Tiger Solstice

The popularity of Bengal Tiger in Central Indian landscape has reached at pinnacles so as the human-tiger conflict. Now, like the apparent standing still of the Sun at its Solstice there is an uncomfortable pause between these two dimension of man – tiger relationship.

T124 aka Riddhi

Ranthambore Tiger Reserve was India’s most earning wildlife park in the financial year 2016-17. According to the forest department statistics, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve has been ranked first in achieving revenue of Rs 23.06 Crore (USD 3.1 million). Member of Rajasthan State Wildlife Board and wildlife enthusiast Valmik Thapar said in one news report of Times of India’s online edition, “Ranthambore is a shining example of what wildlife tourism can do to a small district like Sawai Madhopur. The district earns over 350 crores (USD 47 million) each year from wildlife tourism with direct impact on local economy, on tens of thousands of people right down to the vegetable seller. There are 2,000 hotel rooms and 1,200 tourist vehicles in the district. The reserve’s revenue is estimated to touch Rs 30 crores (USD 4 million) in 2017-2018.”

However, in this apparent commercial success of the “unofficialiiy undisputed king of all tiger reserves in the country”, somewhere the conservation took back seat.

In my five day exploration in this tiger reseve in the month of November 2021, I witnessed both side of this so-called success story.

On 18th November by 2 PM we reached at hotel Ranthambore Regency located couple of kilometres away from the Jogimahal gate of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. We reached there one day before our three full day safaris had started, which was organized by Toehold Travel and Photography, under the mentorship of Harsha Narasimhamurthy. Since we had one afternoon to spend before the actual photohraphy bootcamp starts, therefore me along with other two participants (Rajesh and Ananda) decided to go for a regular safari in tourism zone 4 of the reserve.

When we started from Jaipur for Sawai Madhopur, it was already overcast. By the time we enterd the park it started drizzling and at the end of safari at around 5:30 PM, heavy downpour lashed the forest of Ranthambore. That was a bit unusual climate considering that particular season in Ranthambore. There was weather forecast for overcast sky to intermittent heavy shower for next two days.

Huge sambar stag at Ranthambore

In that dimly lit rain washed forest we saw few nilgai, spotted deer, Northern plain langur and few huge sambars. The sambar stags in this forest are really enormous, much larger than the sambar I saw till date in other parts of Indian forest. Among birds there were plenty of rufus treepie, Indian pea fowl, and babbler. We saw four scops owl were sitting together sticking to each other on a tree branch under canopy cover to protect themselves from rain drops. Few black headed ibis and pond herons were found quite active near a lake while large rain drops were creating ripples on the water. A crested serpant eagle was perched on a low branch creating eye level shooting opportunity from the safari gypsy. But the light was not just adequate for photography. The safari ended with some rumour of tiger sighting near a narrow ditch; therefore we went there and waited for half an hour. After that at 5 PM we decided to leave the park, as we were uncomfortably drenched and even under rain cover we were struggling to protect our cameras.

When we came back to hotel we were bit anxious about the success of this bootcamp considering the weather forecast for next two days.

Ruins of Rajput fort, lake and biodiversity symbolize Ranthambore

Although there was forecast for heavy rainfall, but the next day morning was pleasant with overcast sky. The avian activities were more as we saw few wooly necked storks, yellow footed green pegion and grey francolin perching on branches or pecking on grounds in different parts of forest. The tiger searching was anyway the main agenda; therefore nobody had time to stop for other species. Our guide Sunil told us that Forest Department should take T124 aka Riddhi, the celebrity tigress of Ranthambore, out of tourism zone 2, 3 and 4. In his view that would encourage the other female tiger Arrowhead to come back with her cubs and provide more photo opportunity to tourists. In turn that would attract more tourists to the park. As if there was dearth of tourists in Ranthambore.

Who is Riddhi and why she is so famous in Ranthambore?

In Ranthambore, almost every tiger has a special reputation and legend that precedes their lineages. To know about Riddhi, we need to know about another legendery tigress, known as “Lady of the Lake”. She was named as Machli (T16). She will always be remembered as perhaps the most famous tigress in Ranthambore, who loved to pose for the tourists and photographers. Her soaring popularity among tourists and wildlife enthusiasts saw her featured in a movie, “The World’s Most Famous Tiger”, which even won a National Award. She even found a mention in the book, “Three Ways to Disappear”, by Katy Yocom. Unfortunately, tigress Machli, the most photographed tigress in the world, died on 18th August 2016. Sundari (T17), the daughter of Machli, was another famous tigress of Ranthambore National Park. However, she passed away in October 2011. Sundari’s sibling Krishna’s daughter, T73 aka Arrowhead, gave birth to three cubs in 2019. Born in 2012, she was known for her shy nature and was mostly spotted in an area of the park known as Kachida Valley.

T124 aka Riddhi, the great granddaughter of Machli, is the recent talk of the forest for her fearless and adventurous spirit. She is one of those three cubs of Arrowhead. Apparently based on Sunil’s comment on relocation of Riddhi from zone 2, 3 and 4 basically indicated the territorial dominance of Riddhi over her mother Arrowhead.

Possessing an adventurous spirit since childhood, tigress Riddhi had the sheer audacity to clash with her mother tigress Arrowhead over territory. She is no less than her great grandmother Machli in boldness. Tigress Arrowhead gave birth to two tiger cubs named Riddhi and Siddhi. They remained with their mother for some time but this mother -daughter happy family scene was short-lived. Both of them possess immense courage but Riddhi’s power and her adventurous spirit is one of a kind. She made her territory in her mother’s territory. She wanders like a queen and can toss tourists with her bold looks at Padam Lake, Raj-Bag, Malik Lake and Mandoob area from zone 3 and 4.  This territory is the heart of Ranthambore where Machli ruled for years followed by her daughter Sundari and then her daughter Krishna. Krishna’s daughter Arrowhead continued the legacy of dominance until she was dethorned by her daughter Riddhi.

Surrounded by mesmerizing waterfalls and ponds, this area is the best tiger habitat area where now Riddhi, the daughter of Arrowhead rules the hearts of tourists and wildlife enthusiasts.

These were the stories of Ranthambore tigress I heard from local guides, gypsy drivers and some of the particpants of our bootcamp who were veteran tourists of this tiger reserve and visiting this park for a decade. The stories were spread from mouth to mouth and some of them were captured in wildlife bloggers’ sites. These stories undoubtedly establish the love of tourists for the tigers, but this is also a biased love for those who were “bold” enough to come close to tourist vehicles and “pose” for photographs. The wildlife photographers are of course the key contributors in spreading this “love” for few selected tigers and tigress of this park. The people who make their living out of this park – gypsy drivers, nature guides, hoteliers, Forest Department staffs, tour operators and even wildlife photography mentors – they all want every tiger-lover thronging to Ranthambore National Park leaves this park with a happy tiger story to take home.

Therefore, the entertainment package of tiger-tourism in this park not just includes sighting of the majestic beasts it also comes with “Game of Thrones” style tiger story.

These stories of Bengal Tigers undoubtedly brought them at par with the human emperors whose glorious stories we read in History books. As a result that had provided the delight of imagining them in human incarnation. But at the same time, this entertainment package somehow disparaged the almighty and apex predator image of Bengal Tigers created by Sy Montgomery and Jim Corbett respectively, in their stories.

On that day of 19th November we had our customery sighting of T124, in India’s richest tiger reserve, at around 9:00 AM near Padam talab or Padam Lake. Apparently she was moving from zone 4 to zone 3 to do fresh scent marking so that male tigers can find her for mating. Due to rain in previous day all her scent marking got washed away. So, she needs to do this task once again, and if there is no rain in next few days, then chances of seeing her in movement would be more. Because, she had lot to cover within her territory with her scent marking.

We were doing full day safari in Ranthambore on 19th, 20th and 21st November 2021. Typically our day in park used to start at 6:30 AM and end at 5:30 PM. In between we used to take couple of hours break – one for breakfast at around 10:00 AM and then for lunch at around 1:00 PM. This amount of time spending in forest like Ranthambore creates immense opportunity of tiger sighting. The afternoon of 19th November was even gloomier than morning and there was also intermittent drizzling. In the remaining hours of our days’ safari we saw a busy ruddy mongoose running here and there. The notable bird sepecies were a pair of alexandrine parakeet, few flame back woodpeckers, common hoopoe, greater thick-knee, open billed storks and lot of greater cormorant perching on trees popping out of water bodies and on different branches of tall canopy.

Mixed deciduous forest of Ranthambore resembles Kanha

The vegetation of the forest of Ranthambore is bit different from that of Sariska. In Sariska I saw more arid dry deciduous type of vegetation. But here in Ranthambore it was more like mix of moist and dry deciduous forest with open grassy meadow which reminded me of Kanha. The park has an area of 1,334 km2. It is bounded to the north by the Banas River and to the south by the Chambal River. It is named after the historic Ranthambore Fort, which lies within the park.

As per weather forecast the 20th morning was supposed to be cloud covered with some sun light. But the day started with heavy downpour. The raining was so heavy that our rain coats failed to protect us. The plastic sheets we palced on gypsy seats to keep them dry, started collecting rainwater and that made our pants and undergarments completely wet. It became very difficult to sit and roam around in forest in such condition. Although in that rainwashed day we were lucky again to see T124 near Raj-Bag. We saw her chasing a wild boar. The other local guide of our bootcamp team, Hansraj assumed that she might have finished eating a kill, as there were crows waiting on tree branches to finish the remaining of that kill.

The rumour of her translocation to Sariska was very strong in those days. Most of the safari guides, drivers and even photographers were talking about it and expressing their concerns about that. Absence of T124 in the forest of Ranthambore would mean impact on tiger sighting and photo opportunity for everybody. Its not that we don’t get to see other tigers or tigress in that park. But most of them are shy and dislike human presence.

As per the blog called Ranthamborenationalpark.com, the fierce tigress Riddhi is said to have killed a tiger cub T102 in the Tamba Khan area of Ranthambore National Park as some forest officials have seen her chasing down T102. Due to these incidents and the conflict of Riddhi and Siddhi over the territory, the tigress Riddhi will be shifted to Sariska Tiger Reserve. The cat population is rising at Ranthambore Tiger Reserve due to which there is a lack of space and a fear of territorial fights. To reduce this pressure Riddhi will be moved out of Ranthambore for her new journey.

Although many believe that Hotel and Resort lobby of Sariska is influencing Government to take such decision in order to add a tourism attraction in their park. In the early summer of 2021, when I was in Sariska, I heard safari guides complaining about not having enough wildlife photographers in their park and not generating enough income in absence of them.

Therefore what was a delight for Sariska could be dismay for Ranthambore. But, it was not that every guides of Ranthambore were disappointed with this possible translocation. Sunil thought, relocation of T124 will create opportunity for her mother T17 aka Arrowhead to regain her territory. If that happens then tourists will get to see a female tigress with cubs, as there was also rumour that T17 has again given birth of few cubs.

The heavy rain in Ranthambore forced us to retire and get back into hotel for changing clothes and drying our body part. We decided to resume again after lunch at aroud 1:30 PM. There was news received by Harsha through his trusted sources that on that day morning T12 aka Maya (The Tadoba equivalent of T124 in terms of celebrity status) killed a lady forest guard named Swati Dhumane. Dhumane was on foot with three labourers for the All India Tiger Estimation (AITE) 2022 exercise when the incident took place. They were doing transect survey in a patch of forest near waterhole number 97. T12 was resting in a bush and didn’t notice their movement. Therefore she was surprised and attacked in her defence. As per the news report it was first-of-its-kind incident, but Harsha told us that was her 5th human attack in recent past.

Based on the news report of 21st November 2021 in online edition of Times of India, Tadoba field director Jitendera Ramgaonkar has suspended the enumeration exercise as well as the movement of tourists in gypsys in that area. According to Ramgaonkar, Dhumane and team had started walking around 7 AM. After 4 km, they noticed Maya sitting on the road about 200 metres ahead of them. The team waited for around 30 minutes and when the tigress didn’t budge they decided to take a detour through the forest. The tigress then attacked Dhumane and dragged her into the forest. Maya’s sudden aggressive behaviour has surprised those who have followed her life. Incidentally T12 aka Maya is my first sighted Bengal Tiger in wild.

There was question rose by many that why the forest department staffs was unarmed while walking in tiger zone? Maybe over humanization of tigers and tigress of Indian forests making us to believe that they can be treated like pets of human households.

But the reality is they are the apex predators of subcontinental forests.

Rain finally disappeared by the afternoon of 20th November from the sky of Ranthambore and diffused Sun light was caressing the lush green forest. The water puddles started drying up and there was news from zone 1, that a sambar was killed by a tigress. At around 2:30 PM, we reached there with a hope that the tigress would come back to her kill as it would not be possible for her to drag the kill further up. The tigress apparently had cubs, so if we were lucky we could see her with cubs devouring on sambar meat.

The foul smell of dead and rotten carcass struck our nostrils. I saw few tourists covered their nose and mouth with handkarchief. But there was no sign of tigress. From the beginning of our boot camp our team was divided into two groups for two gypsies. One such goup was led by local guide Hansraj, and on that day I was part of his group. Hansraj didn’t want to waste time there and thought about going further to search for the tigress. After 50 meters we found fresh pugmarks of female tiger, therefore we kept following the track. But after a kilometre or so the track got disappeared into dense undergrowth and we decided to turn back. When we were half way through to the point where the carcas was lying, we met Harsha’s gypsy. They were coming for us to inform that out of nowhere a male tiger (T101) was appeard there and dragged the kill further up inside dense foliage. T101 is known for his dislikes towards safari gypsies.

The photographers in that gypsy got decent shots of T101. But we were not there at right time. We came back hurridly to get a glipmse of his face from far through greyish green bushes of Ranthambore. But there was no photo opportunity.

This is how tiger sighting happens in wild; you need to be at right place at right time. That was not the first such instance in my exploration experience. Wildlife enthusiasts understand that, but typical tourists do not and that gives lot of stress to the gypsy drivers and guides. In turn that gives lot of stress to tigers as well.

We left that zone and headed towards zone 3, the territory of T124. On the way we got some nice shots of scops owl and brown fish owl. Then when we reached at Raj-Bag, she was already on move.

There were huge eruption of noise in joy and excitement by the hundreds of tourists gathered on the bank of Raj-bag. There were around 10 canters and probably 20 gypsies. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in early winter of Ranthambore. People with their kids and family were enjoying “the great Indian tiger-show” in the richest tiger reserve of the subcontinent. T124 was slowly walking along the bank; a marsh crocodile was busking and once that spotted her movement jumped into water for its dear life, with huge splash of water. That soared the decibel further high. Her great grandmother was famous for crocodile killing. It was a cricket stadium atmosphere and Riddhi was scoring boundaries and overbounderies with her every move to entertain the crowd.

T124 snarls at safari vehicle

She started getting closer to us. Expert guide Hansraj with help of driver Mahender parked the gypsy in such a way that we got best possible angle and light to shoot her. She came to a position where she got surrounded by tourist vehicles. That situation particularly annoyed her and she snarled at one near by gypsy, with full display of her magnificent fang.

Crowd roard further, as if she hooked another sixer. Photographers were delighted as they got their “lifer” image of angry tigress’s expression. Wildlife enthusiasts and typical tourists were winning there.

Only Riddhi was losing as her stress was getting overlooked by everybody. But by now she knows how to live with human pests in her kingdom. She is the great granddaughter of Machli afterall. She found her way between tourist vehicles and took a narrow forest path. It was not possible for the big 20 seater safari canters to enter in such narrow path. Gypsies carrying typical tourists also stopped following her, as the passengers lost their interest and considered it as end of show.

But photopgarpers are different breed. Their greed for best images never ends. On top of that they are alwasys accompanied by the best and wisest guides and drivers of the park (against exorbiently high extra payment). Therefore, two gypsies of Toehold anticipated from where she could appear again and positioned them accordingly. Within half an hour T124 was just head on with us and kept coming towards us. Although as photographers we were delighted with this sudden head on appearance. But honestly speaking I got mild chill through my spine. This sudden appearance reminded me of my Sundarban experience in the winter of 2019. The recent news report of Maya’s human killing in Tadoba also flashed for a fraction of second in my mind. But, then again the photographer’s instinct became dominant and I got indulged in capturing some best “head-on” shots of Bengal Tigers of Indian subcontinent.

After walking straight to us for sometime, she got distracted by a herd of spotted deer and took a detour to enter further inside of the dense foliage.

T124 finding her way through safari vehicles

I read an article written by Neha Jain on 28th October 2019 edition of online journal Mongabay. In that article Neha Jain has said, “Ever wondered how tigers feel in response to hordes of vehicles ferrying tourists eager for the thrill of a perfect close-up encounter? Now, a study examining stress hormones in tiger scat collected from two popular central Indian tiger reserves has revealed that these iconic carnivores suffer from high levels of physiological stress due to wildlife tourism and a large number of vehicles entering the parks. Prolonged stress can adversely affect both survival and reproduction.”

As per that article, senior author Govindhaswamy Umapathy who is a principal scientist and project leader at the Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) at CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad. “If it continues it will have a definite impact on the population in the long-term.”

Neha mentioned in her article, “Interestingly, a previous study by the authors, published in 2015, showed that tigers introduced in Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan failed to reproduce, probably due to stress elicited by human disturbances.”

A matter of concern for Riddhi, as very soon she could be on her way to Sariska to be greeted by the cheers of her crazy fans waiting there. In fact during the day’s safari Hansraj told us that probably for the last time we were seeing her in Ranthambore. The translocation team were already in move and hadn’t been raining in last few days she would have been tranquilized by now for relocating to Sariska.

The next day in Ranthambore it was all about following T124. Her first sighting was at 6:45 AM before we even enterd into main safari zone. She was spotted on the road, came down from an uphill hillock crossed the cemented road in front of our gypsy and then descended further down to disappear in dense forest.

Then again we saw her roaming from zone 4 to 3 and scent marking on trees and bushes. Now as wildlife photographer at that point I was joyous and gratified to witness Harsha’s mentoring skill and ability to anticipate appropriate position for the subject.

Scent marking

When T124 was walking and marking her area, he consulted his guide Sunil and guessed where she would come. He took a chance and made us leave her half a kilometre behind. We all reached and waited at a place where she would be supposedly arriving. We reached at that anticipated place of her arrival before she did and that gave us some time margin to check for the light that would fall on her. That additional time also gave us to imagine a “low key frame” and posiotioned the gypsy to create right angle, even before other gypsies arrived. By doing that we got the best possible position for shooting her in best possible light. As aniticipated she arrived at that place, and all we had to do was to press shutters as we were ready with the exposure compensation dialled to negative.

That was how we could capture an important behaviour of tiger which is key for their survival as far as natural history in concern. That behaviour was scent marking. Tigers inform each other of their whereabouts through complex scent markings that contain pheromones. Scientific studies say that marking is most intensive when tigers were establishing territories, and animals on adjacent territories appeared to mark in response to each other. Females marks intensively just prior to oestrus; this behaviour gets reduced during oestrus. Males marked more frequently when females were in oestrus than during other stages of the females’ cycle.

In last few days we saw intensive marking by T124 in her territory which could be indicative of her pre oestrus status. The local guides of Ranthmabore told us that T124 was once seen mating with a male tiger T120, but she might not have conceived. According to them the only way to suspend her relocation could be her pregnancy. They were all keeping their fingers crossed.

Later in the morning we went to tourism zone 6 to search for another female tiger who was apparently nursing her cubs there. But, besides lot of chinkaras and sambar there were not much to talk about. That was our first chinkara sighting in Ranthmabore.

Afternoon our guides received news of another fully grown male tiger T120 sleeping in zone 2. We went there and found him sleeping under the cool shade of trees and shrubs. As full day safari tourists we had privilege to enter the park 15 minutes before the regular tourism hour starts. Once it started, horde of tourists arrived there in canters and gypsies in that narrow forest path to see T120. They completely choked and blocked the path and created enough clattering to wake the animal up.

He woke up and directly looked at us, which gave us fabulous opportunity to shoot tiger portrait. T120 is undoubtedly a beautiful male tiger. Probably he had intention to move as he was yawning and licking his paws. But the presence of so many tourists made him reluactant to do so. Precisely it was nearly impossible for him to escape through the clutter of canters and gypsies. Therefore he kept lying there till the last hour of safari time. At last at around 5:15 PM he came out through a different route full of throny bushes from the otherside of where he was lying. Cats generally prefer to walk through plain forest path because of the padding they have on their paws. But the assemblance of visitors forced him to walk on thorny forest path. Anticpating his movement towards the thorny path of forest, the smart gypsy drivers also moved their vehicles towards that direction. Therefore, when he came out on clear path, again he had to be amidst chattering crowds. All the tigers of Ranthambore by instinct probably learnt how to dribble through safari vehicles. T120 also did so and went on to disappear to distant dense forest of zone 2. Our guides assumed that probably he was in a mission to find T124 and heading towards zone 3.

T120 passing by a herd of spotted deer

When we were exiting the forest for the day, we heard far away bellowing of spotted deers’ alarm call. We saw through the haze formed by last light of the day, that T120 passed by a herd of spotted deer, without even paying much attention to them. While the panic-stricken deer were looking at his disintegration in the foliage of Central Indian tiger landscape.

Our bootcamp ended, and the evening was all about celebration of “successful tiger photography tourism” around the camp fire lit by our hotel staff. We were discussing about how close tigers can come to the visitors in this park, thus creating great photo opportunity. The discussion brought back the memories of an article I read, written by Priya Ranganathan in 2019. The aricle was pubished in online journal The News Minute, where Priya said, “No longer is wildlife tourism simply a chance to observe animals in their natural state. A recent report from Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve reveals the dark side of tiger tourism in India, where a tour guide pelted stones at a sleeping tiger in Ranthambhore’s Safari Zone 6 so that his guest could get the “perfect action shot”. In that article Priya also highlighted the fact “Tigers are treated as a commodity on safaris, where guests tip drivers depending on the number of successful sightings and call in favours to get seats on jeeps booked for zones with known tiger sightings or high tiger densities.”

The Great Indian Tiger Show

I don’t think mere relocation of tigers from one park to another can reduce pressure on the animals, unless there is some large scale endeavour to make the tourists “wildlife safari literate”.

Although our boot camp was ended, but we had the whole day to spend on 22nd November, as our Bangalore bound flight from Jaipur would depart at 6:30 PM. Therefore, Rajesh, Ananda and I did another additional regular safari in zone 1, in the territory of T101.

After couple of hours of scouting through the forest, we got tip from another safari gypsy on the whereabouts of T101. We had to be extremely cautious to locate him, as he is not known for being “tourist friendly”. At around 8:30 AM, fellow photographer Rajesh spotted him hidden in undergrowth with his large face visibile through grasses. We got few minutes to shoot him before he stood up and disappeard deep inside, clearly displaying his displeasue for human-sighting.

We got images of him where his face was obstructed by foliage, in photographic terms these foliage are called “clutter” as they “spoil the image”.

Jim Corbett said in his legedery novel “Man-Eaters of Kumaon”, “Those who have never seen a leopard under favourable conditions in his natural surroundings can have no conception of the grace of movement, and beauty of colouring, of this the most gracefuL and the most beautiful of all animales in our Indian jungles.”

“I am the apex predator, not a model in fashion show”- T101

The same concept is applicable for any animals in their natural habitat. I have always failed to understand why we wildlife photographers perpetually have to go for clean images, which are at times “unnatural”? Why we have to perceive the wild life as “model of fashion photography”?

An under-(rated)-story

Bengal Tiger maybe the apex predator, ardent protector and supreme destroyer of the subcontinental forest. Thus, he plays the pivotal role in carrying on the cycle of life in his kingdom which in turn has earned the status of almighty for him.

But the splendor of a monsoon night in his forest rests on some relatively ignored and misunderstood creatures living at the darkness of the downstairs of forest.

My journey in the Shadow of the Bengal Tiger was for seeking the answer to the question, “Why tiger is perceived as the god of subcontinental forest?” So far in this journey that question has generated several other questions, and the most existentially challenging question among all other questions is the question related to this so called supremacy of big mammals or big cats in ecosystems.

To find the answer to this question we need to look down, and I literally mean it.

The answer lies on the understory of the forest. The most ignored part of forest but the most significant from eco-restoration point of view. The species of forest undergrowth are seriously “misunderstood” living creatures although the undergrowth of tropical rainforest plays immense role in nourishment process of the forest, which in turns provide nourishment to every other species including “big mammals”.

Therefore, to further witness the importance of herpetofauna in the Shadow of the Bengal Tiger, my next herping expedition during monsoon was planned in a mid-elevation hill station with tea and coffee plantations, surrounded by evergreen forest of Western Ghats. It was in a private reserve forest, considered as sacred groves also locally known as “Devara Kadu” situated adjacent to the Parvathi Valley Coffee Estate of Coorg or Kodagu district of Karnataka.

Kote Betta peak in “The Scotland of India”

If Agumbe is known as “The Cherrapunji of the South”, then Coorg is “The Scotland of India”, because of the striking similarities between the two places in terms of lush forests, breathtaking views, rich biodiversity, numerous fresh water bodies and romantic climate. The concept of this “Devara Kadu” has immense impact in conservation history of this Indian highland. Felling, lopping, clearing of fallen branches, plucking of weeds, pruning or burning of trees is prohibited in “Devara Kadus”. It is believed that offenders will be punished with death by the folk deity. Granting of sacrosanct status to forests dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation. In Kodagu, kings considered a stretch of forest sacred and cared for the folk deity who in return protected his land. “Devara Kadu” of Kodagu falls under the tropical evergreen forest belt of Western Ghats. Even though Kodagu has one sacred grove for every 300 acres, the highest in the state, the groves are still depleting. The pressure of economic returns from plantations has resulted in their depletion. Yet, to some extent, the spiritual connections with these ecological havens are keeping them alive.

The scared groves which I visited between 17th and 19th Septemebr of 2021, was a 1000 acre forest situated in an area which receives a high amount of rainfall, the environment around possess a wide variety of life, especially with regards to numerous species of amphibians and reptiles, many of them being endemic to the area and found nowhere else on Earth. The area is also amazingly rich in bird life that boasts over 300 species including the beautiful Malabar trogon, orange minivet, hill myna, Asian fairy bluebird and various species of woodpeckers, flycatchers and raptors. Mammals found in the area include, leopards, barking deer and wild boar and an amazing array of nocturnal life such as mouse deer, various species of lesser cats, flying squirrel and porcupines. During my visit I got to see plenty of Malabar grey hornbills, Malabar parakeet, plum headed parakeet, yellow browed bulbul, black throated munia, golden leaf birds, white cheeked barbet, red whiskered and red vented bulbul.

But not the commonly seen avian fauna, it’s the endengenered undergrowth flora and faunal species which were the highlights of my visit. Under the mentorship of Bangalore based Anglo-Indian Wildlife photographer-Naturalist couple Phillip and Samantha Ross, I could spot seven different frog species, numerous different insects (including five different species of spiders), five different fungi, three different individuals of blue morph of Malabar pit viper and plenty of wild flowering plants, mosses and ferns.

Strobilanthes cuspidatus

During monsoon of 2021, already over crowded by tourists, Coorg or Kodagu (which means ‘dense forest on steep hills’) was reintoruduced to the world by the tourism industry for a different reason, which added even more load in this nature destination’s already exceeding carrying capacity.The reason was blooming of a flower of a tree of Acanthaceae family. The species is Strobilanthes kunthiana, locally known as Kurinji or Neelakurinji in Malayalam and Tamil. Nilgiri Hills, which literally means the blue mountains, got their name from the purplish blue flowers of Neelakurinji that blossoms only once in twelve years. However, the flowers which were blooming in Coorg on the Shola ecosystem surrounding Kote Betta peak (the second highest peak of Karnataka) were a different species under same genus, known as Strobilanthes cuspidatus. This species bloom once every seven years, and then die. Their seeds subsequently sprout and continue the cycle of life and death. The important aspect of human-nature interaction associated with this species is, the Paliyan tribal people living in Tamil Nadu used it as a reference to calculate their age.This plant flowers during September–October. During my visit to Coorg I could witness that blooming when it already reached at its fag end but till good enough to establish the capability of this shrub to bring in youthful vigor and freshness of the evergreen rainforests of Western Ghats.

Impatiens scapiflora

Another strictly endemic angiosperm of Western Ghats I found during my Coorg visit was Impatiens. The Impatiens found in Western Ghats are all endemic to this region and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. One of them is Impatiens scapiflora. As Western Ghats is also hub of tea/coffe plantations and tourism, therefore growing demand for these two activities are now the biggest threat to survival of these species. Based on a blog called happybotanist.com, all of the Impatiens species present in the Western Ghats are either endangered or critically endangered as their environment is changed by humans.

Flowering plants have many reasons to attract attention of human being, although for the survival of the species it’s more important to get attention of birds and insects that help them in pollination.  But there are another kind of ignored undergrowth species lies between plant and animal kingdom. The Fungi, they grow well under moist and warm conditions, in the presence of suitable nutrients. Most of them are saprotrophic, that is, they obtain their nutrients by growing on dead animal and plant remains, and that makes them one of the most important contributors in maintaining the vigour of the habitats for every species, including our beloved Bengal Tiger.

Mycelium Running

Fungi break down plant and animal matter and recycle important elements like carbon and nitrogen back into the natural environment. The rainforests of the Western Ghats provide ideal conditions for the occurence of a wide diversity of remarkable fungi. Among the five different types of fungi I could spot during my Coorg exploration, one was Coprinus sp. As these are saprotrophes, they decompose wood, dung, and forest litter. Their spores, when dissolved, form a black, inky substance that can be used as writing ink. Hence, their common name–ink cap fungus. Other species I found were Stereum and Foitopsis bracket fungi. Another mind blowing observation during my “macro-photography” in Parvathi Valley Coffee Estate was display of mycelium network of Schizophyllum (bracket fungi). Mycologist Paul Stamets, in his book titled Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, mentioned, “…mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind. The mycelium stays in constant molecular communication with its environment, devising diverse enzymatic and chemical responses to complex challenges.”

If the health of the forest is taken care of by the undergrowth flora then the rejuvenation of the forest by the undergrowth fauna.

The musical ensemble constituted by these undergrowth fauna, accompanied by all the onomatopoeia of rain fall, starting with pitter-patter to end with whoosh and splash, changes to mark the trasition from daylight to dusk in rainforest.

My night walk in monsoon in the forest of Madekere range of Kodagu district was also not an exception. In the presence of daylight when we were primarily busy with fungi and flowering plants, our background score was iconic sound of cicada. Then under the dim lit canopy cover, when we were busy with a blue morph of Malabar pit viper, sound of cicada was faded by pitter-patter of light rain. Gradually it became the whoosh and splash of heavy down pour, which immobilized us for good 30-45 minutes. Then again it was changed into pitter-patter, with the new orchestra acompaniments of varied range, from the tick-tick of wayand bush frogs, high-pitched whirring of bicolour bush frog, to a deep bonk of common tree frog. The darkness engulfed us and along with the variety of sounds made by numerous unseen insects, amphibians and reptiles, the rainforest came alive.

Coorg yellow bush frog

With the flash of hand-held and head torches in those few nights in Coorg, I found species of Indosylvirana (golden frog), bicolour bush frog (Malabar frog), Pseudophilautus wynaadensis (Waynaad bush frog), Raorchestes luteolus (Coorg yellow bush frog), Rhacophorus lateralis (small gliding frog), a species of Fejervarya and Raorchestes ponmudi. Out of them except golden frog and Fejervarya all others are endemic to Western Ghats.

Among all the frog species I found, ponmudi is critically endangered, Waynaad bush frog and lateralis are endangered. As far as Coorg yellow bush frogs are concerned, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has marked their conservation status is “Data Deficient”. This actually raises even more concern, because “data deficient” status is given when the absence of records about particular species may indicate dangerously low abundance.

Coorg yellow bush frogs are most commonly found in disturbed habitats, near coffee plantations adjacent to primary forests and waysides. They are often found on leaves or stems of shrubs about one metre above the ground. Male frogs start calling at dusk, first under the leaf litter and then ascending to the vegetation. A beautiful blue ring around their pale yellow elliptical eyes gives them a mesmerized look of “the frog prince” from Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales.

Ponmundi

The ponmudi is another endemic species to the Western Ghats and like others in the genus have a life-history that involves direct development, the tadpoles develop into tiny frogs within the egg. It was first described from Ponmudi hill of Kerala after which it is named but the species has a wider distribution within the southern Western Ghats and besides Coorg has also been recorded in Wynaad, Idukki, and Thiruvananthapuram districts in Kerala, and Valparai in Tamil Nadu.

Spider species of this forest are also delight for the nature lovers. The montion worthy species from unique natural history point of view are two genus of Araneidae family. These are Argiope anasuja and Parawixia dehaani. Spiders of Araneidae family are commonly known as orb web spiders. Argiope’s speciality is constructing orb webs attached to the branches of plants, and the spiders rest in nearby shaded areas. On disturbances they vibrate the web vigorously by projecting the bofy from the surface of web.

On the other hand, the nocturnal Parawixia spider constructs a vertical web with an open hub. The web looks abandoned with damaged portions and this may lead to avoidance of further searching by predators. The spider hides underneath a dry leaf during the daytime, is very well camoufleged with the suvstratum and is very difficult to be seen. When disturbed, it falls onto the ground and exibits catalepsy with legs retracted close to the body. Our Parawixia in that forest was found busy with an insect kill in her web.

The “Devara Kadu” of Kodagu is the habitat of so many of these entrancing undergrowth species. The small gliding frog is decalared as an endangered species, nevertheless in those couple of days I spotted at least 10 of them in that forest. The folklore of forest deity plays significant role in conservation, that’s how sicence and mythology holds each others’ hands. I witnessed that before in Sundarbans, where respect for Bengal Tigers was triggered by the stories of Bon Bibi.

“Devara Kadu” near Parvathi Valley Coffee Estate

Currently, there are nearly 1,214 “Devara Kadu” in Kodagu covering an area of 4,614 hectares and, 18 native communities are involved in worshiping 165 folk deities and ensuring safe heaven for undergrowth biodiversity including endengenred and critically endangered species.

Nevertheless, in the past decade, “Devara Kadu” have been reduced to less than 9,000 acres from the original 15,000 acres, according to a survey on “Devara Kadu”, as published in 17th June 2018 online edition of The New Indian Express. “There have been a lot of encroachments. The deities are not as feared as before leading to these encroachments”, as mentioned by the then DFO of Madikeri range of Kodagu, Mr. Manjunath.

Around 10:30 PM, when we were leaving the forest, Samantha spotted two pairs of fine and long antenna, protruding out from the underneath of a large leaf of Arabica coffee tree. Phillip went close and confirmed a pair of mating cicada. The key vocalist of the daytime consert in the forest of monsoon caressed Western Ghats, was engrossed in the process of bringing new life and spreading love for all the jewles of Mother Nature.

Suddenly, the soft emphatic whistle of a slender loris was added into the nocturnal orchestra of rainforest, applauding the significance of “inherent value” of all life forms on earth.  

Mating pair of Cicada underneath Arabica coffee leaf

Bhadra beckons for a re-union

Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve take its name from the Bhadra River, its lifeline. Popularly known as Muthodi Wildlife Sanctuary, after the village on its periphery, it was declared a Project Tiger reserve in 1974.

This is the other Riparian Rainforest of Western Ghats, which drew my attention for one prime reason. After Kabini, this is another tiger reserve whose flagship species is not tiger. In Kabini, the flagship species may not be Bengal Tiger, but it is at least another member of “Big Cat” family – the Black Panther or black leopard. But here in Bhadra, it’s not even a mammal. It is an avian species that is considered as flagship species of this reserve – the river terns.

It is a great place to sight and observe many other mammals, reptiles, and more than 250 species of birds, many of which are endemic to the Western Ghats. The best time to visit this 892.46 km2  area offorest, like any other tiger reserves in India, is from October to March. However, in reality the “commercial peak season” for this reserve is April to June. During summer the backwater of Bhadra River recedes, and many small islands emerges, thus provides a safe nesting grounds for thousands of river terns. At the onset of monsoon in Western Ghats, water level rises and these islands start submerging again, which makes the river terns to leave their nests only to come back again in next season.

Wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts across the world come to see one of these largest congregations of river terns in the uphill of Western Ghats. Although “typical tourist” will be more excited to see a tiger or leopard or elephant, but the “eco-tourism season” in this subcontinent gets decided by “wildlife enthusiasts”. Thus the “peak season” of Bhadra is summer which is otherwise the so called “off season”. The state-run Jungle Lodges & Resorts located on a hillock on the edge of the Bhadra reservoir, near Lakkavali, provides suitable facility for observing and shooting images of these birds’ behaviour, and upon influenced by photographers demand, named it as the River Tern Lodge.

Therefore, I also planned my visit in this forest in the month of May. First attempt was in the May of 2020, but due to outbreak of COVID19 pandemic, nationwide lock down was declared and all nonessential movements were prohibited and national parks and sanctuaries were closed. Then September 2020 onwards when the situation started becoming normal (Number of reported COVID19 infection cases started dropping down considerably), entire nation thought with the beginning of New Year, we were out of one of the world’s worst pandemic outbreak. Being carried away by similar thoughts I made my second attempt to Bhadra in the beginning of May 2021.

Nevertheless, a mere date change in calendar does not change anything; certainly, it does not change a pandemic. Therefore with the declaration of “once in a century crisis” by the Prime Minster of India, a second wave of COVID19 infection washed away all exploration plans in summer of 2021.

Apparently, by then (about 16 months since global outbreak of this pandemic), COVID-19 killed more people than natural disasters in 20 years. Based on study, no disaster has killed more than 3 million people in recent history and in such a short time period. Based on an article published in Down to Earth, on 18th April 2021, 0.94 million people died during the world’s 10 deadliest natural disasters between 2000 and 2019 according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNODRR). These included three mega disasters — the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

In spite of dealing well in 2020 with this pandemic, India emerged as the worst affected country in the world in 2021 during its second wave in the country. My plan was to do Bhadra exploration between 30th April and 2nd May of 2021, but based on statistics released in electronic media on 1st May 2021, India’s coronavirus cases hit a grim global record with 4,01,993 fresh infections in the last 24 hours. 3,523 deaths were reported. Also by then, my home state Karnataka’s COVID19 tally surpassed the 1.5 million mark with the biggest single-day spike of 48,296 cases, while 217 fatalities took the toll to 15,523.

Surprisingly and annoyingly media were silent or remain intentionally ignorant about the fact that on same day the number of people recovered from this disease was 2, 99,998. Until 2nd week of April in 2021, everything seemed normal, and COVID19 appeared as nothing but a statistics displayed in daily new channels. But all of a sudden sky had fallen and fearmongering media started aggressively covering “India’s misery” in tackling pandemic, which in turn created intense and alluring panic across middle class population of the country as well as world.

“India is gasping”; “India hit a new grim milestone”; “devasted by second wave” were the most common phrases flashing in news channels on 24X7 basis. Those were accompanied by horrific footages of desperate families scrambling for everything; mass funeral pyres; and parking lots turning into crematoriums to accommodate the rising number of dead.

In 2020, the world including our country was clue less about the requirements to deal with this disease. Requirements of social distancing, using mask, and infrastructure adequacy in medical facilities – everything was new to everybody. More importantly, there was no convincing news on effectiveness of any vaccines to fight with this pandemic. But in 2021, apparently the world and our nation were better prepared to deal with this invisible enemy. In addition, there were two-three different types of vaccines launched and recognized as effective enough for COVID. In fact, India was the country who did “vaccine diplomacy” in late 2020 by supplying it to other countries. Therefore, the most awful aspect for me was, in spite of that during summer of 2021, India was the worst COVID hit nation with acute shortage of oxygen, medicines, beds in hospitals and of course vaccines. On top of that, severe panic was created by all the grim news of death from different corners of the country down poured by powerful electronic media. The visuals of mass cremation across country telecasted in electronic media earned an abysmal reputation for the country. The nations across world, one after another started virtually isolating India by withdrawing international flights, whatever were still in operation post 2020 pandemic outbreak.

Stories from India’s punishing second wave were dominating global news and social media feeds in the summer of 2021. As a consequence some states and cities decided to impose lock down again in similar format of 2020, National parks and sanctuaries in those states were again shut down. Karnataka was one such state. Therefore again my visit to Bhadra was differed.

But all these impediments had created a different opportunity for me to celebrate a very special moment of my journey as an environmentalist and natural history commentator. Travel bloggers Raj Aditya Chaudhury once mentioned, “Who goes on safari in the monsoon? No one, you would think. But given the geographical expanse of the country and the different weather conditions in those geographies, many nature parks and wildlife reserves around the country are open all year round, including during the monsoon. True, some animals might be harder to spot in the rainy months but others live to dance in the rain. There are many other reasons to go on safari at this time of year as well. Prices are slashed and because most people don’t know some parks are actually open, crowds are at a minimum. There is another, more important reasons why some parks remain open all year round. Because closing them off to visitors and shutting down completely would give poachers free reign to do as much harm as they possibly can. So not only is it a good idea to go on safari after months of being stuck indoors, it is a great, righteous idea.”

This piece of writing of Raj Aditya Chaudhury also resonated in my thought process when I was planning for a visit to a tiger reserve in monsoon. But I was not being able to choose between the tiger reserves of Western Ghats and Central India.

One sudden catch up through social media, cleared that indecisiveness, and I had to respond to a call for a re-union.

My dream for becoming an environmentalist or a nature professional started at very young age but it became a reality in early 2000. There were few people who were close witness of that process as they were also chasing similar aspiration during that time. I am talking about my Post Graduate class mates with whom I studied Environment Management, and like many other informal alumni groups, in this era of technology enabled social interaction, we also had an WhatsApp group.

In the middle of June of 2021, a very unique Hindi feature film and probably first time in India on the subject of human wildlife conflict and rights of traditional forest dwellers was released. Name of that movie was “Sherni” (the Hindi and Urdu word for tigress). The movie was all about how an upright lady Forest Officer who strives for balance in a world of man-animal conflict while she also seeks her true calling in a hostile environment.

Release of that movie initiated lot of discussion on forest and wildlife in our WhatsApp group. As my class mates were aware of my few years of wildlife enthusiasm in different forests of India and other parts of world, they started nurturing an idea of exploring forest of India with my help, which would also give an opportunity for a re-union.

Among all friends, three of them turned out as quite serious about executing this idea. There were reasons behind these three guys being most enthusiast and excited among all.

Nearly two decades back, when we started our academic journey for studying “environment” as a subject, four of us were hugely influenced by the science and splendour of flora and fauna. As Arup, Bhaswar and I were students of BSc in Botany, and Rahul did his Graduation in Zoology, therefore our romanticism with our academic curricula in Post-Graduation (Environment Management) had always circled around natural resources, biodiversity and wildlife. We always felt more connected with these aspects of environment management. Industrial environment management, pollution control, circular economy, disaster management, environmental strategy, sustainability development and all other fancy terminologies of this subject were not really in our radar as career making options.

During our Post Graduation, our romanticism with forest and wildlife was fuelled up, when we got an opportunity to do a mid-term academic project in the forest of South Bankura and East Midnapore of West Bengal. All four of us, along with four other class mates, did an assignment to study Joint Forest Management (JFM) in that forest area. JFM is the official and popular term in India for partnerships in forest movement involving both the state forest departments and local communities.

The stories of human wildlife conflict and rights of forest dwellers in that Hindi movie awoken Bhaswar’s memories of us getting surrounded by local tribal in the village of Tatorbati in terrible anguish, during our JFM project. People of that village were worst victim of human elephant conflict.

JFM 1.0 (2003) : From left to right: Sandeep, Subhotama, Arup, Authour, Rahul and Bhaswar

Hence, Bhaswar called for JFM 2.0 and we responded.

As a result, once the “second wave” of COVID19 in India receded as sharply as it was spiked up and formed a plateau of around 40,000-reported cases of infection on daily basis, by middle of August 2021, four of us re-united in Bhadra Tiger reserve to celebrate our two decades of environmentalism. The time of that re-union was also marked by nation’s 75th Independence Day.

Although this re-union was also not spared by the black shadow of COVID19 induced uncertaintly. Karnataka government was concerned about rising cases of infection in neighbouring state Kerala. Thus, there were rumor of fresh lockdown which was creating unneccesary stress among us. Rahul was actually in lot of dilemma as returning to West Bengal from Karnataka required negative RTPCR report but it doesn’t require while entering to Karnataka from West Bengal. This type of inconsistent travel requirements were indeed bothering all of us.

We ignored all these uncertaintities and at around One o’clock in the afternoon of 13th August, after 283 km of road drive from Bangalore we reached at River Tern Lodge located on a hillock on the edge of the Bhadra reservoir, near Lakkavali – a stone’s throw away from the northern boundary of the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, in the Chikmaglur district of Karnataka. My other three companions reached and stayed at my Bangalore residence in previous night, to ensure an early morning start to reach there by noon.

The soft ripples of the Bhadra River’s backwaters flowing behind our cottages was providing a subtle background score, rest and tranquility. I could see that expression of tranquility through dreamy eyes and subtle smiles on the faces of my environmentalist class mates. Probably the memories of our first real time forest adventure during JFM 1.0 were stirring up.

River Tern lodge located in an island of Bhadra River

Our first venture into Bhadra Tiger Reserve, was through a jeep safari. The safari started at 4:00 PM with excitement of sighting of a pack of eighteen dhole chasing a herd of spotted deer. Their marking of prey, covering all sides to prevent their escapes, creating panic among them were exhilarating to witness. Besides that we spotted wild boar, barking deer, monitor Iizard and the usual birds of Indian forests like serpent eagle, white breasted kingfisher, racket tailed drongo, rufous treepie and hill myna. Arup, Rahul and Bhaswar has relatively less exposure in tracking wild lives in raw nature. As none of them have this hobby. But I was surprised by Rahul’s ability to spot wild lives. The way he spotted an Indian muntjack (barking deer), in the late hour of dimly lit forest in an over cast evening of monsoon, through the thick green foliage of Western Ghats, was truly impressive.

Indian muntjack in Bhadra

The perseverance and interest to stay connected with forest during our jeep safari, showed by Arup, Bhaswar and Rahul for more than three hours, reminded me our hard days in forest during our JFM project. That also established the fact, despite of their current high profile sustainability job, they did not really lost that touch, what they acquired from the field during their Graduation and Post-Graduation.

Pack of dhole

The evening once we retreated to our cottages, it was all about reminiscing our memories of two years of studying together. During our catch up after almost two decades, we realized that when we did our JFM project, in those couple of weeks in the forest of South West Bengal and after that few months of data analysing and report writing, it was all about pursuing our passion through our academic curricula. That time we didn’t think too much about whether that project would help us by any means in shaping our career to survive and respond to the needs of material world.

Twenty years back, studying “environment” as a subject never considered as a wise career move. On top of that roaming in forest for plant, trees and animals were mostly perceived as “few insincere boys’ lack of ability to take responsibility in life”.

On next day morning at 6:30, as per plan we went for a boat safari in the backwater of Bhadra. During summer to beginning of monsoon this safari is considered as most sought after, particularly for wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts. The reason is of course river terns. During our boat safari, our nature guide Girish told us how river terns migrate from Antarctica and reach there when water of Bhadra River recedes to enable the islands to emerge out.

Breeding pair of Greater cormorant

But now during monsoon, the water level of this 192 km2 backwater of Bhadra River was at the level of 186 feet. All islands were submerged. There was no possibility to spot many wild lives in that condition. We could see a brown fish owl was bathing and then flew off. Preparation for nesting of two breeding plumage greater cormorants at the tip of a dry branch popped out of river water was conveying message of thoughtful survival instinct of non-human life forms in adverse natural condition. We also saw flying osprey, basking monitor lizard on dry tree trunk and herds of spotted deer on plain grass land at the edge of the river.

After the morning safari, Bhaswar made an intelligent move which generally I get to see by experienced wildlife photographers. He walked up to the safari coordinator of the resort – Abhinandan to request him to arrange for another evening jeep safari instead of the planned boat safari. Bhaswar told him that increased water level in backwater has reduced the chances of spotting wild lives. We could have spent the evening boat safari as some leisure time on the pristine water of Bhadra. But Bhaswar’s interest was more towards feeling the nature as closely as possible. That was intention of Arup and Rahul’s as well. Therefore, the four urban dwellers, working with corporates as sustainability professionals decided to do more “deep ecological” voyage in the forest of Bhadra tiger reserve.

Abhinandan promised that he would try his best and he kept his promise. By the way, that was my second interaction with Abhinandan as he was one of my nature guides in the forest of BRT.

The highlights of that jeep safari was spotting few male and female adult gaurs, barking deer, herds of spotted deer, monitor lizard, brown fish owl, jungle owlet, male and female pea fowl, racket tailed drongo and wagtail. These were certainly regular species in the rainforest of Western Ghats. Very few wildlife photographers and even typical tourists would probably be excited upon their sightings. In fact there were a couple with a small kid in our safari vehicle. The gentleman confessed that was his third day in forest and he already got bored because of not seeing any elephants or tigers or leopards. Therefore, he decided to skip next day’s morning jeep safari.

Brown fish owl

But my corporate environmentalist friends who were little disconnected from forest and wild lives because of their professions, were far more appreciative about the effort made by our nature guides during our evening safari of that day. In fact they were critical about such eco-tourists who think, tiger-tourism is the only meaningful eco-tourism.

Arup explained that situation quite scientifically by saying that the best spots for sighting tigers or leopards are water holes created by forest departments. During summer, animals come there to quench their thirst. But during monsoon there were no dearth of water in deep forest, thus animals did not need to come out to those water holes for drinking water.

Our jeep driver cum nature guide Anil told us because of frequent rain fall in last few days, forest floor is covered with leeches. That creates lot of discomforts for big animals and makes them reluctant to move on open areas.

Our last safari was also a jeep safari and that was time for Bhaswar to show his ability to stay alert in forest and spot animals. That time it was a female elephant with a cub. The animals were found grazing through dense Sal forest and moving towards denser part of the forest. It was as usual a low light day. While watching the elephants we also saw hanging bushy tails waving from the high canopy cover. There were a pair of Malabar giant squirrel.

After Bhaswar, it was Rahul’s turn again to impress and surprise. The vehicle was running fast, and Rahul asked to stop all of a sudden. He noticed something in the bushes alongside of our path. Moments’ later one big striped necked mongoose appeared and crossed the road.

The safari was also good for us with respect to spotting avian species, as we got some nice and clear view of grey headed fish eagle, jungle owlet, long tailed shrike, grey hornbill, swallow, chest nut headed bee eaters etc.

The last hour of the safari turned out as a typical photography centric safari as there was another experienced photographer from Bangalore, who apparently visits that forest once in a month. The knowledgeable person along with our experienced nature guide were quite a delight for me as I started getting a feeling of my usual wildlife photography boot camp in forests of India. The usual spotting, identifying and then naming the fancy bird species and then capturing their images are always favorite activities for wildlife photographers.

Grey headed fish eagle

I was bit concerned whether my non-wildlife photographers environmentalist classmates were getting disengaged. But to my immense pleasure they told me at the end that how much they enjoyed that whole process. In fact they expected the jeep driver to drive a bit slower so that they could stay at one place for a bit longer.

Basically for me these three days were rediscovery of my old friends, whom I saw in action at field during my Post-Graduation days. For all four of us it was pretty much same story which pushed us away from forest and wild lives over a period of time. As we headed towards finishing our Post-Graduation, we got inclined more towards the other elements of “environment”. The elements, which were considered better options than nature and wildlife, as far as meeting material needs of life is concerned.

As a result, after nearly two decades, Rahul became an Environment Manager in TATA Metallic’s manufacturing unit, located at Kahragpur district of West Bengal. He helps this metallurgical company to improve their environmental performance and comply with all environmental norms.

Arup became a Vice President at the most prestigious environment policy making institution of this country – The Energy and Resources Institute, commonly known as TERI. He spearheads environmental and sustainability policy and strategy making activities for public and private sectors.

Bhaswar became a Humanitarian Programme Coordinator at world’s renowned non profitable-non-governmental organization – OXFAM. Disaster Management is his specialization and I would say among four of us probably he pursued most adventurous profession with lot of opportunity to work at field.

JFM 2.0 (2021) from left to right: Rahul, Arup, Bhaswar and Author

Whatever professional background we had, we came together for that connection with forest and wildlife which was imbibed in our thoughts at our very young age. Therefore this revival of “deep ecological” outlook was effortless in the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, to mark twenty years of our environmentalism.

Maybe that is why the JFM 2.0 was beckoned by Bhadra, the only tiger reserve of Karnataka which I was yet visit till that re-union had happened.

A Survival Story In the Shadow of the Bengal Tiger

Why do urban affluent class, who are surrounded by extreme form of materialism, think – surviving in nature, in raw-dense forest, the territory ruled by the mighty Bengal Tigers – would add fame and glory in their already “successful material lifestyle”?

Is it true that despite of our all-out effort in integrating economics and environment, as last desperate attempt to save this planet, deep inside of our heart we all believe it is not the “anthropocentric ecology” but the “deep ecology” which reinforces the core of the foundation of our very survival-success in this planet?

The urban affluence is sustained by market economy and to respond to the need of market economy we have relentlessly commodified nature. To achieve the process of that commodification we integrated ecology and economy and named that cocktail conservation approach as “sustainable development”.

However, we do not have much trust on the “sustenance” of “sustainable development”. Therefore, as a community, we support “sustainable development” in public; and as an individual, secretively we look for every opportunity to live life based on philosophy of “deep ecology”.

When we successfully survive the “deep ecology” based life style for a short time period, we go back again to live the life of “sustainable development” to join the larger community as response to the need of market economy. Once we go back, we sing the glorious songs of our survival in “deep ecology” based life style and proclaim our proximity to nature. We do so just to surrender ourselves again to the usual materialistic life style, which we are comfortable in living and brainwashed to live.

For a sizeable population of urban nature lovers, this is the life cycle pattern. Living a self-contradictory life and making all effort for self-consolation to shield themselves from the ruthless reality of materialistic life style.

The 72 hours survival story of eight men and women of urban affluent class, in the buffer zone of Bandhabgarh tiger reserve, at the onset of monsoon of the year 2021, was all about this conflict between “deep ecology” and “sustainable development”.

The selected eight

These eight men and women, known as “survivor in making” were put together inside the dense forest of Bandhbhgarh National Park and tiger reserve, by an India based organization known as Jungle Survival Academy (JSA). The organization, with the help of local traditional forest dwellers, and ex-Indian Army service men designed a 72 hours survival course to enable non-forest dwellers to fight fears of forest, as well as live a dream in the wilderness of the Bandhavgarh Jungles in Madhya Pradesh. The idea was to let the urban folks to experience the wild, to explore the unexplored and to challenge their inner self to survive in an unknown terrain with very few available resources. As proclaimed by the Jungle Survival Academy, they bring to us (non-forest dwellers), one of its kind survival courses to test our spirits and to make our adrenals rush to fight and survive in the wild.

Most interesting part was that, they document that entire survival challenge, as the “survivors in making” were chased by the camera crew during the entire course.

Before I start telling this survival story, let us know about the eight individuals who were the selected one for this challenge.

Soma Ghosh from Lucknow. A radio jockey and presenter who works for a State Government influenced FM channel of Lucknow city. A lady in her late thirty or early forty, separated from husband and stays with parents, who was looking for a meaningful and exciting life and found participating in adventure sports is a great way of adding more colors in life. In her own verbatim, she participated in bungee jumping, river rafting etc. and participating in a jungle survival challenge would add “another feather in cap”. Soma was someone who came to forest with contrasting bright clothing, a bagful of cosmetics and other make up accessories. In several instant during our jungle stay, we found her applying those in the middle of forest or under a tree top.

Akash Shrotriya from Bhopal. A guy in his early thirty and I never understood why he was there and what was his expectation. Apparently he runs his own NGO which is involved in community welfare and wildlife awareness programme. Throughout the stay in jungle, he kept giving contradictory statement on and off camera. However, he was one of the fittest ‘survivors in making” in the team but always critical about JSA and its instructors (off camera of course).

Ojas Mehta from Surat. A business man by profession and a body-builder cum model cum Netflix TV series actor by hobby. Like most of the body builders he looks strong and capable of taking any challenges, but always particular about dietary preferences. In this entire course, he kept missing his high protein diet and regular hydration plan and he was quite vocal about that. Ojas is also an ex-cricket player who represented Gujarat state in Ranjy trophy. He is highly connected with top-notch Indian national cricketers and Bollywood movie stars. His primary objective was to create plenty of video footages of his survival activities in wilderness. He surprised all of us, when he told that he was 49 years old, whereas he was actually looked as in his early 30.

Neha from Delhi. A 29 years old marketing professional with a multinational company and a Yoga instructor and trekker by hobby. She is fit, strong and up to any challenges but again like most of the fitness freak, very particular about diet. She loves talking about herself and kept mentioning during course, that how much she was missing her three meals a day. Like Soma, she also came with a mind-set of participating in another adventure sports, but with right kind of mental and physical preparation.

Mahim from Noida. A Corporate Trainer by profession, but that’s not his real identity. He was the most royal amongst all “survivors in making” and it was started getting revealed as the challenges becoming tougher. Despite of his honest attempt to remain modest and polite, his uncomfortability due to hardship of living in wilderness became gradually apparent. He is a descendent of the King of Patiala, and his royal lifestyle made him look vulnerable in raw nature. Like Akash, I was not too sure about Mahim’s purpose of being part of this course. Initially I thought it was because of Neha. In first instant both of them appeared to me like a couple, as they were wearing similar clothes and shoes and travelling as well as staying together. In fact, during introduction, Neha told us that they were together. But gradually they went into a denial mode, and we got to know that although Mahim was single but Neha got married six months back.

Rishabh Goyel from Delhi. The youngest in the group. Another businessperson who runs few departmental stores and manages a family run business to feed 18 members of his family. He was the one amongst all the participants who was more candid about his reasons of being there. He had a bad accident sometime back and because of that, he went into depression. Once he recovered from his injury, he started looking for something, which would help in regaining his lost confidence to take challenges. Hence, he landed in the middle of that tiger reserve.

Dr. Prakash Arya from Gandhinagar. A paediatrician by profession and pianist by hobby. The most grounded and down to earth person amongst all the people over there. Probably the most suitable candidate for the challenge with strong survival instinct. Over the period, it was realised that survival in wilderness comes very effortlessly and naturally for him. He was probably there to re-assess his already tried and tested ability to survive in raw nature.

Last but not the least, this confused storyteller who is stuck between “eco-centrism” and ‘anthropocentrism”. The man who makes his living by practicing “sustainable development” but wants to adopt the principles of “deep ecology” in his life. I wanted to participate in this course to get an opportunity to stay as close as possible to the “shadow of the Bengal Tiger”. Not that I did not explore tiger territory before, but as a hobbyist wildlife photographer, I was always privileged to avail the support services on demand, which made my survival as comfortable as it could be in any nature holidays. Eco-tourisms are designed in such a way that eco-tourists never get a scope to complain about the facilities provided to them.

From that point of view this 72 hours survival course was quite indifferent about “anthropocentric” requirements and behaviours. Therefore, I thought it would also be interesting to observe struggle and behaviour of other participants in raw nature, who came from different spheres of life built upon hard-core materialism.

In the morning of 26th June 2021, operational manager of JSA, Mukul picked me up from a rural bus stand of Bagdara village, located around 10 km away from the base camp from where our survival journey would begin. While driving me there, a three times jungle survivor and Himalayan trekker by himself, Mukul told me that due to prolonged COVID19 pandemic induced lockdown, the people movement has been reduced significantly, in the villages and on the roads at the fringe area of buffer zone of the tiger reserve. That has increased the free movement of other animals including tigers. Now tiger sighting near any waterbodies at the edge of the forest or in the corridor between core and buffer zone of forest is more frequent. Along with excitement, this piece of information also brings necessary caution for the “survivors in making” as possibility of close encounter with tigers, in that patch of forest, became higher than pre-pandemic era.

Therefore, at the beginning of our course, our instructors – ex-service personnel Colonel Iqbal Mehta and ex special force commander Shambhu aka Ustad ji, spent some time to told us about animals’ tracks and signs and ways to escape any animal attacks.

Beginning of survival journey

When we started from basecamp, we all were provided with some basic survival tools like knife, axe, head-torch and a whistle. After entering into forest, our first task was preparing spear from bamboo tree with the help of those knife and axe. Both Iqbal and Ustad ji explained and demonstrated how to make and use improvised weapon from raw green hard bamboo. Dislodging a bamboo shoot from the thick stump of bamboo tree needed lot of strength and energy. Although it was monsoon season, but rain was delayed. Therefore, scorching heat was sucking energy and started dehydrating us quickly. I could see, Soma and Mahim started giving up quickly and were looking for aid from others to complete the task.

Besides two instructors, we also had a local septuagenarian forest dweller with us, known as Harshad Dada. With his and Ustad ji’s help all of us could make a spear for each of us which would not just protect us from animal attack but also help during our hiking as well as removing thorny branches of small tree which were coming on our way.

The hiking started and the dehydration due to excessive sweating. We filled our water bottle before we pushed off from base camp, but I could see the water level in my 1 litre bottle was alarmingly going down. When I asked for any nearby water sources, just to raise my panic level, Ustad ji replied, “due to less rainfall, all waterbodies in this forest patch are dry. Therefore we have to wait till we reach our next camping point, where probably we will reach just before dusk.”

From my marathon running experience, I know that my sweat rate is very high and have bad tendency of getting cramp due to excessive dehydration. This thought made me even more worried and I decided to walk as slowly as possible but at the same time keeping a minimum distance with last person of the group. Another way of avoiding any possible predator attack is walking in a group.

Eight of us with three of our nature survival teachers, were not just doing plain hiking. Rather we were doing the most important aspect of surviving in forest, based on naturally available resources. We were foraging, under the guidance of local forest dwelling tribal man, Dada.

Dada was helping us in identifying leaves, tubers, and fungi, which are edible. We were gathering them and collecting in a bag as our lunch and dinner for the day. Tubers of plants locally known as satawari and moori; leaves of a shrub locally known as moker and a circular fungus locally known as koru were the main components of our collection for the day.

Around 2 pm, we stopped at a place to start cooking. We were given ration of rice and black gram (locally known as Urad dal). We carefully used water to wash some portion of that rice and lentil and mixed. We also added leaves of moker into that. Tubers of satawari and moori we chewed and sucked the juice while hiking to keep our lips and tongue moist to cope with thirst. Koru we kept for evening supper.

Lighting fire was the toughest task on that point of time by creating friction between dry tree branches. Even ex special force commander Ustad ji, was almost at the verge of giving up. Although the rain was irregular in early monsoon but enough to make all branches and leaves wet and moist. Thus, lighting of fire appeared as a never-ending process. Once, the fire was lit with lot of efforts, we started boiling all those edible stuff together. However, 30-45 minutes of boiling was not enough and resulted in half cooked rice. Actually, we did not add enough water in rice. We could not do it to save water for drinking as we still have two-three hours to survive our thirst before we find a waterbody.

We all were hungry, so we started eating and appreciating whatever we managed to cook. Only Mahim and Ojas were visibly upset with the outcome. But they also ate quietly.

The last few hours of the day were all about surviving thirst. All of ours bottles were empty by then and we were not even closer to any waterbody. We all were literally dragging ourselves with all body weight leaned on our bamboo stick. Walking through dense forest was nothing new for me. I did that before in the forest of Periyar and Sumatra. But the rainforests provide good canopy cover. On the other hand, the forest of Central India is dry and moist deciduous in nature. There are tall trees but canopy is not big enough to protect from sunlight. Our energy was draining rapidly. Less food and water was making our movement slower.

When we were desperate for water, we reached at a place where forest floor was covered with dry leaves. Ustad ji, picked up one leaf, smelled and poured something from it into his mouth. It was rainwater accumulated in dry leaves. He told us, “If you are desperate to quench your thirst then this is the only option available for you. Walk slowly and come closer so that you don’t step on the leaves containing rain water.”

We all gradually gathered and drank that water. Mahim and Akash were refrained from drinking that water. Later Mahim told us that he could not imagine drinking water like that. Therefore, he thought it was all right to stay thirsty and dehydrated.

Iqbal said, “Smell the water first before you gulp it”. Any foul smell from accumulated water in ditches, or leaves indicates that the water is not potable. There is no other way of measuring potability of water in wilderness.

It became dark by 7 pm, and we reached at camping area, where we had to pitch tent. Ojas and Mahim were expecting somebody to wait with tea and snacks at camping area. When the expectation was expressed, we could only get sarcastic laughter from our camera crew.

Once we were done with tent pitching, Soma put on her evening make up, did her hair and slipped into her evening dress. Rest of us dispersed into forest for collection of dry woods to lit bonfire. Another difficult one hour to lit fire and cooking and another dismal outcome as far as cooking quality was concerned.

Ojas was more content this time and accepted the outcome as a natural process in wilderness. Mahim became grumpier and criticised the idea of putting koru (fungi) in food. It was not tasty at all and a bit rubbery.

Whole night was breeze less, and was difficult to slip within tent. Fortunately, we all got our individual tent therefore; it was possible for me to strip down to nothing as an effort to escape from sweating like a pig. Early morning there was a bit of shower but that just worsen the situation.

I got out of my tent at 6 o’clock in morning; the surrounding grassland was still wet and moist. We survived in this tiger terrain for 24 hours and we had 48 hours more to go.

Morning 8 o’clock again we started our hiking through forest. The day we spent in learning unarmed combat and rope making from the leaves of moori. We needed lot of rope for carrying thick woods for creating bonfire and most importantly for making shelters.

Foraging continued besides all these activities. Besides our regular moori, satawari and moker, we added another kind of fungi known as “deema ki piri” or fungus grown on termite tower. The white globulous head at the top of white slender body were popping out from termite towers. All of us happily collected those with a hope of eating a better meal than previous two occasions.

Pugmark

Rope making and foraging took more time than previous day. Meanwhile during our movement, Dada sensed movement of some animal. That made us to sit quietly at a plain grassland and do a detour until he found it safer to move. When we were crossing a ditch full of sand, both Dada and Iqbal drew our attention towards fresh pugmark of a female adult tiger. The tigress clearly walked along the ditch and according to Iqbal that happened probably in the morning, therefore the tigress must be still around that area. Apparently, that area was used frequently by a female and her cub as a corridor between core and buffer zones of Bandhabhgarh tiger reserve.

Iqbal looked at us and said, “Some story to tell others once you survive next 40 hours”.

Experience of tiger encounter in wild, even if it is not the tiger itself but the sign of its presence around you– sign of debuckling on tree trunk, pugmarks on soil – all counts as “some story to tell others”. Everybody – wildlife enthusiast, nature lover, adventure sports person or jungle survivor alike – wants to tell this story to others. This is the story, which makes one stand out from others; this is the story, which makes one brave and cool; this is the story makes one glorious survivor in forest that is ruled by the majestic beast of this subcontinent.

That statement of Iqbal on that very moment in the buffer zone of Bandhabhgarh National Park was enough to establish the glory of Bengal Tiger in subcontinental forest. If one can survive with him in his territory, without causing any harm to each other, then that one has lived few hours of his/her life embracing principles of “deep ecology”.

It was another dusk in forest, and we did not get time to cook our lunch, so it was almost 24 hours we were without any food. But we learnt how to survive thirst by then. Our body and mind was conditioned to live 24 hours of hot summer with 1 litre of water.

As light was diminishing quickly, we had to ramp up our shelter making and cooking arrangement process. We got ourselves divided into two groups to take charge of these two key tasks to face the night in forest, where tiger movement was already confirmed.

Jungle food cooked in a whole dug out on ground

In previous day, we were given a cooking vessel, but on next day to make our challenge little more difficult, it was taken away. Therefore, in the absence of our last resort of civilized cooking utensil, the remaining rice, black gram, leaves of moori and deema ki piri were all mixed, washed, and wrapped in leaves. The whole bundle was placed over dry branches inside a rectangular whole dug out in ground with the help of axe and knife. With similar painfully patient effort, the fire was lit and baking of that mixed edible stuff started with the aid of dry wood charcoal. As usual, we were running short of water supply. As we had whole night to survive on a treetop, where the makeshift night shelter or machan was made with the help of bamboo stick and rope made out of leaves of moori plant, we dared not to spend too much of water in cooking.

In the darkness, it would not be a wise idea to venture out for drinking water, especially when predator movement was sensed around us.

The end result was the third consecutive half cooked or barely cooked meal to eat.

Rishabh, Ojas and Mahim decided not to eat anything. Soma, Doctor, Neha and Akash ate as per their best capacity. I hogged that food to fill my stomach, as I wanted a good night sleep.

Mahim was in empty stomach for almost 36 hours by then, on top of that there were spiders near our cooking area. He said that he hates spiders as they spoiled his balcony garden plants. In addition, he also has Arachnophobia. All these literally made him disgruntled.

In the night at the machan, once our camera crew and instructors left us in wilderness to survive rest of the night, the possibility of a coup started brewing under the leadership of Prince of Patiala. Mahim’s royal legacy just refused to accept such ill treatment caused by “uncivilized food” and “unhygienic living condition”. Neha and Ojas supported him softly as both of them were genuinely missing their rigid diet regime. As a result packets of glucose biscuits arrived at machan to serve his majesty and his hoi polloi.

Once again the pseudo affection for nature by urban affluent class was exposed; once again urban folk’s inability to cope with challenges thrown by wilderness was visible; once again the lack of faith of urban lifestyle towards complete dependency on nature was revealed; once again human’s preference to live as per their own convenient lifestyle over the way of life offered by nature was proven; and last but not the least once again “sustainability development” won against “deep ecology”.

Next day morning, with my surprise Mahim said, actually, he was not hungry but he just wanted to make a point that he deserved food palpable for “civilized” people. The human life forms will always remain entangled in this web of complexity of so-called civilization and keep all other non-human life forms at bay. Hence, defeats the purpose of all human defined conservation concepts- like cohabitation, eco-resilience, eco-restoration and many more.

Everybody’s ability to survive in forest like other non-human life forms were significantly challenged. Nevertheless, we all survived 48 long hours in the wilderness of a tiger reserve of Central India.

Next 24 hours really broke us completely both mentally and physically. The climate was even more hostile due to increased temperature. Few rounds of shower during daytime increased the humidity further to make our life more miserable. In three continuous day, we were in same clothes and undergarments. Everything was soaking wet by our own sweat, which was attracting lot of insects to sit on the open parts of our body, thus increasing itching all over body parts.

Man in action

We had to manage with lesser supply of water, and again it was another day we were without food. Whole day we were busy in learning how to tie different knots, which may come handy during climbing, material lifting and rescuing; we learnt slithering with the help of rope from 30 feets tall tree top; we learnt how to collect rainwater and filter that with charcoal; and how to make improvised traps to capture animals. Ustad ji was a real artist of all these techniques and taught us with lot of patience. Whole day we were mesmerized with Ustad ji’s military art and Dada’s local knowledge. All these activities did not give us enough time to lit fire and cook food; however, we did not forget to forage for night.

Ojas and I were bit happier than others as we collected enough number of local forest fruits called bael. Aegle marmelos, commonly known as bael, also Bengal quince, golden apple, Japanese bitter orange, stone apple or wood apple, is a species of tree native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It is present in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, and Malaysia as a naturalized species. This was the only edible fruits lying on forest floor in abundance.

I remembered during my childhood my father used to run after me with his concoction made out of this horribly tasted fruits in order to cure my constipation. That time, even in my remotest dream, I could not imagine that one day I would eat this fruit as if it was a panacea from haven.

By the night lot of people thought it was enough of survival and their body was no longer able to take any further toll. Soma, Neha and Mahim decided to leave. Ojas and Akash were in dilemma. Although Akash was visibly tired but he was claiming repeatedly, that he had lived tougher life than this and had seen worse. However, Ojas was quite honest in confessing that he had not gone through such hardship ever in his life. He comes from a background where he does not even need to carry his gym kitbag and protein shake on his own. But here in this forest he was going through all these with a smile on face. Despite of his celebrity status he was quite a down to earth person.

Eventually both of them decided to stay back in machan for the last night of our survival course.

The usual cooking process started for the night, Ojas lost his patience and decided to stay rather hungry. But Ustad ji told us boldly, “You have to cook for me, I don’t care whether you stay hungry or not!”

The message was clear to everybody so we cooked food in similer way as previous night and with all our surprise, we cooked adequately boiled and more palpable food. It was just rice and moori leaves, but the delicious ever meal we cooked durig our survival course.

The next day morning Rishabh, Dr. Prakash Arya, Ojas, Akash and I came out of the forest after completing 72 hours of jungle survival in the tiger territory of a Central Indian landscape.

We all enterd in this forest with different objectives, but we all had one common ground. We all believed that we human are incomplete without any connection with non-human life forms, does not matter how much we underestimate and disregard them. We all also confesed that ability to stay in nature like any other living species of her, doesn’t make us any deregetory species, rather magnify our fame and glory as human being.

All eight of us would be indulged again in our regular life to respond to the need of metarialism. Nevertheless, my journey to embrace “deep ecology” began.

Royals of Aravalli

In this country of “tiger-centric” ecotourism, there is another member of big cat family which has won the heart of wildlife enthusiasts. Dry deciduous forest of Aravalli hill range in the state of Rajasthan is the prime destination of wildlife fraternity for the search of that “not so elusive” animal. The India leopard or Panthera pardus.

The conservation of this animal is being successful here based on an unique concept of “Cohabitation”. In 2017, Rajasthan became the first state in India to announce Project Leopard with a sum of Rs. 70 million (Rs. 7 crores) set aside to conserve leopards. It eventually kicked off in 2018 with the launch of a leopard reserve in Jhalana Forest Reserve.

Jhalana reserve at the foothill of Aravalli

As natural history commentator I have always considered myself lucky in terms of sighting leopards in wild. But at the same time I have a jinx with this animal as a wildlife photographer. I had seen leopards in tiger territory, for about four to five different occasions before my Jhalana visit. In Bandipur the leopard pair in courtship was in my side of the gypsy, but that time I was a beginner in photography and failed to set my camera according to light condition. In the evening of the same day in Bandipur again I repeated the mistake of wrong camera setting when we saw the leopard on tree at the last hour of our safari. Therefore, in both the cases I missed the opportunity of getting any decent shots. In Satpura, we saw three cubs but again light condition and position of our safari gypsy was not favourable enough to get any satisfactory shots. In Kabini leopard appeared in front of us suddenly like an orange flash of lightning and disappeared quickly. In Dandeli we got a glimpse of a mother and a cub in the darkness of early morning with the help of gypsy’s headlights. In Sariska the animal was stalking quietly a herd of sambar probably when we spotted him at the last hour of our safari. But again after hearing the first click of shutter it was rushed inside the forest, without giving much photo opportunity.

A leopard in Sariska hiding quickly after hearing sound of shutter click

All of the above incidents were fabulous memory of leopard sighting and observing their characteristic behaviour, the only thing missing was a decent image of leopard.

In Jhalana that jinx too was broken, when on 1st April, in our evening safari we got alert by the alarm call of squirrel. Then we saw a female, locally known as Flora, slowly walked in. She was stalking her prey, apparently a squirrel on a tree. Yes, “urban leopard” of “urban forest of Jhalana” in the heart of the pink city of Jaipur, feeds upon squirrel, francolin, monitor lizard, pea fowl etc.

A female leopard of Jhalana

I reached Jhalana on 31st March, after a short visit to another “leopard sighting spot” of this magnificent ecosystems of grey forest of Aravalli. That was Kumbhalgarh Ranakpur Wildlife Sanctuary, located around 100 km away from the royal city of Udaipur. The sanctuary area starts at around 100 km away from the city of Udaipur. Typical tourists and wildlife enthusiast alike visit this place for two main reasons – pilgrimage to Ranakpur Jain temple and sighting of leopards.

morning at around 5:30, my local guide Viramdev Singh, took me to the fringe area of the forest, which was around 30 km away from the Ranakpur Safari Resort, where my overnight staying accommodation was arranged. The safari resort was few kilometres apart from Ranakpur Jain temple and entry gate of Kumbhalgarh wildlife sanctuary.

Area where we were heading in the morning is situated in village Perwa, in Pali district and part of Jawai leopard conservation area. According to Viramdev “leopard sighting is 99.9 % assured!” However, besides herds of nilgai, pea fowl and flocks of greater coucal we didn’t see much in that forest in couple of hours of that morning. Therefore, Viramdev’s “99.9% assurance” didn’t work. And people, who deal with wild life, know for sure that such assurance practically has no meaning. Wild life sighting depends upon climate, timing and several other ecological-behavioral factors.

Perwa area near Kumbhalgarh Raanakpur wildlife sanctuary, part of Jawai reseve

Viramdev, a safari guide and a volunteer-tracker of forest department, told me another astonishing story of “strawberry leopard” at the end of our morning venture. Apparently a leopard with white coat and strawberry colored rosettes, sounded like an albino leopard to me, was found roaming in this forest area. Viramdev claimed that he knows the whereabouts of that leopard and was collecting more images, video footages and other information about its habitat etc., before he would finally publish that news officially. According to a wildlife census carried out in 2020, an estimated 136 leopards (Panthera pardus) are found in and around the Kumbhalgarh sanctuary and one of them could be a “strawberry leopard”.

Community Conservation and Non-Tiger centric eco-tourism

In India eco-tourism activities are heavily inclined on tiger reserves, therefore conservation efforts are also more visible, effective and state sponsored as far as tiger reserves are concerned. But for non-tiger range forests, its the community based conservation which upholds and promotes eco-tourism.

Grassland ecosystem of Talchhapar

When I was planning my grasslands exploration, my idea was to experience the conservation and eco-tourism scenario related to other endangered and vulnerable species of India, whereas otherwise the ecotourism in this subcontinent is typically “tiger centric”. But what I didn’t know was that the grassland is a neglected ecosystem in spite of being habitat of around 56 different species notified in different Schedules of Wildlife Protection Act of India, including some of the most threatened species like black buck, great Indian bustard, lesser florican, Indian rhinoceros, snow leopard, Nilgiri thar, wild buffalo etc.

Wetland in Chhapar village

These species are distributed in various grasslands and deserts of India – dry grasslands and hot deserts of North and Western India; cold deserts of Western and Eastern Himalayas; tropical short grass plains of Western, Central India and Deccan; wet grasslands of Terai and North East India; and shola grasslands of Western Ghats. 

Most astonishing fact, I came across was that as per the Report of Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts, published by Government of India in 2006, around 50% of the fodder for the livestock in India, home of more than 500 million livestock, comes from grasslands. These grasslands, habitats of endangered and vulnerable wild life, are major grazing areas and sources of rural economy of this nation.

One such ecologically significant and classic case of community based conservation is Tal Chhapar. Amidst the fiasco of bird-flu, when birds in rural and urban settlements were dropping dead, I landed in pink city Jaipur on 29th January, 2021. Destination was Tal Chhapar, a supposedly classic case of “community based conservation”. As per the environmental portal of Rajasthan Government, nearly 50% of wildlife species in this state are found outside the traditional protected area network. The communities have volunteered to conserve wild life and its habitat in these areas.

Flying Eastern Imperial Eagle

In a four and half hours safari on my first day in sanctuary, I saw hundreds of black buck male, female and calves; plenty of nil gai (blue bull) and some amazing winter migratory and indigenous birds of grassland ecosystems.  Isabelline wheatear, southern grey shrike, sand grouse, greater short toed lark, lesser grebe, grey and black francolin, flocks of common crane and a very rare migratory bird Stolikza’s bush chat were some of the mention worthy avian species, I spotted with the help of experienced nature guide Anand Prasad. The Stoliczka’s bushchat, also known as white-browed bush chat, is an old World flycatcher in the genus Saxicola. The alternative name is after the discoverer, geologist and explorer Ferdinand Stoliczka. This desert specialist has a small, declining population because of agricultural intensification and encroachment, which qualifies it as vulnerable. A direct victim of anthropocentric ecological conservation.

Stolikczka’s Bush Chat

Presence of vulture population in this sanctuary also delighted me a lot, as first time I saw much talked about cinereous vulture. This bird also sometimes called the black vulture (Aegypius monachus) or monk vulture is one of the largest flying birds and one of the iconic subjects of wildlife photography in this ecosystem, along with other two most commonly found species griffon and Egyptian vultures. Many scientists consider cinereous vulture to be the largest vulture and the largest bird of prey.

Cinerous vulture at Jorbeer

Next day at very early morning at 5:00 o’clock we started our journey towards another popular wildlife photography destination created through community based conservation approach and related with legacy of Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner. The idea was to reach Jorbeer vulture conservation reserve of Bikaner, 150 km away from our guest house, before sun rise. The usual time of sunrise here during winter is 7:00 AM.

Desert Cat at Tal Chhapar

In Jorbeer vulture sanctuary, Rachel Carson’s deep ecological perspective was resonated in every moment of my stay over there. She fought against usage of DDT and its effect on ecology whereas the conservation reserve in Jorbeer was established to protect vulture population from extinction due to deadly effect of diclofenac. These raptor birds play an important role in the ecosystem by feeding on decaying flesh of dead animals. Egyptian and cinereous vultures are two species found in Jorbeer, which are endangered and near threatened respectively (as per IUCN status) and feeding on carcass of livestock ingested with diclofenac (painkiller drug) is the reason behind that. Impressively, Saravan was well informed about that and during my day long roaming with him, he highlighted that significance of this reserve several times.

Endangered Egyptian vulture on carcass at Jorbeer

Despite of being identified as “neglected ecosystems” of this subcontinent in the Report of Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts, the Tal Chhapar wildlife sanctuary of dry grasslands ecosystems of Rajasthan has done phenomenally well as per as biodiversity conservation is concerned and community participation is undoubtedly one of the key reasons behind that.

River, undergrowth ecosystem and Bengal Tiger

River has an essential role in the ecology of rainforest, as water availability has direct impacts on the health of forest and its inhabitants. This is also another unique feature of Western Ghats, which makes the forest look even more beautiful. The transition zone, within sanctuaries and national parks of Nilgiri Biosphere, between terrestrial upland and aquatic environment, is known as riparian zone. Flora and fauna survived in this zone are adapted to periodic flooding. Many not only tolerate it, but require it in order to maintain health and complete their lifestyles.

One of the biggest “human supremacy” induced threat to nature, is initiating invasion of alien floral species. Based on an article, “How alien invasive plant species threaten Western Ghats”, written by V. Sundararaju, in November, 2018 issue of Down to Earth,“Invasive species don’t allow local species to grow and wildlife to move through. A resin like substance that oozes from such alien species makes the soil acidic, preventing the growth of any other plant species. Species like Lantana, that grow extensively, create a mat-like structure leading to degradation and destruction of the biodiversity. As a result, herbivores like Gaur, Chital and Sambar are deprived of their food. This also affects the survival of carnivores such as tigers and panthers, interlinked to the ecological equilibrium.”

But nature has her own healing mechanism to deal with this human intervention. And that is flood. Based on an article published in online journal, “The Conversation”, authored by D. Paul Humphries, Senior lecturer in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, “When rivers flood, water moves out onto the flood plain. But so does sediment and a lot of organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorus – the energy and materials that fuel river ecosystems….There is in fact mutual exchange of these rich materials between rivers and flood plains”.

This is how the “Riparian Rain Forest” nurturing the kingdom of Bengal Tiger and his ecosystem, through eco-restoration of Nil Giri biosphere.

Hence, the ecological linkage between river, forest and tiger, triggered my next “pandemic time” exploration. Also “the icing on the cake” was company of a friend, known as Paddy, who besides his profession as environmentalist, is also involved in eco-restoration project, at personal capacity in the forest of Nil Giri.

Riparian Rainforest of Dandeli and Kali Tiger Reserve

Our first exposure to sign of tigers’ presence in this tiger reserve was through spotting fresh pug marks on forest path, which became muddy because of heavy to moderate down pour at the beginning of our first jeep safari in the evening of 30th September. The question came in everybody’s mind, that those pug marks belonged to whom, which were trailing from muddy forest path to dense undergrowth?

The rain fall occurred a while ago formed small water puddles in the depression on mud created by those footsteps.

The above tiger image of water puddle in pugmarks, taken by Paddy is also symbolic of deep ecological relationship between tigers and water resources of its ecosystem. The home of Bengal Tigers, is fed by many rivers. Particularly the Western Ghats landscape is crucial from that point of view as rivers like Kali, Kabini, Bhadra, Periyar originate here and maintain four most important tiger reserves of Western Ghats. These riverine ecosystem meet Bengal Tigers’ needs and demands of a healthy forest cover, sufficient prey base, vast tracts of inviolate and contiguous space, and enough water sources to survive.

The eco system which is ruled by mighty Bengal Tiger is not fascinating just because of big herbivores, arboreal or birds of prey. Tiger as apex predator, protects the ecosystems by controlling species population in its food pyramid. However the vigor and diversity of this ecosystem depends upon a natural nourishment process. The undergrowth of tropical rainforest plays immense role in that nourishment process. 

These forest floor or undergrowth species are spiders, bugs, amphibians and reptiles – commonly known as herpetofauna or “macro subjects” among nature enthusiasts and wildlife photographers.

But somehow the undergrowth species remain unnoticed as we human being tend to focus more on more glamourous big species in forests. However, there are always exception and there are people who devoted their life in conservation of undergrowth species. Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology or KCRE, located in Agumbe is one such organization.

Therefore, after Dandeli and KRT our next stop was KCRE.

Experiencing the ecosystem of Bengal Tiger remain incomplete, if you don’t do that through your all five senses. And, exploration in KCRE exactly provides that opportunity.

Our night walk and day nature trail in KCRE, accompanied by Prashanth and his intern Surya, were never an exception from all these. Rat snake, Beddome’s  keelback, Beddome’s cat snake, stick insect, bush frog, house centipede, fishing spider, rubber fly, indirana frog, dancing frog, skittering frog, tiger beetle, wood borer, forest calottes, bi-colour frog and many other undergrowth species we spotted in those days, might have gone unnoticed by many nature enthusiasts, due to their love for more glamorous species of subcontinental tiger habitat. 

King Cobra at Agumbe

The shadow is darker by Pandemic?

Between March and August of 2020, the civil society across the country became expert in at least one subject, and that was “the outbreak of pandemic”.

A pandemic about which nobody knows anything! But everybody knows “everything”.

They know everything to get panic; know everything to create new norms; know everything to coin a term called “new normal” and at the end know everything to follow nothing, because they know nothing to remain calm; know nothing to discard existing social practices; know nothing, so fill the vacuum by coining a term called “new normal” and at the end know nothing, so follow everything.

Few hilarious examples of this conundrum of knowing “everything” and “nothing” was – pay cut by companies to tackle bad economy – which was declared as voluntary but implemented as mandatory; practicing “social distancing” in public places – which was directed as mandatory but enacted as voluntary; and using of “arogya setu app” developed by Government of India to track virus infected cases – which was intended to cover a population of 1.4 billion out of which 35% use smart phones but targeted a virus which nobody could isolate.

And last but not the least, the whole world decided to remain locked till the invention of a “vaccine” for a virus which nobody knows how does work.

Confused ?… so does the whole World !

But who created such confusion and why? That is probably the most controversial debate of this century and not the subject of this story.

However, this confusion had kept eco tourists and wildlife photographers away from forests and national parks of this country for a longest period of time. Even when officially the parks were permitted to operate for eco-tourism, wildlife enthusiasts were still sceptical about taking any chance with this “virus” over their “enthusiasm” to display passion for wild lives in social media.

But there are two categories of desperate people in society – the first category – desperate to get into adventure, because that’s the only thing available for them to break monotony; and the second category – desperate to get back into business, because they have few mouths to feed.

These two categories can meet each other’s need and for that they must come together.

That’s what exactly happened when twelve of first category people, including me, gathered together at Kabini River Lodge of Jungle Lodges and Resorts, in the afternoon of 4th September, 2020, under the leadership of Harsha Narasimhamurthy, wildlife photographer and naturalist from Toehold Travel and Photography Private Limited, the representative of second category.

That was my “second return to highland”, amidst a “pandemic”.

Kabini the Verdant Rain forest of Western Ghats

My “pandemic time” exploration started from Kabini with a very new theme. The theme of “Big Five” which I am going to narrate as I experienced in those three days. – The Big Five of Western Ghats. That includes tiger, leopard, Indian elephant, gaur and Asiatic wild dog.

In this group of course tiger is the supreme most species. Although till couple of years back, the part of Nagarhole, which we were exploring, was more popular for leopard sighting. From eco-tourism and wildlife photography point of view it was always the leopard which was considered as flagship species of Kabini. But now the story is different.

The famous Temple Tiger (female) of Kabini

Whenever I have seen Bengal Tigers in forest, I was always astonished by some or the other display of their characteristic behaviour.

The mature female, I spotted in my first “pandemic” exploration, was found sniffing vigorously the tree trunk, grasses and even soil. She was making “stinky face” and rolling her tongue out, which Harsha explained later as flehmen response. According to German Wildlife Keeper in the mammal department of Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo, Dr. Erin Mowatt, “in German the word flehmen means lip curl or curl of the upper lip”.

All animals have five senses – sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. The cats have an extra sense – with the help of their vomeronasal organ, or the Jacobson organ – they process information somewhere between smell and taste. The tiger open wide to allow the scent to reach the roof of its mouth where the Jacobson organ is located.

One more exploration to tiger range forest of this subcontinent, one more lesson of tiger behavior…. The shadow is not darker in pandemic!

Flehmen response

I am one step closure to finish my ambitious project of “In the Shadow of Bengal Tiger”.

Why “In the Shadow of the Tiger” ?

Some experts said before, that “climate change” may turn Bengal Tiger, the apex predator of subcontinent forest, into a “snow tiger” eventually. This hypothesis lately made me visit high altitude of Western Himalayas at 4300 meters in late winter of 2020.

There I met another cat, the apex predator of tree less alpine ecosystem, the stealthy grey ghost – closest cousin of Bengal Tiger- the snow leopard of Spiti. There are quite a few evolutionary theories on why snow leopards are closest cousins of Bengal Tigers but not of  leopards. There are quite a few theories which discard this relationship.

However, I must say although Bengal Tigers have quite successfully established their empire in high Himalayas of Bhutan and India, sub Himalayan Terai arch in India, Nepal and Bhutan, but enjoying status of undisputed ruler of alpine dry scrub forests would be a different ball game for them.

Their so called closest cousins, survive on cliff of high mountains, with less or no foliage cover to hide or ambush or secure their kill. Mighty Bengal Tigers need to learn those tricks first from their “closest cousins”. Then they need to accustom themselves to survive by feeding on Himalayan Ibex, Tibetan Blue Sheep and occasionally livestock (Yak if lucky), which are much smaller than a Gaur, Sambar or Deer.

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Then only the high Himalayan alpine ecosystem, like  ecosystems of deciduous, evergreen and mangroves, will be in their “shadow”.

What do we mean by “In the shadow of the Bengal Tiger”?

We may expand this idiom “in the shadow of the Bengal Tiger” in two different ways, in context of this ninety days commentary in the land of Bengal Tigers of this subcontinent:

One way could be, in this book, the so called superior species of the earth, the human being is given less importance or considered as less notable, compared to the mighty Bengal Tigers. We human being are living in the shadow of the Bengal Tiger;

Another way could be, every other species in the food pyramid of Bengal Tigers, are living with the constant fear of this apex predator. Everything else in this ecosystem is living in the shadow of the Bengal Tiger.

And we better respect and admire these two core postulations of this commentary for the sake of sustenance of this very ecosystem and survival of our very existence.

Anyway, my plan for 2020 was to look for the answer to my question whether the Himalayan Ecosystem is in the “shadow of Bengal Tiger”, in context of above two core postulations.

Therefore I wanted to explore the forests of Terai Arch, North East India, Nepal and Bhutan. But thanks to outbreak of COVID19 pandemic. Now I can only narrate the justification of title of this work in progress book in solitary confinement at my Bangalore flat.

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Looking forward and hoping for the best.

 

 

A common wildlife enthusiast’s commentary on Bengal Tigers and its ecosystems

There are hardly any people in this planet, who are interested in forest and wildlife, but not aware of Jim Corbett and his interaction with Bengal Tigers in Indian forests. For many people tiger is a ferocious animal, an apex predator and a supreme hunter in wild and for Corbett a tiger is “A Large Hearted Gentleman”. (Man Eater of Kumaon)

This perspective of Corbett on tiger, made me curious over a period of time to see the animal in its natural habitat.

However, as far as spotting Bengal Tigers (or other Big Cats) in Indian or subcontinent forest is concerned, one basic philosophy I imbibed into my mind, in order to deal with my own expectations, was – “The dense forests of India, are unlike the Savannahs of Africa, where game spotting is a breeze. So, the experience of being part of an African safari or watching umpteen animal videos on National Geographic, even though real, but far from reality at the same time.” (Taken from the blog – Wander with Jo – TIGER SPOTTING 101 – THE UNLUCKY ADVENTURER’S GUIDE)

With this realization, I started my quest for Bengal Tigers, in the winter of 2015 and expecting to continue till autumn of 2022.

My ultimate goal is documenting all experiences – in the form of images taken during exploration in tiger habitats, stories heard from forest dwellers and events seen through my own eyes in forests. Then publish a book, which would be  – “A common wildlife enthusiast’s ninety days of commentary on Bengal Tigers and its ecosystems in thirty tiger reserves of five tiger range countries.”

As the quest is only for Bengal Tigers among all the living six sub species of tigers across the world, which are found in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, therefore I have picked up three tiger range countries of this sub-continent – India, Bangladesh and Nepal, as my primary areas of exploration for this story. In addition to above three tiger range countries, I am also planning to visit Myanmar and Bhutan as secondary areas of my exploration.

Out of all these countries, I have already finished my explorations in :

  1. Western Ghats – Bandipur, Periyar, BRT Tiger Reserve and Nagrahole ;
  2. Central India – Satpura, Pench, Kanha;
  3. Western India- Tadoba;
  4. North India – Sub Himalayan – Corbett;
  5. North East – Nameri; and
  6. Sundarbans of West Bengal and Bangladesh

I have spent one third of my planned 90 days exploration and visited 12 tiger reserves of two countries. Still have long way to go.

However, in those days, I have already seen and experienced tiger’s royal and majestic movement, growling, roaring, swimming, territory marking, debuckling, prey base assessing, stalking prey, and even human hunting !!

If everything goes as per plan, I would come up with my book – In the shadow of the Tiger, by middle of 2023.

The probable cover page of my forthcoming book:

cover1

This cover is a collage of images from my three most memorable explorations:

  1. Top: Hiking in India’s most adventurous bush walk in tiger reserves –   in the tiger trail of Periyar Tiger Reserves (the related story is told already in Chapter Two: In the Shadow of the Tiger – Hiking in Highland);
  2. Middle: An early morning surprise sighting at Corbett National Park (the related story is told already in Chapter Five: Call of Corbett);
  3. Bottom: The alpha male of Sajnekhali, at Sundarbans National park, West Bengal (the related story is told already in Chapter Six: Conflict in Swampland).

As its going to be my first venture in writing stories on wildlife; I would depend largely on your feedback and suggestions.

Looking forward for it.