Blood Stained Hands

“There it is”, Shashi Malik points out. Shashi is forester with huge experience of wildlife management. He is the first to sight it. The jeep stops with a screech. A huge male tiger is cooling itself in water saucer deep inside the jungle near Raiya Kassa crossing. The management of the Pench Tiger Reserve, where we are in, has created drinking water facilities for wild animals by way circular, cemented, 10-15 m diameter saucers for animals to drink water from in case it is not naturally available in the region. These saucers are filled by tankers as and when required. There are smaller saucers in areas where tanker may not reach. These are filled manually with hand pumps on one end.

The light is good. The tiger is in no rush. We take score of photos. Generally, it’s difficult to get time to shoot a tiger properly. The light may be bad. It may be hidden in bushes. The distance may be too much. It may be walking ahead and you are watching its bum…

We now wait for some different action or movement by the tiger. While we watch, Shashi notices red strains on the fore limbs of the tiger. These limbs are stretched out of the saucer while most of its rear body is in water. We all look closely, some with binoculars.  It is suspected that the limbs maybe injured. Tiger appears to be making limbs moment cautiously, more so, the left foot, added to the doubt.

The deputy director, K K Gurwani is with us. He gets worried. He knows that a new big male has recently taken to using this area. It has already pushed out another big male, famous as ‘BMW’, from the region.

There is always a possibility of territorial fight between the new one out to grab prime territory from the old established male, who is growing old.

Nevertheless, Gurwani maintains cool. He opines, “Maybe these are minor injuries. Such injuries, tiger is easily able to heal itself by licking. We will keep a watch.”

The discussion continues. Foresters decide that ‘A conclusion can be drawn when the tiger walks. If it limps badly, it will be matter of concern.’

We have been watching the tiger for half an hour but it is in no mood to rise and walk. In the meanwhile, local Deputy Ranger, Gautam Soni, famous man with about three decades of service for the Reserve has arrives. He can notice red strains with naked eyes. Deputy Director directs him to keep a watch and monitor the tiger.

We go around in the nearby area to see why spotted deer are making continuous alarm calls. There has been another tiger, or may be tigress, in the area. But we miss it.

Soon a message is received from Soni about the movement of the tiger. We dash to the spot. When reach, the tiger has left the saucer and we get a mere glimpse of it disappearing deep inside the forest. Soni assures us that all is well. There has been no limp in the walk of the tiger. The smart man has even grabbed video shot. We all see this and are reassured that there is nothing to worry.

A reanalysis of the mystery is done. It is felt that tiger must have made a kill and while handling the animal during feeding has soiled its fore limbs with blood. It is also discussed about the possible that tiger may have got brushes or minor injuries while hunting and tackling a strong animal. In any case, it is not Shakespearean blood stained hands in literal sense.

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Remember Mowgli?

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Shashi tell me, “Today we are going to one of the most important landmarks in Central India – Mowgli Land.” The very name Mowgli makes me keenly interested. Most of you would know that Mowgli is world renowned character from The Jungle Book, a fiction written by Joseph Rudyard Kipling in nineteenth century (1894). Mowgli is portrayed as man-cub reared by wolves, living among wild animals almost like a wild animal.

We start from Seoni after breakfast around 9.30. We are driving on a four lane road. As we progress, in one and an half hours, from four lane Seoni-Mandla State Highway, we are on two, and than one, and later no lane road. Finally, it’s dead end! We have arrived.

I notice from a sign board, we are in Kanhiwada Range of the South Seoni Territorial Forest Division. The place is closely surrounded by hills which are densely forested all around. Looking down a narrow gorge, I notice a rivulet flowing. Tej Bhan Pandey, Sub-Division Officer, with us informs, “This is the Hirni River, a jungle stream, originating in Rukhad Forest Range near Seoni.”

Shashi tells me, “This place is also known as Amodagarh.”  Garh is for a fort. I notice it is isolated enough today and wonder what it would have been centuries ago. There is no fort or ruin around, which I can see. I wonder if this is just an imagination. Local forest guard shows me the remains of a wall which is supposed to have surrounded the fort! This is virtually a pill up of stones, which can be imagined as ruin of a boundary wall.

Amodagarh is in middle of Reserved Forest. I think, ‘there must be some mention about the place in the history of the region in the Working Plan of the Forest Division’. We check the Plan later but find nothing about Amodagarh. Few internet pages mention, Amodagarh has been Sona Rani’s palace, though no serious literature is available. On Google Map, I am able to locate the place –Seoni (State Highway No. 12) – Kanhiwada – Chhui – Mordungri –Amodagarh.

One thing I can certainly assume from the site is that Amodagarh must have been among the tiniest forts in the country. Second, I can assume many would not have known the existence of this fort because of the location. This looks more like a hiding place.

I notice a group of local tourists arrive in two cars. They straight away take to stairs going down to river. It is clear they know the place. Forest Beat Guard of the area tells me, “This is local picnic place. Families and friends spend time here, eat, dance, sing and have fun in the river and forest around.” In fact, Google Map too mentions Amodagarh as a picnic spot!

Madhya Pradesh Eco-Development Board seems to be promoting the place as the forest around which Mowgli stories are weaved. A statue of Mowgli-Wolf has been erected, though, not quite attractive. A watch tower and a cafeteria have also been developed here.

I vaguely remember some lines from The Jungle Book, read 40 years ago, and some scenes from the Jungle Book movie seen later. Somehow, this really does not seem like the Jungle where the Book is plotted.

I glance though some pages on internet. It excites me to know more about Mowgli stories and more about the author. First of all, Kipling is born in Bombay (1865), lived here for six years as a kid, and after 10 years returns to work as a journalist for 7 years. Clearly, he does not spend lot of time in India. But then, he has been much appreciated author in his 20s itself. In fact, The Jungle Book (1894) has proceeded by the book ‘In the Rukh’ and followed by the book ‘The Second Jungle Book (1895)’. There have been many more famous stories in between.

The truth is that The Jungle Book is a fiction and Mowgli (man-cub), Bagheera (black panther), Baloo (bear), Sherkhan (tiger), Raksha (mother wolf), Kaa (python) etc are all characters. There is mention of ‘Seonee’ in some stories but Kipling never visited the present day Seoni forest. Nevertheless, some literature mention that he used what he knew, what he read, what he heard and what he dreamt in his stories! What surprises me more is what I learn from Britannica – ‘Kipling has received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907’!

I remember, for quite some time, Pench forest (i.e. Pench National Park/ Tiger Reserve) has been marketed as Mowgli land by the M P Forest Department, Seoni District Administration and Pench resort owners alike. Kanha Tiger Reserve in adjacent districts too has been reported to share the Mowgli glory. I tried briefly but could not find any sure proof of the forest where Mowgli stories are plotted.  I end this piece with a question, ‘Where is The Jungle Book plotted?’

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Forest Rest House – My House So Often

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I am delighted for my forester friends and for naturalists like me. The Supreme Court today has done a wonderful thing. Forest Departments across the country have got a much needed support and moral boost. The Forest Rest Houses were for foresters, are for foresters (?) and will be for foresters for sure – No more take our by district administration or ABC…

The Supreme Court of India has ordered today:

  1. The control of Forest Rest Houses, including their reservation shall under all circumstances remain with the Forest Department.
  2. At no circumstance the control of the FRH/IB’s located inside the forests be taken over by the District Administration / Government.
  3. Forest Rest Houses / Inspection Bungalows located within the forest area including the Protected Areas shall not be transferred to private and commercial entities in the name of public –private partnership or by whatever name such an arrangement is called, for promotion of any form of tourism including Ecotourism.
  4. The Forest Department should make every effort to retain the basic plan and elevation of old FRHs/IB’s many of which are heritage buildings, while making improvement / addiction to these buildings.

This is landmark development for all forest departments, foresters, naturalists and wildlifers. It’s a Supreme court concurred by Government of India.

 

 

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Payli – Hidden in the backyard of Seoni

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We start from Seoni around 4.00 in the afternoon. It’s still quite bright and hot being mid-June. Monsoon, I am told has got delayed. I am not aware where exactly we are going. I am only aware that we are going into some forest area and we are staying overnight. Shashi Malik, my forester friend, tells me, “just enjoy”, meaning ‘just chill’.

Our first halt is Dhuma, a small town on Seoni- Jabalpur highway (Madhya Pradesh). It’s at a locally famous sweet shop for Gulaab Jamun with Rabadi. This is real delicacy but GJ, almost the size of a grenade, is loaded with sugary syrup, and pure thickened milk Rabadi. The dish is as good as a bomb of a ton of calories. Nevertheless, I enjoy as I have somewhat sweet tooth. It’s certainly quite filling. Shashi offers tea later, but I politely decline. I want the taste GJ & R to linger on for some time.

After another 30-40 minutes of driving on four-lane monotonous highway, we turn right and are now driving on a single-lane road in hinterland. There are small hamlets, few and far. There is no other vehicle to be seen. What is amazing is the forest. It must be 80 per cent dense forest, largely teak. I can see that presently this looks like 20 per cent dense forest because of leaf fall – straight teak bolls without canopy. Its monotonous creamy-greyish spread – miles and miles of it. Soon in monsoon, this will be all green and look like 100 per cent dense forest.

It’s late evening. I suggest to Shashi, “Let us switch of Air Conditioner and roll down windows. Have some fresh air.” Shashi agrees. As we roll down the windows, in comes somewhat hot air, but fresh, mixed with fragrance of the forest – unpolluted. I wonder, I may not fall sick, for these days, I breathe ‘severally’ polluted air in Delhi and my system has got acclimatised to dirty stuff.

Shashi tell me, “We are passing through Shikara Range of North Seoni Forest Division.”

While we are breezing through the forested landscape, it is almost night fall when we suddenly halt at a place where half a dozen government vehicles are lined up and the place is buzzing with people. I notice, this is a huge complex, with lot of backyard area and lawns in the front. The building is quite big, built on a six feet raised platform, with two floors comprising five big size suits and a dining hall.  It cannot be called a Forest Rest House in the traditional context. This is in fact called, Payli Jungle Camp. I can vaguely see a water body beyond but cannot make much of it.

Shashi tells me, “There is a long story behind this complex, built may be a decade ago. This is in compensation for Old Payli FRH.  To cut the long story short, the old one got into the submergence area of Bargi Dam created on the Narmada river.”

At the Camp, I get to know Gaurav Choudhary, DFO of North Seoni Forest Division, and M K Sapra, PCCF (CAMPA) who is visiting the region to inspect the works. We spend some time together and in fact later dine together.

It is in the morning, I realise how amazingly wonderful place this is. There is huge Bargi Dam back water spread in front of the Camp which is zig-zagging into undulating hills and hillocks. In the morning Sun, this is silver sheet with ripples painted. There is forest all around. An old road intrudes into the water body for long to Payli Island. There are several islands one of which houses British time Old FRH. As crow flies, the Bargi dam is about 12 km from here though by road it is more than four times i.e. about 50 km!

Around the complex, I can see some play area for kids. A nature trail (Environmental Awareness Trekking Trail) has been developed for tourists to have some walks through adjacent forest and reach the islands and water-body.  In fact, the Camp is being managed as Eco-tourism facility. Later, I look at the Madhya Pradesh Eco-Development Board’s web page and this describes the Payli Eco Complex as

Backwater of Bargi dam forms a huge lake having enormous potential for tourism development. Realizing this fact, Madhya Pradesh Ecotourism Department Board is introducing “PAYLI” a small village sharing the backwater on its edges, just a 50 km drive from Bargi dam one can enjoy the true beauty of nature and many nature based activities such as:- Trekking, Bird Watching, Waterfall, Boating & Adventure based activities It offers accommodation in Camping Tents & Rest house, Canteen facility. Surrounding area of Payli is also good for nature tourism which includes bird watching, mammals sighting.

Franking, this facility is in making and a visitor keen to rough it out in nature, can certainly enjoy.

After breakfast we start back. On the way back, Payli is spread large on my mind. I can understand, Payli Jungle Camp has been named after the Payli village nearby, but I wonder why the Payli village has been named so. I know, Payli does not have a meaning as it is.  I feel, it can be distortion of Payali (Bowl) or Paayal (Anklet, worn by many Indian women) and to conclude, I may say, the name is closer to Payali as the landscape is bowl shaped valley with hills all around.

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Another Heera of Panna

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(Panna Forest)

I have arrived at Panna Tiger Reserve with family and friends in the morning. We are accommodated at Hinouta Jungle Camp. The Complex is at the edge of the forest and just next to entry gate. It is almost staying the forest.

Summer is at its top. The temperature is souring past 45°C. Sun is shining white. We start for the forest in an open Zypsy. Even at 4 pm it feels like burning. We are driving on Hinouta Plateau.

Udaimani Singh Parihar, the forest guard of the area is in the front seat. I suggest to him that let us go to denser parts of jungle first and later in the open parts to avoid Sun and heat, as much as possible.

The sharp eyes of Udaimani notice a leopard at the edge of the forest at one place. This has been least expected or thought of. He whispers about it. My wife, Sunita, sitting just behind him gets the hint first and notices the animal for a flash as it is entering into the undergrowth. None of us, Suresh Pant, Mrs Sunita Pant and me see the animal. Mrs Pant is terribly disappointed and so are Suresh and me. Mrs Pant starts complaining, and like a child she starts thumping feet. “Why I could not see?”

Though the leopard is gone but we wait. We are praying, maybe, it appears once again. And it does! For mysterious reasons, the leopard takes U turn from left side where it has gone and crawls in bushes in front of us and goes towards the forest on the right. Sheer luck!

Lot of excitement. Mrs Pant is bubbly and says, “My luck. I have seen tiger number of times, but leopard only once.”

This has been a matter of seconds when whole drama happens though it may sound like a long event. Nevertheless, an event this has been. I notice that the leopard is full grown, black circle dominating yellowish base; length including tail may be 7-8 feet. It appears to be a male. I realise there has not been time or opportunity for taking a photo.

We all agree that this has been a great opportunity and amazing surprise. We have seen the animal clearly and that too in broad daylight. I notice, this is only 4.30 pm. I wonder, “How can a leopard operate in broad daylight in core tiger area? Is the leopard very bold? Is there greater tolerance of leopards by tigers in Panna? Is there no tiger operating in this area? Or, probably, it is sheer chance.”

There is jubilation. We decide to stop at the first chowki and have some tea, biscuit, and namkeen. I generally keep all the stuff in my bag.

There is quite a bit of brooding over the sighting. Suresh Pant says “My visit has become more than successful with the sighting.” My wife claims “I have seen the leopard most, twice!” I add “This has been a really big leopard. See, how it moved with stealth.”

Suresh raises a fundamental question, “We all have the desire to see a tiger whenever visiting a tiger reserve. Leopard does not appear even in thought. The paradox is, it is more difficult to spot a leopard than a tiger.”

“Indeed. Why we miss giving importance to our second largest cat?” I wonder and I say, “Sorry my dear leopard, we will be careful next time.”

 

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Crocs cannot go anywhere to complain

“Oh! Shit. Mom cannot we have a clean home?” baby croc asks her mother. Mother herself is in bit of a trouble. One of its feet got entangled in a fishing-net. She has been strong enough to get free but part of net is now permanently wrapped around the left front foot. Mother is depressed. People are stealing their food also. She is helpless since, all the lakes in the area are more or less similarly polluted and affected. She broods over the good old days, her grandfather used to talk about. Those days, Shivpuri was a sleepy small town and people use to be able to manage their shit at their own end and not pass on to animals’ home.

The croc family, whose conversation I overheard belongs to Sakhya Sagar – a large lake in the middle of a wildlife reserve, Madhav National Park adjacent to Shivpuri. The reserve has been a royal shooting preserve of the, than, Gwalior State. At one end of this lake is around 100 year old Sailing Club. This may have busted with royal parties in good old days. Now this is a grand old Forest Rest House with two suits.

Madhav is teaming with herbivore, reptile, carnivore, and of course, avi-fauna. One can see large herds of spotted deer and nilgai. Wild boars can also be spotted.  Crocodiles are common in lakes. We often come across huge monitor lizards in the forest. Leopards operate in the area but are sighted infrequently.  Tiger used to be common here but unfortunately now there is no resident tiger population. Once in a while some dispersing tiger finds temporary home here. Forest is dry deciduous in nature. Thus, the visibility is good in the forest.

I am lucky to be staying at the Club. The whole place is for me, thanks to a forester friend. I sit enjoying lavish breakfast on a huge veranda, the size of a tennis court but more squarish, and extending into the lake. In fact, this has been erected on pillars in the lake.

This is so wonderful. What a sight – mix of natural and cultural history.  I can see the huge lake spread before me with variety of birds. Hilly, undulating landscape is spread beyond. At the other end, I can see some nilgai feeding lazily. Did I see a chowsingha (four horned antelope)? Not clear from so far, but is possible. I can see or maybe imagine a crocodile here and a crocodile there, now and again, by tell tale ripples in the lake, barely visible snouts…

In the afternoon, we go around the lake to watch wildlife. All along the edge of the lake we can see plastic bottles, plastic bags, rags and what not – waste that has beached. And in the middle of all this waste all along the lake edge are basking crocodiles, difficult to count all in just one afternoon visit – they can be between 50-100, of all age and size. Must be of both sexes, though, I do not know how to differentiate. There they lie like dead but as we approach in a vehicle, closer than 100-150 m, they are full of life and with a dash they splash into the lake. A rare one allows a closer approach. That’s the prize of patience. Looking closely at water reveals, it’s not as clean as it should be. It’s blackish. There is some unpleasant stench as well.

I have visited Madhav some twenty years back. I do not remember all this. Nevertheless, I feel I must explore what’s going on.

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I find the cause is just a stone’s through away. City’s sewage is being directly mixed into the lake using a sly. The, than Gwalior royal, Madhav Rao Scindia, has designed the Madhav water supply system in such a way that there is water available for wildlife round the year.  In 1918, he built a chain of dams – set of three lakes – on the river Manihar. The drainage of the area reaching the river is first collected in Jadhav Sagar, just outside the present day National Park. Overflow from Jadhav is collected in Sakhya Sagar and overflow from here further goes into Madhav Sagar, and extra water through a sluice gate meets the Manihar River downstream. Prefect system thus provides water to the flora and fauna of the reserve.

The town municipality plays a trick to save the bother of managing the sewage. It brings all the sewage in a large channel which flows adjacent to Jadhav Sagar. Just few metres short of overflow point of the lake, the sewage is mixed with the Jadhav water. The water and sewage together overflow and pass down to Sakhya and from Sakhya to Madhav!

To add insult to injury, The National Park suffers at the hands of fishing mafia. Hand in gloves with local police and bureaucracy, truck loads of fish is illegally collected from the lakes in the Park.

Maharaja Madhav Rao is no more. Forest Management with limited staff is not able to stop the pollution and fishing. People of Shivpuri do not care. Municipality has cut short its work. Crocodile do not have a voice. How much waste might have accumulated in these lakes is anybody’s guess. This is really shitty.

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Tiger, elephant….made in millions of years

It is not as usual in Kanger Valley National Park in Bastar. Outsiders are advised to stay outside – for socio-political reasons. I stay outside. I have reached Jagdalpur Forest Rest House previous evening.

I am excited to visit the Park – Nothing like early morning. I get up at 5.00 a.m. and all done by 7.00 a.m. including breakfast!  But no, we leave around 8.30 only – the driver arrives late! I ask him for an explanation. He is candid, “I woke up late.”

An hour’s drive and we enter Kanger from Kotamsar gate. Sampat, well known local forester, joins us. The barrier is the gateway to more accessible of the two ranges of the Park i.e. Kotamsar range. I am overjoyed to be in forest. I am hoping to see at least a spotted deer. I know it is a wishful thinking. There is really no chance. The Park is 6 km wide strip along the Kanger River. It is surrounded by tribal villages. What to say of finishing anything on four legs, locals virtually do away with anything that flies or craws as well.

I set aside the gloomy thought. I enjoy the forest. I enjoy the river. I enjoy the valley. I enjoy the fresh air. That reminds me, clean air is rare commodity in India these days. And I enjoy a cup of tea at Kotamsar FRH. Kotamsar village is located besides the FRH. Incidentally, this is the only village that is actually located inside the Park area.

I love to be in forest. I love to go around the forest. I love to feel the bark of trees. I love the fragrance of the forest. I love the smell of soil. Time and again we stop. Maybe to see a flowering bush, maybe to admire the architecture of spider’s web, maybe to look in awe at an exceptional big tree, maybe just to stroll and brood… But it has be a stroll only.

These days, as a precaution, I warn my friends in wildlife or field personnel accompanying me in advance that I have a knee problem and I cannot do any stressful climb, descend or walk. They thus, do not have expectation of me climbing Everest. They would first explain hike distance or height to be climbed / descended. Thus, the control is with me, I may say ok or sorry.

Incidentally, Kanger is also famous for long subterranean geomorphologic limestone caves.  Literature describes them as ‘these caves have very fine structures of dripstones i.e. stalactites and stalagmites. Chemically these formations are re-crystallized calcium carbonate. These structures have taken million of years to form.’

Sampat tells me, Kotamsar and Kailash caves are famous and open for visitors. While going around the forest, we reach Kailash Cave. This is not for me. They just wanted to show me the spot and forest around. Sampat explains, “Sir, its 400 odd steps climb and further walk 200 m in the cave!”

Officials accompanying, cheer me up that of these unique caves, I shall be able to do, Kotamsar Cave. It’s around 11.00 when we reach here. I am taken aback to see about a score of cars and equal number of bikes in the parking area. I could see about 25-30 tourists in the parking area itself. Across, I see a big bus precariously negotiate a sharp turn in the hill to reach the parking area. Inch by inch, going back and forth, the driver manages. The drivers in India can drive you anywhere and everywhere. Only thing important is that God should be with you. Sampat tell me as a matter of fact, “It is not a tourist season.” I wonder if this is the situation in non-season, what will be the situation in tourist season.

I have no pre-conceived notion of what to expect. I am just excited. Sampat takes me to the edge of a narrow shutter gate, down which descend steps to the cave. He asks me to wait. He will take me down as soon as the opportunity arises. I am told, and can see also, that the stairs width is good enough for one person only. It’s either one can come up or go down. On both side rise virtually steep limestone vertical walls. Soon, there is commotion of kind and there emerges literal lava of people from the cave, shouting name of the Hindu God, Shiva, Jai Shiva, Jai Shiva… In single file, up the steps are coming all size, shape, sex, and age people. The terrified look on their face, exhaustion written all over their body, perspiring … This depresses me somewhat. I try to make an assessment, and find even the young girls and boys are out of wits. The question goes around my mind, should I do it or not?

Before I can decide, the local official arranges to stop this lava of emerging people by communicating with the guides with different tourist groups down in the cave to hold the people emerging from the cave at a somewhat larger area down there, so that we can go.

After descending about 25-26 steps, which are in open, we come to the actual gate of the cave – OMG its 3 feet by 4 feet entrance! It is like the first question to answer in the examination is the toughest. There are few persons still emerging from the cave entry. I am shocked to see the way they are struggling to come out. I am sure they may not have made that kind of effort at the time of their birth even. It is not simple narrow path. It is wriggling out. It is very difficult even on all four – crawl, duck, bend, twist between jutting rocks, striking any of which can cause serious damage.

Somehow, I am not discouraged. I have full faith in my friends – Sampat and local official. As a precaution, I ask them to keep warning me so that I do not bang into anything, which means rocks only.

As if negotiating the entrance has not been the test enough, I land up a very very narrow, iron, spiral staircase with about a score of steps –rusty and shaky. I feel it may break any moment. I thank god for I am under 80 kg.

Rest is amazing. We are in pitch dark if the torches are switched off. It’s all wet. Water is dripping from walls – at places collecting in small pools. There are those limestone formations which amaze one by their varied and myriad size and shapes.

 

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It is remarkable to see that the minute droplets carrying limestone have made shapes like that of an elephant! The size of the development too is elephantine. We pass through sections of the cave, as if passing through a museum – small circular hall, large square hall, rectangular hall with low ceiling…all decked with different displays nature has crafted spec by spec, colour by colour…

Sampat shows me the wonder of nature, it has crafted in the ceiling of one section, the figure of a tiger! I think, “Oh, if the tiger is not in there in Kanger forest, it is very well here in limestone.”

We have gone about 150 m, when my escort suggests, “sir it may be slightly difficult further down.” He shows with torch light a very narrow passage which is water logged and rough. To sooth me he tells, “the cave is similar further down.”  One feature we may miss is seeing blind fish. This species must be here for ages! It must have evolved, finding no use of eyes, it lost it. Another feature is that there is limestone formation which looks like Shivaling – the ultimate religious structure for Hindus!

I go by the advice of my friends and we start back. The most difficult part is certainly getting out of the cave at fag end. I am worried with my less flexible body, I am bound to bang into one or the other jutting rocks. I request Sampat to keep guiding me every inch. I surround my head with my hands wherever it is possible. I do not want to hurt my small brain! Of course, I do not mind going on my all four.  Ultimately, as they say god is great and I emerged hurt-less but, of course, breathless.

I am still not able to believe that I have been able to make it and see all those limestone wonders including elephant, tiger…

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Am I in Paradise?

I arrive at Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary in Chhattisgarh around 1 pm. But have I come to the right place? Have I come to a mela (fair)? There are vehicles and more vehicles, may be two hundred plus!  There are people and more people. A peek into the restaurant puts me off. It has a long queue of people waiting to eat. All eyes are on the kitchen door – every bowl that comes out, many feel, it is for me.

I am in shock. What is happening? Why? I have been travelling for various activities in the State for last 5 days and planned one day in this wilderness. In work, more so in field, I forget day, date, holiday and all that.

I meet the Director. He is not happy with all the crowd and pressure but not stressed. What can I do if there is no accommodation or food for hoards of people? The place cannot take more than a score of vehicles and say around 200 people is now swarmed with 10 times pressure!! It turns out, it is a long weekend because of festival holidays and people from nearby towns have descended to Barnawapara for some quality time. Quality time?

I have been to Barnawapara several times. First, it was almost two decades ago in 1997. What to say of tourists even wildlifers were not aware of the Sanctuary. The Range Officer, in-charge of the Sanctuary, used to visit once in a while.  During last 5-6 years, Forest Department has been focused on this wilderness with intense management inputs. Larger positive change has been due to shifting of half a dozen villages from the Sanctuary which resulted in contiguous area being available to wild animals and lesser competition from man and livestock. I myself see sea change with common sighting of cheetal and Bison. In one visit, some time back, I even see three sloth bear in different locations during one evening. I have not seen so much of sloth bear during my whole life!

There has been some confusion in the beginning but ultimately they arranged for me to stay at the forest rest house, exclusive place far from the tourist complex and disturbance.

In the late afternoon, a guide accompanies me for a visit to forest. I am taken aback by the situation. There is not an inch of forest free from tourists – All along, there is a vehicle behind and in-front of my vehicle.  There is nothing more than dust. In two hours of going around, I see just one cheetal! One only, not a herd! This animal clearly appeared confused. Maybe slow-witted and is unable to decide on a hiding place.

When the Sun is down, I decide, let us wait at one place and let all the hulla-gulla be over and when it is quieter some animals may come out. We park at tri-junction to keep an eye on the roads and see if some animals emerge but nothing because there is one or the other vehicle noisily passing. I soon notice another vehicle has stopped 50 metres behind us. It waits behind us for half an hour. They probably think that we have some trick and they will share the booty we earn after all this wait. When we start, this vehicle follows us. There is nothing but disappointment.

On my return, I stop for a while at the Director’s residence. He offers me consolation, cup of tea and hope. It cheers me up. The deal is, on the morning round, a forest official will accompany me with a bunch of keys – keys for entering the wonderland i.e. the core of the Sanctuary, which is restricted entry with barriers all around.

At dot 6.00 am we leave the complex. There are vehicles and vehicles filled to brim with colourful lots. We take one of the roads to forest. We drive slow, taking a chance for some sighting.  Vehicle after vehicle overtake us! It’s rat race. After about three km of this madness, we reach a barrier. The official opens the lock, let the vehicle in and lock the barrier back.

Oh! It’s different world. There is no vehicle or human beings. It is melody of bird songs, smell of the earth and soothing sight of greenness. Here and there we see cheetal herds grazing and in no rush. We see few sambars also.

We go around a wetland on the way. There are some water birds. I notice a crested serpent eagle perched on a pole. I look at the tell tale signs on the sandy banks. It is clear, lot of action happens around. There were foot prints of cheetal, nilgai, wild boar, peacock and what not. I am keen on large carnivore. And there I find it. Very clear foot prints of a leopard – a trail of them. Seeing foot print of a carnivore sends a chill down the spine.

Sun is just about out. Chill in the air is lessening. Little mist is rising from the ground. The dust track is not trampled as rare vehicle passes here – grass is growing all over it.

I ask the driver to stop. There is good mix forest on both sides of the road. Sun light is filtering through the foliage. It lightens up the rising mist in shafts creating unique aura. I am entirely mesmerised by the sight. Am I in paradise?

I notice that this is particular to the location. Combination of n number of factors – the time, angle of the Sun rays, light intensity, mist, foliage pattern, gap created by dust track…

I ask the accompanying party to remain quiet. I fill myself with the sight, inch by inch, spec by spec, leaf by leaf, beam by beam…

I feel I am in thin air. Nectar is dripping. A pleasant fragrance has filled the atmosphere. It’s all surrealistic. My whole self is not me.

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I brood, ‘What is paradise? Who has seen the paradise? What is the essence of paradise?’ My heart tells me ‘I am in paradise. I can feel this. I can breathe this.’

And there before my eyes I see
Such beauty that could never be
Revealed in places fixed below
As set before me all aglow
Such wonders ever outward flow

  • Valerie Dohren

My whole self is elated. I am floating in a different world. This is one of the rare moments of life. I envy my luck. I thank god for showing a bit of it very clearly.

I think, my day, my month, my year, my decade… has been made.

Pushp

Birding with Trip & Todd

Delhi traffic kills, virtually. To avoid the torture, I start early at 7 a.m. Though my destination, Zorba the Buddha, is only 35 km, I take 70 minutes to reach. But still cool, going by Delhi’s standard.

Zorba is an oasis in the concrete and car jungle, one among several farm houses in the area.  As one enters the gated complex, just off Ghitorni Metro Station, it’s far from the madding crowd. The difference is conspicuously visible. It soothes the nerves. One feels, the drive all the way has been worth it.

Zorba, in fact, is an exotic location for really exclusive meetings – rustic, green and charming. Everything has been tastefully done with sense of aesthetics. This 3-4 acre farm land has been converted into conference facility with 4-5 halls of different capacity and about 15 rooms for lodging. It’s a full boarding place. Good part is, it is vegetarian only but with immense variety – it’s not dal-roti only. Bad part is the timings for food are very rigid. Dinner at 7 p.m. is too American!

We are organising a three-day international ‘dialogue on transition to clean energy’. I am going to stay here for two nights. Incidentally, I have been allotted a three-person sharing room. Frankly, I love privacy but there is limitation of number of rooms. I check into the room and find I have a choice as the other two occupants have not arrived as yet. As luck would have it, the arrangement in the room is two beds on the main floor, and there is a mezzanine floor, half the room size, with a queen bed. It’s as good as private room. Though I have knee problem, I do not mind a flight of steps. I just grab this exclusive part of the room and feel happy.

About half a dozen international participants and about a dozen Indian participants have reached by last night and settled at Zorba. I find, some friends enjoying morning tea. I meet Ravi from Vizag and Ramesh from Goa. I chat with them for few moments. I notice, some distance away, three international participants are also enjoying tea. I know two of them, Todd and Ron. I am just thinking of reaching them, when, Todd walks toward me. We smile at each other, shake hands and exchange pleasantries.  Soon, Todd introduces me to the new guest, “Meet Trip, president of EJ and my boss.” I extend my hand, warm hand shake, its huge hand! While Todd joking adds “He has come to keep an eye on us!” I notice Trip is tall, past 6 feet, innocent looking attractive face. He is wearing a sweet smile. He is old but does not look his age. I develop a kind of affinity right away.

Puhsp with Trip at Zorba

I decide to meet participants formally and informally as they arrive for breakfast which starts at 8.30. The breakfast is from 8.30 to 9.30. I grab a plate and eat leisurely while participants come and go and I meet most of them here. Interesting part of the arrangement is there are no tables for meals – chairs are put in a circle in a lawn. About dozen of us are sitting around and talking. Most of the participants are known to me. We have organised such consultations at this very place about half a dozen times during last 4-5 years.

Trip is also sitting here. He hears a bird calling persistently, probably, wanting not to be missed. He asks me, “This looks like an interesting bird. Can we see this? What species?”

I tell him, “It’s Crimson-throated Barbet, also known as Coppersmith, more because of its habit of persistently calling throughout the day, took, took, took…” I wonder at the energy level! I know the bird is very difficult to spot in spite of one knows from where it is calling – remains hiding in the foliage. I try to help Trip but in vain.

Lisa Evan joins. She is fan of my blog, ‘Glimpses of Wilderness’, and never stops praising it and even passing on some of the postings to her colleagues. She informs Trip in detail about my naturalistic interests and keen involvement in wildlife watching. I am rather overwhelmed by the praise and sheepishly say, “Oh! Nothing great, I am just sharing some of my experiences in nature.”

Trip is now quite seriously interested. He wants to subscribe the blog. I tell him, “It’s free and open access blog.” He later Google and locates it.

During the stay at Zorba we continue of talk, off and on, about birds around. I tell Trip that there would be about two dozen species here. He notices a bird in the open grassland area. I tell him, “It is a lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing.” It’s amazing that peacocks are found roaming around the complex and we can hear them frequently.

Trip and I decide we will try a formal birding in the Zorba complex itself for first half hour of the breakfast time i.e. 8.30 to 9.00, on our last day of the conference. Todd gets a hint of it and suggests he is joining too.

I for one, get ready by 8.00 to be sure that there is no rush and I am ready to straight join the conference later. This means, I am all set for birding in a formal dress meant for conference. I am old school guy and like to wear formals for meetings.

Trip & Todd join on dot, equipped with binoculars. There are old trees in the complex, more so on the boundary. Natural bushy growth, decorative plants, bamboo, palms…  The land is not plain – it’s undulating, hillocks here and dips there, and small water bodies. All this increases the potential for birds. We start from the boundary from the rooms’ side. Most conspicuous of course, is peacock, calling shrill from roof top. Across the boundary, we notice a Red-wattled lapwing, in fact one more join it. Todd takes a good look; wants to make sure that the red wattle is there. I explain an interesting part of lapwing ecology, “it nests on the ground and in case some predator approaches the nest, it would drop one wing, appear to be injured, and walk away from the nest and attract the predator towards it and flies away when the animal is at a safe distance from the nest. Smart of it!”

Caw, caw, cav, cav… “Can you hear this? This is Crow Pheasant. (I see the literature later, and it more famous as Greater Coucal these days.) It’s larger than crow, black but with rust colour wings and back. It’s found in the bushes and often comes out in open area near the bushes.” We try hard to locate it but fail. Nevertheless, I assure my friends to count this in.

“Oh! There’s a quail,” Todd points out. In fact a pair, just at the edge of a bush. On good look, we all notice that this is much larger than quail and I identify this as Grey Partridge (Now the species in India is called Grey Francolin). I have not been expecting to find this but happy to see the pair.

In the meanwhile, one, less than a finger size bird is humming in a blooming tree– I ask friends to look whether it has a long curved beak. We find the bird is female of Purple Sunbird. Male is very easy to identify with radiant and bright blue-purple-black colour while female is drab and dull coloured. Trip is excited to know about the tree species as well. I tell them it’s Bauhinia (Kachnar). Soon all the leaves would be gone and tree will be entirely flowers only, a sight without parallel.

Bauhinia

Common Myna and rock pigeon are all over. One does not feel like counting them in. Several Pariah Kites (Small Indian Kite) are circling overhead.  I notice a Black Drongo for a moment but before friends could notice, it flies away. Trip tells me, “No worry, I have seen it yesterday.”

We reach a Ficus (peepal) tree in fruiting. It’s busy place. I suspect one grey hornbill in upper canopy but not sure. The tree is packed or sure with Large Green Barbets maybe 25-30 of them – all busy gobbling maximum possible. I hear Red-vented Bulbul. Yes, few are around in bushes and small trees and some arrive at the Peepal as well. Todd has verified the red vent, as well the triangular black crest.  I want to be doubly sure, am I watching white cheeked bulbuls? I could see long curved crest and white cheek as well as coloured vent. Interesting, I have not expected this as well. (Incidentally, later when I consult literature, I realise that this is Red-whiskered Bulbul or Crested Bulbul.)

We move to a small pool and for sure, a White Breasted Kingfisher is holding the fort. Trip has seen this species yesterday and in his search online, found another similar looking bird. I have suggested it can be White Breasted Kingfisher and he agrees now, “This is the one”.

It’s nine. We need to finish, otherwise we may miss the breakfast, while the birds are enjoy theirs. At the last leg, I show my friends common babblers. I amuse them with the story that they are called seven sisters (Sat Baheni). They are found and go around in a group of about seven birds!

I notice another species of Myna – Brahminy Myna. I show this to friends. Soon, Trip points to a barren pole like stem of a dried tree with few holes at the top end. “Are these some bird’s nests?” Before I form an opinion, a Brahminy too decides to explore the hole and it results in fierce drama. Within split second a Coppersmith emerges and strongly attacks the Brahminy. We notice, Brahminy, a much larger bird, is clearly in shock and meekly flies away and settles on a branch way away from the danger zone. Coppersmith sits on a naked branch, virtually puffing its chest and flexing muscle, telling one and all “I remain hidden in foliage does not mean I am meek. Anybody who dares to come near my nest will have it.” We decide it is better to leave and not get caught in cross-fire.

Pushp

 

 Post Script

Birds We See at Zorba 

Red-Wattled Lapwing – Vanellus indicus

Large Green Barbet or Brown Headed Barbet (Psilopogon zeylanicus)

Crimson-throat or Crimson-breasted or Coopersmith Barbet – Psilopogon haemacephalus

Myna Common – Acridotheres tristis

Brahminy Myna or Brahminy Starling – Sturnia pagodarum

Peafowl – Pavo cristatus

Grey Fracolin (formally Grey Partridge) – Francolinus pondicerianus

Rose Ringed Parkeet – Psittacula krameri

White Breasted (or throated) Kingfisher – Halcyon smyrnensis

Black Drongo – Dicrurus macrocercus

Pariah Kite, now known as Small Indian Kite –  Milvus migrans govinda

Purple-rumped Sunbird – Leptocoma zeylonica

Common Babbler – Turdoides caudata

Red-vented Bulbul – Pycnonotus cafer

Red-whiskered Bulbul or Crested Bulbul – Pycnonotus jocosus

Rock Pigeon or Rock Dove – Columba livia

Crow Pheasant now known as Greater Coucal –  Centropus sinensis

 

 

 

Pilgrimage to Chhoti Haldwani

This is my third pilgrimage to Chhoti Haldwani. I call it pilgrimage because a visit to Jim Corbett’s home will be a pilgrimage for any wildlifer. For those who may not know, Corbett has been the legendary man-eater hunter and conservationist.

We used to call this place Kaladhungi. I notice Kaladhungi is a larger place and includes several villages around. My earlier two visits have been in 1980s when I used to regularly Corbett National Park nearby.  Chhoti Hadwani falls on a road joining two towns, Ramnagar and Haldwani, around 50 km long. I still vividly remember, the drive on this road used to be wonderful – this single lane road used to have lush fields on both sides and sparse habitation; scenic hills on the left and planer landscape on the right. There would be hardly any vehicle, and one felt like breezing through a dream. Midway on this road, another road goes up the hills to Nainital, popular hill station of North India and a well known tourist destination.  Bang on this tri-junction spot is located the heart of the place, Jim Corbett’s house, now a museum. I remember this has not been conspicuous– just a normal house, British style bungalow with one small block on the side. The place was not maintained those days. There was very little stuff in the place and one used to be done with the visit in five minutes.

No more so now. Things have changed. As far as the drive is concerned, it is no more wonderful. It’s a broad two lane road. Lot of fields are gone taken over by habitation and commerce. The traffic is thick. All that drive fun is gone. As far as the museum is concerned, this too has changed, but changed for better. The place is with the Forest Department, which has turned this into a real museum.

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Corbett’s Bungalow is restored, maintained and suitably painted. The surrounding area has been developed into lawns. Suitable slab have been put with biographical note on Jim Corbett. Two busts of the Corbett are adding dignity to the place – one in the lawn and another on the verandah of the house.  An effort has been made to fish out some old pictures, documents, and stories and displace them for visitors to see and read, and be better informed. Some paintings have been done to recreate history.  Whatever little furniture was there has been displayed. There is a souvenir shop for tourists to spend time and spend money. The shop has been named after his accomplice and regular companion in jungle, Moti.

This house was developed in 1915 by Corbett as his winter home to avoid cold at his ancestral home in Nainital. The interesting part of the story is that it is not only the house he developed but an entire village, which is now known as Chhoti Haldwani. He had bought 40 acre land and let it out to about a dozen families. He helped them build houses, develop fields, make canals, build protection wall and raise corps and flourish. He did not take rent on land or share in farm yield. This was his family. Entire village was his home.

Another thing that has changed is that Chhoti Haldwani has now been developed into ‘Jim Corbett Heritage Village’, promoting nature walks, bird watching, home stay and providing unusual experience to visitors at a nominal price. This has been the effort of Corbett Gram Vikas Samiti (Community’s Society). Mr Pandey, one of the key persons associated with the Samiti facilitated our visit to the village.

One thing worth mentioning is the gun Corbett gifted to Sher Singh for crop protection. This muzzle loading single barrel gun is now the pride possession of his son, Trilok Singh. In the village we visit Trilok Singh, he brings out the gun and shows it to me!  I lift the gun and find this unusually heavy. It is a different matter that I am not able to recollect lifting any other gun before. I feel, may be one need not fire this. Just throwing it on an animal would kill it!

Another feature of the village is an old Chaupal. Chaupal is a raised platform in open area of a village, where people collect for formal and informal meetings. Corbett had developed several Chaupals, one of which is still intact. Incidentally, this happens to be adjacent to Trilok Singh’s house. Thus, we have the gun and Chaupal together in one picture.

One good new addition in the village is a rustic, tastefully built and furnished hut to serve as restaurant for visitors.  The interior, furniture, and display are all work of art and highly appealing. The Samiti offers us tea, and, thus, an opportunity to spend some time in the hut and with them and reflecting back on Corbett.

I am sure any wildlifer will love this pilgrimage.

Pushp