Sunday, December 10, 2006


28 October-30 October, 2006

Bangiriposi is a small town on the northern border of the Similipal Tiger Reserve, Orissa. To reach it from the Jashipur side, one has to negotiate a ghat road called the Bangiriposi Ghat. In days long gone, this ghat used to be famous for tiger sightings, especially at night. However, like the rest of India, increasing human interference has taken its toll of wildlife here and there had been no confirmed tiger sightings since the past 15 years or so.

In early August ’06, a truck negotiating the ghat lost control over a tight bend and rolled over. A group of seven or eight village boys, who had come curiously to look at the wreck, were returning home when one of them spotted an animal standing on a cliff on the hill. It was around 11 a. m. and all of them saw it clearly. Most of them had never seen one before, but they recognized it immediately. One of them uttered the universal Oriya name for tiger, leopard, hyena and sometimes even fishing cat- “Bagha”.

The boys were not familiar with big cats and none of them could actually tell which of the above this was. One of them, Baikuntha, happened to be working as a domestic help at my residence and I came to know of this incidence from him. To help in identifying the animal I’ve listed his observations below:

(a) The animal was the size of a domestic bullock
(b) It had vertical stripes
(c) Its had an immense head, over a foot in diameter
(d) It stared down at them boldly
(e) When they started yelling and gesturing at it, it turned its head to look over both shoulders, stared at them, snarled, and walked back into the forest with controlled haste

When I heard these observations, I was more or less confirmed that it could be nothing but a tiger. On questioning him further, Baikuntha said that livestock kills happened, though infrequently. There were lots of goat and sheep kills, which could have been the handiwork of a leopard, but sometimes a cow or bullock would be lost. Even a largish leopard would find it difficult to kill bullocks. This, to me, confirmed the fact that the forests around Bangiriposi were part of at least one tiger’s territory. I mentioned the incident to Surjit Bhujabal, the chairman of Wild Orissa and he interviewed Baikuntha over phone for over half an hour. He too was convinced. In a week or so, fellow wildlifer with WO Dillip Naik and I were on our way to Bangiriposi. We were short on time, having a little over a weekend to spare, but we tried to make the best of what we had, and the following is what would have been my diary entries over the period:

October 28, 2006

We arrived at Jashipur very early in the morning after a tiring, 280 km overnight bus journey from Bhubaneswar. I had been to Jashipur before and knew the way around a bit. From the bus stand we went to a ‘dhaba’ owned by the governor of WO’s regional chapter, Pramod Panda. We had hardly slept the previous night and should have been making the best of the dhaba’s rope cots now, but the fresh morning air, doped with the mist of winter on the anvil, the sal trees, and just the fact that we were so close to the Similipal Tiger Reserve drove all signs of sleep away. After tea, we took a brief walk in the Project Tiger office premises nearby. It doubles up as a memorial to ‘Khairi’, a tigress kept as a pet by the first field director of Similipal Tiger Reserve, Mr. Saroj Raj Choudhry. The bungalow where the tigress and her master lived is now a museum and her grave is right in front of the bungalow, on the lawn. The compound is filled with sal trees and the trees harbor hundreds of Blossom Headed Parakeets. Mesmerized by the sight, I started yearning (like I have thousands of times before!) for a telephoto lens to go with my Vivitar. Dillip bhai did the best he could with his little digicam.

We were met by Mr. Panda around 8:30 a. m. He had made arrangements for our stay at Bangiriposi before hand and boarded us on to a bus to cover the very bumpy and slow 60 or so kilometers to Bangiriposi. The bus was filled with local tribals. I noticed a few of them carrying cocks in bags. These were for the cockfights scheduled to take place on the day at the weekly ‘haat’ at Bisoi, 15 kms ahead of our destination. We reached Bangiriposi around 12:00 p. m. and Baikuntha was waiting for us at the forest check gate that marks the end of the ghat and the beginning of the town. Put up at the “Similipal Resort” a small privately owned guesthouse, we were just in time for a delicious brunch of rice and country chicken. A little bit of jungle talk with Baikuntha revealed that elephants frequented the paddy fields around the place. Since we knew we couldn’t do much tiger tracking that evening, we planned the night on one of the crop protection machans, hoping to see elephants. Sleep finally caught up with us and we retired for a siesta. Baikuntha assured us that he’d be back by 4 O’ clock.

It was well past five, and there was no sign of Baikuntha. Losing patience after another half hour we decided to walk down to his brother’s ‘paan’ shop, hoping to find him there. We met him half way, and after scolding him to our hearts’ content, moved on. We were supposed to be on the machan by then, but the owners of the machan had cooked mutton at home and wouldn’t climb onto it until they finished dinner… around eight or eight thirty. Good thing I had brought my 25, 00, 000 candle power spotlight along! The three of us had dinner too and waited for the owners to arrive.

They arrived before eight and, happy about the ‘early’ start, we began our trek to the end of cultivation, where jungle meets paddy field and elephants descend at the onset of winter to feast on the ripening paddy. We left the tribal settlements behind and had another five or six kilometers to walk through the paddies. After covering half the distance, we heard the watchers yelling. The elephants had descended! But this posed a huge risk to us. We didn’t know if any of the elephants had crossed the line of machans to feed peacefully on the nearer paddies. And trust me; paddy fields in October are not the best places to meet wild elephants in India. That too at night! We talked only in whispers and looked carefully around every boulder, every bush, and every clump of tree. There was also the possibility of running into sloth bears and we used the spotlight where necessary. By the time we were just nearing the machans, all the 25, 00, 000 candles were out. Without the spotlight we couldn’t go any further. It was risky to shout out to anybody on the machans. When elephants raid crops, they know people will cause trouble. But they are hungry, and will resent. There was no option but to walk back to the guest house. The next morning we heard that four elephants, including a calf, had come.

October 29, 2006

Baikuntha was late again. He was supposed to arrive at five in the morning and it was well past seven now. We planned to explore the site of the tiger sighting. Breakfasting at the dhaba, we finally found Baikuntha, smiling shamelessly. We walked the seven kilometers to a temple on the ghat. On the way we came across rhesus macaques, and, an over turned oil tanker. The petroleum it was carrying had spilled and the air bore its nauseating stench. This was the place where the boys were standing over two months ago and Baikuntha pointed to us the rock from which the King stared down at them.

We started our ascent to the rock from the temple. It was on the northern side of the road. A clear spring flowed behind the temple and the hike up the hill was extremely steep, almost vertical at times, and rocky. It was thickly wooded and we found a cave halfway. The entrance to the cave was sandy, and we made out the pugmarks of a large, male leopard. He must have been using it as a temporary den. I say temporary because the view from the cave was of National Highway 6. We also missed the distinct, pungent smell of the big cats and there were no remains of kills. There were also the pugmarks of a bear. Photo session later we trekked on. The rock on which the tiger had stood had no pugmarks around. We didn’t expect any. We didn’t expect the tiger to reside on the hill. It was too disturbed to have a resident tiger. On the western side of the hill is a deep gorge, thriving with small game, like barking deer and hare. It also provides cover to elephants during the day. Sambar and chital are also present, according to sal leaf gatherers, though in very small numbers. Peafowl and jungle fowl also thrive. This is excellent diversity for a reserve forest in India, that too with a national highway passing through it. We started our descent and were back at the temple by 12:30. Thumbing a lift from a passing tractor, we were back at camp for a refreshing bath and sumptuous lunch. It had been a satisfying morning, but we were determined to see the elephants that night and this time I made Baikuntha stay with us through the afternoon.

We were on our way by five. The spotlight had been charged fully, batteries and cameras and other sundry equipment checked and double checked extra carefully. The hills marking the border between cultivation and wilderness were beautifully silhouetted against a setting sun and the paddy fields in the foreground, golden with the ripened crop, enchanted us. As we got closer to the hills, the serenity was broken by an illegal stone quarry. They use dynamites to blow up sections of hills and cause are extremely damaging to the environment.

We finally reached our machan. But the owner thought it would be better for us to sit on a rock, right on the path of the elephants. We agreed. It’d give us a better view. There were other machans to our right. When the elephants descended, these were expected to yell, burn tyres and in short, create pandemonium. This would cause the pachyderms to try and escape through our side of the area and offer us a clean view. The plan seems perfect. The rest depends on the elephants and we hope they come tonight like they have for the past two nights

The moon was up and we waited for it to go down so that the nervous giants could get a confidence boost. We talked only in whispers and our ears were craving for alarm calls… there were none expect a few jackal calls and a langur’s “whoomp- whoomp- whoomp”. This disappointed us. The langurs almost assured us that there were no elephants nearby then.

It was now eight o’ clock and most of us were dozing. A while later, my subconscious registered a whooshing noise. All of us were now wide awake, expecting the elephant (we assume it’s a loner) any moment. There was no noise from the machan to our right. Everybody expected the elephants to come after the moon went down and stole the opportunity for a nap. The elephants got the better of this. They used the opportunity to escape to the fields near the ghat. We lost our sighting, which was obviously frustrating, but I honestly couldn’t help admiring the intelligence of the animals!

October 30, 2006

Today was our last day in Bangiriposi. We decided to have a last look at the ghat section. We reached the temple at around 9:00 am and got news that a big cat had been sighted a few days ago. There was a National Highways Dept. camp on the far side of the ghat and a man had been posted there to guard sundry construction machinery. On the evening of the 28th, incidentally our day of arrival, at around 5:00 pm, while there still was light, he had seen a leopard cross from the southern side of the ghat to the northern side. He said that this was a regular happening. This was encouraging news indeed. We had very little time in our hands as we were leaving the same evening. Trying to make the best of what we had, we scoured the nearby forests. We could make out the pugmarks of two leopards, one medium sized and the other small, but were not sure if they were male and female or mother and cub or simply two unrelated leopards of different sizes. They were made at different times but are pretty much at the same place, right next to the road. The guard told us that he sees two different leopards and we assumed this to be true. We saw a jungle hen pretty close to the highway and, as we had already learnt before, the forests were moderately rich in jungle fowl, peafowl, barking deer and occasional chital and sambar. All these reinforced our assumptions.

Our findings in the area make us infer that the ghat is used by at least three leopards, which are most probably resident. The ghat is part of a very important wildlife corridor connecting the Similipal Tiger Reserve with the Chaibasa and Saranda forests of Jharkhand to the north. Elephant migrate between these two very rich habitats via this corridor and we are very sure that it is also the part of at least one tiger’s territory. Low prey density and high human interference have caused the few remaining tigers here to wander large distances in search of prey and mate and it is very likely that there is tiger movement between Jharkhand and Orissa through this patch.

This corridor however, suffers from some very major threats. A national highway cuts right through it and heavy vehicles ply regularly. Apart from disturbing the habitat by their noise and pollution, these vehicles are prone to accidents on the ghat. It goes without saying that they definitely heighten the chances of road kills. Oil spills from petroleum tankers are extremely damaging. In order to keep this corridor viable, it is absolutely necessary to close the ghat section from all traffic at least between 6:00 pm and 6:00 am. All road expansion work should also be stopped on the ghat. The fact that the ghat lies within the Similipal Biosphere Reserve bolsters our plea. Another threat is from the illegal stone quarries. It is the administration’s responsibility to ensure that these are kept under check.

Proper protection will definitely cause increased usage of this corridor by big cats and elephants alike. This is extremely important as the tiger population of Similipal is now under many question marks and human-elephant conflict in the region is on the rise. The pachyderms need the right of passage in order to find new feeding grounds and the big cats need to wander farther in search of mates in order to diversify their diminishing gene pool.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

SOME OLD SCANS OF FILM IMAGES- A modest beginning as a photographer

The famous tigress, Khairi, being fed by my grandfather. Pic: S R Choudhury

Here is an insight into my beginning as a wildlife photographer! Almost all of them were taken with my Vivitar 3000s SLR, with a little 50mm lens. The "Brook's Hill Stag" was a freak, taken with a little point- and - shoot fixed focus camera! Khairi's photo was taken by her owner, S R Choudhry, the first Field Director of Simlipal Tiger Reserve. Do post your comments!

Chital Stag, Brook's Hill, Sambalpur

Wild mushroom, Bangiriposi, Mayurbhanj, Orissa.

Brown Fish Owl if I remember correctly, Bannerghatta

Bonnet macaque, Bannerghatta, Karnataka

Village in the middle of Chandaka Elephant Reserve

Deras Reservoir, Chandaka-Dampara Elephant Reserve

Chital hoof print, Deras, Chandaka

Gharial, Bannerghatta, Karnataka

Iguana, Bannerghatta, Karnataka

R K Beach, Vizag. The hill is called 'Dolphin's Nose'

The sky from my terrace

Can anybody identify this lizard for me?

I found this snail on a fruitless trip to Jashipur, an entry to Simlipal. The snail was the only compensation for the all trouble!

Tree frog in my garden

Sunday, May 14, 2006


2, 3, 4 May 2006

Ghodahada dam is a huge reservoir surrounded by densely wooded hills adjoining the Lakhari Valley Wildlife sanctuary in Orissa. Since quite some time, the Forest Department had been stating a population of just three elephants for the region. But, during the 2005 elephant census Mr. Nanda Kishore Bhujabal, Vice Chairman of Wild Orissa and naturalist and philanthropist par excellence, visited the area and was treated to a sighting of no less than 17 elephants! The Department seems to have copy-pasted figures without conducting any actual censuses, thus failing to register the growth. The herd had migrated from Lakhari to the Ghodahada area and, according to villagers, had become resident in the area since quite a few years.

The area is not included in the sanctuary and Mr. Bhujabal was so overwhelmed by the richness of this ‘non-sanctuary’ area that he decided to work on the area and involve the local people in community wildlife protection.

On the banks of the Chilika lake, near the town of Tangi, is a village called Mangalajodi. This area was notorious for waterfowl poaching. The Forest Department staff did not have the guts to take on these ruthless gangs and birds were dying in thousands. This was when Mr. Bhujabal interfered. He believed community protection was the answer to this. Disregarding his own safety, he visited the poachers’ villages, tried to make friends with them (this was difficult, the villagers were very suspicious of outsiders and especially conservationists - Mr. Bhujabal was both) and explaining and educating them about the need to conserve by showing them a new livelihood – ecotourism. When he caught poachers in the act he educated them instead of getting them arrested. Thus, 11 long years later, Mangalajodi is one of the safest havens for waterfowl in the whole of India. The villagers have formed a committee – the Mahabir Pakhi Surakhya Committee. They now take tourists on boat rides and use their bird catching skills for bird watching instead. Mr. Bhujabal’s efforts have borne fruit – the last census registered over six lakh waterfowl in Mangalajodi while the Chilika Sanctuary registered, ironically, just 90,000!

Coming back to our story, this was what Mr. Bhujabal had in mind when he visited Ghodahada early this May and I had the privilege of accompanying him, along with Madhaba, poacher turned conservationist from Mangalajodi.

Day 1:

We reached Ghodahada at around 2pm and spent the afternoon in the shade of a mango tree chatting with the local villagers while the ripe fruits dropped at intervals, barely missing our heads. The villagers were fishermen, making a good living from their catch and did not find a reason to poach. They offered to take us on a boat ride that evening so that we could get a chance to watch the elephants. We started around 3:30pm with the sun beating down hard upon us. The reservoir had quite a few water fowl on offer – dabchicks, grey herons, night herons, kingfishers, openbill storks, whistling teals, to name a few. The area has a large population of Brahminy kites and the boatmen, Basu and Amulya, said that the waters were full of mugger crocodiles – I didn’t see any though. We halted on a small islet close to the bank where the elephants were expected and sat there in patience until sunset. No elephant appeared. Strangely, we didn’t even hear the common jungle sounds like peafowl or jungle fowl calls. ‘Our’ villagers didn’t poach, but there still were poachers in the surrounding villages that did. There used to be two leopards, a mating pair, near the dam. The male was poached for his pelt and the female was killed when she turned cattle lifter. Perhaps she had cubs to feed and this caused her to take to cattle lifting. The cubs must have followed her in death.

We didn’t see any elephants but we had one interesting sighting nevertheless. While waiting for the elephants Mr. Bhujabal pointed out a spoonbill to me. Anyone with birding experience will tell you that the spoonbills we find in India are gregarious white birds with black legs, black bill, a crest and are tinged with yellow. But this lone bird was marked with black on its wing tips and had pink legs. I had mistaken it for yet another openbill and didn’t care to look trough the binoculars but Mr. Bhujabal did. It was smaller than an openbill and the grayish black bill was distinctly shaped like a spoon. Unfortunately, the bird was far beyond my camera’s range. Even the expert Madhaba claimed never to have seen one.

At dusk we rowed back to the village collecting some prawns from locally made traps called ‘baja’s. We cooked dinner - prawns along with some rice and dal under the mango tree and slept on the verandah of an inspection bungalow belonging to the Irrigation Department. It was too hot inside even with the fans switched on. Not long after we hit our beds thundershowers poured giving us respite from the heat but at the same time drowning all my hopes of elephant sightings. With the heat gone the elephants would never come down to the reservoir to drink or bathe as there would be enough water inside the jungle.

Day 2:

The nest morning there was no trace of last night’s rain. After unsuccessfully scanning the waters from the IB’s verandah (the IB overlooked the dam) for any muggers I went down to the boat ‘ghat’ with Basu for a morning check on the ‘baja’s and especially to photograph the Brahminy kites as they swooped down to pick up fish thrown away by the fishermen. The day was spent collecting provisions and then discussing about the prospects of ecotourism as a livelihood with Basu and his father – a respected personality in the village. We asked them to gather a few villagers for a meeting in the evening.

Meanwhile we prepared for an afternoon tour of the forests. So, after lunch we got back into the boat (rather late as the skies, falsely, threatened us with another storm) and rowed some distance to a relatively undisturbed patch of forest. From there we trekked up the steep, wooded hills for an hour or so and returned to the boats as the sun hid behind the mountains to the west. On the trek we came across some very old elephant spoor and one leopard pugmark – a fair sized young male. The area had sambar and wild boar but the last spotted deer was sighted two and a half years ago. It is true that spotted deer are rare in hilly areas but this was unusually rare. Spotted and rufous turtle doves were quite common and Mr. Bhujabal saw an emerald dove but I missed it. We didn’t see anything more and rowed back to the ‘ghat’. As we got out of our boats we saw, perched on a tree atop of a hillock and beautifully silhouetted against the evening sky, the dark form of a huge horned owl. As we stood there admiring it majesty a local quipped in “nice size, will fetch a good sum in the market.” Owls are regularly captured and sold. There is a belief that their meat has medicinal values.

The meeting was a complete success with the few gathered villagers agreeing that ‘their’ forests would not last long if they went on felling and poaching. We gave them the example of Mangalajodi and Madhaba was living proof to them. We made them understand that if they themselves protected their forests and wildlife then there would be no reason for the Forest Deptt. to include the area under the sanctuary and they wouldn’t have to move out. With the resulting increase in wildlife the area would become famous and they could add to their income by taking tourists for rides in the river, show them elephants, birds, muggers and other wildlife. They unanimously agreed to the proposal and agreed to send an official request to the Forest Department asking it to assist them in this venture and stating that they would form a committee for the protection of wildlife and forests. The only thing remaining for us to do was to rope in the other remaining villages in the area into this committee. But we were short of time and it might take another trip or two before this happens.

We went back to the IB for dinner and sleep. A talk with the ancient caretaker revealed some old tiger stories. He told us that before the dam submerged the forests the area abounded in tiger, gaur and spotted deer. All these are gone now. Elephants, it seems were not previously known in this area. Only after the dam was built did they start coming here. The present resident herd came over from Lakhari to escape poachers. Two tuskers associated with the herd had been poached and the herd was being very protective of the two young bulls it held. A few human casualties had occurred in the recent past. The villagers, surprisingly, are of the belief that the elephants attack people belonging to the poacher communities only and that they are safe from the elephants since they don’t harm them. Strangely none of them has been attacked.

Day 3:

This was our day of departure. After bidding good bye to our hosts we left Ghodahada. We dropped in at the range office in Podamari, a few kilometers away. We learnt from the ranger that the last tiger census had revealed no pugmarks and that they were yet to receive the GPS systems, needed to carry out the census, from the Project Tiger Directorate. They had found scat, hair samples and scratch marks though.

The ranger agreed that the entire system needs to be changed and that full police powers should be given to forest officers in order to properly implement our wildlife laws. The recent naxalite attacks were very demoralizing to the forest staff. Let alone naxals, our forest staff are not even equipped to face sundry poachers. When will the government wake up?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


13, 14 April 2006

I had been to Bhanjanagar, in the southern part of Orissa, along with a few colleagues from Wild Orissa in the second week of April. We had been invited by a Bhubaneswar based NGO to a ‘consultation’ on tribal rights vs. wildlife conservation. While the so-called ‘consultation’ turned out to be a complete failure, we stole the opportunity to tour the forests of Ghumusar North and South.

One of the last places in India where the extremely endangered Blackbuck lives safe from poachers and gun toting film stars is the area around the villages of Ballipadar and Bhetnoi. There is no forest here and nor is it a sanctuary. The locals believe that their crops will fail if the antelopes don’t feed from their fields. They strictly protect the animals and even rescue injured and sick animals. This belief has led to what is now a model for community protection of wildlife. Only 4-5 kms after the village of Ballipadar, we were stopped by Amulya Upadhyaya, head of the Black buck protection community. On the roadside, what had to us been just another paddy field scenery, he pointed out to us our first wild blackbuck. It was a splendid male; looking very much like Africa’s ubiquitous Thomson’s gazelle, only black in color. The females are fawn colored with a white belly and a thick black streak separating the two colors. As we tramped the fields, almost forgetting the heat and humidity in our excitement, we saw over fifty or sixty more of these critically endangered antelopes in less than 30 minutes. The locals say that they are even more concentrated in the monsoon and winter but they scatter in search of food in summer. The area is estimated to have around 900 blackbucks (and the figure is growing). In the absence of natural habitat (open grasslands) they are totally dependent on cultivated crops. Talking to Mr. Upadhyaya we learnt that the area was suffering severely due to a shortage of water in the summer and that they had thus stopped growing their summer crop. This is affecting both the people and the animals. With only one crop in a year, the people are finding it increasingly difficult to share their crop with the antelopes. A reservoir is necessary so that the monsoon waters last through the summer and this amiable relationship continue.

We returned to Bhanjanagar in the afternoon to prepare for a visit to the Kaliamba Reserve Forest only 6 kms away. From there we drove through the forest on a dirt track for 7kms to the century old Kaliamba Rest House. The drive yielded no sightings save a couple of spotted doves. There is a huge banyan tree in front of the rest house, which houses a few giant squirrels. The watcher offered to take us for a round of the forest. We asked him to take us on his beat. From the animal tracks and scat on the ground we concluded that barking deer, sambar, wolf and bear were prolific. Elephants are migratory here. We came across one leopard pugmark, a medium sized male, and are unsure of a second, smaller pugmark. The area also holds a few gaur and we saw one hoof mark. It should, however, be kept in mind that this walk lasted only an hour and half and there certainly is more wildlife here than what our search revealed. The last big cat census revealed the area was devoid of tigers but the watcher said he had seen a pugmark just before the census. Leopard sightings are common in the area and cattle kills happen occasionally. The watcher was just telling us about a recent king cobra sighting when we came across the shed skin of a spectacled cobra.

The next day was our day of departure and we made an early start from Bhanjanagar. Beautiful ‘sal’ forests start around 10 kms after Bhanjanagar, on the Bhanjanagar-Dasapalla road. This is the Tarasingh Reserve Forest of the Ghumusar North Division. The road is narrow and with very little traffic and sightings are said to be high on this road. We dropped in at the Tarasingh Range Office and since we didn’t have enough time to tour the forests we had to satisfy ourselves with whatever the Forest Deptt. staff had to say. According to them, the area has bears, wild boar, barking deer, jungle fowl and peafowl. The last census revealed 15 leopards and 1 tiger. The ranger showed me the plaster casts of the pugmarks. The leopards seemed fine but the tiger pugmark was very small and was more likely that of a leopard, exaggerated in size since it was found on sand. They said it could be a tigress but I am still skeptical. The Forest Deptt. is notorious for faking the existence of tigers and this is one example of just how easily they can create fake figures.

The staff showed us a little barking deer fawn which had been colleted from villagers. A villager had trapped it from the jungle and on receiving this information the Forest Deptt. staff proceeded to seize it. They were greeted by a large group of villagers armed with sticks and they finally had to buy the animal for Rs. 400! This is the state of our Forest administration. When it can’t even seize a fawn from a villager, how can one expect the Forest Deptt. to fight gangs of poachers armed with sophisticated weapons? They are given guns but even if they fire it in self-defense, they have to prove this in court. And everyone knows that courts in India can take years for even simple cases like robbery. There is an immediate necessity to give full police powers to the Forest Department and to give magisterial powers to officers above the rank of Conservator.

Both the above areas are highly affected by timber theft and forest fires. Nevertheless, the entire area shows excellent potential for wildlife conservation, if it is declared a sanctuary. It has corridors with other wildlife rich areas like Baissipalli-Satkosia, Dasapalla, Berbera, etc. and these areas, with the exception of Dasapalla, have tigers and elephants which are in desperate need of un-fragmented rich forests if they are to survive.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


23, March 2006

After collecting the required permits I left the DFO’s office at 3:15pm and a forty-five minute drive from there brought me to the Godibari main gate of the Chandaka-Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary and Elephant Reserve, hardly 20 kms from Bhubaneswar. It was already 4:00pm and I had to be back before sundown. I have been visiting this park for many years now but this visit had been after quite a while. In earlier times, even a few months back, sightings were very rare and even a junglefowl sighting was considered something of a success. With so little time in my hands, I didn’t really expect anything more than perhaps a lucky glimpse of a scuttling peafowl. But a drive in a forest, regardless of sightings, is always pure heaven to me. So I drove in through the gate after showing my permits to the guard. I had driven for hardly 200 metres on the soft, red ‘morrum’ road when a group of Forest Department labourers in a tractor coming from the opposite direction stopped me. The driver said that there was a lone tusker ahead on a bend at Ambakhalli. To my query about how the tusker had reacted to their presence he replied that since the animal was used to seeing their tractor on many previous occasions he was quite unaffected. “But”, he added, “I am not sure how he’ll react to the car”. I moved on and at Ambakhalli I saw the fresh tracks of the tusker on the morrum. The soil was soft and tracks wouldn’t last very long on it. This gave me an idea of its freshness. The elephant had crossed from left to right and had not come back. A careful eye scan of the bamboo bushes on the right of the road revealed nothing and since I was already late, I moved on.
On my way to Kumarkhunti I saw a few peacocks and a couple of junglefowl. I had just crossed a dry nullah, which is a landmark to Kumarkhunti, when an orange light on the car’s instrument panel said I was low on fuel. I damned myself for overestimating the car’s fuel efficiency on this kind of road where one can hardly shift over second or third gear. I could not go to the watchtower at Kumarkhunti and had to return a few kilometers before it. On my way back, just after the nullah, I saw two chital does hardly 10 feet away. There still was some sunlight and remarkably the deer didn’t seem very scared. They stood there and looked at the car for about 3-4 minutes before running away to a bush further away and watched me from behind it. This was a very good sign for a forest that was only recently a free-for-all to loot, hunt, chop or burn. The sighting of the deer at that early hour and there behaviour was a sure sign that things had improved since my last visits.
Damning myself a second time, now for not bringing my camera along, I drove on to see even more peafowl and junglefowl. There populations had surely gone up. Back at Ambakhalli I searched the road for the tusker’s tracks again. I was thrilled by what I saw. Superimposed on the car’s tyre tracks were the tusker’s footprints in a direction opposite to the one I had seen earlier. After seeing his tracks for the first time I had been back after hardly even an hour- very little time for the tusker to have gone somewhere purposefully and come back again to cross to the other side. While I had seen his tracks for the first time, he must have hidden behind the bamboos watching the car with suspicion. After I had left, he saw that the coast was clear and got away from there as soon as he could. He was used to the tractor and didn’t run away on seeing it but the car was unfamiliar and he wasn’t sure whether it (the car) was safe. So he decided to hide and watch. I had missed him by minutes.
Then started the sad part of the trip. Ahead on the track a Forest Department jeep was parked. The driver told me that it had carried some staff who were now controlling a forest fire somewhere within. The vegetation was dry due to the summer heat and it wouldn’t have taken long for a villager’s beedi to start the fire. I was pretty close to the exit at Godibari then. At the gate I stopped to meet Motilal, the captive makhana (or tusk-less bull), and for a chat with the guards. Talking of leopards, I learnt that this year’s census revealed a figure of zero. After all that elation due to the sightings, this was a complete downer. With the local extinction of the tiger long back, the leopard had somewhat filled the gap of top predator. Now with the leopard gone too, the whole ecosystem of the park is bound to be affected severely. Come to think of it- an entire trophic level, to be more precise, the top most trophic level is absolutely missing from this ecosystem. How will it sustain itself? How long will it last for? The thought is scary. Chandaka has no predators worth the mention. This, coupled with overgrazing by cattle will destroy these jungles forever. There is no chance of leopards or tigers migrating from the better-stocked forests of nearby Nayagarh, Berbera, Ghumusar, etc. since the corridors have long vanished. The only hope for the short-term future of Chandaka is to reintroduce leopards from the better-stocked forests of Satkosia and Ghumusar North, which are nearby. For Chandaka’s long-term future and especially to end its chronic man-elephant conflicts, there is no option but to re-establish previous corridors with Satkosia, Ghumusar and Berbera via the Nayagarh forests. This will prevent inbreeding among the leopards and elephants and more importantly, will create a large, contiguous patch of viable tiger, elephant, leopard and gaur habitat, which again is the only hope of their long-term survival in Orissa. It goes without saying that such basic measures as proper security and corruption free administration will also be necessary.
Chandaka is nowhere as famous as Sariska, and the leopard might not be as glamorous as the tiger, but the situation is just as bad as Sariska. I might be too dreamy to expect the Forest Department to actually take such a dedicated course of action, but the fact remains that drastic situations need drastic measures and re-establishing old corridors and re-introducing locally extinct species should be the primary course of action now. There are no options left. Re-location of tribal and other local inhabitants may be criticized in the name of human rights and coexistence is the catchphrase of such activists now. But coexistence involves a drastic change in the attitude of the people and this, especially in India, is a long-term prospect. Our wildlife has been ruined close to being beyond repair. We have created this trouble and its we who have to adjust. Such fancies of armchair activists as coexistence will not work in the Indian situation. It is too late to experiment with the current situation. We have to save our wildlife NOW. Period.