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.