130.78sq. km. of Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary was notified by the state government of Maharashtra in 1985, under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. The sanctuary is situated on the crest of Western Ghats that is recognised as one of the 12-biodiversity hotspots of the world. The sanctuary harbours large diversity of endemic & specialised flora and fauna. Sanctuary is home to the state animal of Maharashtra- Ratufa indica elphistonii, sub species of the Indian Giant squirrel that is one of three threatened Indo-Malyan squirrel species.
The particular sub species found here is endemic to Bhimashankar. Important mammals reported from the sanctuary are carnivores like Leopard Panthera pardus, Striped Hyena Hyaena hyaena and Golden Jackal Canis aureus, Sambar Cervus unicolor, Barking Deer Muntiacus muntjak, Wildboar Sus scrofa, Common Langur Semnopithecus entellus, Rhesus Macaque Macaca mulatta and the Mouse Deer Moschiola meminna. The Indian Pangolin Manis crassicaudata is also reported. Sanctuary is rich in specialised and endemic reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and insects. During the monsoon (rainy season), various species of mosses and epiphytes including bioluminescent fungi can be seen on the trees.
Bhimashankar has been identified as an important Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Bird Life International. It harbours globally threatened species like Greater Spotted Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Jerdon’s Baza and Nilgiri Wood Pigeon along with restricted range species like the Malabar Parakeet, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Small Sunbird and Southern Tree Pie. The Sanctuary also provides protection to the valuable habitats of two critical species (Long billed and White backed Vultures), several vulnerable species (like Austen’s Babbler, Lesser Kestrel and Nilgiri Wood Pigeon) and near threatened species (Pallied Harrier and Malabar Pied Hornbill).
The sanctuary also has great cultural, religious and historic significance. The sanctuary forests house 14 sacred groves. These are patches of near virgin forests traditionally protected by the local people because of spiritual sentiments associated with these. The 14 sacred groves as shown in maps available with the forest department include, Bhimashankar Rai, Bhaka Rai, Ahupe Rai, Vandev, Yelavali van, Dhakoha, Koteshwar, Umbaryn Bhairavnath, Vaghoba, Talhavadidevi, and Kalbhairavnath. Bhimashankar grove and Ahupe grove are among the best sacred groves in the norther western ghats. Ahupe grove is believed to be at least a 1000 year old. The sanctuary and its surround also include some Deorais which are now degraded and the faith in them has diminished under the changing socio-economic context. Deorais are considered ecologically important areas as some of them may still contain traces of the original species composition and provide gene pools for other rare and endemic species. These are extremely important for ecological research, cultural heritage and often water security.
The forests of the sanctuary form an important part of the upper catchment of River Krishna, to which Ghod and Bhima are tributaries. Though large continuous forest tracts are few, sanctuary shows an amazing mosaic of different vegetation patterns such as the Deciduous, Semi-evergreen and Evergreen types of forests. Some of these forests form the catchment and origin of two important rivers of State, Bhima and Ghod, and also the upper catchment of three main tributaries of Ulhas River). Geologically, like most of the Northern Western Ghats the sanctuary area is made of basaltic rocks. The area receives high rain fall but faces sever water scarcity in summer. Although the sanctuary receives high rainfall during the three months of monsoons, namely, June-August, yet the geology of the area does not allow for storage of this water which runs off or percolates as soon as the monsoons are over, leaving the area extremely dry. Water, therefore, is the most scarce resource in the sanctuary in the non monsoon months..
Sanctuary is named after Bhimashankar temple located inside the sanctuary and surrounded by Bhimashankar sacred grove. The temple is considered to be one of the twelve Jyotirlingas (self emerged) Shiva temples in the country, making it one of the important pilgrimages for Hindus. The temple was built on the site of an older temple by a Counsel to Peshwa Nana Phadnavis. After the death of the Peshwa his wife built the current shrine. In addition, the Shiva temple and some old caves at Bhorgiri village as believed to be from the Satvahan times.
A total of 18 villages and their hamlets are geographically located inside the sanctuary. These villages and hamlets cover a total area of 148sq. km. and were inhabited by about 3000 people in 1991. The inhabitants are primarily tribal communities, namely Mahadev-Kolis, Katkaris and Dhangars. Bhimashankar sanctuary is critical for providing livelihood support to several hundred tribal communities who reside within and in the surrounds of the sanctuary. Main occupations of the inhabitants include agriculture, livestock raring, casual labour and collection and sale of non timber forest produce (NTFP). The Bhimashankar temple complex in last few decades has become an important centre for trade. Both settled and shifting cultivation is practiced, while former is largely rain fed paddy cultivation, latter is practiced to grow nachani (Eliusine caracana). Privately owned forests around the villages now stand largely degraded and local people heavily depend on the sanctuary forests for their daily requirements. An estimation showed that the annual fuelwood requirement (without including the increased requirements during the monsoons) from the sanctuary in 1991 was 2,08,050 cubic feet. Approximately 6000 heads of livestock from habitation within and more from the surrounding area graze in the sanctuary. Apart from NTFP like Beheda (Terminalia belerica) and medicinal plants which are sold, many herbs and plants are frequently used by the locals as food and medicine.
Some of the major challenges faced by the sanctuary include:
Large pilgrim influx in some seasons: The Bhimashankar temple attracts many pilgrims, their numbers sometimes running into thousands, particularly, in the month of shravan and during Shivaratri (the night when Shiva is believed to emerge). In addition to thousands of pilgrims during shravan and shivratri , many pilgrims also visit the temple on every Monday. During the week-ends a large number of picnickers visit the sanctuary. This large influx of tourists has resulted in many problems such as the spread of plastic in the sanctuary, pollution of few available water sources, continuous disturbance to wildlife, illegal construction of temporary shops catering to the tourists, solid waste from the temple, and so on. Not many of the benefits of tourism have actually reached the local people; the beneficiaries are largely people who have come from outside and established businesses around the temple, and the Temple Trust.)
Conflict between the Forest Department and the local villagers: The sanctuary was declared in 1985 and with immediate effect, the access rights of the local people to the natural resources they had depended upon for generations, were denied, as per the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. This meant a constant conflict between the local people and the forest officials in charge of the sanctuary, attempting to implement the Act. For many years, the local villagers lived under the threat of being relocated from their traditional villages because of the rules pertaining to the sanctuary. As a result of a sustained struggle by the villagers, some local groups and social activists, and a greater realization in the government about the injustice done to people living within the sanctuary, the de facto restrictions on the extraction of resources by the people are currently minimal. Although the use of the forests by the villagers continues, it is still not legally permitted. A relationship of mutual distrust between the local people and forest officials is very evident. This has created a situation which is both difficult and discouraging for an efficient Protected Area (PA) management.)