Category Archives: Wildlife

Kabini: Wild tales of the Kuruba

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Kabini may be a popular safari destination today but nobody knows it better than the tribes that once called it home. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY experience the Spirit of the Kabini with its original dwellers

Kuruba lady Puttamma IMG_7991

“I remember playing with tiger cubs as a child. I would string necklaces of kaare kai (berries) around their neck or limbs and cuddle them. They were our toys. Today’s parents give their children tiger dolls! I must have been six or seven then,” Puttamma recalls, with mirth in her eyes. Enthralled, we sat in the small hut of this Kuruba tribal woman in Brahmagiri Haadi, a hamlet on the fringes of the Kabini Reservoir.

Thrumming her little leather drum, she sang about the rain, the animals and the forests. She belonged to one of the many tribal communities displaced from their forest habitat when a dam was built across the Kabini River for irrigation in 1974 and their lives changed forever.

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With a faraway gaze, Puttamma continued, “When a tigress killed a gaur, it would guard the carcass for three days and eat her fill. That was when my brothers would stealthily bring her tiger cubs home for me. We would play and pamper them before putting them back where we found them, in time for their mother’s return.” She spoke of a different reality, a different time; how life had been sixty odd years ago, and for centuries before.

The Kabini river forms a boundary between Nagarahole and Bandipur national parks. When it was dammed, the huge reservoir created to the south of Nagarahole inundated many villages, ancient temples and tribal hamlets. The Kurubas were relocated to the edge of the forests. “They claimed that we stay in the forest and eat up all the animals. So they chased us out. Neither are we in the jungle any more, nor are the animals, but mankind is consuming everything in its path. When we go to the forest, we don’t see half the numbers of animals that we used to.

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We all coexisted in complete harmony. If a Kuruba woman died at childbirth, other mothers would breastfeed the motherless infant as their own. If a child was orphaned, all would take turns to feed and look after it. We wore no clothes except the broad leaves of sal (teak) that we stitched together with twigs. We lived like the animals and knew everything about them, their smells, their behaviour, their movements. In fact, we were just that – pranigalu (animals).”

In the dry summer months when there was no genasu (yam and other tubers) in the ground to eat, they would catch fish from the river, roast it on the banks and drink lots of water. They would gather in large groups and bring out the drums and bamboo flutes as they would sing and dance the whole night right up to dawn. “There’s a song from those nights to beseech the God of Rain, to open the heavens and pour down for our food and survival.

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When we spotted elephants, we would sing – ‘The elephants have come with their little babies, they see us but don’t do anything, come O moon in the sky and watch over us. Flocks of peacocks have come to eat termites and insects on the anthills, come O moon in the sky and watch with us’.” Puttamma seemed to have a song for every occasion.

We were on a Spirit of Kabini tour in a haadi (settlement) of the Betta Kuruba tribe, originally hunter gatherers who hunted wild animals and collected honey. They also wove cane baskets. Our Kuruba Safari Lodge guide Kishan clarified that they were called bett (cane) Kuruba for this reason and not because they stayed on bettas (mountain tops), as is popularly believed. Those who specialized in extracting honey were called Jenu Kurubas. Kurubas survived on genasu (yam), tubers, wild fruits, berries, jenu (honey), mamsa (wild meat), meenu (fish) from the holay (river) and kaad koli motte (jungle fowl’s eggs).

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Puttamma explained how they would locate a fresh kill and wait for the tiger to have its fill. They would then take the meat, wash it well, smoke it over fire and cook it. A gaur can weigh upto 900 kg and a tiger can only eat about 40 kg of meat! Like the Masai tribe, the Kurubas had learnt to coexist and live off the creatures of the forest. Kishan surmised that their fantastic knowledge of plants and their medicinal and nutritional benefits perhaps came from observing elephants and other animal behavior.

Being the youngest of her siblings she was called ‘Putti’ (small one) and over time Putti-amma became Puttamma. She was originally named Bommi, after the Kuruba deity Bomm devaru. “Wherever there’s a mound of mud or stone, we place a leaf or flower over it and that became our god”.

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However, these forests, the elephants and all its creatures are looked after by the twin deities Gundrumaramma and Mastiamma, patron goddesses of the Bandipur and Nagarahole forests. Mastiamma’s original shrine at Mastigudi like many other relics has been submerged. We saw the relocated Chola temple of Koteshwaralaya and the ancient Nooraaleshawara shrine before returning to our wildlife resort at Beeramballi village.

Orange County Kabini, which opened a decade ago, has been recently rebranded as Evolve Back Kuruba Safari Lodge. Designed like a haadi or small Kuruba settlement with thatched palm roofs and mud-plastered walls, it takes its inspiration seriously. There are Kuruba dances by a poolside campfire and naturalists sharing Jungle Tales on alternate days, a Night Trail to see the nocturnal world of insects, a Responsible Tourism Walk on the lodge’s eco-initiatives and an early morning Nature Trail for birds, butterflies and everything in between.

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Our guide Shanmugham outlined the entire politico-botanical spectrum from Congress Grass (parthenium) to Gandhi gida or Communist grass (Eupatorium odoratum), named so because it is everywhere, though it might be a bit of a misnomer now. Shanmugham has been diligently documenting the monsoon flowers of Kabini and claims to be the first to spot Kabini’s famous black panther here. His favourite wildlife moments sound like Kung-Fu chase flicks – tiger chasing leopard, leopard chasing deer, dhol chasing leopard…

Beyond the resort’s rustic exterior there’s every luxury imaginable – plush private pool villas and Jacuzzis being upgraded, top notch cuisine at the Honey Comb restaurant, kebabs and local fare at Kuruba Grill, cocktails like Wild Kabini River at The Waterhole bar, an Ayurvedic Spa, a scenic Reading Room on the water’s edge with sunset cruises, coracle rides and bullock cart rides. As the only resort on the far side of the reservoir, it affords the most spectacular sunsets on the Kabini. Guests take a boat across to Jungle Lodges & Resorts (JLR) near Karapura for safaris.

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Kabini is a historic area that served as an exclusive hunting reserve of the Maharajas of Mysore. It was the site of the legendary Khedda operations, where entire elephant herds would be stockaded into a khedda or ditch. Select ones were caught and trained for timber operations and the Mysore Dasara. The first attempt to capture elephants in this manner was made by Tipu Sultan’s father, Hyder Ali in 18th century.

Despite using his army, the Sultan of Mysore failed to capture any wild elephants. A stone inscription records his disgust with a warning about the futility of the task and his curse upon anyone who tried it in future. Like many other relics, this too is lost in the murky waters of Kabini.

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For nearly a century, no further attempts were made until the first British khedda operation by Colonel Pearson in 1867. Ironically, it was unsuccessful. When another British officer from the Canal and Irrigation Department, GP Sanderson took a shot at it in 1873, he met the same fate. However, his second attempt in 1874 at Kardihalli in the Kakanakote forest on the banks of the Kabini River was successful.

The unique feature of a Kakanakote khedda was the river drive, first conceptualized by Sanderson in 1891 in honour of The Grand Duke of Russia’s visit to Mysore. In a vast operation that involved thousands of people who beat drums and drove the elephants across the Kabini river into the stockade. Special visitors galleries were set up for distinguished guests and royalty to witness the drama. Over the next century, 36 khedda operations were held until it was finally banned in 1971.

Mr Kabini the elephant with the longest tusks IMG_9100

Khedda may be a thing of the past, but people still come in droves to watch a grand elephant spectacle. Post winter, the reservoir waters are released for irrigation. When the waters recede, dormant grass shoots begin to sprout, turning the tract into a giant grazing ground, attracting elephants and other herbivores in their hundreds.

The forested Zone A is larger and covers part of Nagarahole’s Antharasanthe wildlife range while the lakeside Zone B covers DB Kuppe range – the preferred route in summer. Unlike most other parks, Kabini does not shut down in monsoon and the jeep and 16 and 20-seater safari vans and boats are equipped with a canopy come rain or shine.

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All safaris in Kabini start from the Golghar, the river-facing gazebo at JLR. The boat ride accesses parts of the lake not reachable by jeep for sighting elephants and crocodiles. Nearby, the Viceroy’s Bungalow doubles up as a bar and conference hall where wildlife movies are screened.

In the verandah decorated with black and white pictures of kheddas and hunts, is the favourite chair of ‘Papa’ John Wakefield, long time resident director and ambassador at JLR Kabini. A simple memorial was erected after he passed away seven years ago while a tree marks the visit of Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn.

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Kabini’s other wildlife legends include Mr. Kabini or the Bhogeswara Tusker, with ivories so long, they scrape the ground. The biggest leopard with the largest territory is the Water Tank Male or Torn Ear. We saw a tusker in mast, an ambitious jackal chasing a deer herd and the splendid tigress Backwater Female grooming herself. Increased protection has led to a spurt in tiger numbers with 221 in the Bandipur-Nagarahole tract alone.

Since Kabini is wedged between the two parks, the intersecting tiger territories, results in great sightings. The all-star gallery includes packs of dhol, gaur, over 300 species of birds and the sole elusive black panther that has been spotted only in the last few years. Rumour float about its relocation from elsewhere by the forest department but people swear by sightings in adjoining Coorg.

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The cluster of resorts in Kabini are all distinctive. Adjacent to JLR, is Water Woods – a small yet lovely waterfront property right on the banks. Luxuriant massages, swinging hammocks, home cooked food sourced from their vegetable garden and fresh fish made into succulent tikkas by their poolside restaurant overlooking the waters, make it a popular escape.

A little ahead, wildlife enthusiast Nawabzada Saad Bin Jung’s The Bison Resort has exquisite waterfront luxury tents and bush tents that blend the sensibilities of East-African wilderness camps with the romance of Raj era hunting lodges, complete with theme bush dinners. The wild tract abuts the lake on one side and the forest on the other, advantageous for elephant sightings right from the property.

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Another eminent Kabini personality is tiger conservationist TGR ‘Tiger’ Ramesh whose resort Cicada Kabini was acquired by Coffee Day. Now run as The Serai, it offers waterfront villas and residences. However, away from the lake and facing the jungle is Tiger’s secret lair, his old home in Kabini, that was sold and renovated into Kaav.

Literally ‘sacred grove’, the really private 6-room property has four rooms in a complex with a common living and an upper deck facing the forest and two really plush tents on stilts nearby. Overlooking the disused old forest department road, you can spot bison and big cats right in your backyard.

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Manager Pavithra Kumar or PK is as excited at the sight of the Ornamental Tree Trunk Spider, as he is of leopards mating, a leopard dragging a chital kill or the black panther draped on a tree. He has documented these chance wildlife encounters in Kabini and over 40 species of spiders on the Kaav property alone. Just a brief walk around the house with pocket torches yielded Jumping Spider, Two-tailed spider, Giant Cross Spider, Giant Wood Spider and Tent Spider in minutes.

From peering at their patterns through a magnifying glass to a high-powered telescope to spot Saturn, PK literally opened our eyes to new worlds. The days are dramatic in Kabini’s forests and skies, the nights more spectacular. Kabini at any time is Nature untamed.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Kabini is 224 km (4½ hours) from Bengaluru and 88km (2 hours) from Mysuru. Take the Outer Ring Road at the Columbia-Asia Hospital Junction to bypass Mysuru City and drive towards HD Kote on the Mysuru-Mananthavady Road. From Handpost towards Kabini. If coming from Calicut, the road between Mananthawadi and Kabini via Bawali is closed from 6 PM – 6 AM every day.

Safaris
Wildlife safaris are done by boat on the reservoir or by jeep in the tourism zone of Antharasanthe (Zone A) and DB Kuppe (Zone B) ranges of Nagarahole National park. There are two drives a day of 3 hrs each, at 6:30am and 3:30 pm (reporting time at your resort is usually 30 min prior). While the safari cost is billed into the JLR per person tariff, most other resorts have an all-meals package and charge for the boat or jeep safari separately (Rs.1650/person), including a transfer to/from JLR.

When to go
The forest and weather is at its best between October to March with good animal sightings from Feb to May. The Gundre jatre takes place during Ugadi.

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Where to Stay
Evolve Back Kuruba Safari Lodge
Bheeramballi Village and Post
HD Kote Taluk
Ph 08228-269100, 080-25127000
http://www.evolveback.com

Kabini River Lodge
Nissana Beltur Post, HD Kote Taluk, Karapura
Ph 08228-264402/03/05, 9449599754
http://www.junglelodges.com

Water Woods
19, Karapura, N Belathur Post Office
HD Kote Taluk
Ph 080 4673 2010, 99459 21303
http://www.waterwoods.in

Kaav Safari Lodge
Malalli Cross, N Belathur PO Kabini
HD Kote Taluk
Ph +91 9995803861, 9900613595
http://www.kaav.com

The Serai Kabini
No.60/1, Nishana, Karapura Village
Antarasante Hobli, HD Kote Taluk
Ph 08228 264444, 9945602305
http://www.theserai.in

The Bison Resort
Gundathur, N Belathur PO Kabini
HD Kote Taluk
Ph 080–41278708, 65590271, 7022155961
http://thebisonresort.com

Red Earth Kabini
Badane Kuppe (Near Hosamalla)
Via Antharasante, HD Kote Taluk
Ph 8884733188 , 7022264116 , 8884733500
http://www.redearthkabini.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in October 2017 as part of a wildlife Cover Story in Outlook Traveller magazine.

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Silent Valley: In search of the Lion-tailed Macaque

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit Kerala’s ecologically fragile national park Silent Valley, the last bastion of the critically endangered Lion-tailed macaque 

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The wizened hand of Usanaar flicked away leeches with the panache of a carrom champion. ‘Atta’, he cackled, flashing his toothy grin, ‘hence Attapadi, or Abode of Leeches.’ As we squelched through the moist undergrowth battling bloodsuckers that clung to us like limpets, we felt fortunate to be in the company of the most experienced forest guide of Silent Valley National Park.

‘Limestone, kerosene, tobacco leaves, salt, snuff…’ he rattled off ways to protect oneself from leeches. Like a multi-linguist Usanaar was familiar with scientific Latin names, the local Malayalam equivalent as well as English epithets. He tapped a tree trunk ‘Churuli, mesua nagassarium, very hard, also called Iron Wood of the Forest.’ He inspected some scat with his toe, ‘Asiatic Wild Dog, what we call Whistling Hunter.’ Reaching a clump of gigantic foliage he patted it with pride and announced grandly, ‘Dinosaur pulpan, giant tree fern, 50 million year old living fossil’! We almost felt the hands of time turn back and freeze.

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We were deep in a remote patch of Kerala’s Western Ghats, in one of the last tracts of undisturbed tropical evergreen rainforest in the world. Cut off on all sides by steep ridges and escarpments, Silent Valley’s topographical isolation had allowed it to develop into what scientists call ‘an ecological island’. With an unbroken ecological history continuously evolving over millions of years, this was a unique region with immense biological and genetic wealth. Of the 960 species of flora here, seventeen are under the IUCN Red List.

First explored by Scottish botanist Robert Wight in 1847 and named after the relative absence of cicadas, Silent Valley throbs with the sounds of the forest. Far above in the towering Culinea trees, a loud whoop rang out clear. ‘Lion tailed macaque, Macaca silenus’, whispered Usanaar excitedly, alluding to the park’s flagship species. We followed his sure footsteps through the dense vegetation marveling at the wild flowers and orchids along the trail.

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According to legend this wild region was once Sairandhri Vanam, an area so dense the Pandavas stayed here incognito during their agyata-vasa. The site of the once-proposed dam is called Sairandhri after the name assumed by Draupadi during exile and the river that passes through the valley is called Kuntipuzha, after the Pandavas’ mother. Visitors are permitted from the forest gate at Mukkali only up to Sairandhri, a 23 km jeep ride. We disembarked a little short of our destination and took a hike through the wilderness.

On reaching the 30 m high fire tower at Sairandhri we smiled at the sign ‘Even Toddy Cats have stopped drinking in the park’ before climbing up for a panoramic view of Katimudi, Mukkalimudi and the river cutting through the valley. A 1½ km path from Sairandhri led to the bed of the Kuntipuzha where a rusty steel suspension bridge provided the only means of crossing. A relic from the contentious hydroelectric project of the Kerala State Electricity Board, it was a symbol of the park’s conservation movement. Between its notification as a reserve forest in 1914 and declaration as a national park in 1984, lay a sustained campaign that ran for decades by environmentalists, public, media and expert committees to protect this unique habitat.

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Gazing at the serene crystal waters of the Kuntipuzha gave little indication of its turbulent past. Butterflies pirouetted by the riverside and tiny fish danced in the shallows. The park harbours 25 species of mammals, 12 species of fish, 35 species of reptiles, 255 species of moths and 95 species of butterflies. Notable among these were Malabar Rose, Malabar Tree Nymph, Malabar Raven, Buddha Peacock, Fivebar Sword Tail, Southern Duffer, South Indian Blue Oakleaf, Tamil Catseye and Blue Nawab. Mukkali, the southern entrance to the valley, was the only place in Kerala where all three species of Crow butterflies – common crow, double branded crow and the brown king crow – can be found.

Of the 170 species of birds, the most sought after ones include Jerdon’s Imperial Pigeon, Peninsular Bay Owl, Shaheen Falcon, Ceylon Frogmouth, Great Indian Hornbill, Nilgiri Laughing Thrush and the elusive Malay Tiger Bittern. The lion-tailed macaque’s calls drew closer as we scanned the canopy of Culinea trees, where it shared space with Nilgiri langurs and giant grizzly squirrels. And suddenly we saw a troop of macaques silhouetted against the backlit green leaves. We whipped out our binoculars to see their inquisitive eyes staring back through a mane of white fur as their black coats shone like velvet. 

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Though trekking is not promoted within the national park, the buffer zones abound in numerous treks of varying distances and difficulty over undulating terrain. The Eco Development Committee organizes short hikes like the Bhavani river trail (6km) to the tributary of the Cauvery, the Karuvara waterfall trail (8km) which goes past an Irula tribal colony and the Keeripara trail (10km) to scenic grasslands. One-day treks fan out from Sairandhiri to Poochappara, Neelikkal, Punnamala and Pandarakadavu, covering 15-20km. Longer hikes of 30km lead from Mukkali to Valakkad, Poovanchola, Poochapara and Soochipara, along abandoned bridle paths and camps at anti-poaching centres. However Silent Valley is slow to reveal its secrets all at once.

We said goodbye to Usanaar and drove back with our host Dominic to Malleeshwaram Jungle Lodge. Named after the highest peak in the Attapadi range stretching between Mukkali and Goolikadavu, the lodge afforded greater luxury than the basic Forest Rest House at Mukkali. Staying in rondavels (thatched circular huts) in the warm glow of hurricane lamps, we hiked to the viewpoint for an all-round view. The peaks of Perumalmudi and Velliangiri Mala rose against the mountain folds and somewhere in the distance, a lion-tailed macaque let out a loud long whoop.

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FACT FILE

Area: 237.52 sq km

Altitude: 725 m to 2383 m above sea level

Location: Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Kerala’s Palakkad district overlooking the plains of Mannarkkad (45 km). Western Ghats Silent Valley has Nilgiri and Nilambur forests to the north and Attapadi forests to the east.

Climate: The temperature shoots up to 30°C in summer. It can be very cold in winter when the temperature dips to as low as 8°C.

When to go: August to March is the main season but the best time to visit is November to February.

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Getting There

By air: The nearest airports are Coimbatore (74 km) and Kozhikode (92 km).

By rail: The nearest railhead is Palakkad Junction at Olavakode (60 km)

By road: Drive 40km from Palakkad to Mannarkad, pick up permissions at the Wildlife Warden’s Office and continue 20km to Mukkali, the park’s entrance. From Coimbatore, the route to Mukkali via Anaikatti is 65km while the access via Palakkad and Mannarkkad is 120km. Hop on any bus to Mannarkkad from the KSRTC bus stand on Shoranur Road in Palakkad (Ph 0491–252 7298, 252 0098).

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Tourist Information

Visitor Entry Fee: Indians Rs.35, Students Rs.25, Foreigners Rs.220
Vehicle Entry Fee: Jeep Rs.50, Mini Bus Rs.200
Camera Fee: Still Rs.25, Video Rs.200
Guide Fee: EDC Guide (Eco Development Committee) Rs.150, Honorary Guide (Forest Staff) Rs.250
Jeeps (for 6 people) can be hired from the Eco Development Committee at Mukkali to Sairandhri (23 km), for Rs.1000. All vehicles carrying visitors have to be accompanied by forest department guides.

For visitor bookings, contact

Office of the Wildlife Warden
Wildlife Division, Mannarkad
Palakkad 678 582
Ph 04924–222 056, 94473 73736
Email mail@silentvalley.gov.in

Asst. Wildlife Warden
Mukkali, Silent Valley National Park
Ph: 04924-253 225
Timings: 8 am to 12 pm

WHERE TO STAY

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Malleeshwaram Jungle Lodge
A beautiful jungle lodge in a 10-acre patch adjoining large tracts of forest and tribal hamlets offering thatched huts and a stunning 360 degree viewpoint. Have an enriched eco holiday with trekking, waterfall visits, rock climbing, birding, wildlife sighting, studies in tribal anthropology, hamlet visits, campfires and trips to Silent Valley National Park. 
Ph 94465 72540, 94470 50701 www.malleeshwaram.com   

Inspection Bungalow, Mukkali
Basic accommodation near the park entrance with three double rooms for Rs.600/day and two 8-bed dormitories at Rs.100/person, booked at the Wildlife Warden’s office in Mannarkad (Ph 04924–222 056). There are also two huts that can be booked at 04294-253 225 (Rs.1000 for stay, Rs.3000 full package for stay, food and trekking)

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Saevus Wildlife magazine.

Pench: A Jungle Book Adventure

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY revisit the historic tiger reserve in Central India that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s epic novel The Jungle Book

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‘It was seven o’clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day’s rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips.’ Stretched out on the verandah of Tuli Tiger Corridor’s plush jungle camp, our sense of languor and need to feed wasn’t far from Kipling’s century old description of the wolf pack. After supper, we retired early for our morning safari from the park gate at Turia, ready to script our own Jungle Book Adventure. Pench Tiger Reserve and its adjoining forests was the original setting of Rudyard Kipling’s famous novel, The Jungle Book (1894). But it wasn’t the first literary account inspired by the region.

From a detailed description of its natural wealth in the 16th century chronicle Ain-i-Akbari to several natural history books, Pench had captured the minds of many – be it Captain James Forsyth’s ‘Highlands of Central India’, Dunbar Brander’s ‘Wild Animals of Central India’ or Robert Armitage Strendale’s ‘Seonee – Camp life in Satpura Hills’. Strendale’s semi-autobiographical ‘Seonee’ and other wildlife accounts like ‘Mammalia of India and Ceylon’ and ‘Denizens of the Jungle’ formed the inspiration behind Kipling’s classic tale. But it was Sir William Henry Sleeman’s pamphlet, ‘An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens’ about a wolf-boy captured in Seoni district near Sant Baori village in 1831 that inspired Mowgli’s character.

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Several places vividly described in the book were actual locations in Seoni District, like the ‘Seeonee hills’, Kanhiwara village and the Wainganga river gorge where Sherkhan was killed. Pench Tiger Reserve was a large tract of untamed wilderness comprising the Indira Priyadarshini Pench National Park, the Mowgli Pench Sanctuary and a buffer forest. Located in the lower reaches of the Satpura hills, the park came in Central India’s AVSM range (Aravali, Vindhyanchal, Satpura, Maikal).

The forest road darted across the undulating landscape lined by dry deciduous vegetation. The open canopies, mixed forests, shrub cover and grassy patches supported high populations of Chital and Sambar. A solitary Nilgai craned its neck to munch on some vegetation while a large herd of Gaur ambled across the track. At 90.3 animals per sq km Pench boasted the highest density of herbivores in India. Criss-crossed by nullahs (seasonal streams), the gentle slopes rose up into flat-topped hills like Golpahadi and the park’s loftiest summit Kalapahad (650 m).

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The Pench river, which lends the park its name, flows from north to south, cleaving the park in two. The river is the lifeline of the park but by April it dries up and a number of dohs (pools) serve as waterholes for wild animals. A hydroelectric dam constructed between 1973 and 1988 submerged 54 sq km of the park, resulting in the scenic Totladoh reservoir that attracts plenty of game and water birds. We parked our Gypsy near the Boat Camp and scoured the water’s edge through binoculars to spot coots, pochards, a Grey-headed Fishing Eagle and a White-eyed Buzzard.

Though Pench is renowned as a Tiger Reserve, it is also great for birdwatching with over 300 species of resident and migratory birds. In winter thousands of waterfowl like Brahminy Ducks and Barheaded Geese flock here. Four species of vultures can be found here – the endangered white-rumped, long-billed, white scavenger and king vulture. After an hour’s birding at the reservoir, we revved the engine to head back, disturbing a wild boar which eyed us with a surly expression. On our return trip, we spied a Crested Serpent Eagle on a dry branch, a Collared Scops Owl brilliantly camouflaged in the hollow of a tree and a Eurasian Thick-Knee (Stone Curlew) padding across the grass.

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The park teems with rich wildlife including hyenas, jungle cats, wild dogs and more. However, we were a tad disappointed to have missed the principal Jungle Book characters. There was no sign of Baloo (sloth bear) or Bagheera (leopard), nor did we encounter Kaa (Indian python) or Akela (wolf), or for that matter Tabaqui (jackal) or Rikki Tikki Tavi (mongoose)! But the sudden screech of the bandar log (monkeys) in the trees and alarm calls of frightened deer in the bush alerted us.

We couldn’t believe our luck as we saw a striped creature pause by the track. It was Sher Khan! He snarled at the jabbering monkeys before sitting down in a thicket. We watched him in silent admiration for what seemed like eternity before the tiger, bored of our attention decided to slink into the undergrowth for some privacy. It was a befitting end to our jungle tale.

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Later, we drove 18 km from the park gate at Turia to Pachdhar, a little village where we watched potters at work. Nearby locals collected the heady flowers of the mahua tree to distil their potent country brew. At twilight, we huddled around a campfire to listen to the sounds of the forest and tales of wildlife that continued late into the night.

FACT FILE

Area: 758 sq km

Location: Seoni and Chhindwara districts of southern Madhya Pradesh, bordering Maharashtra

Getting there: Fly or take a train to Nagpur and drive 92km to Pench (2 hours). Turia, the park’s main entrance, is 12 km from Khawasa on the Jabalpur-Nagpur highway (NH7).

Fees: Park Entry Rs.100 Indians, Rs.1000 Foreigners, Wildlife viewing in Vehicle Rs.500 Indians, Rs.2000 Foreigners, Elephant ride Rs.100 Indians, Rs.600 Foreigners

When to Go: November to May

Where to Stay:

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Tuli Tiger Corridor
Set in a 22 acre patch with earthy cottages, luxe tents, great swimming pool and a private lake
Ph 0712-6653666, 18002099050
http://www.tulihotels.com 

Baghvan
The plushest wilderness lodge in Pench run by Taj Safaris with 12 standalone bungalows and machans overlooking a dry nullah
http://www.tajsafaris.com

Kipling’s Court
The MP Tourism-run property with rustic jungle cottages and a machan overlooking the river
Ph 07695-232830, 232850
kcpench@mptourism.com

Mahua Vann
Spacious cottages done up in natural materials, handmade fabrics and linen with recycled doors and windows besides great service
Ph 07695-290451, 8889231818
http://www.mahuaresorts.com

Tiger N Woods Resort
10 rustic machans (wooden cabins) in a mahua grove recreating a jungle experience
Ph 09755512826, 9833788358
http://www.tigernwoods.com

Pench Jungle Camp
Riverside property with 12 Cottages and luxury tents recreating a tribal village
Ph 07695-232817, 232843

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.

Mass Effect: India’s great gatherings

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In the world’s second most populous country, ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase unusual gatherings besides the Maha Kumbh Mela – bizarre festivals, wildlife spectacles, wedding marts, sporting jamborees, tribal meets and more

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Kodava Family Hockey Festival
According to a local saying a Coorg boy is born with a gun in one hand and a hockey stick in the other. Like Punjab, this tiny region in Karnataka has given the country many brave generals and excellent hockey players. Little wonder that Coorg hosts the world’s largest hockey tournament. Recognized by the Limca Book of Records, the month-long ‘Family’ festival in April-May sees hundreds of far-flung Kodava families converging to represent their clan. Into its 17th edition, the annual festival is named after the maneypeda (clan name) of the organizing family, with cultural programs, feasting and matchmaking on the sidelines.
When: 14 April-12 May, 2013

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Kabini elephant congregation 
Come the hot summer days of May when the river Kabini shrinks down to a trickle, massive herds of elephants gather by the dry riverbank. Groups of up to 500 Asian elephants that would otherwise be scattered in the dense forests of Nagarahole, Wayanad, Bandipur and Mudumalai, congregate to graze and bathe here in their quest for water in the dry season. Visitors speak of walking in fields of elephant dung! Base yourself at Kabini’s excellent wildlife resorts to witness the summer spectacle.
When: May-June

Saurath Mela
Every year, the tiny village of Saurath in North Bihar’s Mithila region hosts a mass marriage mart. A unique congregation of Maithil Brahmans, Saurath Sabha Gachchhi is held in a 22-bigha orchard donated by the Darbhanga Maharaj. Participating villages are allotted a dera (sitting place) where fathers scout for suitable grooms for their daughters aided by ghataks (middlemen). Marriages are fixed in a transparent manner after matching horoscopes by panjikars (registrars), who issue a certificate of non-relationship based on panji, genealogical records dating back to 14th century. The only catch, no ladies here!
When: 20-29 June, 2013

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Shravan Mela 
In the month of shravan, lakhs of kanwariyas collect holy water from the Ganga at Sultanganj, carry it in pots on a kanwar (sling) and walk 105km across hills and rivers to offer libations on the jyotirlinga at Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar. Saffron-clothed devotees traverse the path from Bihar to Jharkhand, which becomes an unending sea of orange with chants of ‘Bol bam’ in the air. On Mondays, a day holy to Shiva, traffic rises up to 4 lakh pilgrims. Some do it on foot, some measure the length with their bodies, while another class of devotees called dak bams complete the spiritual marathon in 15-17 hours, without stopping for a single moment.
When: 21 July-21 August, 2013

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Snake boat races of Kerala
Though Kerala is famous for epic festivals like Thrissur Pooram where temple deities are paraded on caparisoned elephants and Bharani mahotsavam at Kodungallor where devotees hurl abuses to awaken the goddess, the snake boat races are something else. The chundan valloms are 100-foot long crafts with a prow like the raised hood of a snake and require synchronized paddling by hundreds of oarsmen, making it the largest team sport in the world. Champakulam, the oldest boat race, kickstarts the racing season followed by the prestigious Nehru Trophy, Payippad, Kumarakom and Aranmula races.
When: August-September

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Pushkar Camel Fair 
Bihar’s month-long Sonepur cattle fair and UP’s Bateshwar Mela are well known, but Rajasthan’s Pushkar Mela has evolved into a carnival. Rajasthani women in dazzling veils, men in fluorescent turbans, camel races, cultural programs, moustache competitions, tug-of-war between locals and visitors; there’s a lot going on. Besides trading in camels, horses and elephants, eye-catching stalls sell colourful stirrups to agricultural implements. Get a birds’ eye view from a giant wheel, explore the fair in a leisurely camel cart ride, try Israeli or Indian cuisine at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake or visit the only Brahma temple in India with active worship.
When: 9-17 November, 2013

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Hornbill Festival
Held at Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, a permanent site 12km from the capital Kohima, the Hornbill Festival is the best place to catch all of Nagaland’s 16 tribes in one place. Ringing the arena are morungs (communal huts) of each tribe, where young boys learnt stories on culture and folklore from elders of the host family who sat around a fireplace and sipped thutse (rice beer). On showcase are traditional song and dances, archery, Naga wrestling, indigenous games and local delicacies like smoked pork. Buy Konyak beads and necklaces, Wancho wood-carvings, Phom black pottery or vibrant warrior shawls of the Angami, Yimchunger and other tribes. Besides rock concerts, motor rallies and fashion shows, there are also competitions to eat the dreaded Raja chilli (also called Nagahari or Tezpur chilli)!
When: 1-7 December

Winter migratories
Every winter, migratory birds flock to India by the thousands at various lakes and wetlands across the country. From Nal Sarovar and Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat to India’s largest coastal lagoon Chilika Lake in Orissa, India becomes a large wintering ground for geese, pelicans, ducks, cranes and other aquatic avifauna. Spot painted storks at the tiny village of Kokarebellur near Mysore or flamingoes at Mumbai’s mudflats, Chennai’s Pallikaranai marsh and Sambhar, India’s largest inland saline lake. But the most amazing spectacle is the congregation of demoiselle cranes at Khichan, a tiny hamlet near Jodhpur. Being staunch vegetarians, the village community of Jain Marwaris idolizes the kurja (crane) for its vegetarian diet and monogamous nature. As part of a systematic feeding program, chugga ghars (feeding enclosures) on the village outskirts host these cranes with two feeding sessions daily (each 90 minutes) as the birds hop across from the dunes and the sky turns black with their wings!
When: Jan-February

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Joydeb Baul Mela, Kenduli 
If songs of love and freedom, poor sanitation and three days of camping defined Woodstock; the Joydeb Mela is rural India’s answer to it. Held around Sankranti on the last day of Poush to the second day of Magh to celebrate the birth anniversary of  poet saint Jaydev, the festival draws baul singers, kirtanias and wandering minstrels of Bengal. Hundreds of pandals or temporary shelters on the banks of the Ajoy River resonate with songs of the divine and philosophical musings of Vaishnava saints. Nightlong dramas and dance ballets bring stories of mythology alive as visitors ramble about the terracotta temple of Radhabinod checking out stalls selling household goods, toys, stoneware and crafts.
When: Mid-February

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Kila Raipur Sports Festival
What started off in the 1930s as a local village festival has transformed into an iconic event hailed as India’s Rural Olympics. The brainchild of Sardar Inder Singh Grewal, founder father of Grewal Sports Association, the bizarre sports meet at Kila Raipur near Ludhiana aimed to galvanize local youth of Punjab’s Doaba belt into sports. Expect tug-of-war, tent-pegging, freestyle kabaddi and races for camels, elephants, bullock-carts, khachhars (mules), tractors and even 80-year-olds! Locals showcase their unique talents – twirling gas cylinders, motorcycle daredevilry and towing vehicles with their teeth, hair, ear or beards. Adding colour to the proceedings, are Bhangra dancers, troupes of Malwai gidda, nihangs (blue-clad warrior Sikhs) performing stunts on horseback and running commentary by maraasis (traditional stand-up comedians).
When: First weekend of February

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 15 May 2013 in Conde Nast Traveller online.

Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary: Jamshedpur’s Crowning Glory

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a short detour from India’s Steel City to visit a hilly wildlife sanctuary home to a Shiva shrine, ancient tribes and vestiges of British plantations 

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Just off the busy NH-33 between Kolkata and Ranchi high above the industrial haze overlooking the Subarnarekha River that skirts its base, the lofty Dalma Hills stretch for 16km like a jagged knife. For centuries, wild beasts and adivasi tribes made it their home, until JN Tata chose the scenic confluence of the Kharkai and Subarnarekha as the site of Asia’s first steel plant. One can only imagine the untamed beauty of the land before a century of development… 

Established as a wildlife sanctuary on 19 Dec 1976, Dalma has been less of a park and more a picnic spot for school and corporate groups from Jamshedpur and surrounding areas. Lores of rogue elephants, naxal movement and trekkers lost in the forest only added to its allure. But the recent renovation of the colonial era guesthouse near the summit has given day visitors a reason to stay back and appreciate Dalma’s charms.

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As the road weaves past the elephant arch gate at Shaharbeda, scenic canals and adivasi huts with striking tribal motifs at Chakulia van (forest), the forest begins to close in. Coucals swoop across the path as the call of koels, quails and francolins ripple through the undergrowth. Gnarled roots of ancient trees enmeshed boulders like natural art installations. A row of villagers rested with their load of firewood.

The forest check-post at Makulakocha, with a Museum-cum-Interpretation Centre, Bamboo Hut, a basic Forest Rest House and a Deer Rescue Centre, marks the entrance to the wildlife sanctuary. A few elephants of the forest department chomped on clumps of hay, eyeing us sagely.

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The Dalma Hill Range ran south-east to north-west and the park was divided into east and west buffer zones, sandwiching the core in the middle. The undulating terrain of hillocks, plateaus, valleys and open fields provides diverse habitats for Dalma’s natural wealth – several mammals, 84 bird species and 300 species of flora. The dry deciduous forest is a profusion of sal, gamhar, mahua and semal trees. We reached the Forest Rest House at Pindrabeda, which commands a great view of the plains below. Caretaker Munna welcomed us with tea and explained how this flat patch of land or ‘beda’ had a profusion of fruit trees called ‘pindra’ (randia uliginosa), though the site was also known as Mahukal (a long-tailed bird).

After handing him the provisions and food rations for our dinner and breakfast, we set off to pay our respect to Dalma Mai. Past her open-air shrine under a tree, we trudged up 1km to the Shiva temple and the Hanuman temple at Dalma Top, 926m (3047 ft). Our guide Dhananjay Singh accompanied us to the bandhs (dams) dating to the British era, when the area was used for extensive coffee and indigo plantations, besides gold prospecting. Coincidentally, Subarnarekha literally means ‘streak of gold’ and gold was indeed mined near the origin of the river at Piska near Ranchi.

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While only unused wells, stone oil grinders and ruins of bungalows remain, names like Nilbadi (Indigo farm), Sarsobari (Mustard farm) and Kulmari Bangla still echo Dalma’s colonial legacy. For irrigation, the British had constructed dams like Badka (big) Bandh, Chhotka (small) Bandh, Neechla (lower) Bandh and Majhla (middle) Bandh. In the old days, there even used to be a haat (bazaar) near Chhotka Baandh!            

In a mosaic of six grasslands and the valleys of Bijli Ghati and Snan Ghati, the reservoirs and streams formed a network of 66 water holes including Samar Jal, Dong Jal, Makad Jal, Ranga Jal, Maha Jal, Teesri Nala and lyrical appellations like Chiping dadhi, Bhusi Jharna, Kas Jobhi, Hathitopa and Chiyak Pathar. We spotted the odd deer, Rhesus Macaques and the Indian giant squirrel (Ratufa indica centralis) leaping in the canopy of dry deciduous trees. The squirrels use the leaves of these trees to make nests called ‘dreys’. The park harbours tigers, leopards, Sloth Bear, Wild Boar, Dhole, Striped Hyena, Wolf, Fishing Cat, Jungle Cat, but we saw none.

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Back at the forest rest house, while stirring some chicken curry over a wood fire, Munna lamented how there could be better wildlife sightings if only the forest was left alone. Due to religious festivals and pilgrim traffic during Makara Sankranti (Jan 14), Shivratri (Feb-Mar) and Bishu Shikar (annual hunt in April) animals had retreated to the core.

However by summer, as water sources dry up, large elephant herds congregate around the reservoirs, reinstating Dalma as a wildlife haven. As night fell, the distant lights of Jamshedpur twinkled like a carpet of stars beneath the hills while snatches of the latest film songs mingled with the sounds of the forest punctuated by the call of a frightened barking deer.

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FACT FILE

Area: 193.22 sq km (core 35 sq km, buffer 158.22 sq km)

Location: East Singhbhum and Saraikella-Kharswan districts, Jharkhand

Altitude: 154m-928m (max)

Temperature: Summer 22oC – 38oC, Winter 5oC – 28oC

Getting there: Drive 16km from Jamshedpur on NH-33 (Ranchi highway) via Pardih Kali Mandir and turn right at Shaharbeda. Shaharbeda is also accessible via Kandra-Chandil from the Kadma-Adityapur Toll Road; though slightly longer, the road is much better. At Shaharbeda, enter through the Dalma Forest Arch, cross the canal and turn right for the Makulakocha forest check-post, 4 km from the main road. The Pindrabera Forest Rest House is 11km uphill and the Dalma Hill top is 5km further ahead, the ideal terrain for SUVs.

Permits: For overnight stay at the 2-room Pindrabera FRH, acquire permits from Range Forest Office, Mango (Opp. Payal Talkies) Jamshedpur or Divisional Forest Office, Doranda, Ranchi Ph 0651-2480948

Fees: Entry – Adults Rs.2, Children Rs.1, Photography – Still Camera Rs.50, Video Camera Rs.200, Vehicles – Rs.20 2-wheeler, Rs.60 Tempo, Rs.80 Car/Jeep, Rs.120 Mini Bus, Rs.200 Bus/Truck, Guest house Rs.300/room

Timings: 6am-5pm

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of Saevus wildlife magazine. 

Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary: Nature’s Own Abode

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ANURAG MALLICK visits the valley between Tamil Nadu’s Anamalai Hills and Kerala’s Nelliyampathy Hills to spot the Parambikulam Frog, Asia’s largest teak tree and other natural wonders

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The dime-sized frog with bloodshot eyes stood still as it contemplated its next move while two pairs of eyes peered at it intently. My guide held up his palm animatedly, as if he had just been asked by a child to freeze momentarily. Then very slowly in a thick Malayali accent, he mouthed the words ‘Pa-ram-bi-kul-am Fro…g’ and twitched his eyes in that direction. It was enough to send the tiny amphibian scurrying into the foliage, but not before a few photographs had been clicked.

We were deep within Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary at a forest camp at Kuriarkutty on the banks of the Parambiar River. Here Dr. Salim Ali had spent 3 years (1936-39) watching hornbills. In commemoration, a bird’s gallery and audiovisual programs marked the Salim Ali Bird Interpretation Centre. It was on hallowed ground we had seen the Parambikulam Frog (Tomopterna parambikulamana), a creature so range specific, it was endemic to the sanctuary.

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There was good reason why Parambikulam made it as one India’s 39 claimants to the UNESCO World Heritage tag. Located just south of the Palakkad Gap in the Western Ghats, it has been the scene of many scientific rediscoveries. Koori (Haplothismia exanulata), a saprophytic plant occurs only in heavy monsoons during the ‘climatic climax’, when weather conditions are ideal for its growth, yet its dependence on ideal conditions makes its life span tragically short. After a long gap, it was found here in 1951.

The park boasts 285 such rare, endemic and endangered plants, 1438 flowering species and 81 species of orchids. The rivers teem with 47 fish species, including the endangered Mahseer and Garra surendranathanii, a ray-finned suckerfish endemic to the Chalakudy River. After seeing the park’s namesake species we retired to our Treetop Hut overlooking Thunakadavu reservoir with a great sense of achievement.

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The next morning we set off on a wildlife safari to Sungam range, the forest track leading us 6.8 km to the Pride of Parambikulam – the Kannimara Teak. Literally, the ‘first tree’, the lone 450-year-old specimen dated back to a time when natural teak forests covered the entire area. Rising up to 48.5 m with a girth of 6.57 m, it took five people with arms outstretched to encircle it completely. One of the oldest and largest ‘natural’ living teak trees in the world and the largest in Asia, the tree was awarded the ‘Mahavriksha Puraskar’ by the Indian Government in 1994.

During the 19th century the British had felled most of the original teak forests for timber by exploiting local tribal labour. Massive tree trunks were taken to the ‘top’ of the mountain slope and allowed to ‘slip’ down into the river, the practice eventually giving the place its name. Top Slip currently forms the tourism zone of Tamil Nadu’s Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary on the eastern slope of the Western Ghats. In 1905, a more efficient system was devised. The Cochin Forest Tramway directly transported teak from Parambikulam to Chalakudy before shipping it to the rest of the world from Cochin Harbour as Cochin Teak. Ironically, it was the revenue generated from Parambikulam teak that led to the development of present day Cochin Port.

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Contiguous with Anamalai Sanctuary, the undulating park spread around seven major valleys and three river systems, dammed at Parambikulam, Thunakadavu and Peruvaripallam under the Par-Alayar Project in the 1950s. The 20.6 sq km reservoir harboured several aquatic fauna, including muggers, which often looked like sun-dried logs peeping through the water. Besides rowboats and bamboo rafting on the reservoirs, the active Forest Department organized a daylong Parambi Cruise in a Tribal Bamboo Houseboat, with on-board snacks and packed lunch.

The forest road climbed up the hillside to Dam View, a scenic vantage over the deep blue waters of Thunakadavu bracketed by Pandaravarai (1290 m) and Kuchimudi peaks. Valley View offered a sweeping glimpse of the picturesque Parambiar Valley, marked by the peaks of Kalynathy (1385 m) and Karimala (1439 m), the park’s highest point. We took an exhilarating boat ride in the reservoir to Veetikunnu Island, a cane forest bungalow located on a hilly islet (kunnu) of veeti (Sisam or Dalbergia latifolia).

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For the true wildlife enthusiast, there was no dearth of things to do at Parambikulam with eco-tourism packages like overnight camping inside the forest, Full Moon Census or hiking 8km to an old Inspection Bungalow for Thellikal Nights. Guided treks included the Kariyanshola Trail, Hornbill Watching, Pugmark Trail and the scenic Cochin Forest Tramway Trek to Muthuvarachal.

Driving around Parambikulam was always rife with the possibility of a gaur, the park’s mascot, crashing through the undergrowth or a chance leopard sighting. Home to an impressive faunal array, Parambikulam harboured 39 mammalian species, including tiger, leopard, jungle cat, fox, bear, elephant, gaur, Nilgiri tahr, pangolin, loris and primates like bonnet macaque, Nilgiri langur and lion-tailed macaque. Of the 274 birds, Black-capped kingfisher, Broad-billed roller, Black woodpecker, Ceylon frogmouth, Malabar pied hornbill and Small pranticole were notable species. 

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The park was home to four adivasi communities – Kadar, Malasar, Muduvar and Malamalasar, who had been resettled in six colonies. Their indigenous knowledge made them critical partners in the eight EDCs (Eco-Development Committees) at Parambikulam. Even today, the scattered dolmens (flat memorial stones) of the tribal headmen still stand testimony to a time when man and beast lived in harmony in these forests.

Where to Stay

The Forest Department at Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary offers a wide range of accommodation options (Rs.2,500-5,000/day for 2-5 people). The two scenic Treetop Huts with double beds and attached baths in the reserve forest area overlooking the reservoir at Thunakadavu and Parambikulam are much sought after and have to be booked in advance. Elephant Valley Lodge at Thunakadavu and Bison Valley Lodge at Parambikulam have three double rooms each. Tented Niche, seven Swiss-style tents lie in a shady grove at Anappady. Anappady also has a Mahseer Dormitory for 40 people while Tiger Hall at Parambikulam can lodge 20; ideal for backpackers.

Birdwatchers can stay at the Salim Ali Centre at Kuriarkutty, which has a hall for 10 people. For a little privacy try Vettikunnu Island Nest on Parambikulam reservoir, a secluded island accessible by boat with stay in a renovated wireless station (6 people). Bay Owl Shed at Bagapallam, Tahr Shed at Vengoli and Cane Turtle Shed at Thuthanpara accommodate five people each. Overnight camping is possible at Sambar Machan at Kuriarkutty, Peacock Machan at Vengoli and Cheetal Machan at Anakal Vayal with five beds each. Two guides accompany the group and arrange packed food for a fee.

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Bookings

Ecocare Centre, Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, Anappady, Thunakadavu (PO), Via Pollachi, Palakkad, Kerala 678 661. Ph 04253 – 245025, 245005 Email bookings@parambikulam.org www.parambikulam.org

Entry Fees & Charges

Gate timings 7am – 6 pm (entry closes at 4pm)
Vehicle Fee Rs.50 (Light), Rs.150 (Heavy)
Entry Fee Rs.10 Indians, Rs.100 Foreigners, Camera Rs.25, Video Rs.150

Where to Eat

Being a wildlife preserve in an isolated pocket, eating options are few and basic. Parambikulam, the last settlement where the road ends, has a few eateries and Hotel Everest (Ph 04253-277 235) is the pick of the lot. South Indian staple like idli and dosa are on offer for breakfast while meals with fish fry and chicken curry are popular for lunch and dinner. It’s best to order food in advance. Sree Hotel (Ph 04253-277 217) and Sri Lakshmi Hotel (Ph 04253-277 234) are other options.

What to Buy

The Eco-Care Centre at Anappady sells park memorabilia like T-shirts, caps, picture postcards and stickers as well as bottles of honey and jam.

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FACT FILE

Location: Situated in South East Palakkad, Parambikulam lies in the valley between the Anamalai ranges of Tamil Nadu and Kerala’s Nelliyampathy ranges of the Western Ghats.

Area: 643.66 sq km: 390.89 sq km Core Area (Critical Tiger Habitat), 252.77 sq km Buffer Zone

Altitude: 600 m to 1438 m above sea level

Climate: Mostly cool and damp interspersed with light to heavy drizzles around the year. Heavy rains lash the sanctuary between June-August. Eastern areas get more rain during Oct-Nov. Temperature ranges from 15 C to 32 C and drops substantially at dawn and dusk.

When to go: Unlike other parks, in the rains, the Forest Department also organizes Monsoon Tourism from June-August, though the best time to visit is September to March.

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Getting There

By Air: The nearest airport is Coimbatore, 100 km away, also an important rail link.

By Rail: The nearest railway station is at Pollachi, 39 km away

By Road: Parambikulam is 98 km from Palakkad. There is regular bus service from Pollachi (6 am, 3 pm) to Parambikulam via Anamalai (2 hrs) and Top Slip (11:20 am). From Palakkad, drive south to Kollengode, get on to Pollachi road and turn right from Ambrampalayam towards Anamalai, Sethumadai, Top Slip, Thunakadavu and Parambikulam, each place 12 km from each other. The Parambikulam Office Headquarters at Anappady is 4 km from Top Slip. The nearest petrol pump and ATM outlet are at Vettaikaranpudur, 23 km from Anappady.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the Sep-Oct 2012 issue of Saevus Wildlife magazine.

Kaziranga: The Land of Giants

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the Brahmaputra floodplains in Assam’s premier national park in search of the one-horned rhino and other wildlife adventures

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Like two Vikings in the sun, the rhinos faced each other, horn to horn, their stony mantles gleaming like armour. Safe from our howdah, we thought a battle would ensue but the creatures just sized up each other and calmly lumbered across to graze in the vast open grasslands. Nearby, a herd of swamp deer and hog deer nibbled away while a few breakaways lay curled, dozing in a cradle of reeds. Along the fringe of a marshy lake, a sounder of wild pigs rummaged for a meal. In the distance, wild water buffalos coated in mud froze like errant children caught in the act by the school principal. A lone Adjutant Stork surveyed the scene from a tall dry tree stump.

Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Eastern Himalayas, Kaziranga in Assam stretches along the flood plains of the Brahmaputra River, which sweeps its northern boundary while the NH-31 runs along its southern edge, flanked by tea estates. The dense network of ponds, streams, beels (small lakes), grasslands, tropical wet evergreen and semi-evergreen forests have resulted in a rich tapestry of life. The unique topography and biodiversity environment prompted UNESCO to declare Kaziranga a World Heritage Site in 1985. Yet, its history as a protected zone goes back to a much earlier date.

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When Mary Curzon, wife of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon visited Kaziranga in 1904, she couldn’t sight a single rhinoceros. Utterly dejected, she coaxed her husband to initiate conservation in the area. The Kaziranga Proposed Reserve Forest was created on in 1905 covering 232 sq km. By 1974, it had evolved from a wildlife sanctuary into the Kaziranga National Park spanning an impressive 430 sq km. Often drawing comparisons with Africa for its wide open tracts, rich natural bounty and quality of wildlife viewing, today, this riverine habitat is known as the Land of Giants. Besides being a safe haven for the world’s largest population of the great one-horned rhinoceros, Kaziranga supports a notable number of elephants, tigers and the large Asiatic Water buffalo.

The presence of numerous jungle lodges and luxury resorts, and the option of jeep drives, elephant safaris, river cruises, sightings from machaans (observation towers) to nature walks on the park’s periphery makes Kaziranga one of India’s top wildlife destinations. About 15 species of India’s threatened mammals abound the region. In the leafy canopies of the forest’s southern slopes, animated hoots announce the presence of India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon. Kaziranga supports nearly 450 species of birds including the Bengal Florican, several species of geese, pelicans and teals, while its water reservoirs draw over 100 species of migratory birds from as far as Siberia.

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Wild Grass, one of the oldest jungle lodges in the region and the swanky Diphlu River Lodge run by Assam Bengal Navigation, stand apart for top quality wildlife experiences – from bird trails with expert to boat cruises tracking river dolphins along the Brahmaputra. With delicious rustic meals at riverside camps, visits to traditional weaving units and cultural evenings under starlit skies with traditional Bihu dancers and drummers, it’s easy for anyone from six to sixty five to have a good time.

Summer trips with kids can be hot and humid, so don’t forget to pack sunblock, hats, good footwear, earthy-coloured cotton clothes, snacks, water, a pair of binoculars and a good book on birds to identify and tick them off the checklist! The park remains closed between June-September.

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Fact File 

State: Assam
Area: 430 sq km
Altitude: 80 to 1220 m
Temperature: Min 5°C – Max 37°C
When to visit: November to May
Where to stay: Wild Grass Lodge, Diphlu River Lodge, Jhupuri Ghar

How to get there: There are regular flights such as Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) and Air India (www.airindia.in) connecting Guwahati to Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. Kaziranga National Park is 215km (5 1/2 hour drive) from Guwahati

http://www.kaziranganationalpark.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 26 March 2012 in Conde Nast Traveller online. 

India’s Top 25 wildlife parks

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5 best parks for tiger spotting 

India harbours 60% of the world’s wild Tiger population, protected in 38 tiger reserves and over 500 wildlife sanctuaries of the country. Here’s a pick of the 5 best parks for tiger spotting.

1. Corbett (Uttarakhand) 

Countless eyes shine back at you from the dark. A panic-stricken barking deer’s yelp pierces the stillness of the night. The dull swoosh of wings signal the arrival of an owl. Welcome to Corbett, one of the few parks in India that permits overnight stays in the heart of the jungle. Corbett is India’s oldest and most popular National Park. Established in 1936 and renamed in 1957 after the legendary hunter-turned-naturalist Jim Corbett, the park is situated between the Himalayan and Sivalik ranges, which accounts for its rich bio-diversity. The Ramganga river, the park’s lifeline, meanders through dense forests before draining into a large reservoir surrounded by vast grasslands. This zone, Dhikala, offers the best opportunities for wildlife viewing. A few nights spent in old colonial rest houses listening to jungle calls, coupled with daytime wildlife sightings from elephant safaris and open 4X4s, make Corbett an unforgettable experience.

2. Ranthambhore (Rajasthan)

Plaintive calls of peacocks rend the air. A muted roar deep in the jungle sends a troop of langurs into frenzy. A Royal Bengal tiger sets out to survey his kingdom. Set against the backdrop of a historic fort, Ranthambhore National Park was once the hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur. In 1972 it was classified among the nine core zones under Project Tiger. The park is known for excellent tiger sightings owing to its well-laid out tracks and arid landscape. The jungle comprises the world’s largest expanse of dry deciduous forest and holds a haunting beauty with ancient ruins littered with animal bones. Man-made reservoirs (Padam Talao, Malik Talao) blend into the ecosystem as important water sources. Tigers often chase prey into the lakes and are known to take on resident marsh crocodiles! The tourist season looks promising after a new litter of two tiger cubs were spotted recently.

3. Kanha (Madhya Pradesh)

Tucked away in the eastern fringe of the Satpura Range, Kanha has been an inspiration to many. Tall forests of sal, dense bamboo thickets and lush meadows teeming with wildlife; Rudyard Kipling couldn’t have chosen a better setting for his 1894 classic ‘The Jungle Book’. It was here that eminent American zoologist George Schaller undertook the first-ever scientific field study of tigers in the 1960s. Rated as the best managed park in Asia by Wildlife Conservation Society, the world’s premier conservation institute, Kanha has played an important part in saving the Hard-ground Barasingha from near extinction. Today, it is the last known habitat of this endangered Swamp Deer. Kanha’s vast size makes extended explorations possible and tiger sightings are frequent. Vast herds of chital, sambhar and gaur graze the grasslands, giving visitors the opportunity to photograph them silhouetted by the last rays of the sun at Bamni Dadar (Sunset Point). 

4. Bandhavgarh (Madhya Pradesh)

Spread over ridges and valleys of the northern Vindhyas, Bandhavgarh comprises the Central Indian Tiger Circuit with adjoining parks of Kanha, Panna and Pench. Prior to becoming a National Park in 1968, Bandhavgarh was maintained as a shikargah (game preserve) of the Maharajas of Rewa. It was also home to unique white tigers, hence its popular epithet ‘White Tiger Territory’. Even today, Bandhavgarh has one of the highest tiger densities in the world and is the best reserve in India for viewing these big cats. The park’s dominating feature is a high rock plateau that forms a natural fortress, dotted by numerous caverns. Here, one gets the chance to click arresting images of tigers lounging around caves and ravines. The ancient fort atop its highest peak was allegedly gifted by Lord Rama to his younger brother Lakshmana, hence the name Bandhavgarh (bandhav-brother, garh-fort). 

5. Kaziranga (Assam)

Located in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra River, Kaziranga has often been compared to Africa because of the quality of wildlife viewing. The river forms the northern boundary of the park, a breathtaking expanse of varying topography. This UNESCO World Heritage Site harbours fifteen of India’s threatened mammals, including the world’s largest population of the One-Horned Rhinoceros. Home to the Big 5 – the rhino, elephant, water buffalo, tiger and swamp deer, Kaziranga is aptly called the ‘Land of Giants’. From jeep rides, elephant safaris to leisurely walks in buffer zones and boat cruises for dolphin sighting, tourists have several options to access its different zones. Kohora in the central range is most easily accessible while Baguri in the western range is known for its rhino density. Numerous vantage points help visitors relish the sight of wild animals roaming free.

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5 Best Parks for Birding 

1. Nameri National Park (Assam)

Walk through tall elephant grass. Raft down the placid Jia Bhoroli river. Enjoy the rustic charms of Nameri Eco Camp. What started as a sportfishing camp by ABACA (Assam Bhorelli Angling & Conservation Association) turned into a popular destination for birders from around the globe. Situated at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, Nameri shares its northern boundary with Arunachal’s Pakke Tiger Reserve. Though an ideal habitat for tigers (26 at last count) and notorious for elephants, the park is more famous for avifauna. The 374 birds recorded here include eight globally threatened species (White-winged Wood Duck, Rufous-necked Hornbill, White-rumped Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture, Greater Spotted Eagle, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Lesser Adjutant and Jerdon’s Babbler) and five near-threatened species (White-cheeked Partridge, Black-bellied Tern, White-tailed Eagle, Lesser Fish Eagle and Red-headed Vulture). Set in a grassy clearing near the river, the eco-camp is the perfect perch to get started on your checklist of birds.

2. Keoladeo Ghana, Bharatpur (Rajasthan)

Sarus cranes pair up to perform a graceful ballet. The sky is a blur of wings as birds hurry to silence hungry fledglings. India’s finest bird reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bharatpur is an unrivaled breeding ground for the Painted Stork, Purple Heron, White Ibis and Eurasian Spoonbill. Situated at the confluence of the Gambhir and Banganga rivers, the flood-prone area became a habitat for wildfowl. Bharatpur’s Jat rulers diverted canal water, added bunds (dykes) and developed it as a duck-shooting reserve. Later notified as Keoladeo Ghana, the park was named after an ancient Shiva temple inside the ghana (dense) vegetation. This tiny patchwork of wetland, woodland, grassland and swamp boasts a bird count of 400 species. You can easily spot over 100 species in a day! Bharatpur is at its best when winter migrants like Bar-headed Geese visit between October-February. Though years of drought have precipitated water disputes, the recent release of water from Ajan Bund augurs a good birding season.

3. Little Rann of Kutch (Gujarat)

A vast salt-encrusted plain of dark silt, the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) is one of the most remarkable and unique landscapes in the world, where wild asses roam free. After an endless summer, a brief monsoon inundates the mudflat, transforming it into a spectacular coastal wetland that spans four districts! The still waters and sandy islets of thorny scrub become breeding grounds for large flocks of Demoiselle Cranes and Greater and Lesser flamingoes. Due to its strategic location on the bird migration route, LRK is an important roost for nearly 300 bird species. Besides the globally threatened Lesser Florican and 13 species of larks, LRK lures winter visitors like Houbara Bustard and Spotted Sandgrouse. Dryland birds include coursers, plovers, chats, warblers, babblers and shrikes, while wetlands attract pelicans, storks, ibises, spoonbills, ducks and other waterfowl. This astonishing diversity is due to LRK being an eco-tone, a transitional area between marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

4. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Thattekad (Kerala)

The dulcet notes of a Malabar Whistling Thrush cut through the moist air like a carefree song on a schoolboy’s lips. The forest canopy twitches and flutters with life. Described by Dr Salim Ali as the richest bird habitat in peninsular India, Thattekad is full of surprises. To this day, rare and new species are sighted here, like the vibrant three-toed Forest Kingfisher. Located on the foothills of the Western Ghats along the Periyar, this low-lying evergreen forest holds 320 bird species and is a nerve centre for several endemics – notably Malabar Trogon, Grey-headed Bulbul, White-bellied Tree-Pie and White-rumped Needletail. A wintering site for the Rusty-tailed Flycatcher and Tytler’s Leaf-Warbler, Thattekad is one of the last bastions of the rare Ceylon Frogmouth. Migrants, seen between October and March, comprise nearly half the bird count while residents nest from April to August. Some endemics are now resident, making Thattekad an excellent year-round destination. 

5. National Chambal Sanctuary (Uttar Pradesh)

Bird-watching cruises down the Chambal river, jeep rides through remote hamlets, camel safaris along ravines and camping in rustic lodges; there are many ways to explore the once-dreaded wilderness of the Chambal. Flanked by wide ravines resembling giant anthills, the 400 km stretch of the Chambal River slithers like a snake through the National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS). Weathered over centuries by flood and rain, this incredible maze of mud cliffs and scrub forest provides shelter to over 316 bird species. Autumn and winter are ideal for birding, when altitude migrants from the upper Himalayas and the Arctic congregate here. Perhaps the best place to see large populations of Indian Skimmer; Chambal is among the last surviving habitats of the Gangetic River Dolphin. Gharials, marsh crocodiles, otters and six species of turtles thrive in these waters. The sanctuary is part of a larger 5400 sq km reserve co-administered by Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

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5 upcoming parks to watch out for 

1. Parambikulam (Kerala)

The deep blue waters at Thunakadavu shimmer like a sapphire brooch on Parambikulam’s cloak of green. The Karimala Peak (1439 m), the park’s highest point, looms in the distance. Wrapped around three dams that create a 20.6 sq km reservoir, Parambikulam is a park of astonishing diversity. Eco-tourism packages range from jeep safaris, bamboo rafting, birdwatching and guided walks to overnight camping inside the forest. Trekkers will enjoy the Kariyanshola Trail and the Cochin Forest Tramway Trek, a relic of the British timber trade. The pride of Parambikulam is the Kannimara Teak, a 48.5 m tall tree, believed to be the largest in Asia. With a girth of 6.57 m, it takes five men to encircle the 450-year-old giant. In sharp contrast, the endemic Parambikulam Frog is a dime-sized creature found nowhere else! Accommodation options include Swiss-style tents, treetop huts overlooking the reservoir and a bamboo hut on Vettikunnu Island, accessible only by boat. 

2. Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (Maharashtra)

The country’s geographic center, Vidharbha is surrounded by Central India’s best forests, including three tiger reserves and six sanctuaries. Maharashtra’s oldest national park and the proverbial ‘Jewel of Vidharbha’, Tadoba was combined with the Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary in 1995 to create India’s 25th tiger reserve. Bound by dense hills to the north and west, and a huge lake to the southwest, this Big Cat County teems with tigers, leopards, sloth bear, gaur and wild dog. Years ago, these forests formed part of the tribal Gond kingdom that ruled this Deccan tract. The name Tadoba is traced to Taru, a Gond king killed by a tiger. His open shrine stands under a wild mango tree on the edge of Lake Tadoba. The animist Gonds worship the mahua as the Tree of Life and are sworn to protect the forests from the moment they are born. Gond art, unchanged for centuries, is a reflection of this deep connection with nature.

3. Pench Tiger Reserve (Madhya Pradesh)

Located at the foothills of the Satpuras, Pench Tiger Reserve is a beautiful park named after the river that runs through it. The NH-7 between Nagpur and Jabalpur forms the park’s eastern boundary. A dam constructed on the southeast side has resulted in a massive reservoir that remains the only major water source in summer. Drained by the Pench and Wainganga Rivers, the park is criss-crossed by numerous nalas (seasonal streams). By April-end, the river dries up, leaving behind dohs (pools) that serve as waterholes. Gaurs migrate from the upper reaches to low-lying forests and return to the hills during monsoon. Chital, sambhar, nilgai and wild boar are found all over the park, but prey concentration is higher along the Pench River, thereby attracting tigers, leopards and wild dogs. The park’s proximity to Nagpur has led to a profusion of wildlife resorts around the main gate at Turia, the perfect base to explore Pench.

4. Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu)

Forests that once echoed with gunshots now resound with the roar of the tiger. Strategically positioned at the tri-junction of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Sathyamangalam was notorious as the hideout of dreaded poacher Veerappan. After his death in 2004, the forest revived and frequent tiger sightings were reported. Two years ago, a third of the Sathyamangalam forest was declared a wildlife sanctuary. The forest department claims that 20 tigers have been caught on film by hidden cameras and DNA analysis of scat confirms the presence of at least 13 individual tigers. The sprawling park is South India’s only non-tiger reserve with such a significant presence of big cats. After Mundanthurai, Mudumalai and Anamalai, Sathyamangalam could soon be Tamil Nadu’s fourth tiger reserve. An important link between the Western and Eastern Ghats, the park falls on the migratory corridor of 6,000 Asian elephants passing through to the neighbouring jungles of Bandipur, Nagarahole and Wayanad.

5. Manas (Assam)

Nestled in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas on the Bhutan border, Manas lies at the confluence of the Indo-Tibetan, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Gangetic gene pools. On account of its rich biodiversity and the triple distinction as a Tiger Reserve, an Elephant Reserve and a Biosphere Reserve, Manas has been rightly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A 21 km jeep drive from the park gate at Bansbari takes you through a diverse grassland ecosystem to the picturesque Forest Rest House at Mathanguri. Perched on a hillock, the bungalow commands a grand view of the gurgling Manas River and the neighbouring hills of Bhutan. The park supports 21 endangered mammals including cats like Tiger, Leopard, Clouded Leopard, Golden Cat and Fishing Cat. Manas is the only habitat of the endangered Assam Roofed Turtle and the Pygmy Hog, the smallest species of wild pig. Large populations of the endangered Bengal Florican are also found here, besides 380 bird species. 

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5 specialized parks dedicated to a key species

1. Gir Forest National Park (Gujarat)

A sambar slakes its thirst oblivious to the unwavering tawny gaze of a predator. Camouflaged by the stark landscape, the crouching sphinx-like form charges for the kill. Once common across north India, today the entire population of the Asiatic Lion has shrunk to a tiny outpost in Gujarat. Sasan Gir is the only place outside Africa to see the lion in its natural habitat. In 1913, a disastrous famine prompted the Nawabs of Junagadh to save the lion from extinction. Besides strict measures, they even issued commemorative stamps in 1929, making the lion the first animal to be depicted on Indian postage! From 20 lions at the turn of the century to over 400 at present, Gir has evolved into one of India’s best-protected sanctuaries. Besides a sizeable leopard population, the Kamleshwar dam in the heart of the park teems with marsh crocodiles. Local tribes like the nomadic Maldhari and the Siddis enhance the wildlife experience. 

2. Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary (Karnataka) 

Set against a boulder-ridden landscape, Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary is the only sanctuary in Karnataka specifically created to protect the sloth bear. Established in 1994 and adjacent to the Bilakallu Reserve Forest near Hospet, the sanctuary has an estimated population of 120 bears. The sanctuary’s open scrub forests with rocky outcrops and caves shelters make it an ideal Bear Territory. Fruit-bearing trees, laden with termites and honey and the presence of waterholes, serve as hubs for bears and other wildlife. The watchtower atop a hillock offers the perfect vantage point. From here, train your scopes or binoculars towards Karadikallu Gudda, literally Bear Stone Hill to watch scores of sloth bears descending from hundreds of caves. Though the sanctuary is open all year round (6am–6pm), sloth bears are nocturnal creatures that usually wander out after 4 pm; so time your visit well. 

3. Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary (Assam)

The animated hoops of monkeys mingle with the unending whirr of cicadas. A black ape trapezes through the high trees while a faint rustle overhead reveals a Malayan Giant Squirrel. Notified as the Hoolungapar Reserve Forest in 1881, this tiny forest hedged in between tea estates and the Meleng railway line was created to protect India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon. Over the last four decades, Western Hoolock Gibbon numbers have plummeted from 100,000 in the early ‘70s to less than 5,000! A drastic decline of 95% makes the Hoolock one of the 25 most endangered primates. Gibbon Sanctuary nurtures six other primate species – Pig-Tailed Macaque, Stump-tailed Macaque, Assamese Macaque, Rhesus Macaque, Capped Langur and the nocturnal Slow Loris. Leisurely walks are the best way to explore the park, which abounds with colourful butterflies and 219 bird species. Visitors can stay at the Forest Department Inspection Bungalow or at Thengal Manor, a heritage bungalow near Jorhat. 

4. Blackbuck National Park, Velvadar (Gujarat)

Cameras click feverishly. A herd of deer prances in the slanting rays of the sun. Fringing the coasts of the Gulf of Khambhat, the Blackbuck National Park at Velvadar was a former vidi (grassland) of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar. Since the 18th century till Independence, the blackbuck was India’s most hunted wild animal. One of the fastest terrestrial animals, clocking speeds upto 80 km/hr, the blackbuck could outrun most predators over long distances on open plain. Only the Indian Cheetah (now extinct), capable of short bursts of 112 km/h, was its chief predator. Royalty used specially trained pet cheetahs to hunt blackbuck and Chinkara (Indian gazelle) for their meat and skin. But thanks to a successful conservation program, blackbuck numbers have revived, along with the Wolf and the Lesser Florican. Other park highlights include the Houbara bustard, sandgrouse, larks and the amazing spectacle of harriers nesting, the largest roosting site of its kind. 

5. Eravikulam National Park (Kerala)

Wreathed by a ring of clouds, Anamudi (2695m), the highest peak south of the Himalayas looms over the undulating terrain. The mountain meadow is carpeted with purple kurunji flowers. A herd of Nilgiri Tahr nibbles away, their tail-tufts quivering in the wind. Managed as a Game Reserve by the Kannan Devan Hill Produce Company, Eravikulam was earlier a private hunting ground for British tea planters. Estate managers served as Wardens while Muduvan tribals were employed as game watchers. In 1928, the High Range Game Preservation Association was set up to manage hunting activities. Later, this regulatory body lobbied for the creation of a specialized park and continues to manage and protect the area along with the Forest Department. Today, Eravikulam harbours the largest surviving population (around 750) of the Nilgiri Tahr. Moving in large groups, these sure-footed caprids forage all day on the grasslands, retiring to the cliffs at night.

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5 Community Initiatives in Wildlife Conservation 

1. Tal Chhapar Sanctuary (Rajasthan)

The flat tract (tal) of open grassland with scattered acacia trees is a safe haven for India’s most elegant antelope, the Blackbuck. Situated on the rim of the Thar Desert in Shekhawati, Tal Chhapar is an extraordinary sanctuary. But it was the Bishnoi community that placed it on the conservation map. Founded in late 15th century by Guru Jambhoji, who laid down 29 (bish-noi) conservation principles, the Bishnois consider all life forms sacred. They revere the blackbuck and protect it with their life. Each family makes a monthly donation of one kilogram of bajra (pearl millet) to a community store, maintained to feed blackbucks every evening. After wandering the plains all day, blackbucks assemble around Bishnoi hamlets at dusk. Locals lovingly feed these herds, which vary from 50 to 500 in strength. Visit the villages of Kejarli, Rohet and Guda Bishnoiya for an eye-opener on the inextricable link between Bishnois and nature.

2. Khichan (Rajasthan)

Tucked away in a far nook of Jodhpur’s Thar Desert, the tiny hamlet of Khichan has gained world renown for its long tradition of feeding kurjas (Demoiselle Cranes) every winter. A small grain-feeding initiative by local bird lovers has snowballed into a conservation movement, with over 9000 cranes visiting Khichan annually between August and March. Being staunch vegetarians, the village community of Jain Marwaris, idolize the kurja for its vegetarian diet and monogamous nature. As part of a systematic feeding program, chugga ghars (feeding enclosures) were constructed on the village outskirts to feed cranes twice a day. Each session lasts 90 minutes and 500 kg of birdseed is consumed daily! This huge demand is met by generous donations from locals and tourists, overseen by societies like the Kuraj Samrakshan Vikas Sansthan and Marwar Crane Foundation. With avian and human visitors on the rise, many heritage buildings have been converted into lodges, heightening Khichan’s hospitable charm. 

3. Kokkarebellur (Karnataka)

Located near the Shimsa River and dotted with water-tanks replete with fish, Kokkarebellur is a nondescript village off the busy Bengaluru-Mysore highway. For decades, Kokkarebellur has been the chosen roost of the near-threatened Painted Stork and Spot-billed Pelican, which nest atop ficus and tamarind trees in the village centre. Catalyzed by an incentive scheme, introduced by senior forest official SG Neginhal in 1976, locals adopted a sustainable conservation model. Though compensated for losses incurred in their tamarind crops due to nesting, the villagers’ involvement transcends cold commerce. They protect the birds as a ‘living heritage’, regarding them as harbingers of good luck and prosperity. The migrants arrive in September after the monsoon to build nests and lay eggs from October to November. After months of roosting, they tirelessly feed their hatchlings through summer. When they fly back in May, womenfolk bid emotional goodbyes. To them, the birds are like ‘pregnant daughters leaving their maternal homes after delivery’. 

4. Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (Nagaland)

In a region synonymous with hunting, where warrior tribes embellish their costumes with feathers, tusks, claws and bone, conservation might seem an alien concept. But in the dark woods of Nagaland, a small Angami village community is committed to protecting the exotic Blyth’s Tragopan. The vulnerable pheasant, often hunted for food in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, suffers greatly due to rampant deforestation and slash-and-burn cultivation, which destroy its habitat. Being excellent hunters, Nagas mimic birdcalls and lure the gullible bird by emitting calls of the opposite sex. When Khonoma switched to alder cultivation as part of a larger plan to create a model village for eco-tourism, it paved the way for the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS). Set up in 1998, the sanctuary is maintained entirely by the village community, which enforced a complete hunting ban in 2001. In the 2005 census, 600 tragopans were recorded, besides other endemics like Naga Wren Babbler.

5. Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary (Arunachal Pradesh)

Perched like an eyrie in the upper reaches of Western Arunachal Pradesh, Eaglenest was unknown to the birding community till 2003. Less than 5 birders had visited the area prior to that! Thanks to the efforts of Kaati Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to biodiversity research and conservation in Arunachal Pradesh, Eaglenest is now rated among the top birding hotspots in Asia. By tapping into the indigenous knowledge of forest-dwelling tribes like Bugun and Sherdukpen, Kaati Tours paved the way for responsible wildlife tourism through sustainable partnerships. Trails from the tented campsites of Sessni (1250 m), Bompu (1940 m) and Lama Camp (2350 m) reveal sought-after species like Ward’s Trogon, Beautiful Nuthatch, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Chestnut-breasted Hill-Partridge, Temminck’s Tragopan, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler and Purple Cochoa. The recent discovery of a new bird species – the colourful and vocally distinct Bugun Liocichla – by avid birder and scientist Ramana Athreya is testimony to the area’s unlimited potential.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of JetWings. 

Tiger Spotting: Ranthambhore Tiger Census

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In Ranthambhore you don’t just see a tiger. You see Jhumroo, Jhumri, Machchli, Bachchi, Nick-ear, Jhalara female, Sultanpur mother or Isabelle (named after BBC cameraman Colin’s daughter). Every single of the 38 odd tigers of the high profile park are so well documented that when you see one your guide will elaborate on its antecedents like it were the scion of a royal family – what its name is, how old it is, how much it measures from head to tail, who its mother is, what area is under its territory and more importantly, when it had its last meal. Perhaps no one knows as much about the individual tigers of Ranthambhore as Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh of Ranthambhore Bagh. 

I was lucky to have been invited by Aditya, himself a wildlife expert and keen photographer, for an insider view of the annual tiger census at Ranthambhore. These 15 days offered a chance to explore the park in a way unlike the rest of the year. Safaris inside the park were restricted only to evening drives, tourists were less, guides had more time and you had the rare opportunity to explore the park on foot from early morning till afternoon. Add to it the prospect of the all-night full-moon waterhole count inside the park and it was an offer too good to resist. 

There were other volunteers too. Waiting to be deployed inside the park, the college freshers would ask innocent questions like ‘Does the chowki have an attached western bathroom’, ‘Do you get mineral water inside the jungle’ or more importantly ‘Will we get a certificate from the Forest Department for this?’ There were almost 70 counting units working for 15 days. After a week of the Rajasthan heat, an absolute lack of urban luxury and the mortal fear of being in the jungle on foot, half the volunteers wilted. It isn’t easy earning your stripes in the Indian jungle.

Meanwhile, the hardier ones were dusting the tracks, scouting for prints and making Plaster of Paris casts of the pugmarks. We exchanged info and I continued on my morning walk with Sharif and Aditya. It is in the quest of the tiger that the forest opens its secrets to you. The tiger is like some unattainable Higher Truth and the jungle path is like a mystical journey to salvation. Often blinded by the religious zeal of seeking the Truth one misses the little epiphanies that come your way. The dance of the peacock, the ballet of a Black-naped Hare, the sly glint in the eye of a jackal or Painted Spurfowls nimbly scaling the steep ravine slopes. We arrived at our Truth quite early in our journey. Scarcely had we crossed Padam Talao that Sharif stiffened. In a low whisper he said ‘tiger’. The thrill of seeing a tiger on foot is unimaginable. It’s a lot pleasanter if the tiger is 60 feet away. By the time we reached the track, Bachhi the young tigress had disappeared into the bushes.

The park has an excellent network of tracks and more than half the core area is open to visitors. Since the tracks follow the general lay of the land and are covered in soft dust, tigers prefer walking on the tracks because of their soft pads. This facilitates excellent tiger sightings from open jeeps and also makes tracking relatively easy.

It was during a regular inspection round with CF Saheb (Conservator of Forests Shaukat Hussain) that I saw a Black-tailed Mongoose. ‘It’s a good omen. We might see something’, he said. That’s when we encountered Jhumroo. A strapping young male, son of the ferocious Jhalara female, measuring 9 feet from head to tail, Jhumroo was The Lord of the Lakes. He had dominated the area around Padam Talao and Malik Talao and during summers stayed in the cool confines of Raj Bagh. No wonder the guards said that these are truly ‘Royal’ Bengal Tigers. It is these forest guards and local guides who name them, usually after some bizarre connection. Take the case of Chimpoo Kapoor. Supposedly an ill-tempered sloth bear that loved running around trees, it was christened Chimpoo by Billoo the guide because it was slightly balding and in a vague way reminded him of the Bollywood actor.

Soon, the big night arrived. Once during the 15-day census a 24-hour waterhole count is conducted, usually on a full moon night. This is essentially done to get an estimate of the ungulate population. Ironically, there was a lunar eclipse on the full moon night of Buddha Purnima so it was decided that the all-night waterhole count would be conducted the night before. It was a massive operation. 4 forest ranges, 177 outposts, as many watering holes, 300 volunteers inside the park and I had the best job. Distributing food packets to them. Poori-alu and a pack of Tiger biscuits. Makeshift machaans had been erected on trees and cliffs overlooking different water holes. One guard and one volunteer were to man these precarious machaans for 24 hours (from 1100 hrs on 3rd to 1100 hrs on 4th). One wrong move and it would be the tiger doing the census.

The team had to note down the number of ungulates and predators that visited the water hole. Chital, sambar, nilgai, chinkara, wild boar, tiger, leopards, sloth bear, jackal and hyenas were on the guest-list. The results were to be tabulated later to arrive at an approximate count of these populations. At every machaan, I’d hand the goodies and ask: Kuchh dikha? Nahi sahab! Next waterhole. Aapko kuchh dikha? Bas ek saheli (porcupine). Another machaan. Haan bhai, koi aya? Sahab aap hi aye ho! By the time we had done the rounds from 8 till 2 in the morning we had seen 5 tigers, 2 leopards, 3 civet cats (the same guys who gave us SARS) and the Savanna and Indian Nightjars. 

Later, we returned for another midnight jaunt with the dashing Balendu bana, a man of good taste and great stories who runs the sprawling Dev Vilas resort. Apart from Aditya of Ranthambhore Bagh, he was the only resort owner helping out with the census. Slowly the silvery moon sank behind the walls of the 1000-year-old Ranthambhore Fort. It had been a long night, we were tired but more than us it was the creatures of the night who needed a break from our prying eyes. I silently promised not to disturb them till next year, when I’d be back, not as a volunteer for the tiger census but as the traveling tiffinwala distributing food packets…

BOX | How to Cast a Good Impression: Census Methodology

In India the Pugmark Plaster Cast Method is followed. PIPs (Pugmark Identification Pads) are prepared at strategic places on the tracks that criss-cross the park. To make the PIPs the soil in the ground is sieved to remove stones, pebbles and twigs and then the soil is evenly spread over the same place. This makes the ground soft with fine soil so that a good impression of the pugmark is cast on it. The PIPs are prepared a few days before the census begins. Once the census starts, the various Counting Units are allotted a forest beat. A counting unit consists of a few forest guards and some volunteers. They set out on foot at the crack of dawn and walk down their assigned beat. Every time they find pugmarks on the track they take a trace on tracing paper and a plaster cast of the left rear pugmark. They note down the area where the pugmark was taken, the date, the time and the direction of movement of the cat. Over a period of time many casts are made all over the park. At the end of the census a small team of experts sit together and analyze the different pugmarks. Since no two pugmarks are identical it is technically possible to make out the different tigers by the plaster casts of their pugmarks. The same tiger can leave seemingly different pugmarks depending on its speed, gait and even the soil type. It takes an expert to figure out the nuances but the method does give a decent estimate of the tiger population though it can never be dead accurate. The margin of error through this methodology is very high but since it is an inexpensive method and the guards are trained in it for a long time, this is the method the forest department prefers.

Aditya suggests that the best way to conduct such a census is by setting up infrared trip cameras at different PIPs. But this is very expensive and time consuming and is hence not preferred. A more reliable and cost-effective system is the Line Transact Method. You take a contour map of the different geographical regions in the park. Ranthambore has seven, six if you don’t include the out of bounds wetland area. You draw an imaginary straight line across the geographical regions, take a team of two people and note down what all you see in a fortnight. You do the same with another team, take an average and you have a decent approximate figure.  

FACT FILE

Getting there:

By Road: Delhi – Jaipur – Tonk – Sawai Madhopur (440 km/8 hours)

By rail: Kota Jan Shatabdi Express from Nizamuddin to Kota. Dep 1:10pm arriving at Sawai Madhopur at 6:15pm. Overnight journey in Dehradun Mail from New Delhi Station. Departure at 10pm arriving at Sawai Madhopur at 5am

Where to Stay:

Ranthambhore Bagh

Located on the main sanctuary road, Ranthambhore Bagh is a homely resort run by Aditya Singh, who much to the consternation of his wife Poonam spends more time inside the jungle than at the resort. The Bagh comes equipped with 12 Swiss Cottage tents, 12 double rooms, a well-stocked library, a boutique, cycles and is a haunt for wildlife enthusiasts, professional photographers and birdwatchers. The garden itself acts as a sanctuary with close sightings of Golden Orioles, Rufous Tree Pies, Green Bee-eaters, Yellow-footed Green Pigeons and Red Wattled Lapwings. Legend has it, 6 years ago a tigress had stayed on the terrace of the Bagh for 3 full days. Even today, leopards are known to snatch fowls and dogs from the fringes of the resort in the dead of the night.

Food & Acco: Double rooms for Rs.2400 and Swiss Cottage Tents for Rs.3050 (for two persons per night on twin sharing basis with all meals, taxes as applicable). Food is a delicious blend of Rajasthani, Indian and Continental fare.

For bookings: Call Ranthambhore Bagh at 07462-221728 or its Delhi office at 26914417/2681792. E-mail: tiger@ranthambhore.com Website: www.ranthambhore.com 

Safaris: There are 14 routes presently, essentially 7 that are done on a forward and reverse basis with a limited number of jeeps allotted a fixed route so it’s advisable to book in advance, which can be done 65 days in advance.

When to go:

The park is open from October to June, shutting down in the monsoon season between July and September. The peak season is till May, after which it gets very hot. The winter season offers good light to photograph the tigers though in summer, the water sources begin to dry up and the undergrowth is scanty making tiger sightings far more convenient. 

Around Ranthambore:

Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary

The terrain is flat and rocky with gently sloping hills. The Devpura irrigation dam within the sanctuary is a useful source of water for wildlife and a good habitat for aquatic flora and fauna.

Keladevi Sanctuary 

The northern extension of Ranthambhore, Keladevi has the curious feature of two separate ridges running parallel to each other with dense forests in between. Some gorges with high moisture retention and cooler temperatures, known as ‘kiwil’ act as nature’s treasure houses. The sanctuary is bound to the west by the Banas river which finally flows into the Chambal to the south, making it a varied landscape.

Mansarovar and Surwal 

Mansarovar is a large deep-bottomed lake 24km from Ranthambore Bagh known for its picturesque sunsets while Surwal is a shallow lake. Both these water bodies are excellent for winter migratories like Demoiselle Cranes, Pelicans, Flamingoes, Bar-headed and Greylag Geese.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Keoladeo Ghana: Why Bharatpur will never give up

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Statistics reveal that from the time of creation, nearly 99.96% of all animal species has been wiped out from the face of the earth. After years of environmental disasters, meteorite strikes, the ice age and human intervention, what we see now constitutes a mere 0.04% of the original count. Take a moment to reflect on that and imagine what this planet has lost…

One single human invention that altered the scale of killings was the firearm. India, a country that once boasted of 40,000 tigers in 1940 is now a land of around 4000. That’s after Project Tiger. Thanks to the maharajas and the British, the cheetah has been shot out of extinction and the King of the Jungle, the Asiatic lion, ekes out a living in a few patches in the wild. While it is the big cats who have hounded most of the spotlight, the fate of the feathered creatures has been largely ignored. In the bloody history of Indian wildlife, one place that really stands out is Bharatpur.

Bharatpur became a bird sanctuary almost by accident. A natural depression of 29 sq km frequently flooded by the Yamuna, it became a rich habitat for diverse bird life. The Maharajas of Bharatpur recognized the potential of this marshy area, added a few dykes and promptly appointed it as a royal duck-shooting reserve. They would often throw it open to whet the bloodlust of visiting dignitaries. The first official duck shoot was inaugurated on December 1, 1902 by Viceroy Lord Curzon and his Commander-in-Chief, Lord Kitchner. The party shot 540 birds.

The bloodiest expedition, credited to the then Viceroy and Governor General of India, is also the world record in duck shooting. In one single afternoon in 1938, Lord Linlithgow and his hunting party slaughtered as many as 4273 birds. A memorial inside the park lists out the heinous exploits of Bharatpur’s many distinguished guests. Though it was declared a bird sanctuary in 1956, shooting continued till 1965 and the Maharaja himself reluctantly gave up his shooting rights in 1972. But much before all this, Bharatpur’s history had already been written in blood.

Locals believe it’s something in the air. Perhaps a coalescence of Jat brashness baked in the feudal and bloody atmosphere of Rajasthan. According to a legend, the moment Shravan Kumar entered the town’s boundaries; his pious and mild manner was transformed into that of frustration. He cursed his fate for having to carry his burdensome parents and abandoned them, only to return later in a fit of remorse. However, the pendulum of karmic fate had already swung.

King Dashrath who was on a hunt, mistook Shravan filling a water vessel to be a deer slaking its thirst and let loose a shabd-bhedi vaan (sound-directed arrow). Shravan died and his father cursed Dashrath of eternal separation from his son, thus setting the course of the Ramayana. You can still find a Shravan Taal (lake) inside Bharatpur where this incident occurred. Locals love to narrate this story with devilish glee, taking sadistic pride in the region’s harsh brutality that tests the will and character of the noblest of beings.

Interestingly, the 2000-year-old epic Ramayana also has the earliest historical reference to the Sarus Crane. Sage Valmiki, its author, was deeply angered by the sight of a Sarus fatally wounded by a hunter’s arrow. On hearing the cries of its distressed mate, he cursed the hunter in impeccable verse, thus beginning the epic tale of love and separation. More than anything else, it portrays a deep understanding of birds in ancient India, for today we know that most crane species pair for life. The gracious Sarus cranes, the tallest birds of flight in the world, are considered sacred in India and enjoy rare diplomatic immunity not just in Bharatpur but also across the entire Indian countryside.

One would imagine that after all these years of degradation, Bharatpur would be an avian graveyard. Call it the resilient nature of Bharatpur, but the place is not just heralded as one of the finest bird reserves in the world, UNESCO has even acknowledged it as a World Heritage Site. Some 425 species of birds have been recorded in and around the 29 sq km park, making it an amazingly dense and diverse bird habitat. Bharatpur is considered the finest Heronry in the world as well as an unrivalled breeding site for the Painted Stork, Purple Heron, White Ibis and the Eurasian Spoonbill.

The park is also the last known wintering ground in India for the central population of the Siberian Crane, the most exotic of all crane species. If you discount the birdwatchers that flock from different parts of the world, the Siberian happens to be the park’s most far-flung visitor. It undertakes a mind-boggling marathon of 6400 km from the Arctic, its only other wintering ground in the world being Feredunkenar in Iran. The visitor list reads like a UN delegation, with exotic dignitaries flying in from Afghanistan, Central Asia and Tibet. The Grey-lag Geese come from Siberia while the Bar-headed Geese from China. Bharatpur is the much favoured winter destination of the Bar-headed Geese, an unassuming bird that holds the record of being the highest-flying bird in the world. A flock was found flapping at 9375m in Nepal, a good 500m above Mount Everest!

Open throughout the year, the park is at its full glory when the migrant birds visit between October and February. Though numbers have been dwindling because of successive years of drought, something keeps them coming. Locals believe it’s the blessing of Keoladeo, or ‘The Only God’. Said to be a form of Pashupati Shiva, the Lord of the Animals, Keoladeo is the patron deity of the region. The ancient Shiva temple in the center of the park lends its name to the sanctuary, which was renamed as Keoladeo Ghana National Park in 1981 (Ghana meaning dense). It is one of the few parks in India with unlimited access and it remains open from sunrise to sunset. While some tend to take a luxurious 5km walk from the main gate to the center of the park, others take a rickshaw. Most of the rickshaw pullers double up as guides and are so adept that they’ll tell you where to find what. But if you want to know what stage 2 in the life cycle of a sarus is called, you must meet Lakshmi.

A veteran birdwatcher of Bharatpur, Lakshmi’s usually perches at Birder’s Inn, a joint run by Tirath Singh, himself an avian enthusiast. Birder’s Inn is just 5 minutes from the park gate and acts as a watering hole for serious ornithologists. Excellent accommodation facilities, a wide array of local and Western cuisine, knowledgeable guides, a birder’s library and a garden that acts like a sanctuary to passing birds. As if on cue, a Common Tree Pie perches on a nearby tree and all the other birds scoot as if they have seen a ghost. The Tree Pie is an unusually aggressive bird and a peculiar habit has earned it the nickname ‘Tiger’s Toothpick’. The bird is so fearless that it forages between the teeth of tigers to dig out pieces of meat. Obstinacy, as you see, is the recurrent theme in Bharatpur.

It’s ironical that the place was named as Bharatpur after Bharat, the compassionate, all-loving brother of Lord Rama. But it comes as no surprise that it was the hotheaded Laxman who was worshipped as the family deity of Bharatpur. Rustam, a Jat of the Sogariya clan, laid the foundation of the modern city and after him, control passed to his son Khemkaran and then to Maharaja Suraj Mal. In 1733, the legendary Jat ruler fortified the city, built the fort and transformed Bharatpur into the only Jat dominated pocket in Rajasthan. It defied the British, the Mughals, the Rajputs and any military force that dared to challenge it.

The Lohagadh Fort, whose walls were reinforced with iron, is a sullen reminder of Bharatpur’s resilience. Dull-white, squalid and as chunky as an unwieldy block of cement, the fort successively repelled four British onslaughts. The Jats erected the two towers Jawahar Burj and Fateh Burj to commemorate the victory over the Mughals and the British. It wasn’t until 1804 that Lord Lake managed to capture it for a brief period. But like a wild mustang, Bharatpur shook the saddle of foreign power off its back and proved yet again that it would be tamed by none.

Many years have since passed. The deep moat that once surrounded the fort is now a dirty culvert. The Bharatpur Lake inside the sanctuary is a barren wasteland. Boating, once the preferred means of watching the park’s aquatic birds, is now a distant dream. The Siberian cranes that once visited Bharatpur in flocks can now be counted on fingers, while some of the best birders have been lost to alcohol. Four successive years of drought in Rajasthan have wrenched Bharatpur’s soul from its scarred earth, slowly draining away the last vestiges of life.

I’d like to imagine all it needs to revive itself is a good bout of rain. Perhaps the Siberians will remember their ancient flight path and return again. Maybe the boatmen will pick up their oars once more. It might sound like an idle fancy or a romantic idea, but such optimism stems from nothing but Bharatpur’s Terminatoresque grit. Something tells me that long after empires have crumbled, cities have perished and species have become extinct, some tough microchip embedded in the mental map of Bharatpur will still keep it ticking.

FACT SHEET:

Getting there: Bharatpur’s strategic location at the center of the golden triangle of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra make it a popular stopover. It also easily accessible from Fatehpur Sikri and Mathura.

By Road: Bharatpur is 182 km from Delhi. Take NH-2 via Faridabad-Palwal-Hodal-Kosi and go straight from Mathura Road junction onto the flyover. The right turn for Bharatpur is on the flyover but you can’t turn right because of the divider. Take a u-turn after the flyover and turn left on State Highway 33 towards Bharatpur. In spite of being only 32 km away, the appalling condition of the road makes the journey both painfully slow as well as painful. Watch out for potholes, especially at night though it’s not advisable to travel after sundown.

By Rail: Regular trains connect Bharatpur with several cities on the Delhi-Mumbai track and it also lies on the frequently traveled Agra-Jaipur route.

By Air: Agra, 56 km away, is the nearest airport though Delhi is better connected

WHERE TO STAY

Birder’s Inn: Bird Sanctuary Road, Bharatpur 321001 Ph: 05644-27346

Run by avid birder Tirath Singh, Birder’s Inn is the hub of all bird-watching activity in Bharatpur. 12 air-conditioned double rooms overlook a garden that acts like a sanctuary to passing birds. Located just 5 minutes from the park gate, Birder’s Inn has a small library dedicated to ornithology and a curio shop, which among other things sells beautiful hand-painted bird sketches.

Bharatpur Forest Lodge: Inside Bharatpur Sanctuary Ph: 05644-22760-22722 Fax: 05644-22864

Part of the Ashok Group of Hotels, the ITDC-run Bharatpur Forest Lodge is an abominably expensive choice of accommodation. Not even its prime location inside the sanctuary can redeem it. It’s generally a haunt for super-rich foreigners who have either got off or plan to get on the Palace-on-Wheels. The Lodge has 18 double rooms, of which 10 are Air-Conditioned. Rs.2500 for a single and Rs.2800 for a double. And that excludes the food, which is a choice of Indian and Continental.

Best time to visit

There are two broad seasons to visit the park; the first is the monsoon, which is the breeding season for many of Bharatpur’s resident and local migratory birds. The other, more popular season is winter, when long distance migrants travel thousands of kilometers from Eastern Europe, Siberia and central Asia. And that’s just the birds.

AROUND BHARATPUR

Deeg (34 km)

North of Bharatpur is the beautiful garden town of Deeg that served as the summer retreat of the princes of Bharatpur. It reeks of the indulgence and eccentricity of Bharatpur’s rulers, who quite like the Decorator Crab or the Magpie Robin, would haul any object that caught their fancy to adorn the pleasure palaces of Deeg. Neither size nor distance was a constraint. Gopal Bhavan, easily the most impressive structure has an exquisite swing that once belonged to Noor Jahan. Maharaja Suraj Mal dragged it from the Mughal court in Delhi as a war trophy. In one of the rooms on the upper floor is a solid slab of black marble. It was actually a gravestone from a mausoleum, which one Maharaja mistook to be a royal bed and used it thus. In an operation of CKD assembly that would put Toyota to shame, entire pools and marble fountains were dismantled from Macchhi Bhawan in Agra Fort and re-assembled at Deeg. The Deeg fort has a watchtower that still has a gun captured from the Agra fort and another cannon captured from Ahmad Shah Abdali. The list goes on and it’s best to let a local guide extol the prowess of Bharatpur’s maharajas and the beauty of their leisure resort.

Peharsar (30 km)

Situated 30 km from Bharatpur on the Agra-Jaipur highway, Peharsar used to be a small village called Lohagarh until a freak battle changed all that. Legend has it that Sultan Mahmud captured it in just three hours (Pehar means a three-hour period and sar means victory, hence the name). Pehersar is littered with specimens of Mughal architecture but one magnificent building that has stood the test of time is Chandra Mahal Haveli. The mansion, built in the 1850s by rich Muslim nobles, today serves as a heritage hotel. The management organizes cultural shows, jeep safaris, rural visits to watch carpet weavers at work and excursions to Deeg, Hathorigarh, Weir Fort, etc. Peharsar’s strategic location also makes it an excellent stopover on the way to Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary, Fatehpur Sikri (40 km) and Agra (75 km).

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in May, 2003 in Deccan Herald (Sunday).