Friday, November 11, 2011

Similipal Diaries - 2



Chahala meadow on a winter morning

On day two, we woke up around 6 in the morning. I walked out of the room and glanced at the meadow. I was mesmerized by the whole canvas. Complete green carpet of grass glistening with dew drops; sun rays piercing through a thick blanket of fog and intoxicating fragrance of wildflowers blowing along with cool morning breeze. Morning of Similipal was so different from that of night. It brought in fresh wave of energy enough to keep you roaring throughout the whole day. Mallick babu was ready by then and I was not. Within 15 minutes I was out there standing alongside him and ready to disperse into forest. Prema and Alok stayed back as more people walking in the forest trails would have created enough noise to push away birds. I checked my Camera and made sure everything was carried as we were not to come back to Chahala for next couple of hours. Alok and Prema were supposed to carry the breakfast and come in vehicle to a particular point where we were to catch up with them. After having a cup of warm tea, Mallick babu and I took the path towards back side of the Bunglow. After little bit of climb, we touched a forest road covered with a layer of thick moss and grown up grass. It seemed no vehicle had gone on this road for last so many months. Actually that road is called Ring Road and runs on periphery of Chahala Range. These roads were built by SFDC (Similipal Forest Development Corporation) for transportation of Timber Logs by B B Barua Company of Calcutta. SFDC was dissolved after Similipal came under Project Tiger and Tree felling was completely stopped. Logs of wood used to be transported to a place called Talabandha on the boundary of Similipal and from there it used to be carried to Calcutta by Narrow Gauge Train.
We had walked for almost 15 minutes and birds were yet to be seen. We came across fresh dung cakes of Elephants which meant that in the night, Elephants had come to the salt lick. After some more stroll, we came across the first signs of a Leopard that has made the ring road area its territory. There were scratch marks on the road and also scats with some fur like substance present. Fur in the scat meant that those were remains of a carnivore. Tigers have dispersed towards South Similipal and are now mainly confined to the Upper Barahkamuda Range though occasional signs of Big Cats are also observed periodically in Kendumundi and Bisoi Ranges in buffer area. This can be mainly because of more human disturbance and prey base loss in North Similipal compared to that of South. This vacated zone has now been taken over by more adaptable Leopards. Though there has not been many news of cattle lifting in Buffer areas, but still presence of Scats, Pugmarks and scratch marks indicates the presence of Leopards in the area. There was an incident some time back when a Forest guard saw a fully grown mature Leopard in prime sitting on the perch of his beat house in the night. Same beat, Late Dr S R Choudhury used to visit when he used to come to Chahala. Legend says that he always used to stay in that Beat House in the night as it used to be frequented by RBTs in those days. But now Tigers have given way to Leopards. Today Tiger number as per last census carried out by WII suggests 21 which has been rejected by State Forest Department because of different reasons. On an average a Tiger kills a spotted deer sized prey every week. That makes it 48 to 50 Deers every year. And if it is a Tigress with cubs then she needs to make a kill every 3 to 4 days to sustain herself along with a couple of cubs. I am not sure and also I am not a field expert to comment on the health of Similipal when it comes to prey base. But one thing is certain, if Similipal needs to have a viable population of Tigers over a longer run then prey base has to be enhanced and protected. As I have written earlier, even if Tigers are not poached, Tigers will only survive if prey base is strong. Similipal has enough area to sustain at least 100 tigers if we go by the logic that a Male Tiger needs 30 to 40 sq km as its territory overlapping the area of 3 to 4 female Tiger territories who on an average require 10 to 15 sq km of area individually. This way a male tiger ensures that its gene is transferred to maximum of off springs. Over coming years if a proper plan is chalked out by state forest department in consultation with Top Tiger experts of the country, then we can create a vibrant pool of Tiger population. Similipal is a dubious case amongst all the Tiger sanctuaries where conservation efforts cannot be carried out by only Forest Department. It’s more of a political one. A lot of political will and interest shown by perhaps by someone as big as Chief Minister can only save it. I will tell you why. Unlike other sanctuaries of India (barring Nagarjuna Srisailam Tiger Reserve in AP) that has viable Tiger Population, Similipal faces the threat of Naxals. Taking the advantage of this situation many poachers and Timber Mafias pose themselves of being close to Naxals. As a result unarmed forest officials don’t have any option but to request them to leave the Forest without poaching or cutting trees whenever they come across such incidents on the spot. Even if they are arrested, our laws are very weak and people get bailed out easily. A strong Similipal Protection Force with proper arms and in proper numbers needs to be based out of Similipal. Secondly even if you have protection force, it is least effective if there is no support of local politicians who in turn are representatives of villages in and around Similipal. With the relocation of Jenabil village getting completed in 2010, around 3 villages are left in Similipal’s core area. The three villages left are Kabatghai, Bakua and Jamunagarh. These three villages need to be relocated and rehabilitated as soon as possible. Once we create such areas devoid of human interference, more meadows would be created and hence enhanced chances of rapid fold increase in herbivores. Jenabil for example has now turned into an excellent meadow which in future is sure to get back herbivores feeding on it. Apart from these villages of core area, it is those 65 villages in buffer area that have a major role to play in long term survival of Similipal as most of the poachers belong to these villages. Not to forget the immense number of cattle belonging to these villages who also depend for fodder on Similipal. Thirdly until and unless a solid Intelligence network is not build in these buffer villages, a check cannot be made on Poaching and Timber smuggling. In some villages Deer and Wild Boar meat is openly sold. We need to have people based out of these villages who can pass on this information to forest department who then with the help of local police can take some action. Fourthly patrolling inside the sanctuary area has to be systematic and periodic. Daily log books with proper and authentic entries are to be made. Fifthly, research work has to be reinitiated in Similipal. More field work means more field data and hence more “Similipal Specific” conservation efforts. Finally end of the day, it’s those field staff who can make hell lot of difference. If you have got a well-motivated ground force and who are well fed and well taken care off, then only Tigers will be saved. If human beings don’t have any value, then I don’t think animals can be really valued. Most of the field staff of Similipal live in remote camps/ beat houses far away from their families. Like forest staffs of other states they are also paid less but difficulties are more. Fear of Maoists and Malaria menace compounds their problems. I understand very well that these are easily said than done and also it is not that these activities are not being done. But until and unless every one starting from Forest officials to Politicians to NGOs to the local people don’t get involved, it would be difficult to sustain Similipal on a longer run.
Coming back to our walk on the ring road, I got first glimpse of a group of birds flocking around trees after almost covering 1 km on the ring road. White Rumped Shamas are in abundance in Similipal and my first good capture for the trip was also the same bird. I was able to record both immature and mature one. Soon Crested Bulbuls, a Verditer Flycatcher & Creepers like Velvet Fronted Nuthatch joined the party. We chose to sit beside a small ravine where a small stream was flowing by and waited for another party to come in. First to come in this leg was a Small Yellow Naped Woodpecker followed by Crested Bulbuls. Crested Bulbuls are very frequently seen in Similipal and adjoining Kuldiha Sanctuary. I was told by Mallick babu that Hornbills ( Oriya name -Kochilakhai)both Malabar Pied and Indian Grey type are mostly seen in the months of April- May in the sanctuary. But they are killed for their fat content by tribes because they believe that oil extracted out of Kochilakhai birds can cure many diseases. We waited patiently for some more bird sightings but only Tickell’s Flowerpeckers were making the chirping. While walking back towards the pre decided point where Prema and Alok were asked to wait I heard a familiar sounding metallic trooi trooi noise. A look around and my friend Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher was sitting on a branch of thick undergrowth. We got a good shot of the bird. They are normally not camera shy birds and often act as models for you.


A Colourful White Rumped Shama


A Tickell's Blue Flyctcher- Always ready to pose


Near a forest stream


A Barking Deer at the Brundaban Salt Lick


The Langurs were not far behind

We caught up with our waiting friends at a small culvert and had simple breakfast which was bread, jam and biscuits. Sitting amidst chirping birds and under thick canopy, we fully enjoyed the morning after almost 3 hours of walking. Mallick babu advised Prema to take us to Brundban Check gate to enquire about the Bison that often frequents the place. We reached their in 20 minutes and enquired with Salum, the guard. “Previous evening only Cheetals had come”, he said. When we went near the lick, there was a Barking Deer present. Unperturbed it went on fulfilling it’s mineral requirements. We drove back to the Bunglow for Lunch by 12:30 pm. After taking bath and lunch, we planned to have a look at the famous Barheipani Waterfalls.
Barheipani Waterfalls is on Budhabalanga river and is the tallest waterfall in Odisha and falls from a height of 399m. Situated around 20 odd kms from Chahala, it took us an hour to reach the spot. Barheipani is also one of the gram panchayats situated in the periphery of Similipal. There is also a post office at Barheipani which caters to the Barheipani Gram Panchayat and surrounding villages. As we moved towards the Waterfall, we could hear the gushing sound of water from almost half a km. The sight of this amazing waterfall just left me mesmerized. Budhabalanga River was falling down with complete force, fresh from monsoon reinforcements. Prema told us that the vigor of this waterfall remains same throughout the year. There used to be a Log House which was damaged during Maoist onslaught in 2009.We sat there for some time, gazing at the beauty of Barheipani and at the same time got disturbed by the sight of polythenes and gutka pouches which were lying here and there. This is one of the places which is a must in the itinerary of Tourists coming to Similipal and every year the place gets filled with filth with the onslaught of human beings. This is where I feel, drivers who bring in tourists can play an important role in keeping Similipal clean. Drivers act as guides and they should absolutely be strict with the Tourists when it comes to Polythenes and playing loud music inside the Sanctuary area. Also one of the things we can do to follow Park rules is allowing only registered Drivers of Jashipur, Karanjia, Rairangpur and Baripada region to enter the park. At least these Drivers if properly oriented can help Tourists follow rules as they would be having much more attachment with Similipal rather than a Driver coming from Bhubaneshwar , Jamshedpur or Kolkata. This also ensures more local employment. We returned back from Barheipani as sun was setting in. On the way back we did spend some time at the Barheipani Anti Poaching camp talking to forest staff. These days it is only Wild Boars that they come across and occasional Leopards. In fact last of Dholes (Balia Kukura in Odia) of Similipal was sighted in Barheipani itself in 1996. Many old staff who were initially recruited by Dr Choudhury in 1970s say that they used to see Dhole packs sometimes numbering up to 40 individuals. They were thriving so much that prey base of struggling Tigers was getting affected. As a result unconfirmed reports say that Late Dr Choudhury had ordered killing of Dholes in the sanctuary area. But he would have never imagined in wildest of his dreams that Dholes would make complete exit from Similipal surreptitiously one day. No one knows the exact reason for this localised extinction of Dholes and neither any research work has been carried out but hopefully one day Dholes make a comeback to Similipal.


Barheipani Post Office


Budhabalanga gushing at tallest watefall of Odisha: Barheipani


Female Small Minivet


My first sighting of Speckled Piculet

On the way back I had my first sighting of Speckled Piculet Woodpecker, the smallest of Woodpecker family. Speckled Piculet Woodpecker is little bit bigger than a Tickell’s Flowerpecker in size and normally stays in holes of thick stems made by it. Under dying lights we drove back to Brundaban gate where big surprise was in store for us. A Cow Elephant had come to the salt lick with its baby. This sighting of Elephant at Brundaban gate was after a gap of 15 days. So I felt I was lucky to see them. We stayed at watch tower for half an hour watching the baby elephant cuddled to its mother. Salum with lot of pride said “As I was lighting the incense sticks in front of Lord Ganesha in my beat house, Elephants came trumpeting to the salt lick. For me our Elephants are my God and God visits me when I want. Sir, I have shown you elephants and barking deer today. Next time you are in Similipal, hopefully we will see a Tiger”. I gave a big hug to Salum and left for Chahala Range office.
In the evening after freshening up I met Tudu Babu, the Range officer (Wildlife) and I informed him about the birds sighted for the day. He also shared his knowledge on Birds of Similipal. I came to know from him the way local tribes catch the Hill Mynahs and other birds. They put some sort of gum that is extracted from a tree and put it on sticks. These sticks are then tied on branches where birds normally sit or nearby nests. When they flap their wings, poor birds get stuck to the sticks coated with gum. There are many such localized knowledge that tribes possess and use for poaching. In the evening I did spend some time with Bhagirathi, the care taker of the Bunglow. He has spent 26 years in Similipal and knows a lot about the forests. He also talked of the Dholes that used to be present in Similipal and how once a spotted deer was eaten from its hind area by chasing dholes while on move. He thinks today’s new hires lack that zeal to save Similipal but quite optimistic that with time, they would also settle down to their new job, job of protecting Similipal and its denizens. Like many people associated with Similipal, he also remembers the remarkable work done by Late Dr S R Choudhury for Similipal. As a teen he had seen Khairi, the legendary Tigress roam around in Jashipur Project Tiger office with Nihar Devi and Late Dr Choudhury, the foster human parents of Khairi. Khairi had made Similipal famous. It was just an amusement for everyone that how a huge fully grown tigress could stay along with humans, play around and mingle so much. Khairi was found as an abandoned cub near river Khairi by some Khadia tribals. They informed the forest department about the abandoned cub and later on Dr Choudhury brought the two month abandoned Tigress cub to Project Tiger office at Jashipur and named her “Khairi” after the river’s name that flows through Jashipur. Life of Dr Choudhury and Nihar Devi changed after that. In a couple of months’ time Similipal became synonymous with the name Khairi. Documentaries were made on her and many journalists covered her story. A visit to Similipal was incomplete without having a glance of Khairi. But sad end to the legendary Tigress came when it died because of Rabies at six and half years. Khairi is not there today neither is Dr Choudhury, but legend of pet Tigress and her foster father still is talked off in Similipal. You get a feeling that Jashipur National Park office still buzzes with the growls of Khairi.
Our discussion came to a pause when loud trumpeting sound of an Elephant came echoing from the meadow. It was a herd of 7 Elephants that had come to the salt lick. “What a day it has been”, I murmured and looked at the heavens for being so much generous with me.


Khairi- The Legendry Tigress ( Source http://mayurbhanj.nic.in)

Poorna called us for the Dinner and he didn’t disappoint us. Rice, Dal, Brinjal fries and Cauliflower Curry. The whole aroma of curry was amazing and I asked Poorna about the secret of being such a good cook. Prema jumped in and said that “he has been preparing food for all the VIPs and all visitors to Chahala. Every one like you is a diehard fan of Poorna”. Poorna shared the secret of that strong aroma that was coming from the Cauliflower Curry. It was freshly plucked Bay Leaves and leaves of another plant which smells like Coriander that was giving the food such delightful smell. Another one I added in. The food prepared by fire of wood in a choolah is what we city dwellers always miss on and this is what adds to the taste of the food. More importantly the warmth and smile with which Poorna serves the food is what every cook cannot do.
Me and Alok took a walk in the compound. Prema had already retired to his cozy bed by then. Already it was quite cold outside and silence had crept in the compound except for the voice of news reader on AIR, Cuttack. Radio is the sole source of entertainment in the forest. Mobiles don’t work over here and nearest point where Mobile works is on a hill top about 5 kms from the Range Office. Some times in case of urgency, the staffs climb up to that point to give a call to their relatives. As we kept on walking, plans were made for next day. We were supposed to go to Joranda Waterfalls and Nawana (North) Range. There were frequent alarm calls of Cheetals that night. Perhaps the Leopard that lives around Chahala was on prowl. We came back to the bunglow and retired to the bed. Half asleep, those couple of lines uttered by Salum in the evening were echoing inside me. Thought of seeing a Tiger one day at Brundaban gate pushed me to a world of beautiful dream, a dream where Similipal is abundant in Tigers, Deers and Tusker’s. I had a peaceful night.

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