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Rainforest Rendezvous

My new ‘ecological – photographic’ relationship with Darter Photography continues as I planned to join Shreeram again for another rain forest biodiversity exploration in Western Ghats to learn more about reptiles, amphibians and insects of this amazingly diversified ecosystem.

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Vajrapoha Falls at Chorla Ghat picture by Author

The destination was Chorla Ghat, a nature destination located on the intersection of the borders of Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Chorla Ghat boasts of a few rare species of wild-life such as the barred wolf snake (Lycodon striatus) in its sub-tropical forests. The Nature Conservation Facility has been established at Chorla Ghat to facilitate research and long term monitoring of the Western Ghats of the Sahyadris region and their biodiversity and is intended at providing a platform for ecologists and wildlife biologists by way of a fully equipped field station for this area. The Chorla Ghats forests are part of the Mhadei Bio region. This area is home to tigers, leopards, gaur, chital, sloth bear, critically-endangered bats and scores of other species, and serves as a crucial corridor between the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary and its reserve forests and the Mhadei Wildlife sanctuary of Goa. This habitat is contiguous with the Anshi National Park, Dandeli, Bhagwan Mahavir, Cotigao, Mhadei and Netravali Wildlife Sanctuaries and the Tiger corridor of Sindhudurg district, Maharashtra and is part of a crucial biodiversity vault of the threatened Western Ghats. Therefore, the fringe forest area of Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary around Chorla Ghat was also the part of our exploration. Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary is a 208.5-km2 (80.5-mi2) protected area in the Indian state of Goa in the Western Ghats of South India. It is located in the North Goa District, Sattari taluka near the town of Valpoi.

The sanctuary is an area of high biodiversity, and is being considered to become a tiger reserve under Project Tiger, because of the presence of resident Bengal tigers.

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Chorla Ghat a crucial corridor between multiple key National Parks and Sanctuaries of Western Ghats, picture by Author

It was peak of the monsoon in Western Ghats, the sky was gloomy and the land was vibrant. All the ponds and water falls were in full glory and flowing vividly through forests – providing vitality to entire eco systems. Monsoon in India really gives one of the best natural scenery, as rivers are on full swing, mountains are awake after a long sleep. Monsoon decorated the whole Chorla Ghat with sparking waterfalls, magnificent lakes, lush green trees and beautiful flowers. The Monsoon awaken the nature from a deep sleep and the entire land turned into beautiful green colored picturesque landscape. The incredible wildlife of the rain forest of Western Ghats – an ecological blending of all the species of mammals, insects, reptiles, fish and birds – made that living forest look awesome.

It was a celebration for wildlife and wild lands, when I reached at Swapnagandha resort of Chorla Ghat eco systems, with other seven fellow wildlife photographers and mentor Shreeram, to be the guests of eminent herpetologist of Goa, Nirmal Kulkarni, for three days. We all assembled there at around 11:00 AM, on 26th of July, 2019, after settling down in our twin-sharing cottages, brief round of introduction and a sumptuous Goan lunch, we started our exploration.

People who think Goa is all about beaches, churches or forts, must visit this wonderland. Running parallel to Indian Ocean, the Western Ghats or Sahyadri mountain range makes for one big corridor crisscrossing Goa that preserves and showcases the best of flora and fauna. Its unique ecosystem makes it a natural home for big cats like tigers, leopards, gaur, venomous snakes like king cobra, winged creatures like kites or eagles and langurs and more.  During our three days exploration, we spotted and identified around 8 different types of frogs including endemic Malabar Gliding Frogs and Fragivarius; we saw 6 different types of snakes including venomous Saw Scaled Viper, Malabar Pit Viper, non-venomous Travancore Wolf snake, Montane Trinket snake, 8 different individuals of Green vine snake and one juvenile python, which was rescued by Nirmal from one of the cottages and eventually released at nearby area.

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Malabar Gliding Frog, picture by Author

The Malabar gliding frog or Malabar flying frog (Rhacophorus malabaricus) is a Rhacophorid tree frog species found in the Western Ghats of India. The term “gliding” frog refers to its ability to break its fall by stretching the webbing between its toes when making leaps down from the treetops. It can make gliding jumps of 9–12 m, a maximum of about 115 times its length. In two nights we saw around 5 different individuals.

The frogs naturally like humid surroundings but do not tolerate water.  A group of three frogs was observed calling during our night exploration on 26th July, all sitting on bamboo shoots. Foam nests were attached to vegetation some meters above a water body.

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Habitat of Malabar Gliding Frog, picture by Author

On 27th July, just before dusks, we saw two of them near the same water body. They were still resting as during day time the frogs usually rest on the leaves with their legs gathered together and body flattened, with the forefeet folded underneath their body, and pupils contracted to tiny slits. This posture and their green leaf colour rendered them almost invisible among the leaves of malabar black mouth trees. Only sharp eyes of Nirmal and Shreeram helped us in locating them, and Nirmal was of course aware of the existence of their nests in that forest.

Besides amphibians and snakes we also recognized around 8 different species of lizards, including endemic Prashad’s Gecko and Goan day Gecko; and 17 different species of insects and aquatic creatures. Those were mostly nocturnal as night exploration was the key aspect of our trip. We were there for two nights and our cumulative after dusk venture in dense rain forest, under heavy down pour, lasted for more than 8 hours. Western Ghats rainforest biodiversity is home to a different kinds of insects, arthropod, spiders, bugs and flying insects. The most commonly spotted species by us, were Tiger Centipede, Pill Bug, Forest Crab, Toe Biter, Xenobolus Carnifex (Millipede), Cicada, Rock crabs, Dark Mantis etc. Some of these small but dangerous species have ability to kill large mammals using their sharp sting, bite and venom.

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Fishing Spider, picture by Author

One such unique semi aquatic arthropod we spotted was fishing spider of Pisauridae family. Almost all species are semiaquatic. Mostly they don’t spin web and few species can be found on grass or dwarf shrubs. Most of the species prey on fish or aquatic insects by waiting at the edge of a pool or stream, then when they detect the ripples from prey, they run across the surface to subdue it using their foremost legs, which are tipped with small claws; like other spiders they then inject venom with their hollow jaws to kill and digest the prey. They mainly eat insects, but some larger species are able to catch small fish. They can also climb beneath the water, when they become encased in a silvery film of air.

During one of our “night walks”, we also got to see the spot where a male Bengal Tiger was caught in camera trap, which was a contributing factor to conclude that Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary is a worthy claimant for the status of “Tiger Reserve” and also an important tiger corridor in Western Ghats.  Drivers of trucks plying along the route said that tiger sighting was common and that they spotted the big cat at least 2-3 times in a fortnight. In fact here, it’s worth mentioning that before the onset of the monsoon, in 2016, the images of two tigers and around four cubs were captured from the area, prompting the Maharashtra government to make plans to convert the Tillari region around the water reservoir into a wildlife sanctuary. This will help develop the area as a habitat and corridor by providing long-term conservation of the Western Ghats region.

On 27th July, morning after breakfast at 8:00 AM, Nirmal led us to another unique ecosystem of Goan side of Western Ghats – the plateau ecosystems called “Sadas”. Nirmal and his colleagues and team have been studying the ecology of that plateau focusing on herpetofauna and their relationship with these plateaus. Goa’s plateaus, many of them now occupied by sprawling industrial hubs of economic activity, harbour micro habitats with unique floral and faunal biodiversity. In the dry season, the plateau seems dry, rocky and desolate in patches in comparison to the surrounding lush green forest. But the red dust comes to life after monsoon. Streams appear in rocky beds and the ground is covered in a thick mat of vegetation. The high density of species observed during our monsoon walk on that plateau was fascinating – as in 3 hours of exploration we spotted around 20 different amphibian, reptiles, arthropods and aquatic species – water scorpion, different centipedes and millipedes, and few endemic species of that ecosystem, like Fragivarius CEPFRI and Dobson’s Burrowing Frog.

Nirmal, told us that the plateau is habitat of Cobra, Malabar Pit Vipers and Saw Scaled Vipers. He told us that he would give a serious try to find Saw Scaled Vipers, as possibility of spotting few in the monsoon season was very high.

He told us, he would roam around and lift the medium to big sized rocks to find them and cautioned us to keep safe distance, as some these snakes are found just on the edge of such rocks and they are super agile in striking.

Saw-scaled vipers are relatively small snakes, the largest species (Echis leucogaster, E. pyramidum) usually below 90 cm (35 in) long, and the smallest (E. hughesi, E. jogeri) being around 30 cm (12 in). All members of this genus have a distinctive threat display, which involves forming a series of parallel, C-shaped coils and rubbing them together to produce a sizzling sound, rather like water on a hot plate. The proper term for this is stridulation. These snakes can be fierce and will strike from the position described above. When doing so, they may overbalance and end up moving towards their aggressor (an unusual behavior for snakes).

Shreeram and Nirmal started leading our pack, Nirmal was stopping intermittently, bending over grass and sometime lifting rock to search for Saw Scaled.

We were following them, keeping a gap of around 8-10 feet, every time he was lifting a rock, our excitement was reaching paramount.

First time he lifted- a Fragivarius CEPFRI was sitting quietly; after a while, another rock – this time a tiny burrowing frog, embarrassed and confused in sudden exposure; but no luck with Saw Scaled.

It was continued for some time, meanwhile we were capturing images of surroundings. A hazy and moist background marked by intermittent rain and changes of brightness with appearance of cloud.

Suddenly a shout from Nirmal, “Saw Scaled Viper!”

We all rushed towards him, she was found lying coiled on moist ground, as Nirmal removed the rock which was covering her. An alert little snake but extremely capable of quick movement when necessary.

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Saw Scaled Viper, picture by Author

We observed, for 30 minutes or so, the stridulation behaviour and sudden strike on nearby rock as sign of aggression. Nirmal identified her as a pregnant one. The display of her readiness with which she could bite on the smallest provocation and few extremely fast strikes on nearby rock, under which she was hiding, made her look a very dangerous reptile. Nirmal put all of us on alert.

On our last day, 28th morning, Nirmal rescued one Travancore Wolf Snake from the kitchen area. When he was releasing the reptile, we got some photo opportunity. A very common species of the hill areas of southern India. It was blackish with pale yellow crossbars. A non-venomous snake, lied coiled on grass for a while, before it disappeared into nearby bushes.

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Travancore Wolf Snake, picture by Author

Although rain forest of Chorla Ghat is known for its avifauna biodiversity, but heavy rainfall in all three days, prevented us from spotting any major bird species. However, couple of significant and worth mentioning sightings were Speckled Piculet, smallest Woodpecker in India and gliding of a lone Brahminy Kite with the backdrop of magnificent, silvery and gigantic twin Vajrapoha waterfalls.

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The Kingdom of King Cobra

Rain forests are the Earth’s oldest living ecosystems. They are so amazing and beautiful and cover only 6 %of the Earth’s surface but yet they contain more than 1/2 of the world’s plant and animal species. Humans have long hunted wild game from forests, but over the past 50 years commercialization of killing has triggered a rapid increase in wildlife depletion. Hunting and poaching cause damage to the rain forest ecosystem by removing species key to the system’s functioning. The loss of a certain single species can mean extinction for many others. Hunting of seed dispersers and pollinators can influence the structure of a forest.

Rain forest and Bengal Tigers are ecologically quite correlated. Although, Tigers are found in amazingly diverse habitats: rain forests, grasslands, savannas and even mangrove swamps and Bengal tigers live in tropical rainforests in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Nepal. However, most of the population is found in grassland or deciduous forests.

The relationship between Rain forest and Bengal Tigers has often made me curios. Bengal tigers like the constant shade that the rain forest floor guarantees with the under story’s leaves leaving the tigers cool. The tropical rain forest temperature never falls below 18 degrees Celsius and can reach up to 33 degrees Celsius and over. The tropical rain forests have no winter or summer seasons, with only 2 degrees separating them. Also with up to 10000 mm rain annually, with an average of 4000 mm, it ensures that the Bengal tiger (after the rains have dripped all the way down to the forest floor) is never thirsty. A typical tropical rain forest is green and lush, with some trees reaching over 45 metres. It contains an amazing array of insects, birds, mammals and plants. The Bengal tiger is certainly not alone in these ever green and ever rainy forest habitat.

This perspective of rain forest – Bengal tiger relationship, made me inquisitive about unique ecology of rain forest as well, and made me travel to Agumbe. Not alone or not with Exploring Nature team, but with few experts – with Photography mentor Sreeram, of Darter Photography, herpetologist Gowri Shankar and five other ace wildlife photographers of Bangalore. In fact herpetologist Gowri Shankar was our host, as we stayed in his camp at Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE) at Guddekere, located at Agumbe and surrounded by Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary.

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The idea was to refresh my knowledge of rain forest ecology and habitats and behaviour of King Cobra and also nevertheless to increase my intimacy with rain forest, which is also an important habitat of tiger in India and sub-continent.

Agumbe is a small village located in Shimoga district, Thirthahalli taluk in the Malnad region of Karnataka, India. It is sometimes called “The Cherrapunji of the South” after Cherrapunji, in Northeast India. Agumbe is associated with rainforest conservation efforts, documentation of medicinal plants, tourism (trekking and photography), and the promotion of cottage industry. 357 km north-west of Bangalore, as part of the Western Ghats mountain range, Agumbe lies in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Agumbe Reserved Forest located at Agumbe in the central Western Ghats of southern India. The Agumbe Reserved Forests receives an annual rainfall in excess of 7,000 mm (280 in) and is at an elevation of about 640 m (2,100 ft) above sea level. It forms a part of the Malnad-Kodagu corridor, which also includes the Someshwara, Mookambika, Bhadra, and Sharavati Wildlife Sanctuaries, Kudremukh National Park, and various other forest tracts and reserve forests around Kundapur, Shankaranarayana, Hosanagara, Sringeri, and Thirthahalli.

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My first meeting with Gowri Shankar was a coincidence. I boarded on my bus to Agumbe, on 4th April, 2019 at 10:50 PM from Majestic Ananda Rao Circle Bust Stand of Bangalore. Before that there was instruction from our photography mentor Sreeram, that we should not get down at Agumbe rather we need to get down at Guddekere, which is 8 km before Agumbe.

Before, getting into Bus, I was checking with fellow passengers about reaching time at Guddekere. But some of them told me that Bus would not stop at Guddekere. One of them, in a khaki t shirt, and long hairs tied up like bun on back of the head, with bright eyes, told me “It does stop at Guddekere, but if I want to go to Agumbe, its better I get down at Agumbe. Because Guddekere and Agumbe are 8 km apart.”

I, little perplexed, got into Bus and settled into my lower birth sleeper seat. After losing my photography gears, I didn’t have much to carry. One D3100 Nikon and a Sigma Macro lens, which I could easily packed in my back pack with clothes. So, I was not carrying any additional camera back pack.

The Khaki T shirt with bun hairstyle, sat next to me on a seater and after some time he asked me, why do I want to go to Agumbe? When I told him about Rainforest ecology and King Cobra, he further asked me whether I was going with Sreeram. After my affirmative answer, he disclosed his identity to me.

I was thrilled, that the King Cobra man and my would-be host, is my co passenger. I also felt bit relieved, that the confusion over arrival stop was clear. He assured me that Guddekere was the right stop to get down and he would get down there as well. So, the chances of missing the stop, was also didn’t exist anymore.

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Gowri Shankar is the founder of Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology, and dedicated his life to research and conservation of King Cobra. Currently he is doing PhD from IISC, Bangalore, and his thesis is on existence of different sub species of King Cobra. He is a scientist cum conservationist cum snake charmer. He started handling reptiles at the age of thirteen and has not looked back since. In the five years he’s been living in the rainforest environment of Agumbe, he has observed and documented the nesting, male combat, courtship, mating and cannibalistic behaviours of King Cobras in the wild. Apart from rescuing over a hundred King Cobras from distress situations, he has collected vital scientific data which has led to new insights into the life of a King Cobra.

Gowri Shankar has worked for several wildlife documentaries behind the camera and has been featured alongside Romulus Whitaker, known as the snake man of India, in two wildlife documentaries, The King and I on the BBC and Secrets of the King Cobra on the National Geographic Channel. He has also appeared in the following documentaries: Asia’s Deadliest Snake, One Million Snake Bites, and Wildest India, by Nat Geo Wild, BBC and Discovery Channel, respectively.

Being hosted by such a celebrity and knowledgeable herpetologist, was indeed an honour and I was quite excited about my next three days exploration adventure in the rainforest of Agumbe.

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We reached Guddekere at 6:45 AM on 5th April. Sreeram and other fellow explorers reached 10-15 minutes before us, by another bus and waiting for us at bus stand. All eight of us and Gowri’s man Friday and fellow snake rescuer Prashanth, got into two different cars and started our journey towards the camp. It was a 20 minutes ride through narrow and raw forest path of Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary and the five acre field site (camp) is nestled in the heart of the rainforests of Agumbe.

Sreeram didn’t want to waste much time, and immediately got us into work. Therefore, after breakfast and briefing about camp rules and ground rules, we started our exploration in the nearby area of camp, towards south west direction. There was a pond, where we observed few species of frogs – golden frogs, cricket frogs and skittering frogs; different types of drum shells and dragon flies. We slowly advanced through dense forest, with multiple halts to take photographs, and to understand the biodiversity of rain forest. Sreeram was continuously giving us instruction, asking as to trying different angles and composition, making us lying down on muds and bushes and also intermittently checking our shots. In the very first interaction with him, during exploration, I realized, he was a passionate teacher and ardent wildlife enthusiast. He was literally hand holding each one of us and teaching photography and rainforest ecology together. For me it was, my very first experience in some serious macro photography.

Sreeram was helping us in spotting species, he has an amazing pairs of sharp eyes to spot amphibians and insects in dense rainforest of Agumbe, as days progressed, we got several stunning examples of that. Once he instructed us about the species he spotted and how to shot that, he would advance further to check what else were there, while we would be busy in applying his lessons.

In one such occasion, when we were busy with a golden frog, we heard a faraway shout from Sreeram – “Pit Viper!”

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We rushed towards the source of shout; and found a malabar pit viper, on the huge trunk of a Punnaga tree (Calophyllum elatum), under the shades of broad and lined leaves of the tree, completely immobile and resting and probably getting prepared for its nocturnal activity. Trimeresurus malabaricus, commonly known as Malabar pit viper, Malabar rock pit viper, or rock viper, is a venomous pit viper species endemic to the Western Ghats of south-western India. No subspecies are currently recognized. Adults may attain a snout-vent length (SVL) of 105 cm (41 in), therefore the snake we saw was undoubtedly an adult species. The unique feature of Malabar pit viper is prehensile tail. Prehensility is the quality of an appendage or organ that has adapted for grasping or holding.

We spent almost 30-45 minutes there to observe and photograph the species, light was not sufficient, so taking clear photo was a bit challenging. Anyway it was 12:45 PM, and we all were feeling hungry and bit tired as well after overnight bus journey, so decided to come back later and may be in night with torch and tripod, when chances of seeing it active would also be higher.

We had our lunch with local Malnad and South-Indian Vegetarian food. Then around 2:30 PM, we all six photographers-explorers, Sreeram and one intern of KCRE, drove towards a place, 10 km away from the camp site. Gowri and his research team was tracking one female King Cobra, who at some point of time took shelter in a house, within forest. Reportedly, the snake was harassed severely by the residents of the house and chased her away, till she found a safe shelter, in a burrow in a termite tower deep inside the forest. Few residents of the house even didn’t spare the snake after that, they threw water into the burrow and made it shrink. Probably the abuse would have continued and ended up with killing of the snake, unless Gowri and his team had intervened.

Our exploration area in the afternoon was that burrow in termite tower, inside the forest.

It was breeding season of King Kobra, it starts from early February when males seek females who leave their scent (pheromones) behind. Shedding skin at the beginning of the breeding season causes the female to release pheromones, which helps the male track her down in the thick underbrush. Most often more than one male vies for a female resulting in male combat and the triumphant male gets to mate. There was similar story developed around the burrow and the female King Kobra we intended to observe. Gowri’s team spotted one strong male King Kobra, who followed the scent of the female and reached at the burrow. There were three other male King Kobras in that region, who also reached for the female and apparently one of them challenged the strongest male and was defeated. Therefore, currently the triumphant male was there – guarding the burrow and the female. But that never negates the possibility of fresh attacks from the other three males, who were presumably roaming around in the forest.

We reached there around, 3:30 PM. It took a bit time, as one of our fellow explorers’ Car had a flat tyre and we wasted some time en route, to repair that. Sreeram briefed us about ground rule. The most important thing was minimizing our movement, however talking or making noise would not be serious problems. They can’t hear but have keen eye sight, King Cobras are able to detect moving prey almost 100 m (330 ft) away. Its intelligence and sensitivity to earth-borne vibration are also used to track its prey. As the female was already harassed and scared, a slightest doubt on surrounding condition, might made her sceptical about coming out of her burrow. Therefore the onlookers’ movement must be minimized as much as possible.

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When we reached there, the male was found protruding his head out of the burrow. But no sight of the female. We were there for couple of hours, and situation didn’t change. It was becoming dusk in the forest, and sounds of thunder was heard from distance. Sreeram showed us one old nest of King Cobra. For building nests, females typically select a slope close to a tree with adequate shade. Considering Agumbe receives more than 8000mm of rainfall annually, this selection makes sense, as a slope guarantees the flow down of rain water preventing any stagnation, the buttress ensures a strong base and the shade ensures regulation of sunlight and decelerates rain drops before falling on the nest. It is not until one appreciates how a limbless creature can build a well-engineered nest that one realizes how our hands destroy natures wonders so unmindfully. The female gathers leaf litter (from a radius of 3-5m) in tight coils and slowly but steadily deposits them together. She repeatedly moves into it to tighten and pack the leaves firmly. Once the nest is around 30cm tall and 3feet wide she moves in to lay her eggs. As per Gowri, in nests observed around Agumbe, the clutch size varies from 23 to 43 eggs. The female continues to build till the nest is about 4 feet tall. She generally stays on the nest and guards it for 12- 15 days. During this entire nesting period the females rarely feed. Incubation period varies between 90 to 113 days; incubation temperature varies between 24-28 C and humidity between 55-90%.

After a while, we left that place for our campsite, with a plan to come back next day, but not in full contingent. Rather in small group of three people, in two different shifts – one group after breakfast and come back before lunch and the other group after lunch till dusk. Idea was to minimize peoples’ movement near the burrow.

Next day morning of 6th April, at 7:15 we again trekked up to the water stream towards south west direction, we went little further and reached up to a bigger pond. Spent more than an hour with skittering frogs, water striders and a large giant wood spider.

Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis is a common dicroglossid frog found in South Asia. It is known under numerous common names, including Indian skipper frog or skittering frog. They are often seen at the edge of bodies of water with their eyes above the water. They noisily move away from the shore when disturbed, giving them their common name. They are rarely seen outside water.

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The golden silk orb-weavers (Nephila) are a genus of araneomorph spiders noted for the impressive webs they weave. Nephila consists of numerous species found in warmer regions around the world. They are also commonly called golden orb-weavers, giant wood spiders, or banana spiders.

Some of the bird species we spotted near water body were open billed stork, common king fisher, grey hornbills and pond heron.

During breakfast, Sreeram announced the first batch which would go to King Kobra burrow, during morning session and would stay there till lunch break. Fortunately I was part of that batch.

When we reached there at around 11:00 AM, the male was already out and found coiling around a bug hump of the termite tower. Three of us took different position and sat like statue on ground. At around 12:00 noon, the female came out, she slowly came down through the edge of the termite tower. Very cautious about surrounding, raised her hood to gauge the situation around and gradually headed towards the male. They started head butting. The male rubs his head on the female’s body to announce his intentions. If she doesn’t seem interested, the Casanova will butt and push her until she agrees to mate. If another male is on the scene, the cobras will wrestle, attempting to push their opponent’s head to the ground. When the female is agreeable, the male will wrap his body around her, and the two will remain in this position for several hours. It is thought that male king cobras mate with the same female in successive seasons. The female can store the male’s sperm for several years until she’s ready to have offspring.

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Our male King Cobra, of course, didn’t get any challenge from other males. Therefore, after a while mating started and lasted for more than an hour. As per Gowri, the courtship may last anywhere between 5 minutes to 2 hours and continues for days during which they mate multiple times.

After the mating was over, the female gradually went back to her burrow again at around 1:30 PM. The male was still lying there till we left the place at around 2:45 PM. The male was really huge and around 11 feet long. During mating the female was looking tiny in comparison to the male. In case of other species of snake, females are generally larger than males. But in case of King Cobra it’s the other way round.

I considered myself extremely lucky, for the second time in my life, as a biodiversity explorer and natural history commentator. First time I was lucky, when I witnessed courtship of Leopard, in the forest of Bandipur, in the winter of 2015. This time another rare natural phenomena of another elusive animal, within 10-12 feet distance in the rain forest of Agumbe.

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We reached campsite at around 3:15 PM, Sreeram parked the pick-up truck of KCRE, on the uphill and we started walking down. Sreeram was little ahead of us, and then we heard his shout, the way we heard yesterday when he spotted pit viper. This time it was a brown vine snake. Sreeram was super excited, as after ten years the species was spotted in Agumbe, it was quite a rare sight in wild. We observed movement of the snake for a while, as it was moving from one branch to another and finally got disappeared in one of the upper branches of a tree.

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Ahaetulla pulverulenta, commonly known as brown vine snake, is a species of colubrid snake, found in moderate and high elevations of peninsular Indian hills. Lives in mixed and dry deciduous forests. A mildly venomous rear-fanged snake, is extremely slender that reaches up to 1.9 metres (6.2 ft) in total length (including a long tail). Brown Vine Snake is a diurnal and arboreal species which shows activity throughout the day at low to moderate heights. Its color may vary from grey to brown with a yellow underside. Spotting a brown vine snake in tree branches, which was quite well camouflaged, was not an easy task. Hats off to Sreeram again!

After lunch break, we did a short walk around campsite, towards north east side. Found few forest calottes, grass hoppers and saw a huge malabar giant squirrel jumping from one branches to another at tree top. However, the biggest moment of the day was yet to come. After taking a nice shower, when I was taking rest in my tent and thinking about opening J. C. Daniel’s The Book of Indian Reptiles and Amphibians (published by Bombay Natural History Society), to read more about vine snakes, fellow explorer Kaustubh, called me from outside of my tent. He told me that a snake rescue call was received from a house from the local village of Sringeri, which was 30 km away from the campsite. We had to get ready to accompany Gowri and Prashanth in that rescue mission. Around 7:30 PM we started, and after 45 minutes of driving through State Highway, we reached at that house. Few local people and one forest department representative were already gathered around.

Gowri cleared the site and asked people to stand away from the window and door. As a first respond to the situation, before reaching at rescue site, generally he asked people to close the door and window of the house, where the snake was hidden. So, when we reached we found all windows and doors of the house were closed. Reportedly, the snake entered the house at around 4:30 PM, and since then sleeping quitely under the bed. Gower entered into that bedroom with two snake catching hooks and dragged the snake out through door on the open ground in front of the house. It was around 8 feet long young King Cobra, raised its hood and making spine chilling hissing sound in his defence. Gowri tried to put it inside the catching bag, fitted with pieces of PVC pipes. The bag was kept ready to get the snake in, before he started his rescue operation. In first attempt, the snake refused to go inside and attacked back to Gowri. However, as an expert snake rescuer, Gowri managed to put it inside. He finished the whole rescue operation in less than 2 minutes time like an artist. Next task was releasing the snake, and as per protocol, it had to be released, away from the village, but within 5 sq km area from where it was rescued. So, that it could remain in its natural area of movement. We came back to campsite at around 9:30 PM. I was very pleasantly exhausted after all these activities throughout the day. The rainforest of Agumbe had enriched my knowledge and experience by manifold already.

After dinner, we did a short 30 minutes night walk towards south east side of the campsite and found common tree frogs, bicolour bush frogs, wolf spider, and orbi spider. We saw the orbi spider catching small insects trapped in its web. Another amazing observation of glowing eggs of mayfly on leaf. After mating, the female lays up to 8000 eggs in the water, which then sink to the bottom and soon hatch into a nymph. After mating and laying eggs, mayfly adults die and fall back into the water, becoming food for fish, frogs, and other aquatic life. Mayflies are aquatic insects belonging to the order Ephemeroptera. Female mayflies may be dispersed by wind, and eggs may be transferred by adhesion to the legs of waterbirds.

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Common tree frogs can be found throughout peninsular India except Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. A typical tree frog of moist deciduous forest. The species has the peculiar habit of absorbing water under the skin. When the animal first emerges from its retreat it appears thin, but, after a time at the water supply it has increased in bulk. The water accumulation partly under the abdomen, and partly under the skin between the hind legs.

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7th April, morning started with the surprise visit of another reptile – a kukri snake. The common kukri snake or banded kukri, Oligodon arnensis, is a species of nonvenomous colubrid found in Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal. An active little snake, mainly diurnal and seen most often during the rainy season. When alarmed, inflates its body to a remarkable degree and some specimens also flatten the posterior part of the head, making head more apparent than when normal.

After spending some time with this little reptile, we went to the same spot where we saw brown vine snake yesterday afternoon. Most interesting observation there was green vine snake, besides few tree hoppers and forest calottes. Oxybelis fulgidus, commonly known as the green vine snake or the flatbread snake is a species of long, slender, arboreal colubrid snake. The head is aerodynamically shaped and very pointy, the mouth is very large and extends almost the whole length of the head.

Our green vine was nicely camouflaged in green tree twigs and leaves. As usual, Sreeram spotted it and asked us to do the same, in order to earn our breakfast. Surprisingly, I was the first in the group who did that.

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After coming back to campsite, another fellow explorer Suchishmita, told us that she saw a very unique, colourful spider in the adjacent tree to the balcony of her cottage. She was only one in our group, who was not staying in tent. When she described the spider, Sreeram seemed very excited, as he was looking for that species for a long time. We all went to her balcony and spotted a tiny, colourful, Tribanded Spiky Orb (Gasteracantha Geminate) and hundreds of her offspring on the web.

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After breakfast, we did our last trek of the trip, towards south east direction, where we saw the pit viper. But when we reached there it was gone. Anyway, we found few dragon flies, day flying moth, robber moth and plenty of birds – again the open billed stork, few racket tailed drongo, grey headed babbler and oriental honey buzzard.

We came back to campsite and post lunch Sreeram conducted a very informative session on rain forest ecology, which was one my key interests to join this exploration.

I am little better prepared now before my next attempt to venture in the shadows of tiger, in Indian highlands – with better perspective on rain forest, its biodiversity and photography in rain forest.

Return to High Land

The Biological Bridge of Deccan Plateau

After the shattering incidents of Dhaka, at the end of 2018 and in the beginning of 2019, which impacted significantly my overall exploration plan for my book “In the shadows of the Tiger”, I took little time to rethink and rework on my strategy.

In absence of my major photography gears and resources, I thought of focussing on nearby forests of Bangalore and thus thought about returning to highlands of India – Western Ghats.

On 2nd March, 2019, I started my second phase of explorations in Western Ghats, from where I started my quest for Bengal Tigers, in the winter of 2015. This time I chose, a unique, but not so frequently visited forest by wildlife photographers and biodiversity explorers – BRT or BR Hills.

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The Biligirirangana Hills, commonly called BR Hills, is a hill range situated in south-eastern Karnataka, at its border with Tamil Nadu (Erode District) in South India. The area is called Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary or simply BRT Wildlife Sanctuary. It is a protected reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Being at the confluence of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats, the sanctuary is home to eco-systems that are unique to both the mountain ranges. The site was declared a tiger reserve in January 2011 by the Karnataka government, a few months after approval from India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority.

The hills are located at the easternmost edge of the Western Ghats and the westernmost edge of the Eastern Ghats. Thus this area supports a diverse flora and fauna in view of the various habitat types present. A wildlife sanctuary of 322.4 square kilometres (124.5 sq mi) was created around the temple on 27 June 1974, and enlarged to 539.52 square kilometres (208.31 sq mi) on 14 January 1987. The sanctuary derives its name Biligiri (white hill in Kannada) from the white rock face that constitutes the major hill crowned with the temple of Lord Ranganathaswamy (Lord Vishnu) or from the white mist and the silver clouds that cover these hills for a greater part of the year. An annual festival of Lord Vishnu, held in the month of April, draws pilgrims from far and wide. Once in two years, the Soliga Tribals present a 1-foot and 9 inches slipper, made of skin, to the deity in Biligiriranga Hills.

The BR hills links the Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats allowing animals to move between them and facilitating gene flow between populations of species in these areas. Thus, this sanctuary serves as an important biological bridge for the biota of the entire Deccan plateau.

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In the afternoon of 2nd March, 2019, I reached at Kyathdevaraya Gudi or K. Gudi Wilderness Camp of Jungle Lodge and Resorts, after a 6 hours of train journey from Bangalore to Chamarajanagar, and then a 30 km auto ride, till the Navodaya School of Handarballo village, where the forest check post of K Gudi is located. From the check post, Jungle Lodge’s driver Nagesh picked me up for the camp, it was another 30 minutes ride on up hills and hilly terrain with hair pin bends. En route, he gave me the news of leopard sighting on previous day and elephant sighting in the morning of that day.

At one spot he stopped his safari gypsy and drew my attention to a monitor lizard, however I was thinking, what would be the reaction of Dwaipayan and many other colleagues of Exploring Nature, if I spot a leopard in BRT. Of course, spotting any big cat is not in my list of expectations, although we all know, first principle of biodiversity exploration is “expect the unexpected!” Also, I was little annoyed with the thought of my preparedness for this visit. Without my best camera and lenses, what would be the big deal, even if I manage to spot a leopard in this reserve of Karnataka?

After a well spread buffet lunch, at the camp, we met at the reception to receive our briefings before commencing safari. Naturalist Abhinadan, explained us about general norms for forest safari, it was necessary as there were nearly 25 tourists, came to visit the park with kids and elderly people. And it was not so difficult to guess, by looking at them, that most of them had little or no experience in wildlife safaris.

The interesting facts I came to know from Abhinadan, were that BRT has representation of six forest types – scrubs, shola grassland, semi- evergreen, evergreen moist, moist and dry deciduous. Reportedly there were 55 tigers, 65 leopards and around 255 species of birds. Our first safari of the first day started at 4:00 PM, with nature guide cum driver Narayan, and continued till 6:30 PM, with little bit of usual “Tiger Drama” at the end.

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At the beginning of safari, we saw few regular birds like paradise flycatcher – rufous female and juvenile; blue headed bee-eater; common hawk cuckoo; and jungle owlet. We spotted lot of elephant dung, but not the big mammals. Few birds of prey spotted were – crested serpent eagle and oriental honey buzzard. At latter part of the safari, we saw a relatively uncommon bird – black stork and couple of Malabar giant squirrel. In next few days we saw the black stork several times and we must admit that population of Malabar giant squirrel, common hawk cuckoo and grey wag tail were quite high in that forest.

When we were planning to exit, one gypsy driver told us a tiger was spotted near battargatte water body, which was the place where we had been an hour back and spent about ten minutes to observe the oriental honey buzzard. The usual and familiar excitement erupted in our gypsy, as always. In the morning, Nagesh told me about leopard sighting, but Tiger sighting in BRT, is certainly big news! All the co-passengers screamed in excitement and driver Narayan got the message instantly, shouted towards us: “Hold tight!”, and then drove it like a formula one over the rough and lumpy terrain, to reach the spot at the earliest. We reached there in few minutes, already another gypsy was waiting there, the driver was Nagesh, and he shook his head towards us. No sight of big cat.

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A shy of disappointment in gypsy. Narayan’s reaction was as if he lost a million dollar stake – I felt worse for him, than me or other fellow tourists. A veteran and learned naturalist like him, kept telling sorry to us, till we reached our camp. As if the all two and half hours visit in this forest had gone in vein – as if we spent those hours in a broken land full of filthy garbage , not in one of the most significant biodiversity hotspots of India – as if it was not the biological bridge of Deccan plateau.

After reaching camp, when I was getting down from gypsy, I thanked Narayan, and complemented him for his knowledge on flora and fauna of BRT and again he said “sorry” for not being able to show us tiger. I had to intervene this time and said that he should not keep saying sorry. People who have little experience in forest, they are aware of uncertainty involves in finding predators or any big mammals in forest. People who love forest, they just love forest – every flora, fauna, terrain, waterbodies, odour and breeze – every bit of it. Not just one particular species. They also enjoy the uncertainties involved in exploring forest, and only such people come back to forest again and again.

There were altogether four gypsies in forest, and tourists of one gypsy saw the tiger near that waterbody. There were four tourists besides the driver, in that gypsy, and out of them one couple were most vocal and enthusiastic about sharing their evening experience in forest. Of course when we returned to camp and gathered for a short documentary film-show on western ghat forest, over high tea, that couple received some special attention from others. They had to tell their stories of tiger sighting multiple times to everybody, which they were doing with happiness mixed with pride.

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Of course most of the tourists who could not see tiger on that evening, considered that couple the luckiest, and were a bit jealous about them. During dinner, I heard whispers from other tables, speculating about sighting tigers in next day’s morning safari. The noticeable fact was, except one lawyer couple from Bangalore and I, all others will have their last safari in BRT on next morning, as all of them booked only one night package which includes two safaris. So, the next day morning safari would be most of the tourists’ only hope, and if they don’t succeed, they would say forest of BRT has nothing to see. In fact, in that evening during dinner, already few of them started saying that.

This is the general situation of wildlife tourism in India – as far as tourists’ expectation from forest is concerned.

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Next day, morning safari started at 6:20, after early morning tea and biscuits. I was in Narayan’s gypsy again with same group of tourists. While entering forest, Nayaran showed me Soliga settlement within forest. Being a Soliga by himself, he told me how he grew up in the lap of nature and becoming a forest guide and naturalist was actually a ‘natural’ profession for him. Now I felt little jealous about him, as in spite of being a sustainability consultant and natural history commentator by profession, I still live far away from nature than people like Nayaran do.

During discussion, another significance of BRT was revealed; BRT tiger reserve is the first protected area in the country where community forest rights (CFR) have been granted under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). On October 2, 2011, as many as 25 villages of Soliga tribal located inside the sanctuary received community rights, including the crucial forest conservation and management right to around 60 per cent of the sanctuary area, comprising the Yellandur, K Gudi and Punjanur ranges. Some 30 more villages located inside the sanctuary are awaiting CFR.

During morning safari, near a waterbody we saw a striped necked mongoose, quickly ran into forest, once it noticed our presence. Also there were fresh pug marks of leopard, it appeared the leopard came out from the waterbody after drinking water and then sat on the forest path for a while before finally disappearing into forest. Besides mongoose, other mammals spotted were an adult male Gaur (Indian bison), few Indian muntjacks, spotted deer and sambar deer. A beautiful white adult paradise flycatcher was found flocking for a while in nearby trees, other birds worth mentioning were Indian black bird, Malabar whistling thrush, streak throated woodpecker and male plum headed parakeet. Morning safari ended at 8:30 AM and we came back to camp for breakfast. Now it’s time to take rest and make notes. Lot to document, as long as memories are fresh.

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The afternoon safari, started at 3:45 PM, with driver Nagesh. Naturalist Abhinandan also joined us. The number of tourists got significantly reduced as it was a Sunday afternoon, and for most of the tourists the weekend was over and they should get back to work on next day. We saw few old pug marks and territory marking by urine by a male tiger. A soft shelled turtle in water and few scarlet minivet and a greater coucal added some excitement in my exploration.

Next day morning safari started at 6:30 with only one gypsy, as there were just 5 tourists. Abhinandan and Nagesh were there in gypsy too, and we started following fresh pug marks of wild dogs, which led us to a shallow ditch where we found few scared sambars were gathered and looking around. We could make the stories out – with all probability the herd were chased by pack of wild dogs. At the end of the safari, we witnessed another chasing – this time in sky – the same black stork got chased by a crested serpent eagle, near the waterbody, where the stork was always found. A bit unusual as a crested serpent eagle may not like to prey upon a bird as big as a black stork. Then we discovered there was a juvenile serpent eagle sitting on the tree, where the stork was always found to sit. It could be the case, that the adult serpent eagle was shooing away the stork, for the safety of the juvenile one. While we were coming out of the forest, after biding adieus to BRT, saw a huge male Gaur grazing along the path.

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Conflict in Swampland : An aborted exploration !

Annual Meeting – Guwahati – Balipara – Nameri

23rd December, 2018,

I flew from Bangalore to Guwahati, reached Gopinath Bordoloi Airport at around 5:30 PM. Dwaipayan arrived from Kolkata at around 6:00 PM, and then together we traveled to Khanapara, where we stayed in an OYO room. In the evening we met author of Exploring Himalayas and photographer Mukul Mukherjee, and few other local Asammese wildlife enthusiasts, who have profuse experience in wild life. We had our meeting in a local restaurant and were primarily discussing wildlife photography and improper behaviour of tourists in National Parks in India. Ethical issues related to wildlife management was also a topic of discussion.

During meeting we worked on a draft plan around involving Mukul in “Journey to Save Tigers” initiative launched by Rathin Das. For which Exploring Nature is the communication partner. We discussed probability of doing a long march in Western Ghats area and conducting a workshop with the help of PTPC and WWF. Mukul is a volunteer and member with WWF and has conducted lot of awareness workshop in North East India, specially in Namdhapa, Kaziranga and Manas.

Evening dinner with different preparation of pork with whiskey after the brainstorming session was quite fabulous.

route for long march

24th December, 2018;

at 8:30 AM, we started for Balipara, where Dwaipayan is posted as site engineer for a 400 KVA transformer installation project of National Power Grid Corporation. It was 4-5 hours of road travel for about 180 km distance. We reached Balipara Power grid Corporations’ township at 3:30 in afternoon.

After reaching there we did a quick visit to villages around the township, where frequent incidents of human elephant conflicts had happened in recent past. We saw few paddy fields where crops were destroyed by elephants, and small shops which were smashed by them.

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Evening we had a very unique Christmas Eve party within switch yard of 400 KVA power station, with other engineers and contractors of power grid. Special menu of the party was duck meat, Bacardi and Goan country liquor – feni, which I carried from Bangalore.

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25th December, 2018;

at 11:00 AM we went to Nameri National Park, which is 14 km away from the power station. Nameri National Park is a national park in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in the Sonitpur District of Assam, India, about 35 km from Tezpur. Nameri is about 9 km from Chariduar, the nearest village.  Nameri shares its northern boundary with the Pakhui Wildlife Sanctuary of Arunachal Pradesh. Together they constitute an area of over 1000 km2 of which Nameri has a total area of 200 km2. The park was declared a reserve forest on 17 October 1978. It was set up as a Nameri Sanctuary on 18 September 1985 with an area of137 km2 as a part of Naduar Forest Reserve. Until then the Nameri National Park was heavily used for logging. Another 75  km2 was added on 15 November 1998 when it was officially established as a National Park.

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The vegetation type of Nameri is of semi-evergreen, moist deciduous forests with cane and bamboo brakes and narrow strips of open grassland along rivers. The forests are rich in epiphytes, lianas, and creepers and clump-forming bamboo. This forest has over 600 species. Some notable species are Gmelina arborea, Michelia champaca, Amari, Chukrasia tabularis, Ajar, Urium poma, Bhelou, Agaru, Rudraksha, Bonjolokia, Hatipolia akhakan, hollock, Nahor. It is home for orchids like Dendrobium, Cymbidium and Cypripedioideae. This is excellent elephant country and was considered to be an elephant reserve. It is an ideal habitat for a host of other animals including the tiger, leopard, sambar, dhole (the Asiatic wild dog), pygmy hog, Indian wild bison, clouded leopard, leopard cat, muntjac, gaur, wild boar, sloth bear, Himalayan black bear, capped langur and Indian giant squirrel. Nameri is a birdwatcher’s paradise with over 300 species. The white winged wood duck, great pied hornbill, wreathed hornbill, rufous necked hornbill, black stork, ibis bill, blue-bearded bee-eaters, babblers, plovers and many other birds make Nameri their home. Nameri faces two threats: One is due to continued official logging in the area of Sonitpur. The major threat for Nameri is human/animal conflict due to around 3000 cattle grazing the forest. The other human/animal conflict is due to the vast group of elephants in Nameri. There were several cases of elephant deaths. In 2001 there were 18 elephant deaths. A great threat is possessed on this protected area because of poachers who hunt the valuable birds for their wings.IMG_20181225_130209186

Bush walk in the park started at 1:00 PM, after crossing the 40 feet deep Jia Bhoroli River. The Jia Bhoroli river of Assam was famous since the time of British for the golden mahseer angling. While crossing the river we spotted few cormorant and wood ducks. Our guide was Lalit Bohra, from the beginning of the forest trail, he was telling us how risky it is to see wild lives, when you are in your feet on forest path.

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We saw few Tokey Gecko at the beginning. After half an hour of bush walk, all of a sudden, we heard noise of animal movement from our right hand side, from a nearby scrubs. Lalit noticed a porcupine slides trough deep forest. After an hour when we were walking along a water body, Lalit suddenly asked us to stop. We saw a herd of Water Buffalo. A huge bull was leading the herd. Wild Buffalo could be quite dangerous if they feel threatened by human presence, and escaping them could be difficult if they charge. Therefore, instead of standing and taking photos, we crossed that place in hurry and hidden behind a nearby watch tower. The herd also turned around and disappeared within forest. Probably, they were coming for water, but our presence stopped them as well. Once they were disappeared, we came out and tried to follow their course and saw they were going deep inside the forest._DSC0006

After another half an hour of trail walk, we reached to another watch tower, climbed up to top of the tower. There we waited for an hour. We saw one Indian Bison (Gaur) or locally known as Mithun appeared while grazing. It was a huge male. We saw couple of female sambar deers as well._DSC0015

At around, 3:30 PM, we climbed down, and started walking to come out of the forest. When we were crossing a path through grassland, we heard frequent call of sambar deer. That confirmed movement of big cat in nearby forest. Lalit told us couple of days back he saw two Bengal tigers, presumably, one female and her sub adult cub, in that same grassland. Possibility of face off with Bengal tigers in grassland, when we were also on our feet, gave a goose bump for a moment. After that we concluded our 3 hours long forest trekking of 5 km long trail.

26th December, 2018;

whole day we spent in reviewing videos of Rathin Das’s fasting and interaction with local villagers of Sundarban, as part of “Journey to save Tigers” and “Protest against Tiger habitat loss” in Sundarban area of West Bengal. We decided the basic pattern of the 15 minutes documentary, which will be uploaded in Exploring Nature’s YouTube channel.

Conflict in Swampland – An aborted exploration

27th December, 2018,

morning at 6 o’clock, I left Balipara to catch Calcutta bound flight from Tezpur Airport. A tiny airport which started commercial operation just few weeks back on 9th December. When I reached there, the main gate of the airport was closed, and that was first time in my life, in my 15 years of flying experience, I made the CRPF Jawans open the gates of airport, as I was the first passenger of the day. The airport was primarily guarded by women CRPF personnel.

I reached Kolkata at 11:30 AM, via a short halt at Guwahati. After that, I had flight for Dhaka, and my exploration in Swampland began. The plan was to stay in Dhaka with co explorer and member of Exploring Nature, Sankar Singha, at his company guest house. Sankar was posted in Bangladesh for few years as an Environment, Health and Safety Manager of a Power generation company. We had two nights three days plan to explore Bangladesh part of Sundarban. Sundarbans, formerly Sunderbunds, vast tract of forest and saltwater swamp forming the lower part of the Padma (Ganges [Ganga])-Brahmaputra River delta in south-eastern West Bengal state, northeaster India, and southern Bangladesh. The tract extends approximately 160 miles (260 km) west-east along the Bay of Bengal from the Hugli River estuary in India to the western segment of the Meghna River estuary in Bangladesh and reaches inland for about 50 miles (80 km) at its broadest point. A network of estuaries, tidal rivers, and creeks intersected by numerous channels, it encloses flat, densely forested, marshy islands. The total area of the Sundarbans, including both land and water, is roughly 3,860 square miles (10,000 square km), about three-fifths of which is in Bangladesh. Therefore, we thought, the Swampland exploration should start from Bangladesh Sundarban, instead of India (West Bengal).

28th December, 2018,

morning we were headed towards Kamalapur railway station, after an overnight stay at Sankar’s company guesthouse, at Dhaka’s posh locality of Baridhara, to catch Sundarban Express to go to Khulna. From Khulna, we were supposed to take cruiser for Sundarban trip. 30th December, the general election of Bangladesh was supposed to be held, and election in Bangladesh has always been messy and bloody. In previous few elections, it created lot of unrest in country, therefore our tour operator advised us to get into cruiser on 28th December itself, whereas the tour would start from 29th December.

Following was our tentative agenda:

Day Place Transport Schedule
 

Day – 01

 

 

 

 

Khulna – Kotka

 

Boat

Arrival at Khulna in the morning at around 06:00hrs, and report to our waiting cruiser M. V. BHELA at forest jetty Khulna, at 07:00am sharp the boat will start cruising towards the Sundarbans Forest. Arrive Kotka wildlife sanctuary at around 1600hrs.  Upon arrival hiking in the Kotka forest area to see wildlife and forest. Back to the boat in the evening. Overnight on the boat.
 

Day – 02

 

 

 

 

Kotka – Kochikhali

 

Boat

Early in the morning we shall offer trip through small creeks and canals by country boat to see the wildlife and feel the forest from very close. After breakfast Jungle walk, walking through the Forest trail to the beach etc will be offered. At around 12:00hrs start cruising towards Kochikhali wildlife sanctuary, upon arrival Jungle walk near forest office. Bar – B – Q dinner and overnight on the boat at Kochikhali
 

Day – 03

 

 

 

 

Kochikhali – Khulna

 

Boat

 

 

 

Early in the morning we shall offer trip through small creeks and canals by country boat, back to the boat for breakfast and some other activities near forest office. Around 1000hrs, start return journey towards Khulna. Arrive Khulna at around 21:00hrs and dinner will be served. After dinner disembark from the boat and end of the tour

We boarded on train, the station was jam packed. Everybody was going home, as it was a long weekend with Friday a public holiday, and Saturday, Sunday – election. Although, our compartment was quite empty as it was an AC reserved compartment. We took our seats and kept our bags on  overhead bunks. We were quite stressed out – more psychological than physical – the hustle bustle of the chaotic railway station probably made us bit panicked. Once, we saw the calm and clean compartment, we felt relaxed and the holiday mood engulfed our mind. We got settled and engrossed in deep conversation on wildlife and biodiversity.IMG_20181228_061944159

We almost forgot about our surrounding, and anyway there was nothing interesting around us, the sight of dingy railway track side of Bangladesh railways was definitely not worth viewing and remembering.

Sankar and I got involved into deep conversation on wildlife and biodiversity issues across the world, specifically in India and South Asia. It was fascinating to hear someone like Sankar, a well-travelled and earnest wildlife enthusiast, on wildlife of Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. I was sharing my experience in Savannah of South Africa, Scottish Highland and Sumatran Rain Forest.

The train stopped at next station (Biman Bandar station). Few more passengers boarded; I looked up towards luggage bunk and got a chill in my spine. My camera bag was not there where I kept it. For few seconds I could not believe, what I saw. But it also didn’t take much time to comprehend the reality!

Yes, the hard truth was I lost my latest Nikon D720 camera (which was used only once in Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, last summer), one Sigma 150-600 mm lens, i-pad, 1 TB hard drive (with all my work), and my official laptop. The hardest part was, my passport was also in that same bag.

I lost the bag, or precisely somebody stolen it. It was full of around 2-3 lakhs rupees worth stuff inside it.

We got down from the train, Sundarban trip got cancelled then and there. But at that point of time more than disappointment of trip cancellation, fear of dealing with uncertainty and anticipation of tough time ahead of us, was prominent in our mind.

I got stranded in the foreign land, without passport. Next few days would be running between police station and high commission offices, amidst the tension of election.

I did lot of biodiversity exploration in remotest and risky part of the world. Got chased by wild elephants; felt presence of fearsome predators around me; dealt with adverse natural calamities; almost got drowned in whirlpool; got my tent ransacked by baboons. But never felt so hopeless in the middle of any exploration.

In all previous cases, situation popped up in front of me, without giving any time to be prepared for those. The risk was high but the pain due to stress of dealing with such situation was short-lived. But, this situation came with a message that an incremental level of stress was waiting for me for an indefinite period of time.

In that situation, only think I could tell myself that “adventurous life comes with pain!”

This year would end soon, in another few days. I don’t know, when I would go back home. But on that very moment I decided to pull myself together, and decided to dedicate the New Year, the 2019, for exploring biodiversity in Swampland. The year 2019 would be the year to explore Conflict in Swampland.

2nd January, 2019,

after five days of running between Indian high commission, police station and Bangladesh embassy, Sankar and I decided to do some biodiversity exploration, to ensure the trip doesn’t go complete waste.

I am grateful to Sankar, as on those days he arranged my accommodation in his company guesthouse and deployed his local travel agent to coordinate with Bangladesh visa processing departments. He made his office vehicle and driver available for all this coordination work with different departments.

In those days, amidst election in the country, I didn’t have much opportunity to go around. But I utilised that time to consolidate my thoughts on my future exploration plan and as a result, I conceptualized the idea of my book “In the Shadow of Tiger”. Also, Sankar’s amazing colleagues always gave me company during evening badminton games and jogging around a nearby park. His local Bangladeshi cook, was an artist of preparing Bangladeshi delicacy. Therefore, overall I was having good time there in Dhaka, apart from the little glitch in mind over the uncertainty in going back home.

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So, on 2nd January morning, after the declaration of result of Bangladesh general election, when it was considered safe to travel around in the country, we went to Jahangirnagar University.

The university stands on the west side of the Asian Highway, popularly known as the Dhaka-Aricha Road, and is 32 kilometres away from the capital. Spread over an area of 697.56 acres (2.8 km²), the campus surrounded by the Bangladesh Public Administration Training Centre (BPATC) on the south, and the Savar Cantonment on the northeast, on the north of which is the National Monument (Jatiyo Smriti Soudho) and a large dairy farm on the east. The topography of the land with its gentle rise and plains is pleasing to the eyes. The water features sprawled around the campus make an excellent habitat for the winter birds that flock in every year in the thousands and consequently, it is a site frequented by many bird watchers. The campus has around 20-22 waterbodies which made it a sanctuary for winter migratory birds. Migratory birds come to the campus from Siberia, China and Himalayans reign during the period between December and January. Among others species, the lesser whistling ducks which is known as Choto Sorali and greater whistling ducks is known as Boro Sorali are found more in JU lakes than other species.IMG_20190102_120200491

Gargeney, lesser whistling duck, Indian hawk cuckoo, little cormorant, jungle babbler, spotted dove, stork-billed kingfisher, grey-headed fish eagle and Asian open bill are some of its notable species that can be commonly seen. If one is lucky enough, then they might get a sighting of the locally rare scaly thrush or brown-winged kingfisher. This university campus isn’t just famous for birds though, rare reptiles and mammals such as black krait, many-lined sun skink and golden jackals also reside here. So it is quite a gem for birdwatchers around the capital city and foreigners who love birds and wild lives must also put this university campus in their travelling list. On 19 January 2017, the university arranged a bird fair in its Zahir Rayhan auditorium of the campus._DSC0084

We reached there around 10:00 am, it was one hour thirty minutes’ drive from Dhaka, approximately 33 km. We were there till 1:30 PM and then had lunch at local Bangladeshi restaurant within campus, with authentic and ethnic Bangladeshi food.IMG_20190102_122400201

During our visit, we saw open billed stork, lesser whistling duck, lesser cormorant, bronze winged jacana, pond heron, purple heron, red vented bulbul, common drongo, oriental magpie robin, lesser furvulous woodpecker and one water monitor.

The ponds were blushing with blooming red water lilies. _DSC0108

In the Shadow of the Tiger : The Quest for Bengal Tiger

Part Three : From the Shadow to Light……

Explorers in 7th Heaven

The relationship between man and tiger is in existence since time immemorial. Our ancestors looked upon the tiger as a symbol of power. The tribes still worship tiger as god. Some of their deities are called Waghjai or Waghdev. In the Sundarbans, a little-known goddess Bon-biwi graces its forests. The story goes that Bonbiwi, the “lady of the jungle”, was chosen by God to protect people who worked in the Sundarbans against a greedy man-eating half sage half tiger-demon named Dakshin Rai.

Tigers were present in large numbers at the beginning of the twentieth century. They were found in almost all the forests. But since those days man has been determined to make them extinct. Looking at the large number of tigers in India, they will never perish here, is what all hunters seem to agree upon. During the rule of British Empire, tigers dwindled in a big way.

Tiger is a very sensitive animal and spotting a tiger in the forest is exciting for any nature lover. The explorers have been searching for this reclusive and enchanting animal of forest for a long time now. They were in Bandipur National Park, in the winter of 2015, when the news of killing of Gaur by a male tiger spreaded across the country and wildlife photographers and experts from all corners of the nation, rushed towards Bandipur, with a hope of sighting the killer tiger.

There they spotted another elusive big cat – leopard and also witnessed the rarest natural phenomena of their courtship, but no luck with Bengal Tiger.

They took part in one of the most difficult forest trekking of the country – bush walk in the tiger trail of Periyar Tiger Reserve, with Forest Officials and rehabilitated poachers. They felt the presence of the beautiful beast very closely – spotted fresh pug mark of huge male tiger on the muddy trail, heard strong warning call of Sambar in the vicinity of their tents, in core area of the forest, but no sight of the animal itself.

They explored forests of central India, in the summer of 2016 – and again they were pretty close to spot the most powerful predator of Indian forests. They heard strong warning calls of Sambar, Langur, Spotted Deer, Jackal, Peafowl, and Jungle Fowl –which were indicative of big cat movements -– the kind of call which they never heard before – nothing could be more affirmative than such calls, to confirm a big cat on the move. Such calls were also corroborated by evidences of fresh pug mark on soil. But the animal didn’t reveal itself.

With several close and failed attempts, they almost decided to declare that “they don’t want to spot Bengal Tiger in forest anymore!” And, then, they launched their seventh exploration – at the beginning of New Year, 2017 – in the tiger capital of India, at the jewel of Vidarbha – Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) – as their last dedicated attempt to spot Bengal Tiger in the wild.DSC_0021

Just the night before the exploration would start, Dwaipayan called Arnab and the enlightening conversation followed:
“I did some numerology!” he sounded super excited.
“What Numerology?”
“What is the number of this series of our exploration?”
“’Wagh Alaa Patil’ is the 7th Exploration of Exploring Nature.”
“How many tiger reserves we have visited so far?”
“Six already and Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve will be the 7th Tiger Reserve to be visited”
“And what is the number of Indian Big 7 member, we are searching for?”
“We are in search of the 7th Member of Indian Big-7, i.e. Bengal Tiger, this time….wow everything is falling in line.” – Arnab was amused to notice this symmetry.
“And it doesn’t end here” – Dwaipayan kept telling – “Explorations will start on 14th of January 2017, 14 is a multiple of 7; T-Shirt of “Tigers’ Terrain (exploration in central India)” was released on 14th of January 2016; “Tigers’ Terrain” ended on 14th of May 2016; “In the cave with Orangutan” was announced on 14th July 2016; Exploring Nature in African Safari started on 14th February 2016, therefore, 7 is a lucky number for us, something different will definitely happen this time”

That was a hilarious but interesting observation and the explorers, literally, to be on the 7th heaven this time.

On the 14th of January, at 2:30 PM they started their 7th exploration in the buffer zone of TATR through Kolara gate. This time they had a third explorer – Subhashish in the team. Spotting rare wild lives in the buffer zone was less likely and so the anticipation was not nail-biting. Guide Praveen was telling them, that, animals are generally shy in the buffer zone, as they are not used to human beings and safari jeeps. Not many tourists visit the buffer zone. Forest is sporadic and there are less colonies or herds of herbivores in this part of the forest. That also reduces the movement of predators in this part. Therefore, spotting predators is more challenging in the buffer zone than in the core area.

Praveen was actually telling them; the job of forest guides and gypsy drivers of the core area, is easier than their counter parts in the buffer area, as in the core area they know where a territorial predator can be spotted. Every predator has their defined territory in the core area. But in the buffer zone, they are always in movement, so they need to move throughout the forest to spot them.

Literally, they didn’t find even a single spotted deer, which was very unusual for them with respect to their experiences in Indian rain and dry or moist deciduous forest. The most common animal glimpsed in this type of forest is spotted deer.

However, at their surprise, they spotted a big male antelope looking at their gypsy, curious and scaDSC_0030red. Driver Ashish stopped the vehicle, so that everybody could get an opportunity to take pictures. Initially they were confused, if it was an Indian Muntjack, but later they realized that, it was one of the rare ungulates to spot in the forest – a four horned antelope or Chausingha.

At the same place, where the Chausingha was grazing, they saw one sacred grove decorated with lot of colorful scarves (dupatta used as part of dress by Indian women). Guide Praveen told them the folklore of a village woman, who was chased by a tiger in this forest. While running away, the woman threw her dupatta and the tiger pounced on the dupatta instead of her and tore it apart. The woman escaped and her life was spared. After that incident, the local villagers started worshipping that place and offered colored scarves, symbolizing protection from tiger attacks.

Generally tigers of TATR are not known for man eating; however, just two days before the exploration, reportedly one village woman was killed by a tiger. Driver Ashish told them, there were more such cases of tiger attacks on human, but not all were reported officially. TATR is a good maternity center for Bengal Tiger and number of tigers is on the rise, in good proportion. Currently there are 88 tigers in a 624 sq km forest area. Not enough space for such territorial animals. Based on news published in national print media – “For more than four years now, one person dies in tiger attacks around Tadoba every month—a frequency of conflict higher than anywhere, recorded, except the Bangladeshi Sunderbans, in recent times”. In TATR, most of these incidents took place in the buffer zone.

Their first safari ended at 6:30 PM, key species spotted were, Male Nilagai, Northern Plain Langur, Female Bison, Herds of Sambar, Male Wild Boar and 23 different species of birds.

Next day onwards, all safaris were in the core zone. The 2nd safari in the morning of 15th January, started at 6:00 AM. Subhasish could not join, as his entry permit was not ready, so it was the duo Dwaipayan and Arnab. The early morning was dark and freezing cold, temperature was around 7-8OC. In the open top moving gypsy, in the core area of TATR forest, the chilling wind was piercing their bodies. Guide Eknath and driver Nikhil were hopeful and enthusiasts for tiger sightings, as in the previous evening, a tigress with her cubs were spotted near Panderpouni water hole. The Explorers were familiar with the kind of enthusiasms from the forest guides, which eventually yielded nothing in all previous cases. So, they were not as cheerful as their fellow forest mates. On top of that, they were struggling to keep their fingers on camera shutters in that biting cold. Gradually the light was improving; accordingly, explorers were adjusting exposure and ISO setting of cameras. At around 6:45 AM, strong call of a spotted deer was heard from the North East direction of their movement.

The call did not excite them, as warning call of spotted deer can hardly be trusted.

“Wild Boars are running away” – Both Eknath and Dwaipayan whispered at the same time.

“Similar situation we witnessed in Kanha, near Munna’s den” – Arnab, was not optimistic enough.

An entire herd of spotted deer and two wild boars were found running away to opposite direction. Eknath asked Nikhil to turn around the vehicleDSC_0005 and move towards water body number 01, where a forest department watch tower was stationed. Skilled gypsy driver Nikhil, parked the vehicle diagonally opposite to the watch tower and in few seconds, B3 aka Maya, the queen of TATR appeared through bushes. She was moving slowly towards a herd of spotted deer, she was waiting for a kill. The spotted deer was giving warning call furiously.

Arnab looked at his watch – it was exactly 7:00 AM!

Tiger Tales

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The life of the tiger is entwined with the forest. His color, built, size, and habitats are all attuned to that particular forest. A tiger moves around the forest like a predator. A predator has to be superior to its prey, or else it will be difficult for him to survive. Whether it’s a deer, an antelope or a bison, the tiger has to employ both devious and robust tactics to dishearten the prey. Nature has bestowed upon tiger all the requisites to be a good hunter. He almost seems like a destructive hunting machine. The tiger is the supreme hunter of the forest. There is no animal in the forest that hunts the tiger for meal; an almost every animal can be a tiger’s prey. So the forests are filled with the terror of the tiger, and celebrated tigress of TATR, Maya’s movement in front of the explorers, in her territory at Panderpouni, was depicting all these features. She was hungry and stalking the herd of spotted deer. The explorers watched her movement for one hour before she disappeared into thick forest.

Maya grew up as part of a recognized and noticeable family, by the Telia lake, with three other siblings, two boisterous sisters and a very shy brother. Maya was the most rowdy and gregarious one in her family and till today reigns in the area. After the NTCA directive, Tadoba has cut down on many routes which resulted in overcrowding of vehicles in Maya’s territory at Pandharpaoni. Currently, the entire Kolsa range has been kept inviolate as all the premium routes like Kakadghat, Shivanzari, Kuoni, Suklibodi Lake and Yenbodi have been closed for tourism. Besides, the route between Moharli-Kolsa has also been shut. Only village roads from Pangdi and Zari to Kolsa and Rantalodi are open for tourists. Moreover, in Tadoba range, Vasant Bhandara-Katezari-Kala Amba-Ambe Paat route has also been closed. Hence, the other popular tigers like Namdeo, Gabbar, Pandu are not being sighted. Jamni’s ‘Chhoti Tara’ has left for a secluded spot as she is busy nursing her new borns, while ‘Sonam’ of Telia and her cubs are not regularly sighted. Hence, tourists make a beeline for Maya.

When Maya was spotted for the first time, through apertures of trees and the watch tower, the explorers held their breath for a while and for the next few minutes they remained awestruck, in disbelief, that, finally lady luck favored them. They were unaware what was happening around them for the next half an hour, their eyes laid on view finders of the cameras, left hand occupying and adjusting lenses and index finger of right hand was restless pressing the shutters. They could not notice anything but the beautiful creature; they didn’t hear anything but the sound of shutters. Beyond Maya, space-time continuum was standstill. The spectators were hypnotized by her “Maya”, magic spell.

After Maya’s disappearance into dense forest, water hens in the water hole number 1 were clicked. Shortly after, Eknath and Nikhil moved their gypsy towards Tadoba lake via Jamni, with a hope to encounter Choti Tara and her cubs. But fate didn’t approve in the next two and half hours of combing through the forest.

While passing through the Tadoba lake, Nikhil stopped his gypsy again and Eknath exclaimed “Tiger”!

DSC_0075The very word tiger evokes an image of courage and cruelty, and inspires awe. A huge male tiger T54 aka Matkasur was spotted near Tadoba Lake at 9:30 AM, a living image of that vigor and ferocity. He was moving along the lake-shore, pausing intermittently and looking at the water. A huge marsh crocodile was basking on the bank. Matkasur tried to attack it, and the explorers heard a large noise of water splash, the crocodile jumped into water to save its life. After that, the mighty Matkasur kept walking again along the brink of the lake and en route, he was halting and smelling tree trunks. Tigers practice it to identify smell of his or any previous tiger’s urine to identify their territory. After 15-20 minutes of walk, the explorers followed him in gypsy; he crossed the road in front of them and vanished into the other side of the forest.

The safari ended at 10:30 AM and other key species identified were Bronze Winged Jacana, Pied Bush Chat and few birds of prey like Oriental Honey Buzzard, White Eyed Buzzard and Changeable Hawk Eagle. While exiting forest, they found another eluding, nocturnal animal, a Tree Shrew and before reaching their base camp at Chimur, one venomous Russel’s Viper snake was spotted sprawling near a paddy field.

The explorers began their third safari on the same day, between 2:15 and 6:30 PM. Pug mark of female tiger and cub were noticed at around 4:00 PM. But the animals were nowhere to be found.

The 4th Safari started on 16th January, at 6:15 AM and ended at 10:30 AM. The forest was very quiet on that day, with no indication of any big cat movement, which reminded Arnab about the experiences in the forest of Pench and Kanha in last summer. Subhashis missed the drama on previous day and was hopeful of big cat sightings. But so far the situation was disappointing.

At around 8:30 AM, pug marks of Leopard and Jungle Cat was found on the way towards Navengaon area. Around 10:00 AM near Panderpouni area, mild warning calls of Sambar and spotted deer was heard. The explorers interpreted the calls to be Maya and her cubs movements from one side of their territory to other.

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On their return, the gypsy driver Nikhil was briefing on the tiger community of TATR. He was stating the conflict between Maya and Matkasur. Matkasur wanted Maya’s surrender but the cubs were a hindrance to that. Once Matkasur attacked her cubs, Maya and her sons defeated him, fighting all together. Maya’s cubs were borne by another male tiger Gabbar (also known as Leopard face) aka Sher Khan aka Ma7 (TAD), who was once the undisputed king of TATR. After the rise of Matkasur, the conflict between Gabbar and Matkasur was inevitable. Recent fight was reported at water body number 97, probably over Maya. Another tigress Choti Tara is incognito in the forest nowadays, as she has young cubs to protect and feed. However, cubs of Choti Tara were borne by Matkasur. Maya had three cubs with Gabbar, out of that one male and one female were separated from her, because of frequent attacks by Matkasur. Now the parted male cub cannot come back to Maya as his brother has grown up and would not allow him to come close to her mother. However, he would not have any problem with her once isolated sister to come back, as he would require a mating partner soon.

All these stories suggest that Maya aka B3’s sub adult cub has all the potential to give a good run for the money to all contemporary male tigers of TATR, over right of the territory.

The Road Show

The 5th Safari started at 2:30 PM of 16th January and that was the last safari for the explorers through Kolara gate. After that, their plan was to move towards Moharli gate which would be around 40 km from their current base location. Three explorers with guide Dilip and driver Vinod started towards North-West direction. Afternoon in the forest of TATR was quite bright and warm with approximately 30-35 O C temperature. After 30 minutes of driving, pug mark of female with cubs were spotted. They started following the pug mark which lingered into South East direction. Fresh pug mark of sloth bear was spotted along the way. After few kilometers of driving, they moved again into North-West direction, and pug mark of male tiger was observed, along with mild call of Sambar. Their previous guide Eknath was in another gypsy ahead of them, he signaled to move towards water body number 79, close to Nawachila.

The explorers, along with 6 other gypsies, stopped in front of water body 79 at Nawachila. They waited there for 15 minutes, but no indication of any movement was sensed. The call stopped long time back. One after another, gypsies left that place, tourists who regarded forest as a zoological park, lost patience in no time.

However, Dilip and Vinod decided not to move at all. If there was any possibility of sighting a tiger at all, under the circumstances, it was there in that particular spot. The logic was simple, fresh pug mark followed the route and faded near the bushes, on the side of the forest path. The tiger moves as stealthily as a shadow. It is difficult to believe that, this animal, weighing 150-250 kg, can walk in utter silence. The tiger’s paws are padded. So, their foothills are cushioned while walking, and dry leaves or twigs don’t crackle under his foot. But as their paws are padded, they don’t prefer to walk in thorny undergrowth. The tigers roam the paths in the forests and also the roads. Therefore, there was strong a chance that, a male tiger whose pug mark they followed, had a temporary hideout in the undergrowth alongside the forest path and he would come out at some point of time. However, nobody knew for sure, might be after dusk, might not before tourists leave the forest at the closing hour of safari, defined by forest department.

After waiting there for 45 more minutes, at around 3:45 PM, Arnab muttered, “Langur’s call!”

Dilip nodded his head in agreement; langur’s call was heard twice. Vinod moved the gypsy little further towards North-West direction, from where the call was coming.

Arnab cried again, “Stop, stop!”

Around 5-6 langurs were found at a tree top – restless and giving warning calls gazing underneath, inside the forest; as frequent as five times. Dilip advised to go back to the original place, and wait there. Dwaipayan assured, “Definitely there is a tiger, and there is no doubt about it, only it’s a matter of time when it will come out in clear!”

Vinod parked the vehicle again in front of water body number 79. Next 15 minutes was plain waiting, in apprehension, realigning position of cameras, checking and readjusting camera settings anticipating from where the tiger could come out and what should be the light setting requirements of that area.

“Alarm call again!” yelled Dwaipayan and Dilip almost at the same time. A spotted deer was bellowing ceaselessly, in life and death situation and the call was coming from not more than 500 meters of distance from their gypsy.

It was confirmed; as the forest proclaimed to each and every living and non-living beings in the wilderness of TATR, the terror of TATR, the most dreaded predator of any Indian forest, manifested in close proximity.

Other gypsies were coming back one by one; everybody in forest heard that call.

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At around 4:00 PM, one sub adult male tiger appeared near water body number 79, at Nawachila. He was the male descendent of B3 aka Maya. The explorers’ gypsy was at the nearest within 200 meters from the fascinating creature.

The explorers froze at the juncture, with their eyes on the view finder, bodies bent over side railing of the gypsy, left hands on lenses, placed carefully on bin bags and index fingers of right hand didn’t know how to stop pressing the shutter.

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What they saw through the view finders, was a proportionate long body, silent foothills, long back stripes on brownish-orange or tawny coat body, round head – coming closer and closer. With his every sturdy step, he was exuding the message loud and clear – why every animal in the forest should be terrified of him. Through the view finder it seemed, the head was growing bigger and he was approaching right towards them, conquering distances, from 200 meters to 100 meters to 50 meters. His bright yellowish eyes were fixated on them, sending chills down the spine, causing stress on the nervous systems. Was that the time to throw away cameras and scream for life?

No way! That was the rarest moment of life, probably would never come again!

They could not remove their eyes from the view finder or their right index fingers from the shutter. That was the moment they were yearning for such a long time, since winter of 2015, since Nagarhole and Bandipur.

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He started moving towards the course of South-East, sniffing everything around him. He had the requisite to smell urine spread by him or any other previous tigers, to identify the safe territory, he was a cub after all, an adolescent cub who was learning how to live life in the forest without his mother’s protection. Then he needed to spread urine furthermore, to mark the territory and kept walking on the forest path in the same direction. All the gypsies (by that time there were around 50 gypsies gathered, if not more) started following him.

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The road show continued for around 10 minutes, before he became invisible in the deep forest. In last 5 minutes, explorers shut their cameras, and enjoyed the whole exhibit through their naked eyes, rather than the view finders of their cameras.

Natural phenomena are enjoyed best by natural tools.

That was Bhola, the sub adult cub of B3 aka Maya. For most of the forest guides and gypsy drivers, that very evening was the first moment of seeing him alone, travelling out of his territory and moving from one corner of forest to other.

After 15 days of these explorations, Dwaipayan received news from his special source, that Bhola had a fight with T54 aka Matkasur near Panderpouni, resulting in his defeat and eventual expulsion.

Probably, very soon, whole of TATR will witness a coronation ceremony of their new crown prince.

On 17th January, in the morning, the explorers left for Moharli gate and reached at MTDC resort by afternoon. They didn’t have any safari planned for that day, therefore in the evening; they decided to go near the entry gate of the core area of the forest to replenish their rations. The idea was to walk around 2 kms from the MTDC resort to the Moharli gate at around 7:00 PM. However, at the last minute, they changed their plan and booked a cab to go to Chandrapur town, which was 35 kms away from the resort. The road between MTDC resort and Chandrapur passes through the forest area of Tadoba. On their way, they found a Palm Civet on the side of the road, and again at around 9:30 PM, on their way back. Driver Palash informed them about his countless exposures with Leopards while driving through this road, and the incidents of Leopards attacking local villagers. The tale of a man eating Leopard, killing 5-6 villagers, before it was caught by forest department and sent to rescue center, was particularly haunting.

Then he mentioned something, which left the explorers shivering. On that evening, when he was on his way to pick up the explorers, caught a glimpse of a Leopard near MTDC resort, and that was not an unfamiliar occurrence for him. The explorers were hesitant, their initial idea of walking 2 km to go to the entry gate of the forest from MTDC resort at 7:00 PM, was certainly not wise and they were saved by the bell.

The 6th Safari and the first one from Moharli gate of TATR undertook at 6:30 AM, they started off South, reached Aswalhira and then Telia lake, which was known for M6 (TAD) aka Sonam’s area. Sonam was residing there with her adolescent cubs. After one and half hour of driving through the forest, they started moving towards North and at around 8:45 AM reached Jamni lake. There were strong calls of spotted deer, but the Safari ended at 10:00 AM without a glance of any big cat.

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Photo courtesy: Dwaipayan Ghosh

The afternoon safari started at 2:00 PM, towards South again and after crossing Telia Lake, they reached near Jamunbudi. Already 5-6 gypsies were waiting there. Apparently, warning call was heard from the other side of the lake. They waited there for about 30 minutes. One Ruddy Mongoose was spotted multiple times, running here and there; searching for food, gave good photo opportunities for the explorers. After that they started moving towards East and fresh pug marks of female tiger was spotted. After driving 1-2 kms further, they stopped after seeing couple of gypsies waiting there on the forest path at Ayanbodi area. Apparently B3 (Maya) was sleeping in the bushes and people were waiting there with a hope of her spectacle. The anticipation was that, she would wake up in a while and come out of the bush to give a road show.

Gypsies started queuing there and in no time, there were at least 30 gypsies, from all six gates, hopeful to see the celebrity tigress of TATR. As usual, there were huge speculations among all kinds of visitors, likely the “zoological park type”; “selfie type”; “DSLR type”; “so-called forest and wild life experts”; and the forest guides; gypsy drivers – on what route she would follow to give the “road show”. Every time she was moving her head or shaking her hinge legs, swaying her tail tip to keep away flies – the excitement was getting multiplied.

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After one and half hours of suspense, Maya woke up and quickly dissipated deep inside the forest.

Such an anti-climax! The jungle is where the silence is profound, lend a keen ear and one can listen to the quietude. One would be ignorant to think, he can witness the mysteries of the jungle unfolding in just couple of hours of a jeep safari. The involvement of Edward James Corbett or Kenneth Anderson with India’s wild was long and persistent, which lasted for decades.

Disappearance

The 8th safari started on usual time, at 6:30 AM, towards West, on the way to Telia. On their way, one male sloth bear was spotted grazing. After realizing human invasion, he hid himself into the camouflage of the forest. However, the crackling sound of movements of heavy paws on twigs and undergrowth were still audible. They waited there for some time. The sloth bear came out after 5-10 minutes briefly and dwindled inside the thick bushes.

 

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Photo courtesy: Dwaipayan Ghosh

Guide Sanjay suggested, the bear ought to cross the path, but could not, because of human interference. They decided to wait for few more minutes to ensure his unimpeded passage. Driver Kankesh parked the vehicle at a safe distance from his anticipated route. They waited there for another 45 minutes. But the bear didn’t come out in the open and early morning light did not suffice to take snaps.

Meanwhile, strong call was ascertained from Jamni water body. When they arrived at Jamni, already few Gypsies assembled there and reportedly, Choti Tara just crossed the forest path, 2 minutes before. The spotted deer were still giving call. The explorers decided to wait there and were all ears to Sanjay’s story on “False mating”. In September, 2016, Maya was seen mating with Gabbar, Sanjay voiced, Maya was bold enough to engage in such strategic “False Mating”.

“False mating” is a mother’s desperate measures to confuse all the male tigers in the forest, in order to save her cubs. Normally one male tiger does not kill his own cubs, but he maneuvers to eliminate other contender’s genes. When a female tiger copulates with multiple male tigers, all her pairs in the forest think, her cubs are actually their offspring and let them to thrive.

Some local naturalists think that, Maya’s behavior is actually evidence of a crafty new strategy to safeguard her cubs’ survival: “false mating” exists among many mammals—including bears, lions and bottlenose dolphins—male tigers kill the cubs of their rivals whenever they can, so as to precipitate a new estrus cycle and impregnate the tigress with their own offspring. Tiger moms typically seek to protect their cubs from such a fate for 18 to 24 months, before pushing them out to establish their own territories. (Tiger fathers have no role in raising the young, so no help there.). But the crowded conditions in Tadoba and other Indian national parks are making that increasingly difficult. The ranges of several roving rivals frequently overlap with the dominant males, bringing danger precariously close to vulnerable cubs.

According to Bilal Habib, a carnivore researcher at the Wildlife Institute of India, “In high-density areas, where there are more males, the best strategy for a female is to try to leave the cubs early, go with the males, and then go back and look for her litter again,” Habib explains. “A brawl with a male might turn out to be lethal for her and the cubs.”

The name “false mating”—which occurs among lions and other species—is a little misleading. It refers to actual sex, just not at the time when a female is able to conceive. (Typically, female tigers go into estrus once every three to nine weeks, and are most likely to conceive during three to six days within that period). Habib’s theory is that, Maya deceived the roving male tigers to placate them and perhaps to make them think, they have successfully impregnated her.

Afterwards, she could return back to her cubs, leaving the appeased males none the wiser.

Explorers waited there for another 2 hours, and there was no indication of any big cat movement, eventually they left the forest to end that safari at 10:30 AM.

DSC_0020_1The 9th safari started in afternoon at 2:30 PM and the explorers kick-started towards Jamni lake. On the way, another male sloth bear was glimpsed. Immediately after seeing the gypsy, he concealed himself into the dense woods. The explorers started tracking him by the forest path of Aswalhira, covered by heavy bamboo trees and they spotted him again. This time the bear was within 100 meters from their gypsy. He crossed the path and hid inside thick vegetation again.

After that not so “sloth”, rather “busy” moments with the bear, the explorers travelled upto Jamni lake, then Tadoba lake, Panderpouni and finally Telia. News emerged that, M6 (TAD) aka Sonam, an adult female tiger was spotted with her sub adult cubs. Already two gypsies were waiting there, and the guide from one of the gypsies asserted them, “Sonam is there, sitting in the grass land”.

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Photo courtesy: Dwaipayan Ghosh

The grassland of Telia zone is absolutely thick and an ideal hide out for tigers. With little or no effort, the dark stripes on pale fur, breaking up an outline of long slender body, lying in the grassland and well camouflaged – was spotted – the white spots behind the black ears – a characteristic mark of tigers – were also noticed. The presence of the beast was conspicuous, resting in that grass land, but was not obvious, how many of them, one or could be more, an adult or with cubs.

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Photo courtesy: Dwaipayan Ghosh

The tiger stood up and started moving, now it was clearly visible even with bare eyes. Sanjay confirmed the striking four-legged to be Sonam. Sonam is part of the famous litter of four very illustrious female cubs, brought up by Madhuri in the Telia Lake area, overseen by their caring father Scarface. She has an S shape mark on her right neck which is noticed easily, but through thick grasses the explorers could not discern that.

Sonam became invisible again in the grasses and the explorers moved towards the fire line, with the hope that she would come out from there. They waited there from 5:00 PM to 6:00 PM, but she was not seen further.

They ended the safari there, and while coming out of the forest found one male barking deer crossing the path in front of their gypsy. The last safari of this series was in the morning of 20th January. They set another goal to spot Sonam and travelled towards Jamni lake and waited there for 2 hours. There were sporadic calls of peafowl, spotted deer and jungle fowl on seeing of tiger. When the tiger is idle, the calling animals stop at a place and signal. When the alarm call redirects from different places, it implies that the tiger is on the move. Taking into account the motion of the calling animal, the direction the petrified animal signifies, it is easy to trail the movements of the tiger. Birds and animals alert everybody in the forest precisely, if there is a spectre of a tiger. Sometimes, human intrusions alarm Langur and Sambar, but once they recognize human beings, they cease their calls.

However, 2 hours of waiting didn’t yield much result and they moved towards Telia lake, but in vain!

They concluded their safari at 10:30 AM and retreated to MTDC resort to culminate the series.

End of Story till next Exploration:

The explorations of “Wagh Alaa Patil” discontinued there. While returning to the comforts of their homes, the explorers were reminiscing about all the phenomena of the forest in the last week and the wisdom they are imbibed with. Especially, the story of Roshan who owns a souvenir shop near Kolara gate of TATR. Once, he worked as a tour guide and also with forest guards for tree cutting contracts. He used to go inside the forest with daily wage workers from local villages. Once he was attacked by Kankrajhuri Male, a famous male tiger of the buffer zone of TATR. To save his life he climbed up a
tree and injured himself. Thankfully, he was rescued by the forest guards. After that incident, Roshan was traumatized and decided to cease operating in the forest and thus, the souvenir shop.

Roshan enlightened us; Kankrajhuri male generally roams in the buffer zone, where he is seldom defied by human. The tigers in the buffer zone are more inclined to attack humans, as there is a scarcity of prey and minimal exposure to mankind.
Definitely the number of tigers is increasing in this so called “maternity center” of Bengal Tiger in Indian Forests. But the state of congestion in tiger population, throws TATR at the risk of aggravating inter and intra species conflict.

The whole series would be memorable for the explorers, as acquiring knowledge on the behavioral patterns of Bengal Tigers, the altering traits of tigers in the buffer and core zone; the effect of space on deriving new survival strategy for female and her cubs. They also learnt the significance of understanding such familiarities, to trace those reclusive creatures of Mother Nature.

The explorers endeavored to capture all their experiences in this report and to promote the biodiversity culture and awareness among common people; and the explorers of Exploring Nature will continue to do so.

Till the next exploration bring us together, adieus!

In the Shadow of the Tiger : The Quest for Bengal Tiger

Part Two : …….Still in the Shadow of the Tiger

After “Hiking in Highlands” in forest of Western Ghats (comprising Nagarhole, Bandipur and Periyar), the “Tigers’ Terrain – exploration in forest of Central India – comprising Satpura, Pench and Kanha” was explorers’ much calculated and thought about exploration, specifically designed for spotting Bengal Tigers in wild. The exploration started with lots of speculations as well as expectations at 3:30 PM from Kariya zone of Satpura Tiger Reserve, on 8th May, 2016.

As expectation was high, level of superstitions in explorers’ mind was also never less than that. Therefore, superstitious Arnab asked forest guide at Madhai gate of Satpura Tiger Reserve, “Are Dholes (Indian Wild Dogs) easily spotted in the forest?” – The superstition was – a negative answer to this question, might increase possibility of big cat sighting. Although it has hardly worked. Indian wild dog is anyway endangered and sighting is generally rare, unlike their African counterpart.

Anyway, a negative answer, increased hope as well as heart bit. After two and half hours of exploration, and spotting usual herds of Sambar, Nilgais, Nothern plain Langoor, and Rhesus Macaque when explorers started their journey towards exit of forest, driver Deepak had to stop his gypsy. Guide Harilal whispered “Leopards”.

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Photo Courtesy : Dwaipayan Ghosh

On the left hand side of the movement of gypsy, in thick bushes something was moving. After few seconds a round head with black spots on yellow fur was noticed, and then another and then another. Three heads of three leopards – nicely camouflaged in the bushes. They wanted to cross the road but stopped after seeing three gypsies, the shy animals were hesitant to reveal themselves.

After a minute or so, one came out and cautiously crossed the road. It was a cub. Then other two followed the previous one. All three of them were cubs. Where was the mother then, had she left her cubs alone? That was unusual.

Harilal, said that the mother was not sighted for last couple of days, and she was extremely shy.

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In the first exploration of the series itself, big cat was sighted. A happy bunch of explorers returned base camp with imagination of a great and fruitful series ahead.

In that same day, other significant observations were Indian lizard monitor, soft shelled turtle, Rufus tree pie, nests and nestlings of woolly necked stork, crested hawk eagle and crested serpent eagle.

The second and last exploration of Satpura were significant because of spotting sloth bear – two cubs, and one adult male and female – playing in bushes – that was an ideal start of the day for the explorers. Other significant observations were burking deer, marsh crocodile, long tale shrike, pied kingfisher, oriental honey buzzard, purple sun bird, ashy crowned sparrow lark and Scops owl. While exiting the forest, an adult male sloth bear was found climbing tree, searching for honey.

Explorers reached at Pench with huge expectation; there was series of news of tiger sighting. Especially Pench’s famous tigress “Collarwali” and her four cubs were apparently getting sighted almost every day. However, after reaching there, atmosphere of Pench was found a bit gloomy. The death of tigress “Baghin nala” and her three cubs was a huge reason of heartbreak among locals, especially among forest guides, safari drivers and resorts owners. They know, there are tigers in forest and that’s why they have job to do. No tigers means, no work for them.

If we go back to past, on 28th March of 2016, various tourists entering through the Touria Gate of the Pench Tiger Reserve noticed the darling Tigress and a mother of 4 young cubs lying at a distance from the road. She was in her territory and guests were thrilled to click a sleeping tigress from such a close distance. The excitement turned to shock when during the exit hours few drivers of the tourist vehicles realized that she was lying in the exact position as before and was highly unusual. The kids who always accompanied her were not around and a stranger was captured on a phone-cam on FOOT (it is illegal for outsiders to get off their vehicles once inside the core area, and loitering is prohibited) clicking the tigress from a dangerously close distance. The authorities were immediately informed by the concerned witnesses as they feared (rightly so) that the tigress was dead. Soon it was confirmed that the dead tigress was indeed T-17 a.k.a The Baghin-Nala Female, daughter of legendary ‘Badi Mada’ who was the subject of the BBC Documentary titled Spy in the Jungle, and sister of the illustrious T-15 commonly known as ‘Collarwali’. It was past tourist hours and the park gates were shut. In the hours that followed, decaying bodies of 2 of the cubs were also discovered. On 29th of March 2016 various dead bodies of Spotted Deer and other birds were discovered thus confirming poisoning of one of the water sources inside the park. The assumption of poisoning was bolstered when one of the water bodies that existed close to where the tigress had died was immediately filled and an identical water body was dug up at a little distance.

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With this background story, explorers started their 3rd (1st in Pench) safari at 5:45 AM of 10th May, 2016. The usual question of Dhole sighting was asked, however with great surprise and little disappointment, the answer was positive from guide Sunil. In four and half hours of safari, the significant observations were spotted deer, wild boar, and golden jackal female and of course pack of Indian wild dog – playing and drinking water near a shallow water body. Important bird species were black hooded oriole, bush lark, Indian grey horn bill, white-eyed buzzard and critically endangered white rumped vulture, and long billed vulture.

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The second safari at Pench (and 4th of the series) started at 4:00 PM, and driver Shera and guide Vinod were quite confident about spotting “Collarwali”. Vinod was a trained guide with certification from prestigious Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal. With lot of enthusiasm, exploration of the day started and an immediate set back, marked by heavy down pour, lasted for an hour between 4:30 to 5:30 PM. All hopes got washed away; rain cooled down the forest and minimized possibility of big cats coming out of dense forest to quench thirst. However, intermittent warning calls of langoors, sambar and spotted deer were heard throughout whole safari from different corners of the forest, confirming movement of big cats within dense forest. Although some of the calls were suspected false calls by male spotted deer. Male spotted deer sometimes make false call to make female spotted deer scared, so that they come closer to them out of fear and to seek protection. Male spotted deer take that as an advantage for mating. Quite an opportunist lover.

However, serious and strong warning calls were heard at around 5:45 PM, there were combined calls of peacock, jackal, burking deer and red jungle fowl. Everybody was sure, that calls were for nothing but Bengal Tigers and movement was not beyond 200 meters from the explorers’ location. Vinod said, “You may not like to trust spotted deer, but sambar and jackal never gives false call.”

Despite of strong call, nothing came out of dense forest; an hour of waiting didn’t yield anything, but a black napped hare, fruit bats and juvenile crested serpent eagle, which just finished eating of its kill – an adult peafowl. 1st day’s safari at Pench ended there.

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Last safari of Pench and 5th of the series was significant for hearing intense warning call of langoors at 7:00 AM and spotting pug marks of big cat. However, the pug marks didn’t look fresh and both driver Shera and explorer Dwaipayan suspected those as Leopard’s pug mark. There was rumor in the forest, that a male tiger was spotted somewhere near route number one. But explorers could not find any evidences of that.

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The last segment of the series started at Kanha at 5:45 AM of next day (12th May, 2016). Third explorer Rajan could not join the team, because of some technical glitch. Guide Shamim first heard a mild warning call of sambar near crossing point of Kanha and Kisli zone of the tiger reserve. The zone was known as hide-out of famous tiger “Munna”. Around 6:20 AM, severe warning calls of Northern Plain Langoor and spotted deer were heard in that area. Dwaipayan admitted, that was the strongest warning call, he had ever heard in any exploration in forest. Several spotted deer were found running away towards opposite direction from where the call was coming. However, waiting of an hour or so wasn’t enough to get Munna out of his hide-out. There was news form other side of the forest that, another male and female tigers were spotted near Kanha zone.

Explorers reached there and at around 5-6 km away from Kisli zone, they found fresh pug mark and mark of siting on soil of an adult male tiger.

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Around, 10:30 AM they started retreating from forest, Driver Raju was telling stories of Munna, wo was most respected tiger of Kanha and more famous for being only male tiger who didn’t kill his cubs, in recent history of Kanha.

The significant observations, for the day was Swamp deer, King Vulture, Sircar Malkoha, Jungle Owlet etc.

The other three safaris in Kanha were very quiet. Forest was lush and cool, with sight of happily grazing herbivores and colorful birds.

In last safari, while returning, explorers spotted fresh tiger’s scat confirming recent movement of the big cat……but for the explorers…..still in the shadow of tiger!!

In the Shadow of the Tiger : The Quest for Bengal Tiger

My 3 years association with Exploring Nature, so far, as a biodiversity explorer has given me some fabulous opportunity to chase Bengal Tigers in the forest of India. So far as a team we have explored 7 most significant Tiger Reserves of India.

Today, I will start telling the stories of quest for Bengal Tigers, whatever we have experienced as of now. However, our quest still continues.

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Part One: In the Shadow of the Tiger

The quest for tiger started at 6:30 in the morning of 2nd December, 2015 at Bandipur National Park. There was already news in Bandipur that one Gaur (Indian bison) was killed by a male tiger in Bandipur on previous night and that news pulled in many wildlife photographers and biodiversity experts from Bangalore and MP to Bandipur.

At around 6:45 AM explorers entered into safari zone of the park. Apart from driver cum guide Boma, there were four more companions in the jip – two wild life photographers from Bangalore – they came to spot the bison killer tiger and one Gujarati couple.

While entering forest, lot of spotted deer and bonnet macaque were spotted at the forest office and en route. Explorers also spotted white bellied drongo, yelloe billed babbler, paddy field pipit, common hoopoe, wag tail, jungle and pea fowl/hen etc.

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Photo Courtesy : Dwaipayan Ghosh

The first warning call was heard from the south east direction of the forest at 7:15 AM. It was a south west langur. Couple of jip started tracing the call slowly and after driving 2-3 km both the jip stopped. Big cat —- the most elusive creature of forest —- a pair of leopard. Leopards always make their existence highly imperceptible.

The mating pair was sitting on the open land at the left hand side of their direction of movement. The langur was exactly on the top of a teakwood tree next to the female leopard and kept giving call. They were moving on after having mated probably a very short while ago, as anticipated by Boma. At first, the pair was baffled and they sunk into the bushy scrubs quickly. A few minutes later the male leopard came out and lied down boldly in the open followed by the female. The lady was shy and definitely not sure about being in the open. She straightaway went into the thicket nearby and settled down.

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Photo Courtesy : Dwaipayan Ghosh

After 2-3 minutes, the pair stood up and walked slowly into the bush. The explorers could hear the growling sound coming from the bush. What the explorers witnessed was a partial courtship behavior in leopards which is hardly seen live. Given that leopards are very discreet about their presence, they are highly so during the mating period. Explorers could hardly believe in their luck that they got to see a very rare moment in the nature. After that explorers waited there for 10-15 minutes but the pair did not come out.

Explorers now started looking for any trace of the tiger, which had killed a bison in previous night. One of the photographers from Bangalore said that the tiger was spotted in last evening near a water body. The jip reached there and the carcass of the bison was found hidden inside a dense bush. The lower part of the carcass was half eaten. Probably the intermittent light and heavy shower of last night kept the tiger away from it and it was certain that the tiger would come back again to finish eating.

Explorers waited there for some time and made few rounds of Jip movement around that area, but nothing significant related to tiger movement were spotted. While moving in that area, a sloth bear made sudden appearance. It was crossing his path from one side of forest to other side. One of the photographers from Bangalore, who was sitting in front seat – next to driver, spotted it and alerted others. All four wild life photographers with their hi-tech cameras – got surprised with this sudden appearance of another elusive animal of the forest. None of them were ready enough to capture this rare sight creature of wild and gradually the sloth bear disappeared in dense forest of Bandipur National park.

The exploration continued till 9:00 AM, the significant sighting was few bird species – long tail shrike, streak throated woodpecker, malabar parakeet, brown fish owl, brahminy sterling, spot bill duck etc. No sight of any big animals.

In the evening, the exploration was started little later than scheduled time. Three jips and two buses entered the forest at 4:00 PM. Later it was realized by the explorers, that the intention behind late start was staying bake late in forest so that the bison killer tiger could be spotted. All the photographers in different jips and their companion forest guides and drivers were desperate for the sight of tiger. For 2 hours all jips and forests kept circling that 15 square kilometer area around the bush where the carcass was hidden. Instead of safari it turned out as being on guard for that carcass. The intermitted rain throughout the day made the sighting of tiger less likely.

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At 5:00 PM towards North-West direction from the carcass, approximately 3 km away a male leopard was spotted lying down on branch of teakwood tree. Another rare sight in the nature. Once it noticed the presence of jip, the shy animal jumped down from the tree and got disappeared in deep forest. Apart from few spotted deer, south west langur, bonnet macaque, herds of Indian bison, few racket tail drongo, oriental magpie, flame back woodpecker and a pair of green pigeon nothing significant were spotted.

Around 5:15 PM, strong warning call was heard repeatedly from the North West direction from the carcass. It was by a Burking deer and the call was coming from the direction where the male leopard moved 15 minutes back. It could be because of the leopard, but nevertheless it increased the excitement and hope for sighting tiger among the bunches of non-deserving, worthless Homo Sapiens sapiens. Eventually no trace of tiger movement was spotted.

While coming out of the forest at around 6:00 PM, one sloth bear were spotted in darkness. It could be the same one, which was spotted in morning. But it was too dark to capture the creature ethically.

Next day, 3rd December, explorers started their safari at 6:30 AM by a forest bus. The forest was unusually quiet than previous day, rain stopped and sun was out. All the wise and disappointed so called wild life and biodiversity experts appeared returned to their home after several unsuccessful attempts of tiger sighting. Apart from usual bird species explorers spotted a pair of happy stripe necked mongoose.

On 5th December at 9:00 AM morning the explorers reached at the check post of Periyar Tiger Reserve to start one of the most adventurous and challenging biodiversity hiking of this country —— The Periyar Tiger Trail, with a hope that their bad luck for sighting tiger would end there.

Two explorers were accompanied by three Spanish hikers – Sichov, Fernando and Anna and one French hiker Juliet. Sichov and Anna came from Madrid whereas Fernando and Juliet have been living in Delhi for last one year. There were four forest guides with them – C. C. Thomas, S. Pandya, N. S. Kunjumon and C. Armugam – all of them were ex-poachers and had 30-40 years of experience in dealing with forest and wild life. They were also accompanied by a Forest Official cum Gun Man – Ajimon.

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The whole contingent started trekking at 10:00 AM from the PRT check post towards South West direction with cameras, survival kit and three days’ ration in 25-30 kg heavy ruck sack. Initial trekking was 4 km long till they reached the bamboo rafting point through Periyar Lake. In this trail, the key species spotted were male sambar, nilgiri langur, bonnet macaque, grey headed fish eagle; wag tail, common drongo etc. After 200 meters of bamboo rafting towards South West direction, they reached the most difficult stretch of the trekking.

Explorers started last 5 km of trekking towards South West direction through dense bush and teak wood forest. The forest was full of leeches and to get prevent leech attack all of them spread tobacco powder over their trekking shoes and leech guard socks. It was an over cast day with 30oC temperature. Intermittently they were noticing fresh pug marks on the muddy forest land. Guide Thomas identified those as pug marks of a big male tiger. Scratch mark of tigers on tree trunk was also observed.

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In this 5 km trail, explorers climbed 600 meters and three times had to cross water streams of 100-120 feet deep over makeshift bridge of tree trunk with cameras in hand and heavy ruck sack on back. At the end of this trail they reached at the edge of forest and bunk of Periyar Lake. From that point a one km of bamboo rafting would take them to the core area of the forest, where their tents were erected for next three days and two nights.

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Explorers reached at camping area at 1:00 PM and for next one hour got busy in cooking. There were three tents for six hikers. The guides decided to stay at cooking area. The meal for them was Cappa Kodi or Tapioca. Drinking water source was Periyar Lake and the bush at South East corner of the forest around 200 meters away from their tents was their toilet. The camping area were protected by 1 feet high bio fencing and 10-12 feet deep Elephant Protecting Trench (EPT).

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After cooking and eating, again bush walking started from 3:30 PM towards North East direction of the forest. Around 3:30 PM, warning call was heard by barking deer but no other movement of big cat was spotted. An old skeleton of Indian bison was found on open land, the animal was killed by tiger.

The night was windy, cold with heavy rain with fear of possible flown away of tents by strong wind. Forest guides created a small bon fire by dry woods collected from forest. Explorers put their wet shoes and socks near to that fire so that morning they could wear dry shoes. The dinner was done with lake fish bought from the local tribal at the cost of Rs. 200/- per kg.

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In the same night at around 9:00 PM, explorers were delighted by arrival of surprise guests at their camping area – a pair of porcupine – Raja and Rani. Guide Kunjumon told them, whenever they did camping in forest – Raja and Rani had always come to search for food.

Morning of next day, i.e., 6th December, Arnab got a scary start. When he went to forest for dumping, three strong warning calls by Sambar was heard at 6:15 AM from very close distance from the South East direction of forest. Definitely movement of big cat was spotted, however nothing significant happened after that and Arnab returned to his tent quickly after attending his nature’s call.

Morning safari of 6th December happened towards South West direction after crossing the Periyar Lake by bamboo raft. Explorers climbed almost up to 915 km, but the rain kept kept all the big animals away from them. An old skeleton of elephant was spotted which was killed by tiger. A rarest bird species great Indian Hornbill was found to be flew over them when they reached the highest point of their trail.

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In the afternoon of same day between 1:45 to 2:00 PM several strong calls of Sambar were heard from the North East direction of the forest from the camping area. From the camping area, two Sambars were also found running away from North East to North West direction within forest. In the evening explorers did bush walking in North East direction and chased several herds of Bison. Around 4:00 PM, they traced warning calls of nilgiri langur but could not find anything else which could lead to big cat movement. Another very rare bird species Serpent Eagle was spotted there.

The night was relatively quiet, comparing to previous night and the porcupine pairs made their usual visit to entertain explorers.

Next day morning at 10:00 AM, explorers with full contingent started retreating from the camping area to outside of forest. They followed the same route they took while getting into the camping area. First hour was sunny but then heavy rain started, which

made their trekking through bushes and muddy forest land even more difficult. There were always fear of falling with heavy ruck sack on back. Couple of makeshift bridges over water streams was found to be destroyed due to heavy rain or by animals. Therefore, explorers had to search for new means of crossing water streams. At one point of time they had to cross an 8 feet deep trench full of water by a half a meter wide and 2 meters long tree trunk. That was quite scary and dangerous. The moist and slippery trunk was not a good thing to try balancing act, with 25-30 kg ruck sack on back.

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Last one kilometer of trekking was toughest in this whole series – rain became heavier and mud on forest became thicker and sloppier. Explorers were struggling in finding place to put their feet and maintain balancing. There was a slant slope of 30 meters they had to climb, with every step they were sliding down few meters towards the 140 meters deep Periyar Lake at the edge of the slope. Moreover, throughout this stretch fresh pug marks were spotted towards South West direction, whereas explorers were moving towards North East direction.

However, with the help of guides, explorers managed to reach at the edge of the forest in one piece, from where they would do bamboo rafting to cross the 200 meter stretch of Periyar Lake.

Every time the Explorers felt they were so near to Bengal Tiger of this subcontinent……but all the time they realized they were too far…….

The quest will be on in ….”Tigers’ Terrain”.