Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary Revisited : Ch 1

Indian Gaur , the flagship animal of Debrigarh

Elated by taking a fair enough picture of Indian Nightjar and first recording of a Stone Curlew, we were driving back to Eco Tourism complex at Barkhandia in the evening. Sun had just set in and more Nightjars were getting active in front of the beaming lights of the Jeep. Cool breeze flowing from the Backwaters of the Hirakud Dam was having a soothing effect and was bringing much needed respite from the rocky hills of Barapahada which had stood baked for the whole day in Summer heat. Imagination of warm fish curry being served at the Guest House on my plate during dinner and aroma of mustard, fresh coriander leaves, ginger & garlic coming from the fiery red curry is what was keeping my mind busy. A sudden turn on the ghat road and the vehicle ceased to halt. And there they were. Right in the middle of the road taken aback by our presence, a momma sloth Bear with two cubs. Sitting in front of the vehicle I didn’t even bother to switch on the camera as I wanted to soak myself in the beauty and its two little ones. Couple of seconds is what the mother and kids gave us to admire them before running into the bushes. Euphoric over the sighting of the Sloth Bears, we were in a high and were just impatient to report back the sighting to others at Barkhandia. Another 10 minutes of drive, I see an off white to yellowish coloured, four legged creature with a long tail crossing the road at a distance of 100 meters from us. Oh Boy. Did I realize that it was the elusive Leopard that had crossed us just now? Extremely excited I asked the Driver to drive fast in the direction of the animal. We slowed down at the spot and forester Sanjib switched on the torch to focus on the nearby bushes. Indeed it was the Leopard who for some reason was kind enough to move parallel to the road behind the bushes. We reversed back the road along with it for some time just admiring its beauty before it vanished behind the trees. The aura, the presence was just unbelievable. Had I gambled that evening, I would have wiped off everyone from the table. Two times lucky, that evening belonged to us; First the Sloth Bear and then the feline beauty. For Sanjib also, this was first sighting of the Leopard in the current year.

“From day to day I marched westwards along a narrow belt of flat ground intervening between the foot of the Barapahar hills, which are formed of these rocks, and the southern bank of the Mahanadi. Near the village of Kurumkel I shot two specimens of a very rare bird, the spotted creeper [Salporntspilonota,Frankl.), which I had only once obtained in Chuta Nagpur. Ten years ago there were only two or three specimens of this bird in collections : of late years it has been found in several different parts of India ;but it is still a treasure for the ornithologist.” (Pg 516; Jungle Life in India; V Ball; 1880)

Vast tracts of forests which was home to wide variety of birds and wild animals like Gaurs, Neel Gais, Wild Buffaloes, Leopards and Tigers, was the area of Chota Nagpur, Dandakarnya forests (East & South East Chattisgarh ) and Garjat hill tracts in 18th Century. It continued to remain a wildlife heaven till the initial part of 19th century. Slowly roads, bridges and dams of Independent India started taking shape. The wilderness cover started receding day by day. Animals started confining themselves to smaller, ever shrinking pockets of green foliages. Debrigarh is one such of these left over pockets spread over an area of 347 sq kms and is one of the best managed parks in Odisha. With Hirakud Reservoir on one side and the famous Barapahada hills on one side, Debrigarh Sanctuary serves as a one of the safest places for wild animals to roam about in their natural surroundings in Odisha. It’s not that all these have happened naturally by declaration of sanctuary status to the forests of Debrigarh. A lot of hard work and toiling efforts of the present forest officials and their predecessors have gone into making what Debrigarh today is. This will be discussed in later parts of this essay.

We were there in Debrigarh this year as summer was setting in. With complete 3 days in hand, I was pretty excited about my trip to Debrigarh. And my excitement reached the next level when I heard that present DFO of Division is Mr Manoj Nair who is one of the few officers present in the state with a deep understanding of the Wildlife, acclaimed with many findings and detailed research on wildlife of Odisha.
Perhaps in some other essay (Though I could not avoid many instances revolving around Mr Nair being mentioned in the current essay) I would love to write in detail about this goliath figured Malayali IFS officer, a tough task master when it comes to wildlife conservation but more importantly one of the few humble and grounded forest officers that I have come across till date.

We checked in to a comfortable room in the Eco Tourism Complex at Barakhandia. This has been one of the major changes since my last visit to the Sanctuary in 2007. More Tourists have started coming to Debrigarh which was one of lesser known sanctuaries couple of years back. Eco Tourism has grown manifolds in the region which has generated employment for local youths, brought in more revenue and at least has reached to a level where in the DFO had to contemplate on putting a maximum cap of 18 vehicles per day for entry into the park to reduce pressure of Tourism on the “civilized” animals of Debrigarh. Question that would naturally arise in is that why animals in Debrigarh for me are “civilized”? On a lighter note, the answers are the somber, calm, sober Gaurs of Debrigarh. I have seen these supersized, heavy and powerful flagship animals of Debrigarh standing undisturbed by our presence. On
one instance, a Bull busy in the day’s meal was so near our vehicle that it was very difficult to focus with our telephoto lens. A good heap of fodder was on top priority for the old bull and our close proximity to him made a no difference to his love for food. He stood there masticating, sometimes giving a confused look to the intruders. I was getting that urge sitting in the jeep that I should get down and cuddle the bull, with an over confident feeling that Gaurs of Debrigarh are lethargic, overweight gentle breed who would do no harm to others because it would involve some energy spending. Thank God that these urge was curtailed at right time or else we all know what Gaurs are capable of doing, sometimes even heard of ripping apart the belly of a big tiger with a highly potent kick.

As we prepared to leave for Parboti Tang (P Tang) beat on day one, Sanjib( striking resemblance to cricketer, Azharuddin. So we lovingly nicknamed him Azzu bhai) the ever smiling Forester in charge of the Tourist Complex gave us a word of caution on the presence of a herd of elephants in the area. This was a surprise to me as earlier Debrigarh never had residential Elephants inside the sanctuary. Since last
couple of years, this group of Elephants who had migrated from Hemagiri area of Sundergarh have made Debrigarh their new home. Since past few days, they were behaving rogue and have crashed down the mileposts and sign boards near Parboti Tang diversion along the road to Chourasimal about 20 odd kms from the main entry gate at Dhodrukusum. Along the road, just about 100 meters from the Tourist Complex we came across a big sized male wild boar hiding behind a bush. In next 2 hours we came across 3 sightings of Gaurs (a lone juvenile, a group of 4 and a group of 3) , a lone Indian Jackal who posed us for some time behind a tree, numerous Langur groups and couple of Sambars. From wildlife sighting point of view it was a more than a satisfying morning as you cannot expect more sightings in any other forest in Odisha in such a shorter span of time. There is a reason behind such high
frequent sighting of animals in Debrigarh. The forest road runs alongside Hirakud Dam’s reservoir for quite some distance. Normally the animals come down from the forests along Barapahada Hills to the reservoir during summers to quench their thirst and as you drive down the road sightings happen. One of the best practices of forestry management that have been recently initiated to avoid animals crossing the road in search of water and getting disturbed by passing vehicles is construction of bigger waterholes and ponds on a particular side of the road that avoids animals crossing it. This is a good initiative that can be copied in other parks of the country which has similar kind of geographical setup.

Habitat Management: Construction of Waterholes at appropriate places

The lone Jackal after a filling lunch

Alexandrine Parakeet busy with the mid day meal

Meanwhile we were also recording the bird life present in the sanctuary. One observation that we made was the abundant presence of Common Wood Shrikes and Yellow Throated Sparrows (Petronias) in the Sanctuary. The reservoir also attracts a good number of migratory Waterfowls and recent census conducted in the winters revealed a whopping number of Sixty Thousand birds. Some of the winter visitors who were still present in the reservoir when we visited Debrigarh were Northern Pintails, Great Crested Grebes and Spot Billed Ducks. Coming back to the waterfowl census, it was heartening to see that most of the staff that we interacted regarding the birds of the reservoir were aware about the common names and were pretty excited to share their experience of their participation in the census that was led by DFO. They talked excitedly regarding the nesting patterns of Oriental Pratincole in the region. That is the effect that one sees in the frontline staff when you have an expert and passionate wildlifer posted in the topmost job of managing a sanctuary. The foresters of Debrigarh are quite aware about the Birds and Butterflies of the Sanctuary and are being groomed in that direction. A small library being maintained at the Eco Tourism Complex is also helping the young foresters like Sanjib learn the tricks of the game. By afternoon we were back at Barakhandia for lunch. The dining space along with the rooms are built in such a way that it gives a superb view of the back waters of Hirakud Reservoir and constant breeze blowing keeps the rooms cool . Rooms are quite comfortable, spacious and airy with furniture made out of bamboo. After a quick well deserved shower, we gathered at common dining area for the lunch which comprised of fresh catch from the reservoir. It was so well made that the thoughts related to Wildlife seemed less important subject in mind compared to that of the food.

A Black Naped Oriole

Indian Peafowl in search of mate

Brilliant colours of a Black Naped Monarch Flycatcher

Near the backwaters of Hirakud

In the afternoon, we went in for a stroll in the forest road and came across a Black Naped Monarch Flycatcher fluttering from one branch to other. We had been told earlier by Sanjib that every year in monsoons, nesting of Black Naped Monarch Flycatcher, Black Naped Oriole, Indian Robin, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Red Vented Bulbul and Indian Magpie Robin happens in and around the Eco Tourism complex. Coming back in monsoons will give us an opportunity to see the nesting and eggs. Paradise Flycatchers come in flocks to the area to give birth to their next generations. There are some mysteries in wildlife for which no one has any answer. One such mystery of Debrigarh is absence of Red Jungle Fowl in its forests. Even Mr Nair does not have any clue regarding the absence of Jungle Fowl in the region. Other absenteeism cases include Malabar Giant Squirrel and Barking Deers. His justification for former’s non presence was perhaps because of absence of tall forest canopies and enough fruit bearing trees in Debrigarh. Barking Deers might have been wiped off in earlier days because of hunting and poaching. Pre 2002-03, the area was a heaven for poachers from around the region to come down and carry out killings of all variety of animals. Timber mafias were having merry time and sometimes boats were also used to ferry back logs of wood as far as Belpahar on the Northern banks of the reservoir. There was no specific setup of sanctuary in place and existence was only for name sake. Things started taking shape in right direction for the place in and around 2004. Some of the officers who came during that period in did put in toiling effort day in night to turn around things. I have met Dilip Dash, the Range officer in 2007 and believe me he is one of the few daring wildlifers that I have met who can give a chase to group of timber cutters all alone. Many times, in the middle of night, Dilip babu would set out alone in his bike inside the sanctuary. He would do this to have a vigil look by himself and to create a fear amongst the woodcutters and poachers. It took some time but slowly and steadily, the animals started trusting the area and Gaurs, Sambars, Chousinghas again made Debrigarh their secured home. Numbers started multiplying. Reports of frequent Leopard sightings started coming in. Debrigarh has been fortunate enough to get officers like Dilip Dash and now with people like Mr Nair at the helm of the job, I think the sanctuary is in safe hands.

Sharing some lighter moments:Sanjib, Author and Tiku (R to L)
Go to Chapter 2