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Bhimgad a forest worth saving

-by Durgesh Kasbekar, Major Mhaskar, Vishweshwar Madhav, and Vrushal Dongre.

Evergreen forests are a rarity here, where plunder and loot of natural resources has been the order of the day for years. To have found a truly rich evergreen patch of forest, therefore, was nothing short of a breathtaking surprise. Part of a group of eight naturalists, all members of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), we travelled to the forests of Bhimgad, Karnataka, in April 1997 to investigate stray reports of the existence of a relic wilderness. We had no idea whatsoever that the trip would be the start of a major campaign to protect an exquisite, but defenceless rainforest. Since that early trip, we have revisited Bhimgad three times, bringing with us more than 50 friends and supporters, all of whom have been enchanted by its beauty. Together with some local villagers and a support group called the Belgaum Nature Lovers Club, a movement to save the forests of Bhimgad has been launched. We hope that this report in Sanctuary helps strengthen our efforts by bringing in still more supporters. Our objective is to succeed in having a significant portion of the forests protected as a sanctuary or national park. The connected forests in Goa are already thus protected as the Molem Sanctuary and on the other side, in Karnataka itself, as the Dandeli Sanctuary. Bhimgad thus delivers a fairly extensive swatch in which a host of wild animals including tigers have been able to survive all these days, notwithstanding the few pockets of privately owned (malki) lands that exist within theforested area.We have no doubt at all that in the days to come, the 700 sq. km. forest we would like to see protected for posterity will be up there in the pantheon of famous wildlife reserves of India. It has all the romance and history enjoyed by places like Ranthambhor, or Bandhavgarh. The Bhimgad Fort for instance, located in the heart of the forest, was controlled by Shivaji during the period other great protected areas such as Kanha (the southern source of the Narmada), Bhimgad is the source of the great Mahadayi River, better known as the Mandovi, which is virtually the lifeline of the people of Goa. More than 25 streams crisscross the proposed sanctuary, which is also blessed by the spectacular Vajra Poya falls that cascade along a major tributary near Gawali village. Though yet 'undiscovered', we believe its biodiversity values justify immediate protection. If ever a clinching rationale for total protection of the forest was required, this is presented by the existence of the Barapedea and Krishnapur Caves. Carved out over millions of years by the steady effect of water, the limestone caves have their own very special ecology. The natural history of the caves of India has been badly neglected, but in the case of the Barapedea caves at least, one creature has become world-famous. This is Wroughtons freetailed bat, Otomops wroughtoni, an endemic, insectivorous mammal found nowhere else on earth. Researchers Paul J.J. Bates and David L. Harrison of the Harrison Zoological Museum, UK write, in their book, bats of he Indian Subcontinent that the bat is: "Extremely vulnerable to roost disturbance and deserves full protection. It is included on the List I (Threatened Speces) of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals with the notation CR B1+2c 'Critically endangered with a small distribution and with a decline in the area, extent or quality of the habitat' (Baillie and Groombridge, 1996)". Almost any country in the world which harbours such a rare and endangered mammal would take extraordinary steps to protect it. We believe that India will do the right thing by protecting this species, provided prominent natural history institutions such as the BNHS, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) throw their weight and credibility behind the demand to protect it.Apart from animals, the plant diversity in these evergr probably why more than 25 species of mammals, 15 reptiles, over 30 butterflies and moths and over 125 birds have been recorded through very preliminary studies conducted by us. This tally is bound to rise, as is the list of insects and amphibians, no sooner a systematic cataloguing is undertaken. Of one thing there is no doubt whatsoever, tigers use these forests. Local Forest Department officials and villagers believe that between 10 to 15 have managed to carve territories for themselves in Bhimgad. This number would probably rise if protection was effective, particularly since contiguity with Molem and Dandeli offer ample opportunity for prey species to multiply. We hope that Project Tiger and the Wildlife Department of Karnataka, together with such leading organisations as Wildlife First, combine to survey the forests to confirm our view of its potential. The other large predators include the sloth bear and leopard. Villagers have even reported sightings of black panthers, which they (wrongly) believe to be another species altogether. Leopard cats, jungle cats, jackals, small Indian civets are also present. Prey species such as the gaur, sambar, chital, barking deer, mouse deer and blacknaped hare are easily spotted. When walking under the canopy of Bhimgad's tall trees we observed langurs, bonnet macaques, Indian giant squirrels and flying squirrels. We never saw a slender loris, but from descriptions provided by villagers, we are sure they exist. Perhaps the most exciting prospect of new discovery comes from potential exploration of the caves. The large number of insectivorous bats in the numerous natural caves indicates that the forests surrounding them support a good diversity of insect life. Theobald's tomb bat, Taphozous theobaldi secatus is found in only two other sites in Madhya Pradesh. The false vampire bat Megaderma spasma, found here, is classified as rare and localized in the Indian subcontinent. A Southeast Asian bat, it has been listed in only four places in p such as king cobras, common cobras, five species of vipers (including the humpnosed pit viper), Indian rock pythons, flying snakes, and flying lizard hunt and hide in Bhimgad. Understandably, the relatively undisturbed forests are a birdwatchers' dream come true. Great Indian pied hornbills fly noisily from perch to perch and nest in the many old growth trees in the area. Malabar pied hornbills, Malabar trogons, orange-beasted green pigeons, maroon- backed imperial pigeons, blue-eared kingfishers, chestnut-headed bee- eaters, hill mynas, fairy bluebirds, Ceylon frogmouths, brown fish owls, bay owls, crested goshawks, Indian black-crested bazas, white-eyed buzzards and grey-headed fishing eagles are only some of the exotic avians to be seen here. More than biologists, botanists are the ones to rely on, to establish the health of habitats. In Bhimgad, the girth and height of some of the trees is nothing short of astounding. Branching often starts as much as six metres from the ground and the undergrowth is often so tangled that it makes walking impossible. Even when the sun is high in the sky, a gloom prevails under the canopy making it impossible to take photographs without a powerful flash. Cane brakes dot the forest and climbers of all kinds give the trees an ancient and ethereal look. Locals who know the value of several spices are able to supplement their incomes by harvesting spices for two months each year. Mosses, lichens and ferns grow plentiful in the humid and damp forest shadows. We were unable to get several orchid species identified and we believe some may well be endemic and perhaps even new to science. As has been so often highlighted through the pages of Sanctuary, the fact that the forest is so rich in water resources makes life considerably easier for locals, than it is for their counterparts in deforested areas. Countless small and large streams eventually joint the Mahadayi to benefit millions who are probably unaware of the very existence of the Bhimgad forest.. more wonders, evoked still more awe. As you turn a bend, clumps of bamboo present a totally different visage and in such patches where light filters through more easily to the forest floor, the insect life too changes. We sincerely hope that entomologists from some of our many scientific institutions will help us enumerate the butterflies, moths, spiders, bees, wasps, and other invertebrate lifeforms we saw, including centipedes, millipedes and scorpions.Should readers imagine that our purpose was merely to extoll the virtues of a forest we came to love, we hasten to inform them of a darker side of our experience. The biodiversity of which we write is sitting on a virtual time bomb. The principle threat comes from vested interests that have identified the privately owned patches of land. The owners are descendants of the Marathas who came here centuries ago with Shivaji and they are being induced to part with their properties to enable the commercial exploitation of timber and minerals such as limestone. Of the 1,700 acres of land under private ownership in Gawale, Krishnapur and Pashtoli, around 700 acres shows signs of major deforestation (largely for cashew, paddy and `ragi' ). From the manner in which powerful vested interests are hacking down trees in the forests that fall in the Belgaum district, one might imagine that the writ of the Supreme Court does not run in Karnataka. Violations of the now famous order dated December 12, 1996 are going on as we write, on private lands near Vajra Poya falls in the Mahadayi Valley. Each time we returned, we found more scars. Our most recent visit suggests that the timber mafias have taken to exploiting such forests that are away from the public eye. Wood from Bhimgad and Gawali is being delivered to contractors by way of access roads cut illegally near Khanapur from where truck-loads of timber can be seen making their way to the highway.A recent report submitted by an Expert Committee appointed by the Karnataka Government asked that licenses be issued for mining in the Western Ghats. A senior official of the Mines and Geology department revealed this to an NGO in confidence. Despite this, mining is being carried out in Talewadi. Mining activities on forest land without obtaining clearance from the Central Government is a gross violation of the Forest Conservation Act 1980. Manganese mines are also operating with impunity near Darsinga, Hemadge, Degaon, and Talewadi. A former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka worries that mining could destroy Western Ghats forests to the point where climatic changes come about. This could lead to a scarcity of rainfall in the Belgaum district, which would then join scarce rainfall belts such as Bijapur, Raipur and Balkari, all of which must scrabble for drought-relief funding with alarming frequency. Unfortunately, poaching is also quite commonplace in Bhimgad, since protection is so conspicuous by its absence. Deer, wild pig, panthers, tigers and bears all suffer at the hands of poachers. And we heard gunshots almost every time we visited Bhimgad. Villagers tell us that well-connected city people come here to hunt and that they often pay handsome rewards to locals who act as guides. This is hardly surprising. If we undervalue our own assets, someone or the other is bound to come to pillage them. Put simply, the forests in this region are severely threatened. It is only a matter of time before one of the few remaining evergreen forests in the country is lost forever. In all probability large number of species would become extinct without ever being recorded. It hurts all the more that we are armed with an interim order from the Supreme Court which bans the felling of trees in any forest, public or private, yet trees are being transported to timber yards with amazing ease. Thus are we losing the biodiversity for which conference after elitist conference is held in all the capitals of the world. A group of conservationists are contemplating the purchase of malki encouraged to stay on where they are. The alternative is to watch as miners and the timber-mafia combine to buy the lands from them, after which the villagers will be forced either to clear more forest land, or migrate to an urban centre. Representatives of the villagers have visited Mumbai twice and we have gone to the villages thrice to negotiate terms. If successful, it will be a unique model for conservation in the country. We are in search of supporters who agree with our objectives. Once the land is legally ours, the forest can be effectively protected, so we are able to repay a part of our debt to nature. Bhimgad... a spot-visit reportby Anand Pendharkar Between February 28 and March 8, 1998, thirteen of us including Durgesh Kasbekar and his colleagues and Neeraj Vagholikar from the Save Nature Movement, surveyed the forests of Sonale, Bhimgad, Krishnapur, and Gawali, in Belgaum District, Karnataka.This Western Ghats forest is situated in undulating territory varying between 60 metres (Sonale, Goa) and 810 metres (Gawali, Karnataka) above mean sea level. It is clothed by lowland evergreen forests. We pitched our camp at Krishnapur, about 14 km. from Sonale, which is the last motorable point, an idyllic hamlet of nine houses nestled in the forests along the Mahadayi river. Though paddy fields, banana, cashew plantations and ragi cultivation intersperse the tall trees, lined by lianas and spiny cane brakes, we found that the forests between Krishnapur Village and the Bhimgad Fort were primary in nature. The Krishnapur caves have a particularly high conservation value, surrounded as they are by pristine forest. The bats in the Kaarst (limestone) topography of the three-storey cave are probably endangered and need detailed study and immediate protection. By comparison, Gawali Village was degraded with a large number of houses. Gawali Village has a large plateau, surrounded by forests with a long history of human interference. Predictably, the area suffers a water shortage originates from the Gawali temple located in the village precincts. Evergreen forests harbour a bewildering diversity of niches and Bhimgad was no exception. The meadows surrounding Bhimgad were havens for gaur, deer and smaller herbivores, as also for sloth bear and leopard, who could ramble in the ramparts and crags of the fortress. In all likelihood, many new species await discovery. Herpetofaunal and avifaunal sightings were high and botanists would be challenged by the diversity of plant life waiting to be catalogued. Fruiting trees of Ficus and Terminalia ensure a diversity of food for the many frugivorous species found in Bhimgad. The presence of sloth bear was easily established from the large number of scats we counted. Villagers from Jambhoti village all seem to own muzzle-loading guns and they boasted openly of their former kills producing evidence by way of an old gaur skull found at their camp site. On the Gawali plateau, cinnamon and pepper grow wild and villagers harvest this bounty, though for short durations each year. The forests are increasingly being cleared for cashew plantations, status symbols among locals. The area around Vajra Poya falls is being deforested at an alarming rate and the catchment of the river unable to protect soils on account of large plantations of eucalyptus and Australian acacia. Blasting from the direction of Talewadi could be heard at our base camp often. While trekking to Sonale from Krishnapur we heard six distinct blasts. That miners are prospecting sites near Bhimgad and are planning to buy land near Krishnapur was established in our discussions with locals. The Karnataka Government must be pressured to take immediate action to prevent this. A great threat is posed by such development to the survival of the two endemic species of bats present in the Barapede Caves, as well as to the general wildlife due to widespread deforestation by mining and road cutting. Given clear evidence of tigers and related wild species, there is a strong ca Bhimgad from its Reserved Forest status to that of a Wildlife Sanctuary. Bhimgad overviewThe forest to be protected spreads across two districts - North Kanara and Belgaum in Karnataka. Contiguous forests spill over into Goa (7407' and 74030' E latitudes and 15015' and 15045' N longitudes). The northern boundary runs in a straight line around five km. north of the Malaprabha River, defined by Durgi Temb and Nival Temb in the Kanakumbi area to the northwest and Maharewadi to the northeast. The eastern boundary is defined by the villages Jambhoti, Chapoli, Vajra Poya Falls, Nerse, Jamgaon, Hemadege, Anmod, Kumbharvada. The River Pandhri Nadi upto Ganeshgudi (Supa) demarcates the southeastern border. The southern boundary is defined by the villages Talsoda, Shembha and the boundary of the Molem Sanctuary in Goa. The western boundary is defined by the villages of Karanzol and Bondir to the north of Molem Sanctuary and a corridor along river Surla (Nanaoda) and further along the Mundirichi nadi, moving in a northwestern direction till Kanakumbi.--------------------------- Sanctuary Asia 602 Maker Chambers V Nariman Point Mumbai 400 021 Tel: 2830061/81 Fax: +91 22 2874380-------------------------->

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