, important locations, forest blocks, roads and so on.Hopefully, moving on, the participants would talk and write about the walk in all possible places so that the country becomes aware of the importance of corridors in wildlife conservation.

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