The internationally known and Bihar's sole tiger conservation unit, the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in West Champaran district, may soon be history.
The changing course of the meandering Gandak river is fast eroding its western edges and devouring large parts of the sanctuary at a fast clip.
Admitting the danger to the wildlife sanctuary, which was the first to be designated under Project Tiger, field director of the Valmiki Tiger Reserve JP Gupta said, "If immediate measures were not taken to prevent the erosion, the project area could be lost forever."
The project area is important, as it is spread over 840 square kilometres with a core area of 335.64 square kilometers consisting of sal and deciduous spread littered with cane breaks, lakes and swamps, live 53 species of mammals, 26 species of reptiles, 13 amphibian species and at least 145 species of birds besides tigers.
"We have already informed the higher authorities of the crisis with the request, that they take up the matter with the Bihar Water Resources Department," Gupta told Hindustan Times.
He, however, could not quantify the exact area of the reserve, already swallowed up by the river.
"The Gandak has developed a tendency to take a course towards its left. In the absence of any survey conducted in the past, we are not in a position to measure the area submerged by the river," a forest expert said on the condition of anonymity.
The forest department is carrying out a survey of the affected area presently, they added.
An appraisal team constituted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) of the Union Government had also noted the development in its report of November last year and suggested remedial measures.
Confirming it, assistant manager of the Wild Life Trust of India and a member of the appraisal team, Samir Kumar Sinha, said, "A vast expanse of forest land has already been engulfed by the river. It is now posing a serious threat to the existence of the reserve."
A spot visit by the HT team to the sanctuary found that a substantial portion of Chunbhatta and Katraha areas of the Valmiki Nagar forest range and Naurangia and Sirsia falling in the Madanpur range were already submerged.
These are the mixed forests with alluvial grassland and canebrakes inhabited mainly by hog deer, wild dogs, spotted deer, leopard cats, black bucks and wild boars (a preferred food species of the tiger).
The submergence of the land has apparently forced the wildlife including tigers inhabiting the area to migrate to the Chitwan National Park across the border in Nepal, which has no physical barrier to hinder their movement.
"We have no authentic evidence to establish the migration of the animals but its possibility cannot be ruled out," said Gupta.
A part of the Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki landscape, the Valmiki Tiger Reserve once attracted kings, zamindars and nawabs for hunting expeditions.
King George V and Kind Edward VIII of England are said to have visited the forest, which had a huge wildlife population.
Till 1997, the reserve was home to 53 tigers and 54 leopards. In the years that followed, the sanctuary came under tremendous poaching pressure and the number of the precious animals dwindled. As per a government figure now, the national park has only 10 tigers. The continuous erosion of the forest has also substantially contributed to the flight of the animals.