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Sitamata Wildlife Sanctuary is bestowed with rich biodiversity. Spread over Pratapgarh and Chittorgarh districts of southern Rajasthan, the sanctuary is one of the best-preserved forest patches in the state. The deep, dense, and thickly wooded forest is an amalgamation of three different landscapes: the Vindhyachal range, Aravalli Hills, and Malwa Plateau — extending over an area of 423 sq km.

Each patch of the Sitamata forest has a distinctive character and diversity, created by the varying availability of sunlight, moisture, and food. There are great pillars of wood such as mahua and teak, smaller trees like amla and acacia, clumps of bamboo, and rare species of ground orchids. Together, they provide shelter, food, and support to the forest’s many denizens.

As ardent explorers of the natural world, we decided to explore Sitamata when spring yields to early summer around end-February. The buffer area was heady with the smell of opium flowers from the government-approved (and heavily guarded) opium fields in the area. Further in the sanctuary, the stretch of the Aravalli forest is characterised by the sprawl of Anogeissus pendula and Anogeissus latifolia trees, which are ecologically important to the identity of the Aravallis. These species change the pigment of their foliage every alternate month, bringing vibrancy to the forest. Other treasures of biodiversity include trees of Coromandel ebony (tendu), neem, banyan, peepul, ronjh or arinja, Indian siris (siras), Indian elm (churail), royal poinciana (gulmohar), Indian laburnum, Indian orchid (kachnar), chinaberry (bakain), arjun, silk cotton (semal), glue berry (goondi), gum arabic (kumta), Indian gooseberry (amla), sindoor, bamboo, Indian bael (bel), utrasum bead (rudraksha), and chironjee trees, among many more . Truly, it is a forest of riches.

Fields of opium in full bloom during spring. Cultivation of this species of poppy is closely monitored to prevent misuse. Opium is used in certain medicines, hence its sale is strictly monitored. Photo: Dr Sumit Dookia   Cover photo: Sitamata Sanctuary is named after Sita, the female protagonist of the Ramayana, who is believed to have been exiled here. Legend has it, her twin sons, Luv and Kush were born in these parts, and went on to become progenitors of the famous Suryavanshi dynasty of Rajasthan. Cover photo: Rohit Baldodia

Fields of opium in full bloom during spring. Cultivation of this species of poppy is closely monitored to prevent misuse. Opium is used in certain medicines, hence its sale is strictly monitored. Photo: Dr Sumit Dookia
Cover photo: Sitamata Sanctuary is named after Sita, the female protagonist of the Ramayana, who is believed to have been exiled here. Legend has it, her twin sons, Luv and Kush were born in these parts, and went on to become progenitors of the famous Suryavanshi dynasty of Rajasthan. Cover photo: Rohit Baldodia

The most celebrated yet elusive animal of this region is the large brown flying squirrel. This nocturnal, largely vegetarian creature is rarely sighted, but the odds of seeing one are higher around dawn and dusk, if one has good luck. We started trekking around sunset and were soon deeply engrossed in the scarlet skies and aromas of the woods. I found myself taking big gulps of air, and even pinched myself to ensure it was all real. As the sun dipped, the mercury did too, making the night colder.

Accompanying us, was Mr Panchuba, the reliable old caretaker of Aarampura guest house, where we were staying. Thanks to his experienced eyes, we got to see the iconic animal of Pratapgarh about an hour and a half later: a fully-grown flying squirrel.

First, we saw two cute ears, then a pair of large eyes peeping out from a hollow in a mahua tree, forelegs folded to the side. The squirrel emerged with a yawn and started climbing upside down on the tree. It had a fluffy, grey-brown body with loose skin on both sides of the belly, and a long, furry tail.

Sitamata has a thriving cast of nocturnal and crepuscular species, including the large brown flying squirrel (top) and the barred jungle owlet (above), named after the pattern of its plumage. Photos: Arpan Joshi (top), Dr Sumit Dookia (bottom)

Sitamata has a thriving cast of nocturnal and crepuscular species, including the large brown flying squirrel (top) and the barred jungle owlet (above), named after the pattern of its plumage. Photos: Arpan Joshi (top), Dr Sumit Dookia (bottom)

The excitement of seeing a flying squirrel for the first time left me spellbound for a moment. Then Panchu-ba said, “Madam ji, ab yeh nahi dikhai degi. Aise hi aage se aage ghumati rahegi, aur tahaniya khati rahegi raat bhar” (Now, it will not be seen again, it will keep on climbing and gliding on these trees, nibbling twigs the whole night).

It did in fact disappear into the large leaves of a mahua tree. Then Panchu-ba spotted it once again by torchlight. Soon, the knight rider of Sitamata took a mesmerising leap, gliding around 80 feet away, and landing on another tree.

The mahua tree (Madhuca indica) is extremely important for these squirrels, as they use the hollows of these huge trees for breeding and roosting in the day. In Sitamata, the mahuas thrive because the sanctuary is fed by seasonal and perennial river systems — another advantage of the landscape being an amalgamation of three ranges. With the squirrel out of sight, we continued walking through the forest, accompanied by the orchestra calls of owls and nightjars. The serenity of the darkness was just what we longed for as urbanites, and the more we walked, the more it felt like we were on a pilgrimage.

The birds of Sitamata range from smaller species such as the white-bellied drongo (left), capable of mimicking the calls of other birds, to the crested serpent eagle (right), a large raptor that feeds mainly on snakes and lizards. Photos: Arpan Joshi

At some point, we caught sight of a jungle cat, one of many animals that live here. The dense forest is also a haven for more than 130 species of residential and migratory avifauna. Mammals here include herbivores such as the four-horned antelope, nilgai, sambar, and spotted deer, as well as the leopard, caracal, jungle cat, Indian fox, wild boar, pangolin, striped hyena, golden jackal, and porcupine.

The tropical dry deciduous forest of Sitamata Sanctuary is a pleasure to walk through in any season. Much of the forest floor is blanketed in gently decomposing leaf matter, while the canopy is thick with green leaves. Photo: Dr Sumit Dookia

The tropical dry deciduous forest of Sitamata Sanctuary is a pleasure to walk through in any season. Much of the forest floor is blanketed in gently decomposing leaf matter, while the canopy is thick with green leaves. Photo: Dr Sumit Dookia

With its dense foliage and tall towering trees Sitamata feels like an archetypal jungle. It has inspired folklore and some less-known mythological tales. It has a Sita Samadhi temple, where the goddess is believed to have stayed, and eventually, disappeared into the earth. There is a Valmiki ashram in the forest, where Sita’s sons, Luv and Kush were allegedly born. Archaeologists have also spotted several rocks with carvings of prehistoric animals in Sitamata, giving the sanctuary historical importance. Other places of note include Aarampura forest guesthouse, an ecotourism facility with large occupancy, in a forest area with plenty of flying squirrels; the Chail river belt, which has many small and large rivers, and lots of grand old trees; and Sari peepli, a forest block named after a large peepul tree.

From Mr Sohanji, a middle-aged guard posted at Damdama gate, we learned about the annual fair held during Baisakhi in April, which attracts more than two hundred thousand visitors. Sitamata clearly has lots of potential for tourism due to its cultural importance, but the memories we will carry longest are of the sense of kinship we felt while walking through the wilderness. Wandering through this rich forest is highly recommended. It is an experience that inspires a deep sense of appreciation for the exquisite beauty of our natural heritage.

Dr Mamta Rawat
Dr Mamta Rawat

is a wildlife biologist, author, founder and director of the ERDS Foundation. She is currently heading a community conservation project on the great Indian bustard in the Thar desert of Rajasthan.

Dr Sumit Dookia
Dr Sumit Dookia

is a wildlife biologist and faculty at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi. He has travelled across many wilderness areas for research and surveys on threatened mammals and birds.

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