Sunday, March 27, 2011

Go Wild at Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary in Balasore

This write up is dedicated to my friend Prabal who keeps pushing me to update the blog and for all the encouragements.


There was a special reason for being in Kuldiha and I had waited for the day when I would write on it. Nilagiri Range is where my Grandpa had been posted as Asst Conservator of Forests during late 60s. My dad had studied here for couple of years and still has some good old friends. Sitting in has lap as a kid and listening to the stories of Nilagiri was one of my favourite pastimes and after 25 odd years , here I was standing in front of the office of Nilagiri Range office collecting the entry permit for Kuldiha.
After taking a 4 hour train journey on Howrah bound Jan Shatabdi from Bhubaneswar, me and Siddhu reached Balasore. I had arranged a Tavera over in Balasore. We quickly made a move towards Kuldiha present near Nilagiri and Sajanagarh. But Driver Tuna was looking little bit tense. When asked about exact reason for his look, he answered “ we may not get a permit to get in Kuldiha. Because of 90 odd elephants creating menace in the region, Sujanpur villagers had stopped some vehicles from going to Kuldiha as a mark of protest.”.Soon we reached Nilagiri. The scene was actually looking tense with police platoons present everywhere. I became sceptical about getting our permission for entering Kuldiha, though our bookings in the Guest House of Kuldiha had already been done. Kuldiha because of its closeness to Kolkata draws a huge chunk of Bengali tourists and one needs to book the Guest House well in advance to get confirmed accommodation in the sanctuary. Luckily I had done that. There are infact 2 guest houses inside the Sanctuary, Kuldiha and Jodachua. Kuldiha FRH is better of Jodachua because of its location. There is an artificial salt lick near the Kuldiha FRH and also facilities are better in Kuldiha. But if you are in need of some solitude and really want to enjoy the silence of nature, go for Jodachua FRH. At Kuldiha you will find so many tourists who only come for making noise and have fun. We had bad luck in having such a kind of group as our companion for the day. Coming back to Nilagiri, we reached the office and same story of elephant menace and people protesting against it was the buzz. This man animal conflict really is a sad story. In the first place we have spreaded tentacles into their homes and now when they get into our fields we complain. But yes some of the policies regarding the compensation packages of the Govt and Dept of Forests is dubious and sometimes laughable. Per acre of crop damage, Government pays a paltry sum to the farmers and that too after a lot of investigation, report filings , persuasion by the local politicians and running from pillar to post by the poor farmers. More importantly these particular herd of Elephants had actually wandered across from neighbouring Jharkhand. Until and unless huge Elephant Reserves are not notified by State Governments , this sort of man animal conflict is going to persist. Poor Elephants have been moving across these specified forest corridors over the years and suddenly these have been broken because of agriculture and of course timber mafia. The continuous forest patch starting from Palamu , passing through Saranda patch( once famed as Largest Sal Forest patch in Asia) , Similpal, Keonjhar, Angul, Dhenkanal, Central Orissa Districts of Nayagarh,Kandhamal,Kalahandi, Southern Orissa District of Undivided Koraput and ending at Southern part of Chattisgarh is now present in patches and is discontinuos. Dams, Canals, Highways, Mines and Agriculture is to be blamed.One cannot stop civilisation from shaping up but what can be done is saving those few patches of good forests that is already present. Of 32 Elephant Reserves in India, only five await notification. All five lie in mining areas: two (Mahanadi ER and South Orissa ER) reserves in Orissa , Two in Chattisgarh and one in Meghalaya. While Central govt has already declared and approved these Five undeclared Elephant reserves, state govt are reluctant because of strong Mining Lobby prevalent in these states (barring Meghalaya). Now who is to be blamed for Pachyderms spreading havoc in these areas, Human Beings with higher ratio of Grey Matter or Elephants?
At Kuldiha Range Office in Nilagiri while we waited to collect the necessary papers, I looked at the bunch of old files and dust laden leaflets. May be these have been lying over in those rickety shelves since ages. May be there would be some files and papers where signature of my grandfather would be there. Soon we bid bye to the lady officer and landed in the Nilagiri Haat to collect basic grocery, some eggs and spices for our two day stay at Kuldiha. Passing through Sajnapur we soon entered Kuldiha through the main gate. Soon the vegetation became denser and green canopy welcomed us with open arms. Serpentine road made twists and turns through the forest. Kuldiha is famous for its good density of Bisons and Elephants and at times RBTs have been sighted. Similipal is connected by a very thin green corridor with Kuldiha. Hadagarh (Hadgarh / Hadagad)Sanctuary in Kendujhar District serves as this corridor. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Tigers may be using this strip as their path to move into Kuldiha from Southern range of Similipal. If proper conservation plans are drawn for Hadagarh Sanctuary , this can work wonders for Kuldiha. Already Hadagarh is shrinking because of rampant mining going around the limits of the sanctuary and if necessary actions are not taken the whole sanctuary would become a barren patch of deforested land. Hadagarh offers a complete Biosphora from Elephant and Big Cat Conservation point of view. You have Hadagarh Dam on Salandi which can serve as major source of water for pachyderms and other animals during the peak summers. It’s very difficult to relocate villages from the vicinity, but if tried and if the plan succeeds then Hadagarh Sanctuary along with Sukhuapada and Nato Hills can act as that missing link between Similipal National Park and Kuldiha Sanctuary.

Kuldiha Forest Rest House

After driving through a small ghat road for 20 minutes we sighted Kuldiha FRH from a distance. Smiling Kedar, strong broad chested Forest Guard in his late twenties greeted us along with the cook and a Forest watcher. As I went in to take a quick shower, Siddhu the shutterbug was infectiously impatient to get in to groove and take snaps of birds. By the time I was back, Siddhu had already struck a chord with Kedar and I could see Kedar learning tricks of bird watching from the veteran Siddhu. Big green on Siddhu’s face was reminiscent of the fact that some birds have been found in the radar and Kuldiha has already shown trailer of what was lying ahead. As hot steaming egg curry was getting prepared in kitchen, I and my good companions went in for a walk enjoying the mysterious silence of Kuldiha. Suddenly the silence was broken by a feeble sound of moving vehicle. In few minutes, the feeble sound turned into a sound enough to disturb the serenity of the place. A group of tourists from Kolkata in a Jeep had arrived and their presence was reinforced by the rise in the decibel level in the whole sanctuary. Later on we came to know from Kedar that they would be our companions for next 2 days. Siddhu looked at me despairingly and I could not stop smiling.

A Tusker at the saltlick near FRH

A Malabar Giant Squirrel

Omnipresent Cheetals

After having a sumptuous lunch of Egg Curry and Rice we sat down with Kedar on the nearby watchtower and stared at the saltlick. Nothing came across our sight. But Kedar had developed a liking for Birds by that time and infact he was a very quick learner. Some crackling sound of dry leaves was coming from the nearby Sal trees. And our good friendly Chitals were more than happy to pose for us. Took some snaps and moved ahead. As evening was setting in we were getting more impatient sitting ideally at the Watch tower. Suddenly and in most of the cases as it happens a huge fully grown tusker appeared from nowhere near the saltlick. Oh god what a wonderful sight I exclaimed! Thats our Elephant told a satisfied Kedar with an expanded chest. That’s not one of the Elephants that have migrated from Jharkhand and caused havoc in the nearby areas, but our Kuldiha’s Tusker. They rarely move out of the sanctuary. Our good friend from kitchen, Hari Bhaina brought in warm cups of tea and some Pakodas. Sitting before a setting sun, looking at the swivelling dried and glistening leaves of nearby Sal trees and munching Pakodas was worth an experience. The forest staff at Kuldiha were so friendly and didn’t miss a single opportunity to serve us in the fullest possible way. We all sat on the Watch Tower and went on chitchatting for almost three hours. The full moon lit night had spread its milky wings on the forest. Added to beauty was the twinkling phosphorous cells of millions of fireflies which were busy spreading the divinity to the Poornima night. I just wanted to get engrossed in the feeling and I suppose so was Siddhu. As night was setting in stories of denizens got on to the table. Let me not solve the mysteries of Forest that have remained sacrosanct over the years but rather boast them with pride. Kedar got one of the mysteries to the discussion table. When asked if they get scared of animals while patrolling on foot inside the sanctuary, Kedar answered that animals recognise the green uniform and the broad steel plated belt. They recognise us as their friends and as saviours. The flow of story was broken by a unusual sound of moving leaves from one of nearby trees. Manu brught in his powerful torch and focussed on the tree from below. Wow!! WoW!! It was a White Rumped Shama perched on one of the branches. “You little beauty” was what Tony Greig inside me wanted to scream. But didn’t want to disturb the sleeping beauty.

White Rumped Shama perched near the Forest Guest House

Hari bhaina was ready with Pabda( one type of Fish) Curry and Rice. Food has been a unifying reason all across the world for centuries and same was the case at Kuldiha. All of us sat on the same dinner table and Pabda became the metaphor for cease fire between the Bengali Group and ourselves. While the former were busy enjoying their evening in their tents in warm company of each other , later were busy trying to prove that they truly respect the silence of forests. But yes one mystery that Siddhu, Me and Kedar never could solve despite full efforts was the relationship status of the Men in the other group and the women accompanying them. We did let the mystery remain as it is and planned about our Night Safari for which I had arranged for a special permission. After gulping down the rice and fish curry till brim, we did start for our Night Venture.

Fish Eyed Owl

A Barking Deer crossing the Road

I have been on so many Night Safaris in many sanctuaries in Orissa and everytime the Jeep starts focusing on the road, expectations that at every turn we would meet a Big Cat rises.
After driving for half an hour Siddhu suddenly screamed to stop and take the Tavera back by 10-15 meters. When we focussed our Torch towards one of the ravines , I could not stop admiring the Fish Eyed Owl that could not guess what exactly was happening. It exactly gave us some 5 seconds and without wasting any bit of these precious moments , I clicked one of the most beautiful snaps of this bird. Still keep admiring it every time I look at my laptop. Then another half kilometre drive, it was the turn of a beautiful Mouse Deer that was crossing the road. Was this the night that would give me an opportunity to take my first snap of the RBT in the wilderness of Orissa or was it going to be another of night safaris was the question that I was asking myself continuously. After driving for almost hour and half and with futile efforts of filming my first tiger in Orissa, we came back to the Rest House. Sighting Tigers or not is immaterial but what is of utmost importance is the experience itself and taking one more step towards being closer to the Mother Nature.
Next morning Haria our cook knocked the doors with hot cup of coffee in hand. What a superb way to start the day? Basking in the glory of winter morning sun with a cup of tea; sitting amidst thick Sal Forests all round; cut off from the agonising world of Reports and Pie Charts & with no network of cell phones to piss you off ,there were lot of questions to be asked to oneself and a lot of self deliberation needed. Some wise man once had told, “Sun is yours, Moon is yours, this whole world and Universe is yours, then why to worry and what else to deposit in your Bank Accounts?”. Sitting for almost an hour absorbing the morning beauty and listening to the chirping of Sun Birds rejuvenated us for the day to come.
We left for the Risia Dam situated on the North West fringe of the sanctuary and excitement had grown because we were told that its a superb place for birding. There is a Guest House of Irrigation department at Risia but its hardly used. There is also a small village over there. Walking along the dyke there were some superb birds that came our way. It was my first sighting of Verditer Fly Catcher which normally migrate from Lower ranges of Himalayas in winters to the Subcontinent. Towards the end of the Dyke there was a whole gang of Common Ioras and Chloropsis’ that were creeping on branches of a Creeper. Our good friend Kedar had remembered some of names which he was repeating with lot of fluency.

Risia Dam inside the Sanctuary

By 11 we were back quite tired at Kuldiha rest house. Haria informed us that he is going to offer his daily rituals in front of Budhi Thakurani , the local deity present near the Guest House. We also joined him in seeking blessings from the Goddess. There is a anecdote attached to the place. There used to live a old couple in this particular place. The old lady after her death got reincarnation and people started worshipping her in form of Budhi Thakurani. People say that King of Nilagiri during earlier days would come on Shikar and first seek blessings from Budhi Thakurani before going on hunting spree. Wild Tuskers would be captured and later on would be domesticated for King’s use. There was so much silence and divinity in the place.

Common Iora

Black Naped Monarch Flycatcher

After 2 days of Hectic but wonderful trip to Kuldiha Sanctuary , it was time to leave that wonderful place. I promised Kedar that I would send him a copy of “The book of Indian Birds” By Late Salim Ali once I reach Pune. I did keep my promise. The copy has been send to him and I am sure our Good Friend would have become an Ornithologist by this time now. Surely would visit Kuldiha and learn some more chapters from Kedar in future.