Dampa – Walking In A Tiger Forest

Wooden-houses dotting the highway, edibles laid out to dry, young men playing with small-sized and semi-inflated footballs and their younger counterparts playing imaginary games with miniature trucks and earth-movers. I was in Mizoram – again – and how I loved these sights, sounds and smells. Soon after landing at the Lengpui airport, I found myself driving along the 70 km. road towards the Dampa Tiger Reserve. I had spent a full three years in Saiha (south Mizoram), but had never had the good fortune of visiting this tiger forest located on the states’ northwestern fringe, bordering Bangladesh – until January 2013, when I offered to join some Forest Department staff and a researcher for a trek they were to undertake through the Dampa Tiger Reserve to gather information and get a sense of the paths and camps here, so we could feed into the Tiger Conservation Plan (TCP) under preparation.
Dampa’s undulating landscape is dominated by extensive bamboo tracts. Bamboo is also seen in the large tracts of secondary forest in the fallow jhum (swidden agriculture) land. The lower tracts have moist deciduous forests, while the upper altitudes showcase evergreen and semi-evergreen forests with grasslands, with little continuity between woody forests. The hills run from north to south, with small rivulets crisscrossing the reserve.
We were a team of six including my companion Pu Zakhuma, an enthusiastic forest-department staff member who was also a good photographer and animal spotter. The plan was to spend three nights in the forest and we had carried basic provisions including rice, dal, tea and some utensils. We knew that wild fruit including banana flowers and cane would add to our diet.
Much of our exploration involved walking along trekking-paths (patrolling roads), and enjoying the moon-lit nights at anti-poaching camps. In some places, camera-traps had already been installed as part of an on-going exercise by the Forest Department and their partners and associates. I was delighted to know that the highly elusive clouded leopards (kelral) had been photo-captured at virtually every location, possibly suggesting a high density in this 500 sq. km Protected Area. The extremely rare ferret badgers (sahmaitha) were also recorded on camera! Of course for positive identification of the two ferret badger species, images are not enough, we would need to check dentition!
Back in 2006, when the camera trapping exercise was initiated, this was possibly the first location to throw up images of the marbled cat (pawi or pawak). Other revelations included birds such as the Black Stork and Lesser Whistling Teal that had not earlier been recorded from the landscape. The report ‘Status of tigers, co-predators and prey in India’ had revealed in 2006 that the tiger occupancy here was one per 482 sq. km. In 2010 this occupancy was re-estimated and pegged at one per 416 sq. km., with a population estimate of about five tigers.
The patrolling road ended at a river that was to be our path. I gingerly tested the flow, withdrawing my foot instantly as the freezing water sent a sharp pain shooting through me. But we had no option except to wade in. At places I was waist-deep in the river and, adding to my agony, even slipped a couple of times and got completely soaked in the process. I was reminded of yet another cold walk taken earlier during a preliminary survey of the Tokalo Wildlife Sanctuary in Saiha, along the southeastern edge adjoining Myanmar.
One camp-site we visited had been flattened by an Asian elephant (sai) within a month of it being refurbished. Even buckets and kitchen utensils were not spared. “We have only one angry female,” I was told, by way of the elephant status in Dampa. Given the elephant footprints we crossed and re-crossed, this was kind of difficult to believe. I wondered about the stress she was under and the loneliness she carried around with her. As we walked the path she had taken, I worried that Dampa might turn out to be yet another forest that was destined to be stuck off the Protected Areas list for having lost its pachyderms. Would this turn into a stark reminder of our collective failure to conserve the species we have tagged with the epithet of ‘national heritage animal’?
Such thoughts and discussions sat like a pall over us, as we lit a fire at our camp-site alongside the river, deep inside the bamboo-enveloped silences of Dampa. Silences broken by the gushing waters as they rolled over large boulders that lay immobile in their path. A single banana leaf served as a plate for a delicious banana-flower, dal and rice meal that seemed as local as the forest itself.
I loved our daytime walks. And soon signs of hidden life appeared.  Clearly otters, wild dogs (chinghnia), sambar (sazuk), porcupines and lesser cats including the marbled cat, leopard cat and golden cat (all camera-trapped here) had the run of Dampa. However, there were very few barking deer (sakhi) and wild pig (sanghal) signs. Why? I wondered.
I consider myself relatively fit, but at the end of our four-day walk, my muscles were so stiff that even getting into the vehicle sent to pick us up was torture. No fear that tourism will overrun this forest. No comfortable safaris… because there are simply no roads. Even foot trails are hard to establish because there is virtually no flat ground to be seen!
Following that trip, I revisited Dampa in October 2013 and January 2014 for a rapid survey commissioned by the Forest Department to assess the effectiveness of their interventions in villages and get a better understanding of human-wildlife conflict. I also looked at the perception of the people in buffer zone villages of the reserve management.
We managed to take several, easier, short walks in Phaileng and nearby villages. In each village, I took time to walk around before interacting with the locals. I enjoy walking and I have to agree with Henry David Throreau when he wrote: “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
Phaileng, a quaint town, houses the Dampa Tiger Reserve headquarters and boasts a quintessential Mizo market. Passenger vehicles are on the move here at 5.30 a.m. and tea-stalls have piping hot tea and puris ready well before that. Young tribal men and women consume these with relish. The Mizos dominate most villages including Phaileng but some buffer villages are also home to the Chakma and Reang (bru).
At an orchard near Phaileng I saw a Common Kestrel hover in mid-air as it scoured the earth below for prey. Wagtails (White and Grey) were ubiquitous, reminding me of happy, energetic children. Eurasian Tree Sparrows were not quite comfortable with the attention I paid them and quickly flew away, unlike the Blue Rock Thrush that sat at the edge of the roof, apparently indifferent to my fiddling with binoculars. I even saw a Scaly-breasted Munia nest on an areca-nut tree.
One of our walks took us from the Damparengpui village (located right on the boundary of the sanctuary) to a watchtower in the heart of the Dampa Wildlife Sanctuary. Even before we entered I sighted a Dollar Bird and four Golden-fronted Leaf-birds. Within 15 minutes a troop of Phayre’s leaf monkeys (dawr) revealed themselves and then a troop of capped langurs (ngau). Dampa is home to as many as eight primate species. The Malayan giant squirrel (awwrrang) with its huge bushy tail was an absolute bonus.
The track followed a forest-path as beautiful and pleasing as one would hope for on a winter morning. A profusion of green and brown surrounded us and short sharp sounds made by who-knows-which creature had us shaking our heads in wonder. At a bend in the path, sunlight burst through the canopy and caressed the carpet of fallen leaves over which we walked, as a vocal flock of black and yellow Hill Mynas made their stunning appearance in the early morning light. A Silver-breasted Parrotbill offered us the briefest and most graceful of glimpses. When we reached the watchtower, we fell silent as we took in the spectacular view before us, with the calls of a Great Hornbill floating across the forest and a Rufuous-bellied Eagle flying directly overhead.
As I write, months after returning to my home base in Hyderabad, the thought occurs to me… all that is big is becoming rare in the wild – birds, trees, and forests themselves. And, all that is big seems now to dominate urbania – buildings, cars, cities themselves!
One at the cost of the other?
There is only so much the written word can convey and no more. The very purpose of making this trip to Dampa’s remote wildernesses was to interact with and learn first-hand from farmers, orchard and plantation owners, as well as keepers of small kitchen-gardens in villages. What did they think of the forest, the landscape and the national mandate to protect the wildlife within?
Even before we arrived news of recent, multiple kidnappings of Forest Department staff was communicated to us through emails and phone calls. Staff morale was down. The natural vegetation outside Dampa has been steadily declining and this forces people to look towards the protected forest for sustenance. This was once a wild, wild jungle, but today even secondary and bamboo forests are fast being replaced by monocultures of oil-palm and rubber.
From a biodiversity point of view, Dr. Jekyll was being replaced by Mr. Hyde. These spaces, apart from offering refuge to Dampa’s wildlife, has been sustaining the people of the region with critical biomass essentials, including bamboo, firewood and other minor forest-produce. Mizoram once had excellent traditions ‘safety-reserves’ and ‘supply-reserves’. These natural larders allowed people to coexist with nature because regeneration was then a part and parcel of their ethic. In our view, somehow, this ethic, of allowing nature to “be” needs to be revived. We understand that this is in the best interests of the people themselves, but will credible leaders from among the community emerge to lead them towards greener horizons? Could the answer lie in Community Conserved Areas, or even community-owned nature conservancies, demarcated and protected by the people themselves.
Human-wildlife conflict, once relatively contained, has predictably accelerated in recent years as the habitat has become degraded. Steps taken by the Forest Department’s patrolling staff have helped to reduce hunting of wild pigs and deer, but this has resulted in increased crop raiding. Such are the challenges created by strict protection measures introduced in recent years. Disputes on claims and arguments about the disbursal of crop compensation are worries that tax the will and patience of officials. As on other fronts, such conflict in Dampa too does not quite fit the norm. Crop-raiding is an issue, but not cattle-lifting (because cattle-raising is not a livelihood source). Wild pigs, porcupines, deer and bears (Dampa is home to both the Malayan sun bear and the Asiatic black bear) do damage crops. I was surprised to learn that tree-shrews (chepa) were taking a toll of sugarcane crops and owls had developed a distinct taste for areca-nut! By the end of my trip, nothing surprised me anymore… not the porcupines that brought down banana trees, nor the Red Junglefowl that fed on the rice in paddy fields, even as cultivators were sowing it!
Frankly, the Forest Department has an unenviable task ahead of them. Nevertheless, they hope to include the Thorangtlang Wildlife Sanctuary (198 sq. km.) under the protective umbrella of the Dampa Tiger Reserve, a step that will greatly help to secure wildlife. But that nagging thought, “Can we ensure that a biodiversity resurrection guarantees locals a livelihood?” hangs heavy on me when I think of one of the most beautiful forests I have ever visited. Somehow the people whose lives are entwined with this landscape must find their economic, ecological and cultural future in the natural regeneration of lands that have been stripped of biodiversity for decades on end. Mere square footage on a map is not going to cut it for much longer.
Dampa stands at a crossroad today. On the one hand it holds out the promise of long-term landscape conservation in partnership with a low density of humans. On the other it faces the grim prospect of being islanded, surrounded by plantations devoid of wildlife. This is not a problem with which the Forest Department alone can be expected to cope.
It’s a complex situation that requires the involvement of more than the ‘gladiators’ (locals and park officials) that have been thrown together in a combat not of their making. Like the rest of India and the world, those of us who realise that the objectives of biodiversity conservation go far beyond saving this species or that, will not be content to wait and watch to see how politics, conservation and commerce play out this game. We intend to be counted as players, for this is how we believe a new India has to be built.
This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of Sanctuary Asia magazine.

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