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”.

The Super Ape (Concluding Part)

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Sumatran orangutans are primarily frugivores, favoring fruits consisting of a large seed and surrounded by a fleshy substance, such as fig fruits. Insects are also a huge part of the orangutan’s diet; the most consumed types are ants, predominantly of the genus Camponotus (at least four species indet.). Their main diet can be broken up into five categories: fruits, insects, leaf material, bark and other miscellaneous food items. Studies have shown that orangutans in

 

the Ketambe area in Indonesia ate over 92 different kinds of fruit, 13 different kinds of leaves, 22 sorts of other vegetable material such as top-sprouts, and pseudo-bulbs of orchids. Insects included in the diet are numbered at least 17 different types. Occasionally soil from termite mounds were ingested in small quantities. When there is low ripe fruit availability, Sumatran orangutans will eat the meat of the slow loris, a nocturnal primate. Water consumption for the orangutans was ingested from natural bowls created in the trees they lived around. They even drank water from the hair on their arms when rainfall was heavy. Meat-eating happens rarely in Sumatran orangutan, and orangutans do not show a male bias in meat-eating. A research in Ketambe area reported cases of meat-eating in wild Sumatran orangutans, of which 9 cases of orangutans eating slow lorises. The research shows, in the recent 3 cases of slow lorises eaten by Sumatran orangutan, a maximum mean feeding rate of the adult orangutan for an entire adult male slow loris is 160.9 g/h and, of the infant, 142.4 g/h. No case have been reported during mast years, which suggests orangutans take meat as a fallback for the seasonal shortage of fruits; preying on slow loris occurs more often in periods of low fruit availability. Similar to most primate species, orangutans appear to only share meat between mother and infants.

After an hour of observing those orangutans and finishing their eating, the team started leaving forest. The Indonesian guides collected all left over and skins of fruits, as human beings are not allowed to feed wild lives or leaving anything behind which could be consumed by them.

Sumatrans encounter threats such as logging (both legal and illegal), wholesale conversion of forest to agricultural land and oil palm plantations, and fragmentation by roads. Oil companies use a method of deforestation to utilize palm oil. This palm oil

 

is taken from the trees in which Sumatran orangutans live and swing from. An assessment of forest loss in the 1990s concluded that forests supporting at least 1,000 orangutans were lost each year within the Leuser Ecosystem alone. While poaching generally is not a huge problem for the Sumatrans, occasional local hunting does decrease the population size. They have been hunted in the Northern Sumatra in the past as targets for food; although deliberate attempts to hunt the Sumatrans are rare nowadays, locals such as the Batak people are known to eat almost all vertebrates in their area. Additionally, the Sumatrans are treated as pests by Sumatran farmers, becoming targets of elimination if they are seen damaging or stealing crops. For commercial aspects, hunts for both dead and alive specimens have also been recorded as an effect of the demand by European and North American zoos and institutions throughout the 20th century.

After witnessing this amazing last few creatures of Sumatra, we started towards camping ground at nearby village where we would take rest in the evening and plan for next day morning.

 

During this trekking we also spotted lot of Indonesian black squirrels and long tailed macaque in forest as well as in village. The time of the day, climate and nature of forest was not soothing enough for spotting birds as birds are really tiny in this forest and get completely camouflaged in thick leaves and high canopy. However, we spotted a pair of famous rhinoceros hornbill on a tree top. The rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) is one of the largest hornbills, adults being approximately the size of a swan, 91–122 cm (36–48 in) long and weighing 2–3 kg (4.4–6.6 lb). In captivity it can live for up to 90 years. It is found in lowland and montane, tropical and subtropical climates and in mountain rain forests up to 1,400 metres altitude in Borneo, Sumatra, Java, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, and southern Thailand. Like most other hornbills, the male has orange or red irises, and the female has whitish irises. This bird has a mainly white beak and casque, but there are orange places here and there. The tip of the casque curves markedly upward. The bird has white underparts, especially to the tail. The rhinoceros hornbill faces a number of threats, including loss of habitat and hunting for its meat, its feathers and its casque, which can be carved into ornaments and jewellery, and is as dense as ivory. IUCN status is near threatened.

The Super Ape (Part Three)…..

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The Sumatran orangutan is endemic to the north of Sumatra. In the wild, Sumatran orangutans only survive in the province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam (NAD), the northernmost tip of the island. The primate was once more widespread, as they were found farther to the south in the 19th century, such as in Jambi and Padang. There are small populations in the North Sumatra

 

province along the border with NAD, particularly in the Lake Toba forests. A survey in the Lake Toba region found only two inhabited areas, Bukit Lawang (defined as the animal sanctuary) and Gunung Leuser National Park. The species has been assessed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List since 2000. It is considered one of “The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates.”

A survey published in March 2016 estimates a population of 14,613 Sumatran orangutans in the wild, doubling previous population estimates. A survey in 2004 estimated that around 7,300 Sumatran orangutans still live in the wild. The same study estimates a 20,552 km2 occupied area for the Sumatran orangutans, of which only an approximate area range of 8,992 km2 harbors permanent populations. Some of them are being protected in five areas in Gunung Leuser National Park; others live in unprotected areas: northwest and northeast Aceh block, West Batang Toru river, East Sarulla and Sidiangkat. A successful breeding program has been established in Bukit Tiga Puluh National Park in Jambi and Riau provinces. The main reason for the endangerment of these orangutans is because of palm oil companies destroying the native rain forests.

Male Sumatran orangutans grow to about 1.4 m (4.6 ft) tall and 90 kg (200 lb). Females are smaller, averaging 90 cm (3.0 ft) and 45 kg (99 lb). Compared to the Bornean species, Sumatran orangutans are thinner and have longer faces; their hair is longer with a paler red color.

 

After another 30 minutes of observing orangutans, we moved on. Eno heard calling of white gibbons, so we rushed to the spot but could not see any gibbons. However, soon after the place became very lively with the arrivals of pig tailed macaque. The southern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca nemestrina) is a medium-sized Old World monkey. Macaca nemestrina can reach a weight of 5–15 kg in large males. These monkeys are buff-brown with a darker back and lighter lower parts of the body. Their common name refers to the short tail held semi-erect and reminiscent of the tail of a pig. They are mainly terrestrial but they also are skilled climbers. Unlike almost all primates they love water. They live in large groups split into smaller groups during the day when they are looking for food. They are omnivorous, feeding mainly on fruits, seeds, berries, cereals, fungi and invertebrates. There is a hierarchy among males, based on the strength, and among females, based on heredity. Thus, the daughter of the dominant female will immediately be placed above all other females in the group. The dominant female leads the group, while the male role is more to manage conflict within the group and to defend it. Sexual maturity is reached at the age of 3–5 years. Female gestation lasts about 6 months. She will give birth to one infant every two years. Weaning occurs at 4–5 months. In Thailand, they have been trained for 400 years to harvest coconuts. As per IUN, their conservation status is Vulnerable.

 

This monkey was searching for food in the forest and couple of time showed its huge canine to scare us off and eventually left the place with a huge jump over our head.

 

When we were busy with pig tailed, there was already arrival of another curious creature, the funky Thomas’s leaf langur. Thomas’s langur (Presbytis thomasi) is a species of primate in the family Cercopithecidae. It is endemic to North Sumatra, Indonesia. Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical dry forests. It is threatened by habitat loss. Its native names are reungkah in Acehnese and kedih in Alas. As per IUN, their conservation status is Vulnerable too.

After that we reached a clear place inside forest where we met other group led by guide Antonio and Dia. That was a time to get some energy. Forest was hot and humid, and the day was quite bright. Even huge canopy cover was not always enough to protect from hit. Therefore we all were dehydrating fast and trekking in difficult terrain of forest with equipment, taking photos and hydrating at the same time was not always feasible. So, we were also waiting for a much needed hydration break.

Eno and Dia collected fruits from forest while trekking and started peeling them off. The fruits were mainly jungle pineapple, oranges, passion fruits, rambutan, and bananas. The fruits were awesome; I never had such juicy pineapples in my whole life before.

When we were busy in enjoying flavour of forest fruits, there were few silent watchers around them or above them. Antonio drew our attention to a huge female orangutan and her baby and they were watching us from a 10 feet tall tree, just above the place where we were eating. Antonio told them that orangutans love fruits specially pineapples and bananas.

….. to be continued

The Super Ape…(part 2)

DSC_0027After chasing Lion and Wild Ass , in the desert and svanna biodiversity at the western part of India, I did several explorations in different parts of country and in Africa. However, before telling stories from that part, I would like to narrate a very special biodiversity adventure of my life so far….with most intelligent apes in forest of Sumatra……my 6th exploration as a member of Exploring Nature…

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It’s a typical rain forest with insects, poisonous snakes, mud, humidity, near impossible climbs, thorny bushes, and huge canopy, beautiful and dangerous. And that’s when an explorer falls in love with the forest. Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the two remaining habitats for Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii). In 1971, Herman Rijksen established the Ketambe Research Station, a specially designated research area for the orangutans. Other mammals found in the park are the Sumatran elephant, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, siamang, Sumatran serow, sambar deer and leopard cat. After researchers put 28 camera-traps in July 2011, 6 months later they found one male and six females and predicted the population is not more than 27 Sumatran rhinos with the total population predicted as around 200 in Sumatra and Malaysia, half of the population 15 years ago.

People living in areas with a high biodiversity value, tend to be relatively poor. Hence, the highest economic values for biodiversity are likely to be found within institutions and people living in wealthy countries. Funds can come from several sources, including bio-prospecting, the GEF and grants from international NGOs (with donations possibly being proportional to biodiversity value) (Wind and Legg, 2000).

 

Exploration in the forest went on by making ways through thorny bushes and crossing natural obstacles and water streams. Thankfully there was no rain last night, so the forest was less muddy than usual . There were lot of ups and downs in the hills. The 5 hours trekking in 10 km forest stretch, carrying basic first aid kits, drinking water on back and camera in one hand, was a bit tiring specially in humid conditions.

The Sumatran Lowland Rain Forests are one of the most diverse forests on Earth and also one of the most threatened. These forests contain comparable levels of species diversity like the richest forests in Borneo and New Guinea. The Sumatra rain forests are home to some of the world’s most charismatic flowering plants: Rafflesia arnoldii, which produces the largest flower in the world (up to 1 m wide), and Amorphophallus titanum, which stands more than 2 m tall and produces aroid flowers. The avifauna is also exceptionally rich. More than 450 bird species are found here, more than in any other ecoregion in the Sunda Shelf and Philippines bioregion, except the Borneo Lowland Rain Forests. In the past fifteen years, rampant logging, hunting, fires, and habitat loss in the lowlands have pushed many of this ecoregion’s already endangered species to the edge of extinction. These include the Sumatran rhinoceros, Malayan tapir, tiger, Asian elephant, and orangutan. Illegal logging and pervasive corruption are contributing to more than 3,000 km2 of forest lost every year in this ecoregion. At the current rate, no mappable natural forests will remain beyond 2025.

 

 

Sumatra’s rain forests are quite diverse and contain levels of species diversity comparable to those of the richest forests in Borneo and New Guinea and are much richer than Java, Sulawesi, and other islands in the Indonesian Archipelago. Large, buttressed trees dominated by the Dipterocarpaceae family characterize Sumatra’s lowland rain forests. Woody climbers and epiphytes are also abundant (Whitten et al. 2000). The lowland rain forests of Sumatra support 111 dipterocarp species, including 6 endemics. The emergent trees, which can reach 70 m tall, are also dipterocarps (Dipterocarpus spp., Parashorea spp., Shorea spp., Dryobalanops spp.) and, to a lesser extent, species in the Caesalpiniaceae family (Koompasia spp., Sindora spp., and Dialium spp.). Dipterocarps dominate the canopy layer as well. Other canopy and understory tree families those are common, include Burseraceae, Sapotaceae, Euphorbiacae, Rubiaceae, Annonaceae, Lauraceae, and Myristicaceae (Whitten et al. 2000). Ground vegetation usually is sparse-mainly small trees and saplings of canopy species, herbs are uncommon.

 

 

Figs (Moraceae) are also common in the lowland rain forest. There are more than 100 fig species in Sumatra, and each species is usually pollinated exclusively by a single fig-wasp (Agaonidae) species. Figs may produce (mast) from 500 to a million fruits twice a year and are important food sources for many forest animals (MacKinnon 1986). Dipterocarps also use mast fruiting, perhaps to escape seed predation, by satiating the appetites of seed-predators and leaving the remaining seeds to germinate (Whitten et al. 2000). Sumatra once contained pure stands of rot- and insect-resisting ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri) forests. Ironwood is a member of the laurel family and is distributed throughout southern Sumatra, Kalimantan, and the Philippines. Ironwood forests are dominated by Eusideroxylon zwageri but may have also contained Shorea, Koompasia, or Intsia species as emergents (Whitten et al. 2000).

 

Me and my guide Eno were making their ways through this rain forest vegetation and I was pausing intermittently to take photos. After an hour of trekking, Eno stopped suddenly and whispered, “Basu, careful”, his eyes were fixed on the branch of a fig tree. He spotted a green temple viper. Tropidolaemus wagleri is a venomous pit viper species native to Southeast Asia. No subspecies is currently recognized. It is sometimes referred to as the temple viper, because of its abundance around the Temple of the Azure Cloud in Malaysia. This snake, that usually can be found hanging from the trees, has pretty dangerous bite and in case you are bitten, you should be acting rapidly. The area that is bitten, must be immobilized with the stretch bandage and the victim should be transferred to an emergency room to be observed.

 

Anyway, the snake was not moving from its place and we moved rapidly to other side of the forest.

After another 15 minutes of walking, Eno asked me to stop again, both of us heard sounds of moving tree branches, as if something heavy was shaking the trees at the top. We looked up and saw something which never could be forgotten in whole life.

 

It was the largest arboreal mammal of this planet, closest primate to human being, which shared 97% of DNA symmetry, one of the last few of them, a Sumatran orangutan.

As of 2015, the Sumatran orangutan species has approximately 7000 remaining members in its population, only. Meena was one of them and considered most aggressive. But the one the explorer spotted was not her, but her sister Flat Nose and her baby.

“It is good that she is not Meena”, whispered Eno. He was attacked once badly by her and showed the wound on his hand to explorer.

Flat nose and her baby stopped, they spotted people in forest. Climbed down a bit to get a closer look and then started moving again from one tree to another tree by displaying amazing acrobatic skill. Orangutan has typical way of doing it, they first bend the branch of trees which they hold, by their body weight and then reach to the next branch and moved from the previous one to the next one. Skill fully maintains body balance while doing so. Kids follow the exactly same route what their mother shows. If their mother climb down from one tree and climb up the next one, instead of jumping, the kids will do same without even understanding reasons behind it.

We kept following them for next 15 minutes and reached to a part of forest where they joined few more female and cubs.

……. To be continued !!

The Super Ape…….

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 After chasing Lion and Wild Ass , in the desert and svanna biodiversity at the western part of India, I did several explorations in different parts of country and in Africa. However, before telling stories from that part, I would like to narrate a very special biodiversity adventure of my life so far….with most intelligent apes in forest of Sumatra……my 6th exploration as a member of Exploring Nature…

“Hey …. Kuch kuch hota hai”… or “Hello …. Kabhi khushi… kabhi gham…” shouted a local resident of the village of Bukit Lawang at the explorer. That was the villager’s first meeting with an Indian in person, in recent past. Before that they had seen Indians only in Hindi movies or TV serials (dubbed in Bahasa Indonesia).

This used to be a regular phenomenon for me, whenever I was moving around in the village. Local villagers were curious and excited after knowing that there was an Indian in the village as it was quite rare for them to sight one, despite immense popularity of Hindi movies made in 90s. The reason for popularity of old movies could be the time it takes to dub such movies into local languages. It takes a decade or long before those movies reach there from India to be shown.

 

Gunung Leuser National Park is a large world heritage listed national park covering 950,000 hectares in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, straddling the border of the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh. The village of Bukit Lawang, is a small tourist village at the bank of Bahorok River in North Sumatra province of Indonesia, located within the park and situated 90 kilometers northwest of Medan. It is most famous for being one of the last places in the world where one can see orangutans in the wild. Bukit Lawang is also the main access point to the Gunung Leuser National Park from the east side.

After a 4 hours long drive, I reached at Bukit Lawang village on the afternoon of 24th October, 2016. The car could reach only up to the point where local traditional village market is situated and villagers come for shopping on every Friday. After that point, a two kilometres trekking and crawling through a cave would take to the main village where normally tourists would stay. My tour operator was EcoTravel, and their cottage comprised of a garden and a sun terrace overlooking the jungle and mountains. EcoTravel Cottages are situated in Bukit Lawang, right next to the Bahorok River. The cosy accommodation offers free WiFi access throughout the property. All rooms have a terrace or a balcony with views of the mountains and river. Every room is fitted with a fan and mosquito nets. They have a total of five spacious rooms in that village.

Sumatra EcoTravel stands for ecologically responsible travel in North Sumatra, Indonesia. The tours they arrange for tourists are aimed at the conservation of the environment and the well-being of local people and animals in this region. They try their best to give travellers a taste of the colourful Indonesian culture and to protect the Gunung Leuser National Park, especially the habitat of the last Sumatran orangutans.

 

During these entire exploration series, I often noticed their intentions of working together with authentic local partners and villagers.

The trekking started on the next day morning at 8:30; it was a multinational team consisting of German, French and Malaysian nationals with local guides Antonio, Eno and Dia. After knowing that I had a specific objective of capturing biodiversity of Gunung Leuser through lenses, the tour operator and owner of EcoTravel, Kembar allocated Eno dedicated to me, so that I could walk faster than the other team members and reach deep inside the forest to get better views.

 

The first task for the day was to reach the jungle by crossing Bahorok River. The Bahorok River is a river of the Langkat Regency in North Sumatra Province, Indonesia. A flash flood hit Bukit Lawang on 2 November 2003. The disaster ruined local tourist resorts and had a devastating impact on local tourism industry in the area. Around 400 houses, 3 mosques, 8 bridges, 280 kiosks and food stalls, 35 hotels and guest houses were destroyed by the flood, including 239 people (5 of them were tourists) were killed and around 1,400 locals lost their homes. Local authorities and an environmental NGO attributed it to illegal logging. Thanks to several international cooperation agencies, the site, at the bank of Bahorok River was rebuilt and re-opened again in July 2004.

From one edge of the river, where the village was located, to the other edge, where the forest started, was about 10 meters of width. The depth was not more than 1 meter in that particular stretch which was used to reach the forest area. After crossing the river, there was another 1 kilometre of trekking to reach the range office of Park, where Guide Antonio went ahead to check status of permit and other formalities before the team started entering into the forest.

Gunung Leuser National Park is a national park covering 7,927 km2 in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, 1/4th of which is straddling the border of North Sumatra and the rest is in Aceh provinces. The national park, settled in the Barisan mountain range, is named after Mount Leuser (3,119 m), and protects a wide range of ecosystems. An orangutan sanctuary at Bukit Lawang is located within the park. Together with Bukit Barisan Selatan and Kerinci Seblat national parks, it forms a World Heritage Site, the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra. Gunung Leuser National Park is 150 km long, over 100 km wide and is mostly mountainous. 40% of the park, mainly in the north-west, is steep, and over 1,500 m. This region is billed as the largest wilderness area in South-East Asia and offers wonderful trekking opportunities. 12% of the park, in the lower southern half, is below 600 meters. 11 peaks are over 2,700 m., Mount Leuser (3,119 m) is the third highest peak on the Leuser Range. The highest peak is Mount ‘Tanpa Nama’ (3,466 m), the second highest peak in Sumatra after Mount Kerinci (3,805 m).

…….. To be continued !!

Chasing Wild Ass

_MG_6459During my first exploration with Exploring Nature, after the Quest for Asiatic Lion, in the forest of Gir, I went to in the desert of Little Rann of Cutch to chase wild ass.

An account of that is given below….

The Indian wild ass (Equus hemionus khur, Endangered (IUCN 3.1)) also called the ghudkhur in the local Gujarati language, is a subspecies of the onager native to Southern Asia. The Indian wild ass, as with most other Asian wild ass subspecies, is quite different from the African wild ass species. The coat is usually sandy, but varies from reddish grey, fawn, to pale chestnut. The animal possesses an erect, dark mane which runs from the back of the head and along the neck. The mane is then followed by a dark brown stripe running along the back, to the root of the tail.

The Indian wild ass’s range once extended from western India, southern Pakistan (i.e. provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan), Afghanistan, and south-eastern Iran. Today, its last refuge lies in the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary, Little Rann of Kutch and its surrounding areas of the Great Rann of Kutch in the Gujarat province of India. The animal, however, is also seen in the districts of Surendranagar, Banaskantha, Mehsana, and other Kutch districts. Saline deserts (rann), arid grasslands and shrublands are its preferred environments. It seems to be increasing in numbers and extending its range from Little Rann of Kutch, where the world’s last population of this subspecies had got confined to in recent years, and has gradually started moving out and colonizing Greater Rann of Kutch also extending into the neighboring Indian State of Rajasthan in the bordering villages in Jalore district bordering the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. Gujarat’s supposed monopoly over this sub-species, has thus been broken. Within Rajasthan it has started making its presence felt in Khejariali and its neighbourhood where a 60 km2 area was transferred to the Rajasthan Forest Department by the revenue authorities in 2007. At this place Rebaris (camel and sheep breeders) live in the Prosopis juliflora jungles in the company of chinkaras, hyenas, common fox, desert cat and wolf etc.

Wild asses graze between dawn and dusk. The animal feeds on grass, leaves and fruits of plant, crop, Prosopis pods, and saline vegetation. It is one of the fastest of Indian animals, with speeds clocked at about 70 – 80 km. per hour and can easily outrun a jeep. Stallions live either solitarily, or in small groups of twos and threes while family herds remain large. Mating season is in rainy season. When a mare comes into heat, she separates from the herd with a stallion who battles against rivals for her possession. After few days, the pair returns to the herd. The mare gives birth to one foal. The male foal weans away by 1–2 years of age, while the female continues to stay with the family herd.

On both days of exploration, plenty of single male, female, calf and herds were spotted grazing and moving on the open areas of the desert.