Category Archives: Wildlife

Walk in the woods: Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve

There was something unrealistic about standing within 10 ft of a pack of Indian wild dogs. Popularly known as Dholes and classified as an endangered species, this elusive pack of wild canines was busy gnawing at what appeared to be the skeletal remains of a deer. It was 7.00 on a crisp Thekkady morning and we had just embarked on our three-hour nature trek from the Periyar Tiger Reserve nature interpretation center.

Earlier, we had crossed a small creek that was part of the Periyar reservoir, standing precariously on a bamboo plank. We had just commenced our walk along the fringes of the forest when we came upon an open meadow. The Dholes were stationed here. I did the only thing I could possibly do in those circumstances – pull out my camera.

Nature at its best

Nature at its best

We were on the last leg of our five-day drive from Bangalore to Munnar and Thekkady. Having already covered Munnar in the last three days, we had reached Kumily the previous day and had put ourselves up at a home stay, Pepper County, owned by the lovely and enterprising couple, Mr. and Mrs. Cyriac.

Periyar Tiger Reserve is situated in the southern part of the Western Ghats spread across the Idukki, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts of Kerala. The reserve is also the catchment area of the river Periyar.  Periyar National Park is one of the few national parks in India to remain open even during the monsoon.

Enchanting jungle path

Enchanting jungle path

We had earlier decided against the mandatory boat ride, the most common activity that tourists prefer to do when visiting the Periyar Tiger Reserve.  We didn’t want to look touristy in our own home state by going on an hour and a half long boat ride with a load of other tourists ‘just to spot some wildlife’. There is no advance booking for the boat trip and there is a mad rush in the mornings to reach the booking counter and we did not want to be a part of that.

Traffic jam at the Periyar Tiger Reserve entrance gate

Traffic jam at the Periyar Tiger Reserve entrance gate

At 6 am we were standing behind a file of about 20 vehicles, autos, buses, taxis, and cars, before the closed gates of the Periyar Tiger Reserve – all of us patiently waiting for the gates to open. It was astonishing to realise that, at that early hour, there were so many people lined up for entry tickets. We were almost sure that most of them were here for the boat ride. From the entry gate, one is only issued the entry ticket and a parking ticket. To get a ticket for the boat ride, you have to drive another 2 km from the entry gate, park your car and then run to the ticket counter, another 500 m from the parking lot, and join the jostling queue. It was a wet and cold morning, but tempers were definitely hot and short. Once the gate was open, there was a small rush as every car was aiming for that first spot in the queue.

On the way to the parking lot

On the way to the parking lot

Nobody was overtaking but positively speed driving, way above the 20 km/h speed limit.  We joined the mad rush till the parking lot. From the parking lot, the others continued, most of them probably boosted by the idea of having an upper deck ticket so that their chances of ‘spotting wildlife’ improved.

Boat ride

Boat ride

We had already booked a slot for the nature trek, the previous day, which was supposed to start at 7 am. As we were at least an hour early, we thought we would do a recce of the place. We first watched the excited tourists get packed onto the boat. After the boat tragedy of 2009, the authorities have limited the number of boats at Thekkady.  Later, we remained on the porch of the ticket counter from where one could get the best views of the reservoir. Early mornings are the best time for animal sightings as most of the wild animals come to the water. We watched a herd of Sambhar deer coming to the water and prancing around.

Sambhar deer

Sambhar deer

By 6.45, we had assembled at the Nature Interpretation Center and were busy struggling with the khaki leech socks that were being provided to us by the forest department. These long leg covers, to be tied over your legwear, are supposed to protect you from poisonous insects, reptiles and the scariest ones, leeches. We were also asked to fill in forms with our contact details and the next of kin’s contact numbers and address.

Struggling to keep the leech guards on. The leeches didn't have to !!!

Struggling to keep the leech guards on. The leeches didn’t have to !!!

The nature walk is a light trek where every group is led by an experienced forest guide and can have up to a maximum of six individuals. The prescribed fee is Rs. 200/- per person but as the minimum fee for the trek was Rs. 800/- and as there were no other members in our group we had to dole out Rs. 800. It was also surprising to note that there were no other Indians in any of the other trekking groups. So much for the love of the forest!

The Kerala Forest Department has employed local tribesmen from the Mannan community, who have a good knowledge of the local flora and fauna, as guides for the treks. The Mannan community, the oldest tribal community in the Periyar Tiger Reserve area, was primarily into fishing and cultivation.  With the spread of tourism, many have now become guides. Under a program in association with the German government, they are trained to speak English, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, and even foreign languages like French, German and Spanish.

Brahminy Kite in action

Brahminy Kite in action

Our guide, Mr. S, who had 10 years of experience, seemed to be quite knowledgeable about the jungle. After gearing ourselves with the leech socks, we started our trek. We had to cross a small creek first. It took a huge amount of practice and balance to stand still on the bamboo plank. There was the uneasiness of one’s footwear getting wet or, even worse, the dismay of plunging into the reservoir in its full glory.

The bamboo raft

The bamboo raft

Neither of it happened and we started walking along a forest path. Before reaching a clearing, S gestured with his hand and told us not to move. He cupped his ears and told us to listen carefully. We could hear a high-pitched whistle. We slowly walked towards the clearing and hid behind a few brittle bushes. It was then that we spotted the Dholes. There were around 7 or 8 of them, some of them busy gnawing, some of them cautiously looking around and a few of them just moving around. The Dholes must have sensed human presence as they suddenly got up and moved a bit further even as we silently pursued the pack.

Dholes on the prowl

Dholes on the prowl

Dholes are supposed to be shy and cautious animals and are found to tolerate a minimum amount of human disturbance. Dholes are probably the only carnivores found in India which has never been accused of attacking humans. On the other hand, it is a common practice of the tribals to often steal Dhole kills, many a time right from underneath their noses!!!!

Dholes live in packs and almost look like larger dogs but with a more reddish coat and a black bushy tail. Dholes, like dogs, are very social and communicate with each other by whistling.  Dholes hunt together, teaming up to take down smaller animals like hares, rodents, pigs, and even larger preys like Sambhar deer, wild boars, and Chital. They are also quite ferocious and always end up tearing rapidly into their prey, sometimes feasting while the prey is still alive.

Sadly, the Dhole is an endangered species.

As we walked further, the Dholes kept moving away from us, crossing over a patch of marshy land, half-swimming, and half-trudging and finally disappearing into the cover of the forest. Right on the side of the marshy patch was the skull of an Indian Gaur supposedly killed and eaten by a tiger about a year ago. The forest department had not removed the skull so that visitors could get to touch and feel it.

Gaur skull

Gaur skull

Suddenly the forest was reverberating with the unmistakably large whirring sound of the Great Malabar Hornbill. We had already seen some of its cousins in Arunachal and were quite familiar with the sounds and sights of the bird.  S pointed to us where a hornbill nest existed and told us to wait. In less than a minute, we saw a hornbill swoop down from the skies and hop onto the tree.

Great Malabar Hornbill in flight

Great Malabar Hornbill in flight

We were now walking towards the forest. Throughout the three hours trek, we learned about several different types of trees, birds, and animals.  Though we were not expecting a few tigers or leopards to pose in front of us, we were quite satisfied by spotting a great variety of birds and also listening to the beautiful songs of Malabar whistling thrushes, the hoots of the coucals and the calls of the hornbills.

Indian Gaurs grazing on a nearby hill

Indian Gaurs grazing on a nearby hill

We also came across Nilgiri langurs and a couple of Gaurs which were grazing up on a nearby hill. The most beautiful find was the Giant Malabar Squirrel.

But what took our breath and a lot of blood away was the leeches. It is really amazing to see how these tiny creatures can jump onto one’s body like an acrobat. Also, stuck to our shoes were plenty of leeches that we constantly flicked away with twigs. At one point, S sprayed some tobacco powder on our shoes which he said would keep the leeches away – not that it did. Guess our leech socks were not thick enough!

The jungle is alive. You just have to look.

The jungle is alive. You just have to look around.

We realized that, apart from providing an opportunity to experience forest life, this trek also creates awareness in the prevention of poaching and other illegal activities like sandalwood smuggling. A lot of the night patrollers were once poachers and had been given an opportunity by the forest department to be a part of their special protection team. The plus point, of course, is that they know the forest inside out.

The most dangerous and unpredictable animals are sloth bears and elephants. S’s brother, a night patroller, was once attacked by a sloth bear and fractured his arm and had a rod inserted. Sloth bears are at their highest alert during breeding time and when they have cubs.

Elephant tooth

Elephant tooth

We also came across a huge elephant tooth, belonging to an elephant which was killed by another two years ago. In that same year, around seven other pachyderms were killed by this very elephant. We had read in the previous day’s papers that a wild elephant had run amok in the jungle and a lady got injured. We asked S about it and were surprised to hear that he was witness to the whole incident. He had been leading a group of 6 people when the elephant came running through the jungle, catching a group of tourists unaware. In the melee that ensued, a lady fell down and fractured her leg. S said that he did not even have the time to warn the tourists.

Great Malabar Squirell

Giant Malabar Squirrel

My hiker’s eyes did travel longingly to the summit of a small hill across the river. Seeing our enthusiasm, S mentioned that the forest department also conducts a day and night trekking/camping program. Another interesting program is the Jungle Patrol where tourists are given an opportunity of taking part in the regular night patrolling inside the reserve. It is interesting to note that this is the only tiger reserve in the country where night patrol is allowed.

Innovative signboards within the park

Innovative signboards within the park

The objective of this activity is to not only explore the jungle at night but to also understand how tough the work of the forest department is. As all the forests of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala are contiguous, sandalwood smugglers travel all the way from the other states, bare feet and barely clothed with oil applied all over, making it difficult for the patrolmen to catch them.

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Another recent addition to the activities is bamboo rafting, a full day activity which includes both hiking and rafting. Tourism is highly regulated as only 30 sq km of the park is open to tourists and trekking is only done around the buffer area.

Do Indians hate a walk in the jungle?

Do Indians hate a walk in the jungle? Go figure!!!

In spite of the fact that this reserve being home to a vast assortment of wildlife species, wherein a number of birds and animals are unique here, we found that most of the times these activities are only booked by foreigners. This reserve is visited by wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers in crazy numbers, all round the year, but most of them only make it till the boat ticket counter.

Move away from the crowds. Explore the nature. It is bound to leave you gasping in wonder. Step away from the usual path. It can be a rewarding experience. In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks. Peace, clarity, happiness……?

Happy feet

Endless trails and happy feet

Our feet were definitely happy.

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In Namdapha: Chasing the Butterflies

The alarm on my mobile phone was set at 4.30.  But I was woken up before that.  By a steam engine, of all things.

A steam engine in the middle of a jungle! The nearest railway station was about 90 km away, in Margherita, Assam.

Desperately seeking

I ran outside to see if the Hogwarts Express from Platform 9¾ had changed its course into this magical land. The sound was coming from somewhere up, from the branches of a tree. Seeing me dash outside in my night clothes, Gogoi da came out from the kitchen and joined me outside on the lawn. He pointed up and said “Hornbill”. At that very same moment two hornbills flew away flapping their wings vigorously.

I later learnt that the wing beats of a hornbill are so heavy that the sound produced by the birds in flight can be heard from a distance. When flapped, their wings create loud whooshing sounds that resemble the puffing of a steam locomotive starting up. Even their deep echoing calls can be heard from miles away.

Gogoi da rushed back to the kitchen to get us our tea and we walked towards the river to enjoy the dawn.

My alarm just went off. It was only 4.30 in the morning.

Does this look like 4.30 am!

The sun was rising somewhere behind the high mountains. But the golden rays were already making an impact on the sky and the river in front of us. It is hard to explain the way we were feeling – completely at peace, far away from the noises of the city, the honking, the shouting and yelling.

The Dapha Bum looming in the background

While sipping our tea we heard the loud whooping of hoolock gibbons. We followed the evocative call which led us into the woods behind the rest house. It was very difficult to judge from where the noises were coming, but the sounds got louder. It was as if they were somewhere right above our heads. But it was so hard to spot the gibbons through the thick foliage. It seemed as if more than one group were there and some sort of a hooting competition was going on. We had strained our necks for quite a long time so we decided to get back to the rest house.

It was barely six in the morning and so much had already happened. Such is the magic of Namdapha.

We had an early breakfast. Mr Pungjung had told us the previous day that if we had to spot wildlife we were to start early .

In the Kitchen, with Gogoi-da

So we set off from the rest house armed with our cameras, binoculars, a book on butterflies and a lot of enthusiasm along with our guide, Mr Pungjung.

Mr Pungjung had 33 years of service, out of which 18 years he had spent at Deban. And he didn’t even look 33.  There was a sprint in his walk, a twinkle in his eyes and he was always at least 50 m ahead of us, patiently waiting for us if there was something interesting to be sighted.

Mr Pungjung and his keen student

And interesting it was.

We took a shortcut from the guest house, cutting the hills and reached the Miao-Vijoynagar road and started walking towards Vijoynagar. Deban is called the 17th mile.  We had planned, or rather Mr Pungjung had planned, that we would walk till the 22nd mile to get some views of the mighty Dapha Bum.

In Namdapha

The jungle  was replete with bird calls.

We got to understand the spectacular bird life present here. In the small muddy streams we saw forktails hopping around, while other birds included the flamboyant  scarlet minivets, babblers, tree pies, barbets, patridges, kingfishers  ……..

Can the flora be behind?

The sun was climbing up, slowly. Till then we were passing through thick forest and the mud path was mostly covered with shade. Suddenly we came out to an open space, a small meadow, and realized how hot it was. But we did not feel the heat, as there was something that lay before us that cooled everything around us.

Butterflies.

Namdapha is a veritable butterfly paradise. Perhaps one of the prettiest insects on the planet,  butterflies embody the spirit of beauty and transformation in nature.

And what we found in front of us looked like a colour palette with multitonal hues and designs. Mr Pungjung started to identify the butterflies and I was busy noting them all down. Somewhere in the middle I gave up, the zoological names were distracting me from enjoying those fragile and pretty creatures.

Great Orange Tip’s, Common Five Ring’s, Chocalate Pansy, Evening Brown, Plum Judy, Common Mormon, Common Sailor and  Common Crows kept flitting by. The dragon flies and moths were not far behind.

I was distracted again, this time not by the Zoological names but by something more profound. It was the Gibbons again, those loud, coordinated, stereotyped duet song bouts had started again. Mr Pungjung said they were somewhere nearby.

We walked further up the jungle trail. The sounds got louder. And we spotted them. And ‘they’ consisted of a small happy family of a mother, father and child. The mother was  swinging from a branch with her baby clinging on to her, her husband watching her carefully from a neighbouring branch.

The man, woman and child

They suddenly disappeared into the thick forest cover and we moved on,  their sounds still haunting us.

On the way we found remnants of small fires that had been rustled up along the roadside. They had been made by people belonging to the Lisu tribe. About 157 km from Deban lies a small village called Vijoynagar. A succession of earthquakes, landslides and rains have made the settlement inaccessible and the only way to reach this village is on foot. Vijoynagar is inhabited by the Lisu tribe, who hunt forest animals. This has caused a lot of friction between the Lisus and the forest department. Poaching is common in these forests. There has been instances where Lisus have tried to exchange the endangered Red Panda for a packet of salt!

Remnants of a fire place

There are hardly any shops in Vijoynagar, so they have to trudge through the forests, cross the river, defend themselves from wild animals and sometimes walk in the rain to Miao to do all their shopping.

We met a few Lisus on our way, they carry bamboo baskets on their backs,  loaded with provisions walking slowly through the jungle. It takes them around 10 to 11 days to reach their village depending on the weather.

It is a long way home

It was already 12 pm and we started walking back. We were too engrossed with the forest sights, we totally forgot about the river flowing by, down in the valley.

The river and the valley

The sky was overcast and it looked as if it was going to rain. By 2.30 we were back at the guest house – and then it started to rain.

Famished, we decided to have lunch first.

Back at the cottage, we realised we had brought in some of the jungle’s fauna along. My husband took his socks off to reveal a particularly obstinate leech clinging on to his ankle – our first encounter with a bloodsucker. Fortunately, I had remembered my lessons…..a drop of saline and the little fellow dropped off, leaving behind a wet, red smear; our predator squiggling away for its next unsuspecting prey.

The prey and the predator

We sat by the river in the evening. It had been an eventful day.  The day’s excitement and tiredness began to take its toll. Before long we were asleep, lulled by the river flowing by and the occasional hoot of an owl.

The next day we were up before 5 am. This had become our daily routine – sleeping early, getting up even earlier – ever since we started our trip.

By 7.30 we were on the road, again. Today we were to walk towards Miao, as long as we could.

Across the river we spotted a small village with a lot of stilted houses. This village belonged to the Chakmas. The Chakmas are refugees from Bangladesh and are relatively recent immigrants, having been settled by the Indian government in the western edge of Namdapha.

The Chakma village across the Noa-dehing river

Mr Pungjung kept spotting animals and birds. By the time we came running with our cameras they conveniently disappeared. I did manage to capture a Malayan Giant Squirrel and a few hornbills flying by.

The Malayan Giant Squirrel

The patient trekker has a chance to see what he wants. The entire area is filled with songs of different species of birds –  from cuckoos to tree pies, redstarts to whistling thrushes, finches to sunbirds – the list is, happily, never-ending. The pretty flowers found in the shruberries and undergrowth added to the beauty of the forest. The oaks, the bamboo thickets, ferns and wild orchids all over.

Wild flowers on the way

A lot of road repair work was going on, a bridge was being revamped, ahead of the trekking season

There were surprises everywhere. A blue whistling thrush crossing the road, hornbills gliding over the tree canopy and a group of cape langurs enjoying their afternoon siesta.

Hornbills taking off

But it was time to go back. As we walked back we felt as if we were in a trance…taking the whole rainforest in.

But then I was reminded of a quote by Charles Darwin – “Delight is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a rainforest”. How true. Truer still, in this paradise called Namdapha.

But there was more to come. More to see. And more to know about.

The battle fields of Namti, near Walong.

Kaho and Kibithu – the eastern most villages of India.

Wakro and Tezu – our homes away from home.

Watch this space for more..


In Namdapha

It was 5 pm and the sun was already on the wrong side of the horizon. The flickering solar lights at the forest guest house we were staying at looked feeble from where we were standing. We were atop a small mound of sand overlooking the Noa-dihing River. The only sounds we could here were the occasional flaps from the birds, flying back home, and of the river making its way through its pebble-strewn bed.

We were at Namdapha National Park.

In Namdapha

Namdapha National Park is the largest wild life sanctuary in India, with a total area of 1985 sq km, and is located in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh near the Myanmar border. This park is recognized as one of the richest areas in biodiversity and has the credit of being the northernmost evergreen rainforest.

Welcome to Miao

The previous evening we had reached Miao, a village located on the fringes of Namdapha. Miao is a small settlement with some modern government quarters, a few traditional Singpho houses,  a Buddhist monastery, a mini zoo and a museum, an inspection bungalow, an eco-tourist hut and a cute little market.

Miao market

Our friend and host, Mr Phupla Singpho, had already arranged for our stay at the eco-tourist hut for the night. He stays in his very modern concrete house with his family right opposite to his more traditional wooden family home. He has been instrumental in bringing global importance and interest to the Namdapha National Park.

The Singpho tribe of Arunachal Pradesh inhabit the district of Changlang and are mainly Theravada Buddhists.  They are traditional tea planters. The Singpho produce their tea by plucking the tender leaves and drying them in the sun and exposing them to the night dew for three days and nights. The leaves are then placed in a hollow bamboo and exposed to smoke over a fire. This way, their tea can be kept for years without losing its flavour. Mr. Singpho presented us with this ingeniously produced tea. I felt a bit awkward presenting him in return a plastic packet of Coorg coffee.

Eco-tourist Hut at Miao

After checking into our room at around 2 pm, we had a couple of hours before sun down. Yes, the sun sets in these regions very early and before 5 pm the street lights are on. There is a serious demand to have a separate time zone for the northeastern states with suggestions for advancing the clock by at least 90 minutes. This is because the day breaks early in the northeast with the sun normally rising way  ahead of other Indian cities. When we were in Miao in October, the sunrise was recorded at 5.05 am and the sunset at 4.55 pm, where as the same in Bangalore, where we stay, was recorded at 6.10 am and 6.07 pm, respectively.

The British were smarter. They had set the local time one hour ahead of IST for tea gardens, coal mines and the oil industry in these parts. Some of the tea gardens still follow the bagaan (garden) time!

The Buddha Vihara at Miao

Before sun down we decided to visit the Singpho monastery nearby. We were welcomed by a group of dogs who were loitering around the monastery.

The Altar

The monastery itself is an imposing structure painted with vibrant colours of yellow and maroon. Narendar Bhikku, the head monk, was kind enough to spend some time with us, even presenting us with a book on Buddhism.

The Monk and his audience

He had been staying at this monastery for more than 40 years. The altar had numerous idols of Buddha and there was a stupa and a Bodhi tree outside.

The museum and the zoo were already closed, so we walked back to the eco-tourist hut, had dinner and slept early.

Bodhi tree

About 25 km and 2 hours from Miao lies Namdapha National Park, a wildlife enthusiast and biologists’ dream come true. The next day, we stocked up on our dry provisions from the market and started our journey around 8 am in a Tata Sumo. The road on the way is so bad that only the bigger vehicles dare to venture into the forest. We were first stopped at a check post manned by the 18 Assam Rifles. The army is overpowering with its presence in Arunachal Pradesh and you can be stopped at any check post. Visitors entering the state are checked for their Inner Line Permits and Tourist Permits that must be obtained before entering the Namdapha National Park.

On the jungle path

Our host had arranged for our stay at Deban, the forest headquarters within the park and the only accommodation option at Namdapha.  The drive takes you through a jungle path that may take about an hour-and-a-half, depending on the state of repair of the roads or the intermittent landslides that occur in these regions. We were lucky not to face any landslides. We crossed the bridge over the Noa-dihing River, some traditional houses on stilts on the edges of paddy fields and reached M’Pen stream, a perennial stream that normally overflows during the rains.

On the way to Namdapha

Our driver said that visitors to Namdapha during monsoons often have to wait for up to two days for the stream to subside before it can be crossed by their vehicles. Sometimes one might even have to start walking from the M’Pen stream which forms the boundary of the park. As soon as we crossed the stream we reached the park entry gate and our credentials were checked by the Forest Department staff posted there.

M'Pen gate: The entrance to Namdapha Park

The rest of the journey took us through a thick jungle. It seemed as if the sun had already gone down, and it was not even 9 am. On one side of the jungle path there were tall trees rising up to 100 m above us with a thick undergrowth of ferns, cane and bamboo. On the other side beyond a gorge, the Noa-dihing river was following us.

Parvatheshwar Temple

We passed a small temple, turned a curve and reached a cross road. There were two roads, one going downhill to the forest guest house at Deban and the other going uphill all the way to Vijoynagar, 157 km away, right on the India-Burma border.

At the crossroads...

We followed the road downhill and reached our home for the next three days and nights. The Deban Rest House is located within the Namdhapa National Park and is managed by the Forest Department of Arunachal Pradesh. The rest house stands on a thickly wooded hill slope overlooking the Noa-dihing River. The mysterious forest seems to engulf you and certainly there can be no better option for the adventurous.

The Forest Guest House

We were booked into a double room on the ground floor in this conical shaped rest house. The more luxurious top floor rooms were meant for government officials and VIPs. Because we were neither, we settled for what we got which was the next best.  Tourist huts, dormitories and traditional huts are located away from the main structure towards the river. Right next to the main rest house is a mess room where meals are prepared by Gogoi da and his efficient team.

There is no electricity in the park. The rest house is electrified by solar powered batteries. There is no public telephone service in Deban and our mobile phones were happily hibernating inside our backpacks.  Once a day, and if any emergency arises, a wireless is used to communicate with the outer world.

Namdapha Park is unique in many ways.  Declared a Project Tiger reserve way back in 1983, this is the only park in the world which has all the four big cats; the Tiger, the Leopard, the Snow Leopard and the Clouded Leopard. The reason being the region’s varying altitude, it ranges from 200 m to more than 4500 m. The Dapha bum, the tallest peak in Arunachal, overlooks the park and is snow covered during winters. Namdapha is also home to India’s only ape, the Hoolock gibbon. And the most unique factor – Namdapha is one of the few national parks in India which you can explore only on foot.

The first thing to keep in mind when you set out to explore this area is that you must do it in the right season. In the monsoons the jungles are inaccessible, the river uncrossable and the blood-sucking leeches are out on the grounds and tree tops looking for preys. Yes, on the tree tops. There are about 5 species of leeches and some can even sense the human blood from about 10 feet away. There are leeches that hide in the ferns and branches and jump onto you from above!!

The river, the mountains and the landscape

We visited Namdapha in the right season. The river was flowing low, it was not the rainy or snowy season, but the forest staff were a bit behind schedule in clearing the jungle. It is an annual ritual of the forest staff to clear the jungle by marking well-defined trails for the convenience of the trekkers and wild life enthusiasts. There are camping sites inside the jungle at various places.

Butterflies near the guest house

Entering the jungle was out of the question for us. But the rest house surroundings is a mini zoo in itself. The whole place was swarming with butterflies, and it was not even season. The constant sound of the crickets seemed like an alarm clock that somebody forgot to turn off. And there was even a small snake lurking among the bushes right in front of our room even as we were checking in!!

Be my guest

By the time we had checked in and freshened up, it was time for lunch. After lunch we decided to explore the park by ourselves. We walked up the road on which we had come down a few hours earlier. The sounds of the jungle were mesmerizing.

On the jungle trail

A lot of birds were singing, hooting and clucking away merrily in the foliage. The constant sound of the river flowing by, adding up to the melody. As is normally the case, it is so hard to spot birds and even harder to photograph them. The luck with butterflies were better.

Some of the fellas.....

The sun was going down slowly and we decided to walk to the river side. A small concrete platform was built overlooking the river. But we walked down further to the sand mound to get a better view. The mound makes a perfect natural watch tower to check the river below, giving you good views of the huge mountains across the river.

On the water front... Noa-dihing River

Right next to the watch tower is a huge tree belonging to the Ficus species that towers over the guest house with its height and appearance. The lower portion of the trunk is split and it looks as if the tree has two legs, ready to walk away.

Mr Tree on the move...

The sun was down in a few minutes and there was nothing to do other than enjoy the night sounds coming from the jungle – the occasional hoot from an owl, the crickets with their raucous calls and the cry of the barking deer somewhere nearby only enhanced the surreal nature of the surroundings. The sight of the huge yellow moon, whose glow surrounded the valley was overwhelming. We decided to turn in early as we had a long day ahead of us.

For the next two days we had planned to trek along the jungle road and had already spoken with the in house wild life enthusiast and expert Mr Pung Jung.

Tomorrow was going to be busy. There were butterflies to be captured (on lens), birds to be identified, and leeches to be dodged. And if lucky, we could even spot a Hoolock Gibbon, a Hornbill, or one of the four big cats……

I love to be optimistic.

Watch this space for more.


The tide, the tiger and the Sunderbans

I planned to visit Sunderbans right after I read ‘The Hungry Tide’ by Amitav Ghosh.

The book had everything. The sun, the sweat and a secret; the tide, the tiger and the dolphins; the romance, the research and an uprising; the black, the white and the Goddess. I wanted to see that all.

Between the Bay of Bengal and the higher lands of West Bengal lies one of the largest mangrove forests and the world’s largest delta, the Sunderbans – the beautiful forest. This archipelago is made of more than 100 islands with a maze of numerous waterways and creeks, where the sea merges into the rivers.

 

 

A birds eye view of Sunderbans

 

It is also a Biosphere reserve, a national park, a world heritage site and home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, not to mention estuarine crocodiles, dolphins, otters, monitor lizards, olive ridley turtles, monkeys, cheetals, boars and a variety of birds ranging from raptors like osprey, eagle and brahminy kites; waders like sandpipers, redshanks and greenshanks; smaller birds like kingfishers, flycatchers, minivets, bee eaters, woodpeckers, orioles and barbets; storks like lesser adjutants, egrets, herons and bitterns.

Sunderbans is also home to more than 4 million people whose daily life mainly depends on the highs and lows of the tide.  They

are mostly fishermen and farmers, some are wood collectors, and during the summers when the Sunderbans is in full blossom, they are honey collectors.


On a hot, sweaty day in the month of May 2008, we boarded a mini bus to Sunderbans from Priya Cinema in Deshapriya park in south Kolkata. It was only 8am and we were already feeling the heat.  The first 30 minutes took us through some crowded city roads till we passed on to the fringes of the metropolitan city of Kolkata.

 

Passing through Kolkata


For the rest of the journey we passed through some vast plains with fields interspersed with palm trees and wide canals flowing through.  We were passing through the 24 Parganas district. With the urban fringe of the metropolitan city of Kolkata on one side and the remote riverine villages in the Sunderbans on the other, 24 Parganas district has agriculture and pisciculture at the peak.


We reached Sonakhali by 11. From there we were to take a ferry to Sajnekhali. Sonakhali turned out to be a small port front overlooking a murky river. The river had all kinds of boats lined up. The boats ranged from the small oar held one-man boats mainly used for fishing, to the slightly larger country boats with hand-pulled diesel motors used to ferry people to the other side of the river or for short distances, to the larger touristy ferries with chairs fit on the decks that go down the river to the various resorts on other islands. It was rush hour when we started our trip down the river and we came across a lot of boats with school children and people going to work. The sun was already overhead and the dark greyish water was gleaming in the light.

 

At Sonakhali


When we started our journey it was high tide, during which the water level rises as much as 15 feet.  As the sea water flows into the rivers, the salinity is intense. The main rivers we were passing through were Gumdi, Gomor, Hogal, Peechlali and Bidhya.

 

The boat is on time!!!


I was expecting to see mangroves right from the beginning of the journey. But what welcomed us was a muddy river bordered with slate coloured banks. Small children were seen sliding on the clay banks while adults were seen engaged in prawn seed collection (which I learnt later) with fine nets along the river banks. The houses on the banks were mostly made of mud with thatched roofs, though there were a few concrete houses here and there.

 

Passing villages on the way


The ride was slow, and we were getting used to the rocking of the boat and the sound coming from the motor as well as the nauseating smell of diesel emanating from the engine. It had been around 2 hours since we had started our journey. We were leaving the village settlements behind and the date palms and coconut trees gave way to the mangroves.

 

First glimpse of the mangrove forests

 


Mangroves are trees which can survive, grow and propagate in sea water or in marshy and swampy brackish water in a tidal zone. Mangroves are adapted to survive in extreme saline conditions by maintaining a suitable water balance. The roots are modified to stand firmly in the alluvial soil. Since aeration is poor in the soil, some species have evolved special aerial roots called pneumatophores.  The tide was slowly receding exposing the mud surfaces, called flats, with the pneumatophores jutting out.  Some of the main trees found here are Heritiera fomes, locally known as Sundari and after which Sunderbans is named, Rhizopora apiculata.


Our guide said that it was the wrong time of the year to spot animals. During winters it’s a normal sight to see crocodiles basking in the sun, and tigers coming out of the cover to drink water. But still we were in full alert.


By 2pm, we reached Sunderbans Tiger Camp, situated in Dayapur, our home for the next 3 days.  Tired from the heat and journey, we decided to freshen up, have lunch and then rest for a while. Located opposite to the Tiger Reserve Forest at Sajnekhali, the Sunderbans Tiger Camp stands on a lush green field and is totally eco friendly.

 

Sunderban Tiger Camp

Sunderbans Tiger Camp started on 1st April 2004 as a basic camp providing 8 Swiss tented canvas accommodation with a common toilet facility and buffet meals. Later they added Cottages (A/C and non A/C) and  Huts with attached baths, which only increased the grandeur of the natural environment.

By 4.30 we were ready to visit the Sajnekhali Tiger reserve just a ‘shell’ throw away from our camp.

 

Sajnekhali Tiger Reserve

 

Sajnekhali is supposed to be the gateway to the Tiger reserve. It has a mangrove interpretation center with a museum, an estuarine crocodile pond, a turtle pond which houses olive ridley turtles and a watch tower from where wild life can be spotted. Though we did not see any animals we saw the turtles and crocodiles in captivity. We spotted a water monitor lizard which is found in abundance in the Sunderbans. At the mangrove interpretation center they had a small model of the Sunderbans map.  The museum had a collection of specimens that threw a lot of light on the flora and fauna in Sunderbans. It was getting dark and we decided to go back to the camp.

 

 

Sunrise over Sunderbans

The next day we were up early, got ready and watched the sunrise from the launch.  We were visiting Dobanki camp. The camp has a canopy walk of about 150 m leading to a watch tower. A walk on this elevated structure gave us the feeling of walking on top of the canopy of the mangroves. There were spotted deers in plenty.  There was also information about the different species of trees, animals and birds in the form of hoardings. We did spot the largest stork found in Sunderbans, the lesser adjutant stork. Later we cruised down the Matla-Sea face from where the Bay of Bengal can be seen and then we cruised back through the 5 river junction  to Pitchkhali. Gangetic dolphins have made this part their home. But somehow like the other animals they remained elusive.

 

Where the river meets the sea

 


In the evening we walked to the nearby village to take a look how they survived in this tough terrain.  The village had a very clean and serene look. The roads were paved with bricks. After dinner the camp had arranged a folk dance by the locals. Most of the songs and dances were based on the legend of Bon bibi and how she saved a village boy Dukhey from the hands of the Demon king Dakkhin Rai.

 

 

Bonbibi

 

There are small temples dedicated to the goddess of the jungle, Bonbibi, in every village.  Bonbibi, the lady of the forest, is worshipped by the honey collectors and wood collectors before entering the forest. Bonbibi is supposed to protect them from tiger attacks. Around 150-200 people are attacked every year in Sunderbans.

 

Cruising through the rivulets

 


By 5 am, the next day,  we were up and ready to visit Sudhanyakhali watch tower and cruise through the rivers and narrow creeks and the islands of the Sunderbans. At Sudhanyakhali, as the tide was low, we came across a lot of marine invertebrates like fiddler crabs and mudskippers on the flats. We climbed up the watch tower but no animals, other than some spotted deers,  were found around.

 

Model of Sunderbans

Model of Sunderbans

 


It was time for our journey back. We did not spot the Bengal tiger, the gangetic dolphins or even a crocodile. The only animals we spotted were,well the spotted deer.  But what we learnt from this journey is that we  have to appreciate the rich diversity of the flora and fauna in this area. The fact that the Sunderbans itself acts as a natural barrier and saves the people of West Bengal and Bangladesh from the various cyclones that hit that area every year. Cruising along the sanctuary itself is natures’ own never ending lesson. And the mangrove forests with the crisscrossing rivulets and creeks are absolutely unique to Sunderbans.

 

I am definitely coming back here.

 


Ranthambhore: a Jungle, a Fort and the King

 

 I had crossed many streams, trekked many hillsides, even rolled on the beach, but the jungle and its inhabitants always eluded me. The mention of visiting a wild life sanctuary was always accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a word of advice. ‘Visiting a sanctuary. Go and see a zoo instead’. I wanted to go through the whole jungle experience, breathe in the jungle air, listen to those sounds you would never listen outside a jungle, and if lucky see the King and his people in their natural habitat.

Entrance

At the gates of Ranthambhore National Park

So in the month of December, 2007, we decided to go to Ranthambhore National Park. Named after the Ran and Thambhore mountains and situated 14 kms from the Sawai Madhopur railway station, Ranthambhore National Park spans over 392 sq km  of area. When we got out into the freezing cold of the red bricked Sawai Madhovpur station from the comforting air-conditioned railway coach of the Dehradun Express, we didn’t know what to expect. Somewhere on the other side was another world, totally unknown at the present. It was a new morning, a new beginning. I was about to venture out into the jungle for the first time.

Mr. and Mrs. Sambhar

Mr. and Mrs. Sambhar

Cooling down

Cooling down

Mama's boy

Mama's boy

Nilgai's resting after a hard day of grazing

Nilgai's resting after a hard day of grazing

Grooming session

Grooming session

and the rest waiting for their turn

and the rest waiting for their turn

Crickey

Crickey

After the night shift

After the night shift

A friendly treepie

A friendly treepie

..and the King

..and the King


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