Monday, January 23, 2012

Chapter 1: Forests of Ghumsar- Where Tigers once used to prowl

On a winter morning of 1985, two forest guards bicycle down a road in the Ragada forests of Ghumsar North Forest Division near Bhanjanagar in South Odisha. Suddenly one of the Forest Guards, Mohanty who was riding in front stops his bicycle and other guard bangs his cycle into Mohanty’s. Mohanty had frozen with terror embarked on his face. Winter breeze blowing through the Sal laden forests could not stop Mohanty and his fellow forest guard from sweating. A big male Royal Bengal Tiger was lying on the road unperturbed by the presence of the guards. A big yawn and a fearless stare was the only reaction of the Tiger after seeing the two men trembling with fear. Another minute of silence and the King of the Jungle made a lethargic move toward the bush nearby disapproving the presence of human beings. Five-Seven years later King had vanished from the forests of Ghumsar, the last bastion of Tigers in Southern Orissa. Last Royal Bengal Tiger actually sighted (not the pugmarks on Plaster of Paris Pads) in Ghumsar was in the early 1990s.

I along with one of my dear friends Tapan drove down from Bhubaneswar in the morning and reached Bhanjanagar around 6 in the evening. A small town alongside SH 7 has its own importance from Wildlife Point of view. On the northern side are the famous Kalinga Ghat and the forests of Phulbani. On the North eastern side lies the Forests of Gasma and further north lies the Daspalla Reserve Forests, Baisipalli Sanctuary and Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary. Down South are the Forests of Sorada and discontinued connectivity with Lakhari Valley Sanctuary. All Forest Department offices like DFO Ghumsar North, DFO Ghumsar South, Conservator of Forests, Range offices and the Forest Guest Houses dot the town. Most of these offices were built by British and are still intact.Conservation activities in Bhanjanagar area were initiated pre independence era. Ghumsar North comprises of 5 Ranges namely Mujagada, Central, Tarsingi, Galeri and Jagannathprasad. DFO of Ghumsar North, Mr Bipin Behera was more than helpful to arrange for our accommodation at the Forest Guest House in Bhanjanagar. We made plans for the subsequent 2 days to trace and record various hill Birds. I was very hopeful of photographing Hill Myna (Saree) this time after missing it in Similipal. Also, I had heard that hills near Kaliamba Guest House in Central Range houses some Malabar Pied Hornbills popularly known as Kochilakhai in Odisha. With exciting prospects looking in horizon, we retired to the bed after having a filling dinner. Temperature outside the Guest House was freezing around 5 degree Celsius and warmth provided by the thickness of two blankets was the only savior for us.

Pleasure drive through Forests of Ghumsar

We were woke up sharp at 6 am by the caretaker Braja and cup of tea in his hand was god’s weapon for us to fight the severe cold that the region was facing. Braja told that Saab was waiting for us at the Department’s Nursery about couple of kilometers away on the Highway. He informed that Bijaya Dash, department’s driver has been deputed to be with us for both days as he was the best man to guide us inside the forest area. I have a big fascination for people from Ganjam area, reason being their unique way of speaking language and addition of humor in each sentence. Bijaya bhaina has never gone out of Ganjam and in-fact he has served for 26 years in the same division and knew the forests of Ghumsar on tip of his fingers. Bijaya bhaina drove us to a place called Sriramnagar just ahead of Russelkonda Reservoir on the outskirts of Bhanjanagar. While walking to a hill top, he told that the place used to have lot of carnivores earlier. But there days lesser number of carnivores meant that number of Wild Boars, Cheetals and Sambar Deers have grown up despite occasional poaching by local tribes for the purpose of consumption as food. I was surprised to hear that the ranges of Mujagada , Central and Tarsingi also boast some sporadic populations of Neel Gais and Bisons. Couple of months back, four wild boars were smashed to death by a speeding Bus on the Highway near Russelkonda.

My First recording of Rosy Minivet

Walking along the fringe of a hill, I came across a surprise beauty flocking ahead on the road. My first recording of Rosy Minivet (Pericrocotus Roseus) which is a Winter Visitor to the place from Himalayan Region. I thanked my stars and gave a big smile to Bijaya bhaina. When your day is good make the maximum use of it. Within 45 minute of walk, 17 birds were sighted notable among them being Golden Fronted Chlropsis, White Browed Bulbul, Changeable Hawk Eagle and Large Cuckoo Shrike. Area around Bhanjanagar is inhabited by a lot of White browed Bulbuls, which I concluded from my numerous recordings of the particular specie from areas around Kaliamba, Tarsingi and Mujagada during my two days of stay in the area. We did then drove up to Mujagada after stopping briefly at Sora devi temple to offer our prayers. Drive through the SH 7 in the forests of Ghumsar is absolutely a pleasure. Complete greenery on both sides of the road devoid of any traffic. Warmth of Sun on a freezing winter morning and listening to the stories of forests , we reached Mujagarh, the range headquarters. Walking inside the forest, we followed the pug marks of a young male leopard to a rocky patch where it had discontinued. These forests were once the home of Royal Bengal Tigers which now have been taken over by the Leopards. Today we are left with those stories of the King which has vanished from the region and which is on the brink of extinction in other areas. Bijaya bhaina himself has been witness to many such incidents involving the king. On a summer midnight news came to the Headquarters in Bhanjanagar that a tiger has been sighted near a forest road in Mujagada range. Immediately forest department staff rushed to the spot along with their spotlights to see a fully grown RBT with its prized hunt of a fully grown Bison. According to Bijay those were the best days of the forests of Ghumsar where Tigers used to prowl. So many times Bus drivers driving on the Bhanjanagar – Daspalla road used to sight Tigers. One such time, Bijay and Mr Banerjee ( the then Range officer of Tarsingi had followed a RBT on the road for almost 15 minutes before it vanished into the nearby Sal Forests. According to Bijay, that has been his best sighting of a RBT till date.

White Browed Bulbul

A Indian Grey Hornbill

A Changeable Hawk Eagle

Black Headed Oriole

We came back to Mujagad to have breakfast. Staying in other states, I always miss the steaming ghuguni and udad dal wada , the integral part of any roadside breakfast counter in Odisha. Gulping down the breakfast in such a ramshackle place is what I always love doing. Within couple of hours I had developed a camaraderie with Bijay bhaina. He had so many stories to tell us and like a child I requested him to tell us all of them in the evening at the Guest House. After finishing the breakfast, we decided to drive down to Kaliamba area.

Kaliamba situated about 25 kms from Bhanjanagar has a century old forest guest house amidst a picturesque setting of tall Sal trees around and a banyan tree in-front which must be older than the guest house itself. Amidst the picture perfect setting, there was some disturbing flavor. Some Coconut trees in-front of the guest house had been uprooted and the newly constructed perch damaged at one corner. I was told by Gendu, the forest guard that it was the handy work of a group of errant jumbos that has been camping behind the guest house near a waterhole inside the forest for last couple of days. Every evening they descend down the small hillock and create havoc in the paddy fields nearby Kaliamba village. He got even much more excited and took us to a nearby field of Kandhamula (Sweet Potatoes) belonging to his father in law. Whole field was devoid of a single root. “Jumbos are really clever and they can smell where the Sweet Potato roots are present. They would strike at that point precisely with their foot and get the roots uprooted”, uttered Gendu with dismay. Villagers though have not resorted to any action by elephants frequenting the place but they are in state of horror. Forest department has formed JFMs( Joint Forest Management) groups in different villages mainly comprising the youngsters. DFO and other officials regularly hold interaction with them on collaborative forest management, forest protection, timber leasing, nabbing the poachers, preventing forest fires, handling situations such as elephant havoc on villages etc. In current case, the JFM at Kaliamba has been provided with crackers, powerful spotlights and funds to keep elephants at bay but every effort seems to be very small in-front of the group which has been enjoying the feast of fresh paddy harvest and Sweet Potato plantations daily evening.

A typical Jungle Trail

As we were taking a walk through the compound, my eye fell on surprise avifauna visitor to the area, a Ultramarine Flycatcher which flies down from North to escape from the severe snowfalls and dipping mercury. We asked Gendu about the presence of birds in and around the forests. He pointed out towards a flowing stream about half a kilometer from the guest house where there might be birds in morning time and if luck was there then of course sightings of Kochilakhai may happen. Gendu prepared some tea as we searched for the numerous Malabar Giant Squirrels that are present in the area. Many of them have in-fact made the old banyan tree their home. Kaliamba village has now been electrified which is good for human beings but a bad situation for Elephants. We have to draw a fine line between development and disaster. Human settlements need to be electrified but at the same time basic precautions needs to be taken. Utter care should be taken to draw underground cables to electrify the villages. If cost is a factor then at least following two measures should be taken without any minute deviation. Firstly we cannot have electric cables drawn at a lower height, so heighted poles have to erected. Secondly the base of the poles have to be well cemented. Or else the way Elephants are getting electrocuted in other parts of State, same would keep on happening in Ghumsar also. Reports suggest that on an average, 10-15 elephant deaths happen annually in the state because of electrocution.
We decided to head back to Bhanjanagar for afternoon lunch and come next day morning for bird watching near the stream as suggested by Gendu. On the way back came across a couple of Wolves who were basking in the sun perhaps after a satisfying lunch.

A Wolf basking in Winter Sun

On the way back through the forest road, we noted the forest on both sides mainly comprised of Sal trees with very stunted growth. Bijaya bhaina told that actually the whole area was not that green and because of conservation efforts in last 10 years, it has again regained life. All the Sal shoots have actually regenerated in this period and in next 15 years if same conservation efforts continue then they would become a wonderful patch of forest. Sometimes Bisons have been seen crossing the particular road on which we were travelling. We came across a local villager in his mid sixties and instantly stopped to have a chat. I asked him if has seen a tiger ever in his life in the area. Looking at us with little shining eyes, he nodded his head and replied “right in the place where we were standing, Tigers once used to roam freely but no more they are to be seen. Only Leopards some time.”. Later on, I came to know from an unconfirmed source that a RBT was shot on its leg by a group of villagers in early 90s on the particular road. Tiger limped away with pain to one of the nearest hillocks and growled with agony for hours. Villagers followed it to the place where it confided behind a shrub. One shot on the head and the growling and roaring sound faded into the silence of forest. Skin sold to a trader in Sorada, lucky bone sent to somebody in Berhampur and Canines converted in to lockets made their way into markets of Calcutta. I heard about the “Lucky Bone” for the first time which is basically the bones of shoulder of the Tiger that it licks before making a run towards the prey. This is a misconception that Tiger traders have easily sold to the educated high end buyers of the cities who would pay thousands to buy a simple piece of bone at the cost of a beautiful animal struggling for its survival.

Inside the reserve forest

After having a late lunch we decided to go to the forests of Tarsingi in North Ghumsar region. Anupam Banerjee, the Ranger of Tarsingi was to accompany us for the trip. Banerjee in his late fifties is a gem of person and has huge field experience. He is in-fact known for his skills of sharp shooting and hence one of the few forest officers called on assignments of tranquilizing animals when needed. Banerjee babu was very happy to know that we had come down especially to do bird photography in the forests where very few people come. He like Bijaya has spend his whole life in Ghumsar Division and took pride in passing on this fact by saying- “ agyan ethikara gacha patra bhi amaku chini chanti” meaning leaves and trees of these forests also know us very well. I knew that drive to Tarsingi situated about 35 kms from Bhanjanagar on the way to Daspalla was going to be interesting. Again we were fortunate to have company of a man who had so many interesting stories to tell and more importantly who also talked of facts of forests accurately. As we approached a road side fig tree, Banerjee babu asked the driver to stop the vehicle. He pointed out to the top of the tree where some Indian Grey Hornbills were feasting on figs. I asked, “ are these Kochilakhai common in these parts ?”. He corrected me by saying, “these are not Kochilakhai birds, rather they are Katakhai birds. Malabar Pied hornbills are called Kochilakhai and Indian Grey Hornbills are called Katakhai/ Karakhai”. Another useful piece of information on birds learnt. After another half an hour drive, we took a left turn into the forests of Tarsingi. Absolute thick and rich forests of Sal ,Arjuna, Sissoo and Asan. I am amazed by the quality of forests this region has. Whole stretch from Tarsingi to Daspalla is a contiguous strip of highly wooded low altitude hills. Absolutely rich and dense patch which harbors wide array of Flora and Fauna. These have to be saved at any cost from Timber Mafias and which perhaps is being done in Tarsingi area. But it has its own challenges. Recent news of encroachment by local villagers and indirect support of Naxals who are present in a particular part of the forests is what is going to be a major challenge for the whole administration. If Tigers have to be saved on a longer run then we need to create forests connected to each other by thick corridors. Tarisingi and Gasma forests form such a thick corridor between forests of Baisipalli, Daspalla and with that of Ghumsar. Baisipalli are the last forests of Central Odisha where Tigers are there and if proper prey base is maintained (which is a huge challenge currently) and forests made devoid of villages, who knows we may have some Tigers back in the region. I know that this is a height of optimism but hope is what pushes us ahead.
We decided to leave the vehicle and walk on a forest road to see if some birds could be clicked and recorded in the fading light. We were hopeful of recording the Hill Myna which is quite common in these forests. The forest road inside the Tarsingi forest is known as Keskenda Road which is a locally refined version of “Cox Corner road” named after the British forest officer, Mr Cox who had developed the road during pre-independence era. As we were walking down the road, a soothing whistling sound of a bird, far perched on the tree top attracted us. Unmistakably it was the Hill Myna that we were looking for. I was told by Bijaya bhaina that Hilla Mynas are sometimes sold in local haats at the cost of four hundred rupees and Parakeet at the rate of two hundred. Many traders from Calcutta visit such haats to buy the birds. We strolled for another hour in the forests before leaving for Tarsingi Range Office which was established way back in 1912 by the British Forest Officials of Ghumsar. We sat over a cup of Tea for discussion with the staff amidst setting sun. The office itself looks like a heritage site with colonial touch reflecting everywhere. With a sharp drop in temperature, we could not avoid gulping down another cup of warm tea. The whole experience of sitting along with forest officials itself is a pleasure for me and understanding the local forest issues, listening to Tiger stories and knowing about the first hand experience of field staff is a thing that I miss while being in a city. For my companion of the trip, Tapan, a banker, it was even much more exciting. He had never expected that forests in Odisha could be so beautiful.
There are not that much Leopard sighting these days is what the staff had to tell although there is a good population of Sambar Deers and Wild Boars in the area. As per the census report published in 2004, Ghumsar North with a number of 49 had the maximum number of Leopards in Orissa after Similipal, though the numbers are always debatable because of the pugmark mode of census carried out. I pestered Bijaya bhaina to share some more tales from his rich treasure of Wildlife incidents. Bijay bhaina obliged this time with a story other than Tiger. Once while driving through the Tarsingi- Bhanjanagar road during the summer of 2008, he saw a big black shining log shaped creature crossing the road. It could not be mistaken. It was a huge King Cobra almost 13-14 feet in length crossing the road in broad day light. Bijay stopped his vehicle immediately and saw the amazing scene. From the opposite side a speeding biker unaware about the crossing snake came to the point only to be taken by surprise and hence a skid was inevitable. Terrorized by the size of the snake, he ran back. Bijay came back to the office to report the sighting. These sightings only confirm the importance of ecologically rich Ghumsar.

At Tarsingi Range Office- Tapan and Bijay Bhaina

We drove back to Bhanjanagar guest hosue by 7 in the evening after a satisfying day. At the guest house, after freshening up and making notes, we met Bipin babu to inform on the days proceedings. “Did you see something?” asked the DFO. Rosy Minivet & White Browed Bulbul were the catch of the day , I informed him and with another day to go, prospects were looking exciting. We informed him about our Kaliamba plans for the next day. He immediately summoned Bijay bhaina that he should accompany us for the next day trip also. After a quite dinner in the evening, we went in for a walk in the sleepy town of Bhanjanagar. Belghar and Daringbadi about 100 kms away were reporting unusual snowfall and it had its effect on Bhanjanagar also. Most of the shops had closed by that time and few street dogs on the road were trying to huddle together along the dying embers set by road side rickshaw pullers. We came back to the Guest House and retired to the warm cozy bed after a satisfying day of work.

Chapter 2