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

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Julian In India - Day 23

It's been 10 days almost since my last email and in that time lots of things have happened and lots of adventures have been had. I am moving through the southern belt of the great Narmada river of Central Indi, the famous holy waters that divide North India from South India. Infact we crossed the Narmada south to north yesterday late afternoon which is itself an interesting spectacle, especially from an unstable bridge, with a multitude of modes from transport upon it from old to modern, bullock carts to coaches, all honking their horns at everything and everyone for no reason at all. In the very middle island a game of cricket was being played and the shorelines, and with good moist soil, the river banks are tilled to the waterline as the waters reside with a range of crops. No land is spared.

On either side of the banks, lines of Ghats or shrines, to a multitude of Hindu gods, take pilgrims by a series of long horizontal steps into the holy river, there to offer their deceased relatives ashes into the waters, carry out 'pujas' or offerings to their Gods, and also to bath or even drink the waters for good luck, long life or greater prosperity. The reality is that doing the latter is most likely to strike you down with some ghastly disease, that will rob you of your hoped for prosperity, and send you very much sooner to your own maker, has yet to be officially recognised by the Public Health Department or realised by the worshippers!

Having moved along the thin 'chicken neck' of forest that is all that remains of the so called 'corridor' for Tigers to move between two of the best stocked Tiger parks in India, Pench and Kanha National parks, we found ourselves ousted from the glorious old hunting lodge of Subkhar, with its steep thatch roof, and punkkas, or moving ceiling curtains, that were operated by the famous 'punkkawallahs' of the Raj to cool the house's inhabitants, and instead ended up in a village with a simple Rest house, where we set down for the night.

Taking stock of Kanha was exciting, because looking at Satellite pictures it would appear that huge tracts of forests lie outside Protected Areas and could be ripe for some private public conservancy idea. The reality is sadly much more depressing, as over the next few days we explored a variety of areas that were 'forests' on the map but turned out to be severely overgrazed and in bad shape without evidence of wildlife, or were large tracts of teak plantations planted by the forest department.

One of the best looking tracts of over 500 square kilometres appeared at first to be very exciting and we walked within parts of it, and down to a boulder strewn river bed, spotting lots of signs and tracks of wildlife including 'panther' or leopard, sloth bear (that most people are more scared of than tigers) sambar, wild boar and spotted deer, the chief meals of the predators. On enquiring further about how we could get deeper into this forest, for by now I was excited about it - I was told it was full of Naxalites and we could not go any further. Naxalites are local 'insurgents' modelled somewhat on the Maoists of Nepal, and using some nasty tactics and corruption in huge tracts of India, to make these areas ungovernable. Very annoying as its a huge tract of virgin forest that would greatly enhance Kanha National Park with dispersal of its young tigers, as it borders the park.

Kanha itself was wonderful to see again, with its huge meadows and dark foreboding Sal forests full of forest sounds. We came across two packs of wild dogs, about 12 dogs in each pack, who look much like a good looking well fed mongrel dog, but with a gorgeous bushy tail and alert faces. They were completely unperturbed by us watching them for half an hour and sat on the road and played with each other. New measures to defray tourism numbers around the park seem to have worked wonders and it often felt like we had the place to ourselves.

The so called 'Tiger show' is a big No No - I hated it and really regretted doing it because it's such an unauthentic wildlife experience, the crowds of tourists being ferried backwards and forwards on two bored elephants, to a poor Tigress trying to get some sleep at 10 am in the morning. This made me feel just how lucky I was to be so far removed from the classic tourist trail. I still have hardly come across another Gora - or white skin until this time!

I did a TOFT presentation to most of the lodge community in Kanha, with the new swarthy Park Director, Mr RP Singh, his stern looking Deputy, and the ebullient and intelligent Range Officer for Mukki, together with some representatives from the Park Guides Association (who are getting so much better now), and some great ideas where put forward and agreed quickly including a 'Children in the Park' day at the end and beginning of the season, some new Guide training from the best Lodge naturalists, Community forestry and I hope an agreed lodge Community Relations officer. All moving in the right direction.

My Hindi is not great but its getting better slowly - beginning to string the odd sentence together - the problem is then understanding the answer! It is surprising though just how much English has crept into everyday speak in Hindi, know as Hindish, so one can get some idea of what is being said most of the time. Luckily my two companions speak very good English - but it does spoil my need to converse in Hindi.

I am now in Bandavgarh National park - staying at a VIP Guesthouse of the Governments (because I am so important of course) - its who you know that counts here. The only problem is that they still have absolutely no concept of time and so much deference going on, so you get breakfast at noon, and supper at midnight - or vica versa if the staff instructed to tell the other lower staff what to do get the message wrong - a sort of Chinese whispers - which means every communication is lost by the initial messenger and completely changed by the responding messenger!

The trail continues here and I have just had a good but rather depressing meeting with the Bandavgarh Park Director. His problem is that the park is being highly successful at breeding Tigers but they get pushed out on maturity outside the park into landscapes devoid of prey and instantly take to eating cattle and rapidly get either electrocuted or poisoned.

His solution. 'I need rapidly to fence the park and then the Tigers will at least die within the park fighting with each other - rather than outside with poison!'.

The trail continues......

Julian (FD Rest House Bandavgarh)
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