With an exciting team in place, we followed the procedures at various levels within the forest department to ensure that the proposal to declare MM Hills a wildlife sanctuary landed on the agenda of the State Board for Wildlife. I decided that this point should be proposed by [Karnataka] Minister [for Environment and Forests], CP Yogeshwar himself and convinced him of the need. There would be little opposition from other political members of the board if the proposal came from the minister himself. At the SBW meeting in December 2012, Yogeshwar rationally explained the need for protecting watersheds in the interests of farmers; it came as no surprise that the proposal was approved.
The support of political leaders is critical for wildlife conservation and matters that could otherwise take years of hard work can be put in place within a few days.
Meanwhile, the political scenario in the state was about to change. In May 2013, the state was due for legislative elections. The decision taken in December 2012 could also take a different turn if there was a change in the government. When the government changes, there is often a change of guard in the bureaucracy as well.
More worryingly, there were two political leaders who could change the fortunes of the MM Hills-Cauvery landscape. Both had granite-quarrying interests in the forests of MM Hills-Cauvery. These forests had been plundered for this precious natural resource since 1977 and the effects of this can be seen to this day in Chengadi, Naagamalai, Karikalgudda, Ponnachi, Maartalli, and many other areas inside these forests. One of them was extremely powerful.
The other political leader hailed from a village within MM Hills and was alleged to have had links with Veerappan. We decided to move at lightning speed to ensure a green future for MM Hills. With Dipak Sarmah and BK Singh in the forest department, things could move fast. It took four months for all the paperwork to be completed. The proposal finally reached the government on May 2, 2013. The elections were scheduled to be held within three days, on May 5! I approached Sridharan, explained the political context and urgency of the scenario, and pleaded with him to notify these forests as a wildlife sanctuary. He did not balk at working on this during the state legislative elections and moved quickly before the proposal was mired in red tape.
He got on the phone and got all the required papers by evening. Two days before the state legislative elections, on May 3, 2013, MM Hills was notified as a wildlife sanctuary.
Now, government orders have to be issued in the official gazette or they can be withheld or reversed. A gazette is a public journal and an authorised legal document of the government issued on a weekly basis. Any act of government is notified to the public at large through the gazette. is is the only officially recognised method of informing the public of any new law. No citizen can plead ignorance of the new enactment after it is published in a gazette. It was vital to get this notification published in the gazette. The date of notification in the gazette becomes the official date of enactment. Ultimately, the notification of an area of 906 sq km as MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary was reported in the gazette on May 7, 2013. An area larger than Bangalore city or twice the size of Las Vegas was now secure. This was perhaps the fastest an area has been declared protected in the country’s environmental history!
The very next day the results of the state election were announced.
That year, forest officers Vasanth Reddy and Javeed Mumtaz recorded camera-trap pictures of tigers for the first time in the newly protected areas and I began a program researching leopard populations here, using remotely triggered cameras. This is a challenging landscape to work in as, at the height of the dry season, the temperature crosses 40°C in the sun. There are very few motorable roads and most places have to be accessed on foot. The difficult terrain apart, there was a vicarious thrill in walking along paths and valleys that are imprinted with stories of the infamous Veerappan and his associates. And of course there are trees still pockmarked with bullet holes! Veerappan was the subject of discussion whenever we met people.
The forest staff who guided us told us fascinating stories, pointing to hideouts and sites where he had carried out some of his gruesome acts. I am still stunned by how the poacher flourished and kept his followers happy in this harsh land for over two decades.
In the course of my work here I became more interested in Veerappan and scouted around for books on the bandit. One book I had heard of and wanted to read was by Sunaad Raghuram, a Mysore-based writer. Veerappan: India’s Most Wanted Man was published in 2001 and was now out of print, but the Internet came to my rescue. I found a copy with a US-based online bookseller from whom I purchased the book at twice its original price. As I read the book I realised I had walked by so many forest locations that had been part of the poacher’s operations, the locations of some of his heinous murders,
his meeting places with informants and suppliers, and so on. Occasionally I would check colonial-era topography sheets that had been meticulously drawn by British cartographers to find locations yet unknown to me. I also realised I personally knew several people who had worked in the area at the height of Veerappan’s infamy: Police Inspector“Tiger”Ashok Kumar, Forest Officer Vijay Kumar Gogi, acclaimed wildlife film-making duo Krupakar and Senani who had been kidnapped and released by the bandit, P Srinivas, press photographer Nethra Raju, forest personnel Nataraj and Selvamani, and several others. I attempted to meet some of Veerappan’s former associates and even got to interact with some of them.
Back in the forests our digital camera-traps worked 24x7 in the same locations and trails where Veerappan, about a decade ago, had walked around with his gang. The cameras now revealed another side of MM Hills-Cauvery: apart from leopards and tigers we documented many smaller and lesser-known species.
In February 2014 I was at the Uganiya anti-poaching camp, on the banks of the Kaveri river (where it acts as the boundary between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu). Dinner was being cooked. Network coverage here was patchy and weak but, if required, one could climb onto the roof of the anti-poaching camp where a weak signal could be accessed. I borrowed a phone from one of the forest staff to call my colleagues who were working in other parts of the forests. Though I got through to my colleague, his voice wasn’t coming through clearly.
The next day I walked to a nearby village to call my colleague to complete our discussion. His voice was now clear and I understood that he had captured the image of a strange animal in the remotely triggered camera. Internet connectivity was fair in the village and I downloaded the images on email. To my delight it turned out to be an elusive mammal that had never been photo documented in Karnataka – the honey badger or ratel. This is a small and aggressive carnivore known to eat and digest the most poisonous of snakes! It had surfaced in our camera-traps in the Halagur range of Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. It made for a good conservation news story – something increasingly rare to find.
Apart from leopards and tigers, we also documented the elusive pangolin, the Madras tree shrew, and the Indian fox, perhaps the first time this species has been documented in this area.
Much to our surprise, our camera-traps in MM Hills recorded 10 to 12 tigers with a density of 1.0 tigers per 100 sq km. Only 2 tigers appeared in our camera-traps during our sampling period in Cauvery. However, the forest department had documented 3 other individuals and 3 cubs in Cauvery apart from the 2 individuals we had documented. Such tiger numbers are much higher than many reserves in Southeast Asian countries. It is important to note that no one had expected tigers to occur in this area!
However, tiger densities in this landscape are low, possibly due to fewer wild prey and the threats from poaching. As a result home ranges of tigers seem to be very large. A male tiger, whom we named MM-01, walked the rough terrains of these forests covering vast areas. On one day we would see a picture of him in Kalmattur Doddi, an abandoned shepherd’s camp where Veerappan had been spotted regularly in his time; a few days later we would see him in a camera-trapping block miles away from his last capture. His home range was spread over a minimum area of 360 sq km; he was lording it over an area more than six times the size of Manhattan!
Excerpted with permission from Second Nature: Saving Tiger Landscapes In The Twenty-First Century, Sanjay Gubbi, Rainfed Books.