An Emerald in Middle of Aravalli Forest

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I start from Delhi at 5 in the morning. Take a train to Jaipur and arrive at my friend, Sunayan Bhai’s home around noon. (Incidentally, Sunayan is a retired forester and has been director of Sariska Tiger Reserve.)  We take quick lunch, and in an hour, hit the road. The road is wonderful. Sunayan’s SUV is wonderful. Age old friend’s company is wonderful.  Vodka is wonderful…

We are driving in the South-Western part of Rajasthan. The weather is not harsh. We by-pass the important city, Ajmer, and drive another 100 km to reach our destination, Raoli Forest Rest House (FRH) around 5 in the evening. The very sight of a Baradari at one corner of the sprawling lawn of the Rest House is mesmerizing. Soft evening sunlight is making it further conspicuous.

I no more feel that it has been a long day. I no more feel tired. We do not enter the rest house and head straight to Baradari. Our friend and host, Dashrath Rathore, Raoli Forest Range Officer, has already anticipated it.  Four Mudhas (local chairs) and a table are already in place. They seem to be inviting us.

FRH ground is some 40-50 metre above the other features in the valley. It’s a picture perfect composition. We are overlooking a huge, almost circular talab or lake. The crystal clear water, and reflection of snow white clouds and clear blue sky, and hills and hillocks in the surrounding, holds my attention for several minutes to begin with. Dashrath tells us that this is called Barwahna Talab (i.e. 12th Lake). The name is true to truth – there are 11 lakes above this lake! A local stream has been dammed to store water at appropriate places from the origin in the hills above. In fact, right below us is the dam wall of the Barwahna Talab and the water is flowing down in the stream. The interesting feature of the dam I notice is a circular drain of about two feet diameter for draining extra water before the dam wall – this relaxes the pressure of water on the wall! Right opposite us, in the north are some white buildings amid all green surrounding forest. Dashrath tells us. “This is an Ashram (abode for saints and the like).” This is interesting and makes a good picture since the white painted building in all green environment breaks the monotony.

In the east, the Sun is slowly going down. The stream is zigzagging in the middle of valley. I do not know, if this will reach terwahna talab (13th lake)! I am not interested in facts and figures right away. The colour of the sky is changing every minute until it is painted in heavenly hues – gold, yellow, orange, red, maroon… I am lost. Friends are sitting around and talking. I am beyond the conversation. I take few pictures from my iphone – yes, it gives pictures in low light and good ones at that. At least, one can record the scene and share. Most appropriate line of a Hindi song comes to my mind – Ye Kon Chitrakar Hai (Who is this painter?)

Soon, it is night. Soon, it is time to party. Soon, it is time to cheers. Some other friends and officials too have joined the party including the Assistant Conservator of Forests, Mangal Singh. It is mostly exchange of notes, chitchat and gossip. In between, I raise a simple question – How is this rest house named Raoli?

Nobody has a clue. I try to guide them – Is it the name of some village around? Is it the name of some temple around? Is it the name of some famous local deity? Is it the name of some famous local person?  Is it the name of some famous local ruler? Nothing emerges. The foresters are embarrassed since they are unable address a simple question related to their area. To ease out the tense environment, I also start thinking aloud, and I think I come up with the right answer. The forests are all Aravalli hills. The name Aravalli has been shortened and in local pronunciation it has become Raoli over a period of time.

In middle of all the hu-ha and cheers, Mangal tells me, “FRH Visitors’ Register is a very important document of wildlife history of the forests around.” Oh! That’s interesting.

I wake up early and get ready by 7. The Register is on my mind. I get hold of this and read through the pages. The browning and crumbling pages have been laminated and re-bound together. I do take photos of some important pages of the Register. The period recorded is 1932 to 2000 – ¾ quarters of 20th century!

The greatest surprise that emerges is that the forests have been inhabited by tigers and also crocodiles once upon a time. The Register reveals gory pictures of the time gone by! The main villain emerges is one Kunwar Keshav Sen of Kharwa. Every year or two, there is entry by him, proudly claiming killing of tigers. He has killer many tigers in the area. There is one unbelievable entry by him in 1953, “Was very lucky to shoot two tigers in one shot. Killing them both stone dead on the spot with a ‘470 soft nose bullet’ – A very rare occurrence.” His last entry in the Register of tiger shoot is of 1955 proclaiming, “Shot a tiger in Satukhera Block with 470 H.V. –  9 feet 2 inches.” Seems like, he has been ready with gun as soon as he came to know of a tiger in these forests. It seems, he ensure no tiger survives here. Presently, there is no tiger here.

Finally, on the lighter side, the Register records an entry by a forester, ‘I have broken a plate. I would replace this’!

 

Post Script : Raoli FRH is one of the FRHs in Todgarh-Raoli Wildlife Sanctuary. The Sanctuary lies off Delhi-Udaipur National Highway No. 8, in middle of the Aravalli Hill Range, and spreads over Ajmer, Pali and Rajsamand districts of the Rajasthan State of India.

 

Pushp Jain

Subji Bazar in Making

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Bholu calls Sunayan Bhai. He informs, “There is not a drop of water in the pools! Openbills have arrived but have not started nest building. There is no sign of rain. If it does not rain in two-three days, they may leave.” All in all, he is suggesting no use visiting Bharatpur bird sanctuary.

Incidentally, any keen bird watcher, at least in India would know Bholu. He has spent his whole life watching birds in Bharatpur and is a knowledge bank on avian. Sunayan has been involved in research in one spell of his posting here in 1990s and in another spell as manager in 2000s.

Sunayan Bhai calls me to tell about the futility of visiting Bharatpur in absence of water. I check the weather forecast. There are indications of rains three days later than our planned dates. So we postpone the visit for three days.

I am mentally prepared and sure that we will meet the arrival of monsoon and the visit is going to be unique. Delhi to Bharatpur is short train journey of about 170 km, taking three hours. All signs are positive. It starts raining at Delhi railway station itself and throughout the journey, either it is overcast or raining and so it is, at Bharatpur station! What luck! Weather gods are with us.

Luckily, Sunayan Bhai has been driving from Jaipur and has timed the arrival at Bharatpur as my arrival time here. Thanks to Sunayan Bhai, has he been not at Station, it would have been very difficult to get transport to Ghana, as the forest of Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, i.e. Keoladeo Nation Park is called, as the whole city is water logged. It’s raining almost continuously.

It’s heavenly scene at Shanti Kutir, the Forest Rest House – peaceful, serene, tranquil…

So our decision turns out right. It has been raining heavily since last night. Some water has collected in pools, ponds and lakes in the Park. It’s lush green all around. Everything – herbs, shrubs, trees, animals, birds, people – all are happy and cheerful.

Next morning we go inside the Park. Incidentally, many wildlifers wouldn’t know that Bharatpur is important birding area in monsoon as well. People know this largely as migratory bird abode. Migratory birds come around autumn and leave before summer.

During monsoon, Keoladeo comes alive with formation of heronries in several parts of the Park. Locations are generally groups of scores of trees partially submerged, in middle of ponds and lakes. Its ‘n’ number of species of herons, egrets, cormorants, storks crowding in thousands of nests – some pure colonies and some mixed.

Right from nest building, mating, egg laying, chick emerging to grown babies ultimately flying away, it is all the time action packed with movement of the birds, foraging,  food collection, noise of chicks pressing parents for food, defending nest and chicks… One is never tired of watching something new happening all the time – never a dull moment.

Today is just the beginning of the heronry formation. And the first species to start is the Asian Openbill Stork (Anastomus oscitans). At two sites, we could see four trees taken up by more than 200-250 birds for nesting. In fact, some are repairing the old nests – discarding or adding twigs. Bholu tells me, Openbill is always the first one to start heronry and they prefer pure colonies.

This is first time I am watching Openbill closely. I realise two things – it’s a beautify bird with pure white body and black tail with reddish pink long legs but its bill (on which it is named) looks like a deformity! Reading literature makes it clear that this deformity like structure has evolved over a very long period of time because of the food habit of the bird – it eats snails and like stuff and the gap in centre of upper and lower mandible allows it to be able to crack the shells and enjoy the food!

All the time several birds are flying away, several are arriving with twigs for nest while some pairs are busy in love making and some are actually mating. Some are busy in aerial displays to impress or attract a mate. They seem to be happy lot. Some of these are wading through swallow waters of the pond for food. The wing span reveals its large bird. Number of nests on each tree is large. It is indeed crowded. But this number also provides security from predators and raiders.

The signal about monsoon arrival and beginning of nesting season has gone down faster than satellite phone. Already some Darter and Cormorant are exploring vacant trees adjacent to Openbill nest trees. Bholu tells, soon it would be like a subji bazar. For those who do not know, subji bazar i.e. vegetable market is known to be most unorganised, crowded and noisy place in India!

Pushp

The Other Keoladeo

 

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It’s wonderful weather. The rain is hanging in the air. It has already rained some time back. It’s densely overcast. Though it is 5 in the afternoon but seems like 7. The greenery is all washed and seem happy and radiant. So romantic.

Sunayan Bhai and I are at Shanti Kutir, the good old Forest Rest House of Keoladeo National Park. The rest house is appropriately named, Shanti means peace/silence, Kutir means modest abode.  We come down from our suite on first floor. Lawns are spread in front, and on both sides. In the central lawn behind a tree, I notice a large brown animal – huge like a horse. Oh! It’s a massive Sambar stag visiting Shanti Kutir. It crosses from central to left lawn. Here is located a pollution monitoring lab of Mathura Petroleum Refinery to study pollution levels at the Park. And can you believe, the Sambar is watching the lab to see, if all is fine!  The animal just ignores us and goes about browsing on low hanging leaves. We also, quietly leave.

This is the other, lesser known side of Keoladeo, famous bird sanctuary and World Heritage Site (UNESCO). We meet the director of the Park, Dr Ajit Uchoi, whose office is next door, just adjacent to FRH complex. He tells us, “there is a population of about 15-16 Sambars in the Park.”

Next morning, we go to visit the Park. There is electric golf cart to take us around. First thing we see is a Go, the Monitor Lizard. It is rushing ahead on the side of the road. Its gait is clumsy. It’s intention to keep to road is clear, we increase cart speed, Go starts running. We get down the cart and walk behind it quietly. We get some pictures but all from behind. We try to run ahead, but it leaves the road and enters into road side bushes. We wait for five minutes and as expected it comes out on the road in leisurely gait. We do not bother it anymore.

A little later, we find a mongoose similarly walking along the road side. But mongoose gait is much graceful. This seems to be on hunt mission. As it walks, it keeps glancing around in the bushes. When we approach too close, it would enter bushes to come out 3-4 minutes later, 10-15 metre ahead, and continue on its mission.

OMG! I see larger number of cattle in the Park after several decades. In late 70s, the park used to be full of it. It was banned in early 80s. Sunayan Bhai explains, “These animals are from adjacent villages and would go away as soon as the water starts filling in lakes.” Several large, hefty bulls are roaming the roads virtually like bullies – Maybe feral animals.

In the afternoon, we start at 5. There is still lot of light. We see one Sambar busy feeding in the lake. It is not bothered by our presence. Its goes on enjoying meal. It’s after months there is water in the lake and fresh vegetation has come alive.

Soon, we see a Nilgai feeding in another lake. I ask the driver to stop for a picture. Sunayan feels ‘no point wasting time on a Nilgai – such a common animal’. I feel, ‘let me take a shot in the particular habitat.’ But our stopping proves useful. We notice commotion at the edge of the water. It’s a massive turtle, one and half feet long carapace is partially visible. Driver tells us, “Probably there are two, one above the other. It’s matting time!”

We reach Keoladeo temple. Laze around and stroll. Sunayan Bhai asks, “Would you like to see bats?” Incidentally, nobody would know better than Sunayan Bhai. He has been director of Keoladeo, and done some landmark work in management of weed and water because of which the Park is alive now. We go to a date palm grove, 200 meter away. Yes, I can see several fruit bats flying in and out of date palms. I can also see, several of them in the trees. Somehow, the situation does not turn to be photogenic – poor light, partially hidden animals, confusing background…We only keep wondering – what fate do bats have – condemned to hand upside down, sleep through the day and be active at night, and in compensation they have body structure which allows them to fly in spite of being a mammal! Bat is the only mammal which can fly. The other so called flying animals can only glide through the air for limited distance.

While we are returning, the Range Officer, Lalit, meets us. Sunayan Bhai gets off the cart and stops to discuss one finer management issue. I keep sitting in the cart. The road is straight. I notice half a km ahead, about a dozen animals hurry across the road from left to right. Can they be Nilgai? The driver feels ‘Sambar’ but I am not convinced.  Soon we try to catch up with these animals. Sunayan tries to watch them through binocular. They have moved some distance. Though the light is fading but he says, “They are neither Nilgai nor Sambar. They are in all probability, Hog Deer.” ‘Hog Deer’, that’s interesting. I am inclined to agree going by the size of the animal I have noticed. Also, Ajit has told us about the presence of good number of Hog Deer in the Park. Incidentally, Hog Deer has disappeared from many of its ranges due to habitat changes. Thus, the  sighting is exciting.

Sunayan tells me, “Black Buck used to be found in large area of the Park but is now locally extinct.” Black Buck is luckily found commonly in many other areas.

As we are returning, the light is fading. And the last surprise turns out to be Cheetal. It is not the animal. We see it so commonly. We have seen it in Keoladeo as well many times. What has taken me by surprise is the number! The herd is spread continuously for about a km. The flush of fresh green grass has attacked animals from the whole area. Immediate thought comes of sighting of large herds in Corbett and Ranthambhore. This has surpassed all. May be around 400-500 animals!

Amazing, Keoladeo has so much to offer beside birds. Indeed, a vibrant landscape.

Pushp

Crocodiles live,eat, play & fight in middle of Lucknow city

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It is early morning and there are few visitors. I arrive at Kukrail Crocodile Pond with one of the keepers familiar with it. As I am adjusting my sight with diverse features of the pond, the keeper points to a croc at the pond edge near us. Probably, the croc hears this before me and start swimming towards the centre of the pond. Suddenly, there is commotion in the pond and about half a dozen crocs start chasing each other. There is lot of splashing, wagging of tails and threat gestures. It is apparent they are fighting. But it cools down soon.

This is small, almost circular but natural pond in Kukrail Reserve Forest of Lucknow, right in the middle of the city. Pond area is about 2 ha. There are natural trees lining all along the bank, with branches of some bending down to kiss the water. A strong fence has been erected all around for the safety of animals for man can do anything. We can see empty water and soft drink bottles floating in the pool along with chips and snacks empty packets! The crocs have large number of visitors for company throughout the day. The adjacent area of the forest is popular as Picnic Spot. The pond surface is all green – entirely covered with fallen mini-leaflets. The cover opens up when a croc swims across.

As I stand here, and scan every inch of pool, I notice drift wood type stuff. I feel something amiss. I zoom my camera lens close and find it’s a croc! Only small part of snout, eyes and nostril are visible in the green pool.  OMG! Once I see this stuff, I find 4 more such crocs disguised as drift wood. One of them reads my mind and soon swims away to the far end of the lake. I hang around at the pond for about half an hour. Some or the other action of the crocs is evident.

Crocs largely feed on fish. I notice, for company they have another fisher, White Breasted Kingfisher. It lands on a branch close to where I am watching the scene. Oh! What’s that huge thing in its beak? As I take photo, I can see a lizard almost the length of the King, held crosswise in the beak! Kingfisher is indeed an agile hunter.

The Keeper tells me there are 14 crocs in all in the pond. There is very old mother stock of one male and two females brought here in 1989 – That’s 30 years! So, three of these guys are 30+. Quite long, longevity. There are only few records of such lifespan.  Little is known about matting and breeding among these crocs or emerging of offspring. Several crocs rescued from nearby places, have been released in the pond. There is one Kukrail Nala – a seasonal stream by the side of the forest. This gets flooded and some crocs come along. Few of them end up in streets or in houses, creating a panic and SOS situation. It’s not a rare happening.  A quick search online reveals a news story where a six-foot long young female croc on 18 August 2018, last monsoon, entered a house in Gudamba in Lucknow. Such animals are captured and release in the pond or wild.

I never expected a poem on crocodiles but I am surprised that the famous author Lewis Carroll of 19th century indeed has scribed few lines on the animal.

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

Kukrail crocs live, eat, fight and play in the pond. They have nowhere to go. There is a Hindi saying which translates to ‘If you want to live in a pond, there is no point keeping enmity with crocodile.’ This may be true for fellow crocodiles as well in Kukrail.

Pushp

 

 

 

Dreaming Leopard and Watching Goral

 

 

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This is my first ride in Isuzu. The vehicle is almost a mini-truck but with all the luxury. I am seating in the front. Feels like sitting in a plush sofa in a big drawing room with full glass wall overlooking forest. Three colleagues are sitting behind. My other colleagues are in a ’14-Seater Tempo Traveller’, half a kilometre behind.

Second luxury is, the man driving the giant is my boss, Ritwick Dutta, well known and eminent environmental lawyer. Third luxury is, far from the blazing summer and 40°C plus of Delhi, we are in the Himalayas. Fourth luxury is, even in the Himalayas, we are in a well preserved, almost undisturbed, serene, very dense class I forest. We are driving through Nainadevi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve in Nainital Forest Division of Uttarakhand.

Good part is, there are no barriers and restriction as such. The area in not trampled by pilgrims or tourists. We do not come across any vehicle except for one ‘Maruti 800’, our smallest car, of a local family going further down.

It’s a single lane road – there is hill on one side and valley on the other side. The forest is so thick that it’s darker than it should be at the time of the day.

I have read earlier that the forest here is ‘Temperate Moist Deciduous Forest’ which includes a large number of broad leaf species. Main species is Oak locally called Banj (Quercus leucotrichophora) in association with rhododendron, gar papal and several other Oak species. Deodar (Cedrus deodara) is found in upper reaches.

We are probably driving in the range of 2200-2300 m and Deodar patches are around. Deodar trunks are massive and stand straight as if eyeing touching the sky. Rhododendron flower bunches are dry and hardly any fresh flower can be seen. Most of the trunks are covered in moss, an indication of richness of the forest. Even blocks of roadside bench like barriers are covered in moss and store titbits of biomass.

“Barking deer”, Ritwick calls. As a reflex action, I see in the direction he is seeing. And do get to see the deer – typical dark brown and bright coat, small built, low height – just turning around to disappear in the forest.

We soon reach the Goral watching point. Here, there is range of barren hills rising steeply for probably 200-250 m. Himalayan Goral (also called Ghural, a goat-like wild mammal) can be seen at times in these hills. They are generally one with the landscape. What gives them away is movement. We gaze and gaze for about 10 minutes but hard luck.

As we drive on, Ritwick suddenly applies brake and the vehicle comes to a screeching halt – a black ball crosses the road from the valley on the left like a bullet, inches ahead of us, and climbs a steep hill side on the right. OMG! It’s a medium size wild boar! Has Ritwick not applied the brake in time, the environmental lawyer would have been caught for offense under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 for no fault of his! Jokes apart, it is frightening. I see up the hill. There is whole lot of them. I can see about half a dozen small boars hurrying up the hill.

Our destination is the abode of the Goddess – Badhan Thali. This is about 11 km from Pangot.  It’s a track of about 2.5 km. The vehicles are parked at the base by the road side. All rush up the hill to make it before it gets dark. At the base, a representative small temple has been created for those who do not have energy or time to do the track. They can pay respect here. I am the only one who uses the facility. I do not take chance of climbing because of knee pain. I hang around.

I know, the trekkers are going to take at least an hour. I stroll around. Nature is all enveloping, more so with no human being, no vehicle and habitation around. I can listen to forest and gaze deep. I notice a family of langurs busy down there in the valley – carefree and careless. They are far away and do not know I am watching. I can hear a barking deer going hoarse with continuous barking. Is some carnivore stalking it? Whistle of the Whistling Thrush is most common in these forests but it’s always pleasant.

The whole situation is ripe to see a leopard. I have been strolling on the road and think, ‘What a luck it would be, if a leopard passes by.’

The day light is going. It’s around 6.40.I select a place about 150 m from our vehicle from where I can see both sides of the road for some distance and a barren steep hill in front. I want to try for Goral as well. I keep an intense watch on the road and the hill alternatively. Suddenly, a shiver passes through my spine. A thought crosses my mind. ‘What happens if a leopard actually comes along the road? What happens if its stops to look at me? What happens if it takes some unpleasant decision?’  I look around for possible protection. There are massive trees. Climbing a tree is not possible for me. I can hide behind the trunk of a close-by one. The question that keeps pondering my mind is, ‘Can I fool a leopard?’ At one point I think, I should not take risk and lock myself in the safety of the car.  But wildlifer in me prevails.

Soon, I am rewarded. I am not able to believe my own eyes when I notice a Goral clear as a day light on the hill top cliff. Major part of its body and movement can be easily seen. All questions in my mind are gone. I am dancing with joy. It is almost 7 pm, hardly, any light. I take chance and try to take photos with mobile. At the maximum zoom, I could take photos good enough for anybody to identify the animal without any difficulty. That’s the wonder these mobile cameras are. They are good for record keeping. I could see the animal very clearly for more than 15 minutes. Take half a dozen photos from different angles.

I am wondering at my luck. My day, rather night has been made. I have been sitting out there and even do not realise that it is almost pitch dark. I shift to the car.

Soon colleagues started trickling down from the track. Om Prakash asks me, “Sir, what have you been doing?” I reply, “I have been watching Goral.” I show the picture. He takes away my mobile and all see it closely. Soon, all know, I have not been idling and making best of it. Ritwick is very happy to see the Goral photo. His faith in richness of these hills is reinforced.

I always say, wildlife watching is an art – Be at the right place, at right time and in right manner.

Pushp

Amrit Dhara

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We are in Pangot. Pangot is far from the madding crowd in Uttarakhand hills in India.  We are still farther, at Pine Wood resort, surrounded by Deodar-Oak forested hills, and valley in South-West from where we have come up. Down there is the famous village, Chhoti Haldwani (Kaladhungi). Incidentally, Kaladhungi is a place on global tourist map. This has been the winter home of the legendary, Jim Corbett, hunter turned conservationist. His home has been converted into a museum. He had set up Chhoti Haldwani by buying a large chunk of land and bringing in score of families to settle and do agriculture here. Incidentally, this is Bhabhar and Tarai area falling between hills and plain.

The hills are outer Himalayas. Pangot’s altitude is around 6500 ft. Temperature dips to 12-13°C even in summer. Cool breeze has been blowing now and again. The weather is never monotonous. It drizzles once in a while. This is quite a change from 40°C of Delhi. Of course, fresh air. No pollution. Few vehicles. The road is narrow, single lane – One has to stop and adjust to allow a vehicle from opposite direction to pass!

Trekking in the hills is quite a temptation. My young colleagues go for trekking to the nearest but highest Naina Peak (around 8600 ft). The track is probably 8-10 km with altitude gain of about 2100 ft. Incidentally, Naina Peak was previously called China or Cheena Peak. The name has been discarded after 1962 Indo-China war.

I, of course, cannot think of going with osteoarthritis of knees.  Nevertheless, I pick up a field guide on birds and a binocular and decide to a take a leisurely stroll to watch the forest and birds around and take some photos. For me, climb up or down at Pine Wood itself is a tough job. But slowly I make it to the road. The gradient on the road is tolerable. There are amazing landscapes wherever I look – Hills are 100 per cent covered with trees – deodar is deep, dark and dull green conical giants in dense patches with silver-green oak contrast them in big patches. As I look down, there is narrow gorge with immense mix of broad leaf trees including Rhododendron.  Rhododendron when blooms paint the forest blood red. Presentably, the flowering is almost over – what remains is dried bunches of flowers. I see a Himalayan Birch like stem but not sure if it is one. Likewise, another interesting medium size broad leaf tree is one with maple tree like leaves. The beauty here is, the leaves dance gracefully with lightest breeze. At places, barren rocks exposed due to hill cutting when road was made are painted in different hues with natural excretion, mosses, salts etc

I have walked about half a kilometre when I reach a small bridge over a rivulet (Naina) and it is possible to walk along the left bank up. It is zigzag and little rough but not difficult. The biggest advantage of taking this diversion is that I am not skirting vehicles any more. There are no people. It is wilder, narrower and closer scenario. I can hear birds. I can hear water. I can hear wind.

OMG! I see a rainbow on the ground. I am able to capture this in a photo. (Later when I show this photo to friends, they are amazed and wonder struck.)  Actually, a very thin and fine curtain of minute water droplets has formed due to a leaking water pipe and sun rays have been falling at an appropriate angle to paint the wonder.

I sit down on a stone to capture the wilderness in heart and mind – get drenched in the music and mystery of nature.

It’s so soothing. After every few minutes, the breeze gets strong and musical. The music is punctuated with the whistle of Himalayan blue beauty, Whistling Thrush.  I can hear a dove but unable to see it. I am not very familiar with Himalayan birds but with the help of the field-guide I am able to recognise two – Grey Winged Black Bird and Spotted Fork-tail.

While lazing around here, I notice that this small rivulet is source of drinking water for many villages. There is a maze of pipes scattered around transporting water to different destinations.

Also noticeable is wonder that the forest department is. Few metres away from the perennial minor stream, there is a sign board indicating a pond developed by it. The pond is a small depression without a drop of water!

As I walk around, I notice scores of herbs, shrubs, butterflies, insects…I photograph quite a few.

And last thing. The crystal clear water is flowing slowly down from one shallow pool to other. I bend down, curl my palm and lift water and drink. I repeat this four times. It’s pure Amrit. It feels like drinking bit of Himalayas.

Pushp

Sweet, Sour and Salty Sundarbans

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We set sail in Sundarbans from Godkhali around 10.15 in the morning. Sky is overcast and uniformly grey. It’s warm and humid. On the boat it is me and four staff members – boat supervisor, driver, cook and an assistant. I change to comfortable basic – vest, short and slippers and take it easy.  Around 1 pm the cook announces lunch. The spread covers the whole table in dining room in lower deck. Slight sweet touch is added to all the curries and vegetables. Of course, there are hard core sweets – famous Bengali Misti Dahi and Rosogulla also. We have been sailing smoothly for about four hours. I am slightly sleepy with heavy meal. But I wake up when I notice the boat is heading towards a camp. One more departmental boat is parked here, probably for foresters to petrol the area. I look through a binocular. Sign board reads Netidhopani Camp.

First thing I see at the entrance of the camp is a temple. It carries idols of Bon Bibi and Dakhin Ray. It has been built by the Forest Department. This is a paradox since temples are difficult issue in wildlife management across the country.  Anywhere you go, Ranthambhore, Sariska, Kanha, Pench, Gir, Kalakad, Periyar…, there are old temples in the forests to which over the years, with increase in population, visitors and pilgrims have increased drastically, running into lakhs. People create disturbance in the whole forest – vehicles, camps, trample across and litter. These occasions provide opportunity to criminals to make hay while sun shines i.e. timber theft and animal poaching.

Local people in Sundarbans have great faith in goddess, Bon Bibi, who is worshipped as savoir and Dakhin Ray, who is worshipped as the tiger god. Local people dependent on forest e.g. baulis (wood cutters), maulis (honey collectors) and fishermen do not enter forest without praying to them. One of the reasons is persistent tiger-man conflict.

Sundarbans is known for honey. Come April-May, the honey season, local honey collectors, the ‘Maulis’ are all set to take plunge. Honey is reported to be extracted from forested and inhabited islands of Sundarbans to be tune of tens of tonnes! But honey is also cause of death of many collectors who illegally enter the forest and tiger poaches few of them, now and again. Man and animal are both stressed for resource – local are stressed for livelihood and tiger is stressed for prey. In fact, to avoid man-animal encounter, the forest sides surrounding the fringe villages have been fenced using nylon nets.

In Sundarbans, the forest department has fallen back on goddesses and gods to have respite from man-eating tigers. I ask the camp in-charge to open the temple gate and I pray as I too have put my foot on tiger land. I do not feel any threat, rather pray to have an encounter with tiger (of course, from safe distance and safe ground).

As I walk around the camp, local myth and mythology is explained on several boards. Sundarbans gets the highest national importance as a protected area. It’s a national park as well as tiger reserve. It’s  global importance is depicted here in displays e.g.  signage on Man & Biosphere Reserve declaration, and monument for Park’s status as a World Heritage Site (as recognised by UNSECO). There are few animals e.g. tiger chasing spotted deer;  fishing cat with prey; etc have been depicted in action to create excitement for visitors, though artificial. Real action is difficult to see in thick mangrove forest.

Sundarbans management has taken a major conservation initiative to revive the population of the northern river terrapin, Batagur baska. This ‘is a large critically endangered river turtle that previously occupied most rivers and estuaries of South Asia (India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar)’. I see a fresh water tank dedicated to the species to breed.

Now, the best part of the camp – the watch tower. I have been watching the mangrove edge along the river channels for last four hours. It is for the first time, I get to see forest from top. Swampy soil is expected. The forest is thick and green. The tree line is uneven.

I am pleasantly surprised to see a group of five Lesser Adjutant Storks – guard and boat assistant with me shout together – madantak, madantak. It’s after long time I have seen this huge bird. They are huddled together at one spot in a clearing. They appear to be taking afternoon nap. Wonderful. I see one Brahminy Kite – a really colourful bird. The bright rust and pure white make it real conspicuous. I do hear a kingfisher and see a drongo. I later notice in the photo another Brahminy kite in the tree, maybe, it has been a pair.

Fresh water is hard to come by in Sundarbans. A tank has been developed which captures rain water just outside the fenced camp area. It is fully viewable from the tower. This is a temptation which I suppose no animal would resist. Willy-nilly, the animals in the area must be visiting the tank. Forest Guard, who is camp in-charge also, tells me spotted deer, wild boar, water monitor lizard are occasionally seen at the tank.

I notice tiger sightings by staff have been jotted down on a white board. I can see five of the six recorded sightings are from the tower and one is actually at the fresh water pond, mentioned as ‘sweet water pond’. So sweet.

 

Pushp Jain

Launched into Sundarbans

 

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I am excited. I am ready before the appointed time of 8 am, and, in fact, we leave 10 minutes before from The Astor Hotel in downtown Kolkata for Sundarbans. It’s about 100 km drive. The traffic has not thickened as yet. We pass through Kolkata central, Kolkata suburbs, and are soon driving in the interior of Bengal towards south-east and pass through congested towns of Baruipur and Canning. At places, it is single lane road!

In about two and a half hour, we are at Godkhali, our destination by road. The name gave me a little shock for ‘khali’ in Hindi, as many of you know, means empty. If God is Khali, who will fulfil the greed of ever demanding man. Anyway, here onward, all travel is going to be by motor boat (launch) only. A forester friend has taken care of all the logistics – I have to be just there to relax, eat, enjoy the luxury and admire the wonder. The boat supervisor and his assistant have come to escort me from the car. It is a small walk to jetty. I stand at the head of stair leading to jetty and eye the scene. I can see, the white beauty, Bharat Laxmi, parked at the end of jetty stair. I am elated to board the boat. I envy myself to be able to make it to the unique landscape.

The driver and cook also welcome me, and here we go.  There are score of boats and several jetties around, and lot of movement of man and material. One of the towns in the region, Gosaba, is just across – people are connected to mainland by boat only. It is a question of getting used to it, since it is few minutes ride across. I see a boat carrying three motor bikes along with people. The bikers continue wearing the helmets as if not to waste even a second in speeding away when they land.

For those who may not know, Sundarbans is the largest delta (10,200 sq km) in the world formed by the convergence of two mighty Himalayan rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, both of which flow into the Bay of Bengal. Sundarban Tiger Reserve is part of the delta. The entire area is a conglomeration of river channels, creeks and inhabited or forested islands.

I inspect the boat a little closer since this is going to be my companion for two days. I can see, from ‘bow’ about 7-8 feet space is open with rope bundles lying for tying the boat at jetty and rope hold on either side. There is flight of 8-10 steps to go to lower deck while two steps on its either sides take one to upper deck. The upper deck, has a driver cabin which can, besides the driver seat two more persons, in front of the cabin is a foot raised platform about 5 feet by 6 feet for people to sit or lie down on. The passage on either side has a chair placed. If need be, many more chairs can be placed. Behind the driver cabin is room with a large bed for staff to rest. Behind the room, till the tail, there is about 25 feet long open space with drums of fuel and fresh water, anchor and several of other miscellaneous stuff, and stair to go down to lower deck from the back. Lower deck houses two small bed rooms, two toilets and a dining hall. The section behind is partitioned off, comprises of boat engine and kitchen. The supervisor tells me, “The boat is 59 feet long. Of the boat’s height, four feet remains under water.”

I have the whole boat to myself. Tea is served. I stretch on the platform and enjoy the ever changing and passing by scenes.

We are cruising in the Bidhya River. The channel is quite wide. I can see many ships carrying merchandise to Bangladesh from Kolkata. It looks like a train of ships. This is an important trade route.

Also, the area is inhabited with several villages on both banks of the river. Sundarbans is a tidal delta. Presently, I feel that the water level seems to be rising. I check the tide times on net. Yes, this is high tide time and going to peak around 4.30 in the afternoon. Nevertheless, the boat is steadily cruising. The driver tells me, “The speed is, generally, 10 to 12 km per hour.”

The sky is overcast and all uniformly grey. In bigger channel e.g. the confluence of the Bidhya and the Malta rivers, where the channel is more than a kilometre wide, the view is somewhat monotonous – the grey sky almost merges with the grey water surface and the forest appears as dark, thin dividing line on both sides.

The cook announces lunch. I move to the dining hall. Wow! The spread covers the whole table –soupy daal, fried cottage-cheese and potato curry, okra curry, curd, papad, potato shreds deep fried, green salad, steamed rice and sweet rosogulla! It counts perfect 10!! And it’s all so tasty that I do not feel like ending. This is a luxury on water. Yes, I know, there are many, more luxurious, cruises catering to throng of tourists, but this is a different ball game. We are boating through a tiger reserve!

Soon, we leave the habitation behind and it is forest all around. I cannot peak deep inside but as we pass narrow channels or closer to the banks of islands, the vegetation is conspicuously different from inland forests I generally get to see.

This is all estuarine system of tidal swamp forest, largely comprising mangroves. These mangroves tolerate daily inundation of salty sea water in high tide! There are numerous uniqueness of the forest. I can count few, which I am just watching. One, the forest is refreshingly shiny green or yellowish green. No dust. Two, here and there are dashes of yellow or red leave canopies breaking the scene. Drying leaves. Three, these are low height vegetation, none of the lofty trees we see in inland forests. Loose soil cannot support lofty trees. Four, there is not even an inch of dry ground to be seen. Inter-tidal zone. Five, it is all alluvial soil. Six, nowhere any rock can be seen. Slit being brought in by rivers all the time. Seven, the vegetation is very dense. Eight, because of the forest falling in tidal delta, plants have evolved unique survival mechanism – some species are standing on stilts, others have pencil thin or dragon like thick aerial roots  (breathing roots called pneumatophores bearing lenticels for gaseous exchange)…

I can recognise Sundari (Heritiera fomes), Passur (Xyocarpus granatum), Kankra (Bruguiera gymnorhiza) and Mangrove Date Palm (Phoenix paludosa) though there are many more species present in this highly productive ecosystem.

Among the trees, one that stands out is Sundari. I do see one closely at the interpretation centre. I notice, the trunk develops buttresses and is grey with vertically fissured bark. The tree is in flowering. The pinkish bell-shaped small flowers form panicles. The canopy is conspicuous with drying bright yellow leaves ready to fall.

Sundarbans delta forest is apparently named after Sundari tree. I am told that in good old days, Sundari used to the dominant species here. I go by this idea, though there is also a thought that Sundarban is combination of Sundar (beautiful) and ban (forest).

Towards, late afternoon, the sun shows up. Forest brightens up. Monotonous grey is converted to varying hues. Sky and water liven up. We are passing through narrower channels and several smaller rivers. By and by, it is nightfall. We are going on and on. I am slightly worried. How is the guy driving? He has not even switched on the boat light! Probably, the sky light is guiding the course. Soon I realise, it’s foolish of me to worry. These people know the delta like the back of their hands. Though it’s manual driving but virtually auto-piloted with digitisation in their minds and hands. Without any doubt, they drop me safely to my night halt destination – Sajnekhali Resort.

 

Pushp

 

Post Script

Sundarbans is the largest delta in the world formed by the convergence of two mighty Himalayan rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, both of which flow into the Bay of Bengal. This delta consists of 10,200 sq km of mangrove forests spread over India (4,200 sq km) and Bangladesh (6,000 sq km). The Indian Sundarban region consists of 4,200 sq km of Reserved Forests along with 5,400 sq km of non-forest area i.e. a total of 9600 sq km. Of this, Sundarban Tiger Reserve is spread over 2585 sq km. The entire area is a conglomeration of river channels, creeks and islands which total 102 in number. Of these, 54 islands are inhabited and the rest 48 islands are forested. Sundarban tidal delta experiences ‘the average tidal amplitude of 2.15 metre (maximum 5.68 m and minimum 0.96 m)’. There are host of wild animals found here among which, tiger tops the list.

There are 100s of species of plants in Sundarbans. Some of the important species are Sundari (Heritiera fomes), Dhungul or Passur (Xyocarpus granatum), Kankra (Bruguiera gymnorhiza), Gewa (Excoecaria agallocha), Goran ( Ceriops decandra) and Keora (Sonneratia apetala); palms Poresia coaractataMyriostachya wightiana and Nypa fruiticans (Golpata); and grasses spear grass (Imperata cylindrica) and Khagra (Phragmites karka).

 

It Rocks!

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Green water is so still, as if it is a calm lake. But no, we are sailing in one of the most famous spot on the grand and revered Narmada River – the marble rocks. The stillness is because of the huge depth of the river. The green is the refection of the good forest on top. Massive marble rocks are rising along both edges of the river. In fact, it’s a gorge, narrow at some places and little wide at others. The guide-boatman  tells, “This used to be so narrow at one point of time that monkeys used to jump across from one side to the other.”

I am alone and relaxed in the boat. I have decided to take full boat so that it is leisurely and un-interfered sailing, viewing and photography. As we begin our journey, on the left top, I see temples, rest houses and resorts overlooking the gorge. Soon, the hangover of the Ghat and town up are past and we are sailing in the quiet part of the marble rocks. I say, it rocks!

The November weather is fine. It is slightly cloudy today. This makes the marble a little less glistening. Nevertheless, the amazing colours of marbles in different sections of the gorge fascinate. There are range of it – cream, rust, brown, grey, blue and what not. Much of the marble at places is weathered, turning almost black.

The boatman makes a good and humorous commentary on the tit-bits on the way. Atop a small marble island jutting out in the river, an oval shaped rock with garland etc has been placed, representing God Shiva (Linga). Incidentally, a red-wattled lapwing appears to be engrossed in prayer at this temple!

At places, crude shapes have been carved by nature in the rocks, adding attraction to the already great site e.g. a man like figure sitting on the chair at the edge of the hill –  give it a slight push, it can tumble down into the gorge; a playful child, a god, an elephant face with massive trunk…

In this setting, I notice an egret, perched on a rock near the water’s edge. It is not afraid of our approach. It does not fly away, when we pass by, almost at a touching distance.

Oh! A boat is parked across, appearing to be blocking the way. As we reach near, there is way to cross. I notice a young couple is being photographed by boatman in odd setting! Maybe they find it romantic.

Two hundred meters ahead, I can see and hear water gurgling. Boatman announces, “We have reached the last possible sailing point.  Ahead it is very rough.” I tell him, “No worry, turn back. I am having a wonderful time.”

I have noticed all along, there is water mark about 5-6 feet above the present water level. I have not imagined the reason. The guide tells, “Upstream, there is the Bargi dam and Hydro-Electric Project on Narmada. Every night, water is released from the project and the water level rises to the water mark.” Oh!

The guide has been explaining all that is possible in his capacity. Boatman has not been pushing for fast return. He even asks me if I want it some other way or stop anywhere. In fact, though he took me for a ride but he has not taken me for a ride! It was money and times’ worth.

Pushp

PS : The marble rocks are in Bhedaghat, a small town on the bank of Narmada, 20 km from Jabalpur a well known city in Madhya Pradesh. Bank of the river at important places have been developed as Ghats where people visit to pray and take a dip in the holy river and feel blessed. The market up the Marble Rocks is all marble – 100 per cent of the shops are dealing in marble statues and souvenirs.

 

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.

Pushp