In the Shadow of the Tiger : The Quest for Bengal Tiger

My 3 years association with Exploring Nature, so far, as a biodiversity explorer has given me some fabulous opportunity to chase Bengal Tigers in the forest of India. So far as a team we have explored 7 most significant Tiger Reserves of India.

Today, I will start telling the stories of quest for Bengal Tigers, whatever we have experienced as of now. However, our quest still continues.

_DSC0008 (2)

Part One: In the Shadow of the Tiger

The quest for tiger started at 6:30 in the morning of 2nd December, 2015 at Bandipur National Park. There was already news in Bandipur that one Gaur (Indian bison) was killed by a male tiger in Bandipur on previous night and that news pulled in many wildlife photographers and biodiversity experts from Bangalore and MP to Bandipur.

At around 6:45 AM explorers entered into safari zone of the park. Apart from driver cum guide Boma, there were four more companions in the jip – two wild life photographers from Bangalore – they came to spot the bison killer tiger and one Gujarati couple.

While entering forest, lot of spotted deer and bonnet macaque were spotted at the forest office and en route. Explorers also spotted white bellied drongo, yelloe billed babbler, paddy field pipit, common hoopoe, wag tail, jungle and pea fowl/hen etc.

_MG_7485_1

Photo Courtesy : Dwaipayan Ghosh

The first warning call was heard from the south east direction of the forest at 7:15 AM. It was a south west langur. Couple of jip started tracing the call slowly and after driving 2-3 km both the jip stopped. Big cat —- the most elusive creature of forest —- a pair of leopard. Leopards always make their existence highly imperceptible.

The mating pair was sitting on the open land at the left hand side of their direction of movement. The langur was exactly on the top of a teakwood tree next to the female leopard and kept giving call. They were moving on after having mated probably a very short while ago, as anticipated by Boma. At first, the pair was baffled and they sunk into the bushy scrubs quickly. A few minutes later the male leopard came out and lied down boldly in the open followed by the female. The lady was shy and definitely not sure about being in the open. She straightaway went into the thicket nearby and settled down.

_MG_7495

Photo Courtesy : Dwaipayan Ghosh

After 2-3 minutes, the pair stood up and walked slowly into the bush. The explorers could hear the growling sound coming from the bush. What the explorers witnessed was a partial courtship behavior in leopards which is hardly seen live. Given that leopards are very discreet about their presence, they are highly so during the mating period. Explorers could hardly believe in their luck that they got to see a very rare moment in the nature. After that explorers waited there for 10-15 minutes but the pair did not come out.

Explorers now started looking for any trace of the tiger, which had killed a bison in previous night. One of the photographers from Bangalore said that the tiger was spotted in last evening near a water body. The jip reached there and the carcass of the bison was found hidden inside a dense bush. The lower part of the carcass was half eaten. Probably the intermittent light and heavy shower of last night kept the tiger away from it and it was certain that the tiger would come back again to finish eating.

Explorers waited there for some time and made few rounds of Jip movement around that area, but nothing significant related to tiger movement were spotted. While moving in that area, a sloth bear made sudden appearance. It was crossing his path from one side of forest to other side. One of the photographers from Bangalore, who was sitting in front seat – next to driver, spotted it and alerted others. All four wild life photographers with their hi-tech cameras – got surprised with this sudden appearance of another elusive animal of the forest. None of them were ready enough to capture this rare sight creature of wild and gradually the sloth bear disappeared in dense forest of Bandipur National park.

The exploration continued till 9:00 AM, the significant sighting was few bird species – long tail shrike, streak throated woodpecker, malabar parakeet, brown fish owl, brahminy sterling, spot bill duck etc. No sight of any big animals.

In the evening, the exploration was started little later than scheduled time. Three jips and two buses entered the forest at 4:00 PM. Later it was realized by the explorers, that the intention behind late start was staying bake late in forest so that the bison killer tiger could be spotted. All the photographers in different jips and their companion forest guides and drivers were desperate for the sight of tiger. For 2 hours all jips and forests kept circling that 15 square kilometer area around the bush where the carcass was hidden. Instead of safari it turned out as being on guard for that carcass. The intermitted rain throughout the day made the sighting of tiger less likely.

_MG_7275

At 5:00 PM towards North-West direction from the carcass, approximately 3 km away a male leopard was spotted lying down on branch of teakwood tree. Another rare sight in the nature. Once it noticed the presence of jip, the shy animal jumped down from the tree and got disappeared in deep forest. Apart from few spotted deer, south west langur, bonnet macaque, herds of Indian bison, few racket tail drongo, oriental magpie, flame back woodpecker and a pair of green pigeon nothing significant were spotted.

Around 5:15 PM, strong warning call was heard repeatedly from the North West direction from the carcass. It was by a Burking deer and the call was coming from the direction where the male leopard moved 15 minutes back. It could be because of the leopard, but nevertheless it increased the excitement and hope for sighting tiger among the bunches of non-deserving, worthless Homo Sapiens sapiens. Eventually no trace of tiger movement was spotted.

While coming out of the forest at around 6:00 PM, one sloth bear were spotted in darkness. It could be the same one, which was spotted in morning. But it was too dark to capture the creature ethically.

Next day, 3rd December, explorers started their safari at 6:30 AM by a forest bus. The forest was unusually quiet than previous day, rain stopped and sun was out. All the wise and disappointed so called wild life and biodiversity experts appeared returned to their home after several unsuccessful attempts of tiger sighting. Apart from usual bird species explorers spotted a pair of happy stripe necked mongoose.

On 5th December at 9:00 AM morning the explorers reached at the check post of Periyar Tiger Reserve to start one of the most adventurous and challenging biodiversity hiking of this country —— The Periyar Tiger Trail, with a hope that their bad luck for sighting tiger would end there.

Two explorers were accompanied by three Spanish hikers – Sichov, Fernando and Anna and one French hiker Juliet. Sichov and Anna came from Madrid whereas Fernando and Juliet have been living in Delhi for last one year. There were four forest guides with them – C. C. Thomas, S. Pandya, N. S. Kunjumon and C. Armugam – all of them were ex-poachers and had 30-40 years of experience in dealing with forest and wild life. They were also accompanied by a Forest Official cum Gun Man – Ajimon.

_MG_7567

The whole contingent started trekking at 10:00 AM from the PRT check post towards South West direction with cameras, survival kit and three days’ ration in 25-30 kg heavy ruck sack. Initial trekking was 4 km long till they reached the bamboo rafting point through Periyar Lake. In this trail, the key species spotted were male sambar, nilgiri langur, bonnet macaque, grey headed fish eagle; wag tail, common drongo etc. After 200 meters of bamboo rafting towards South West direction, they reached the most difficult stretch of the trekking.

Explorers started last 5 km of trekking towards South West direction through dense bush and teak wood forest. The forest was full of leeches and to get prevent leech attack all of them spread tobacco powder over their trekking shoes and leech guard socks. It was an over cast day with 30oC temperature. Intermittently they were noticing fresh pug marks on the muddy forest land. Guide Thomas identified those as pug marks of a big male tiger. Scratch mark of tigers on tree trunk was also observed.

WP_001358

WP_001350

In this 5 km trail, explorers climbed 600 meters and three times had to cross water streams of 100-120 feet deep over makeshift bridge of tree trunk with cameras in hand and heavy ruck sack on back. At the end of this trail they reached at the edge of forest and bunk of Periyar Lake. From that point a one km of bamboo rafting would take them to the core area of the forest, where their tents were erected for next three days and two nights.

WP_001344

_DSC0105

Explorers reached at camping area at 1:00 PM and for next one hour got busy in cooking. There were three tents for six hikers. The guides decided to stay at cooking area. The meal for them was Cappa Kodi or Tapioca. Drinking water source was Periyar Lake and the bush at South East corner of the forest around 200 meters away from their tents was their toilet. The camping area were protected by 1 feet high bio fencing and 10-12 feet deep Elephant Protecting Trench (EPT).

_MG_7570 (2)

After cooking and eating, again bush walking started from 3:30 PM towards North East direction of the forest. Around 3:30 PM, warning call was heard by barking deer but no other movement of big cat was spotted. An old skeleton of Indian bison was found on open land, the animal was killed by tiger.

The night was windy, cold with heavy rain with fear of possible flown away of tents by strong wind. Forest guides created a small bon fire by dry woods collected from forest. Explorers put their wet shoes and socks near to that fire so that morning they could wear dry shoes. The dinner was done with lake fish bought from the local tribal at the cost of Rs. 200/- per kg.

download

In the same night at around 9:00 PM, explorers were delighted by arrival of surprise guests at their camping area – a pair of porcupine – Raja and Rani. Guide Kunjumon told them, whenever they did camping in forest – Raja and Rani had always come to search for food.

Morning of next day, i.e., 6th December, Arnab got a scary start. When he went to forest for dumping, three strong warning calls by Sambar was heard at 6:15 AM from very close distance from the South East direction of forest. Definitely movement of big cat was spotted, however nothing significant happened after that and Arnab returned to his tent quickly after attending his nature’s call.

Morning safari of 6th December happened towards South West direction after crossing the Periyar Lake by bamboo raft. Explorers climbed almost up to 915 km, but the rain kept kept all the big animals away from them. An old skeleton of elephant was spotted which was killed by tiger. A rarest bird species great Indian Hornbill was found to be flew over them when they reached the highest point of their trail.

_MG_7553

In the afternoon of same day between 1:45 to 2:00 PM several strong calls of Sambar were heard from the North East direction of the forest from the camping area. From the camping area, two Sambars were also found running away from North East to North West direction within forest. In the evening explorers did bush walking in North East direction and chased several herds of Bison. Around 4:00 PM, they traced warning calls of nilgiri langur but could not find anything else which could lead to big cat movement. Another very rare bird species Serpent Eagle was spotted there.

The night was relatively quiet, comparing to previous night and the porcupine pairs made their usual visit to entertain explorers.

Next day morning at 10:00 AM, explorers with full contingent started retreating from the camping area to outside of forest. They followed the same route they took while getting into the camping area. First hour was sunny but then heavy rain started, which

made their trekking through bushes and muddy forest land even more difficult. There were always fear of falling with heavy ruck sack on back. Couple of makeshift bridges over water streams was found to be destroyed due to heavy rain or by animals. Therefore, explorers had to search for new means of crossing water streams. At one point of time they had to cross an 8 feet deep trench full of water by a half a meter wide and 2 meters long tree trunk. That was quite scary and dangerous. The moist and slippery trunk was not a good thing to try balancing act, with 25-30 kg ruck sack on back.

_DSC0156

Last one kilometer of trekking was toughest in this whole series – rain became heavier and mud on forest became thicker and sloppier. Explorers were struggling in finding place to put their feet and maintain balancing. There was a slant slope of 30 meters they had to climb, with every step they were sliding down few meters towards the 140 meters deep Periyar Lake at the edge of the slope. Moreover, throughout this stretch fresh pug marks were spotted towards South West direction, whereas explorers were moving towards North East direction.

However, with the help of guides, explorers managed to reach at the edge of the forest in one piece, from where they would do bamboo rafting to cross the 200 meter stretch of Periyar Lake.

Every time the Explorers felt they were so near to Bengal Tiger of this subcontinent……but all the time they realized they were too far…….

The quest will be on in ….”Tigers’ Terrain”.

The Super Ape (Concluding Part)

DSC_0198DSC_0179
 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Super Ape (Part Three)…..

DSC_0164

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

….. to be continued

The Super Ape…(part 2)

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

DSC_0048

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

……. To be continued !!

The Super Ape…….

DSC_0055

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

…….. To be continued !!

Chasing Wild Ass

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

An account of that is given below….

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

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

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

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

 

 

Quest for African Lion

Quest for African LionDSC_0038

My years of biodiversity exploration journey with biodiversity exploration organization Exploring Nature and their monthly e magazine Holocene, gave me opportunity to explore forests and places of biodiversity significance, across the world

This blog is a platform for telling stories from the moments of my journey which I have been experiencing with Exploring Nature for last few years.

After my first biodiversity exploration in the forest of Gir, with Exploring Nature team, I did many more explorations within India. Immediately after Gir we headed towards Little Rann of Kutch to chase Wild Ass. In the winter of same year (2015) we explored forests of Western Ghats extensively and did one of the toughest forest hiking of India – Periyar Tiger Reserves. I have exciting and fascinating stories to tell from these explorations which I would do later.

But, to continue the Lion Tales,  I will give an account of my first solo and out of country exploration in the savannah forest of South Africa — Kruger National Park.

The quest for African Lion started at 4:30 PM of the Valentine ’s Day. Jeep started towards eastern direction from the main gate of Kruger National Park and after 30-45 minutes of journey three lionesses were spotted at the right hand side of the direction of driving. They were busy in eating their morning kill – a huge African Buffalo.

When plenty of food is available lions generally gorge themselves into near immobility. At these times, on average, males swallow around 15% of their body weight.

Food is shared grudgingly. The smallest and weakest lions often lose out altogether and hungry mothers will not even share with their own offspring.

Lions usually start feeding by opening the abdomen and eating the entrails. Most lions will eat the heart, liver and kidneys, but it unusual for lions to open up the skull.

In the evening of 14th February, at Kruger National Park, the Lionesses were spotted from approximately 200 mt distance, and explorer wished if he had a closer look. Although, the flesh from the opened abdomen of the buffalo were quite visible from that distance, but he didn’t know, that he would also witness one of the greatest and most exciting phenomena of nature in next 36 hours.

On 16th February, the morning safari started at 6:00 o’clock. Two safari jeeps started their journey towards north direction. After one hour of journey and as usual spotting of herds of impala, baboons, few giraffes and zebras, both the jeeps had to stop.

Their path was blocked by few of the most majestic creatures of the earth – a full pride of African lion – siting on the road, enjoying the softness and warmth of the first sunlight of the day.

The basic units of lion social organization are resident prides occupying hunting territories of a size that can sustain the pride during times of scarcity. Lion densities, home territory size and social group size vary in parallel with habitat suitability and prey abundance, generally larger in moist grasslands where game is plentiful and smaller in drier bush with fewer prey animals. Prides can attain 40 members, however the average pride, both in Kruger NP and the Serengeti, consists of 13 members. In Kruger, the average composition of 14 prides totalling 181 lions was 1.7 adult males, 4.5 adult females, 3.8 sub-adults, and 2.8 cubs (including yearlings). Females outnumber males by a substantial margin, despite a near 50% male/female birth ratio. This is probably due to the tendency of males to be nomads, take on more dangerous game, and be killed in pride takeover attempts.

The pride, which explorer and his team bumped into, consisted of 9 members – 6 females and 3 males. All the members were busy in hugging and cuddling with each other. The pride leader was clearly enjoying his happy moment with his fellow members and company of her queens. He was found romancing with a big lioness of the pride under the shade of a tree.

In larger prides it is rare for the whole pride to be together, but individuals or small groups, typically of three – five members will scatter throughout the prides territory for days or weeks at a time, especially in arid environments or times of prey scarcity. There is no hierarchy between females, and no particular bonding between any pride members. A pair of females will be found together no more than 25 – 50% of the time.

Presence within a pride’s territory is not a sign of membership as many lions are transient or “squatters”. Membership of a pride can only be distinguished by an amicable greeting ceremony performed between pride members. Any member without the confidence to perform the ceremony will be treated as outsider.

After noticing human presence, the pride leader came out form the shade and urinates at the edge of the road to mark his territory. A strong message was silently conveyed – stay away from this point.

Typically, home territories range from 20km2 in the most suitable habitats to more than 500km2. The average area of nine Serengeti prides was c. 200km2. Pride ranges and territories may overlap but each pride maintains a core area where most activities are undertaken with little interaction with other lion groups. Territories are stable except in periods of hardship. If an area becomes devoid of lions (as a result of disease for example) this will be followed by an influx of competing lions to claim the territory. Lions will defend their territory against lions of the same gender, but most encounters do not result in fighting; usually one pride will skulk off under the watchful gaze of the other.

In the morning of 16th February, at Kruger National Park, we were alerted by Mike – their safari guide- as all of a sudden the biggest lioness of the pride stood up and started moving slowly towards further north. Whole pride started following her in same slow and silent pace. She stopped, the whole pride stopped. She moved tip of her tail – from left to right and then from right to left. The pride members dispersed in different directions.

Mike whispered, “She is in a mission”. Everybody was excited to know that they were going to witness “hunting by lion” – the most well strategized predatory behavior of animal kingdom.

Whole forest became silent with anticipation of action. Presence of a huge African buffalo bull was noticed deep inside the bushes – he was grazing – his huge horns were visible.

The buffalo raised its head; he had realized that he was getting surrounded. He decided to come out from the bushes and at the same time with a signal from the lioness – the leader of hunting party – the pride leader charged at the buffalo. The buffalo charged back violently and the pride leader had to retreat. The buffalo escaped.

But the hunting movement was not over. She – the hunt leader – continued her movement. The whole exploring team was surprised to see, that one more male and female lion joined the hunting party from the other side of the forest and were waiting for instruction from the hunt leader lioness. The whole party started moving again slowly. Two safari jeeps followed them.

The next half an hour was great display of strategy, leadership and obedience. None of the members of hunting party moved without further signal from their leader.

Another African buffalo bull was spotted from distance on an open ground. Everybody understood the objective of the mission. With every movement of tail and neck of the lioness, the other members of hunting party kept changing their direction and movement. The idea was getting closer and closer to target and surround it from all sides to block its all possible escape routes.

The pride leader took the charge of being at front and started moving towards the buffalo.

There was a herd of impala, which noticed this movement of big hunting party and starting running towards deep forest and gave away the presence of lions.

The Buffalo had noticed what was going on and starting getting further away from the hunting party. Lioness realized, that was not the time to attack. More time needed to be invested on their prey. Two lionesses and one sub male lion who were moving together, sat on ground and kept close watch on their pray. They kept waiting their patiently while the male lions started roaming casually at least 200 meters away from the buffalo, without showing any indication of attack. The strategy was to give buffalo a false sense of security and get him in oblivion about the situation. The strategy was to wait for the right moment and strike so hard that there would be no opportunity to counter attack.

With relatively small hearts and lungs lions are not fast runners; a maximum speed of 60kph, nor do they have the stamina to keep this pace for more than a 100 – 200m. As such, lions rely on stalking their prey and seldom charge until they are within 30m, unless the prey is facing away and cannot see the charge.

Lions stalk their prey, although ambush behavior has been observed. This happens mainly during daylight when stalking prey is more difficult.

Females do the majority of the hunting, and males who tag along with the hunt usually stays back until a kill is made. Lions hunting in pairs and groups have a success rate of c. 30%. Lions hunting singly by daylight have a success rate of 17 – 19%, but are the equal of groups at night reopening the debate as to why lions became the only sociable cat; maybe it is to control exclusive hunting grounds.

Most successful hunts are on dark nights in dense cover against a single prey animal. One reason for lions’ relatively low hunting success rate is that lions do not take into account wind direction when hunting; they often approach prey from an upwind direction thereby alerting the prey and ending the hunt. Secondly, the lion’s charge is generally launched directly at its quarry and it rarely alters the path of attack, as do other cats. Generally speaking, if a lion misses its target on the first run it usually abandons the chase.

Hunts of impala and medium-sized prey are significantly more likely to be successful when the lions do not stalk their prey but rather chase them immediately upon detection. The opposite is true for small-sized prey species. However, lions are more likely to stalk impala and medium-sized species, whereas they are less likely to stalk small-sized prey. Females are significantly more likely to stalk anything.

Cooperative hunting brings a greater probability of success in lion hunts, but a question exists on whether pre-planned cooperation is taking place or that lions are making use of opportunities brought about by the presence of other lions.

Studies of the tactics of group hunting by lions give a similar basic plan of the hunting process. When the group spots the prey a hunt is often initiated by a single lion looking at it, to which the other lions respond by looking in the same direction – the only clear form of “communication” evidenced in the hunting process. The group fans out, with certain lions stalking at a greater distance to encircle the prey. The encircling lions launch the attack, seemingly to drive the prey towards the others who ambush from their cover position.

It is suggested that lions often, but not exclusively, followed the same hunting patterns and divided lions into stalking roles; left, centre & right wing positions. Lions hunting in their preferred roles increased the success of the group by 9%. Once within range of smaller prey, lions use their paw to slap the rear of the animal at its legs or haunch to knock it off balance or drag it down. A bite to the neck or throat quickly kills the animal.

With larger prey lions approach the animal at an angle, jumping on top and using their own weight to wrestle the animal to the ground, biting at the vertebrae in an attempt to sever the spinal cord as they do so.

Once downed they bite the throat or over the nose and mouth of the prey to suffocate it, a position that keeps them out of the way of horns that could injure the lion.

I don’t know what happened in the hunting movement of 11 lions and lionesses led by their queen in the morning of 16th February, 2016 at the North West part of Kruger National Park.

But I now know —— “Strategic, gregarious, territorial, matriarchal society, communal care, male coalitions” —- Lions are the only truly social cat.