sanctuary asia

The Deccan Peninsula

Ancient forests, older than the Himalaya, characterise this most diverse and majestic zone. Elephants, tiger, gaur, buffalo and birds of all descriptions are to be found here. For eons forests of the Deccan Peninsula harnessed the elements to form the catchment of mighty rivers such as the Narmada, Tapti, Mahanadi Indravati and Godavari. This is, undoubtedly, the very heart of India. With an area of 14,21,000 sq. km., the Deccan Peninsula extends over 43 per cent of India's landmass, spreading over eight states. Though the massive zone is more or less homogeneous, at least three principal habitat types are easily recognised. These are deciduous forests, thorn forests and scrublands. Additionally there are pockets of semi-evergreen and evergreen forests, mainly in the mountain range known as the Eastern Ghats. Nearly 300 million people live in this zone and though much of it has been altered by cultivation and developmental projects, the Deccan still holds some of the largest tracts of deciduous forests on the subcontinent.

In the north, the dominant deciduous tree species are sal, teak, Terminalia spp., Anogeissus and Chloroxylon etc. South of the river Krishna, in the Karnataka plateau, Tamil Nadu plains and adjoining mountains, dry, thorny species such as Acacia, Hardwickia and Albizia dominate the landscape. Few of the once extensive natural grasslands survive today, most having been usurped by cultivation. Similarly, much of the forest cover has been severely tattered, a tragedy for the principal rivers of peninsular and southern India for which the Deccan plateau functions as the catchment area.

Instead of conserving its genetic pool, Karnataka, for instance, has embarked on a 'wasteland' recovery scheme at Kusnur which involves the plantation of monocultures such as eucalyptus, to feed a rayon plant. Apart from the fact that such 'wastelands' currently yield considerable amounts of biomass for the local populace, the fact that planting monocultures is highly ill-advised seems to be lost on the authorities. Such examples of land mismanagement abound, and exacerbate the already critical ecological situation in the Deccan Peninsula. Another major threat to the forests of this beleaguered region are the several hydroelectric projects being planned. All existing reservoirs are oversilted and this is surely going to be the fate of new reservoirs such as those planned for the Narmada and Indravati basins. If these proposals are not scrapped, this decade will oversee the demise of the major river valleys of the Deccan Zone. Mining of ore is another major area of ecological disturbance. Outdated, inefficient mining techniques continue to be widely used and when site 'go out of production' the authorities merely shift to other sites, devastating still greater areas instead of optimizing yields through improved techniques.

The Deccan Zone can be divided into five distinct sub-divisions, based upon floral communities and general topography:

a) The Chota Nagpur Plateau: A moist region in the north-eastern parts of the zone, which includes southem Bihar, northern Orissa and parts of West Bengal, extreme eastern Madhya Pradesh as also the southern margins of Uttar Pradesh, south of the Gangetic Plain. Forests of sal dominate the landscape here, interspersed with vibrant bamboo stands. The total area of the Chota Nagpur deciduous forests is 217,000 sq. km., almost half of which lies in Bihar. Simlipal and Palamau are the two best known, and extensively protected areas in the Chota Nagpur portion of the Deccan Zone. This region holds good populations of animals like tiger, sloth bear, elephant, gaur, besides a host of other herbivores.

b) The Central Highlands: With an area of 287,000 sq. km., incorporates the Satpura -Maikal and the Vindhya-Bagelkhand mountain ranges, traversing the states of Madhya Pradesh and northern Maharashtra, besides small off-shoots in southern Uttar-Pradesh and western Bihar. Almost 80 per cent of these Central Highlands lie in Madhya Pradesh, where some of the protected areas like Kanha and Bandhavgarh, stand out as beacons of good wildlife management. Like the Chota Nagpur area, the Central Highlands too are dominated by sal forests, though towards the south, such as in the Melghat tiger reserve of Maharashtra, sal vanishes and teak takes over. The forest is predominantly deciduous, with patches of semi-evergreen in the low valleys. The maximum elevation here is about 1,400 m. These highlands are also characterized by the absence of elephants which dominate the animal community of the Chota Nagpur region.

c) The Deccan Plateau North: An area of 341,000 sq. km. comprises basically dry open scrub and thorn forest, which includes the bulk of Maharashtra, and portions of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In the northern margins of this sub-division, rich tiger habitats still exist. Nawegaon, Tadoba and Nagzira in Maharashtra and Nagarjunasagar in Andhra Pradesh are some examples of viable forest belts in this subdivision. Most other protected areas of this plateau comprise open, thorny scrub with a wildlife community which typifies drier regions -blackbuck, nilgai, chinkara and the great Indian bustard, for instance.

d) The Deccan Plateau South: This forms the largest sub-division of the Deccan Zone, with an area of 378,000 sq. km., spread over Andbra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and a tiny bit of Maharashtra. The Krishna river forms the northern boundary of this sub-division most of which is dry and thorny scrub, dominated by Albizia, Hardwickia and Acacia associations. However in its southern extremities, there are some surviving forests that need proper conservation today, considering that they form the path for elephant movements from the protected areas of the Western Ghats to the forests of the Eastern Ghats. On the whole, this southern plateau is the most highly cultivated and least protected of all the areas of the Deccan Zone.

e) The Eastern Highlands: With an area of 198,000 sq. km., this is the smallest of the five sub-divisions of the Deccan Zone. Biologically however, it is the richest. Included here are the northern parts of the Eastern Ghats and several associated hill ranges. Botanically, this region is of considerable interest. Though the floral structure is predominantly tropical semi-evergreen and evergreen, there are, in the central portions, bits of temperate flora at the higher altitudes (between 900 - 1,200 metres). Besides its botanical wealth, these eastern highlands hold sizeable and widespread populations of elephant, gaur and a vital pocket of wild buffalo herds in Bastar. Tigers are also found in some of the forest reserves of this sub-division.

Conservation status

The Deccan has more protected areas than any other zone in India. There are 17 National Parks and 98 sanctuaries, totally covering an area of 48,1 10 sq. km. However, considering the huge area of the zone itself, the extent of protected areas cover barely 3.4 per cent of the land area. Moreover, the network is not uniform throughout the zone.

Chota Nagpur has a total of 27 protected areas covering 7562 sq. kms. (3.5 per cent of area). Considering that this sub-division, particularly the Bihar-Orissa portion,. holds viable elephant populations, as also animals like tiger, gaur, sloth bear, chital and sambar, a chain of protected areas, averaging just under 300 sq. kms., have been declared. The largest reserves are Palamau and Simlipal Tiger Reserves. Additionally, both are connected through forested corridors to neighbouring sanctuaries. But the problems of burgeoning human populations as also of livestock numbers in this very populated Indian region negates much of the conservation efforts that have been put in, threatening to cut into areas of great biological value.

The Central Highlands have long been considered Kipling country. There are 30 protected areas covering almost 14,000 sq. kms. (4.8 per cent). of which nine are National Parks, the rest Sanctuaries. Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Panna and a host of other parks and sanctuaries dot the Madhya Pradesh portion of the central highlands. 10 of these are well over 400 sq. km. in size and several are interconnected with corridors, forming a large viable area for a host of animal species so characteristic of central, deciduous India. As a result of adequate protection herbivore population can be seen to be healthy and one species, the hardground barasingha has actually been saved from the brink of extinction.

The Deccan Plateau (North) has a total of 23 protected areas, covering 17,023 sq. km. (5.0 percent). This is the highest percentage of protected area for any sub-division of the Deccan Peninsula. This includes also the largest Indian protected area - The Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in Maharashtra, with an area of 8,496 The tiger and principal herbivores are present in some of the extreme northern national parks and sanctuaries of this sub-division. The Nagarjunasagar Tiger Reserve in Andhra Pradesh is also one of the largest protected areas of the country. Eight of these reserves are over 500 sq. km. in size, the majority lying in the thorny scrub that is such a dominating feature of this region. These sanctuaries hold good populations of blackbuck, chinkara and nilgai, and much of this formed the former range of the cheetah, now extinct in India. However, many of these protected areas are faced with the problems of villages, cultivation and livestock, both within, and in the immediate surroundings. This has greatly degraded much of the protected area lands in this region, and Rodgers and Panwar actually recommend degazetting almost 6,000 sq. km. or 1.8 per cent of the protected areas, bringing down the protected area network here to just over 11,000 sq. km.

The Deccan Plateau (South) is the most disturbed part of the Deccan Peninsula. The extent of existing protected areas here is barely over 2,500 sq, km. which is under one per cent of the total area. There are a total of 15 protected areas, two of which are national parks and the rest sanctuaries.

10 of the areas are under 100 sq. km. in size, indeed seven are less than 10 sq. km. In fact so highly disturbed is this sub-division that all the new proposals put forth barely raise the extent of protected areas here to 1.6 per cent, most of it in the highlands of the southern parts of the Eastern Ghats.

The Eastern Highlands (excluding the southern parts of the Eastern Ghats) have an existing protected area extent of 7,356 sq. km. or 3.7 per cent of the total land area. Of the 20 protected areas, two are National Parks. The average protected area size here is about 350 sq. km. The Indravati Tiger Reserve is the largest National Park here. Several new parks and sanctuaries have been proposed for this region, with a view to increasing the total protected area to over 12,000 sq. km. This would bring the total to 6.5 per cent the bare minimum keeping in mind the biological value of these highlands.

Overall, for the entire Deccan Peninsular Zone, the total number of protected areas proposed is 190, increasing the area by a further 9,000 sq. km.

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