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.

A Survival Story In the Shadow of the Bengal Tiger

Why do urban affluent class, who are surrounded by extreme form of materialism, think – surviving in nature, in raw-dense forest, the territory ruled by the mighty Bengal Tigers – would add fame and glory in their already “successful material lifestyle”?

Is it true that despite of our all-out effort in integrating economics and environment, as last desperate attempt to save this planet, deep inside of our heart we all believe it is not the “anthropocentric ecology” but the “deep ecology” which reinforces the core of the foundation of our very survival-success in this planet?

The urban affluence is sustained by market economy and to respond to the need of market economy we have relentlessly commodified nature. To achieve the process of that commodification we integrated ecology and economy and named that cocktail conservation approach as “sustainable development”.

However, we do not have much trust on the “sustenance” of “sustainable development”. Therefore, as a community, we support “sustainable development” in public; and as an individual, secretively we look for every opportunity to live life based on philosophy of “deep ecology”.

When we successfully survive the “deep ecology” based life style for a short time period, we go back again to live the life of “sustainable development” to join the larger community as response to the need of market economy. Once we go back, we sing the glorious songs of our survival in “deep ecology” based life style and proclaim our proximity to nature. We do so just to surrender ourselves again to the usual materialistic life style, which we are comfortable in living and brainwashed to live.

For a sizeable population of urban nature lovers, this is the life cycle pattern. Living a self-contradictory life and making all effort for self-consolation to shield themselves from the ruthless reality of materialistic life style.

The 72 hours survival story of eight men and women of urban affluent class, in the buffer zone of Bandhabgarh tiger reserve, at the onset of monsoon of the year 2021, was all about this conflict between “deep ecology” and “sustainable development”.

The selected eight

These eight men and women, known as “survivor in making” were put together inside the dense forest of Bandhbhgarh National Park and tiger reserve, by an India based organization known as Jungle Survival Academy (JSA). The organization, with the help of local traditional forest dwellers, and ex-Indian Army service men designed a 72 hours survival course to enable non-forest dwellers to fight fears of forest, as well as live a dream in the wilderness of the Bandhavgarh Jungles in Madhya Pradesh. The idea was to let the urban folks to experience the wild, to explore the unexplored and to challenge their inner self to survive in an unknown terrain with very few available resources. As proclaimed by the Jungle Survival Academy, they bring to us (non-forest dwellers), one of its kind survival courses to test our spirits and to make our adrenals rush to fight and survive in the wild.

Most interesting part was that, they document that entire survival challenge, as the “survivors in making” were chased by the camera crew during the entire course.

Before I start telling this survival story, let us know about the eight individuals who were the selected one for this challenge.

Soma Ghosh from Lucknow. A radio jockey and presenter who works for a State Government influenced FM channel of Lucknow city. A lady in her late thirty or early forty, separated from husband and stays with parents, who was looking for a meaningful and exciting life and found participating in adventure sports is a great way of adding more colors in life. In her own verbatim, she participated in bungee jumping, river rafting etc. and participating in a jungle survival challenge would add “another feather in cap”. Soma was someone who came to forest with contrasting bright clothing, a bagful of cosmetics and other make up accessories. In several instant during our jungle stay, we found her applying those in the middle of forest or under a tree top.

Akash Shrotriya from Bhopal. A guy in his early thirty and I never understood why he was there and what was his expectation. Apparently he runs his own NGO which is involved in community welfare and wildlife awareness programme. Throughout the stay in jungle, he kept giving contradictory statement on and off camera. However, he was one of the fittest ‘survivors in making” in the team but always critical about JSA and its instructors (off camera of course).

Ojas Mehta from Surat. A business man by profession and a body-builder cum model cum Netflix TV series actor by hobby. Like most of the body builders he looks strong and capable of taking any challenges, but always particular about dietary preferences. In this entire course, he kept missing his high protein diet and regular hydration plan and he was quite vocal about that. Ojas is also an ex-cricket player who represented Gujarat state in Ranjy trophy. He is highly connected with top-notch Indian national cricketers and Bollywood movie stars. His primary objective was to create plenty of video footages of his survival activities in wilderness. He surprised all of us, when he told that he was 49 years old, whereas he was actually looked as in his early 30.

Neha from Delhi. A 29 years old marketing professional with a multinational company and a Yoga instructor and trekker by hobby. She is fit, strong and up to any challenges but again like most of the fitness freak, very particular about diet. She loves talking about herself and kept mentioning during course, that how much she was missing her three meals a day. Like Soma, she also came with a mind-set of participating in another adventure sports, but with right kind of mental and physical preparation.

Mahim from Noida. A Corporate Trainer by profession, but that’s not his real identity. He was the most royal amongst all “survivors in making” and it was started getting revealed as the challenges becoming tougher. Despite of his honest attempt to remain modest and polite, his uncomfortability due to hardship of living in wilderness became gradually apparent. He is a descendent of the King of Patiala, and his royal lifestyle made him look vulnerable in raw nature. Like Akash, I was not too sure about Mahim’s purpose of being part of this course. Initially I thought it was because of Neha. In first instant both of them appeared to me like a couple, as they were wearing similar clothes and shoes and travelling as well as staying together. In fact, during introduction, Neha told us that they were together. But gradually they went into a denial mode, and we got to know that although Mahim was single but Neha got married six months back.

Rishabh Goyel from Delhi. The youngest in the group. Another businessperson who runs few departmental stores and manages a family run business to feed 18 members of his family. He was the one amongst all the participants who was more candid about his reasons of being there. He had a bad accident sometime back and because of that, he went into depression. Once he recovered from his injury, he started looking for something, which would help in regaining his lost confidence to take challenges. Hence, he landed in the middle of that tiger reserve.

Dr. Prakash Arya from Gandhinagar. A paediatrician by profession and pianist by hobby. The most grounded and down to earth person amongst all the people over there. Probably the most suitable candidate for the challenge with strong survival instinct. Over the period, it was realised that survival in wilderness comes very effortlessly and naturally for him. He was probably there to re-assess his already tried and tested ability to survive in raw nature.

Last but not the least, this confused storyteller who is stuck between “eco-centrism” and ‘anthropocentrism”. The man who makes his living by practicing “sustainable development” but wants to adopt the principles of “deep ecology” in his life. I wanted to participate in this course to get an opportunity to stay as close as possible to the “shadow of the Bengal Tiger”. Not that I did not explore tiger territory before, but as a hobbyist wildlife photographer, I was always privileged to avail the support services on demand, which made my survival as comfortable as it could be in any nature holidays. Eco-tourisms are designed in such a way that eco-tourists never get a scope to complain about the facilities provided to them.

From that point of view this 72 hours survival course was quite indifferent about “anthropocentric” requirements and behaviours. Therefore, I thought it would also be interesting to observe struggle and behaviour of other participants in raw nature, who came from different spheres of life built upon hard-core materialism.

In the morning of 26th June 2021, operational manager of JSA, Mukul picked me up from a rural bus stand of Bagdara village, located around 10 km away from the base camp from where our survival journey would begin. While driving me there, a three times jungle survivor and Himalayan trekker by himself, Mukul told me that due to prolonged COVID19 pandemic induced lockdown, the people movement has been reduced significantly, in the villages and on the roads at the fringe area of buffer zone of the tiger reserve. That has increased the free movement of other animals including tigers. Now tiger sighting near any waterbodies at the edge of the forest or in the corridor between core and buffer zone of forest is more frequent. Along with excitement, this piece of information also brings necessary caution for the “survivors in making” as possibility of close encounter with tigers, in that patch of forest, became higher than pre-pandemic era.

Therefore, at the beginning of our course, our instructors – ex-service personnel Colonel Iqbal Mehta and ex special force commander Shambhu aka Ustad ji, spent some time to told us about animals’ tracks and signs and ways to escape any animal attacks.

Beginning of survival journey

When we started from basecamp, we all were provided with some basic survival tools like knife, axe, head-torch and a whistle. After entering into forest, our first task was preparing spear from bamboo tree with the help of those knife and axe. Both Iqbal and Ustad ji explained and demonstrated how to make and use improvised weapon from raw green hard bamboo. Dislodging a bamboo shoot from the thick stump of bamboo tree needed lot of strength and energy. Although it was monsoon season, but rain was delayed. Therefore, scorching heat was sucking energy and started dehydrating us quickly. I could see, Soma and Mahim started giving up quickly and were looking for aid from others to complete the task.

Besides two instructors, we also had a local septuagenarian forest dweller with us, known as Harshad Dada. With his and Ustad ji’s help all of us could make a spear for each of us which would not just protect us from animal attack but also help during our hiking as well as removing thorny branches of small tree which were coming on our way.

The hiking started and the dehydration due to excessive sweating. We filled our water bottle before we pushed off from base camp, but I could see the water level in my 1 litre bottle was alarmingly going down. When I asked for any nearby water sources, just to raise my panic level, Ustad ji replied, “due to less rainfall, all waterbodies in this forest patch are dry. Therefore we have to wait till we reach our next camping point, where probably we will reach just before dusk.”

From my marathon running experience, I know that my sweat rate is very high and have bad tendency of getting cramp due to excessive dehydration. This thought made me even more worried and I decided to walk as slowly as possible but at the same time keeping a minimum distance with last person of the group. Another way of avoiding any possible predator attack is walking in a group.

Eight of us with three of our nature survival teachers, were not just doing plain hiking. Rather we were doing the most important aspect of surviving in forest, based on naturally available resources. We were foraging, under the guidance of local forest dwelling tribal man, Dada.

Dada was helping us in identifying leaves, tubers, and fungi, which are edible. We were gathering them and collecting in a bag as our lunch and dinner for the day. Tubers of plants locally known as satawari and moori; leaves of a shrub locally known as moker and a circular fungus locally known as koru were the main components of our collection for the day.

Around 2 pm, we stopped at a place to start cooking. We were given ration of rice and black gram (locally known as Urad dal). We carefully used water to wash some portion of that rice and lentil and mixed. We also added leaves of moker into that. Tubers of satawari and moori we chewed and sucked the juice while hiking to keep our lips and tongue moist to cope with thirst. Koru we kept for evening supper.

Lighting fire was the toughest task on that point of time by creating friction between dry tree branches. Even ex special force commander Ustad ji, was almost at the verge of giving up. Although the rain was irregular in early monsoon but enough to make all branches and leaves wet and moist. Thus, lighting of fire appeared as a never-ending process. Once, the fire was lit with lot of efforts, we started boiling all those edible stuff together. However, 30-45 minutes of boiling was not enough and resulted in half cooked rice. Actually, we did not add enough water in rice. We could not do it to save water for drinking as we still have two-three hours to survive our thirst before we find a waterbody.

We all were hungry, so we started eating and appreciating whatever we managed to cook. Only Mahim and Ojas were visibly upset with the outcome. But they also ate quietly.

The last few hours of the day were all about surviving thirst. All of ours bottles were empty by then and we were not even closer to any waterbody. We all were literally dragging ourselves with all body weight leaned on our bamboo stick. Walking through dense forest was nothing new for me. I did that before in the forest of Periyar and Sumatra. But the rainforests provide good canopy cover. On the other hand, the forest of Central India is dry and moist deciduous in nature. There are tall trees but canopy is not big enough to protect from sunlight. Our energy was draining rapidly. Less food and water was making our movement slower.

When we were desperate for water, we reached at a place where forest floor was covered with dry leaves. Ustad ji, picked up one leaf, smelled and poured something from it into his mouth. It was rainwater accumulated in dry leaves. He told us, “If you are desperate to quench your thirst then this is the only option available for you. Walk slowly and come closer so that you don’t step on the leaves containing rain water.”

We all gradually gathered and drank that water. Mahim and Akash were refrained from drinking that water. Later Mahim told us that he could not imagine drinking water like that. Therefore, he thought it was all right to stay thirsty and dehydrated.

Iqbal said, “Smell the water first before you gulp it”. Any foul smell from accumulated water in ditches, or leaves indicates that the water is not potable. There is no other way of measuring potability of water in wilderness.

It became dark by 7 pm, and we reached at camping area, where we had to pitch tent. Ojas and Mahim were expecting somebody to wait with tea and snacks at camping area. When the expectation was expressed, we could only get sarcastic laughter from our camera crew.

Once we were done with tent pitching, Soma put on her evening make up, did her hair and slipped into her evening dress. Rest of us dispersed into forest for collection of dry woods to lit bonfire. Another difficult one hour to lit fire and cooking and another dismal outcome as far as cooking quality was concerned.

Ojas was more content this time and accepted the outcome as a natural process in wilderness. Mahim became grumpier and criticised the idea of putting koru (fungi) in food. It was not tasty at all and a bit rubbery.

Whole night was breeze less, and was difficult to slip within tent. Fortunately, we all got our individual tent therefore; it was possible for me to strip down to nothing as an effort to escape from sweating like a pig. Early morning there was a bit of shower but that just worsen the situation.

I got out of my tent at 6 o’clock in morning; the surrounding grassland was still wet and moist. We survived in this tiger terrain for 24 hours and we had 48 hours more to go.

Morning 8 o’clock again we started our hiking through forest. The day we spent in learning unarmed combat and rope making from the leaves of moori. We needed lot of rope for carrying thick woods for creating bonfire and most importantly for making shelters.

Foraging continued besides all these activities. Besides our regular moori, satawari and moker, we added another kind of fungi known as “deema ki piri” or fungus grown on termite tower. The white globulous head at the top of white slender body were popping out from termite towers. All of us happily collected those with a hope of eating a better meal than previous two occasions.

Pugmark

Rope making and foraging took more time than previous day. Meanwhile during our movement, Dada sensed movement of some animal. That made us to sit quietly at a plain grassland and do a detour until he found it safer to move. When we were crossing a ditch full of sand, both Dada and Iqbal drew our attention towards fresh pugmark of a female adult tiger. The tigress clearly walked along the ditch and according to Iqbal that happened probably in the morning, therefore the tigress must be still around that area. Apparently, that area was used frequently by a female and her cub as a corridor between core and buffer zones of Bandhabhgarh tiger reserve.

Iqbal looked at us and said, “Some story to tell others once you survive next 40 hours”.

Experience of tiger encounter in wild, even if it is not the tiger itself but the sign of its presence around you– sign of debuckling on tree trunk, pugmarks on soil – all counts as “some story to tell others”. Everybody – wildlife enthusiast, nature lover, adventure sports person or jungle survivor alike – wants to tell this story to others. This is the story, which makes one stand out from others; this is the story, which makes one brave and cool; this is the story makes one glorious survivor in forest that is ruled by the majestic beast of this subcontinent.

That statement of Iqbal on that very moment in the buffer zone of Bandhabhgarh National Park was enough to establish the glory of Bengal Tiger in subcontinental forest. If one can survive with him in his territory, without causing any harm to each other, then that one has lived few hours of his/her life embracing principles of “deep ecology”.

It was another dusk in forest, and we did not get time to cook our lunch, so it was almost 24 hours we were without any food. But we learnt how to survive thirst by then. Our body and mind was conditioned to live 24 hours of hot summer with 1 litre of water.

As light was diminishing quickly, we had to ramp up our shelter making and cooking arrangement process. We got ourselves divided into two groups to take charge of these two key tasks to face the night in forest, where tiger movement was already confirmed.

Jungle food cooked in a whole dug out on ground

In previous day, we were given a cooking vessel, but on next day to make our challenge little more difficult, it was taken away. Therefore, in the absence of our last resort of civilized cooking utensil, the remaining rice, black gram, leaves of moori and deema ki piri were all mixed, washed, and wrapped in leaves. The whole bundle was placed over dry branches inside a rectangular whole dug out in ground with the help of axe and knife. With similar painfully patient effort, the fire was lit and baking of that mixed edible stuff started with the aid of dry wood charcoal. As usual, we were running short of water supply. As we had whole night to survive on a treetop, where the makeshift night shelter or machan was made with the help of bamboo stick and rope made out of leaves of moori plant, we dared not to spend too much of water in cooking.

In the darkness, it would not be a wise idea to venture out for drinking water, especially when predator movement was sensed around us.

The end result was the third consecutive half cooked or barely cooked meal to eat.

Rishabh, Ojas and Mahim decided not to eat anything. Soma, Doctor, Neha and Akash ate as per their best capacity. I hogged that food to fill my stomach, as I wanted a good night sleep.

Mahim was in empty stomach for almost 36 hours by then, on top of that there were spiders near our cooking area. He said that he hates spiders as they spoiled his balcony garden plants. In addition, he also has Arachnophobia. All these literally made him disgruntled.

In the night at the machan, once our camera crew and instructors left us in wilderness to survive rest of the night, the possibility of a coup started brewing under the leadership of Prince of Patiala. Mahim’s royal legacy just refused to accept such ill treatment caused by “uncivilized food” and “unhygienic living condition”. Neha and Ojas supported him softly as both of them were genuinely missing their rigid diet regime. As a result packets of glucose biscuits arrived at machan to serve his majesty and his hoi polloi.

Once again the pseudo affection for nature by urban affluent class was exposed; once again urban folk’s inability to cope with challenges thrown by wilderness was visible; once again the lack of faith of urban lifestyle towards complete dependency on nature was revealed; once again human’s preference to live as per their own convenient lifestyle over the way of life offered by nature was proven; and last but not the least once again “sustainability development” won against “deep ecology”.

Next day morning, with my surprise Mahim said, actually, he was not hungry but he just wanted to make a point that he deserved food palpable for “civilized” people. The human life forms will always remain entangled in this web of complexity of so-called civilization and keep all other non-human life forms at bay. Hence, defeats the purpose of all human defined conservation concepts- like cohabitation, eco-resilience, eco-restoration and many more.

Everybody’s ability to survive in forest like other non-human life forms were significantly challenged. Nevertheless, we all survived 48 long hours in the wilderness of a tiger reserve of Central India.

Next 24 hours really broke us completely both mentally and physically. The climate was even more hostile due to increased temperature. Few rounds of shower during daytime increased the humidity further to make our life more miserable. In three continuous day, we were in same clothes and undergarments. Everything was soaking wet by our own sweat, which was attracting lot of insects to sit on the open parts of our body, thus increasing itching all over body parts.

Man in action

We had to manage with lesser supply of water, and again it was another day we were without food. Whole day we were busy in learning how to tie different knots, which may come handy during climbing, material lifting and rescuing; we learnt slithering with the help of rope from 30 feets tall tree top; we learnt how to collect rainwater and filter that with charcoal; and how to make improvised traps to capture animals. Ustad ji was a real artist of all these techniques and taught us with lot of patience. Whole day we were mesmerized with Ustad ji’s military art and Dada’s local knowledge. All these activities did not give us enough time to lit fire and cook food; however, we did not forget to forage for night.

Ojas and I were bit happier than others as we collected enough number of local forest fruits called bael. Aegle marmelos, commonly known as bael, also Bengal quince, golden apple, Japanese bitter orange, stone apple or wood apple, is a species of tree native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It is present in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, and Malaysia as a naturalized species. This was the only edible fruits lying on forest floor in abundance.

I remembered during my childhood my father used to run after me with his concoction made out of this horribly tasted fruits in order to cure my constipation. That time, even in my remotest dream, I could not imagine that one day I would eat this fruit as if it was a panacea from haven.

By the night lot of people thought it was enough of survival and their body was no longer able to take any further toll. Soma, Neha and Mahim decided to leave. Ojas and Akash were in dilemma. Although Akash was visibly tired but he was claiming repeatedly, that he had lived tougher life than this and had seen worse. However, Ojas was quite honest in confessing that he had not gone through such hardship ever in his life. He comes from a background where he does not even need to carry his gym kitbag and protein shake on his own. But here in this forest he was going through all these with a smile on face. Despite of his celebrity status he was quite a down to earth person.

Eventually both of them decided to stay back in machan for the last night of our survival course.

The usual cooking process started for the night, Ojas lost his patience and decided to stay rather hungry. But Ustad ji told us boldly, “You have to cook for me, I don’t care whether you stay hungry or not!”

The message was clear to everybody so we cooked food in similer way as previous night and with all our surprise, we cooked adequately boiled and more palpable food. It was just rice and moori leaves, but the delicious ever meal we cooked durig our survival course.

The next day morning Rishabh, Dr. Prakash Arya, Ojas, Akash and I came out of the forest after completing 72 hours of jungle survival in the tiger territory of a Central Indian landscape.

We all enterd in this forest with different objectives, but we all had one common ground. We all believed that we human are incomplete without any connection with non-human life forms, does not matter how much we underestimate and disregard them. We all also confesed that ability to stay in nature like any other living species of her, doesn’t make us any deregetory species, rather magnify our fame and glory as human being.

All eight of us would be indulged again in our regular life to respond to the need of metarialism. Nevertheless, my journey to embrace “deep ecology” began.

Royals of Aravalli

In this country of “tiger-centric” ecotourism, there is another member of big cat family which has won the heart of wildlife enthusiasts. Dry deciduous forest of Aravalli hill range in the state of Rajasthan is the prime destination of wildlife fraternity for the search of that “not so elusive” animal. The India leopard or Panthera pardus.

The conservation of this animal is being successful here based on an unique concept of “Cohabitation”. In 2017, Rajasthan became the first state in India to announce Project Leopard with a sum of Rs. 70 million (Rs. 7 crores) set aside to conserve leopards. It eventually kicked off in 2018 with the launch of a leopard reserve in Jhalana Forest Reserve.

Jhalana reserve at the foothill of Aravalli

As natural history commentator I have always considered myself lucky in terms of sighting leopards in wild. But at the same time I have a jinx with this animal as a wildlife photographer. I had seen leopards in tiger territory, for about four to five different occasions before my Jhalana visit. In Bandipur the leopard pair in courtship was in my side of the gypsy, but that time I was a beginner in photography and failed to set my camera according to light condition. In the evening of the same day in Bandipur again I repeated the mistake of wrong camera setting when we saw the leopard on tree at the last hour of our safari. Therefore, in both the cases I missed the opportunity of getting any decent shots. In Satpura, we saw three cubs but again light condition and position of our safari gypsy was not favourable enough to get any satisfactory shots. In Kabini leopard appeared in front of us suddenly like an orange flash of lightning and disappeared quickly. In Dandeli we got a glimpse of a mother and a cub in the darkness of early morning with the help of gypsy’s headlights. In Sariska the animal was stalking quietly a herd of sambar probably when we spotted him at the last hour of our safari. But again after hearing the first click of shutter it was rushed inside the forest, without giving much photo opportunity.

A leopard in Sariska hiding quickly after hearing sound of shutter click

All of the above incidents were fabulous memory of leopard sighting and observing their characteristic behaviour, the only thing missing was a decent image of leopard.

In Jhalana that jinx too was broken, when on 1st April, in our evening safari we got alert by the alarm call of squirrel. Then we saw a female, locally known as Flora, slowly walked in. She was stalking her prey, apparently a squirrel on a tree. Yes, “urban leopard” of “urban forest of Jhalana” in the heart of the pink city of Jaipur, feeds upon squirrel, francolin, monitor lizard, pea fowl etc.

A female leopard of Jhalana

I reached Jhalana on 31st March, after a short visit to another “leopard sighting spot” of this magnificent ecosystems of grey forest of Aravalli. That was Kumbhalgarh Ranakpur Wildlife Sanctuary, located around 100 km away from the royal city of Udaipur. The sanctuary area starts at around 100 km away from the city of Udaipur. Typical tourists and wildlife enthusiast alike visit this place for two main reasons – pilgrimage to Ranakpur Jain temple and sighting of leopards.

morning at around 5:30, my local guide Viramdev Singh, took me to the fringe area of the forest, which was around 30 km away from the Ranakpur Safari Resort, where my overnight staying accommodation was arranged. The safari resort was few kilometres apart from Ranakpur Jain temple and entry gate of Kumbhalgarh wildlife sanctuary.

Area where we were heading in the morning is situated in village Perwa, in Pali district and part of Jawai leopard conservation area. According to Viramdev “leopard sighting is 99.9 % assured!” However, besides herds of nilgai, pea fowl and flocks of greater coucal we didn’t see much in that forest in couple of hours of that morning. Therefore, Viramdev’s “99.9% assurance” didn’t work. And people, who deal with wild life, know for sure that such assurance practically has no meaning. Wild life sighting depends upon climate, timing and several other ecological-behavioral factors.

Perwa area near Kumbhalgarh Raanakpur wildlife sanctuary, part of Jawai reseve

Viramdev, a safari guide and a volunteer-tracker of forest department, told me another astonishing story of “strawberry leopard” at the end of our morning venture. Apparently a leopard with white coat and strawberry colored rosettes, sounded like an albino leopard to me, was found roaming in this forest area. Viramdev claimed that he knows the whereabouts of that leopard and was collecting more images, video footages and other information about its habitat etc., before he would finally publish that news officially. According to a wildlife census carried out in 2020, an estimated 136 leopards (Panthera pardus) are found in and around the Kumbhalgarh sanctuary and one of them could be a “strawberry leopard”.

Community Conservation and Non-Tiger centric eco-tourism

In India eco-tourism activities are heavily inclined on tiger reserves, therefore conservation efforts are also more visible, effective and state sponsored as far as tiger reserves are concerned. But for non-tiger range forests, its the community based conservation which upholds and promotes eco-tourism.

Grassland ecosystem of Talchhapar

When I was planning my grasslands exploration, my idea was to experience the conservation and eco-tourism scenario related to other endangered and vulnerable species of India, whereas otherwise the ecotourism in this subcontinent is typically “tiger centric”. But what I didn’t know was that the grassland is a neglected ecosystem in spite of being habitat of around 56 different species notified in different Schedules of Wildlife Protection Act of India, including some of the most threatened species like black buck, great Indian bustard, lesser florican, Indian rhinoceros, snow leopard, Nilgiri thar, wild buffalo etc.

Wetland in Chhapar village

These species are distributed in various grasslands and deserts of India – dry grasslands and hot deserts of North and Western India; cold deserts of Western and Eastern Himalayas; tropical short grass plains of Western, Central India and Deccan; wet grasslands of Terai and North East India; and shola grasslands of Western Ghats. 

Most astonishing fact, I came across was that as per the Report of Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts, published by Government of India in 2006, around 50% of the fodder for the livestock in India, home of more than 500 million livestock, comes from grasslands. These grasslands, habitats of endangered and vulnerable wild life, are major grazing areas and sources of rural economy of this nation.

One such ecologically significant and classic case of community based conservation is Tal Chhapar. Amidst the fiasco of bird-flu, when birds in rural and urban settlements were dropping dead, I landed in pink city Jaipur on 29th January, 2021. Destination was Tal Chhapar, a supposedly classic case of “community based conservation”. As per the environmental portal of Rajasthan Government, nearly 50% of wildlife species in this state are found outside the traditional protected area network. The communities have volunteered to conserve wild life and its habitat in these areas.

Flying Eastern Imperial Eagle

In a four and half hours safari on my first day in sanctuary, I saw hundreds of black buck male, female and calves; plenty of nil gai (blue bull) and some amazing winter migratory and indigenous birds of grassland ecosystems.  Isabelline wheatear, southern grey shrike, sand grouse, greater short toed lark, lesser grebe, grey and black francolin, flocks of common crane and a very rare migratory bird Stolikza’s bush chat were some of the mention worthy avian species, I spotted with the help of experienced nature guide Anand Prasad. The Stoliczka’s bushchat, also known as white-browed bush chat, is an old World flycatcher in the genus Saxicola. The alternative name is after the discoverer, geologist and explorer Ferdinand Stoliczka. This desert specialist has a small, declining population because of agricultural intensification and encroachment, which qualifies it as vulnerable. A direct victim of anthropocentric ecological conservation.

Stolikczka’s Bush Chat

Presence of vulture population in this sanctuary also delighted me a lot, as first time I saw much talked about cinereous vulture. This bird also sometimes called the black vulture (Aegypius monachus) or monk vulture is one of the largest flying birds and one of the iconic subjects of wildlife photography in this ecosystem, along with other two most commonly found species griffon and Egyptian vultures. Many scientists consider cinereous vulture to be the largest vulture and the largest bird of prey.

Cinerous vulture at Jorbeer

Next day at very early morning at 5:00 o’clock we started our journey towards another popular wildlife photography destination created through community based conservation approach and related with legacy of Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner. The idea was to reach Jorbeer vulture conservation reserve of Bikaner, 150 km away from our guest house, before sun rise. The usual time of sunrise here during winter is 7:00 AM.

Desert Cat at Tal Chhapar

In Jorbeer vulture sanctuary, Rachel Carson’s deep ecological perspective was resonated in every moment of my stay over there. She fought against usage of DDT and its effect on ecology whereas the conservation reserve in Jorbeer was established to protect vulture population from extinction due to deadly effect of diclofenac. These raptor birds play an important role in the ecosystem by feeding on decaying flesh of dead animals. Egyptian and cinereous vultures are two species found in Jorbeer, which are endangered and near threatened respectively (as per IUCN status) and feeding on carcass of livestock ingested with diclofenac (painkiller drug) is the reason behind that. Impressively, Saravan was well informed about that and during my day long roaming with him, he highlighted that significance of this reserve several times.

Endangered Egyptian vulture on carcass at Jorbeer

Despite of being identified as “neglected ecosystems” of this subcontinent in the Report of Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts, the Tal Chhapar wildlife sanctuary of dry grasslands ecosystems of Rajasthan has done phenomenally well as per as biodiversity conservation is concerned and community participation is undoubtedly one of the key reasons behind that.

River, undergrowth ecosystem and Bengal Tiger

River has an essential role in the ecology of rainforest, as water availability has direct impacts on the health of forest and its inhabitants. This is also another unique feature of Western Ghats, which makes the forest look even more beautiful. The transition zone, within sanctuaries and national parks of Nilgiri Biosphere, between terrestrial upland and aquatic environment, is known as riparian zone. Flora and fauna survived in this zone are adapted to periodic flooding. Many not only tolerate it, but require it in order to maintain health and complete their lifestyles.

One of the biggest “human supremacy” induced threat to nature, is initiating invasion of alien floral species. Based on an article, “How alien invasive plant species threaten Western Ghats”, written by V. Sundararaju, in November, 2018 issue of Down to Earth,“Invasive species don’t allow local species to grow and wildlife to move through. A resin like substance that oozes from such alien species makes the soil acidic, preventing the growth of any other plant species. Species like Lantana, that grow extensively, create a mat-like structure leading to degradation and destruction of the biodiversity. As a result, herbivores like Gaur, Chital and Sambar are deprived of their food. This also affects the survival of carnivores such as tigers and panthers, interlinked to the ecological equilibrium.”

But nature has her own healing mechanism to deal with this human intervention. And that is flood. Based on an article published in online journal, “The Conversation”, authored by D. Paul Humphries, Senior lecturer in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, “When rivers flood, water moves out onto the flood plain. But so does sediment and a lot of organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorus – the energy and materials that fuel river ecosystems….There is in fact mutual exchange of these rich materials between rivers and flood plains”.

This is how the “Riparian Rain Forest” nurturing the kingdom of Bengal Tiger and his ecosystem, through eco-restoration of Nil Giri biosphere.

Hence, the ecological linkage between river, forest and tiger, triggered my next “pandemic time” exploration. Also “the icing on the cake” was company of a friend, known as Paddy, who besides his profession as environmentalist, is also involved in eco-restoration project, at personal capacity in the forest of Nil Giri.

Riparian Rainforest of Dandeli and Kali Tiger Reserve

Our first exposure to sign of tigers’ presence in this tiger reserve was through spotting fresh pug marks on forest path, which became muddy because of heavy to moderate down pour at the beginning of our first jeep safari in the evening of 30th September. The question came in everybody’s mind, that those pug marks belonged to whom, which were trailing from muddy forest path to dense undergrowth?

The rain fall occurred a while ago formed small water puddles in the depression on mud created by those footsteps.

The above tiger image of water puddle in pugmarks, taken by Paddy is also symbolic of deep ecological relationship between tigers and water resources of its ecosystem. The home of Bengal Tigers, is fed by many rivers. Particularly the Western Ghats landscape is crucial from that point of view as rivers like Kali, Kabini, Bhadra, Periyar originate here and maintain four most important tiger reserves of Western Ghats. These riverine ecosystem meet Bengal Tigers’ needs and demands of a healthy forest cover, sufficient prey base, vast tracts of inviolate and contiguous space, and enough water sources to survive.

The eco system which is ruled by mighty Bengal Tiger is not fascinating just because of big herbivores, arboreal or birds of prey. Tiger as apex predator, protects the ecosystems by controlling species population in its food pyramid. However the vigor and diversity of this ecosystem depends upon a natural nourishment process. The undergrowth of tropical rainforest plays immense role in that nourishment process. 

These forest floor or undergrowth species are spiders, bugs, amphibians and reptiles – commonly known as herpetofauna or “macro subjects” among nature enthusiasts and wildlife photographers.

But somehow the undergrowth species remain unnoticed as we human being tend to focus more on more glamourous big species in forests. However, there are always exception and there are people who devoted their life in conservation of undergrowth species. Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology or KCRE, located in Agumbe is one such organization.

Therefore, after Dandeli and KRT our next stop was KCRE.

Experiencing the ecosystem of Bengal Tiger remain incomplete, if you don’t do that through your all five senses. And, exploration in KCRE exactly provides that opportunity.

Our night walk and day nature trail in KCRE, accompanied by Prashanth and his intern Surya, were never an exception from all these. Rat snake, Beddome’s  keelback, Beddome’s cat snake, stick insect, bush frog, house centipede, fishing spider, rubber fly, indirana frog, dancing frog, skittering frog, tiger beetle, wood borer, forest calottes, bi-colour frog and many other undergrowth species we spotted in those days, might have gone unnoticed by many nature enthusiasts, due to their love for more glamorous species of subcontinental tiger habitat. 

King Cobra at Agumbe

The shadow is darker by Pandemic?

Between March and August of 2020, the civil society across the country became expert in at least one subject, and that was “the outbreak of pandemic”.

A pandemic about which nobody knows anything! But everybody knows “everything”.

They know everything to get panic; know everything to create new norms; know everything to coin a term called “new normal” and at the end know everything to follow nothing, because they know nothing to remain calm; know nothing to discard existing social practices; know nothing, so fill the vacuum by coining a term called “new normal” and at the end know nothing, so follow everything.

Few hilarious examples of this conundrum of knowing “everything” and “nothing” was – pay cut by companies to tackle bad economy – which was declared as voluntary but implemented as mandatory; practicing “social distancing” in public places – which was directed as mandatory but enacted as voluntary; and using of “arogya setu app” developed by Government of India to track virus infected cases – which was intended to cover a population of 1.4 billion out of which 35% use smart phones but targeted a virus which nobody could isolate.

And last but not the least, the whole world decided to remain locked till the invention of a “vaccine” for a virus which nobody knows how does work.

Confused ?… so does the whole World !

But who created such confusion and why? That is probably the most controversial debate of this century and not the subject of this story.

However, this confusion had kept eco tourists and wildlife photographers away from forests and national parks of this country for a longest period of time. Even when officially the parks were permitted to operate for eco-tourism, wildlife enthusiasts were still sceptical about taking any chance with this “virus” over their “enthusiasm” to display passion for wild lives in social media.

But there are two categories of desperate people in society – the first category – desperate to get into adventure, because that’s the only thing available for them to break monotony; and the second category – desperate to get back into business, because they have few mouths to feed.

These two categories can meet each other’s need and for that they must come together.

That’s what exactly happened when twelve of first category people, including me, gathered together at Kabini River Lodge of Jungle Lodges and Resorts, in the afternoon of 4th September, 2020, under the leadership of Harsha Narasimhamurthy, wildlife photographer and naturalist from Toehold Travel and Photography Private Limited, the representative of second category.

That was my “second return to highland”, amidst a “pandemic”.

Kabini the Verdant Rain forest of Western Ghats

My “pandemic time” exploration started from Kabini with a very new theme. The theme of “Big Five” which I am going to narrate as I experienced in those three days. – The Big Five of Western Ghats. That includes tiger, leopard, Indian elephant, gaur and Asiatic wild dog.

In this group of course tiger is the supreme most species. Although till couple of years back, the part of Nagarhole, which we were exploring, was more popular for leopard sighting. From eco-tourism and wildlife photography point of view it was always the leopard which was considered as flagship species of Kabini. But now the story is different.

The famous Temple Tiger (female) of Kabini

Whenever I have seen Bengal Tigers in forest, I was always astonished by some or the other display of their characteristic behaviour.

The mature female, I spotted in my first “pandemic” exploration, was found sniffing vigorously the tree trunk, grasses and even soil. She was making “stinky face” and rolling her tongue out, which Harsha explained later as flehmen response. According to German Wildlife Keeper in the mammal department of Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo, Dr. Erin Mowatt, “in German the word flehmen means lip curl or curl of the upper lip”.

All animals have five senses – sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. The cats have an extra sense – with the help of their vomeronasal organ, or the Jacobson organ – they process information somewhere between smell and taste. The tiger open wide to allow the scent to reach the roof of its mouth where the Jacobson organ is located.

One more exploration to tiger range forest of this subcontinent, one more lesson of tiger behavior…. The shadow is not darker in pandemic!

Flehmen response

I am one step closure to finish my ambitious project of “In the Shadow of Bengal Tiger”.

Why “In the Shadow of the Tiger” ?

Some experts said before, that “climate change” may turn Bengal Tiger, the apex predator of subcontinent forest, into a “snow tiger” eventually. This hypothesis lately made me visit high altitude of Western Himalayas at 4300 meters in late winter of 2020.

There I met another cat, the apex predator of tree less alpine ecosystem, the stealthy grey ghost – closest cousin of Bengal Tiger- the snow leopard of Spiti. There are quite a few evolutionary theories on why snow leopards are closest cousins of Bengal Tigers but not of  leopards. There are quite a few theories which discard this relationship.

However, I must say although Bengal Tigers have quite successfully established their empire in high Himalayas of Bhutan and India, sub Himalayan Terai arch in India, Nepal and Bhutan, but enjoying status of undisputed ruler of alpine dry scrub forests would be a different ball game for them.

Their so called closest cousins, survive on cliff of high mountains, with less or no foliage cover to hide or ambush or secure their kill. Mighty Bengal Tigers need to learn those tricks first from their “closest cousins”. Then they need to accustom themselves to survive by feeding on Himalayan Ibex, Tibetan Blue Sheep and occasionally livestock (Yak if lucky), which are much smaller than a Gaur, Sambar or Deer.

DSC_3555i

Then only the high Himalayan alpine ecosystem, like  ecosystems of deciduous, evergreen and mangroves, will be in their “shadow”.

What do we mean by “In the shadow of the Bengal Tiger”?

We may expand this idiom “in the shadow of the Bengal Tiger” in two different ways, in context of this ninety days commentary in the land of Bengal Tigers of this subcontinent:

One way could be, in this book, the so called superior species of the earth, the human being is given less importance or considered as less notable, compared to the mighty Bengal Tigers. We human being are living in the shadow of the Bengal Tiger;

Another way could be, every other species in the food pyramid of Bengal Tigers, are living with the constant fear of this apex predator. Everything else in this ecosystem is living in the shadow of the Bengal Tiger.

And we better respect and admire these two core postulations of this commentary for the sake of sustenance of this very ecosystem and survival of our very existence.

Anyway, my plan for 2020 was to look for the answer to my question whether the Himalayan Ecosystem is in the “shadow of Bengal Tiger”, in context of above two core postulations.

Therefore I wanted to explore the forests of Terai Arch, North East India, Nepal and Bhutan. But thanks to outbreak of COVID19 pandemic. Now I can only narrate the justification of title of this work in progress book in solitary confinement at my Bangalore flat.

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Looking forward and hoping for the best.

 

 

A common wildlife enthusiast’s commentary on Bengal Tigers and its ecosystems

There are hardly any people in this planet, who are interested in forest and wildlife, but not aware of Jim Corbett and his interaction with Bengal Tigers in Indian forests. For many people tiger is a ferocious animal, an apex predator and a supreme hunter in wild and for Corbett a tiger is “A Large Hearted Gentleman”. (Man Eater of Kumaon)

This perspective of Corbett on tiger, made me curious over a period of time to see the animal in its natural habitat.

However, as far as spotting Bengal Tigers (or other Big Cats) in Indian or subcontinent forest is concerned, one basic philosophy I imbibed into my mind, in order to deal with my own expectations, was – “The dense forests of India, are unlike the Savannahs of Africa, where game spotting is a breeze. So, the experience of being part of an African safari or watching umpteen animal videos on National Geographic, even though real, but far from reality at the same time.” (Taken from the blog – Wander with Jo – TIGER SPOTTING 101 – THE UNLUCKY ADVENTURER’S GUIDE)

With this realization, I started my quest for Bengal Tigers, in the winter of 2015 and expecting to continue till autumn of 2022.

My ultimate goal is documenting all experiences – in the form of images taken during exploration in tiger habitats, stories heard from forest dwellers and events seen through my own eyes in forests. Then publish a book, which would be  – “A common wildlife enthusiast’s ninety days of commentary on Bengal Tigers and its ecosystems in thirty tiger reserves of five tiger range countries.”

As the quest is only for Bengal Tigers among all the living six sub species of tigers across the world, which are found in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, therefore I have picked up three tiger range countries of this sub-continent – India, Bangladesh and Nepal, as my primary areas of exploration for this story. In addition to above three tiger range countries, I am also planning to visit Myanmar and Bhutan as secondary areas of my exploration.

Out of all these countries, I have already finished my explorations in :

  1. Western Ghats – Bandipur, Periyar, BRT Tiger Reserve and Nagrahole ;
  2. Central India – Satpura, Pench, Kanha;
  3. Western India- Tadoba;
  4. North India – Sub Himalayan – Corbett;
  5. North East – Nameri; and
  6. Sundarbans of West Bengal and Bangladesh

I have spent one third of my planned 90 days exploration and visited 12 tiger reserves of two countries. Still have long way to go.

However, in those days, I have already seen and experienced tiger’s royal and majestic movement, growling, roaring, swimming, territory marking, debuckling, prey base assessing, stalking prey, and even human hunting !!

If everything goes as per plan, I would come up with my book – In the shadow of the Tiger, by middle of 2023.

The probable cover page of my forthcoming book:

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This cover is a collage of images from my three most memorable explorations:

  1. Top: Hiking in India’s most adventurous bush walk in tiger reserves –   in the tiger trail of Periyar Tiger Reserves (the related story is told already in Chapter Two: In the Shadow of the Tiger – Hiking in Highland);
  2. Middle: An early morning surprise sighting at Corbett National Park (the related story is told already in Chapter Five: Call of Corbett);
  3. Bottom: The alpha male of Sajnekhali, at Sundarbans National park, West Bengal (the related story is told already in Chapter Six: Conflict in Swampland).

As its going to be my first venture in writing stories on wildlife; I would depend largely on your feedback and suggestions.

Looking forward for it.

Return to Highland

Rainforest Rendezvous

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

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Vajrapoha Falls at Chorla Ghat picture by Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Malabar Gliding Frog, picture by Author

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

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

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Habitat of Malabar Gliding Frog, picture by Author

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

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

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Fishing Spider, picture by Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saw Scaled Viper, picture by Author

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

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

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Travancore Wolf Snake, picture by Author

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

Return to Highland

The Kingdom of King Cobra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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