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Conserving the elusive chinkaras - Deccan Herald
Conserving the elusive chinkaras
Pavan Kumar H,
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Apart from the chinkaras (above), other animals such as wolves and owls have been spotted in the Yadahalli Chinkara Wildlife Sanctuary in Bagalkot. PHOTOS BY M R Desai & FOREST DEPARTMENT
For 71-year-old M R Desai, honorary wildlife warden of Bagalkot district, December 23, 2015 was an unforgettable day. His 40 years of tireless efforts of making 9,636.91 hectares of forest land into a safe home for one of the most shy and elusive antelopes - chinkara or the Indian Gazelle (Gazella bennettii) - had succeeded, as the State government announced this forest patch in Bilagi taluk of Bagalkot district as a wildlife sanctuary. The Yadahalli Chinkara Wildlife Sanctuary, which lies between Bilagi and Mudhol taluks of Bagalkot district is a success story not just for protecting the chinkaras, but also for changing the practices and beliefs of local tribes towards these antelopes.

While the entire district of Bagalkot celebrates Holi, the festival of colours, the forest officials at Bilagi range, under which this sanctuary comes, used to fear spillage of blood in the small patches of forest that was formed by the Ghataprabha and Krishna rivers. Tribes used to venture into the forest and hunt whatever they came across as part of the five-day celebration. This tradition was followed till about 2010. The Forest Department too lacked sufficient staff to protect the land. "Earlier, it was a herculean task for the Forest Department to prevent hunting of wildlife during those five days,” said Hanamant B Doni, forest officer, Bilagi Range. The narrow patch of forest land is surrounded by 12 villages and eight tandas which have tribes that believed in hunting during Holi. Hanamant said that more than 500 people used to venture into the forest areas with country-made guns, bows and arrows, hunting dogs, sticks and other weapons during the festival.

It was Desai, who along with officials and politicians, convinced the tribes not to hunt. Meanwhile, even the Forest Department started taking the support of police officials and created awareness among the people by making announcements using the public announcement system, distribution of pamphlets explaining the laws and taking 'miscreants’ into preventive custody. All these efforts saw the number of poaching cases decreasing gradually. "Hunting has not completely stopped in the region, but has come under great control now,” said Hanamant.

Providing alternative jobs, LPG connections, solar lights, bio-gas units to the villagers, fencing, digging of trenches and others resulted in the reduction of human intervention in the forest, he added. Regular patrolling from the department also made sure that chinkara fawns are not taken away from their natural habitat and reared by the shepherds of the neighbouring villages.

Where chinkaras flourish

The Forest Department officials have also dug eight artificial water holes in the forest, which are filled with water with the help of tankers. The department has divided the 96 sq km forest range into 72 grids. Camera traps are installed in 40 grids on a rotation basis, that is, five camera traps are installed in eight grids every five days. These efforts have resulted in the sanctuary becoming the only place in South India to house chinkara in such large numbers. While camera traps have shown presence of chinkara in Bukkapatna State Forest at Sira taluk in Tumakuru district, their number there is too less.

According to a recent scientific survey conducted by H N Kumar of Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore, there are an estimated 80 to 100 chinkaras roaming freely in the sanctuary. This number, according to Desai, is far less when compared to the number of chinkaras that were present during his adolescent days. "There were hundreds of them across the Mumbai-Karnataka region,” said Desai and added that they are now limited to very small pockets of Bilagi.

Blasting of rocks for Ghataprabha canals led to the disappearance of several animals from this forest region in the 1960s. "The need to protect chinakaras at Yadahalli has become even more important now. They were isolated from the rest of the gazelle species long time ago, and these could be sub-species or a geographical race that have adapted to the scrub forest,” said Desai. Chinkaras are indicator species of the scrub forest and their healthy population indicates the health of the scrub forest. "Before 1965, the forest had six to eight leopards. However, till 2015, none of the camera traps or humans had spotted any leopards in the region. Of late, a male leopard has been sighted in the forest,” said Hanamant while showing the camera trap pictures of the big cat.

Home to other wildlife too

Desai said that India is blessed with conducive environment that needs no artificial plantation work. Leave it untouched for a few years, and the forest ecology will retain its equilibrium. "Returning of the leopard is an indicator that the sanctuary is being well protected and the prey base is increasing,” added Desai. It is not just the leopards that the camera traps have captured. These have also captured the presence of animals such as the stripped hyena, wolf, jackal, Indian fox, porcupine, pangolin, civet cat, peacock and wild boar.

The forest officials have decided not to open the narrow forest patch of 35 km in length and 2.8 km in width for the public. Only researchers and environmentalists will have access to this forest, only for research purposes. "Chinkaras are shy animals and the presence of humans will repel them further. So, the question of eco-tourism is out of reckoning,” said Hanamant.

The Forest Department officials are also aware of various challenges that the forest patch is facing. The narrow patch of greenery means there is hardly any core area for the animals where they can safely breed. The forest is surrounded by villages from all sides and there is no forest corridor. The porous boundaries mean that humans are still able to access the forest at will. Preparation of illicit liquor in the deep forest by miscreants has become another huge problem for both forest and excise department officials. Despite these problems that they are facing, the Yadahalli Chinkara Wildlife Sanctuary has become a thriving place that offers a safe haven for the antelopes and other wild animals