TBI Travel: KOYNA – A Sanctuary Caught Between Preservation and Destruction

Join us in a visual tour of Koyna, a beautiful wildlife sanctuary nestled in the Western Ghats, in the Satara district of Maharshtra, where you could be fortunate to witness a breathtaking variety of flora and fauna such as the Indian Bengal tiger, Indian bison, leopards, barking deer, along with a wonderful selection of birds and snakes. Be with us as we identify the threats facing this fragile eco-system and applaud the effort of a few good souls to preserve the ecological gem.

There is a fort called Vasota nestling in the green mountains deep inside the Koyna Sanctuary. Protected by deep gorges all around and guarded by ferocious tigers that roamed the valley, it was nearly inaccessible. Though it was built by Raja Bhoj, it was conquered by the Marathas. At the peak of Maratha power, a few Englishmen were kept prisoners here. Subsequently, the Marathas lost the Anglo-Maratha War of 1818. But the news of defeat took two years to travel to this fort. And the imprisoned Englishmen had to continue their life as prisoners for two long years despite winning the war!

The jetty at Tapola

The jetty at Tapola

Once a dam was built on the confluence of the three rivers, Koyna, Solshi and Kandati, the inaccessible forest suddenly became accessible. Because the backwaters of the dam, stretched for all of 65 kilometres, encircling the mountains like water-snakes. And now you can enter this sanctuary only by boat from Shivsagar Lake.

We set off from our base in Tapola, and took the necessary permission from the Range Officer in Bamnoli. The Forest Guard, Gore, accompanied us on our 45-minute boat journey to the sanctuary.

Shivsagar Lake

Shivsagar Lake

Koyna by summer and Koyna by winter are two completely different landscapes. Post monsoon, the deep gorges get filled with rainwater and the water level rises over 600 feet, and the boat can be anchored right at the forest gate. Since we made our trip in summer and the water level was just about a 100 feet, the boat had to be moored far away, and we had to make an arduous journey of about two kms over loose boulders strewn all along the path.

The verdant slopes of Koyna sanctuary

The verdant slopes of Koyna sanctuary

We took the trail to Vasota fort and soon chanced upon the pugmarks of the elusive Pangolin or the ant-eater. Gore explained a unique characteristic of this strange-looking animal that has hard scales on its body. When threatened, it has the habit of rolling into a rock-like ball, thus making it impregnable to man or beast!

A bouquet of Blue Tiger butterflies.

A bouquet of Blue Tiger butterflies.

Then we walked under dense overhanging boughs through a tunnel of blue butterflies, and this added an ethereal touch to our walk. That was when Gore demonstrated the art of walking on dried leaves without making a sound. The trick, he told us in a whisper, is to land the heel first and then the rest of the foot. And presto, soon we were walking as if in a silent movie!

 A wild fruit

A wild fruit

When we settled down near a Ganesh temple in the middle of nowhere, a barking deer darted across with its distinctive dog-like bark. The packed spartan lunch of chapathi and egg burji was washed down with water from the cool mountain stream, and we started on our journey back. By then we had realized that we had stopped once too often to stare at the wondrous woods, and we couldn’t possibly reach Vasota and return by dusk.

The Pompadour Pigeon plucking a berry

The Pompadour Pigeon plucking a berry

Sitting in the boat that was chugging back to the madding crowd in Tapola, I wondered about the fate of this fragile forest. There are allegations of forest land having been sold to resort owners, and windmills having been set up in the corridors of animal migration; and the matter is sub-judice. Add to this the promotion of Tapola as the New Mahabaleshwar to decongest the well-known hill-station that’s just 25 kms away. Will the decongestion of Mahabaleshwar result in the congestion and eventual destruction of the natural treasures of Koyna? I hope it does not, ever.

The windmills mushrooming

The windmills mushrooming

And this hope rests on the fact that the Western Ghats has recently been bestowed upon the title of a World Heritage Site by Unesco for its tremendous natural heritage and rich bio-diversity, and the steps taken by the authorities and concerned activists.

 Proud as a peacock

Proud as a peacock

In an attempt to stop any further deterioration of the ecology inside Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary, the Bombay High Court has imposed an interim stay on construction activities in the protected forests. The high court has also directed the government to take steps to remove encroachments inside the notified sanctuary.

A web of dewdrops

A web of dewdrops

The HC directives came following a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Nana Khamkar, an environmental activist from Satara. Khamkar’s PIL also challenged the New Mahabaleshwar Project which is to be undertaken by the Maharashtra government with the view to decongest the twin hill stations of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani. Says Khamkar,

We had been watching windmills and resorts for years, but nobody knew that they were inside the sanctuary. It was only after we saw the map of Sahyadri Tiger Reserve which had Koyna as its core zone that we doubted the activities.

The sanctuary has been declared an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International, a global network of bird conservation organisations. It has endangered bird species like red-headed vulture and white stork. The Maharashtra state government also declared Sahyadri Tiger Reserve comprising Koyna Sanctuary and Chandoli National Park in January 2010.

 Hope the sun never sets on Koyna

Hope the sun never sets on Koyna

Add to this the news that Mohan Karnat, an upright forest officer, has taken over as the Chief Conservator of this Tiger Reserve. He was instrumental in stopping the mining activities in the famed Tadoba National Park a few years ago and saving it from destruction. Surely we can expect an encore from him.

So, fortunately for Koyna, and hence for us, there is hope!

All Photographs by Gangadharan Menon
After 28 years in advertising as a writer and creative director, Gangadharan Menon quit the profession to take up his first and second love: teaching and travel. He has over 90 published articles that recount the joy of travelling in this amazing country. A member of Bombay Natural History Society, he is an avid wildlife photographer too. Currently he is working on his first collection of travel writings titled Evergreen Leaves. He can be contacted on wildganges[at]gmail.com
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