Monday, March 28, 2011

In Search of Last Tigers of Baisipalli Sanctuary

Thick Forests in the Core Area of Baisipalli

Very few Sanctuaries in Orissa are as complete from every aspect as Baisipalli. I had travelled to Chamundia last year along with Bubun thinking that Chamundia is present in Baisipalli. But actually Chamundia is in Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary but part of Mahanadi Wildlife Division. There I had come to know that Baisipalli is different from Satkosia gorge Sanctuary. Forest officials of Mahanadi Wildlife Division have been always kind with me in granting permissions in visiting their Sanctuary and arranging for accommodation in the Guest Houses. This time we planned to stay at Kuanria FRH. But companion has changed this time. My good friend Siddhu as always instantly agreed to come on this trip to Orissa. We planned for 2 days at Baisipalli ,2 days at Kuldiha and final day was for Mangaljodi, a birding Pardise. Till this trip I didn’t have much idea on birds and had studied a lot on Tigers. At the end of this trip, when I am travelling back to Pune, The Book of Indian Birds by Dr Salim Ali is lying beside me. In search of Tigers we have found a wide variety of innocent and colourful birds. For Siddhu it was a surprise as he never expected to see so many variety of birds within just 5 days in Orissa. For me this new developed passion is keeping me busy. I had booked the Kuanria Guest House by sending a letter to the DFO, Mahanadi Wildlife Division. They were gracious enough to allot us a room.
Siddhu joined me at the Pune Station and we left for exploring the wilder shade of Orissa. On the winter mornings of November, we landed at Bhubaneswar. A Bolero was ready at the station courtesy Dasa. Kuanria is about 140 kms from Bhubaneswar and one has to take take the road to Phulbani passing through Nayagarh and Daspalla. Just after crossing Daspalla for about 10 minutes, one reaches Kuanria. It was again happy moment for me to see the FRH in a secluded place amidst the shady canopy of Sal and Tamarind Trees. For Siddhu it was first time experience in a Govt run Forest Guest house and I already had build up a lot of expectation regarding the aura and hospitality of these Guest Houses, some of which are almost century old and have been existing since British rule in India. Was little anxious to see the locked Guest House. But soon saw Trinatha, the 50 year old care taker coming in a cycle. Some one had informed him that Sahebs are waiting at the Gate. He was feeling extremely sorry for being late. Trinatha, a pot bellied man with a round face and big bulging eyes would have been a hit character amongst his grandchildren I am sure.We calmed him down and told that we are no Sahebs and also not from any NGO. For these poor care takers people from Forest Dept and NGOs are Sahebs. There is no one except these Sahebs who visit these remote and unheard places. Trinath was more than humble to bring in Vegetables and Rice for afternoon lunch. We in the mean time took a walk around the Kuanria FRH and clicked some amazing pics of birds, some being very rare like Chloropsis. There is also a deer park near the Guest House. More than these things I was engrossed in the setting of the Guest House. This is not Ranthambore or Bandhavgarh where hoards of Tourists come in. You get the loneliness of the Forests, the chirping of birds which create sweet vibrations in your ear drums like a strings of Sitar, the fresh air filled with scent of Mahua flowers, the silence in which one can even hear the sound of Sal leaves falling from trees and hitting the ground, the desi chicken curries and fresh catch from rivers and of course the tiger stories of forest guards like Trinatha mausa who have spent their whole life guarding the forests and taking care of these guest houses.

A Sambar Deer @ Deer park Near Kuanria Forest Rest House

As Dalma was getting prepared, we went to the nearby Kuanria Dam for doing some more photography and try to find out some more birds. In the evening it was planned that we would go to Buguda and enter the Baisipalli Sanctuary from that entry point. Ranger Patnaik Sir was kind enough to ask Behera Babu , one of the forest guards to accompany us to Buguda. Kuanria Dam is just 2 kms from the Kuanria FRH and is funded by World Bank. We didn’t find much birds as it was afternoon and the sweeties were taking a nap. A cowherd, Madha who was busy taking the goats for grazing told that there are huge pythons that roam about in the area and often prey on the small goats. Apart from this little excitement on hearing about the presence of Pythons in the area, we didn’t do much and came back to the Bunglow where Trinatha mausa was waiting for us with Dalma and some boiled rice.

Holding on to the Ground

Backwaters of Kuanria Dam- Can be developed for Angling Purpose

Meanwhile Behera babu, the forest guard had arrived and advised us that we leave early for Buguda as being winters sun sets in quickly. Buguda is around 10kms from Kuanria on the SH 1. After reaching the Buguda forest Beat house, we were joined by Laxmidhar a forest watcher. Time for us to venture in to the core area of Baisipalli Sanctuary. Laxmidhar sounded quite interesting and looking at our excitement played a well judged plot ( which infact is a fact about Baiaipalli Sanctuary). “ This summer , I saw a couple of RBTs moving and roaring with pride near a waterhole. The roar was so furious that we ran towards the nearest watch tower and remained hidden for almost an hour”. Signs that Baisipalli can truly become a heaven for conservation programme if properly funded and managed under Project Tiger. It is also geographically located in such a way that managing it from Anti Poaching point of view is little bit easier. Satkosia Gorge spanning almost 25 kms lies on the northern part of the Sanctuary and down below the road to Phulbani and Boudh acts as a boundary clearly demarcating the core area from buffer area. Why we are crying so much regarding the dwindling numbers of the Royal animal is just because we are focussing so much on few number of Sanctuaries which anyways are drawing in so much fund out of Tourism and other agencies. Sanctuaries like Baisipalli and Sunabeda is what one needs to focus on if our coming generations want to see the Big Cats roaring in forests. Both these sanctuaries face different kind of challenges. While Baisipalli is lagging behind because of lack of focus and funding, situation in Sunabeda is already bleak and saddening because of presence of red brigade. A lot has already been written so many times about the fate of Similipal. Unheard sanctuaries like Baisipalli still survive and will remain to do so because of the will power of people like Laxmidhara, Behera Babu and Trinath Mausa who honestly love the animals and forests as such. Walking for miles in the forest canopies with a stick in hand , highly underpaid and unrecognised , these is sheer will power that motivates those mentioned in the article to keep our forest conserved for our future generations. None of the NGO Sahebs ( barring very few whom I have come across) or Travellers like me will march ahead without any penny in pocket to the remotest of the places, highly infested with Malaria and more importantly with ever growing threat of the Naxals. Laxmidhar may be illiterate and might not have read research articles on Tigers , but has some logics to tell why Tiger numbers are not increasing in Baisipalli and have hovered over 4-5 over last 10 years. According to him Tigers have a tremendous power to regulate and control their numbers based on the population of prey and area over which they can move in freely. Since Baisipallis area is somewhat around 166 sq kms, Tiger numbers are getting confined to very less number.

Make your Own Way-- Inside the Sanctuary

One of the Major Forest Product- Sal Resin (Jhuna)

While Tiger stories were being discussed we reached a place that was basically a huge surface of rock. The place is called Bichar Pathar or the “Judgement Rock”. There is a particular anecdote that is attached to the naming of this rock. During the mid 19th Century, local tribes of Daspalla region gathered at this rock and decided to revolt against the then king of Dashpalla after his atrocities against the poor increased day by day. We moved ahead and reached the end of the forest Trail at Sapapathar, a small waterfall. Again a story is behind the naming of this place. Its amazing how illiterates who have never read Panchatantra or never seen Television in their lifetime have been good story tellers over the years. Today we find it hard to tell a story to our kids which actually should be the base for building moral values and culture, or else our kids would end up Twitting the same language in social networking sites. Sapapathar gets its name from Sapa or Snake. The rock over which the small stream flows is just like the Body and Tail of a Snake. Long time back a local Kondh was grazing his cattle inside the forest. His wife was preparing food over chullah and small kid of theirs was sleeping nearby under the shed of the Tamarind tree. Suddenly the Kondh heard his wife shouting. When he ran to the place where his son was sleeping, he saw a Huge King Cobra with fully expanded Hood spreading the shadow of death over the sleeping kid. With one wave of his axe, Kondh separated the Hood of the Snake from the tail. Tail remained over there in the form of Sapapathar where as Head moved downstream along with the flowing stream. The tail infact leads to a place over the top of hill where a local deity, Mani Naga gets worshipped. Before going on any anti poaching round or census project the watchers and forest guards worship Mani Naga and then move ahead. We also did the same.

Near Sapapathar

The forests in Baiaipalli are full of various species of Birds like Coppersmith Barbets, Golden fronted Leaf birds, Nuthatchs etc. Parakettes kept on moving around us and never left the forest silent. We took a stroll towards the salt lick present near the Bicharpathar. Some one had once said to me that never completely trust a forest and always expect some unexpected. I recalled the sentence when a fully grown adult Bison at its prime jumped in front of us from nowhere and vanished in a fraction of second. The whole gang remained stand still and could not believe that Bison was sleeping just some meters away from us. Siddhu and me kept pondering that we could not take the snap. But as its said that always thank the forest for whatever they provide. At least we didn’t come back to Kuanria without sighting any wild animal.

Golden Fronted Leaf Bird- Chloropsis

An Indian Golden Oriole

That night we were told by Laxmidhar that a night patrolling would take place from Buguda till Banigochha about 20 kms away from Buguda. This was planned keeping in view the Chadakhai festival that was coming up next day. Chadakhai is celebrated to mark the ending of Kartika month where in Meat Dishes are simply “No No” in the pallet. There are some Oriyas like me who don’t follow Chadakhai when Desi Chicken is part of your dinner. We returned to Kuanria Guest house and picked up some dinner stuff including a desi chicken. As usual amazing preparation of Chicken was done by Trinatha mausa and non stop gulping of the curry and rice made us feel tired.
Night in forests is the most beautiful thing that one comes across. Sitting down on the perch of the Guest House we looked at the hundreds of fireflies that had lit the garden. Behera Babu, Siddhu and me had surrounded the story teller of the night, Trinatha Mausa. Trinatha still remembers those days when people would confide to their huts by evening in fear of the Tigers. He remembers how a huge RBT was shot by a local gunman and how the animal was carried on a bullock cart to the panchayat house. Trinath had run as kid that time behind the Bullock cart , smiling and grinning at the sight of the dead animal. Today he runs in the forest to protect the animal upon which he had laughed once. His legs might have become weak, his energy level might have come low but spirits are more stronger. This is the reason I always keep on telling to others that for people like Trinatha, forests of Orissa are safe.

Sharing some lighter moments with Trinatha

By the time his stories came to an end it was almost 11 in the night. There was crackling sound of the night insects. How different is night when there is no honking by vehicles, when there is no ringing of mobiles, when there is no excel sheet to be prepared for calculation of never ending EMIs. I just love this and afraid that all these soon may vanish with growing city limits and population and pollution. One day who knows that we all may be there back at Baisipalli, sitting at Bicharpathar , plotting the revolt to pull down the kingdom of poachers and timber mafias and bring back the lost pride of the real king, the Tiger.