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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