Monday, March 28, 2011

Fresh Flavour of Wilderness in Boudh District: Mahanadi Wildlife Division

Mahanadi Wildlife Division spreads over an area of 440 sq kms and comprises of Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary & Baisipalli Sanctuary. While Kusanga and Chamundia ranges are part of Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary, Banigocha (East) and Banigochha (West) are part of Baisipalli Sanctuary. Spread over two Districts of Nayagarh and Boudh, Mahanadi Wildlife Division is headquartered at Nayagarh. Kusanga is one of the entry points from the North Side of the Sanctuary and is barely 10kms from the starting point of great gorge of Satkosia. Binikia (in name of the deity “Maa Binikei”) is situated right opposite on the other side of the river in Angul District.

Having spend 2 days at Kuanria in Nayagarh, it was time for us to move to Kusanga Forest Range office in Boudh District. Previous evening already Trinatha Bhaina (caretaker of Kuanria FRH) had informed Panda Babu, the Forester at Kusanga about our visit to Kusanga. Panda babu was generous enough and had assured us that he will be there when we arrive at Kusanga. Behera babu , the Forester from Kuanria range was to accompany us for the trip. At 4 in the morning, someone knocked the Doors. Half asleep, I opened the door to find Behera Babu covered in shawl and a fluorescent Orange monkey cap adorning his bald head. Had that big trademark forester torch and stick not been in his hand, I would have fainted in doubt of seeing a ghost. It was freezing outside and I was amazed by his commitment of awaking us early in the December morning. Trinath Bhaina was ready with hot piping black tea. By 5 we were out in our Jeep for Kusanga. It is around two and half hours from Kuanria. Early breeze and haze had reduced the visibility to almost 10 meters. This road actually connects Nayagarh with Boudh and Northern Orissa and travels through the Baisipalli Forests. Behera babu had a great demand for another cup of warm tea. We stopped at Madhapura Chaka where few roadside tea stalls were already doing brisk business because of busses coming from Phulbani which is situated hardly 30kms away. Left diversion takes you to Phulbani and if you drive straight, you can reach Boudh. We were joined by two persons at the stall who humbly asked us if they can take a lift till Charichak ( Charichhaka) about half an hour drive from the place. This was another opportunity provided on our pallet for knowing the local issues and ask if they have ever seen Tiger in the region. Both of them were Carpenters by profession and they travel daily from Khajuripada , a small hamlet in Phulbani to Charichaka in Boudh. Life is hard. Every day in the morning around 4 o clock they would leave their homes in Khajuripada, get down at Madhapura Chaka, take another bus to Charichak .Day would end when they reach back home for the supper. By that time everybody else in family would be dozing off. When asked if they have ever seen Tigers in the region, they frankly admitted that Tigers were only to be heard in stories. They have never seen one but also were very firm that its not because of poaching that Tiger have been wiped out of Phulbani and surrounding areas. It is because of reduction in Forest area that has brought in this fate for Tigers. Tree felling still goes on illegally though not rampant. Poachers are active in some areas but it is more towards killing of Wild Boars and Cheetals. Agriculture has been the other reason for the reduction in the forest area.
Sun rays striking their way through the engulfed mist was creating a superb sight on the road and the drive had become pleasant. Road was devoid of any traffic. Warm cup of tea in the morning had made its mark and effects were already showing after barely 15 minutes of drive. Behera babu smilingly ordered driver Jagu to look out for a roadside ravine. As soon as the vehicle came to a halt, Behera Babu vanished from the spot with an empty can. Idea of this short irresistible trip to heaven motivated Jagu to join Behera Babu behind the bushes. A tree nearby was sounding a busy place and was bustling with the sound of chirping birds. Starting from Small Minivet, Scarlet Minivet, Rose Ringed Parakeets we could spot various flycatchers. What a great way Boudh (Boudh) had welcomed us. After the ride to heaven both our fellow companions came out of the bush with big smiles on their face.

On a Cool Winter Morning of November....Blissful

We reached Charichak around 7:30 and stopped for our breakfast. Our carpenter friends from Khajuripada bid us good bye and left for their workplace. After getting wonderful snaps of birds, I was least interested in the breakfast out of excitement. But this small one room thatched eatery had other things in store that was going to add to the excitement. Sight of hot pooris being lifted from the hot oil pan with dripping drips of hot oil from the edges and being thrown on the big aluminum plate by the cook with lot of pride of having made crispy, brownie pooris is a sight that can evoke hunger in a dead man.The colour of the pallet would be made more vibrant with stewed potato curry ( aloo dum) served alongside the brown pooris. That’s the way breakfast has always been served in traditional Indian homes, hot and fresh. I wonder our next generation is missing so much by living in cities with parents who are busy in making their respective careers in corporate world. Those few minutes that I did spend in that small eatery brought back memories of the days when I would accompany my grandfather to the nearest sweet stall beside the railway station in the winter mornings to grab a bite of Singhara (Samosa) and Chenapoda (steamed, sweetened cottage cheese). Standing under the tree with the group of adults and sipping tea from Grandpa’s cup, I would behave like a grown up one. Topics ranging from politics to local crime to illegal mining would be discussed and debated. More reinforcements of Samosa, Wada and Aloo Chops would come in frequently benefiting Sahoo Mausa , the hotel owner. Those winter mornings are to be missed these days. But I was happy that Charichak had made me feel nostalgic. After relishing the food and eating till brim, we left for Kusanga about half an hour’s drive from Charichaka.
The day being chada khai, an Oriya festival on which Kartika month’s fasting of non vegetarian food is broken with grand feast of mutton, chicken and fish dishes; small market of Kusanga was buzzing with people. At Kusanga Range Office, Laksmi Narayan Panda, the Forest official was waiting for us. Panda babu and Sethi babu ( another forest official) had planned our visit to the sanctuary. Being chada khai, our courteous friends arranged for Mutton to be prepared and ready for us by the time we return in the afternoon from the sanctuary. While passing through the Kusanga market, Panda babu pointed out that situation was tense some days back after a fight broke out between the forest officials and the locals over a petty issue. But reason was something else. Poaching and tree felling has reduced after forest officials have tightened the screw on the activity. Some people with proven track record of being poachers are being closely watched. Satkosia has been declared a Tiger Sanctuary under Project Tiger. Already relocation work has started though not in full throttle but at least some initial ground work is being done. It has not been digested easily by some people who are mostly dependent on Forest, both legally and illegally. There are many revenue villages inside the sanctuary and relocating them is going to create more tension in the area. Situation is even worse in the other part of the sanctuary in Angul. There are more number of revenue villages and also quite sizeable. But it is not all gloomy. Just the day before a Sambar deer had died under suspicious circumstances. There was no exact reason that was getting apparent. Hence a forensic expert had also come to collect sample blood and do the post mortem. This sort of news gives hope and reinforces our belief in the department. They are doing there best in protecting our animals. People like Panda Babu and Sethi Babu have left their family in towns like Daspalla ( Dasapala) and Nayagarh and are doing their duty in these remote forests. On weekends they would go back for a day or two and see their kids play football or help them solve trigonometry. But the enthusiasm with which each of them told about the various conservation efforts being rendered was so delighting to hear. When asked about presence of tigers in the combined area of Baisipalli and Satkosia (Nayagarh Side), they had very clear number in mind, which was around 7-8 and not more than that. I mean their logic was also simple. Area itself cannot support more than that as prey base is limited and also there are no grasslands and meadows present as in Kanha or Bandhavgarh.Same logic I had heard earlier also from one of the forest guards of Banigocha. But these numbers have not reduced over the years. He promised us to show the plaster of paris imprints of Tiger Pugmarks on our return to the range office in the afternoon. We reached the Kusanga Check gate where I could recognize a familiar looking face. Mallick, the forest guard whom I had met last year at Chamundia range office came out with a register for taking our signatures. When I reminded him about our meeting last year, he could immediately recall that. He has been transferred to Kusanga range from Chamundia Range.
In few minutes of drive, great gorge became visible. We stopped at a point to look at the Binikei Temple on the other side of the gorge. On the western flanks of Binikei Temple lies the Athamallick ( Athamalik) Subdivision. There were a couple of Brahminy Shellducks also on the banks. Moving ahead along the gorge on the forest road, we crossed the anti poaching camp at Sitalapani where an Inspection Bunglow of Irrigation department is also there. No one stays in it after people complained that it had turned into a haunted house. People say that years back Chowkidar of the bunglow had died because of suffocation and his spirit still moves inside the Bunglow. I just pitied our friendly forest guard who came to open the check gate. We were inside the core part of Satkosia gorge Sanctuary. Plan was to move inside the sanctuary, take snaps of Indian Grey Hornbills( which we were told by Sethi babu are in abundance in Satkosia) and cross the gorge at Tikarpada, meet the forest officials of Tikarpada Range office and if possible get a Launch from them for the boat ride in the gorge.

Binikei Temple on Athmallik Side

Crossing the great Mahanadi at Tikarpada on small rickety boat was an experience. Boatman Naria was in his late 50s. Looking at our frightened eyes, he assured us of a safe journey after all he has been ferrying people since ages.

Great Gorge of Satkosia at Tikarpada

Defying the strong currents of Mahanadi

After reaching Tikarpada we went to the Range office and had a chat with the officials over there. Seeing one of the dead leopard skin, I asked one of the officials about the incident. We were told that a poacher had been caught with the skin some months back. But all the efforts of department went in vain as the poacher got the bail the subsequent day. Laws of the land are not strict enough to put the poachers behind bars. In 2009 I had been in Satkosia and had stayed at Tikarpada. But there has been many changes in between. Fear of Naxals has increased , population and number of Houses inside the sanctuary has gone up, tourist Inflow has shooted up but not a single news of Tiger Numbers inflating in the region is to be heard off. Eco Tourism Camp at Tikarpada might be doing well but not necessarily the Project Tiger efforts in the region. Forests have been shrinking rapidly so are the tiger habitats. More than that prey base had reduced drastically. To make the things worse , we heard from the localities that a local brewery has started inside the sanctuary area at Purunakot. I mean how can that sort of permit be given inside a sanctuary area? Last year I had an opportunity to visit Kandhaida. This year same may not be possible because of presence of Naxals in the area. We cannot have a Tiger Conservation project being tagged as successful until and unless relocation of these villages takes place quickly. But at the same time utmost care should be taken for providing proper compensation packages combined with other social support for the villagers who had been staying in this place since ages. We could sense that moral of the forest guards and officials is not that high and encouraging. A lot of bureaucracy in the hierarchy itself is killing the system slowly. There are so many associations in the department and for every small issue there is always ego clash between the associations. Being understaffed its always not possible to control poaching or any untoward incident regarding man animal conflict. But its always the people in lower rungs that suffer the wrath of politicians or IFS officers. They were unhappy with one of their colleagues being suspended over an issue of Elephant being electrocuted in Kendujhar division. It was just to satisfy the ministers and to show off to protesting people that the forest guards were suspended. “Being so much understaffed how can the department look into each and every issue involving the protection of wild animals?, said one of the staffs”. On an urgent basis these posts need to be filled in if at all state government is serious about the wildlife protection. It may go on denying that tiger numbers are reducing in the state, but matter of fact is that the big cat’s number are very few and unsustainable on a longer run. If special Tiger Protection forces are not created for Similipal, Satkosia and Sunabeda then the game would get over very soon. Launch could not be arranged as driver was not there and had gone on a duty inside the core area of Kandhaida .

Malabar Giant Squirrel in these forests are more in number compared to Malabar Coast

Feeling quite hungry we decided to return to Kusanga. Again our good friend Naria ferried us back to the Nayagarh side. Sethi Babu on the way back told us to stop at a particular place. Getting down there proved lucky for us as I clicked some wonderful picks of Grey Hornbills that we present in quite a number. We reached back Kusanga by 3 in the afternoon where our friends at the Range office were waiting for us with the awesome Mutton curry. What a way to celebrate Chadakhai !! The lunch was so filling.

Hopeful of seeing them in Camera Traps one day

Around six o clock in the evening we decided to leave Kusanga. Sethi babu was to accompany us till DFOs office in Nayagarh where he was supposed to submit some data and reports regarding the construction work going on inside the sanctuary. It was good to see the forest department people have been now trained on GPS tools. Modern technology is being used to track down exactly the position of Forest properties and the topography. We reached back Kusanga around 7 in the evening where Behera Babu got down and bid us good bye. Then it was turn of Sethi Babu to leave us at Nayagarh. With a warm hug we parted our ways and assuring that we would be back again in Baisipalli. I could not go to my ancestral house in Lenkudipada this time. On the way back to Bhubaneswar, tired Siddhu was dozing off and there was complete silence except for occasional honking sound by the passing by trucks. Was some what sad and at the same time hopeful about these forests that I have been wandering around to get a glimpse of the Big Cat. Baisipalli and Satkosia had left a tremendous impression on me. These are wonderful patch of forests where very less focus has been given. It can work wonders for Tiger population if proper care is taken in terms of rehabilitation, optimum staffing of forest department, conducting scientific study of the flora and fauna in the area, creating anti poaching task forces and last but not the least an overall congruent and synchronized efforts of NGOs, Local Villagers & Forest Department. Tiger conservation efforts are doing well in most of the states but Orissa. In fact latest census of 2011 that has come shows tiger number at 33, down from 45. Sunabeda is gone. Similpal is on the way and fate of Baisipalli-Satkosia is unknown. On an urgent basis if people don’t accept that Tigers are on their way of getting vanished, they will really vanish. I wish that I never get a chance to utter “Once upon a time in the state of Odisha (Orissa ) there used to be tigers......”.