Sunday, April 10, 2011

Kotgarh(Kotagarh/Kotgad) Wildlife Sanctuary in Kandhamal,Orissa

Splendid Kotgad Sanctuary

Orissa has tremendous potential in terms of providing good, sustainable habitat for wildlife. Three years back when I was falling in for this field of wildlife conservation, I got astonished when I heard about so many sanctuaries both major and minor ones present in the state. And why people have not ventured in to these sanctuaries when times were good and conducive is hard to figure out. When I say time being good , I am talking about pre 2000 era when Naxalism had not peaked in the state. Today most of the sanctuaries present in Western Orissa and Southern Orissa are inaccessible. Be it Sunabeda, Usakothi, Lakhari valley sanctuary or for that matter Kotagarh( Kotgarh/Kotgad) , the place about which this write up is based on. Kotagarh spreads over a area of 400 sq kms and falls under the jurisdiction of Baliguda Forest Division. Kotgarh and Tumudibandha are the two Range offices under it.
Along with Dasa, I went to DFO , Baliguda’s office to collect permits for entering into the sanctuary’s core area. After waiting for two agonizing long hours, we got an opportunity to meet him. Fortunately all the rangers of Baliguda division had come down for meeting and I had an opportunity of meeting most of them. Every one had a view that I should consult Ranger of Kotagarh before venturing into the core area as it might not be a safe proposition because of presence of Naxals in the area. Also road conditions in some area is bad because of torrential rains that the area had received. Infact according to them, in some places jungle nullahs have been flowing over the road making it impossible to cross even with four wheel drives. After a lot of persuasion , I was given permit to visit the sanctuary the next day. Feeling happy after having received the permission , we returned to our Lodge in Baliguda.
Next day early morning our driver Pankaj was there along with Bolero which had been arranged by a local restaurant owner. Driving through NH 217, we reached Tumudibandha. There I came across the exact facts about the Sanctuary. Kotgarh Sanctuary doesnot have any concrete boundary in terms of Core area and buffer area .There are various entry points to the sanctuary . Tumudibandha from north, Belghar from west, Subarnapur from East and Kotagarh from south. At Tumudibandha, we stopped at a small roadside eatery for our breakfast. There we met some local tribes who had come from a nearby hamlet situated inside the sanctuary. Sipping a cup of tea and sitting on a roadside bench with our Tribal friends on a November morning was an absolute bliss. They were on the way to Medical College hospital at Berhampur. That is the nearest big hospital situated at a distance of 250 kms from the place. That itself talks a lot about the poor state of Health Infrastructure in the state. I remember when interviews of “ Best Tenth” students would come up in news channels and on being asked about their future aspirations, every body would come up with answers like “ I want to become a good Doctor and serve the poor or I want to become a Scientist and do some things people of my state”. Medicine students rarely come to serve in the remote hospitals after finishing their studies. Posts would be lying vacant for ages. That’s a sin and may be I am also a part of this sin where I can only write but do nothing concrete.

Entry point of Kotgarh Sanctuary

We took the turn towards Bhawanipatna and drove for 7-8 kms. From their another left turn and you hit the road to Belghar situated at twenty odd kilometers from the main road, one of the splendid places of the state amidst woods. What a superb drive it was !! The road to Belghar forms the western border of the Kotgarh sanctuary. On either side of the road one comes across beds of yellow flowers of Mustard. Kutia and Desia Kondhs , the inhabitants of this place have been used to shifting cultivation and terrace farming since ages. These are some of the most remote places in Orissa cutoff from outer world. There would be hardly 2-3 passenger vehicles that would ply on these roads in a day. Thick forests of Sal and Mahogany were visible on hill tops and then occasional patch of cleared forests used for farming. There is a catch 22 situation here. Wildlife activist would boast off that being a sanctuary , local denizens have to move out of the forest land and Forest Rights Act have to implemented with strict rigor whereas Social Activists would be of the view that relocating them from the land where they have been living since ages would be cruel and leaves a Psychological as well Economical impact that is hard to overcome. We need to take a middle path between Forest Protection and social well being of the tribal population. But there is absolute no doubt that animals and people cannot co exist. Animals have to be left on their own in protected habitats and they would multiply. Forest patches that have been cleared would get regenerated if they are left as it is. But we need to be very careful when it comes to relocation and rehabilitation of tribes. Proper care in terms of allocating agricultural land, training them in other means of livelihood like animal husbandry or poultry, providing school and hospitals and disbursements of compensation packages has to be done. But at the end of the day it has to be a voluntary activity or else the whole activity is going to be a failure. Driving on the road, we reached a small village inside the sanctuary. Kutia Kondhs have been known for hospitality and inviting guests with open arms. We were no exceptions. Village headman offered us a cot to sit. Freshly fermented Mohua was offered which brewed our friendship with the Tribes of the village. As per them very few animals are now left in the forest and they themselves are no more involved in hunting activities. Earlier in his childhood he had seen Tigers but they are not to be seen any more except for occasional sightings of Leopards in the region. Once the region was also famous for Four horned antelopes ( Chourasinghas) but now there population was limited to some odd pockets of the sanctuary area. Other fauna include Sambar, Barking Deer, Wild Boar, Civets, Jackal & Sloth Bears. After spending some more time in the village, we left for Belghar.

A typical Kondh Village

There is a Forest Rest House at Belghar and is situated amidst dense canopy of shady trees. No more reservations are being given for the rest house due to threat of Maoists in the region. I am not sure why this place has not been promoted earlier the way it should have been. Belghar has so many things to offer for the nature lovers starting from wonderful drive to the thick dense forests to seeing tribal population, so on an so forth. I wish normalcy prevails in this area soon and people can go and roam about freely without any fear in Belghar region.

Cut off from Civilisation

Colourful Kotia Kondh Tribal Lady

Common Sight in this part of Orissa

By afternoon we were back in Tumudibandha and had lunch. It was simple lunch and not that exotic but got to eat nai chingudi ( river prawns). We left for the Kotgarh range soon after that. From Tumudibandha you need to take State Highway that connects to Muniguda. Munigurha is also well connected with Sambalpur, Rourkela and Vishakapatnam. Its some what 90 kms from Kotagarh. Driving down the road, we crossed the Tumudibandha Police station which had turned into a fortress of Security Forces, courtesy the vast numbers of Naxals present in the area. Actually one does not need to have any permit for entering Kotgarh, but it’s always a safe option to inform the local Forest Office or Police Station. We reached Kotagarh and took a left turn towards Subarnapur. Our driver had planned to show us Ludu Waterfall situated inside the deep forests of Kotgad Sanctuary. I was feeling little bit skeptical as the road was absolutely devoid of any traffic. We were confirming the road to Ludu Waterfall by asking about its whereabouts to every person whom we came across and answer was same “ you have to go straight to Subarnapur and from there you have to take the kuttcha road to Ludu Waterfall”. The forests in this part of Kotagarh Sanctuary are different to those present in Belghar area. Forests are more thick and you would see very less terrace farming on either side of the road. Driving over a small ghat section , I could see the thickly wooded valley of Kotagarh. Absolutely wonderful patch of forests which can be developed further if we are looking at wildlife conservation point of view. Kotagarh is in fact the core area of the proposed South Orissa Elephant Reserve. It acts as a corridor for Elephant movement from Nayagarh side to the forests of South Orissa.

Thick forests of Kotgarh Sanctuary

We reached Subarnapur and I had some positives to see over there. There is a dispensary over there and we could see “Pulse Polio” & “AIDS Awareness” posters all over. Pretty heartening to see some developmental work being done in these remote areas. Perhaps this is the only way of fighting out Naxals. Eyebrows were being raised as we passed through the streets of Subarnapur lined up with huts on either sides. A Vehicle can’t come to these parts without any purpose. And if someone says that people have come to photograph Ludu Waterfall, that would be really hard to believe. From Subarnapur one needs to take the left turn on the forest road which leads to Ludu Waterfall. Straight road would connect to the Simanbadi and Daringbadi. Ludu is a wonderful waterfall situated amidst thick woods of the Kotagarh Valley surrounded by hills from all sides. The drive to the place was fruitful after seeing the beauty of the falls.

Magnificent Ludu Waterfalls inside the Kotgad Sanctuary

Valley near the Ludu Waterfalls

As sun was setting in, I sat on one of the rocks admiring the beauty of Kotagarh. Vast patch of undulated Sal forests ahead devoid of any civilization. Why I didnt get an opportunity to be educated on sanctuaries like Kotgarh or Karlapat when I was growing up in Rourkela ? Why none of the Orissa Tourism promotional advertisements carry any pics of waterfalls like Ludu? Why people of my state have not been into these places? Very hard to find any answer to these questions. There are so many other shades of Kotagarh that remains unexplored which I am sure somebody else would cover in coming days. Hopefully next time I move around Kotgad Sanctuary, it would have been notified as part of South Orissa Elephant Reserve.