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28 October, 2014

Wildlife Aware Nature Club: 'The Green Brigade'

This story was published in Deccan Herald's Spectrum supplement on 4 Dec 2007.
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The Wildlife Aware Nature Club in Tumkur works for the cause of nature and wildlife conservation. Bharathi Prabhu outlines the activities of this environment-conscious group.

When people in and around Tumkur spot a snake, see any encroachment into forest area, find a wild animal being illegally transported, a lake becoming a landfill, or perceive any problem as an environmental one, they know whom to contact. It is a Wildlife Aware Nature Club (WANC) member that they think of first. For a small NGO in Tumkur with around 10-15 core members and no big time funding, the amount of work done by WANC is astounding.

Two things strike you about the group right away - commitment of its members and the diverse environmental issues they tackle. The core members have all been with the group for over 10 years now and they meet regularly to discuss their individual work and plan strategies.

Creating awareness, organising treks, preparing status reports on wildlife, participating in environmental projects, taking on powerful lobbies and increasingly using the internet - all in its efforts to conserve nature, this group has now won recognition even internationally.

WANC started off as an informal study group of four youngsters in 1990. All of them were deeply interested in nature and the presence of Devarayanadurga in their backyard acted as a catalyst for them to explore and learn.

“We were initially with the WWF and received guidance in activities like bird watching. We carried out a census of the birds and butterflies of the region for them but soon we were on our own,” explains Nandeesh, one of the founders. A businessman by profession, Nandeesh's love for nature, especially snakes, has turned him into an expert snake catcher or ‘rescuer’, as he points out!

Industrialist TVN Murthy, another founder and now a nominated honourary wildlife warden, works tirelessly in his capacity as an advisor. The group began by giving talks on ‘Nature Awareness’ in schools and conducting camps. This obviously had the desired effect! Three of the core members now were part of their audience then!

Elaborates Guruprasad of IBM, “I was in high school and took part in one of WANC's nature camps. I have been hooked ever since.”

Guruprasad's subsequent work on vultures of Tumkur district made him the youngest paper presenter in an international conference. Ameen Ahmed too was all of 15 when he came in contact with WANC. Now at 32, this manager of Greenpeace, India, has the honour of preparing the first ever checklist of birds of Karnataka along with Dr U V Singh, IFS. Another camper, Prasanna, went on to pursue a masters in ecological sciences and is the co-editor of ‘Parisara Arthakosha,’ the first ever environment dictionary in Kannada.

WANC's work at the grassroot level is equally noteworthy. Bank employee Upadhyaya, like other WANCers, believes in 'catching them young'. He has lost count of the number of schools they have talked in! Campaigning against the indiscriminate use of plastic and wastage of water, and instilling love and respect for all forms of life are his forte.

Soubhagya, a teacher, is a ready reckoner of sorts on medicinal plants. With Guruprasad's help she has prepared slides which she uses to educate the public. Gundappa, the unassuming science teacher, is the bio-diversity expert of his village Nagavalli.

Thanks to this man's efforts in co-ordination with the Center for Ecological Sciences, students and the community of Nagavalli participated in the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for their area.

Together they studied the crops grown, water problems faced, etc. and culled out indigenous solutions. It was largely due to Gundappa's efforts that a Slender Loris Sanctuary, India's first, has come up in Nagavalli.

WANCers also fondly recall the impact their discovery of the State's second largest colony of painted storks in Kaggaladu had on the villagers. The villagers are more knowledgeable about their birds now. It was also due to the wildlife (specifically blackbuck) data that the group furnished, that Maidenahalli was declared Tumkur district's first Conservation Reserve.

The group usually approaches the department/ organisation concerned to sort out any environmental issue, but in the absence of results, they have taken recourse to law.

For instance, WANCer Mallikarjun was on one of his regular treks in Devarayanadurga when he spotted illegal road construction. Alert members of the press also took up the case and now Lokayuktha and Supreme Court have been approached by WANC. The club has also sought information under the RTI act regarding various activities in various reserve forests of the district.

The jewel in the crown, according to all members, is however WANC's victory against Tumkur University which wanted to set up its campus in the reserve forest of Devarayanadurga. The case which was eventually won in the Supreme Court had attracted quite a bit of attention.

What pleases WANCers is that their fight helped preserve their beloved forests. The members now want to save Tumkur city from the ills of unplanned urbanisation.

Reviving Amani lake of Tumkur, preserving the wilderness around and continuing with their conservation efforts, therefore, top their agenda. It does seem like Mother Nature can breathe easy with WANCers around.

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http://archive.deccanherald.com/content/Dec42007/spectrum2007120339205.asp

07 October, 2014

Devarayanadurga’s big game in legends and shikar tales

This story was published in the Deccan Herald ('Spectrum' supplement, Bangalore on 7 October 2014 titled 'Shikar tales of Tumkur'*.
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One of the tigers shot by British hunter Arthur J. O. Pollock. He narrates interesting tales of his shikar in Devarayanadurga's jungles
Source: 'Sporting days in Southern India', Arthur J. O. Pollock, 1894.
In the aftermath of any victory on the battlefield the prime task of an occupying force is to settle all pressing issues of the administration of the occupied territory to smoothly achieve their aims of occupation. On 15 Dec 1799, seven months after vanquishing the Mysore army on the battle field,  the  Governor of Seringapatam and Mysore Arthur Wellesley, who was a Lieutenant-colonel in the coalition of the winning native and European armies, thought it very important to address the ‘issue’ of tigers patrolling the vicinity of modern day Chitradurga city. In a letter from Srirangapatna to Lt. Col. Close  published in the book ‘Dispatches of Field Marshall Duke of Wellington, during his various campaigns in India, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, the Low countries and France from 1799 – 1818’ compiled by Lt. Col. Gurwood he writes, “In consequence of a letter from Colonel Oliver, an extract of which I enclose, I wrote to Government for an allowance for the destruction of tigers in the neighbourhood of Chittledroog, similar to that given in the Baramahal”. 

Chitradurga, or Chittledroog as the British called it, today is a bustling city on the Mumbai – Bangalore stretch of National Highway 4 inhabited by over a hundred thousand people. And Baramahal District refers to areas under the present day Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts.

Though the thought of eliminating even a single wild tiger today is chilling, the above note by Arthur Wellesely leaves a very important sign of the natural history at that time. It is true that the British occupied India for their own gains. But the literature from their rule, particularly 19th century, is dotted with priceless information on the state of affairs of the people, their traditions and the natural resources, including the wildlife, as witnessed during that period of history.

The big game in and around Devarayanadurga in 1800s
The shikar era was an age where shikaris or hunters - both legal and illegal, thrived on the big game of the nation’s forests. The Wild Birds and Animals Protection Act enacted by the British in 1912 and amended in 1935 was not strong enough to deter India’s wildlife like the cheetah from being hunted into extinction. This continued till 1972 when the Wildlife Protection Act was enacted which made hunting of all wild animals punishable more stringently. The British literature as well as that immediately after 1947 makes it clear that during the days of shikar the woods of Devarayanadurga were no different from other wildlife havens across the nation. The wildlife in them attracted shikaris from far and wide. And being close to Bangalore meant this woodland was always within the eye sight of many shikaris.

A view of Devarayanadurga hill surrounded by farmlands and scrub forest.
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
There are numerous references to the big game of Devarayanadurga in the records of the British officers. Major General Dobbs wrote about the tigers in these districts in his book ‘Reminiscences of Life in Mysore, South Africa, and Burmah’ published in 1882. Dobbs was the longest serving British officer of Chitradurga Division, of which Chitradurga and Tumkur districts were a part, when the British administered the old Mysore state from 1831 to 1881. He has interesting narrations of tigers in the division including in and around today’s Tumkur city. He claims that tigers and leopards were among the principal wildlife of the division and the wrought great ‘destruction of life of humans and cattle’. He describes a method of trapping he put in place in the Chitradurga division due to which48 tigers were trapped in a short period, including four whose skins were brought to him on one morning. And there was a tiger which he writes was ‘unusually large’ that was shot on the outskirts of Tumkur city. He took its skin to England in 1856 and gifted to a relative who resided in Scotland. The trophy ultimately came back to him from the relative.

A tiger skin on display at a late sportsman's bungalow in Coorg. Col. Dobbs took a similar skin of a 'large' tiger shot in Tumkur to England in 1856.
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
Dobbs seemed to have a particular liking for the wilderness of Devarayanadurga as it also made a positive spiritual impact on his religious practises. He narrates many accounts of his interactions with this forest’s wildlife. He tried preserving the game for fellow Europeans whom he would host for shikar. He speaks of the presence of sambur (which the British of that time referred to as elk) near the Devarayanadurga hill top, apart from tiger in the forests around the hill. The ‘common antelope’ (blackbuck) was so abundant in the country surrounding Devarayanadurga that one British officer shot 200 of these magnificent creatures ‘within a few days’. He narrates how an entire dead blackbuck would be available at the Tumkur market for ‘4 annas’ or about a quarter of a rupee. The spotted deer was ’never numerous’. British officers also indulged in ‘jig-sticking’ or spear hunting of wild boar as well as shooting sloth bears in the division. He observes how the reduction of tigers and leopards in the division due to hunting led to an increase in wild boar which damaged crops. He regretted the opening up of Devarayanadurga forest for shikar during his tenure as it led to the destruction of almost all wildlife there except the tiger.

An European indulging in spearhunting blackbuck in south India.
Source: 'Records of sport in southern India between 1844 and 1870' , Douglas Hamilton (published in 1892).
Another British officer, Lt. Col. Arthur J. O. Pollock, in his book ‘Sporting days in Southern India’ published in 1894, gives interesting shikar accounts from Devarayanadurga’s jungles, in particular of the tiger. In October 1881 he ‘beat’ these jungles for several days looking for a tiger which was reported to be killing a lot of cattle in the vicinity. Although a number of spotted deer, wild boar as well as sambur were driven out daily he could not get a shot at the big cat. During a hunting expedition, the shikaris would employ ‘beaters’ who would create a ruckus by beating instruments to flush animals from their forest hideouts. And they would be accompanied by camp followers to help meet the needs of the hunting expedition. During this hunt, he recollects an incident where the camp followers pestered him for wild meat. Heeding to their request he organised a party of 100 villagers and four shikaris equipped with matchlock firearms. The beating began at a place that he refers to as the bungalow near Kumbarahalli which is probably the old forest bungalow of today’s Namadachelume. The shikar ended in a near tragedy as one of the shikaris ended up shooting a fellow sportsman who had crept much ahead of the crowd wanting to bag an animal by his own! The injured man was shifted to the hospital at nearby Tumkur and fortunately survived. It is not mentioned in the book if he volunteered to be a shikari again!

Inside the trophy room of Digby Davies, a British officer of Bombay police. The British shot many tigers
during their rule in India.
Source: 'Tiger slayer by order', Gouldesbury, C. E., 1915
Tigers again...
Over a century later, Dr. Uday Veer Singh, the then Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) of Tumkur District recorded the sighting an ‘adult’ tiger on the main road near Namada Chelume while patrolling Devarayanadurga forest in his official vehicle on a cold December night in 1996. This sighting by an IFS officer was a pleasant surprise to Tumkur’s nature lovers who were used to seeing leopards at regular intervals and had not heard of the tiger’s presence here in a long time. In August 2001, TVN Murthy, Honorary Wildlife Warden and wildlife activist of Tumkur-based Wildlife Aware Nature Club (WANC) claimed the sighting of two fully grown tigers inside this forest near the Namadachelume area. Reports of tiger sighting here continued coming in including by the forest department officials through the first decade of this century.

Over 40 years before Dr. U.V.Singh’s sighting, noted hunter Kenneth Anderson wrote about his shooting down of a tigress, in his book Nine Man-Eaters and One Rouge published in 1955. A tigress he named 'The Hermit of Devarayandurga' had killed 3 people in the vicinity of Devarayanadurga village. The tigress was said to be unusually aggressive and killed the gunman of a party of men that had gone to collect the body of an old woman whom it had killed earlier. He writes he shot it down after tracking it for 4 days. But that was an era when the human population was lesser and the pressures on this forest were few. What could have drawn the tiger again to the wilderness of Devarayanadurga towards the dawn of 21st century?

There are many theories that crop up on how a tiger could have entered this forest despite the fact that it today is isolated with no forested contiguity with another forest inhabited by tigers. In the late 1990s the possessing of wild animals in moving circuses was banned by the Government and there was pressure on people with captive tigers and other wild animals to account for such animals and hand over their custody to the authorities. Although the tiger could have been one such species left to fend for itself in the wilderness of Devarayanadurga by its owner who wanted to avoid the bureaucratic red tape , the possibility of a wild tiger having made this place its temporary home may not be out of place. Movement of wildlife is not always predictable. There are recent scientifically proven events of the tiger walking long distances often slipping through human habitation to reach forests hundreds of kilometres away. We also are witness how for over a decade an animal as big as the elephant is travelling unnoticed for long distances each summer to suddenly appear in the dry non-forested areas of south interior Karnataka, chiefly Tumkur. In his book Dobbs observes that the tiger is ‘migratory, and constantly came from different ranges to the superior cover in the vicinity of Daveroydroog’. Lt. Col. Pollock in his book says the tiger of Devarayanadurga, had its beat ‘extending from here all the way south to Magadi town’, west of Bangalore. Finally, Kenneth Anderson mentions that tigers had not been seen in Devarayanadurga’s jungles in ‘many a decade’ and the one he shot had migrated here 'among flat, cultivated fields'.

Every forest and wilderness is blessed with its own rich history of tales and legends. Devanarayanadurga boasts of its own hard to believe stories that fortunately have been documented in literature over the centuries. It is in our interest to conserve this wonderful part of our country, its associated memories and heritage into posterity.

*http://www.deccanherald.com/content/434532/shikar-tales-tumkur.html