Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary revisited:Ch 2

Go to Chapter 1

Last Days of Spring in Debrigarh

RBTs have vanished from the forests of Debrigarh. Since last one decade there has not been any sighting of the big cat and I have also not come across any concrete evidence (any write up) of their presence in the region before that. Whatever information I could collect was by talking with some temporary staffs of the department who also happen to be from the neighboring villages. One of them was Tiku who is part of Parboti Tang beat. He had two incidences to tell us regarding the RBTs. One was his own sighting of the animal in and around 2002 when he was cycling down from Dhodrukusum to Chourasimal. A big RBT crossed the road about 15 meters from Tiku. Stunned by the event, Tiku took some time to regain his senses. At least he was strong enough to cycle down; most of the others would have fainted by the sight of a full grown Tiger in such closeness. Second one was pertaining to an incident which involved a group of labourers employed by OFDC in cutting of trees. This happened some 10-12 years ago which he could not exactly recollect. They were taking bath in the reservoir at Dhodrukusum, when a deer started running out of the bushes. Next scene, a Tiger chases down the deer about 50 meters from where the labourers were taking bath. Deer ran in one direction, Tiger disturbed by the presence of the human beings in other and the screaming group in another ,gasping for breath and half naked. Tiku with lot of conviction says that there are definitely one or two Tigers inside Debrigarh today also but I assume it’s more of an emotion and feeling rather than a fact. But God willing, one day I will love to be proved wrong.

One of the recent additions to the faunal variety in the sanctuary has been that of the Rusty Spotted Cat. Mr Nair had sighted it inside the park but the elusive cat could not be photographed at that point. Camera traps that has been put in some of the strategic location has not been able to produce any photograph of the elusive cat yet but scat samples and the pugmark has confirmed that the sighting was that of the Rusty Spotted Cat. Same way, shall we come across a Tiger one day? There is a feeble optimism now that like other animals, Tigers will also make a comeback to Debrigarh one day. Few days back, DFO while driving inside the sanctuary had heard of a sound, very similar to the growling of a Tiger. He doubts that it might be of a RBT, but other evidences like Pugmarks are yet to come by. If that happens then it will be a day of pride for Debrigarh.
After having little bit rest after the stroll near the guest house, in the evening we decided to have a trip to Chourasimal. Sanjib accompanied us and he is one of those positive sounding brads who would fill in optimism in the air just by his words. We drove in for almost 10 kms before a foul smell forced us to stop on the road. We did spend around 15 minutes in the area searching for any signs of animal kill but could not trace any. A big wild boar staring us at a distance made our assumption even much more stronger as they also act like scavengers and surely there was some dead animal nearby. Driving along the forest road we made some more recording of the birds of Debrigarh including a sole Indian Grey Hornbill, a Black naped oriole and a gang of some Jerdon’s Chlropsis. Sanjib sitting in the front seat with his Digital camera switched on was making me proud. A forester being so passionate on learning more about wildlife in his initial days of career is what I had observed in some of the sanctuaries outside Odisha, but rarely in Odisha. Sanjib a Pharma student, never had thought in wildest of his dreams that one day he would land up in a forest and get involved in protection of animals and forests. In the initial days, spending time in forests all alone in some remote beat house was quite boring for him. On some days he would walk down all alone along the forest roads to the nearest post to have a chat or two with other forest staff, despite having the fear of having confrontation with a Sloth Bear. No cell phone signal at the post added to the dark evenings because of limited or no power supply would make him mad. After all he was not used to all this loneliness. He had dreamt of spending a comfortable life in the city like other aspiring young people do. But he was destined to work in the forests. Slowly the interest in nature and forests developed and Sanjib started liking what he was doing and accepted his fate happily. This is not only Sanjib’s story but the story of most of the Forest staff of sanctuaries across India. Living in tough conditions away from their families, away from civilized world in the middle of a forest throughout the year, they have the loneliness to accompany and nobody else.

I remember ,while talking to an IFS officer during one of the trips, the officer sounded quite agitated and agonized by the fact that the foot soldiers of Indian Forests who play the most important role in protecting the forests and its wildlife and face all the difficulties are not properly taken care off. I could infer that there is no shortage of funds , at least in majority of sanctuaries. But sad part is that there is no policy in place which ensures a paltry amount to the lower rung forest staff in form of either food allowance , neither there is any provision of providing free food to them. For most part of the year, the forest staff stay away far off from their families and if a minuscule amount in favour of educational allowance can be given to their kids, then it could go a long way in motivating them. There is so much money spent in useless projects inside the forests like making check dams, siliviculture etc but there is no honest intention to pay our foot soldiers good enough salary. For years, some staff members stay on contractual roles with a hope of seeing their names on the permanent muster list, but they never get to see that. Some of the daily wage earners who are employed for day to day labour work like clearing and repairing of forest roads, bush cutting, putting off forest fires are paid at minimum wages which is just hand to mouth stuff. The Forest officer during the conversation also showed his dislike for some of the Wildlife Scientists who don’t have any real intention of saving India’s forests but are big mouthed and often come up with enough unrealistic advices and criticism of the forest department officials . His words were powerful and intentions were honest. His frustration was wretched clearly on his face and views quite true about a system where there is very less accountability, enough criticism to be heard than credits being given on doing good work, more official files to be signed than signing off research papers and more time demanded in looking after visiting VIPs & some Politicians rather than spending time amidst forests.

We all drove to Choursimal crossing a small ghat. The ghat area is more frequented by Sambar deers as they are more used to undulated topography rather than plateaus and plains. The area near Chourasimal is quite plain and there is a meadow near it which was adorned by ochre grass with golden sunrays of setting sun filtering through it . This area is much more suitable for Spotted Deers and we came across a group which was going to the nearby reservoir for a round of drink before sunset. At Chourasimal, there is beat house and some forest staff stay there. The backwaters of Hirakud sprawls behind the Rest House and gives an amazing view. Climbing up to the top of the Rest House we all waited for the sun set and try our luck of spotting some deers. Sanjib told us about an incident that happened on a New Year eve. Some of the staff were busy preparing dinner around midnight and others were busy engraving a Welcome Note for the new year on the ground with coloured powders. A typical cattish Leopard growl from the nearby bushes was heard by one of the staff member. He doubted that it was surely that of a Leopard which was being frequently being sighted in the area. After hugging each other and wishing each other for a happy new year ahead, all of them went in for sleep. Next morning, Leopard scratch marks and pugmarks were found on the ground. Notable marking was on the “Happy New Year” engraving itself. Jokingly all of them said that they should have invited their spotted friend to the New Year party. The leopard perhaps enjoyed the smell of food and bantering of forest guards in the evening and wanted to join them.

Spot me if you can...

Indian Hare crossing the road

The day starts for Indian Nightjar

A Bison group on the grasslands near Mahanadi reservoir

We had a round of tea with staff over there and had a wonderful discussion amidst setting sun. Moonlight had overpowered that of Sun and stars had started dotting the horizon. We decide to return to the Ecotourism Complex. On the way back, I wanted to take some pics of the Indian Nightjar which were flying ahead of the moving vehicle. After getting a good pic of the Nightjar, next it was the turn of Stone Curlew. What happened next was just one of the most memorable evenings of mine spent in a jungle of Odisha and has been described in the beginning of the essay.

In the evening we met Nair Sir who was kind enough to have come down to meet us in the sanctuary. Had a wonderful discussion on varied subjects related to Wildlife, birds of Odisha, Similipal (he was deputy field director of Similipal couple of years back) and its Tigers, M Krishnan and Mahesh Rangarajan. “Did you hear this distinctive tik tik tik treeeek calling coming from the bushes? It’s the Indian Nightjar. Its call is distinctive from that of Savannah Nightjar whose call is more like a screech.”, exclaimed Mr. Nair as we were having dinner . He said he would accompany us next day morning for the birding round. We were happy hearing this as this gave us an opportunity of learning one or two tricks of the game from guru himself. Before signing off for the day, he showed us the photograph of Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) that he had clicked in the forests of Barbara in Khurda/Nayagarh district. I could not just stop admiring the beauty. This was the first evidence that I had seen of the Bird in Eastern Ghats where it is a scarce endemic breeding resident.

On day two, in the wee hours we left for P Tang. The forests of Debrigarh being dry deciduous type had already started shedding leaves and greenish covered had started changing to yellow and brownish. Our first major recording of the day was a group of Gaurs comprising around 25 numbers of the big hoofed animal. Seeing us, the group barring one big bull made a slow stroll towards a safer patch of bushes. The Bull was unable to see us as we had hid behind some shrubs. We admired the big bull for quite some time before he realized our eavesdropping presence. Bisons were proving as the flagship animal for Debrigarh. We moved ahead.

Debrigarh also boasts a good figure of around 30 odd Dholes divided into two packs. As per Nair Sir, breeding female leader of one of the packs has given birth to a litter of 10 pups some months back. One of the peculiar characteristic of Dhole packs is that as soon as the pups grow up and survive to become juveniles, some of the older members of the group separate out to form a new pack (A J T Johnsingh; Sanctuary Asia 1984). Dholes being closely knit social animals prey down a single animal and then share amongst themselves. Separating out of one set of animals from the group when a so called threshold limit is reached ensures that there is enough food for the pack. With 10 pups in the present pack we can hope for another pack if the logic mentioned holds true but animals in the wild have always thrown surprises and logics and justifications as we know are limited by our ever so limited knowledge.

There are some temporary fisherman huts along the reservoir inside the sanctuary premises. Earlier individual bikes and sometimes four wheelers used to come for collection of the daily catch. This used to create unnecessary disturbance in the sanctuary. But now park administration has streamlined the process. Everyday only one three wheeler is allowed to come inside the sanctuary which collects the catch from all the fisherman folk and then leaves the sanctuary.

The time spent in the morning along with Manoj Sir was an enriching experience and I took back some of the basic but important learning’s from him that any amateur naturalist trying to know more about the forests should keep a note of. From birding point of view it is not only important to identify the bird from its visual presence but also to identify them from their calls. As this point was being discussed, sir uttered “there is an Oriental Turtle Dove perched nearby… did you hear that?”. Amidst discussion of birds we came across a scat sample on the road. It was of a small carnivore, probably a jungle cat and had some scaly substance in it. To probe more I lifted it in hand. Loud came the heavy voice of Mr. Nair, “Not to be picked up in hand. They may be having deadly parasitic organisms in it”. Next advice was on taking the pics of scat sample. Every time we click a pic of scat sample, a coin or some small object has to be placed beside it so that we can have a rough idea of the size of the sample by seeing the pic later on. This lesson learnt came very handy when I clicked a mysterious pugmark in Lakhari Valley Sanctuary in a subsequent trip and had to send it to experts for sample confirmation.

Recording of Blue Throated Flycatcher

A Greenish Leaf Warbler

On our final day of the trip, we stopped by a nullah near Chourasimal. The place was a theatre of bird activity with a White Bellied Drongo perched on a bare branch, a Painted Spurfowl coursing away seeing us approach the place, lone Common Kingfisher fluttering past rapidly above the greenish pool of water and some thrushes busy picking the wet damp semi rotten leaves fallen from the surrounding trees for making the nests. A bluish bird with Orange under parts sitting on one of the branches as a silent spectator would come down and pluck some flying insects before sitting back again on the branch. I didn’t give much attention to the bird as I thought it was a Tickell’s Flycatcher but later on I realized that it was the Blue Throated Flycatcher (Cyornis rubeculoides) which is a winter visitor to the Eastern Ghats and breeds in Himalayas during the summers.

On one of the evenings, we did spend the time on the watch tower at Barkhandia. It was not a complete moonlit night but was enough to see the hills of Barapahada towards the west standing like a wall against the star lit sky. On the east was the mammoth Hirakud Reservoir looking like a pond of molten silver with impression of the moon flickering on the slowly moving water of great Mahanadi. These magnificent forests of Debrigarh are house to so many animals, birds and insects and form an important eco-system and it is right there in our backyard in Odisha. I wish more parents from Bhubaneswar, Sambalpur, Rourkela and other places of the state can bring in their kids to Debrigarh and interest in wildlife amongst kids and school children is aroused. After all these are the kids who are going to grow up in future as wildlifers and not only voice the need for wildlife protection for Odisha but work on ground. We don’t need to travel long distance and have a costly trip to some of the coveted wildlife sanctuaries of India. It’s right there near us in form of Debrigarh and gives us an immense opportunity being close to Mother Nature. I would feel elated if more naturalists, more writers, more wildlife photographers and more IFS officers can be churned out from the state.

This trip of mine had been an enriching one in all aspects and is one of the few sanctuaries in Odisha from which I am going back with no qualms. Things are looking good today and hopefully it is even better in future. I fell in love with wildlife 5 years back and Debrigarh is responsible for that. Given a chance I would love to keep coming back to these forests again and again. May be in my next trip the Dholes would have formed some more packs, the mystery about the Tiger would have got solved and the elusive Rusty Spotted Cat would have been Camera trapped.....Amen.

Our best friend bidding us bye


The Author would like to express his gratitude to Tiku (Forest Staff, P Tang Beat), Forest Staff of Chourasimal,Mr Sanjib Panda (Forester at Debrigarh) and Mr Saroj Kumar Panda (Range Officer).

A special word of admiration and appreciation for Mr Manoj V Nair (DFO, Hirakud Wildlife Division) for investing time on amateur naturalists like us and for all the encouragements that will always keep on propelling me.

To end with, this writeup including many other essays that are published on my site is a result of multiple reviews by my dear friend and biggest critique Prabal Mallick.