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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Wall of Night

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The name sounds exotic – ‘Kali Bheet Ka Jungle’. Tucked away in the backyard of Central India, it’s part of the Khandwa Forest Division in Madhya Pradesh. My forester friend, Anil Nagar is taking me around. We arrive at Amaliya Forest Rest House. Oh! This is different. I have been used to seeing British style FRH in most the forests I visit. Here the whole dimension is massive – long driveway, huge lawns, the building raised 7-8 feet from the ground, double storied building with two-luxurious suites on each floor along with huge halls –lounge on the ground and dinning on the upper floor.

I enter the suite and amazed at 20 feet by 20 feet room with 8 feet by 10 feet bath and huge balcony overlooking a rivulet. This may have been built 2-3 years ago but looks as if done yesterday and the quality of workmanship is visible along with the tasteful layout, design and furnishing. In fact, this is far different from generally shoddy and poor works of the forest department in building and construction. I like the place immensely.

We start for forest visit around 4.30 pm. It’s still lot of light. Yadav, the local forest guard accompanies us. As we drive, my first question to him is “Why this forest called Kali Bheet?”  Yadav explains Kali is for Raat i.e. night and Bheet is for wall. The reason is that this is a high density, sparsely habituated forest area. In good old days, with virtually no vehicle or human traffic, the tribal found this as a dark wall even during the day.

Yadav first takes us to a medicinal plant rich area. Presently the entire ground is covered with greenery which includes herbs, shrubs, saplings, grass, weeds… Incidentally, we find it difficult to locate medicinal plants! Yadav does manage to locate few. I take note of Hindi names and take some photos. Later I find, Hathjod or Hadjod (Cissus quadrangularis)  is for  joining bone; Vajradanti (Barleria prionitis) is for teeth; Yam (Dioscorea species), is used as food and for manufacture of steroid; Bhui Amla (Phyllanthus niruri) is reported to be useful in Hepatitis-B, Jaundice, Cirrhosis of liver, intestinal infection, diabetes, chronic fever, loss of appetite and what not.

I come across a sign board indicated this forest patch to be a Medicinal Plant Conservation Area (MPCA). This was a popular concept in late 1990s of identifying medicinal plant rich area in forest and demarking 200 ha for conservation. There was a project being supported by UNDP, which included creation and management of such areas in the country. The forest departments were enthusiastic as funds were available. With the end of scheme, the MPCA is no better than the forest it has been. The sign board is rolling in dust!  The glare and lime-light of MPCA is no more, and Kali Bheet is back to normal. It is back to local people for use and abuse.

f course, a stream besides the MPCA is live because of monsoon. The water is crystal clear and gushing along. We can see small fishes, crabs, frogs and even a small snake in the steam.

I am told, the locals heavily depend on the forest and all the wildlife including deer, fish, crab… end up in people’s stomach! People have almost eaten the golden goose.

We drive another few kilometres and come to a patch where there is a pond. I can see that department has created some recreational facility around. And Yadav shows us the reason. Hidden in the woods is wonderland of era gone by. There is a bawadi (step well), there is temple, and there is fort – all in ruins. The walls and virtually the whole place have been dug out by locals in past, in the belief that there may be some hidden treasure. Yadav tells me that local tribe has claimed right over this site under the Forest Right Act. Incidentally, I notice that the rightful owner, the forest, has already claimed the site back and there is vegetation all over and around the structures!!

Forest around is mysterious entangled mass. Oh! I side step. There is huge pile of fresh cow dung.  I feel, have I stepped on this, there would have been no way to clean the shoes and I may have to walk back bare foot. Cattle have not left even this abode of gods, kings and queens and probably tiger alone. It’s so disgusting, and worrying as well. Much of the forests in India are going down in cows’ stomach or in firewood stoves.

It’s getting dark and we decide to return. Even though it is September, the weather is pleasant and cool. Slight chill is there in the air.

In the night, we go to bed around 11. We have the luxury of a suite each. After a long day, I switch off light and lie down on the bed. Soon, I feel some big ant crawling on me. I remove this. Then another, another… I get up and put on light. Oh, there are quite of lot of them moving in few streams from right of left on bed rest and around pillows. I clear them all with bed sheet and lie down again. I am about to doze off when I feel some more ants crawling on me. I again get up and put a light on. Oh my god! The big ants are all over the bed. They seem to be busy in themselves with least concern of my presence.

I take a tough decision. I leave the bed for ants. I pick up a sheet, blanket and pillow and stretch on sofa. It is uncomfortable but there is no way out in the middle of night.

In the morning I wonder, ‘What’s wrong?’ Being a wildlifer, I realise that probably these large ants, also called carpenter ants have their nests somewhere in the bed. It is known that they chew out galleries in dead and damp wood to nest, particularly in forest areas.

In the morning, we go out around 7 am. We are driving on the State Highway No. 26 towards Betul. The forest is lush green and all washed up – shining and fresh – because of the monsoon. Anil notices something on the road side and asks the driver to back about 100m. Yes, he has certainly noticed a unique bulbous flower. Neither Anil nor I have ever seen this. Yadav tells us, ‘this is jungli (wild) arbi.’  As we are viewing and photographing it, I notice another herb standing tall with beautiful light purple bell shaped flowers with one portion being dark purple. Yadav tells us, ‘this is jungli til (wild sesame)’. We are happy that we are watching these two new plants.

Later, in a rapid internet search I find that Jungli Arbi is Dwarf Gonatanthus which is medicinal. It is reported that ‘paste from the rhizome is applied on the chest for chest pain. Juice from crushed leaves is used as an antibiotic for wounds in humans and animals.’ It is called Jungli arbi because the leaf of the plant is very much similar to the vegetable arbi commonly eaten in India. As for the ‘Jungli til’ the species is probably, Sesamum orientale, while the cultivated til is Sesamum indicum.

About four kilometres down the road at one bend in the road, Anil asks the driver to stop the vehicle. He is admiring the diversity in the forest. He tells me, “this is real rich forest. See the diversity.” As we walk for about 200 metres he identifies about a dozen trees species some of which I noted are Anjan (Hardwickia binata), Salai (Boswellia serrata), Gurjon (Lannea coromandelica), Haldu (Haldina cordifolia), Dhawra (Anogeissus latifolia) besides teak /Sagon (Tectona grandis). He is impressed and so I am.

Later, we take a forest trail and decide to walk for a while. We leisurely explored the forest. Spider webs are, of course, conspicuous and interesting. One which is large has the Giant Wood Spider in the middle, commonly seen in sal and teak forest. There are smaller ones also– the quirky one is a conical, funnel shaped web generally on the ground new the tree base or small mound. Incidentally, this spider is called funnel weaver!

Anil is keen on butterflies. He gets interested in one and looks closely. Yadav says, ‘It’s one wing is broken. Probably some lizard may have tried to kill it.’ Further exploration reveals what I have never seen. Anil lifts the butterfly with soft hold of thumb and a finger. Oh! Amazing. It is yet to born completely. It’s so called damaged wing is still in the pupa while rest has emerged out. Pupa shell is still holding part of the wing and body of the butterfly. It’s not fully air borne. We live it in peace, perched on a herb.

As it starts getting hot, we return back. I must say, the forests have unending hidden treasure to make us wonder. Already I am planning for the next travel.

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Kuraigarh or Shergarh

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We leave Seoni for Kuraigarh around 9 am after breakfast. It’s a larger than usual group out to conquer the Garh. Besides my forester friend, Shashi Malik, there is one young forest officer, posted as Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) before getting final posting as Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Sidharth Gupta, and another old SDO, Tej Bhan Pandey, and one forester and a forest guard. Sounds like a gang. But jokes apart, Garhs (forts) in good or bad old days used to be attacked often to be conquered.  In fact, that is the only work the kings used to do.

From Seoni we take Nagpur national highway. It is like flying – newly constructed four-lane road with trees and towns far off. The flying stops as soon we reach the forest area, largely Pench Tiger Reserve. The road narrows down to old two-lane. The forest and hills close in. You can see, feel and smell forest. This road has been a bone of contention between developers and the environmentalists for about a decade. Besides the rich forest proposed to be chopped down, the broad road would act as a barrier for wild animals to cross across, thus leading to fragmentation. Those animals who dare to cross can get killed by fast moving vehicles. There have been litigations against the expansion of this road but at the end of the day, the developers win. There has been a fait accompli kind of situation – Highway has been developed at both ends and this forest patch has become a bottleneck. The traffic density has increased tremendously.  The narrow hill road with twists and turns leads to frequent traffic jams with huge trucks plying on this highway. Only compromise is that several under passes would be developed at the identified animal-crossing points to avoid disturbing wildlife to some extent.

We enter the Pench buffer area from Rukhad FRH side. Kuraigarh is about 10 km from here. It’s monsoon time. The forest is wearing its greenest colours. We drive slowly. There are temporary cross bunds put across the road to protect it from getting washed away or damaged due to water flowing at various angles across the Kachcha track. The ride becomes bumpy.

This is dry-deciduous mix forest. I can see tendu, saja, amla, salai, dhora, teak, semal etc. The ground is full of regeneration, herbs and shrubs in most places. The bamboo is present in conspicuous number and volume. But many of the pure bamboo patches do not have a blade of grass growing on the ground besides the bamboo clumps. No chance, since little light penetrate on to the ground.

In the hilly area the path is narrow while in the plain area there is larger opening in the canopy and there is much more clearing on both sides. The monsoon season as well as late morning time means very little sighting of animals.

The vehicle ahead stops with a screech. The road is narrow. The grass is growing on both sides as well as in the middle of track where vehicle tyres do not roll. The people emerge and walk forward to see something. We are not sure what has happened but do not want to miss action. We get out and rush ahead too. One forester whispers, “Sir, tiger pug marks.” He whispers as if he is watching a tiger actually! In the rain soaked mud the foot prints are crystal clear. It is certainly exciting. It is always thrilling to see tiger foot prints. It adds value to the forest. You are assured that a tiger is present in the forest. In fact, as a matter to habit, in such situation, I always look around, to assure myself that the tiger is not watching us from too close a distance.

I look at the pug marks little closely. Make some mental note and look at the photos later. Though I am no expert but I find that foot prints are squarish, and on drier ground the toes are roundish, indicating tiger may be a male. Furthermore, there are set to two impressions each with two foot prints. They are both sets of left feet. What I could make out is that left hind foot is falling ahead of left front foot. This indicates the tiger may have been walking fast. In normal speed, the hind superimposes on the front and in slow speed the hind falls behind the front.

We see large, colourful spider with webs spread between two adjacent trees which can be 4-6 feet and with similar or more height. I remember, seeing these webs shining in sun at certain angle making each and every thread clear. But not so much today, it’s cloudy. If it rains, no worry. The web is water proof from all indications. I have see, water droplets hanging from each and every thread but the web does not break down. Even if it is not rain, it can be dew-droplets at times in winter. I just thought, let me be sure. I quickly glance at internet. I find myself correct. But there is more to it. Discover reports of one Chinese research where they find the science in the method of collection of dew-droplets by web which can be used in high tech water collection from air.[1] Another article talks of potential of man wearing spider web silk in future.[2]

I think, “What intricate work? What labour? What wonder?” On second thought I realise, “But then what else. Life is this only. Work, eat, rest and move on.  This is what the whole animal kingdom does. Some may pretend to be different but…”

Slowly we are gaining height. Then the road ends. We are done. It’s about 200 metres steep down and up and we arrive at the rocky plateau of Kuraigarh. It’s top of the world kind place – Highest in the surrounding. As has been the practice, in the days gone by fort used to be built at the highest and most inaccessible place. That way, the site fits in for Kuraigarh. But there is no fort. There is not even a ruin to indicate any part of the buildings in the fort. The forest guard accompanying us shows me an arrangement of stones circling the rocky plateau to some distance.  I am told this is all that remains of the fort.

For a Delhite like me,  fort brings in mind pictures of Red Fort, which is intact even after more than three & a half centuries  or Purana Qila (Old Fort), which is 2000-3000 years old, renovated in 16th century by the then rulers, retains many of the old structures.

This would be wrong and unrealistic to imagine such forts in Seoni.  This is a tribal land. These must have been very small forts and not of sturdy kind.

Nevertheless, the site is exciting. There is 100 percent density forest all around in the valley and hills. Only in far left we can see hint of some habitation of Kurai village which is also the developmental block headquarter – Kurai Tehsil.

Cool breeze is blowing – ballooning my shirt and caressing my hair. The rocks have blackened with exposure. Here, there is nothing but nature. I see a pile of scat (excreta). I suspect this may be tiger’s. Shashi confirms, “Yes, its tiger’s.”

It’s not difficult to visualise a tiger lazily walks over and after relieving, sits on a rock, dog style, and brood over his kingdom, realise ‘I am the blessed one to have such rich forest as my territory.’  It lords over the fort landscape which can very well be now called ‘Shergarh (Tiger Fort)’.

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[1] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/02/04/dew-spangled-spider-webs-could-inspire-high-tech-water-collection/#.W4pkPs4zZ0w

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/in-the-future-well-all-wear-spider-silk

 

Dancing Elephant

 

I am staying at Hinouta Jungle Camp, just adjacent to entry gate of Panna Tiger Reserve with family and friends. Jungle surrounds the Camp. I can see domestic elephant camp about 200 meters away. One afternoon, we decide to meet the elephants and mahouts, and just walk across.

Uniqueness of Panna as far as domestic elephants are concerned is the 100-year old grand lady, Vatsala. Vatsala has been brought from Kerala to Hosangabad  in 1971 and shift to Panna in 1993. She has worked in Nilambur Forest Division of Kerala in her early days. The grand old lady love calves born at the camp and take full care of them. She is always there from the day baby is born to help the mother in calf-care. She is docile. She does not mind touching and caressing by visitors. One mahout tells me that she has never shown displeasure to anybody inside or outside the Camp. It is a different matter that one male elephant, though named Rama, has behaved like Ravana with her – grievously injuring her with his tusk not once but twice during last 15 years. Reserve management has sent Rama to Vanvas i.e. shifted to a separate forest camp while on the other hand, Vatsala has been relieved of all work. She is free to have good time.

Vatsala

There is action all around. We see there are at least four calves at the Camp. With an adult, they are busy eating. My friend, Amar Singh Gond, Forest Range Officer, joins us. He takes our photo with Vatsala for posterity. In the meanwhile, mahouts tie naughty calves. These calves playfully kick and push visitors, which can hurt.

Panna Calves

I am attracted towards a calf about two years old, who is swinging. On observation, I notice that the baby is actually dancing with rhythmic movement of trunk, tail, ears, legs and body. Incidentally, the dance is pretty fast and continue at least till we are there i.e. about half an hour.

Noticing our interest, Mahout, Ekka Jhabru joins us. He informs me that this dancing calf is Purnima. He points to another older elephant calf, Vanya, a seven year old female, about 100 m away. We notice that this young lady too is dancing but much more softly, its rhythm involves front feet only, which automatically gives a little swing to the body.

I think this is a coincidence. Ekka tells me, “No, this is not the case. Vanya is elder sister of Purnima!” “Genetic?” I wonder.

Incidentally, elephants go to roam free in the nearby jungle around 7-8 am. They come back around 5 pm and enjoy laboriously prepared meal – food balls cooked from rice, aata (wheat flour) and besan (gram flour), salt etc. There can be variation in quantity and contents depending upon age and health of elephants, and season.

Continuous i.e. non-stop dancing is real energy. I brood, “Can this be due to meal just taken?”  Ekka updates me, “Purnima is normal in jungle, it is only when it is tied in the evening that it dances continuously till it falls asleep. Similar is the case of elder sister, Vanya.”

“Where is Purnima and Vanya’s mother?” I enquire. I am shocked to know that their mother, Mohan Kali, lives in another forest range, Chandra Nagar, 30 km away. Here, another adult female, Anar Kali, has adopted the calves. And of course, Vatsala is always around to watch and take care. What a fraternity.

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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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