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.

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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.

Return to High Land

The Biological Bridge of Deccan Plateau

After the shattering incidents of Dhaka, at the end of 2018 and in the beginning of 2019, which impacted significantly my overall exploration plan for my book “In the shadows of the Tiger”, I took little time to rethink and rework on my strategy.

In absence of my major photography gears and resources, I thought of focussing on nearby forests of Bangalore and thus thought about returning to highlands of India – Western Ghats.

On 2nd March, 2019, I started my second phase of explorations in Western Ghats, from where I started my quest for Bengal Tigers, in the winter of 2015. This time I chose, a unique, but not so frequently visited forest by wildlife photographers and biodiversity explorers – BRT or BR Hills.

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The Biligirirangana Hills, commonly called BR Hills, is a hill range situated in south-eastern Karnataka, at its border with Tamil Nadu (Erode District) in South India. The area is called Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary or simply BRT Wildlife Sanctuary. It is a protected reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Being at the confluence of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats, the sanctuary is home to eco-systems that are unique to both the mountain ranges. The site was declared a tiger reserve in January 2011 by the Karnataka government, a few months after approval from India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority.

The hills are located at the easternmost edge of the Western Ghats and the westernmost edge of the Eastern Ghats. Thus this area supports a diverse flora and fauna in view of the various habitat types present. A wildlife sanctuary of 322.4 square kilometres (124.5 sq mi) was created around the temple on 27 June 1974, and enlarged to 539.52 square kilometres (208.31 sq mi) on 14 January 1987. The sanctuary derives its name Biligiri (white hill in Kannada) from the white rock face that constitutes the major hill crowned with the temple of Lord Ranganathaswamy (Lord Vishnu) or from the white mist and the silver clouds that cover these hills for a greater part of the year. An annual festival of Lord Vishnu, held in the month of April, draws pilgrims from far and wide. Once in two years, the Soliga Tribals present a 1-foot and 9 inches slipper, made of skin, to the deity in Biligiriranga Hills.

The BR hills links the Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats allowing animals to move between them and facilitating gene flow between populations of species in these areas. Thus, this sanctuary serves as an important biological bridge for the biota of the entire Deccan plateau.

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In the afternoon of 2nd March, 2019, I reached at Kyathdevaraya Gudi or K. Gudi Wilderness Camp of Jungle Lodge and Resorts, after a 6 hours of train journey from Bangalore to Chamarajanagar, and then a 30 km auto ride, till the Navodaya School of Handarballo village, where the forest check post of K Gudi is located. From the check post, Jungle Lodge’s driver Nagesh picked me up for the camp, it was another 30 minutes ride on up hills and hilly terrain with hair pin bends. En route, he gave me the news of leopard sighting on previous day and elephant sighting in the morning of that day.

At one spot he stopped his safari gypsy and drew my attention to a monitor lizard, however I was thinking, what would be the reaction of Dwaipayan and many other colleagues of Exploring Nature, if I spot a leopard in BRT. Of course, spotting any big cat is not in my list of expectations, although we all know, first principle of biodiversity exploration is “expect the unexpected!” Also, I was little annoyed with the thought of my preparedness for this visit. Without my best camera and lenses, what would be the big deal, even if I manage to spot a leopard in this reserve of Karnataka?

After a well spread buffet lunch, at the camp, we met at the reception to receive our briefings before commencing safari. Naturalist Abhinadan, explained us about general norms for forest safari, it was necessary as there were nearly 25 tourists, came to visit the park with kids and elderly people. And it was not so difficult to guess, by looking at them, that most of them had little or no experience in wildlife safaris.

The interesting facts I came to know from Abhinadan, were that BRT has representation of six forest types – scrubs, shola grassland, semi- evergreen, evergreen moist, moist and dry deciduous. Reportedly there were 55 tigers, 65 leopards and around 255 species of birds. Our first safari of the first day started at 4:00 PM, with nature guide cum driver Narayan, and continued till 6:30 PM, with little bit of usual “Tiger Drama” at the end.

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At the beginning of safari, we saw few regular birds like paradise flycatcher – rufous female and juvenile; blue headed bee-eater; common hawk cuckoo; and jungle owlet. We spotted lot of elephant dung, but not the big mammals. Few birds of prey spotted were – crested serpent eagle and oriental honey buzzard. At latter part of the safari, we saw a relatively uncommon bird – black stork and couple of Malabar giant squirrel. In next few days we saw the black stork several times and we must admit that population of Malabar giant squirrel, common hawk cuckoo and grey wag tail were quite high in that forest.

When we were planning to exit, one gypsy driver told us a tiger was spotted near battargatte water body, which was the place where we had been an hour back and spent about ten minutes to observe the oriental honey buzzard. The usual and familiar excitement erupted in our gypsy, as always. In the morning, Nagesh told me about leopard sighting, but Tiger sighting in BRT, is certainly big news! All the co-passengers screamed in excitement and driver Narayan got the message instantly, shouted towards us: “Hold tight!”, and then drove it like a formula one over the rough and lumpy terrain, to reach the spot at the earliest. We reached there in few minutes, already another gypsy was waiting there, the driver was Nagesh, and he shook his head towards us. No sight of big cat.

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A shy of disappointment in gypsy. Narayan’s reaction was as if he lost a million dollar stake – I felt worse for him, than me or other fellow tourists. A veteran and learned naturalist like him, kept telling sorry to us, till we reached our camp. As if the all two and half hours visit in this forest had gone in vein – as if we spent those hours in a broken land full of filthy garbage , not in one of the most significant biodiversity hotspots of India – as if it was not the biological bridge of Deccan plateau.

After reaching camp, when I was getting down from gypsy, I thanked Narayan, and complemented him for his knowledge on flora and fauna of BRT and again he said “sorry” for not being able to show us tiger. I had to intervene this time and said that he should not keep saying sorry. People who have little experience in forest, they are aware of uncertainty involves in finding predators or any big mammals in forest. People who love forest, they just love forest – every flora, fauna, terrain, waterbodies, odour and breeze – every bit of it. Not just one particular species. They also enjoy the uncertainties involved in exploring forest, and only such people come back to forest again and again.

There were altogether four gypsies in forest, and tourists of one gypsy saw the tiger near that waterbody. There were four tourists besides the driver, in that gypsy, and out of them one couple were most vocal and enthusiastic about sharing their evening experience in forest. Of course when we returned to camp and gathered for a short documentary film-show on western ghat forest, over high tea, that couple received some special attention from others. They had to tell their stories of tiger sighting multiple times to everybody, which they were doing with happiness mixed with pride.

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Of course most of the tourists who could not see tiger on that evening, considered that couple the luckiest, and were a bit jealous about them. During dinner, I heard whispers from other tables, speculating about sighting tigers in next day’s morning safari. The noticeable fact was, except one lawyer couple from Bangalore and I, all others will have their last safari in BRT on next morning, as all of them booked only one night package which includes two safaris. So, the next day morning safari would be most of the tourists’ only hope, and if they don’t succeed, they would say forest of BRT has nothing to see. In fact, in that evening during dinner, already few of them started saying that.

This is the general situation of wildlife tourism in India – as far as tourists’ expectation from forest is concerned.

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Next day, morning safari started at 6:20, after early morning tea and biscuits. I was in Narayan’s gypsy again with same group of tourists. While entering forest, Nayaran showed me Soliga settlement within forest. Being a Soliga by himself, he told me how he grew up in the lap of nature and becoming a forest guide and naturalist was actually a ‘natural’ profession for him. Now I felt little jealous about him, as in spite of being a sustainability consultant and natural history commentator by profession, I still live far away from nature than people like Nayaran do.

During discussion, another significance of BRT was revealed; BRT tiger reserve is the first protected area in the country where community forest rights (CFR) have been granted under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). On October 2, 2011, as many as 25 villages of Soliga tribal located inside the sanctuary received community rights, including the crucial forest conservation and management right to around 60 per cent of the sanctuary area, comprising the Yellandur, K Gudi and Punjanur ranges. Some 30 more villages located inside the sanctuary are awaiting CFR.

During morning safari, near a waterbody we saw a striped necked mongoose, quickly ran into forest, once it noticed our presence. Also there were fresh pug marks of leopard, it appeared the leopard came out from the waterbody after drinking water and then sat on the forest path for a while before finally disappearing into forest. Besides mongoose, other mammals spotted were an adult male Gaur (Indian bison), few Indian muntjacks, spotted deer and sambar deer. A beautiful white adult paradise flycatcher was found flocking for a while in nearby trees, other birds worth mentioning were Indian black bird, Malabar whistling thrush, streak throated woodpecker and male plum headed parakeet. Morning safari ended at 8:30 AM and we came back to camp for breakfast. Now it’s time to take rest and make notes. Lot to document, as long as memories are fresh.

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The afternoon safari, started at 3:45 PM, with driver Nagesh. Naturalist Abhinandan also joined us. The number of tourists got significantly reduced as it was a Sunday afternoon, and for most of the tourists the weekend was over and they should get back to work on next day. We saw few old pug marks and territory marking by urine by a male tiger. A soft shelled turtle in water and few scarlet minivet and a greater coucal added some excitement in my exploration.

Next day morning safari started at 6:30 with only one gypsy, as there were just 5 tourists. Abhinandan and Nagesh were there in gypsy too, and we started following fresh pug marks of wild dogs, which led us to a shallow ditch where we found few scared sambars were gathered and looking around. We could make the stories out – with all probability the herd were chased by pack of wild dogs. At the end of the safari, we witnessed another chasing – this time in sky – the same black stork got chased by a crested serpent eagle, near the waterbody, where the stork was always found. A bit unusual as a crested serpent eagle may not like to prey upon a bird as big as a black stork. Then we discovered there was a juvenile serpent eagle sitting on the tree, where the stork was always found to sit. It could be the case, that the adult serpent eagle was shooing away the stork, for the safety of the juvenile one. While we were coming out of the forest, after biding adieus to BRT, saw a huge male Gaur grazing along the path.

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Conflict in Swampland : An aborted exploration !

Annual Meeting – Guwahati – Balipara – Nameri

23rd December, 2018,

I flew from Bangalore to Guwahati, reached Gopinath Bordoloi Airport at around 5:30 PM. Dwaipayan arrived from Kolkata at around 6:00 PM, and then together we traveled to Khanapara, where we stayed in an OYO room. In the evening we met author of Exploring Himalayas and photographer Mukul Mukherjee, and few other local Asammese wildlife enthusiasts, who have profuse experience in wild life. We had our meeting in a local restaurant and were primarily discussing wildlife photography and improper behaviour of tourists in National Parks in India. Ethical issues related to wildlife management was also a topic of discussion.

During meeting we worked on a draft plan around involving Mukul in “Journey to Save Tigers” initiative launched by Rathin Das. For which Exploring Nature is the communication partner. We discussed probability of doing a long march in Western Ghats area and conducting a workshop with the help of PTPC and WWF. Mukul is a volunteer and member with WWF and has conducted lot of awareness workshop in North East India, specially in Namdhapa, Kaziranga and Manas.

Evening dinner with different preparation of pork with whiskey after the brainstorming session was quite fabulous.

route for long march

24th December, 2018;

at 8:30 AM, we started for Balipara, where Dwaipayan is posted as site engineer for a 400 KVA transformer installation project of National Power Grid Corporation. It was 4-5 hours of road travel for about 180 km distance. We reached Balipara Power grid Corporations’ township at 3:30 in afternoon.

After reaching there we did a quick visit to villages around the township, where frequent incidents of human elephant conflicts had happened in recent past. We saw few paddy fields where crops were destroyed by elephants, and small shops which were smashed by them.

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Evening we had a very unique Christmas Eve party within switch yard of 400 KVA power station, with other engineers and contractors of power grid. Special menu of the party was duck meat, Bacardi and Goan country liquor – feni, which I carried from Bangalore.

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25th December, 2018;

at 11:00 AM we went to Nameri National Park, which is 14 km away from the power station. Nameri National Park is a national park in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in the Sonitpur District of Assam, India, about 35 km from Tezpur. Nameri is about 9 km from Chariduar, the nearest village.  Nameri shares its northern boundary with the Pakhui Wildlife Sanctuary of Arunachal Pradesh. Together they constitute an area of over 1000 km2 of which Nameri has a total area of 200 km2. The park was declared a reserve forest on 17 October 1978. It was set up as a Nameri Sanctuary on 18 September 1985 with an area of137 km2 as a part of Naduar Forest Reserve. Until then the Nameri National Park was heavily used for logging. Another 75  km2 was added on 15 November 1998 when it was officially established as a National Park.

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The vegetation type of Nameri is of semi-evergreen, moist deciduous forests with cane and bamboo brakes and narrow strips of open grassland along rivers. The forests are rich in epiphytes, lianas, and creepers and clump-forming bamboo. This forest has over 600 species. Some notable species are Gmelina arborea, Michelia champaca, Amari, Chukrasia tabularis, Ajar, Urium poma, Bhelou, Agaru, Rudraksha, Bonjolokia, Hatipolia akhakan, hollock, Nahor. It is home for orchids like Dendrobium, Cymbidium and Cypripedioideae. This is excellent elephant country and was considered to be an elephant reserve. It is an ideal habitat for a host of other animals including the tiger, leopard, sambar, dhole (the Asiatic wild dog), pygmy hog, Indian wild bison, clouded leopard, leopard cat, muntjac, gaur, wild boar, sloth bear, Himalayan black bear, capped langur and Indian giant squirrel. Nameri is a birdwatcher’s paradise with over 300 species. The white winged wood duck, great pied hornbill, wreathed hornbill, rufous necked hornbill, black stork, ibis bill, blue-bearded bee-eaters, babblers, plovers and many other birds make Nameri their home. Nameri faces two threats: One is due to continued official logging in the area of Sonitpur. The major threat for Nameri is human/animal conflict due to around 3000 cattle grazing the forest. The other human/animal conflict is due to the vast group of elephants in Nameri. There were several cases of elephant deaths. In 2001 there were 18 elephant deaths. A great threat is possessed on this protected area because of poachers who hunt the valuable birds for their wings.IMG_20181225_130209186

Bush walk in the park started at 1:00 PM, after crossing the 40 feet deep Jia Bhoroli River. The Jia Bhoroli river of Assam was famous since the time of British for the golden mahseer angling. While crossing the river we spotted few cormorant and wood ducks. Our guide was Lalit Bohra, from the beginning of the forest trail, he was telling us how risky it is to see wild lives, when you are in your feet on forest path.

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We saw few Tokey Gecko at the beginning. After half an hour of bush walk, all of a sudden, we heard noise of animal movement from our right hand side, from a nearby scrubs. Lalit noticed a porcupine slides trough deep forest. After an hour when we were walking along a water body, Lalit suddenly asked us to stop. We saw a herd of Water Buffalo. A huge bull was leading the herd. Wild Buffalo could be quite dangerous if they feel threatened by human presence, and escaping them could be difficult if they charge. Therefore, instead of standing and taking photos, we crossed that place in hurry and hidden behind a nearby watch tower. The herd also turned around and disappeared within forest. Probably, they were coming for water, but our presence stopped them as well. Once they were disappeared, we came out and tried to follow their course and saw they were going deep inside the forest._DSC0006

After another half an hour of trail walk, we reached to another watch tower, climbed up to top of the tower. There we waited for an hour. We saw one Indian Bison (Gaur) or locally known as Mithun appeared while grazing. It was a huge male. We saw couple of female sambar deers as well._DSC0015

At around, 3:30 PM, we climbed down, and started walking to come out of the forest. When we were crossing a path through grassland, we heard frequent call of sambar deer. That confirmed movement of big cat in nearby forest. Lalit told us couple of days back he saw two Bengal tigers, presumably, one female and her sub adult cub, in that same grassland. Possibility of face off with Bengal tigers in grassland, when we were also on our feet, gave a goose bump for a moment. After that we concluded our 3 hours long forest trekking of 5 km long trail.

26th December, 2018;

whole day we spent in reviewing videos of Rathin Das’s fasting and interaction with local villagers of Sundarban, as part of “Journey to save Tigers” and “Protest against Tiger habitat loss” in Sundarban area of West Bengal. We decided the basic pattern of the 15 minutes documentary, which will be uploaded in Exploring Nature’s YouTube channel.

Conflict in Swampland – An aborted exploration

27th December, 2018,

morning at 6 o’clock, I left Balipara to catch Calcutta bound flight from Tezpur Airport. A tiny airport which started commercial operation just few weeks back on 9th December. When I reached there, the main gate of the airport was closed, and that was first time in my life, in my 15 years of flying experience, I made the CRPF Jawans open the gates of airport, as I was the first passenger of the day. The airport was primarily guarded by women CRPF personnel.

I reached Kolkata at 11:30 AM, via a short halt at Guwahati. After that, I had flight for Dhaka, and my exploration in Swampland began. The plan was to stay in Dhaka with co explorer and member of Exploring Nature, Sankar Singha, at his company guest house. Sankar was posted in Bangladesh for few years as an Environment, Health and Safety Manager of a Power generation company. We had two nights three days plan to explore Bangladesh part of Sundarban. Sundarbans, formerly Sunderbunds, vast tract of forest and saltwater swamp forming the lower part of the Padma (Ganges [Ganga])-Brahmaputra River delta in south-eastern West Bengal state, northeaster India, and southern Bangladesh. The tract extends approximately 160 miles (260 km) west-east along the Bay of Bengal from the Hugli River estuary in India to the western segment of the Meghna River estuary in Bangladesh and reaches inland for about 50 miles (80 km) at its broadest point. A network of estuaries, tidal rivers, and creeks intersected by numerous channels, it encloses flat, densely forested, marshy islands. The total area of the Sundarbans, including both land and water, is roughly 3,860 square miles (10,000 square km), about three-fifths of which is in Bangladesh. Therefore, we thought, the Swampland exploration should start from Bangladesh Sundarban, instead of India (West Bengal).

28th December, 2018,

morning we were headed towards Kamalapur railway station, after an overnight stay at Sankar’s company guesthouse, at Dhaka’s posh locality of Baridhara, to catch Sundarban Express to go to Khulna. From Khulna, we were supposed to take cruiser for Sundarban trip. 30th December, the general election of Bangladesh was supposed to be held, and election in Bangladesh has always been messy and bloody. In previous few elections, it created lot of unrest in country, therefore our tour operator advised us to get into cruiser on 28th December itself, whereas the tour would start from 29th December.

Following was our tentative agenda:

Day Place Transport Schedule
 

Day – 01

 

 

 

 

Khulna – Kotka

 

Boat

Arrival at Khulna in the morning at around 06:00hrs, and report to our waiting cruiser M. V. BHELA at forest jetty Khulna, at 07:00am sharp the boat will start cruising towards the Sundarbans Forest. Arrive Kotka wildlife sanctuary at around 1600hrs.  Upon arrival hiking in the Kotka forest area to see wildlife and forest. Back to the boat in the evening. Overnight on the boat.
 

Day – 02

 

 

 

 

Kotka – Kochikhali

 

Boat

Early in the morning we shall offer trip through small creeks and canals by country boat to see the wildlife and feel the forest from very close. After breakfast Jungle walk, walking through the Forest trail to the beach etc will be offered. At around 12:00hrs start cruising towards Kochikhali wildlife sanctuary, upon arrival Jungle walk near forest office. Bar – B – Q dinner and overnight on the boat at Kochikhali
 

Day – 03

 

 

 

 

Kochikhali – Khulna

 

Boat

 

 

 

Early in the morning we shall offer trip through small creeks and canals by country boat, back to the boat for breakfast and some other activities near forest office. Around 1000hrs, start return journey towards Khulna. Arrive Khulna at around 21:00hrs and dinner will be served. After dinner disembark from the boat and end of the tour

We boarded on train, the station was jam packed. Everybody was going home, as it was a long weekend with Friday a public holiday, and Saturday, Sunday – election. Although, our compartment was quite empty as it was an AC reserved compartment. We took our seats and kept our bags on  overhead bunks. We were quite stressed out – more psychological than physical – the hustle bustle of the chaotic railway station probably made us bit panicked. Once, we saw the calm and clean compartment, we felt relaxed and the holiday mood engulfed our mind. We got settled and engrossed in deep conversation on wildlife and biodiversity.IMG_20181228_061944159

We almost forgot about our surrounding, and anyway there was nothing interesting around us, the sight of dingy railway track side of Bangladesh railways was definitely not worth viewing and remembering.

Sankar and I got involved into deep conversation on wildlife and biodiversity issues across the world, specifically in India and South Asia. It was fascinating to hear someone like Sankar, a well-travelled and earnest wildlife enthusiast, on wildlife of Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. I was sharing my experience in Savannah of South Africa, Scottish Highland and Sumatran Rain Forest.

The train stopped at next station (Biman Bandar station). Few more passengers boarded; I looked up towards luggage bunk and got a chill in my spine. My camera bag was not there where I kept it. For few seconds I could not believe, what I saw. But it also didn’t take much time to comprehend the reality!

Yes, the hard truth was I lost my latest Nikon D720 camera (which was used only once in Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, last summer), one Sigma 150-600 mm lens, i-pad, 1 TB hard drive (with all my work), and my official laptop. The hardest part was, my passport was also in that same bag.

I lost the bag, or precisely somebody stolen it. It was full of around 2-3 lakhs rupees worth stuff inside it.

We got down from the train, Sundarban trip got cancelled then and there. But at that point of time more than disappointment of trip cancellation, fear of dealing with uncertainty and anticipation of tough time ahead of us, was prominent in our mind.

I got stranded in the foreign land, without passport. Next few days would be running between police station and high commission offices, amidst the tension of election.

I did lot of biodiversity exploration in remotest and risky part of the world. Got chased by wild elephants; felt presence of fearsome predators around me; dealt with adverse natural calamities; almost got drowned in whirlpool; got my tent ransacked by baboons. But never felt so hopeless in the middle of any exploration.

In all previous cases, situation popped up in front of me, without giving any time to be prepared for those. The risk was high but the pain due to stress of dealing with such situation was short-lived. But, this situation came with a message that an incremental level of stress was waiting for me for an indefinite period of time.

In that situation, only think I could tell myself that “adventurous life comes with pain!”

This year would end soon, in another few days. I don’t know, when I would go back home. But on that very moment I decided to pull myself together, and decided to dedicate the New Year, the 2019, for exploring biodiversity in Swampland. The year 2019 would be the year to explore Conflict in Swampland.

2nd January, 2019,

after five days of running between Indian high commission, police station and Bangladesh embassy, Sankar and I decided to do some biodiversity exploration, to ensure the trip doesn’t go complete waste.

I am grateful to Sankar, as on those days he arranged my accommodation in his company guesthouse and deployed his local travel agent to coordinate with Bangladesh visa processing departments. He made his office vehicle and driver available for all this coordination work with different departments.

In those days, amidst election in the country, I didn’t have much opportunity to go around. But I utilised that time to consolidate my thoughts on my future exploration plan and as a result, I conceptualized the idea of my book “In the Shadow of Tiger”. Also, Sankar’s amazing colleagues always gave me company during evening badminton games and jogging around a nearby park. His local Bangladeshi cook, was an artist of preparing Bangladeshi delicacy. Therefore, overall I was having good time there in Dhaka, apart from the little glitch in mind over the uncertainty in going back home.

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So, on 2nd January morning, after the declaration of result of Bangladesh general election, when it was considered safe to travel around in the country, we went to Jahangirnagar University.

The university stands on the west side of the Asian Highway, popularly known as the Dhaka-Aricha Road, and is 32 kilometres away from the capital. Spread over an area of 697.56 acres (2.8 km²), the campus surrounded by the Bangladesh Public Administration Training Centre (BPATC) on the south, and the Savar Cantonment on the northeast, on the north of which is the National Monument (Jatiyo Smriti Soudho) and a large dairy farm on the east. The topography of the land with its gentle rise and plains is pleasing to the eyes. The water features sprawled around the campus make an excellent habitat for the winter birds that flock in every year in the thousands and consequently, it is a site frequented by many bird watchers. The campus has around 20-22 waterbodies which made it a sanctuary for winter migratory birds. Migratory birds come to the campus from Siberia, China and Himalayans reign during the period between December and January. Among others species, the lesser whistling ducks which is known as Choto Sorali and greater whistling ducks is known as Boro Sorali are found more in JU lakes than other species.IMG_20190102_120200491

Gargeney, lesser whistling duck, Indian hawk cuckoo, little cormorant, jungle babbler, spotted dove, stork-billed kingfisher, grey-headed fish eagle and Asian open bill are some of its notable species that can be commonly seen. If one is lucky enough, then they might get a sighting of the locally rare scaly thrush or brown-winged kingfisher. This university campus isn’t just famous for birds though, rare reptiles and mammals such as black krait, many-lined sun skink and golden jackals also reside here. So it is quite a gem for birdwatchers around the capital city and foreigners who love birds and wild lives must also put this university campus in their travelling list. On 19 January 2017, the university arranged a bird fair in its Zahir Rayhan auditorium of the campus._DSC0084

We reached there around 10:00 am, it was one hour thirty minutes’ drive from Dhaka, approximately 33 km. We were there till 1:30 PM and then had lunch at local Bangladeshi restaurant within campus, with authentic and ethnic Bangladeshi food.IMG_20190102_122400201

During our visit, we saw open billed stork, lesser whistling duck, lesser cormorant, bronze winged jacana, pond heron, purple heron, red vented bulbul, common drongo, oriental magpie robin, lesser furvulous woodpecker and one water monitor.

The ponds were blushing with blooming red water lilies. _DSC0108