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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