Tuesday, November 04, 2008


The Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is situated in the Satpuda landscape in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. It is a 625 sq km Project Tiger Reserve which includes the Tadoba National Park (declared in 1955) and Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary (declared in 1986).

'Jabbaar', my first wild tiger ever.

I first visited Tadoba in November 2007 and was blessed to see my first wild tiger there. It was the 4th that day. We had hired a rickety Tata Sumo which refused to start once it was turned off. And we had to realise this problem only while entering the Mohurli gate after collecting our entry permits. The morning was perfect, with a nip in the air, November mist and the thrill of being in tigerland. We saw gaur, the usual chital, sambar, peafowl and saw the fresh scat of dhole, or the Indian wild dog just before the Khatodi Gate. We had missed them by minutes, may be seconds.

We drove on to Pandarpauni meadow and then down towards the '97' water hole. On the road we noticed the very fresh pugmarks of a tiger, those of the very same morning! Then started thrill of the chase! The mist was lifting and the dawn sunshine was pleasantly warm. We tracked the pugs on a path that took us around a patch of forest on to its other side. There we saw a couple of Gypsies parked with some excited tourists in them. We had missed the tiger by seconds. But the chase didn't end there! Sanjay Munde, a guide in another Gypsy, skillfully predicted the direction the tiger would take from the very bush he had vanished into and we went back towards 97 and waited at the expected point from which he (we knew it was a male by then) would walk out onto the road. The wait was just as exciting as the chase. 4-5 vehicles, pin drop silence, and the tense wait. Then the guide in our vehicle suddenly blurted out in a hushed but urgent tone "arrey, yeh raha tiger!" and pointed somewhere to the left of our Sumo.

That was my near side (I was seated on the front passenger side) and I noticed a pattern of black and gold in the bamboo some distance away and was iimmediately raised to seventh heaven! My first glimpse of a tiger in the jungle! But then what was this- suddenly I saw a great head with lots of white on it hardly 6-7 feet away! I was staring at a patch of sunlight and shadow created by the thin bamboo all this while, some 20 feet away while the real tiger was right next to me! He was bothered by so many vehicles having discovered him and wanted to get away fast. He walked behind the tree line as long as he could and then came on to the road, giving us a splendid view! He smelt a few bushes, sprayed them and settled down in the grass, only to be disturbed by a bus coming from the opposite direction. I didn't know whether to watch or to photograph. When I tried photographing my hands shook like leaves with the amount of adrenalin that was pumped into them. So I gave up and enjoyed the moment.

Truly, nothing in the world captures the moment and your senses like a tiger in the wild... it’s like a phantom... so huge and so striking and absolutely silent when it walks, incredibly fast paced, but never in a hurry. And then it disappears, as soon as it had arrived, leaving you wondering if it was really there at all! That tiger, I was later told, was called 'Jabbaar'. An impressive big male he was. With this, my first wild tiger, by seeing whom I had thought I'd satisfy a long overdue hunger, I realised that I had just managed to make that hunger terribly insatiable. I had to come back. There's nothing in the world like tracking wild tigers and, with skill and luck, being rewarded with even a glimpse of them.

When I got another opportunity to visit Tadoba in April 2008, I grabbed it. I remembered Sanjay's words from my last winter visit- "Sahib, dhupkali mein aao, sab se badhiya tiger sighting milenge." He had asked me to come in the summer, when water would be scarce, to have my best tiger sightings in Tadoba. I couldn't wait for the train to reach Nagpur on 18th April '08. The next three days were to be spent in Tadoba and the three days following that in Pench National Park, Madhya Pradesh.

Day 1, 19, April 2008:

Morning drive
The first morning we drove in with Bubloo Katkar, our driver who had stayed all his life here and who had just bought a used Gypsy. The first place we visited after entering the Mohurli gate was the Telia meadow, which had been recently created after a village by the same name was relocated. Instead of people and cattle, there were a herd of sambar, some peafowl and one of the handsomest wild boars I've ever seen. Bubloo told me that the place was especially known for its sloth bear sightings. We then drove on, the summer morning beginning to heat up, checking waterhole after waterhole and intently listening to catch even the faintest alarm call.

A herd of smabar, Cervus unicolor, at Telia meadow

After checking Jamunbodi hilltop, I wanted to visit the Tadoba's erstwhile canteen area, near the lake, to see what changes it had undergone after being shut off to tourists 20 days earlier. We were driving around the now abandoned buildings, Bubloo and the guide nostalgically remembering many years spent there, and I remembering my last trip and the canteen's lovely omeletes! Just as we rounded a curve after the canteen at the base of a hill, the hill to our right and the lake to our left, the guide shouted "wagh, wagh!" 'Wagh' is Marathi for tiger! Bubloo stopped, the Gypsy stalled. But we were positioned nicely. After about two minutes of searching, I could locate the tiger's white belly. It was resting in the shade of a fallen tree in the lake's cool water. He lifted his head to look at us, the dappled sunlight shining right on his face. It was good old Jabbaar! What a start to the trip!

'Jabbaar' again, cooling off in the Talao

We decided to leave him alone, to rest peacefully through the hot Vidharbha summer day and were keen for other tourists to not know of him and cause a typical 'tiger traffic jam' there, preferring to let Jabbar enjoy his siesta instead. But now there was a problem. Our Gypsy wouldn't start. Bubloo had found a good deal on the Gypsy alright, but that didn't hold true for its battery! When four or five goes at the starter refused to fire the engine, the tiger became a little wary. Finally, there was no other option left but for Bubloo and the guide to get down and push-start the Gypsy while I took the wheel. The Gypsy heaved to a start but poor Jabbaar was scared silly by this whole drama and got up and raced up to the road, right in front of our Gypsy, tail held high, and then up the hill. After climbing up, he slowed down, turned back and gave us a look which asked us to just forget everthing that just happened and that big male tigers like him could never possibly be scared! He then ambled up lazily as if nothing had ever happened!

We drove on to Pandarpauni meadow, the place where all the action takes place in Tadoba. There were over a hundred heads of chital and innumerable wild boar grazing and moving towards the Pandarpauni 2 waterhole. Some sambar were also there, along with most of the morning's visitors. We parked and enjoyed observing the animals at the waterhole. The congregation was impressive. A party in another Gypsy decided to leave and we had to make way for them. Our Gypsy refused to start, again. No amount of pushing would make it start now. A white Gypsy arrived, and offered to give us a lift. In it was a friend, Ravi Naidu, from Hyderabad. Ravi and I had known each other online and had exchanged notes on Tadoba and other wildlife issues earlier. He knows Tadoba like the clichéd back of his hand. He has had extensive experience working for several years in Kanha and in his home forests in Andhra Pradesh. Fate had arranged and excellent way for us to meet! We abandoned Bubloo with his Gypsy and boarded Ravi's. He hadn't had any chances with big cats that morning. No one had, except us. He was delighted when we informed him about Jabbar and we started towards the Tadoba Talao (lake) again, after checking out the Kala Amba waterhole.

The Kala Amba waterhole has an interesting story. A few months ago, a group of 2 or 3 Gypsies were at the waterhole, watching a tigress and her cubs. There were some bee hives on the trees above (these were still there when we visited) and a drongo sat on a bamboo shoot, catching the bees as they flew in and out of the hives. Suddenly, the drongo had a bright idea and it put it to action. Instead of sitting there and catching one bee after the other as they flew around in ones and twos, the drongo did a WWII Japanese Air Force suicide bomber and dived into the hive with full force! The number of bees that swarmed out after that were too many for it to catch and it vanished. So did the tigress and her cubs, and the tourists in the Gypsies, who reversed at full speed and then drove straight to Chandrapur hospital forgetting tigers and forests for a long time!

Oriental Honey Buzzard

With that note we went towards the Talao hoping Jabbaar would have come back after we had left. Jabbaar wasn't there. He must have found some other waterhole away from the disturbing road. We saw instead three Oriental Honey Buzzards drinking from the lake. A mugger crocodile was lying under the surface with its nostrils and eyes sticking above the surface. I was glad to be back in Tadoba!

Afternoon drive
In the afternoon Bubloo was back with a new battery, ready to pick us up at 3 pm. I took the wheels, as I love driving in the forests and I love Gypsies. It was a lovely drive, with lots of sambar, chital and gaur sightings. Wild boars were there everywhere. We missed a leopard by minutes. Ravi and most other Gypsies had seen it, near Kala Amba. When we arrived at the scene, the others, who had all missed the tiger that day (our was the only sighting) had evened scores with us through that one leopard!

A herd chital, or Spotted Deer, at Pandarpauni 1 waterhole

Splitting up from the Gypsy 'herd' we continued our safari and chose to go back to Pandarpauni to enjoy watching the ungulates that would line up at he waterholes and come to graze on the lush grass of the meadow as the day cooled down. Fingers were also crossed for the Pandarpauni sub adult cubs, who had managed to survive even after their famous mother, called Katrina, had vanished under mysterious circumstances. Soon, it was sundown, and with no luck with the tigers but an excellent, near spiritual time watching the ungulates come one after the other, in huge herds to drink and then graze in the golden twilight, we turned back towards Mohurli. This excellent density of prey base was a sure sign of a healthy tiger population and a healthy forest.

Sambar in the Tadoba Talao

Driving to the gate we chanced upon some sambar that had entered the Tadoba Talao, a scene made famous by the better known Ranthmbhore's Padam Talao on many a BBC and NGC documentary. Shooting some quick pictures, we made our way to the gate in the fast failing light.

Mother and fawn in perfect symmetry, Tadoba Talao

Between the Khatodi and Mohurli gates, we saw a white Gypsy stranded on the road, refusing to start. It was now our turn to give Ravi a lift!

Day 2, 20, April 2008:

Morning drive
On our second morning Ravi and we decided to go together, in two Gypsies. Even before we reached Khatodi Gate, the entrance to the Tadoba National Park from the Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary, we had heard a barking deer giving alarm calls and went to investigate, without result. The rest of the morning was spent in search of the King as it was Ravi's last day and he would leave the same evening. He was desperate as he had never come to Tadoba and not seen a tiger.

Wild boar at '97' waterhole

The chase continued. Fresh pugmarks here, an alarm call there. No results after waiting at Pandarpauni 1, coming under the territory of a huge tiger called Sultan, for over an hour. Soon it was time to leave. We had to be out by 11am. We had been amused by wild boars wallowing in the water, a monitor lizard, a pair of mating Indian Rollers, aka Blue Jays and numerous ungulates, but still no tiger.

Blue Jays or Indian Rollers mating, Pandarpauni

As a last try, we just wanted to check the Vasantbanjara stream. I asked Ravi to wait on the tar road while I went in to check the densely shaded stream. I found no signs of tiger. As we were backing out to the road I could see Ravi wildly waving to us from his Gypsy. We hurried. "Just keep watching the clearing between those two bushes" he whispered and pointed to the left. I watched with baited breath, camera at the ready. A tiger appeared out of a bush, crouching and moving as if he were a lot shorter than he really was. He looked at us with an unpleasant expression on his face and hurried behind the other bush and disappeared towards the stream in less than five seconds. He was an old tiger with a pale coat and Ravi had been lucky enough to see him on the road at close quarters before he vanished behind a bush!

Day #2, Tiger #2!

This is what I love about Tadoba. The tigers here behave absolutely naturally, wary of humans, very unlike the nearly semi-tame ones of Madhya Pradesh. Of course, it takes just as much skill to track the Madhya Pradesh tigers and they are just as beautiful, but the Tadoba tigers have not been adulterated by the constant presence of tourists. Some do tolerate them, but only up to a certain limit. They won’t fall asleep in front of tourists, for example! At least they don't now! I don't mean to criticize Ranthambhore or Bandhavgarh, as the behaviour of their tigers is bare proof of their effective conservation, but the behaviour of Tadoba tigers is that of a truly 'wild' tiger, of a remote forest, untouched by humans. It’s just pleasantly different. This might not appeal to the die hard photographer, but, to an Indian wildlifer, this is the essence of the jungle.

Just after exiting the Mohurli gate, we were witness to yet another spectacle. Two of the Forest Department's elephants were being retired from active service and were being sent off to a 'retirement home'. It was interesting to watch them being coaxed onto trucks.

Tusker on a truck

Afternoon drive
Pictures were shared over glasses of chilled lemonade and our terrific luck discussed. Two tigers in two consecutive mornings! I couldn't ask for more! Old friends from the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT) Vinod and Rundan had come to visit us.

Langurs at late afternoon

Post lunch, we started for the evening drive, this time, in one Gypsy. After having some great gaur sightings, we went to the '97' waterhole. We saw some sambar there, looking down into the water, which had shrunk down below our view in the summer heat. We couldn't see what the sambar were looking at, but they were very tense, their tails raised and eyes wide, a tense hoof stamping hard from time to time. Then, a small, bright orange head appeared, looking at us inquisitively. A few others followed. Dholes! We had chanced upon a pack of India's Wild Dogs (Cuon alpinus) which had cornered a small herd of sambar!

Wild dog cornering sambar, 97 waterhole

This is a rarely witnessed drama of the Indian jungle and we were extremely fortunate to be witnessing it. Soon, about ten or more pups and sub adults leaped out from behind. Two stags were trying to defend a hind and a fawn from the dogs. The fraction of moment for which we had distracted the dholes had given the sambar a chance to escape. They gradually began retreating. The dhole suddenly took their eyes off us and realising their prey was slipping, followed them cautiously. We had spoiled their hunt... but were still grateful for the moment. Ravi left that evening, his record unbroken.

Day 3, 21, April 2008:

Morning drive
Dinner table talks at the MTDC Resort the previous night revolved around our exceptional tiger luck. Everyone was sure we'd see one on our last day, and have a 'hattrick'! We kept our fingers crossed!

It was a Monday and there were almost no other visitors except 2-3 Gypsies including ours. The others went towards Kolsa and we were the only Gypsy in the Tadoba side. As we left the Talao area that morning and drove towards Pandarpauni, from a distance we noticed hundreds of chital running together- a scene reminiscent of Africa's famous wildebeest and zebra herds migrating. We rushed to see what the commotion was all about. The chital were running as fast as they could, wasting time for nothing, not even alarm calls. They were running in circles and we noticed that a pack of wild dogs were right inside the herd, a feast in the offing for them. There was more than a single kill that morning. The dogs were whistling maniacally.

Dhole with chital kill

As we watched the nearest dog grabbed a fawn by the throat, deviating from typical canine style and behaving more like a big cat. After the fawn was dead in its grip, the dog used all its strength to drag the kill to a nearby bush where it began to eat it. Strangely, no other dogs joined. There surely were more kills.

Dragging the kill

A herd of sambar chanced upon the scene just then, and vanished with equal suddenness, belling out their alarm calls. A pup, which didn't know which way to go, which whistle to answer to, jumped around in agitation and excitement for a few seconds before diving into Pandarpauni 1 and swimming to the other bank, the ten inches of his height enough to send a sounder of wild boar fleeing! This was some action! Pandarpauni bore a strange, eerie look, not an animal on its otherwise teaming meadows!

A dhole pup swims

We drove towards Katejhari, and on our way, chanced into another Gypsy with an elderly couple. They asked us if we had seen our third consecutive tiger yet, and hearing we hadn't, reassured us of our ‘hattrick’. In Katejhari we came across our first nilgai. Shortly after, we saw a lone sambar. It was getting late and we decided to head back. But Bubloo said, since we had come that far, why not check a waterhole that was only a few metres away. Just as we reached, a big male tiger turned to look towards us! He was cooling off in the water.

Day #3, tiger #3

Seeing us, he got up and climbed onto the bank, turned to give us another look and vanished! A chital called in alarm to tell us where he headed. Unbelievable good luck!

Afternoon drive
That evening we enjoyed a bit more a Tadoba, especially the gaur in the magical late evening light on top of Jamunbodi. There were over twenty of them scattered around, calling and grazing. Their reddish brown bodies, stockinged legs and the beautiful yellow grass looked fantastic in that light.

A bull gaur at Jamunbodi

A particularly cooperative one horned bull, whom I had seen before, gave some good photo opportunities. The next morning we were to head back to Nagpur, and then to the forests of Kipling's 'Jungle Book'- Pench National Park.

To view more images from this trip, CLICK HERE

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

Thursday, July 10, 2008

SATKOSIA'S TIGERS – a new ray of hope

As published in the Sanctuary Asia magazine, Vol. No. XXVIII, No.2, April 2008*

A Sanctuary ABN AMRO Young Naturalist of the Year Award winner for, 2007, the author is still a college student, but has nevertheless managed to pack in a remarkable amount of experience into his life. Working with Wild Orissa, his documentation of predator-prey status in the Satkosia-Gorge Wildlife Sanctuary helped get this vital forest declared a tiger reserve. He writes here about his experiences during his visits to a forest he knows, loves and seeks to protect.

Text and images by Aditya C. Panda

A mugger crocodile basks on the sands of the river Mahanadi in the Satkosia Gorge

On its incessant course toward the Bay of Bengal, the mighty Mahanadi crashes through the hills of Central Orissa, carving a stunning, 22 km.-long gorge. The Eastern Ghats biotic province lies to the south of this gorge and the Chhota Nagpur plateau to its north. Here, in the forest of the Satkosia Gorge, the tiger's roar is still heard and the mugger or marsh crocodile still fishes in the crystal waters of the Mahanadi. This is also the southernmost range of the highly-endangered gharial, though only three or four still survive here. Ever since the Hirakud Dam was constructed upstream, the fortunes of the gharial have dwindled, partly because the freshwater ecology changed and also because of competition from mugger crocodiles. The forests that clothe both banks of the river are a stronghold of elephant, gaur, leopard, sambar, chital, barking deer, mouse deer, chousingha and wild pig. And of course, one of Orissa's last remaining viable tiger populations. Sloth bears are still common here and the occasional dhole or wild dog pack can be sighted, though not as often as before. The rich sal forests mixed with luxuriant bamboo, teak and fruiting trees like Asan (Terminalia tomentosa) and Kochila (Strychnos nuxvomica) cater to varied birds including Alexandrine, Rose-ringed and Plum-headed Parakeets, lorikeets, Verditer, Monarch, Fantail and other flycatchers, nuthatches, mynahs, tits, Brown Cheeked Fulvettas… the list is endless. This is a good place to sight giant and flying squirrels too and the forests harbour populations of endangered Hill Mynah and Malabar Pied Hornbills.

I first visited Satkosia, in May 2007, as part of an elephant census team from Wild Orissa (a Bhubaneswar-based organisation with whom I have been volunteering for almost five years or more). I have been smitten ever since and have lost no opportunity to visit the park to help monitor and document its wildlife.

Counting elephants

Diptiranjan Patra, a friend and Wild Orissa member, and I reached the rustic, century-old bungalow at Labangi from Pampasar, Satkosia's main entry point, well past midnight. A chital alarm from the hills to our right reminded us that we were in the striped predator's domain and I hoped that a tiger sighting was in my destiny this trip, but the real joy was to be out on foot in the forest as an observer.

A young tusker beats the May heat in the Kantarsingha Game Tank

A wild animal census is not an exact affair that can throw up definitive numbers of any species, but it does give managers an idea of the density, diversity and spread of animal populations. For obvious reasons, there is a focus on waterholes and salt licks, which are frequently visited by animals. As instructed by the officers in charge of the census, we headed out on foot early in the morning towards the Kantarsingha Game Tank. The path was strewn with ungulate spoor – fresh and old – chital, sambar, barking deer, mouse deer and the occasional gaur. We unwittingly disturbed a herd of chital at the tank. The saltlicks around the tank were replete with activity, we even saw elephant tracks.

A small herd of chital or spotted deer at Kantarsingha Game Tank

Sambar at the salt lick in Kantarsingha (image scanned from older film archive)

The rich birdlife and the presence of giant squirrels indicated a healthy canopy, an increasingly rare occurrence in this era of monoculture plantation forests. That afternoon, we trekked for around 20 km. through dense forests toward Talsera village. En route, we saw leopard pugmarks, but missed seeing elephants by a just few minutes on two occasions and had to be content with the heavy scent they left in the still, sweltering air of a May afternoon. While pugmarks may not accurately help in identifying specific animals, they are certainly vital in indicating carnivore movements and all such data had to be meticulously recorded by all those engaged in the census operation.

The moment we entered the village, we were informed that a tusker was gorging on mangoes in the village grove, half a kilometre away. We hurried to the spot, only to discover that the village kids had scared him away. It had not been a particularly exciting day, but in a sense the very ‘slowness’ of everything was attractive. Unlike the image of forests painted by dramatic documentaries, real life here is slow, somnambulant almost. The drama is, of course, always present (a carnivore kill, the movement of an elephant herd), waiting to burst into the open, after which long periods of stasis are again the order of the day.

Day two was decidedly more rewarding. We were on the Labangi-Tulka road in the Pampasar Range, where we were informed that three tuskers were still in the vicinity. Walking in the safety of a dry nullah, with good visibility around it, we came across the first tusker in less than 10 minutes. He was on a three metre-high embankment and we could barely get a glimpse of him before he turned around and disappeared into the forest. We missed the other two tuskers, but could tell they were there from the rumbling infrasound they made.

We returned in the afternoon with Palia, the game watcher. There was a muntjac at the saltlick, but it bolted on our approach. Clearly, the Satkosia forest could do with more isolation and protection from humans. We did, nevertheless, manage to get in a decent afternoon of birding and saw a giant squirrel intently watching us as we waited for elephants. A herd of sambar – four does and a fawn arrived at the saltlick before where they spent some quiet time till they were alarmed by something a little to our left and behind. Their tails were up and forefeet stamped the ground with exaggerated deliberation to the accompaniment of loud alarms. They all looked fixed in the direction of the threat (a big cat?) before walking back in the direction they had emerged. A minute later, a muntjac called from the direction of the 'threat' and left us guessing. Did the two different species of deer merely scare each other, or was there indeed a predator on the prowl? As always, watching the forest come to life at sundown was a breathtaking experience. As darkness crept in and night sounds replaced the more familiar sounds of day, we walked back to camp, following the fresh tracks of a lone elephant that had visited the area while we were at the game tank.

That evening I made careful notes in my field diary, which I would later transcribe into a standard format for the authorities. I was glad to play a small role in helping protect and manage this wilderness and knew that this is what I was destined to do for the rest of my life.

The next day, the final day of the census, we were asked to take the morning watch atop the watchtower. The first two hours yielded 11 barking deer and miscellaneous bird life, but no elephants! In the afternoon, Palia and I went to the nearby game tank and stopped some metres away listening to the low rumbling typical of an elephant. The sight we saw was enough to gladden any heart. It was a particularly content elephant vocally splashing about the pool, literally playing in its own private, natural spa, wet mud and all. We crept up the tower and watched, completely mesmerised, as the young tusker celebrated his existence. I doubt that that memory of Satkosia will ever be lost to me. If at all there was any doubt that Satkosia was a vital elephant habitat that was dispelled the next morning as we watched yet another young tusker gorge on the fruit of a village orchard, downing mangoes and jack fruit at will for over an hour. .(Add one or two sentences on the result of the census)

A few days later, as I read the census figures in the newspapers back home, I was content to note that Satkosia Wildlife Division alone had close to 200 elephants. Combined with Baissipalli Wildlife Sanctuary and other forests of Mahanadi Wildlife Division and surrounding territorial forests that constituted the Mahanadi Elephant Reserve, the number of elephants in these forests was said to exceed 500

A Panthera tigris stronghold

A couple of months before this trip to Satkosia, a young tigress, said to be between two and four years old, was sprayed with 11 rounds of buckshot by a poacher who had gone into the jungle in search of deer. She was found in the Purunakote Range and was transported for care to the Nandankanan Zoo in Bhubaneswar, where, even today, she lies in a tiny cage, paralysed below her waist, with painful bedsores, far away from the forests she once roamed. In my view, she would be better off dead.

The tigress, shot by a poacher at Asurakhola in Purunakote. Now confined to a
squeeze cage in Nandankanan zoo for nearly one and half years

At Wild Orissa, we have always known that Satkosia was a crucial tiger breeding habitat and that it needed much more protection. But it took 11 long years of intensive lobbying to get Satkosia declared a tiger reserve. In December 2007, I made another long trip to Satkosia, this time to the proposed core area of the tiger reserve, to document and collect data on tigers and their prey. With me was friend and fellow wildlifer with Wild Orissa, Dayani Chakravarthy from Mysore and Satyabrata Mishra, also a member from Bhubaneswar. We based ourselves in Tulka, in Purunakote Range, for the first half of the trip and then in Labangi, in Pampasar Range.

In and around Tulka, we saw many tiger pugmarks, fresh and old. On the main jeep track, we saw the fresh pugmarks of a tigress followed by a lone cub! The size of the prints suggested that the cub was no more than three or four months old. Interestingly, the pugmarks were superimposed on our car tracks, which meant they had passed just the previous night or early that morning because we had arrived around midnight. We knew that there was a tigress in Purunakote Range with two cubs, but they were almost a year old then. This was a different tigress and it had a new cub in tow! All this spelled good news for Satkosia.

Pug mark of a tigress, Satkosia Tiger Reserve

Apart from the two breeding females, we found the pugmark of yet another lone tigress and the pugmarks of two different males in different parts of the range. All this in the vicinity of the Tulka and Purunakote villages! In all likelihood, the high density of tigers is because of the healthy gaur population in the reserve. Not surprisingly gaur kills by tigers are frequent. The reappearance of dholes in this area is also a very welcome sign of the increasing prey base. Through our stay, we heard alarm calls of chital, sambar and langur daily. On our third morning in Tulka, as we were returning to the bungalow after our morning romp in the forests, we were treated to the most awe-inspiring sound in the world – the call of a male Royal Bengal tiger! He called for almost half an hour, at intervals of 5-10 seconds. The whole atmosphere was electric! In my view, if there is any real future for the tiger in Orissa, it is here. Even more so than Similipal (which is neck deep in controversy about its tigers now), though both reserves must, of course, receive the highest level of protection.

The significance of Satkosia

The location of Satkosia’s rich forests – in the very heart of Orissa – makes it an extremely vital biodiversity vault. It has direct or indirect corridors with almost every other major forest patch in the state. The Satkosia-Baissipalli belt, together with adjoining Reserved Forests has been declared as the 1,000-plus sq. km. Mahanadi Elephant Reserve, which houses close to 500 pachyderms. To the south, the Satkosia belt (which includes Baissipalli) is directly connected to the Ghumusar North and South Reserved Forests. Indirectly, corridors also connect the Nayagarh-Daspalla forests. And the park is well linked to the forests of Western Orissa, particularly the Khalasuni-Badrama (Ushakoti) section, which also harbours a tiger population.

Perfect habitat for tigers in Satkosia

I have visited this forest frequently and have come to know it well. Elephant and tiger movement frequently occurs between Baissipalli and the Tarasingh Range of Ghumusar North. Ghumusar is one of the few forests outside the Protected Areas that contains a breeding tiger population and should quickly be listed as a critical tiger habitat for the long-term survival of Panthera tigris in Orissa. Leopards are also doing well here, though their poaching is getting increasingly frequent in the region. The success of the Satkosia Tiger Reserve would be greatly shored up if Ghumusar could be readied to accept Satkosia's spillover tigers. This would also serve the additional purpose of refreshing the gene stock of both tiger populations.

The Ghumusar forests are in turn well connected with the Kondhmal (Kandha referring to a predominant tribe here, mal meaning mountains) forests (Phulbani and Kalahandi) and the historically rich and very remote ‘Dandakaranya’ (at the junction of Orissa, Andhra and Chhattisgarh). This area has historically been known for its tigers and its wild, untamed terrain. On the western side, the Boudh and Rairakhol forests connect Satkosia to the wildlife-rich jungles of Ushakoti-Badrama.

To the north, the regular movement of elephants (and tigers) between Satkosia and Similipal through the Kapilas Reserved Forests was badly affected by the NH-42, which links Cuttack and Sambalpur. Whatever little migration was possible was wrecked by the construction of the Rengali Canal. Such shortsighted and ecologically damaging projects could so easily have been better planned, if only developers had the sensitivity and ecological intelligence that is going to be so critical to the survival of human populations on the Indian subcontinent.

It is impossible to underestimate the value of the Satkosia forests, which are, incredibly, also linked to the coastal forests of the Cuttack and Khurda districts.

The Satkosia Tiger Reserve

A decade of solid work put in by Wild Orissa's finally paid off in 2005, when the Central Government gave an ‘in-principal’ approval for the Satkosia Tiger Reserve. However, it was not until December 31, 2007, that the Orissa Government actually formalised Satkosia’s declaration as Orissa's second tiger reserve. Hopefully, the Orissa Forest Department will now ensure that this decision translates into greater protection for tigers. It’s not going to be an easy task because timber theft and poaching are rampant here. Twenty tigers could be lost in the blink of an eye if we lose our focus. All it would take are a few jaw traps and a few pesticide bottles.

The other critical effort will be the building up of herbivore populations through protection. This happens to be one of the most neglected aspects of wildlife management in India and it troubles me when forest officials treat anything other than tiger and elephant poaching as ”petty crime by locals”. Whoever indulges in the killing of wild animals, rich or poor, tribal or non-tribal, should have the book thrown at them. This is because killing of deer and wild pig directly affects the food availability of carnivores. And when food is short, not only does the breeding success of carnivores fall, but incidents of human-animal conflicts automatically rise.

Habitat management, of the kind that parks such as Kanha have so effectively implemented down the years, is vital for habitats such as Satkosia whose prey density will surely rise if we create and maintain the meadows that had long ago been lost to the teak plantations planted by the British. Apart from encouraging prey densities to rise, meadows will also encourage both carnivores and elephants to stay inside the park and will greatly reduce the man-animal conflict that has become a part and parcel of the life of those living on the fringes of Orissa protected forests.

Late in January this year, I returned to Satkosia for a short trip. In a little over two days, I was able to spend time watching for raptors including a really good Crested Serpent Eagle sighting. Other birds I enjoyed watching were the Blackheaded Bulbul and Monarch Flycatcher. I followed up on a report of a leopard that had killed a goat in a village near Jagannathpur on the way to Purunakote and was able to follow the day-old pugmarks of another leopard along the road to Asurakhola. Jungle paths always tell interesting stories and as I followed the leopard’s pugmarks, I saw older tracks of a lone tiger going in the opposite direction. I did an about turn and discovered where the tiger had scraped the soil beside the path at frequent intervals. Near one of the scrapes, I discovered a scat that seemed to suggest that the tiger had made a chital kill, but to be absolutely sure, the hair would need to be examined under a microscope. A little ahead, I found fresh bear scat with termite heads in it, but missed the sloth bear that others had seen ahead of us.

I spent the second morning in Tulka where, the forest watcher, Ganga, had found tiger pugmarks three to four days ago, probably of the resident Tulka male. I spent the day at Tikarpada and walked along the opposite bank of the river, watching river lapwings and a particularly large mugger crocodile. Our boatman said he had seen tigers on the Mahanadi's banks on a few occasions. I also heard of villagers who had scared off a tiger that had a charged a grazing herd of buffaloes.

The most promising tiger habitat here is the Labangi-Tulka-Purunakote patch, which has a fairly decent prey base. However, this area is not going to be sufficient for new cubs because when they grow up they will need independent territories, which will be hard to come by. All the truly suitable tiger habitats in Satkosia are already occupied and, under present conditions of habitat and protection, both predators and prey seem to have reached a level of saturation. Without improving the habitat by drastically reducing human, and especially, cattle pressure, improving vegetation and forage for herbivores and increasing protection, there is little scope for the carrying capacity of these forests to increase any further. From here on it is up to those who control the destiny of India to make up their minds whether they wish to see the tiger quietly die out, or whether it is worthwhile to encourage some key villages to move away from critical tiger habitats with their domestic livestock, so that tiger numbers can rise and the forest can perform the water harvesting and climate control role it had been performing for eons.

The problem is not with the villagers for they have already said they would be happy to move. In fact even those villagers living in Revenue Villages along the Pampasar-Tikarpada State Highway that bisects the Satkosia Sanctuary have agreed to move and some such as Raigoda have put this intent in writing over five years ago. But the Orissa Forest Department has not been able to provide an effective relocation package. Purunakote, tired of losing their crop to elephants and ungulates, also now wishes to relocate. The condition of forest villages such as Tulka, Labangi and Chotkei is even worse and they would surely jump at the chance to move closer to markets, where jobs and medical facilities for their families are much easier to access

Incidentally, the Forest Rights Act which is likely to devastate forest lands when brokers and middlemen misuse it to access timber and other forest riches, has no roll to play in the relocation of the Revenue Villages such as the ones mentioned above because these communities already own their lands, which they would gladly sell, provide they were assured of equally fertile lands elsewhere and of a financial package that enabled them to improve the lives of their families. The Satkosia Tiger Reserve has 106 villages strewn across it. Five of these are in the core area of the Tiger Reserve and the rest 101 one lie in its buffer. Rehabilitating these out of the Tiger Reserve will have an immense positive impact on the wild fauna and flora, and, at the same time, provide the people with better opportunities to live a much happier life.

Organized wildlife poaching is another serious threat. This has become a chronic elephant poaching zone and poisoning of tiger kills also happens. The porous southern and eastern boundaries of the park, easily accessible through the Mahanadi, let the notorious wildlife/timber mafia based in Narsinghpur and Badamba villages of Cuttack district have a free run of these forests.

At the time of writing one hears of the Rs. 600 crore financial package that could be allocated for the long term protection of forests such as Satkosia. Another sum of Rs. 50 crore is said to have been allocated for tiger protection in the country in the Union Budget 2008-9. If these funds are used to benefit the wildlife and are not misspent, I have no doubt that Satkosia will turn into a park that could rival any Kanha , Corbett or Nagarahole. Officers of the likes of ex-DFO Sushanta Nanda and his team of rangers (whom I credit with the revival of these forests over the past year and half or so) need to be posted for continued competent and dedicated administration of the park.

The elixir of life!

I am young enough to dream about turning these forests that feed the Mahanadi into the throbbing heart of India’s wilderness. I know that by acting as mega-carbon sinks such thick and biodiversity rich forests could mitigate many of the impacts of climate change that the rampant industrialisation of Orissa is surely going to accelerate. Put another way, protecting the tigers of Satkosia’s amounts to the protection of the very future of Orissa; the very future of India.

My images from the Satkosia Tiger Reserve can be seen here

*Not applicable to some images

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Shikar Kothi Meadows

Here is my collection of images from trips to this amazing wild-land. The images are from trips made between January 2007 to February 2008. Hope you enjoy them. Feel free to critique. Click on the images to go to gallery.

Bhitarkanika is India's second largest patch of contiguous mangrove forest- next only to the Sunderbans- and is home to the densest population of Saltwater aka Estuarine Crocodile in the subcontinent. Over 1500 salties- the largest living reptiles on the face of this planet- share ~ 650 sq kms of mangrove forest, estuaries and beaches with mind blowing avian and reptilian fauna.

Unlike the forests more inland, mammals take a back seat here as reptiles rule this real life Jurassic Park. However, that doesn't stop it from being home to some extremely rare mammals like the leopard like Fishing Cat and Irrawaddy and Bottle-Nosed dolphins, not to forget other 'common' creatures like chital, wild boar, jackals and hyenas. I'll keep adding to this album as I go on visiting Bhitarkanika.

Bhitarkanika is home to there species of monitor lizard, the largest of which is this,
the seven footer Water Monitor Lizard.

Bhitarkanika is home to 1500 Saltwater Crocodiles

An Asian Openbilled Stork

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Click on above image to view gallery

Wildlife photography at night is often discouraged. The reason is, people can't think of it without the use of a flash. Nocturnal wildlife is very sensitive to light. Their eyes are meant to be used in very low light and need to be rested even in daylight. Imagine the effect of a powerful camera flashgun on them! Even the 'weak' inbuilt flashes that come with digital cameras can cause permanent optical damage if used from very close.

So does one have to pack up one's camera at sundown? Not necessarily. In this age of DSLRs, we have the convenience of changing ISO at will. Torchlight, car headlights (from a distance, of course), etc. are not known to harm/disturb wildlife the way flashguns do. Especially in areas where wildlife has become used to frequent human presence, such an external source of illumination may be used without any feeling of guilt. However, care must be taken not to approach too close to the subject and one must always switch off the light at the least hint of disturbance on the animal's part. Combined with these weak sources of light, a high ISO of 1600 or 3200 can yield fairly good results. During night drives through well wooded parts (don't do it in parks where it is not permitted!), I usually have my 75-300 mounted, with ISO pumped up to 3200 and camera in 'Tv' mode and shutter speed set somewhere between 1/15 to 1/30. My camera has an in-built 'Shake Reduction' system and I manage to take fairly good pictures hand-held at such low shutter speeds. Later, I work on them on Photoshop, adjusting levels to correct lighting and if necessary, use noise reduction and sharpening. Here, I have attempted to showcase some of my work taken with these tricks. Night photography need not always be unethical!

Some 'DOs' and 'DON'Ts' to keep in mind:

(a) NEVER use a flash.
(b) NEVER shine a light directly onto the animal's face/eyes.
(c) NEVER physically restrain the animal. Switch off the light at the least hint of disturbance.
(d) Maintain silence throughout.
(e) Pump up your ISO to max.
(f) Use medium range focal lengths (200mm, max. 300mm.)
(g) Use manual focus.
(h) Tripods and beanbags, if possible to use, will give a lot of advantage.
(i) Don't drive around at night where it is prohibited. Roads outside parks, especially in rural areas and even in city outskirts, often throw up the odd hare, civet or jackal.
(j) Don't be a maniac of a driver. Drive slow and don't honk. In any case, if you do any of those, you'll probably end up not even seeing a rat.
(j) Practice all standard safari ethics while on these 'night safaris'.

Would love to hear your views on this.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hi everyone,

I've been tripping rather hectically since the beginning of 2007. Keeping this blog updated with so much travel has become rather difficult. Although I'm trying my best to put up detailed trip reports ASAP, I'll take this opportunity to brief you about some of my most memorable incidents in '07.

* Perhaps the best thing that happened in 2007, by me, has been my trips to the Satkosia Gorge Wildlife Sanctuary. To see Satkosia bouncing back and its tigers making a comeback- breeding and refusing to perish under human pressure, has been a dream come true. To top it all, on 31 December '07, a day before the Forest Rights Act was implemented, Satkosia was declared Orissa's second Tiger Reserve- 11 years of untiring effort by Wild Orissa, with whom I have been volunteering with since the past five years, has finally paid off. It'll be a while before I post my trip reports here. Until then, please go through the images I made there by clicking on these images:

* The second most memorable part of '07 has been my trip to Tadoba Tiger Reserve in November '07. I made the trip with my friend Dayani Chakravarthy, from Mysore, and had a great experience interacting with the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT) who're doing excellent work there. The trip also gifted us with a great tiger sighting apart from many other herbivores and some great birding. A few images from that trip can be seen on my INW Gallery by clicking on the image below.

* Apart from some major wildlifing, in many shorter trips throughout the year, one major mentionable is that I was honored to receive the "Sanctuary Asia-ABN AMRO Young Naturalist of the Year Award '07". Click on the image below for details on that.

Alternatively, you may log on to www.theearthheroes.com or www.sanctuaryasia.com