Saturday, September 08, 2007


The pitiful state of Chandaka's wild elephants

16 sec. Dial-up friendly video
The pitiful state of Chandaka's elephants

Chandaka is a small sanctuary on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa. It has a population of about 65 elephants, who are literally trapped next to this city in this tiny 190 sq. km. sanctuary bereft of traditional elephant migration corridors with bigger nearby habitats. However, the elephants do come over to Bharatpur, a 2600 acre patch of scrub jungle right inside Bhubaneswar, which is also part of the sanctuary. But Bharatpur has become separated from the main Chandaka forests over the last decade because of ruthless and mostly illegal real estate 'development'. This is causing severe stress to these highly intelligent creatures with emotions almost at par with humans. This has been causing human-elephant conflict to be rocketing since the last few years. Typical symptoms of what scientists have termed 'elephant rage' are being witnessed here. These highly intelligent and emotional creatures have been seen reacting to stress and conflict very much like humans. They have intelligence bordering on the capability to reason and revengeful behavior towards ever increasing human encroachment is being routinely noticed in parts of Orissa, Jharkhand, Bengal and the North-East of India.

This video was captured when I was out one afternoon on a birding trip with a couple of friends and came across a herd of elephants as we often do. But we normally see them browsing, resting and generally doing their own thing without any sort of aggression towards us. So much so, that they have over time gathered trust for us. But on this particular day, this old matriarch, to whom we refer as the 'Torn-Eared Female' wanted to cross the Khandagiri-Chandaka road in order the 10-15 km to the main Chandaka forests. She had two calves and a juvenile with her. As she hung around near the road(not visible in video, but you can hear a few vehicles plying), waiting for darkness to fall so they could cross over peacefully in its cover. But, a couple of jackasses saw the matriarch from the road and wanted to have a closer look at her. What they didn't know was that in the bushes towards which they were approaching, the calves and the juvenile were hiding. As the two men, both in white shirts (a color elephants abhor) came a bit too close, the matriarch couldn't take it any longer, and you've seen what she did. Later that evening, we waited in a temple near the road expecting them to cross. They came right up to the other side of the road. But then vehicles and people started gathering there and did not let them cross. She charged again, but retreated when the crowd and noise was too much. My friend Rudra managed to capture this even in complete darkness on his 3CCD pro- movie cam. I'll upload those videos soon. I managed to get some ISO 3200 images too which I've uploaded here. Since this particular video was captured on a little digicam, the quality is pretty poor. Throughout the incident, not even one Forest Department employee was there to control the crowd. In fact, not even one Forest Guard or watcher mans this side of the forest. This corridor is under active usage and tremendous human-induced pressure. It is only about 3-4 km from the extremely busy National Highway- 5 and Bhubaneswar's busy Baramunda area.

Following are the images I took. These are high ISO (3200) images which I took in almost complete darkness.

The elephants gathered near the road (the edge of which can be seen at the bottom
of the image)

People just did not let them cross. They had to retreat. Nobody from the Forest Dep-
-artment was there to control the situation- and this is supposed to be a sanctuary!
How will elephants NOT kill people if they are continually harassed like this?

The very same elephant a few weeks before this incident.
A picture of calm and peace when left unmolested and unprovoked

More images from here and other places visited by me can be seen here:

Your views and comments will be greatly appreciated.

All rights reserved.
Copyright, 2007, Aditya C. Panda
Video courtesy: Dillip Naik

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


25 February, 2007

I’ve been visiting the Chandaka- Dampara wildlife sanctuary on a regular basis since well over five years now. The sanctuary is famous for its elephants and is known for good sightings in Orissa. In all these years, I’ve had many encounters with the pachyderms- I’ve slept on the Ambilo watchtower listening to a herd of eighteen and a tusker trumpeting, drinking and frolicking all through the moonless night, I’ve had a tusker hide behind bushes and watch me while I was searching for it in vain and I’ve had come across extremely fresh elephant spoor on many occasions and yet, never seen one. I know this is strange but the jungle has her own ways of surprising one… a hard working naturalist might be there for months in the field and not see even a glimpse of his subject while a casual, undeserving picnicker is rewarded with a grand sighting. Something like this was definitely happening with me. After way too many failed trips I had made it a point to always visit the sanctuary without any expectations (tip to safari goers: this approach greatly enhances the pleasure of a safari, makes you a better, more real wildlifer and greatly reduces frustration).

I try to visit Chandaka as many times as possible and Sundays are almost exclusively reserved for her. But since the last Sunday was disappointing with a lot of picnickers having disturbed the jungle I had made up my mind to stop my Sunday trips. I was therefore not very keen when Subhayu Mishra, fellow volunteer with Wild Orissa, came down from Mumbai and called for an afternoon trip. We rode down the 25 kms to Godibari, the sanctuary’s entrance, on my P180 and reached around four O’ clock. After a brief chat with the guards, we got onto the ‘morrum’ track that leads for another 15 kms to a watchtower near the Kumarkhunti reservoir. The ride didn’t produce much… langurs, a few peafowl, jungle fowl, quail, green bee-eaters, a female scarlet minivet and other miscellaneous jungle birds. My attempts at photographing the bee-eaters and peafowl later turned out to be a disaster. We also came across two pugmarks- one of a sloth bear and the other very possibly belonging to a wolf. Elephant spoor was everywhere and it was apparent that this route was being heavily used. We spent our time at Kumarkhunti watching the whistling teals, dabchicks and darters. Having our senses soothed by the birds, we went to the watchtower for a chat with Behera, the guard and an old friend. The land in front of the tower had been ploughed and Behera told me it was meant for sowing fodder for the herbivores. This was immensely satisfying to me as I have always being pressing for this. One of the biggest reasons for the lack of prey base in Chandaka has been the lack of enough grazing. A couple of new salt licks had also been built. As we waited eagerly expecting a sighting, a herd of domestic cattle and buffaloes came over to the salt lick giving us a rude reality check. This was enough to enrage both us and Behera. He started cribbing about how wildlife and the forest department were being given step motherly treatment by the government and we couldn’t help but agree. Wildlifers in India are used to blaming the forest department for everything and anything that happens to our wildlife. I agree with them to a very great extent. It’s true that there are crooks everywhere. But at least as far as the forest department is concerned, in my own modest experience, I have found that more than increasing corruption it is the lack of resources that has made the forest department incapable of accomplishing the mammoth task of saving India’s wildlife. The Department is severely understaffed and whatever staff it does have is largely over aged, underpaid, lonely, homesick and terribly under-armed. The forest guard, range officer or even the DFO and his superiors are given rickety, ancient guns but only for self defense. Even if they do shoot in self defense, more often than not they are tried for murder. Such an incident happened very recently in the Bhittarkanika National Park in Orissa. When poachers are arrested, they are handed over to the magistrate and ninety nine percent of the time get off on bail and are threatening the guards with dire consequences the very next day. Convictions almost never happen. Why should we blame just the forest department then? The question I have to the forest department is why are they sitting quiet and defending the lack of successful conservation in this country when they should be openly stating the real condition of our wildlife and speaking up for themselves and for the wildlife that they are entrusted with?

Anyway, after all this and so few sightings we were both pretty irked as we rode back to Godibari. The sun was going down fast and the night jars were out. They always scare me by the way they keep sitting on the road until one almost runs over them. I switched on the headlight and a little later a hare jumped across the forest track. As we rode on discussing what should be done to save the sanctuary I heard something moving to our left. Expecting it to be a chital I was about to stop and look when all at once, in one single second, my sub conscious said that the swishing was too loud for a deer and my eyes made out four black pillars carrying a black mass on them just behind the tree line- an elephant! While all this processing went on in my head I was riding almost parallel with it only about 15-20 feet away! The elephant realized we were there at the same time that we realized it was there and in the ensuing confusion it violently turned towards us with a trumpet- and no other sound has ever exercised my nerves as that trumpet did that evening! I somehow managed to get over my nerves and gradually accelerated away. In my panic if I would have accelerated too hard the bike would have slipped on the soft, gravely jungle track and if not our lives, I would definitely have lost my beloved 180. We never turned back to look but both of us believe we heard the elephant give chase for at least a few meters after us. We couldn’t get a long enough look at it but from the small glimpse that we had we were reasonably sure that this was an adolescent female about ~7 feet tall. That meant the herd was nearby and the last thing we wanted was concerned elephant aunts, mother and sister arriving for help! And if they happened to be by the road sides further ahead, God save us! Fortunately for us, they were further inside the forest and of little risk to us. I never noticed when we reached Godibari. Adrenaline definitely has some effect on one’s sanity. Only this can explain the way we laughed out loud and continuous as soon as we got off the bike for a breather at Godibari! The hairs on our necks, and until very recently even our face, were still on their tips as we rolled into of those road side 'Chinese' restaurants in Bhubaneswar for a relaxing cup of tea and a sumptuous chicken roll.

In retrospection I finally recognized the place of the incident- it was just after the Bualigarh fort’s ruins, before the non-descript Ambakhali temple comes. The elephant would not have charged had it recognized us a little earlier. The charge was just a spontaneous reaction caused by fear and surprise. The jungle, yet again, taught me new lessons- 1. Never stay back late, not even until twilight, while on ‘bike safaris’ in elephant forests; 2. Avoid taking a fellow biker along- if you’re two guys, ride on one bike. If you’re more than two, take a car. If I would have had a biker following me that evening, the elephant would have been between the two of us and the rear biker wouldn’t have had time to turn back and flee; 3. If you are a greenhorn with ‘bike safaris’ or the jungles, DON’T go to elephant inhabited forests.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


I know that this blog is supposed to be wildlife centric, but I couldn't stop myself from putting this article up here. Here goes to the oldest breed of dog in the world- India's ubiquitious "Desi".

I had been to a reputed pet shop to buy food for my dogs. In the shop there was this important looking man conversing with the owner, the conversation largely being about how great his show winning Great Dane and Labrador were. As I was about to leave, the he asked me what dogs I have. “A Rottweiler and a Desi (Indian Pariah Dog)”, I said. “N******t for a Desi?!” he exclaimed. “Lucky dog… that stray must have done some really great deeds in his last birth to deserve this!” How wished I could rub it into him that Desis are not necessarily strays or mongrels, and that they deserve a LOT more respect than they are being given. But I had neither the time nor the inclination for an argument right then, so I tried wrapping it up saying “it’s not that my dog is extraordinarily lucky, it’s just that the breed is extraordinarily unlucky to have been ignored for so long.” “Today’s kids talk a lot” he snickered.

The Indian Pariah Dog has been abused like this since a long time. Its name alone makes it an outcaste. Very few people even acknowledge it as a breed. It is better known as “stray” and “mongrel” than as a specific breed. No kennel club recognizes it. Not even the Kennel Club of India. These dogs have roamed the streets of India since years living upon garbage and scraps and are rarely considered worthy of being kept as pets. So much so, that many people are embarrassed if somebody in their family has one- “Oh, it’s just a friendly stray, not our dog” they tell guests. Why such bias? I don’t think I can as yet correctly answer that, but all I can guess for now is this- the British were the ones responsible (largely) for introducing the practice of keeping and showing dogs as pets in our country. They were too busy importing aristocratic canines from ‘back home’ and never bothered to develop local breeds. May be they even actively dissuaded local breeds (we know they did this with a lot of other local stuff, including people). The few Indian breeds that did get recognition were mostly the ones promoted by a few enterprising Maharajas. Little wonder then that most Indians, especially the snobbish kind, believe the Pariah (I’m tired of that name, lets just call it the Desi) to be the scourge of the canine world rightfully belonging in the streets and never to be seen in any self respecting man’s yard.

Dogs are not wild animals. They are just domesticated wolves that have changed morphologically due to years of isolated, selective breeding. They don’t ‘exist’ naturally on streets. All stray dogs, Desi or not, are on the streets because they have been dumped there by their owners, or, have been born to dumped dogs. Again, I repeat, no dogs ‘belong’ to the streets. Experts opine that the origin of the domestic dog can be traced back to Asia, particularly India, and that it is in fact a direct descendent of the Indian wolf Canis lupus. Here are a few facts about apna Desi for those of you who still need proof about their eligibility to the show ring:

· It is the oldest, in fact first, breed of domestic dog. Its domestication dates back 12-15, 000 years- older than any other breed.

· Since this is the oldest breed of domesticated dog, all other breeds can trace back their ancestry to this breed. Almost all other breeds have been developed by selectively breeding from this gene pool. Yes, your Doberman, Rottweiler and Bullmastiff had Desis as their ancestors somewhere down their lineage.

· It is spread across the globe from Israel, through Africa and Asia right into Australia with slight regional variations. The Israeli variety has been recognized as the Canaan dog and the African variety is called the Basenji. They are being bred to meet high standards and are excelling in the show ring all over the world. The Australian Dingoes are descendants of dogs left behind by Asian sailors. The Dingo is perhaps the closest one can get to the original domestic dog. In India they are struggling for recognition and are, more than anything else, treated as pests.

· They belong to the Spitz family but show many wolf like traits not seen in modern breeds. For example, modern breeds have two breeding cycles in a year while Desis have just one. In India this coincides with the breeding cycle of the wolf, i.e., during the Monsoon.

· They are extremely hardy and well suited to India’s sweltering tropical climate. They breed doesn’t have any inherited faults/diseases and have the most genetic diversity among dogs- that ensures that they don’t suffer from the ills of inbreeding.

· They shed remarkably less than other breeds and produce very little odor.

· They are beautiful, well proportioned dogs.

· They are highly adaptive and, though they thrive with lots of exercise, will happily adapt to more sedentary lifestyles.

· They are highly intelligent, extremely loyal, even tempered, brave, dogs with a strong guarding instinct.

· They are easily trainable but some can be a little headstrong- blame their hunting pedigree for that. They are still used by tribes in India to hunt everything from hare and deer to wild boar- you need a very determined dog to face a wild boar.

· They are among the few breeds that go closest to being the ideal dog. They are a brave guard dog, yet loyal and friendly to their family. They are strong and athletic, but easy to maintain and extremely hardy. Their intelligence makes them very trainable. Their size is big enough to make them look intimidating to unwanted visitors yet they are small enough for easy handling and affordable feeding.

The breed is fast losing its purity to mixed breeding. It is extremely crucial to preserve the breed now. Like minded promoters of the breed need to get together, set a high standard, and start breeding these dogs selectively to achieve that standard. Every effort should be made to get the breed recognized at least by the Kennel Club of India and give it the respect it so truly deserves. A lot of us Indians need to stop being snobs and start appreciating the fact that the very purpose of keeping a dog is to have a companion for life. They are not status symbols born for the show ring and nothing else. The purpose of dog shows is to promote a breed and encourage breeders to strive for making every litter better than its parents. Glamour is not the point of a dog show. Even if you are looking for glamour, take this- the Desi is the oldest living breed of domestic dog. It’s the original domestic dog. The one that started it all! To me, nothing can be more glamorous than that, because it is impossible for any other breed to ever achieve that.

Friday, February 02, 2007

14 January, 2007: BLACK BUCKS OF GANJAM

There are a few villages in southern Orissa- Ballipadar, Buguda and Bhetnoi, where the locals worship and protect black bucks, much like the Bisnois of Rajasthan. Legend has it that a long time ago, when the area was facing a severe drought, twelve of these elegant antelopes arrived in the area and rain followed shortly. The villagers thus, consider them to be 'avtaars' of the goddess Laxmi and worship them. Once, during the British Raj, a Maharaja shot a black buck here. The villagers caught him and paraded him through the village with a pot in his hands (his new age Bollywood and other blue-blooded cousins better beware!)!.The animals live on the villagers crops and the villagers consider this auspicious. Head of the Blackbuck Protection Commitee and Sarpanch of Bhetnoi, Amulya Upadhyaya says that they lose almost 30% of the crops to the antelopes. The area hold well over a thousand black bucks at the time of writing. Here are some 'record shots'.

These two males offered some good observation... when we arrived we saw the single horned one... his buddy was fast asleep... all was going well until the double-horned one woke up, saw us suddenly, freaked and ran.

We didn't get many female pics of the females... they were wary, probably because they had fawns, and wouldn't come within 300mm tele range.


All rights reserved.
Text and images © Aditya C. Panda, 2008

Thursday, February 01, 2007

RUSHIKULYA- Watching Olive Ridleys in Sea

13, January 2007

A pair of Olive Ridleys mate off the Rushikulya coast

Purunabandha is a village near the mouth of the river Rushikulya. This is part of the largest Olive Ridley sea turtle rookery which historically stretched across Orissa's coast. Now mass- nesting or "arribada" occurs only at two places- Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary and Rushikulya. It has stopped happening in the Devi river mouth since about a decade now.

A Ghost Crab

Rushikulya is not a Wildlife Sanctuary and the turtles are monitored and protected by a group of dynamic young villagers headed by Rabi Sahu. They have formed a committee called the "Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee" or RSTPC. Mass nesting hadn't started when we visited and we got to see only mating congregations. Rabi very helpfully arranged a boat for us and showed us RSTPC's highly informative and very well equipped interpretation center.


Monday, January 29, 2007


11, January 2007
Mangalajodi Marshes

Mangalajodi is a small fishing village on the banks of the Chilika lake, about 5kms from Tangi. Until recently it was known as a "poachers' village". That was until Nanda Kishor Bhujabal from Wild Orissa intervened and after over a decade of persuasion managed to convert them into protectors. Now the birds are returning and each census is registering greater numbers.

Blacktailed Godwit, Mangalajodi

Years of persuasion has made these ex-poachers of Mangalajodi village turn into protectors of birds. They now fish or guide tourists for a living. If you plan to visit Chilika please dont forget to sample Mangalajodi... who knows, you might have a better experience here than in the Nalabana sanctuary like I did.

Whiskered Tern, Mangalajodi

12, January 2007
Nalabana Island/Wildlife Sanctuary

Nalabana was a little dissapointing. We had expected thousands of flamingos and pelicans. Birders before us would count 3500 greater flamingoes... this year there were only 56... of pelicans, there were none... still we got a few great shots and I chanced upon an Irrawady dolphin (which I couldn't photograph) while returning.

White Bellied Sea Eagle

Our sole purpose of visiting Nalabana was to sight the flamingos and pelicans which we had missed at Mangalajodi. While we neared the sanctuary's periphery we saw thousands of teals, pintails, shovellers and other ducks. Such abundance on the periphery itself elated us. Funny thing is, there were hardly any birds inside the sanctuary! Of pelicans, there were none. Same was the case with lesser flamingos. Of greater flamingos, who were counted in figures upwards of 3000 until recently, we found only 56, very far away, much beyond the range of our 300mm tele-zooms. It was only after wading for about a kilometer and combining it with stalking that we could get these satisfactory pics. The principal cause of such decline in bird numbers so suddenly is not poaching or fishing. It is the increase in salinity in Chilika caused due to the lack of dredging on the ocean side.

Greater Flamingos, Chilika Lake

Greater Flamingos, Chilika Lake