Friday, November 11, 2011

Similipal Diaries - 1



Similipal... Tiger Land of Odisha


“ ei je bana lata pahada ...........aha re dise kede sundara….
ethi dina sarena....ethi ratee sarena....”


Remember these famous lines of Akhaya Mohanty which was sung in the praise of beauty of Similipal-the sacred forests of Mayurbhanj district. Similipal is the land of meadows, waterfalls, gorges, thick canopies of Sal and most importantly the land of last viable population of Royal Bengal Tigers in Odisha. Many say that forests of Similipal have derived its name from Simili trees (red silk cotton trees) which when in full bloom are spectacularly vibrant. Spread over an area of 5569 sq km, Similipal Biosphere Reserve comprises of Similipal National Park, Similipal Tiger Reserve and Similipal Wildlife Sanctuary. Similipal Tiger Reserve specifically covers an area of 2750 sqkm which comprises a core area of 1195 sq km. The importance of Similipal can be estimated from the fact that it is one of the seven Biosphere Reserves to be included in World Network of Biosphere Reserves, based on the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme list.
Recently while working on a non-commercial Birding assignment for a Website, I got an opportunity to stay inside Similipal at Chahala. Making Chahala as the base, I did spend some wonderful days doing Wildlife Photography in Similipal. On an average 10-15 kms of walking daily on forest trails along with Foresters locating birds and then photographing; tracing the presence of Big Cats and other animals; sitting idle beside flowing streams; sipping cup of teas and watching trumpeting elephants come to the salt lick at Chahala meadow in the evening; gulping down rice and hot piping egg curry made by Poorna, our caretaker cum cook and gazing at the stars in clear winter nights were some of the best moments that I have spent in Wilderness of Odisha in recent days.
Before going on this assignment I wanted to make sure that everything was set right in terms of logistics as time permitted to do Bird Study inside Similipal was very limited and I wanted to make the best use of every minute that I was supposed to spend inside Similipal. So couple of days prior to our project start date, I along with my cousin Alok had gone to Jashipur to arrange for a vehicle and finish other formalities at the Forest office. We took the Anandpur- Satkosia- Thakurmunda, Kendumundi - Karanjia - Jashipur road. Driving along the western boundary of the Biosphere reserve, I was amazed by the magnanimity of Similipal. Just half an hour drive from Anandpur in Keonjhar district makes you touch the checkpost under Satkosia range and for next two and half hour’s brisk drive on the all-weather good road will land you at Jashipur, the endpoint of eastern boundary. This itself shows the mammoth size of Similipal. This south western boundary is continuous with forests of Kendujhar and hence forms an important Elephant corridor area. Though this corridor is now fragmented, still I feel that if properly managed and more importantly properly manned, we can save one of the most important aspects of habitat management for Elephants. Another reason why proper patrolling needs to be carried out in this region is because of Timber smuggling and poaching. Kendumundi, Thakurmunda and Satkosia range borders the South Similipal Area where these days Tigers of Similipal are pre dominantly confined to, reasons of which will be discussed in later parts of this write up. We stopped for some time at the Satkosia check post to have a chat with the forest guard posted over there. During conversation he said that fifteen years back there used to be frequent cattle kills in the region but these days not single news of cattle killing is heard of. According to him, this patch of forest is also frequently being used by Maoists for movement from inside Similipal to Keonjhar area.
We reached Jashipur Range office by 11 am. This was my first visit to Similipal but I was feeling as if I have always belonged to this place. Khairi Niwas situated in the same compound of Range office has been the witness to the past glory& hustle and bustle of the Range office when visitors used to line up to have a glimpse of Khairi, the pet tigress of legendry Late Dr Saroj Raj Chaudhury, the then first Field Director of Similipal. Similipal was one of the initial nine Protected Areas to come under Project Tiger in 1973.DrChoudhury was one of the pioneers in the field of Wildlife Management in India and people like H S Panwar and Late Fateh Singh Rathore have also been trained by him. In fact Pugmark Methodology for Tiger Census was developed by him. A lot of researchers along with a hoard of Journalists used to come then to have a glimpse of Khairi. Khairi had made Similipal famous, legends of which are even today told to kids by their grandparents.
The officials at the office were more than happy to help us arrange a vehicle and also guided us on place of stay inside the park. After completing all the formalities, we left for Tato, a small hamlet near Karanjia where our Driver for the planned trip was waiting. For me he was going to play a crucial role as he knew all the roads inside Similipal and had often worked for Forest Department on short term basis. We discussed about the Similipal plans with Prema, our Driver for the Trip. Prema was also excited about the trip but was equally apprehensive about the conditions of roads inside the park as it was just post monsoon and roads were in the process of getting repaired before tourist season starts in November. He enquired about the roads to Upper Barahkamuda (UBK) and told us that the condition of roads are really bad. So we decided to stay at Chahala during the trip. As we were discussing, i saw something very disturbing. 3-4 persons with big Iron Saws came out from the adjoining reserve forest and more importantly without any fear on face. I asked Prema about them and his answer was “Agyan..aau Similipal agabhalianahin” meaning “ Things are no more the same in Similipal”. I understood his concerns. We bid him good bye only to return back after three days.
On Day one of the assignment, after taking blessings from MaaTarini at Ghatagaon in the early morning, we reached Jashipur- Khairi Range office where Prema was waiting with his Sumo. We quickly went to the nearest grocery shop and packed the whole list of items starting from salt to eggs. Fresh vegetables was carried from the local haat. The food items were carried in sufficient quantity as for next three days there was nothing going to be available inside the park. Packaged drinking water also needs to be carried as Similipal is highly cerebral malaria prone zone and drinking from any other water source may not be that advisable. Also any meat based food item is not allowed inside the park. Since Prema has been many times inside the park, he was aware about all the limitations that is there in Similipal in terms of getting food items. In a way I felt good that I was going to get away from civilisation for couple of days where I could observe Birds and Animals in aloofness. Also another reason for being happy was for the fact that park had not opened to tourists by then and that would give me absolute undisturbed forest to work with. I am not against Tourism but sometimes overdose of Tourism has a negative impact on forests and its habitants. Remember those poor tigers surrounded by Jeeps in Kanha and Bandhavgarh. Luckily Similipal is devoid of any such overdose. But it has its own drawback also. Regulated and optimum number of tourists entering Similipal would help in keeping a check on poachers and timber mafias. They may not directly impact anti-poaching activities but more vigilant eyes means less chances of blatant tree felling and killing of animals.


As we enter Similipal through Tulsiboni gate near Jashipur

Since it was already afternoon by the time we finished shopping, we finished our lunch at a dhaba in Jashipur. Amazing Desi Chicken curry was enough to pump up towards our onward journey for Chahala Range office in Core Area of Similipal. We entered Similipal through Tulsiboni gate which is hardly 30 minutes’ drive from Jashipur. There is also another entry point at Pithabata from Baripada side on the eastern boundary. Normally tourists are allowed to enter from Jashipur side. Also recent unconfirmed news is that a Tourism development office setup is being planned at Jashipur. That would obviously boost tourism in Similipal, have better facilities for tourists and look into grievances. On the way to Tulsiboni gate, Prema told every year before the start of Tourism season in November, all the drivers from Jashipur area are given basic training on handling tourists some of whom are very rogue and only come for drinking and making merry inside the park with least interest and more importantly minimal respect for Wildlife and nature. Prema also told that a Bhubaneswar based NGO had also trained them for becoming knowledgeable guides on forest matters and professional way of behaving with tourists. We reached Tulsiboni gate and made our entry in the register. Driving uphill from there on the ghat we entered Similipal, the Forest in Odisha which I have always dreamt of coming. In past for some reason or the other, I have never been able to come to Similipal but this time luck was with me. Small machans on the paddy fields beside the forest road was an indication that fields are well frequented by Wild Boars and Elephants. We were driving briskly towards Brundaban Check gate, the entry point into the core area of Similipal Tiger Reserve. At one of the culverts, I asked Prema to slow down. Though it was mid noon but chirping of birds was clearly audible. In few minutes of stay, a group of birds comprising Brown Capped Pygmy Woodpecker, White Throated Thrush, a couple of White Rumped Shama, Crested Bulbul, Small Minivets and Common Ioras was flocking around the tall Sal Trees beside the road. A perfect beginning for the trip. One of the challenges of doing bird photography in Similipal is that vegetation is quite thick and Sal and its associated variety of Trees on an average are very tall. Camera would “Auto Focus” with difficulty and most of the times you have to depend on Manual mode. Luckily I had kept one extra battery fully charged since I was not sure whether power would be there at Chahala FRH to charge the cells.



Orange headed Thrush


On one of the forest roads towards Chahala


A Malabar Giant Squirrel near Brundaban Check Gate


Greater Yellow Nape...always on the move

After another 20 minutes of drive uphill we reached Brundaban Check gate. One forest guard came from the beat house with register for entry. We stopped over there for half an hour and had a brief chat with the guard. Salum was the sole person on duty that day as the other person had gone on leave because of Kali Puja. Amidst our talk, a Malabar Giant Squirrel busy in making its nest on the top of a Sal Tree made a high pitched call perhaps seeking our attention. Brundaban has a salt lick and is part of Chahala Range. Core Zone of Similipal has seven ranges under it namely Upper Barhakamuda (UBK), Chahala, Jenabil, Nawana(South), Nawana (North), Pithabata and National Park. Buffer Area is managed by 11 Range offices which are Bangriposi, Dukura, Udala, Kaptipada, Thakurmunda, Satkosia, Dudhiani, Kendumundi, Gurguria, Manada and Bisoi. Once upon a time, Brundaban salt lick used to have regular visitors like heard of Bisons, Elephants and Deers of all types.I was toldthat just 6-7 years back there was an incident in the salt lick where a Cheetal was ambushed by a hiding Tiger in broad day light. As per Salum, these days a sole Bison frequents the place every 10-15 days apart from another two group of Elephants and small herds of Axis Deers. Since Chahala is just 15 minutes-drive from Brundaban Gate, we requested him to send a Wireless message in case there are some wild visitors to the salt lick that evening. We made our move to Chahala Range office. A Mottled Wood Owl flew past us. Already an indication of what was in store for us in coming days. Prema told us that Owls are one of the priced captures of bird catchers and are supplied to touts in Kolkata who even sometimes send it to foreign markets. By 4 in the evening, we were there in Chahala Range office. A couple of Concrete structures with rising smoke from kitchens, surrounded by tall & silvery Eucalyptus Trees on one side and a meadow with a hill in the backdrop on the other side. The whole setup looked picturesque. We were greeted by Pravat Mallick, the Range officer (Habitat Management) at the Range office. Mr Mallick was very happy to know that we had come down to cover Similipal for the Birding assignment and was quick to express his interest in Birds too. Instant plans were made for the subsequent day within 15 minutes.


Meadow at Chahala...love at first sight for me


Chahala Range office amidst the Eucalyptus trees

Sipping down for a discussion over a cup of tea with Ranger, my eye fell on a broken concrete structure. I was told that the broken structure was actually the Chahala Range office that was blown up by Naxals on 28th March 2009. On that unfortunate day, Tourists were beaten up and robbed off their valuables, VHF Station and the Range office completely blown up. That whole period between 28th March 2009 to 15th April 2009 was the worst thing that could have happened to Similipal. Along with Chahala, Forest Rest Houses were blown off atJamuani, Jenabil, Joranda, Upper Barahkamuda; various Beat Houses and Staff Quarters were set on fire & Bridges were damaged. VHF Relay station at Meghasani was blasted off leading to complete breakdown off communication mechanism in the park. One piece of disturbing piece of news was that a captive elephant Mahendra was shot at Gurguria but luckily it survived. What followed this insane act of Maoists is really a pain to describe. Similipal was a free for all affair. Timber Mafias and Poachers literally kept Similipal at ransom. After the attacks for next 8-10 months, there was virtually no one inside to protect the animals. Everything was for loot. Similipal went back 15-20 years. Poachers were killing animals at their will. God knows how many Tigers got wiped out during that time, let alone Deers and Sambars. Even if by god’s grace if they would not have been able to kill the Tigers during that time, they certainly have done a greater damage by killing their prey base. Animals that use to flock the meadows of Chahala, Devasthali, Upper Barahkamuda are not to be seen again in the same numbers. I have read about those famous Similipal Tuskers in many articles but where are those pachyderms now? It would be a dream to see those gigantic creatures again but we can just hope for the best. The moral of forest officials staying inside Similipal which got dented is very difficult to be repaired. But let me tell you that despite whatever happened, some of the old staff on the verge of their retirement from service were the first of lot to return inside their posts and beats despite warnings from district police officials. That is the spirit and self-motivation that is very hard to find these days in young officials who by destiny have landed in these kind of jobs where aloofness and malaria are your best friends.


A Spotted Deer near the meadow


The Forest Bunglow at Chahala

As dusk was setting in we decided to take a stroll along the Chahala meadow and walk up to a waterhole situated about half a kilo meter inside the forest. We were supposed to stay in the 150 year old forest bunglow at Chahala which was the hunting camp of king of Baripada. A colonial style set up with Teak furnitures and big spacious halls. I had brought a Framed Bison Photograph which I gifted to Ranger. With a lot of pride I can now say that my photograph is hanging on the wall along with a photograph of RBT. Wish I can gift a photograph of a RBT of Similipal to the forest officials next time I visit Similipal. That day will be the day of Nirvana for me. Prema along with Alok made all the arrangements for dinner with Poorna, our caretaker and cook. Walking on a forest trail, we reached the waterhole. Hill Mynas near the waterhole were in their usual mood of whistling and creating a melodious echoing sound. Fulvous Breasted Woodpeckers were in full swing at work and were putting a last minute effort to pluck in insects from scaly barks of trees before sun would set in. After spending about 15 minutes, we returned back to the bunglow to have another round of Tea. As we sat in the Drawing Room of the Bunglow, dusk had already set in and twinkling eyes of Cheetals from the meadow in front was giving an impression of a far flung city being viewed from a hill top after dark. A thin layer of evening fog was the sign of winter spreading its wings over the Sal laden hills of Similipal. Mayurbhanj has always been famed for its splendid winters and by October end it was justifying its famedom. Temperature had dropped sharply and by 7 in the evening, I guess temperature must not have been more than 12-15 degree. Since I was warned of Cerebral Malaria, we did apply mosquito repellent creams and sat on the verandah enjoying the sight of the meadow in front. Smoke from the kitchen meant work was in full swing. There are around 15 forest staffs based at Chahala Range office and they run a common mess. Their life in the evening was limited to confiding around bon fires and chatting about the work done in the day. Of course now and then, the old hands would talk of the past glory of Similipal and numerous tiger tales that they have been associated with. Elephants were yet to arrive at the salt lick and I was waiting patiently for that. Suddenly a metal beating sound came from the Kitchen. Mallick babu told that it was Dinner call and everybody needed to gather at the kitchen for food. He bid us good bye and promised to join us for the morning bird photography assignment. We waited for our turn of Dinner which was being prepared separately. Meanwhile poor Prema was after Poorna for hurrying up on Dinner. Finally supper arrived. Hot steaming rice, dal and Cabbage bhaji. We ate our heart out under candle light as solar battery of the bunglow had got discharged by that time. After a filling dinner, we sat in the verandah enjoying the silence of night. A clear star studded sky was what I saw after a long time. Occasional rutting call of the deer from nearby hill would break the silence now and then. Dying embers in front of Sal Villa where foresters had hurdled before dinner was the signal that it was already time for sleep. Night settles down in the forests quite quickly and by ten everyone had gone to their beds except us. Silence of forests in the night can also be frightening sometimes and sends that occasional chill in your spine. I could have spent my whole life like this, sitting all alone in the thick forests of Similipal amidst wild animals. More Cheetals had conglomerated in the meadow by then. I enquired with Prema if he had ever seen a Tiger in Similipal. He looked at me with his big eyes and said “yes”. It was couple of years back when he was driving back on a summer evening from Devasthali meadow. Suddenly a huge Tiger came from behind a bush and stood in the middle of road hardly 10 meters from the vehicle. The Tiger snarled for a moment and gave stern look at the vehicle and royally moved down the slope of ghat road. Prema along with an accompanying Range Officer were dumb stuck and could not do anything except for shivering. That is the fear factor when you see a Tiger in real wild. That is the aura of a Royal Bengal Tiger. We sat there for another hour waiting for Elephants but they didn’t turn up. Instead of rutting calls, it was the snoring sound of Alok which reminded me that we were supposed to get up early next day for photo shoot. I don’t remember when I fell in deep sleep but what I remember is that before going for sleep in the cozy and warm bedroom of the bunglow, I thanked my stars and god for getting this opportunity of being in Similipal, the place to which perhaps I must have belonged to in one of my previous births...


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