Bhadra beckons for a re-union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence, Bhaswar called for JFM 2.0 and we responded.

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

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

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

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

River Tern lodge located in an island of Bhadra River

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

Indian muntjack in Bhadra

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

Pack of dhole

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

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

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

Breeding pair of Greater cormorant

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

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

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

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

Brown fish owl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey headed fish eagle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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