Human Adaptation in Satkosia Tiger Reserve – Challenges and Prospects

A fascinating aspect of humanity is its geographical adaptability. There are terrains of all kinds where we have ventured and evolved with cultures in tune with the local geography. Among a range of geographical diversity, the adaptation of forest combined with river ecosystem makes human cultures even more fascinating. These kinds of biodiversity are often fragile with challenges of population pressure, resource management and wildlife safety.

Satkosia Tiger Reserve, a large forested and mountainous tract on both sides of a gorge formed by mighty Mahanadi for 21 km at a stretch in Central Odisha is a fascinating land to witness the existence of two ways human life, fishing and farming in deep jungle tracts, a cultural practice that has not much changed from the Neolithic time.

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The reserve is very scenic and extremely photogenic. The reserve got its name from sat (seven) and kos (two miles), which equals 14 miles or 21 km gorge through which the river Mahanadi flows. The sanctuary is guarded by Garjat Hills of Chotanagpur Plateau on the north and majestic hills of the Eastern Ghats on the south and therefore the region is the meeting point of the Chotanagpur Plateau and Eastern Ghats on both sides. The tiger reserve has an area of nearly 1000 square kilometre but tourists are permitted only across 270 square kilometre. The vegetation is a combination of dry deciduous and moist deciduous forest.

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The reserve has a tremendous genetic and ecological importance as it is the wet portion of Deccan zone. Apart from a significant elephant population in deciduous forests, the gorge harbours a large population of crocodile and fish. The gorge serves as a major watershed for the entire region.

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Satkosia is however short of meadows causing a major threat for harbouring animal population. Most of the valleys are under human occupation with subsistence farming and animal rearing as the main economic base. Life is not rosy inside the forest. The crops are raided by elephants and wild boars. People guard their small farms in the pre-harvesting and harvesting seasons by sleeping on manchas (a temporary shed). Talking to villagers you hear stories of intense human-animal conflicts in the reserve.

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Now thanks to the effort of forest department of Government of Odisha, ecotourism is becoming a new alternative source of livelihood. Government has created infrastructure at villages such as Bagha Munda, deep inside of the permitted forest, which is managed by local community members. They are warm, simple and hospitable. Interaction with educated people from cities also help them understand whats going on outside their world. They have realised the value of education and have started sending their children to schools. Their dependency on critical and fragile forest resources has minimised.

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These are definitely welcome changes, but it is also felt that they must retain their organic way of living in the forest and on river banks and not compete in the madness of consumerism which has shaken our shared values and insensible heritage deeply over the years.

Bhils of Aravali – A Socio-Anthropological Journey

The civilisation of India has been of complex order throughout its history. Most of its geographical regions are known to have played as corridors for exchanging ideas and adopting to new faiths. While some of these corridors changed forever for urbanisation and centres of power, the rest remained slightly aloof, mainly because of their difficult terrains.

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One of these regions is the south Aravali hills on Gujarat – Rajasthan border, a corridor that was critically important for a majority of political powers, starting from Pratiharas to Solanki Rajputs and Sisodias to Mughals. But most of them took advantage of its people, the Bhil adivasis for their political interest, but never established any major urban centres.

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The terrain was also not conducive. In this historical process, the Bhils who had been inhabiting this terrain for millennia have evolved with a hybrid culture of Hinduism and tribal beliefs. In recent years some of them have adopted Christian faith, thanks to a handful of missionary activities. A major share has also been converted to Swaminarayan and other neo-Hindu sects, again due to preaching by religious saints of these orders.

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Aravali as we know is one of earth’s oldest geological formations and consists of hard granite rocks. There are small interspersed valleys in-between mountains and were once covered with dense forest. Today most of these valleys have been converted into small agriculture fields. The area receives a moderate rainfall and the agriculture is mostly subsistence based.

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Unlike a typical Indian village where houses are erected side by side in rows on both sides of a road, the Bhil villages are dispersed settlements. Their houses are mostly isolated and built close to their individual farmlands, where they grow country vegetables, corn, maize, wheat and rice. These days we also see cultivation of commercial plants, such as cotton. They rear chickens, goats and cattle. Earlier they used to decorate their houses made out of mud with religious graffiti, but now we see only decoration of incised patterns on walls.

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Some members of the tribe which have not gone through religious transformation of neo-Hinduism also live on fishing in a way that has made little changes from the prehistoric time. A percentage of Bhils who are economically weaker also depend upon forest produces, such as gathering of mahua plants in seasons and firewood on daily basis.

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Bhils who have been least affected by Hinduisation are still nature worshippers. For them the hills, mountains and streams are considered sacred. They offer terracotta horses as votive offerings to their nature gods and ancestral heroes who had sacrificed their lives for protection and well-being of the community. We see the largest concentration of terracotta horses around Poshina village in Gujarat.

To sum up, the Bhils of Aravali are a simple people with lots of honesty. However, modernisation and presence of market driven economy have started building stress on their simplicity. It is important that they change and reform their age-old superstitious beliefs, such as witchcraft and get access to values and employable skills but at the same time it is also felt that they must retain some of their values such as respect for nature and sense of community living.