Saturday 27 May 2017 News Updated at 07:05 AM IST
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Safeguarding a crucial habitat - Deccan Herald
Safeguarding a crucial habitat
Samad Kottur,
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A fire watcher making fire lines at Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary
Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary is unique for its landscape and typical biodiversity of the Deccan Plateau. Situated between Sandur and Hospet taluks of Ballari district, the sanctuary is the largest sanctuary for Indian sloth bears (Melursis ursinus). Spread across 82 square kilometres, it has become a haven for not only sloth bears, but also for other animals like the pangolin, porcupine, jackal, fox and hundreds of species of birds, reptiles and butterflies.

The entire sanctuary has rocky hillocks and thorny scrub forest. The rocky boulders’ assembly forms the caves that provide a safe shelter for bears, leopards and other wildlife. The landscape becomes dry and dull from February to June. The monotonous chirping of cicadas combined with unbearable hot temperature seems to make the life of the wildlife miserable.

But the deep rocky caves here have cool and calm conditions, in which, bears and other wildlife rest during the day and come out for foraging in the night. The unfriendly climate outside and cool favourable conditions inside the caves might be one of the reasons for most of the wildlife to become nocturnal in the Deccan Plateau. But the arrival of the monsoons transforms the entire surroundings. The parched shrubs, bushes and thorny trees come alive with green leaves, and the hot and dry ground gets covered with green carpet.

A little downpour is enough to sustain the flora and fauna of this landscape. Typical scrub plants like Ziziphus oenoplia, Ixora pavetta and Annona squamosa bear fruits one after the other throughout the year. The bears devour all these fruits, apart from termites, ants and dung beetle. Honey is also in abundance in this area and is eaten by the bears as a supplement to their main diet. The monsoon crop around the sanctuary lures the bears and boars to have a bite of maize, jowar, sunflower, peanuts, etc.

Conservation efforts
Before the declaration of the sanctuary, the Bilikallu (East) Reserve Forest was exposed to all kinds of exploitation from excessive grazing to encroachment, fire wood collection and forest fires. M Y Ghorpade, scion of the erstwhile Sandur kingdom and a wildlife photographer, was instrumental in the formation of Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary in 1994. Soon after its formation, the officials jumped into action to revive the fragile scrub ecosystem. Identification and demarcation of the boundary, eviction of encroachments and stringent patrolling to prevent activities such as wood cutting and excessive grazing were done.

Forest department staff were employed to protect the forest from illegal activities and exploitation. Simultaneously, soil and moisture conservation work was taken up and a number of existing lakes were desilted and strengthened. Over a period of time, the entire ecosystem began getting restored.

In 1994, the water table in the region was very low, making life difficult for both humans and animals. But after 15 years of conservation efforts, the forest has regenerated, and water table has improved.
"Because of the forest regeneration, our borewells got recharged. Now there is sufficient water for cultivation, and migration has reduced,” feels Somalingappa, a resident of Nallapura, a village that is located adjacent to the sanctuary.

The formation of the sanctuary has also reduced man-bear conflicts in the region. Earlier, there were a lot of disturbances in the bear habitat due to the movement of people and vehicles for firewood, sand and stone. But after the formation of the sanctuary, the external disturbances have been checked. "The natural regeneration of the forest and appropriate interventions by the department helped the bears and other wildlife feel the sanctuary a safe place to live in,” says T Bhaskar, range forest officer, Kamalapur. The convergent efforts by committed officials, support of local organisations like Wildlife SOS, Society for Wildlife and Nature (SWaN) and dedicated individuals helped making Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary a model for conservation of scrub jungles in the Deccan Plateau.

Challenges
Still, we need to understand the ecosystem of the dry scrub jungle for the sustainable conservation of the habitat. For instance, the total ban on grazing in the scrub forest interrupts the food chain. When the cattle graze in the jungle, they check the growth of the grass. If the cattle is banned, the grass grows tall and results in uncontrolled forest fires in summer.

Furthermore, the dung of the cattle is collected in the form of balls and dug deep into the ground by dung beetles. The tiny dung beetle gathers fresh cattle dung into a lump (cricket ball size), digs ground about a feet deep, hides three to four such balls and lays eggs into these balls. It takes anywhere between one month to three years for the adult beetle to emerge. But the bears are able to find the exact location of brood balls in which the adult pupa is growing, dig the tunnel, pull out the brood balls, break them and relish the pupa of the dung beetle. If the cattle are completely banned from the sanctuary, there will be no dung beetle pupa and the bears lose a part of their staple diet. Bears, boars and birds that eat wild berries help in plant propagation too.

Global warming is also affecting the biodiversity of the bear habitat. Further, as Ballari district has not been receiving even the minimal rainfall for the past few years, the habitat is getting affected. The species of flora have the ability to sustain for years without enough rain. That’s the speciality of the scrub jungles of Deccan Plateau.

There has also been a reduction in the wildlife population largely due to various reasons such as insufficient rain and limited food and water resources. Even the reproduction in bears has been affected.

For instance, in the last two decades, every year, there were one or two bears with two cubs. However, in the last three years, there was no sign of breeding. This year, fortunately, two bears gave birth to two cubs each. The productive females with healthy cubs reassure the hope for survival of sloth bears.

Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary is also popular among tourists. Hence, there is a need to streamline tourism at the sanctuary. As of now, the visitors enter the sanctuary in their own vehicles, and climb up a hillock to see the bears through binoculars from a distance of about 200 metres. Also, the entry of private vehicles into the sanctuary is not advisable. According to Takhat Singh Ranawat, the deputy conservator of forests, Bellari division, there is a plan to introduce safari bus for general visitors and jeep for photographers in the sanctuary. Hope this move will attract more wildlife photographers. At the same time, the authorities concerned should ensure the safety of wildlife.
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