nature reserve in Madhya Pradesh under threat from a tiger safari

A group of biologists, environmentalists and wildlife experts have filed public interest litigations for nature reserve. Spread over hundreds of hectares and home to a rich variety of wildlife, the Dumna Nature Reserve in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur is being threatened by a series of projects with the latest being a tiger safari, aimed at promoting tourism to the area. However, there is an ongoing movement to keep the reserve undisturbed and at least three public interest litigations have been filed in the Madhya Pradesh High Court for this.

nature reserve in Madhya Pradesh under threat from a tiger safari

Dumna is among the most well preserved ecological habitats in an urban area and it is also a catchment area for the Khandari Lake which is an important source of drinking water supply to the city. This reserve and the adjoining forest areas have a history of nearly 150 years of conservation. Over the years, the reserve that also acts as the lungs of the city has evolved as a well-preserved ecological habitat.

It has a population of nine leopards, more than 2,000 deer, host of other wildlife such as cheetal, barking deer, four-horned antelope, jungle cat, Asiatic wild cat, wild boar, crocodile and more than 300 species of birds (both migrant and resident). According to the PILs, the park boasts of diverse ecosystems – woodlands, grasslands and wetlands etc.

Over the past few years, a series of projects have been proposed or cleared in the area and its surroundings, threatening its future. Anshuman Singh, a lawyer who has filed two such PILs in the MP High Court arguing that the proposal to establish the tiger safari is arbitrary and illegal, explained to Mongabay-India that it is not the just the future of the Dumna Nature Reserve that is at stake but also of those living around it. Originally, Dumna was spread over 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres) but now it is spread in an area of about 1,800 acres.

“This place has had a history of 150 years of conservation and has flourished over time developing itself into an entirely self-sustained and beautiful ecosystem,” said Singh. “But now the difficulty is that the administration looks upon this land as a land parcel which can be utilised for various purposes and it comes up time and again with various schemes.”

“Years ago, 100 hectares were given for the Indian Institute of Information Technology Design and Manufacturing and now a tiger safari and several other projects for non-forestry purposes are being proposed,” said Singh.

He revealed that there are proposals to allot a large tract of land “from the area just outside nature park but within the conserved ecosystem” to the railways for construction of their offices, another piece of land to tourism corporation for an institute, another land parcel for development of a convention centre or a hotel, for an IT park and lastly an international cricket stadium. Apart from the convention centre proposal, all other projects are led by government agencies.

“In our petition, we have argued that the land of Dumna is specified as a city forest in the notified city development plan of Jabalpur – it means this is a place that is reserved for plantation and it is specifically mentioned that physical development in this area would be detrimental to the Jabalpur city,” Singh alleged. “Despite this, the projects just keep on coming and strategically the land use is also being changed to make it easier to divert for non-forestry purposes. Basically, the core of the area is being breached and new projects are being approved.”

He further highlighted that the forests of Dumna provide the rainwater to the Khandari reservoir which is the source of the municipal drinking water supply of the city. “It was left untouched over the years and the reason was that all the rain falling in the area would go to the reservoir and thus should be left undisturbed but now with all kinds of projects very soon the entire area and everything else in it are likely to get destroyed,” he said.

The proposal of tiger safari was discussed in 2017 as well but was shelved after opposition to it because of its expected pressure on Dumna but it resurfaced again over the past few months. As per the PILs, the Madhya Pradesh government wants to set up a tiger safari and a rescue centre in the middle of Dumna Nature Reserve.

The petitioners for the PILs include a mix of environmentalists, biologists, wildlife experts and public-spirited individuals. Among them is Jagat Jot Singh Flora, a field naturalist with 40 years of experience in wildlife conservation and education, who has done various programs including training of officers and staff of the forest department in the last 15 years.

The other petitioners include Vivek Sharma (a biologist), Nikita Khamparia (a conservationist), Colonel AK Ramnathan (retired), Eric D’cunha (a naturalist, biologist and wildlife expert), and Rudraksh Pathak, who is an entrepreneur with the tourism industry.

The three petitions filed in the last three months said that over the years authorities of Jabalpur have invested huge funds and have developed a 12-km cycle trail, walking nature trails, a nature library, an interpretation centre, viewpoints etc. They said as per the city development plan, only projects related to garden (plantation) and water conservation are permitted in Dumna.

“Dumna has evolved as a centre of attraction not only for tourists but also for students, naturalists and birders, who enjoy the beauty of nature in both academic and recreational ways,” argued one of the petitions which was filed by Jagat Jot Singh Flora and others. “There has never been a single incident of man–wildlife conflict in or around Dumna. A self-sustained ecosystem with nine leopards is flourishing on the edge of the town. Therefore, Dumna is a classic case of urban conservation with few parallels in the country.”

The petitioners in the second PIL, which is filed by Colonel AK Ramnathan (retired) and others, emphasised that experience has shown that there is an enormous footfall in such public amusement ventures and highlighted the annual number of visitors at four such sites – Nandan Kanan Zoo cum Safari in Bhubaneshwar (nearly three million visitors), Bannerghatta Biological Park in Bangalore (1.5 million visitors), Mukundpur White Tiger Safari in Satna (over 2,50,000 visitors) and the Nandan Van Jungle Safari in Raipur (over 2,30,000 visitors). These four sites are among the prominent tiger safaris in India.

Taking into consideration the number of visitors in these reserves, one of the PILs said that “even if the minimum figures are taken, there would be a footfall of more than 2,50,000 people per annum in the tiger safari” which would mean about 800 people per day would visit the tiger safari and travel to the core of Dumna Nature Reserve for this purpose. “The wildlife in the park would be devastated by such heavy footfall and movement of vehicles.”

The petitioners argued that a tiger safari at Dumna would also pose a serious threat to the Jabalpur airport that is adjacent to Dumna. “The proposed site is almost directly in line with the airstrip/runway,” said the petition filed by Colonel AK Ramnathan. “The leftovers of the food given to the tigers attract scavenging birds such as vultures. Some of the vulture species such as Indian Vulture, Long-Billed Vulture, Red-Headed Vulture are very high flying birds that soar with thermals. They pose a possible threat to the aircraft.”

“The airport is expected to grow in operations and expansion is already underway,” said the petition. Therefore, it would be in the best interest of the airport authorities as well as the state government to set up tiger safari at a place where such threats do not exist.”

In 2019, the member of the legislative assembly from the Bargi constituency (a place in a different area of Jabalpur), requested the authorities to establish the safari in the Bargi area stating that it is a much larger place and would also create a tourism circuit of Bargi, Paili, Bedhaghat along with the tiger safari.

One of the petitioners, Nikita Khamparia said, “as a state, we are rejoicing over the growing forest covers remaining oblivious of the fact that the forest cover in our city is shrinking as stated in the State Forest Reports of India since 2015”.

“So much money is being drained in the name of compensatory afforestation when we all know no money can revive a dead forest,” Khamparia told Mongabay-India. “We are blinded by the media, pseudo-developmental activities and more so by these 300 pages reports which no common man will have time to read. Before it is too late people need to understand there is no excuse for felling trees when there are other options available.”

She emphasised that Dumna might not be a big issue now for a few but still, every natural tree cut in the name of development is an issue every state in our country is facing where the government is incapable of finding a balance between development and ecosystem.

“Jabalpur as a city is rapidly growing and we are cutting down our green spaces,” Rudraksh Pathak, a social activist and an entrepreneur involved in the hospitality industry, told Mongabay-India. “It is a story that has been repeated several times in other cities before. There were 52 lakes in Jabalpur that have disappeared over the years.

“Nature has been part of the very fibre of the city,” he said. “Thus when something like Dumna is it is kind of an existential crisis. We are not a city that has a large industrial base or we are not on any trade route. As a citizen, losing a natural place like Dumna would not only mean that we lose something of ecological value but it has a cultural significance too.”

“It is something that we would like to call our own and preserve for our children. It is a heritage and thus needs to be preserved,” Rudraksh Pathak said. He is one of the petitioners in the Colonel AK Ramnathan’s (retired) petition.

Pathak said that Dumna is the focal point but idea is that all ecologically sensitive natural places in Jabalpur need protection. “If we get Dumna right it will be a huge boost for citizens in preserving other natural sites of ecological or cultural importance,” said Pathak.

Over the various petitions, the petitioners have argued that there is not a single case of human-wildlife conflict from Dumna but increased activities in and around the area may drive leopards out of the reserve and increase human-wildlife conflict as “leopards would be forced to leave Dumna and venture into surrounding villages and colonies” making conflict with humans “inevitable”.

They said that it is not only them but various other organisations and public at large, who are up in arms against the proposed site for tiger safari and the resultant destruction of the ecosystem at Dumna. “The TOFT [Tour Operators for Tigers], which is an International Organisation involved in preserving wildlife bearing areas world over, has also submitted a detailed objection to the proposed site and made a request to the authorities to establish the tiger safari other than Dumna,” revealed the petition filed by Jagat Jot Singh Flora.

Anshuman Singh said that it is not just these projects but there is also a road project that is going right through the reserve. “A project for widening of road that goes right through Dumna was recently cleared and for that hundreds of trees have already been cut. “This ultimately is going to have serious consequences for the wildlife in Dumna.”

The third PIL against this project has been filed by Nikita Khamparia. The petitioners in the multiple PILs have asked the court to direct the authorities to select another site for the tiger safari, at a place other than in Dumna Nature Reserve and not disturb its ecosystem.

According to Singh, the City Development Plan of Jabalpur has been modified from time to time to validate and accommodate new projects at Dumna despite the area being reserved as city forest and an eco-sensitive zone since ages. The present plan expires in 2021 after which a new one will replace it.

“The way things are going there is every likelihood that the land-use of Dumna will be changed to pave the way for all the new projects,” said Singh. “That is the greatest threat Dumna faces. We can keep challenging project after project as they get approved for Dumna.”

“We have to succeed every time – they have to succeed just once in destroying the place,” Singh said. “However, if the city has to preserve its green heritage, it has to ensure that Dumna is permanently and perpetually classified as a ‘no development green zone’.”

“Else all efforts to save the ecology of Dumna would only delay the death and not avoid it,” said Singh.

Originally published by Scroll