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

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