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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Assam and the north East - the end of transmissions

NORTH EAST (ASSAM)

The most unexpected part of my trip (and unplanned) was on arrival in Guwahati to find myself driving off east to Megalaya, a state that I always felt, with such a wonderfully evocative name must have lots of mysteries and adventures for the unwary traveller, and this was to be the case for me.

As we drove out of the hot plains that are the vast flat landscapes of Assam, we headed into the undulating hills of Megalaya, once one of India's most remote regions along with other small states in this region like Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. We were hoping to see some of the remaining forests in this area, where the North East, being remote and relatively untouched by the uncompromising development in the rest of India, should mean that this 'world hotspot' of global biodiversity should be wrapped up and cocooned for the health of the planet, so many invaluable medicinal plants and trees, and such extraordinary wildlife diversity exists. Here two the great Brahmaputra river flows carrying huge quantities of life giving nutrients for the yearly flooded soils and deluges of water to its neighbouring peoples including Bangladesh and even China next door.

Sadly what we got instead was fire. Fires and smoke choked the hills, burning whole landscapes to a cinder, a ghastly blackness that scoured the hills all around. It's actually practiced in the name of 'shifting' cultivation or 'Jhum' something they have practiced for centuries, but today, as opposed to small plots it is now being done over ever increasing areas or indeed whole hillsides, and its like looking into the final abyss when you see the jet blackened remains of tree stumps, the very forests that just a few days before we arrived would have been the very lungs of Megalaya. What is making it worst is that its now principally for timber and wood, rather than as a cultivated and important staple food source. Also departing in this inferno are the forest inhabitants including the gorgeous and only ape species in India, The Hoorlock gibbon, whose haunting pante hoots calls in the early mornings are mesmerising, but so too the Tigers, elephants, binutong (nest making bear like creature) gaur, sambhar, the huge hornbills, parakeets and you name it - almost everything else in this scorched earth policy. Never has the scene affected me so badly, so much so that I got angry and went and spent half an hour putting out one of the fires untended on a steep hillside. That night the fires raged across the hills in front of our resthouse and besides the few remaining patches of fragmented forest we wanted to visit.

What is worse is the changing climate here, with increasingly dry conditions and no rain for six months, and a grizzly haze setting in all day, through which the sun burns in a post atomic soup, and its sure as hell does not lift your spirits. We infact walked into one of the last remaining patches of forest, of Notrek National park, and this for a moist deciduous forest was also very dry and all the creatures one would hope to see and hear like butterflies and birdcalls - seemed hauntingly absent and quiet in the early morning. Thankfully a small group of Hoorlocks started up across a ridge opposite to help raise my spirit.

We did infact visit one project of the Wildlife Trust of India, backed by the British Embassy in Delhi, a community forest project, and they are seeking to try to join up the fragmented forests to create corridors for wildlife and primates. Here we revelled in the fabulous dexterity of the Hoorlock Gibbon's branch swinging or 'brachiation' as it is called with their hugely long arms and grappling hands. The male is particularily handsome, pure black coat and face with enormous white eyebrows, that reminded me of my step father's, so you could just make out a round head with two huge eyebrows through your binoculars. The female unusually is a completely different colour, a mass of golden coat. They mate for life too - so they are like watching lovers in a park - all over each other a lot of the time when not feeding! The headman of the village invited us back to his lovely longhouse and gave us a very dangerous but rather delicious rice wine, which perked up our spirits somewhat.

Driving in India is a very dangerous occupation, but it still can't rank alongside being a passenger. More passengers are attached to the outside of vehicles than occupy the inside, and that packed like a box of toy soldiers. Not only are they on the roof but they are often on the door sills, infact we counted 6 on the back of one Mahindra jeep, all happily with one foot on the back door sill and one hand attached to the roofrack to ensure they remain attached the vehicle as it swings wildly from one side to another. One 10 hour journey from Megalaya back into Assam highlight this to me as I sat in the hot seat, the front passenger seat. From this unenviable position one tried to predict the movements in pitch darkness of a combination of drunken bicyclists without headlights or reflectors, holy cows, goats with no road sense, overladed trucks with dodgy brakes and bald types, mangy dogs mating, huge potholes left by negligent road maintenance, and just about anything else you could think to stick either on or beside a road - all whilst travelling at 70kms, and only because your once gleaming car can now do this speed in India!

Manas used to be an extraordinary place, its not only got the 'Big Five' animals but we could say the 'Big Seven' adding Black Bears and Wild cows or 'Gaurs' to the mix. Swamp and hogdeers used to live in herd of thousands, and the park at only 400 square kilometers has one and a half time more bird species than the whole of the UK. That was before the Bodo tribes decided they did not like being controlled by a Central Government an 'age' away from them, and started an insurgency campaign 20 years ago, which now not only succeeded to get an 'autonomous state of Bodoland' but also managed to eliminate most of the wildlife in the park.

Last time I was here in 2005, I had been guided round the park with the ex Head Commander of the Insurgents, now inappropriately the new head of Ecotourism, accompanied by two soldiers with their hand made muskets! Today its wildlife is thankfully returning and I predict - if they can protect it properly and get some investment here - it will become one of the best wildlife destinations in India in the next ten years, especially if you can drive through to Bhutan on its northern boundary. In one game drive we saw 50 elephant, a small herd of wild buffalo, and a number of huge male bulls, with vast curving horns whose tips must have been at least 2 meters apart, the prehistoric armour plated one horn rhino, the most curious Jurassic like creature still left on our planet, tiger pugmarks, small herds of hog deer, and a cacophony of bird songs the like of which I have never heard before. My job was to look at the Western part of the Manas area and though its potentially as good a habitat, will require a lot of work and infrastructure and an attitudinal change in the depressing practice of burning everything each year for better grazing and easier wood collecting!

Onto Kaziranga with its huge rhino herds in its tall grasslands and the corridors that connect this park to other forests often through large famous tea estates on its southern boundaries. Again the sceptre of fire haunted the landscapes, with the grasslands burned each February to ensure good grazing, the shifting cultivation on the hills, and the burning of the rice paddy fields, all before the first of the pre monsoonal rains starts coming in from the North East in April. Smoke choked the air and clouded out the sweeping views. We did though have a fabulous walk in a bordering forest in which we saw the Great Hornbill, a magnificient 1.2 metre bird with an enormous flat orange casque on its head, which must have been the inspiration for most Buddhists priests head gear! Mum was sitting in her tree hollow, a beedy eye watching us from her walled in maternal prison, while he fed her through the crack, made purposely just wide enough to fit his beak through. A lonely Hoorlocks gibbon, mateless after his partner dies last month, hooted mournfully from the trees, in answer to our forest guides very good mimicry. I was concerned about the effect of this conversation on the poor creatures heartstrings!!

Finally like Bodoland, Karbi Anglong is another autonomous state up here, an ancient kingdom of Thai people, who migrated here in 1228, and who were overly keen to have ecotourism investment in this poor state. We saw it at the worst possible time, when a pea souper smog had arrived and flights into and out of the capital of Assam had been cancelled for days. We can only hope that this condition caused by all the burning will eventually change the attitude of its people to the incessant burning, that is having such a devastating effect on its forests and the wildlife in the area, with an incalculable cost in terms of both biological and human health.

My journey in Assam was the most depressing in terms of the sheer and stark visual imagery that it engendered. Here was the stark evidence of the collapsing forests we are so often bombarded with by International panels on climate change and biodiversity loss. If this is the so called cost of development and westernisation - then I want to catch a different type of bus home.

This was the end of my Tiger Trail.

20th March 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009

Julian in Utterakhand

Whenever I seem to write these missives I seem to be on a train or a plane. Part of the problem is that during the average day I am so busy walking and travelling through some great wild landscape, and so busy at night having to write up by notes and an endless diary that I never get any other time to do this.

I am now on a plane to Assam in North East India and I can see the great Himalayan range of mountains out of my window. It's also the first time that I have seen clouds in the entire 60 days of my trip so far, such has been the cloudless skies and endless sunny days in India. Infact this is a big problem for the Himalayas and most of India have had very little rain or snow this winter and everyone is worried stiff about water supplies over the next few months before the monsoon.

My last fifteen days have been fantastic, a mixture of old hills towns, trekking amongst the pine forests of Binsar Sanctuary with a gorgeous view of three mountain ranges of the Himalayas, having 600 square kilometres of Tiger park all to myself, finding a hidden gem of a reserve forest tucked between Rajaji national Park and Corbett National park, almost being run over by elephants in a Forest Rest House, and trying to catch poachers in the Nandhaur Valley near Nepal.

My team and I spent two wonderful nights in a National Park called Rajaji almost 800 square miles of wilderness all to ourselves it would appear, even though it has over 3 huge city populations, infact one, Hardwar, gets literally millions of pilgrims to take puga's in the holy Ganges where the waters spill out of the Himalayas. This is the extraordinary thing about India and its wildernesses. They are often truly stunning, full of wildlife and very good birdlife, but unless they contain Tigers nobody is interested in them, and the Forest department does not discourage this state of affairs! So something that is wholly paid for by every taxpayer in India, and that is always the most wonderful terrain and wildlife left in the country, remains effectively off limits, as restricted as possible, or designated as a second rate park by the very people who pay for it as well as those who administer it. It's a state of play I do not think can or should continue.

However its always nice to have your own private wilderness, because if nobody else wants to join me, I am very happy to spend two whole days in the Shiwaliks hills, at the foothills of the Himalayas, watching elephant, enjoying the huge Sal, Jamun and Kheir forests of the area, and seeing some of the best birdlife we have seen all trip. Vultures appear to be making a comeback after nearly going extinct thanks to a painkilling drug administered to dying or sick cattle and then often gorged on by these poor creatures, giving them rapid liver failure, and its was great to see some nest in the high cliffs. We saw a leopard very well in our headlights coming back to one of the rest houses and a porcupine scurrying into the undergrowth. Exactly why this reserve does not have 100 tigers in it, rather than the measly 14 they are supposed to have I do not know - because there is plenty enough herbivores to eat for this number!

Next onto the corridor area between Rajaji and Corbett, in the Lansdowne Forest Division, we came across another hidden gem, only accessible by a small and little used road with a single small Forest rest house at Khola Chaur. A drive of one hour into this grasslands was most interesting, very high on a single track cliff edged road alongside a river with a lot of very fresh elephant droppings. Meet an elephant herd here and you would have to put your car in reverse for 14 kms! That night, sadly while under the influence of a beer called appropriately 'Godfather', which I hadn't realised was one of India Premium strong beers, the forest around the rest house was suitable trashed by a herd of elephants we had seen early in the evening. We nevertheless went looking for them in the morning and tracked them on foot, which is always exciting in India, because they are never all that keen on humans!

Now West to Corbett, probably one of India's best known parks, and not only named after the famous hunter of maneaters, Jim Corbett, but the place that launched Indira Gandhi's Project Tiger in 1973. It is without doubt the Tiger Reserve that gets more tourists than any other, with over 60 lodges now to choose from, and yet it also has the highest population of Tigers of any landscape in the country. This simple correlation, between tourism and wildlife conservation is what I have been trying to highlight throughout my trip, and it is best illustrated here. Its not rocket science but the 'effects of tourism' are profound and critical to understand if Forest Departments are going to save the Tigers, and indeed its habitat.

Corbett today is a majestic park, with superb old Sal forests and the Dhikala range grasslands and reservoir, and after a TOFT meeting with as many lodge owners as we could get around the table, we then spent the next day in the park itself accompanied by a new addition to our team, Rajesh Bhatt. He was really the new breed of naturalists that India needs to cultivate and use as mentors, superb and in depth knowledge, a deep love for his park, and a commitment to its people and communities that I have found in few others. He also had the most endearing quality - an ability to talk and make friends with absolutely everybody, which proved most useful in the coming days. Infact he was replacing a very senior retired forest officer who I had recruited to accompany us on this part of the trail, and who had got very ill suddenly, before he was able to make any arrangements of my trip, leaving me scrambling to get them in place in my few days prior in Delhi.

Even though Corbett Park is so popular, by now I am so much more enamoured with being in areas outside the tourism circuit, that I was happy to depart here and take the roads very less travelled back into the hinterlands. The road now to Binsar Sanctuary where we were heading passes Jim Corbett's simple winter home and village commune in Khoti Haldwani, and it was fascinating to see this after reading many of his books and biography of this extraordinary hunter turned conservationist. He is beloved by the people of this area and his name resonates throughout these Kumaon hills we now climbed into. Naini Tal, a well known hill station overlooking the Naini Tal, or the 'Eye of the lake', a sacred lake of the Hindu's with an interesting though somewhat sordid history. Today it hums not with Britishers as it once did getting away from the heat of the plains in summer, but with mass domestic tourism, much like Bournemouth must have done in the 1960's, except sadly without any care for its heritage buildings, the greenness of its hills and essential town planning. Up further to another hill station Almora, situated on a beautiful half moon ridge, but today looking more like a Legoland town built by my 6 year old son Danny, with a mass of badly made flat topped concrete hotels and homes painted in bizarre clashing colours and scattered irreverently across the ridge. Thankfully we continued to travel higher and suddenly my heavy heart lifted when we drove into the Chir pine forests and the laden red flowers of the Rhododendrum trees of the middle Kumaon Himalayas. I was back in the original wilderness of these parts in Binsar Sanctuary and was now trekking at dusk to a small village, where a great little company Village Ways was trying to pioneer a better way to preserve these hills with community owned rest houses for trekkers. Here at last was traditional old Kumaon homesteads, with heavy slate roofs and livelihoods going on in the old way, with steep wheat and vegetable filled terraces, and a few animals.

We spent the next day trekking in these gorgeous hills, our way carpeted by fallen red flowers, much like we were following a 'Baraat' or Indian wedding ceremony whilst enjoyed an uninterrupted view of three whole ranges of this 'Abode of the Gods'. Crystal clear before midday and you could see to the east the Annapaurna range in Nepal, India’s highest range with its glorious view of Nanda Devi, the second highest mountain peak in the world, and then Trishul range also in Kumaon to the east. The only thing that was difficult here was having to put my male chivalry on hold, as it was the women who where the porters, and carried the heavy weights for miles and with a big smile! Between 1890 and 1920's the Governor of Kumaon was a gentleman called General Ramsey, who like Jim Corbett, the local people loved and was a great benefactor and administrator, and from the highest point in Binsar Sanctuary he used to fly flags that could be seen for 100's of miles to signify that he was at his country estate called Khali, just near here and you could come and see him to air your grievances or problems.

Our final destination in Utterakhand was somewhere I read about in an article written by an eminent field biologist, Dr Johnsingh, and he noted that it should rapidly be turned into a large new National Park, such was this relatively unprotected treasure house of landscape, unknown to all but a very few people and unvisited by anyone, bar the odd official. Again our drive was breathtaking and often along roads with precipitous cliffs and zero protection from going over the edge on dodgy roads, but we survived to arrive at a rest house on the very edge of a 2000 ft cliff edge, and greeted by friends Ritish and Manakshi Suri, from Camp Forktail, who had somehow managed to turn a smelly rest house into a romantic candlelit home!

The next day was great as we set off with pack horses into the gorge and along the start of the Nandhaur river. Steep cliffs either side, covered in trees and a river which gurgled over some of the most stunning coloured rocks I have ever seen, from deep purple to pink, black to silver from the mica of these hills, red conglomerates to dark brown granite and coral, all tumbling down the floodwater lines of the 'young' Himalayan range, as they continue to heave, crunch and lift themselves further into the sky. The Durgapepal Forest Rest house was probably the finest we have stayed in, built on a spur of the river, and to a simple yet beautifully proportioned 'train stationesque' design. We could hear barking deer and sambhar alarm calls as we arrived at dusk!

The visitors book here was fascinating, showing the names of the old Shikaris, or hunts in this area from 1965. 'Shot on Tiger and two Chital Stags' Paid 75 rupees! Please fix the lanterns.''

This was one entry by the then Deputy Minister of Agriculture in 1965, but more recently showed us just how few people came here. Infact we were the only non official duty party to stay the night in the last year and a half ! Three days we spent enjoyed about 400 square kms of landscape purely on foot by ourselves, accompanied by either a very cheesed off Forest Guard, whose life we had suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted, or a new keen and very smart one. The third was too well oiled when we met him to care who we were, having drowned some of the local hooch brought in by the main poachers and general malevolent presence of the area, the Rai Sikhs. We did not see much in the way of mammals, because they are not surprising scared stiff of humans, but saw lots of tracks and signs and had leopard roar at us from nearby bushes. Colourful and vocal birds abounded in the forests and beautiful butterflies flitted everywhere close to any moisture or near the river edge. This place really needs better protection and much greater focus of attention, rather than the nebulous and unfetted extraction of timber that is its present undistinguished working plan of the local Forest Department.

As one of the Forest Guards stated, 'No Tigers then no problem's. Easy life!' The 2008 census showed no tigers in this area, but I did let onto the Forest Guard that we spotted two sets of adult Tiger pugmarks and two cubs during our stay, so his easy life might be about to come to an abrupt end when my letter goes off to his Divisional Forest Officer of this region and he does actually have to get out of bed in the morning!

Having found a fresh poachers camp, with skins of a sambhar the day before, we were expecting to come across them on our last 22km hike over the mountains to get back out of the valley to catch the train home. We were not disappointed, because having turned up a track I spotted four men, who rapidly fled on seeing me into the undergrowth. We immediately pretended to them that they were surrounded and better come out or else, but voices could be heard discussing how best they should approach this situation, and whether we were officials, the police or a sham bunch of travellers. Having failed to come out we instead emptied their rubber tyre full of the 'hooch', gave them a final warning and moved out, half expecting to take an arrow or two from the bushes!! We then spent the next 22kms picking up their rubbish wherever they had camped or decided to have a wee nip themselves of the cursed stuff! The final two hours we trekked in the full moonlight not really knowing where we were as none of us had been to the rest house we were due to stay at!

So concluded my Utterakhand venture, that had covered the entire arc of the Shiwalik range of hills here, which until fairly recently housed thousands of predators and prey and which today numbers close to 180 Tigers in total, if that!


Written in Manas - Assam, 11th March 2009.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Abhishek Behl's Desk

Updates from the Field -

After a long 40 days traveling between Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna - I had to forward my travel plans with the call of participation towards the Ecotourism Guidelines meeting held in Delhi and chaired by Ms. Sunita Narain and members from NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority). TOFT and its members participating summarized an overall priority list for the policy makers to think about various options in their guidelines. TOFT's chairman - Mr. Julian Matthews sent these select priorities out to most of all TOFT members to comment upon and we can then finalize the recommendations from TOFT once approved by all.

Following this meeting - I carried my programs to Corbett. TOFT's meeting was organized at Infinity Resorts on the 26th of February. It was a small gathering of participants and topics of our future programs were discussed. Along with the discussion - actions were targeted to various coordinators to carry out tasks. TOFT would be looking into projects with members on 'Children in the Park', 'TOFT Corbett Clean-up Initiative' and the TOFT PUG Certification process. Along with the projects, complaints of irresponsible tourism being carried out in Corbett were discussed. Lodges, which are accused of bad practice, have to give their final statements to TOFT and its members and TOFT would be closely monitoring this process and its future methods/implications.

TOFT in Corbett has recruited its first TOFT Field Officer and his job descriptions / tasks would be sent out to all members. He would be based in the field area and overseeing TOFT's existing projects and working on new initiatives with the lodge community / local community and forest department.

I have enhanced the TOFT Corbett lodge membership and we have 5 new properties that have come on TOFT Corbett Lodge members with the existing 10 properties. 3 properties have been audited this time around and would be posting their ratings on the website as and when the scientific team finalizes their overall rating.

After 23 days staying in and around Corbett area - my concerns/worries are on new mushrooming of lodges in the area. The final total lodges have reached to an outstanding number of more then 65 lodges in the area. The extraction of natural resources from the buffer areas have enhanced with no policies of enforcements in place. Recent news of poaching is on a high and will confirm this news as and when our TOFT field team gives updates.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Julian In India - Dehra Dun

I am now on the train to Dehra Dun, a small cantonment town in the foothills of the Himalayas, in a different state of Uttarkhand, a state of large forest tracts, high densities of Tigers within Corbett Tiger Reserve and the highest mountain of Nanda Devi in India, which we are hoping to spot on our trek in the Nandour Valley.

I had trained back from Madhya Pradesh a few days ago back to the heart of the capital Delhi, ostensibly in order to get my laundry done and to remember what a traditional English breakfast was like again. This can be done with best effect from the suitably palatial surroundings of a Lutyens designed home with the endless hospitality and staff of the High Commissioners Residence, in the leafy parts of New Delhi, literally in the very heart of Government. It just so happens that the High Commissioner is my step brother and his wife, now suitable ennobled, and a more perfect posting for a member of the my family could never have envisaged in my wildest dreams. The residence has even got its own wildlife it is two acres of lush and manicured gardens complete with noisy parakeets, wheeling black kites, and a huge oriental hornbill, not to mention the macaques causing havoc in the trees and having to be scared off by a trained Langur twice a day!

My last ten days in MP have been based in and around Panna Tiger Reserve in a Forest Rest House on the Ken River and from here we explored the local area and enjoy great game drives within this hugely scenic park, made up of a series of rising flat topped hills and plateaus, great gorges with tumbling waterfalls in the monsoons, teak forests and a large river now replenished with Mugger crocodiles and gharial. As is always the case this was the erstwhile Maharaja's of Panna's hunting ground and old ruins litter the park; a hunting lodge, a columned building for his guests lunch stops, and a old hunters hide where he could sit safely and shoot any game that took his fancy.

Panna is stuffed full of a magnificent range of birds from the tiny red breasted minivet to the large Grey headed Fish eagle. Here is also some of the best herbivore populations we have seen, with large numbers of good looking Sambar deer, the rather ill designed Nilgai or 'Blue bull' and the spotted 'Bambi' deer called Chital, not to forget endless families of wild pig turning over the forest floor. Its leopard population has exploded now that's its main enemy seems to be very thin on the ground!

Panna is undergoing heated debate on the issue of its Tiger population, official figures still say there are 32 in the Tiger Reserve but given the smokasbord of delicious foodstuffs here and the complete absence of signs and tracks of Tigers for a while now - and certainly in the ten days I was there - this number holds little water! Recently the Forest Department decided to agree on relocating 2 or even 4 tigresses back into the park, suggesting (if not stated) that the park has a major problem. Not having Tigers makes a huge difference to visitor numbers and already Panna is suffering, down by almost 75% from its heyday as a Tiger reserve when lots of habituated wild tigers roamed its forests. Poor park guides can wait for days now to get a ride into the park.

We dined with Dr Ragu Chandawaht, a well known and now Ex Panna Tiger researcher and wildlife advocate who helped bring Panna back from the brink over 8 years of close monitoring from the late 1990's and discussed all the issues of the park under a clear full moon and over a delicious chicken curry. From the treehouse dining room of the Ken River Lodge we also had a TOFT meeting with the various lodge owners and discussed ways in which lodge owners can improve community relations, work with park management and use tourism more effectively as a conservation tool. With some cajoling we should be able to get some walks also set up in a wilderness area that would be fantastic and desperately needed to broaden further the wildlife experience. Panna has infact some of the best opportunities to avoid doing endless game drives and I hope we can encourage this aspect. I had also met with some Discovery Initiatives clients, doing our Tiger study tour, and who were enjoying the park and its surroundings before the wholesale 'Tiger onslaught' that is Bandavgarh and Kanha tourism, at their next destination.

Two days we also spent in what was thought to be one of the forest areas where Panna's elusive tigers were said to be residing, in the forests near Bijawar and Buxwah, again once famous hunting blocks. Our assumptions where quickly put right when the range officer for the area said they hadn't seen either Tiger or leopard in these forests for 5 years. We did walk in these thinning forests for half a day and though we saw signs of key herbivores including Chinkara or 'Indian Gazelle', who look similar to the 'Thommies' or Thomson Gazelle of East Africa, and the even rarer four horned antelope we concluded the numbers where far lower than ideal and could only sustain a insignificant tiger population.

All of us had enjoyed an afternoon at the famous temples of Khajaraho, where the Chandela empire of the 8th to the 13th century had obviously much enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh, with very graphic and exceptionally gifted carvings of gorgeous well bosomed ladies and their lover - or indeed lovers - enjoying every conceivable position of Kama Sutra, and our guide revelled in their description as we toured these majestic temples. However we all said we would have loved to have seen the temples before they were 'restored' when they were rediscovered by an English Engineer in the 1870's. A few days later we where not to know that having climbed Ajaigarh Fort, suitable translated to mean 'Impregnable fort', with its five hundred elephant step climb from today's village of Ajaigarh, and a place well off the beaten tourist trail, we discovered hidden amongst trees within the tumbled down walls, exactly this. Here four temples exist, almost untouched in their unrepaired and uncleaned form, surrounded by huge chunks of superb carvings merely lying scattered across the ground. Evidence of theft and deliberate acquiescence of key carved stones could be seen, but the experience was 'Indiana Jonesesq', and rather wonderful to experience all by ourselves. Keep the Archeaological Survey of India as far away from its monuments as possible please, as they are doing more eyesore damage than the numerous graffiti artists, and continuing concrete based repairs and poor quality restorations ain't helping their reputation either.

My adventure here continued when I shifted a buried stone carving lying on the ground only to be given a very nasty bite, which turned out to be a scorpion's sting. Almost immediately my finger began to throb and after applying a tourniquet to the injured finger we decided we must rapidly get down for medical treatment, as my finger rapidly started to turn black! Before finding a doctor, and after taking away the strapping, the pain became excruciatingly and began to move up my whole arm. This really was the 'Khajaraho curse!' Thankfully the doctor seemed calm and painkillers were injected and the pain was relieved to my great joy.

Into the lower Himalayas my trail continues.............

Julian In India - Day 15

I am on Day 15 of my adventure and I am sitting in a lovely Forest Department owned resthouse, built in 1903 in the village of Sukata about 40 kms from Pench National Park, and surrounded by thick forests. This was a famous hunting blocks of the Raj, with mentions of superb hunts for Tiger and 'Panther', bison and Sambar, and even great beats for maneaters in Captain Forsyth's classic book on these Central Highlands in 1863.

It is hard to believe that I have yet to meet another tourist in any of the swath of country I have been travelling, yet all is within and often open to tourism, both domestic or International - but unless you had intimate knowledge of these places and the odd good contact, you would never know this whole part of wild India even existed!

To be honest, bar Satpura, which is one of the very best National Parks reserves in all of India (but nobody knows it) we have travelled through huge swathes of forests, on both simple roads and often in real 4 wheel drive territory, in our Mahinda 2 wd urban excuse for an off road with Mobin the driver constantly having to check the road ahead, move rocks and break branches to avoid the scratches! Really a Gypsy vehicle in this terrain would be better.

Admittedly, most of this time however we have had to be content with the tracks and signs of animals rather than the views of them, but often this is more exciting, and one of my great joys is to be able to walk in these jungles and up some hills and along the 'Nalas' or riverbeds, looking for porcupine quills, sloth bear claw marks on the beautiful Arjuna trees, leopard scat and of course the huge pug marks of the elusive Tiger himself. Though we worry or get excited by Tigers in this terrain locals, most of the Gond and Korkus tribes, (the first people of these parts) are far more worried by Sloth Bears who are more aggressive than carnivores, and more likely to attack, and thus always carry an axe over their shoulder and only venture out in gangs.

We are in the Rukkad and Kurai area today, a landscape of about 250 square kilometres, and an area rich in wildlife from the evidence so far seen. It has been very well protected by the Forest Department, though selectively logged and occasionally clear felled for teak plantations over the last 120 years, but still harbours a variety of creatures. Its only drawback today is that in 2004 all its bamboo flowered, and this extraordinary botanical event that occurs usually every 40 years, not only means the dying off of the old bamboo clumps, that have been the building material of the forest dwelling villagers over the years, but also the mass dispersal of seeds of the plant which then grow as swathes of thick clawing undergrowth for the next 8 years, before survival of the fittest dictates the best ones (or the least eaten)into bamboo clumps and the forest floor thins out again.

I am travelling with a wonderful 'gentle man' Brahmin, a retired high official of the Forest Department, full of wonderful stories of his life in the forest of Madyha Pradesh, and we have affectionately called him 'Kapil Sahib', and decided he should be the next Prime Minister, so have been devising a variety of ways of achieving this - as a (very improbable) way of getting the country to appreciate its forests! Following closely behind him is Gitan, his smiley and diligent 'menial' who bring his masters slippers to him, packs his bags and a variety of other useful services, including the cameraman's lakey. He is teaching me some useful Hindi and we have the odd secret together while the master is not looking.

Next in my travelling band is our agnostic Sikh and overall 'good guy', Vikramjit, our cameraman, photographer and great birder, who I have taken to calling Che, as his newly acquired beard, habit of smoking while filming and camouflaged cap remind me of this revolutionary. He is constantly behind everyone else, so busy taking pictures, setting up his tripod, or sweating under his three layers of clothing that he still dons every day, even when it's been beautifully sunny and warm every day so far!

Lastly is our driver Mobin who I have already mentioned but along the way we are always accompaniued by others, very good, or quite useless Forest Guards, including one now infamously called 'Come in Gori', experienced and diligent Range officers and even the odd Divisional Forest Officer, in charge of these forests.

Breakfast of the usual paratas, omelettes and a potato curry have just arrived to be eaten under a mango tree in the garden of the once colonial rest house, so I must end here, and travel onto the once great Sal forests of Kanha and Jabbalpur so will keep you informed from here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Day 29 in Madhya Pradesh

When last my blog was done I was just arriving into Bandavgarh National Park. Here is a really beautiful park, with its tall sal trees, its leaves all beginning to turn yellow and fall like raindrops onto the forest floor with any breath of wind. The grasses are beginning to feel the drying heat and wilting in the warming sun, and the waterholes, which didn't get as much water last monsoon as normal, slowly evaporating into hardening muddy pools.

In the centre of this park is a huge flat top mountain, rising straight out of undulating hills, and upon it lies an ancient fortress of Bandav, at the height of its powers in the times of the Mughals, and the Emperor Akbar's wife hid here for a time from her enemies. Today it has all but collapsed and is overgrown with large peepal trees, their white tentacle roots engulfing whole buildings in their octopus like grip, slowly squeezing great architectural wonders back to dust, rock and rubble from whence it came. Last time I came we were allowed to walk its great length and along its battlements and through it temples and huge water tanks dug out of solid stone. Today because of the sheer number of Tigers who live within its bounds tourists are only able to move through it by vehicle and gaze out from its mighty escarpment to watch long billed vultures coming back from their daily scavenging, their grace in flight unmatched by their ugliness once stationary. We sat and watched from here some spotted deer, alarmed and barking, by a Tiger and her cubs far below in the valley.

Driving back quietly after a lovely but relatively uneventful evening game drive in Tala, the tourism zone of the park, we suddenly came across 30 vehicles in a line all peering into a small nala by the roadside. Here frantic waving and excited chatter engulfed us, ladies in saris balanced precariously on their vehicle roll bars, held up by their relatives with camera's clicking and Gypsy engines firing up and streaming in an uncontrolled and chaotic melee as a large male Tiger imperiously moved along the 'nala' or riverbed, quite oblivious to this maelstrom of activity going on all around him. Drivers adjusted their vehicles in jerk and frantic backwards and forwards movements to give their clients better viewing opportunities, and ensure juicy tips at the end of the drive. Through this chaos that is 'Tiger tourism' a path was ensured that the stately and unfazed male tiger could walk across the road not 5 metres from a double thick line of 6 cars on either side and continue with his task of putting down his urine markers to any challenger who would knock him off his new found territory. (infact his famous father B2 is the king here!)

I might not enjoy such pandemonium for a wildlife encounter but the Tiger seems impervious to the commotion.

My Tiger trail has sought to prove to myself, and hopefully to others, that bizarrely tigers today in India are basically only existing in any significant and sustainable numbers in areas, that have a good number of tourists visiting them - even if it can sometimes be akin to visiting the Tigers at Longleat. It does not mean that this tourism is ecotourism or even good tourism - I call it 'default' tourism - and it won't save Tigers without all the other requirements like large landscapes, adequate protection, quality intelligence and sizable prey numbers - but it's a critically important component in the battle to save forests.

This is not necessary because of tourists themselves, who often behave appallingly, but really the effects of tourism; the alternative employment and livelihood opportunities generated for local people, the enhanced protection as a result of tourism pressure on park personnel to maintain Tiger numbers, the media's and politicians prying eyes; while woodchoppers and poachers seek their produce in other forest areas not so well monitored, and cattle herders do not dare to enter for fear of penalties.

After 30 days trampling the forests of Madhya Pradesh outside of these 'tourist zones', through denuded and hacked forests, through cattle and goat infested landscapes, through teak plantations of the Forestry Corporation, and indeed through some parts of the so called core areas of Tiger reserves in India not visited by hordes of tourists, I am more convinced than ever that 'If it pays to have Tigers and other wildlife it will stay. If it does not Tigers will have gone already – or be gone very soon.'

This is the blindingly obvious reality of India's wildlife today.

I am now near Singrampur in the Rani Durgawhati Sanctuary (named after a famous Gond warrior queen) staying in a lovely rest house perched on a high hill, originally built by my travelling companion, Kapil sahib. It just so happens that it looks more like an expensive villa in the South of France that a Raj designed Forest rest house, giving us a somewhat more glamorous abode that our usual standards. That is why we even have the occasional electricity and hence the correspondence.

We spend 6 hours walking on the periphery forests of this sanctuary this morning and discovered Hyena tracks and a very fresh hole dug by a mummy sloth bear and her baby sloth bear, but few others signs of what until recently was a fine corridor forest with a number of Tiger - but today no more. This afternoon we spent two hours watching long billed vultures glide back to their steep escapement homes and chicks, from their scavenging far away, which is always real magic, compounded by thousands of common swifts darting around the cliffs as the sun went down. That when I feel very spoilt.

Time for bed - oh and the snake under my bed is another story for next time!

Written on the 8th February 2009
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