It all began in the 1980s when the population of wolves in the forest began to increase rapidly, making them stray out and launch attacks on children and elderly. Panicky residents then axed trees in Dudhmatiya to shoo away wolves. But the dwindling forest cover made wild elephants stray into villages and attack people.
Mahadev Mahto, then a government school teacher, was among the many who suffered severe injuries when over 20 elephants went on a rampage in Berho village of Tatijhariya block in 1989. The incident spurred Mahto into making plans to revive the natural habitats of elephants so that they do not enter villages for food and water.
He roped in people from his village, and nearby Bada and Chhota Darbhanga. The same people, who once vigorously chopped down trees, were now told to plant and protect. It was not an easy task.
In 1991, Berho residents along with a forest beat officer formed a 10-member ‘jungli pashu kshati sahayta kosh’ to create awareness of forest conservation and habitat revival for wild elephants. For five years, the committee sensitised people by holding meetings and making announcements using loudspeakers. Over the years, more members joined the team.
In 1995, the committee changed its name to ‘van prani suraksha samiti’ on getting full-fledged support from the forest department. The 100-hectare lush green Dudhmatiya forest that we see today is the result of hard work put in by the committee members to involve as many villagers as possible.
Now aged 72, Soniya Devi of Bada Daharbhanga was among the first to understand the benefits of forest conservation. At that time, she voluntarily took up the task of staying in a machan (a raised platform made of bamboo and wood) in the forest for a span of six months to alert villagers of any suspicious vehicle or movement, besides stopping people from felling trees and grazing cattle.
Her forest stay is not as regular now as it was before. But whenever she stays in the machan, village women come to spend time with her in the evenings. Though there are no formal groups or rotational machan duty, things are going well here.
Several villages have subsequently adopted the idea, leading to the formation of 434 forest committees. Narayan Yadav (76) from Bada Daharbhanga was among the first to join the initiative.
“I have been troubled by the recurring dream of ‘Vanaspati maiya’ asking me to save the forest ever since my wife’s death. She was digging up the forest floor to get mud for house repair, but accidentally got trapped in a heap of loose mud. Two others also died in the 1991 incident,” says Narayan, who has adopted Teliya Mat, a nearby forest.
Ensuring a safe passage
In 2015, the ‘van prani suraksha samiti’ members undertook a 100-km march to mobilise people to revive the forest. Then divisional forest officer Siddharth Tripathi also participated in the march, which covered almost 150 villages along the elephant corridor.
“In the past, only one or two elephants used to cross the corridor. Now, three big herds march together. The corridor at Pipcho in Daru block has water and food in abundance. The elephants halt there for four to five days. This is something that has never happened before,” says Ram Nandan Ram, a forest beat officer with Hazaribag East Division since 1996.
The elephants now move from Pipcho to Badwar, Garya, Turiwar, Ango, Hatyari, Morangi and reach Demotand. From there, they move towards Besh and Resham in the west forest division and towards Barkagaon.
The forest guards and beat officers move with the herd and guide them to another jungle. The villagers carrying mashals (torches) join the guards at night. “Since 2010, we have built around 73 earthen water reservoirs along the corridor to ensure a hassle-free journey for elephants,” says Hazaribag East Divisional Forest Officer Sourav Chandra.
According to forest guard Ashish Kumar, more and more elephants are entering the corridor now. He says he guided a herd of 25 elephants and three calves from Hazaribag to Barkagaon as recently as September 28.
“Dudhmatiya mela has been a success. Three herds regularly come to Hazaribag now and stay there for five to 10 days,” adds Ram.
A festival for the forest
For the last 27 years, people in Hazaribag have been organising the annual Dudhmatiya mela to spread the message of the conservation of trees and wildlife. Incidentally, Hazaribag district now accounts for 34.91 per ecnt of Jharkhand’s forest cover.
The forest department and ‘van prani suraksha samiti’ organised the first Dudhmatiya mela or raksha bandhan on October 7, 1995. Around 5,000 people participated in it.
As per the ritual, sacred threads are tied around the trees with a promise to protect them. Three days before the mela, a group of women go on a bhikshatan to nearby villages to raise funds. They sing and beat drums to motivate villagers to participate.
Tatijharia sarpanch Suresh Yadav was in Class 8 when the first Dudhmatiya mela was organised. “I still remember taking part in the mela along with my father. We sang songs and performed in plays. Now, my son participates,” he says.
Basanti Devi (43) and Rukmani Devi (45) from Bada Daharbhanga, who help collect money every year, believe that van devi has rewarded them by not letting COVID-19 “enter the village”.
The main agenda of this year’s mela, held on October 7, was to save the green cover from a proposed four-lane road that will run close to the forest. NH 100 already passes through Dudhmatiya forest.
Tackling man-animal conflict
Only four deaths have been reported in man-animal conflicts in the region since 2000, claims Anil Agarwal, a clerk with the forest department in Hazaribag East, pointing to the success of forest committees. Parmeshwar Prasad Yadav (55), a migrant labourer who makes it a point to visit his native Bada Daharbhanga during Dudhmatiya mela, echoes Agarwal.
Demotand resident Surendra Prasad Sahu (52) lost only five quintals of agricultural produce to elephant rampage this year. “Earlier, it used to be much more,” he says.
With a variety of trees such as sal, neem, banyan, peepal, amla, mango, banana, karam (adina cordifolia), bael, bamboo, shammi (prosopis cineraria) and mahua flourishing in the dense forest, villages in Hazaribag district have come a long way in saving human lives and promoting elephant population in the region.