Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wildlife Photography in India

Extensive travel is a must if you wish to cover a large number of  species during your photographic expedition. Indian wildlife is spread across its various states especially in distant areas with intact ecosystems. The topography is diverse hence a large number of mammalian, avian, reptilian and insect species make India there home. 

Comprehensive photography of nature in this country is a Herculean task. Specific bird or animal photography is bit less expensive and less time consuming. Filming wildlife professionally requires lot of investment and time. Extensive film production in the country's protected areas requires permission from Ministry of Environment and the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state. The is would enable a nature film company much flexibility within the law. As per permission granted filming on ground level, camera trapping and night filming may become possible.     

What facilities and flexibility are granted depends upon the MOEF and CCF hence on first instance the company should contact these offices.  Charges applied have to be paid including hefty gate fee in tiger reserves. One needs to hire local staff with skills sets suitable for the expedition. Professional naturalist guides are a necessity. Persons having experience in obtaining and executing permission or facilitating in accommodations, travel food etc can make the project a big success.    

For amateur shooting with personal video or camera a nominal charge has to be paid every time you enter the park.  Tourists need remember the usage of flash is not allowed in the park and night drives are not permitted. The season with longest day hours is the summer. From after predawn to late evening light is present with good intensity. Many professional camera men prefer this period the heat not withstanding. Rains or monsoon are difficult times for the lens men due to hampered movement, bad light condition and slush. Only those interested in monsoon assignments should time their expedition for June to 1st week of September. Rains are intense during these months.       

One need to know the sighting records of animals in India. Where would you find the target species? One needs to do lots of home work. Popular charismatic animals like tiger, lion, rhino, elephant and others can be filmed in protected areas which are meant to conserve them. Little bit of fact finding will yield lots of information.    

For bird photography the popular birding spots are the best though for rare endemic species distant travel will be required. Most of the nesting takes places in rainy season or monsoon hence greater stress. Due to flooding and slush formation travel to many places becomes very difficult.

Study of Indian wildlife will help you reach the right destination for a particular species. The country has lots of protected areas notified as National Park, Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuaries where major species are conserved. There many WLS in remote places which are a micro habitat designated for just one or two species. Hence it is good to have as much information on wildlife as possible including travel and accommodation requirements.      

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dudhwa - Terai Habitat - The Seize

I have been many times to Lakhimpur Kheri District in Uttar Pradesh perhaps India's largest. It is a terai belt called Himalayan Foothills. My trips took me to Bhira, Gola Gokernath, Mohammadi, Singhai, Tikunia, Palia and Chandan Chowki besides other townships. There are major sugar mills and khandsari located in this UP district. Singhai was once famous for swamp deers and hunters nothing remains now except man and his farms.

As keen wildlife man I had read accounts of man eating incidence at this tiger heaven.      

Unfortunately I have been able to come near the reserve or go across many times - but no safari. As these where all business trips. I have also moved along the Kishangunj WLS a good habitat. Farming is the biggest scourge in the swamps fed by Sharda River. Every year the river floods and inundates many human settlements. But due to excellent alluvial soil all the region neighboring the badly shrunken National Park is under sugar cane farming reducing the tiger habitat. The proximity of such large concentration of humans to forests is striking. 

This is the reason why distant places like Gola and Mohammadi have suffered from man eating incidence. The animals strike human blood in sugar cane fields near the tiger reserve. They can easily move using the night cover through scattered pieces of khair forests and swamp land to reach the townships. 

Anyway I missed a safari here in spite of being so close. I still remember the Samosas of Gola and its bustling township. The Hindu temple of Gola Gokarnath is famous all over the country. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The sights and smells of this region are bewildering, from the smell of shit and muck to that of roadside mouth watering gastronomic delights. The tiger reserve survives amidst the sea of humanity. On one side of it is the porous Nepal border which makes the park susceptible to poaching and smuggling. 

I hope the administration is pro active in protecting this heritage wealth for posterity. The successful translocation of One Horned Rhino is heart warming. The preserve is also an excellent birding destination.

Lakhimpur Kheri can be accessed by road and rail from Lucknow the former is better. The train (Mailani Express) - if my memory serves me right - that connects the two is a horrible travel experience.  Please drive in day time, the accommodations are at Palia about 40/50 km from Lakhimpur Town. Interim night stay can be made in hotels of Lakhimpur.  Evening/Night travel is not advised at all.          

Wilds of Seoni Hills

Part of Central Indian Highlands so vividly and elegantly described by Capt.James Forsyth during the Raj...these hills are part of the Satpura Range. The Central Indian Forests where once contiguous and  were teeming with wild life and floral biodiversity. If you have not read the book do read it.

The Seoni Hills are where the story of Mowgli the Wolf Child is based. This is also known as Kipling Country since he wrote a fine account of these forests and Wainganga River in his book "Jungle Book". Rudyard Kipling has knit the wild denizens into a complex web of imagination that allures many to visit these highlands from all over the World. All the characters of this classic book live in the jungle even now, though the wolf has become rare.

With increasing urbanization lot of habitat types that support rare animals are being lost. Outside the reserve plains, grasslands and scrub have been completely overtaken by civilization. Increasing population, agriculture and industrialization further threaten these pristine jungles of India.     

The Seoni Township is a small city now with bustling commercial activity. Fifty km from it towards Nagpur lies the Pench National Park which encompasses Seoni Hills. The forests where once connected with Kanha Tiger Reserve, but I do not think they are anymore. The town itself is bare, but the jungle is met with at some distance. Most of the drive to Pench is pleasant as scenic splendor of dense canopy, undulating terrain  and green hills unfolds.   

Due to the ravages of time the forest have been greatly denuded but timely intervention saved the remaining. Most of the rock formations are pristine with black cotton soil and clay here and there.  Adjoining to Pench is Rukhad Wildlife Sanctuary now part of the tiger reserve. The WLS offers good sightings of animals including tigers and leopards. You can still come across Bison and deer crossing like it was everywhere in olden days. The area is well inundated by rivers and nullahs which are the life line of the ecosystems here. Water Holes or pools are referred as Dohs, perennial springs also support life in this region.    

Wildlife seen is tiger, leopard, bison, sambar, spotted deer, wild dog, sloth bear, barking deer, langur and Nilgai, The Indian wolf at Pench frequents outer areas around villages but are not often seen.     

Extensive jungle is connected with Seoni, Balagahat and Dist. of Nagpur.  The forests stretch from the State of Madhya Pradesh and ingress into Maharashtra. Most of the tourism takes place from Turiya Gate in MP. The MP border at Khawasa is the access point to Turyia Gate. In order to enjoy wildlife safaris one can stay in numerous Pench resorts that offer accommodation. The jeep safaris in the preserve need to be booked in advance during the rush season. The safari offer chance of sighting the spectacular animals of the Hills. 

The Central Indian Highlands also encompass Pachmarhi Hill Retreat and parts of Kanha.The distance from Jabalpur to Pench is about 200 plus km. From Nagpur it is 80 km. Both are connected by air with Mumbai & New Delhi. From Kanha the reserve is about 200 km.    

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Night Safaris at Kanha

Night Safaris at Kanha are not allowed inside the park. But you can frequent the common public roads for a chance encounter with nocturnal animals.  The chances of sighting big cats are rare but the leopards frequent villages so there is a greater chance of stumbling on to the spotted one. 

It is unethical to use strong search lights on animals you encounter. Use your headlight and disturb the animal the least.  On many occasions I have come across small night animals like civets, mongoose, porcupine, ratel, hyena, and fox. These are rare to see in the day time. Larger animals like Nilgai, Sambar Deer, Spotted Deer, Barking Deer and Four Horned Deer can be seen on such rides.

A search for mouse deer would be an exciting discovery if seen since the animal is very elusive. Same goes for the Indian wolf whose sightings are in doubt now a days. One of its favorite haunts the Mocha Village neighboring forests is now occupied by hotel resorts and private bungalows.  Birds like night jars, large owls  and Eurasian thick knee are seen frequently hence you will always sight something or the other.

Even in summers the night sky can throw a chill down on you so carry a blanket at least.  It is wise to go in at early hours and come back to rest early. Take a naturalist with and some other hotel staff to be safe...albeit no untoward incidence has happened. Do not enter the park confines as night rides are not allowed inside the tiger reserve.

The starry night sky and the silence enraptures tourists on such rides. But be safe!

Trekking Tigers

Tracking tigers in the wild is most exciting and thrilling adventure but only for those who can take disappointment at times in a stride. It is an exhaustive exercise though sometimes the luck favors early.

Like all primary predators tiger leave telltale signs that may lead to the animal. The primary source is the alarm cries of the herbivores and birds who on sighting or scenting the tiger give a typical call. One should be able to make out the vocalization of the tiger. Other indications are the pug marks, excreta and territorial markings.

One needs trained eyes to see tiger which is always in excellent camouflage and of course sensitive ears to hear the alarm cries and tiger calls. Intuition sometimes works but once in blue moon. The reaction and behavioral pattern of the animals too indicates the presence of the Bengal tigers in the forests and grassland ecosystems.

In tiger reserves tracking tigers on the foot is not allowed one must track them while on a jeep which limits accessibility and makes the task more difficult. One must also understand bit of tiger biology and have complete understanding of the ecosystem as whole.

Understanding tiger movements and its habitual routine is also important in fact very important. Knowing the terrain is important as well. This is an exciting profession which requires years of experience. 

Silence is a golden rule. Sitting on the open jeep you can here sounds from far away to make out which animals is there. A cacophony of alarm cries means a predator is around. Leave for the spot at slow speed so that you do not disturb the will move towards the dense thickets.    

MP tiger reserves people behind the scene

Managing a wildlife/tiger conservation center is not an easy task. There are a large number of people required with ability and skill sets. The tiger reserve employees are from the state forest department. There are various level of temporary employment for people not directly employed by the forest dept.       

People we are more familiar with are the park guides who accompany us during the tiger safari. These are on temporary employment perhaps on daily basis; some may find permanent employment in the department. The guide fee has now gone up to Rs.200 per visit per day. In order to make an excursion in the park hiring a guide is a must you cannot enter without one. The guide is assigned at the park gate you cannot choose as per your wish.    

The guides usually act as beat guards whence the park is closed. They are the most knowledgeable about the routes that the reserve is divided into. They are also knowledgeable about the animals of the reserve. Some of the guides are expert in birding as well. The tourists depend upon them for discovering animals and birds in order to make their sightings successful.

There are behind the seen operators which are visible to the tourists at times. These are park rangers, deputy rangers and foresters. The latter you will often see at the jungle huts in the forests used for patrolling and fire fighting. These are the front line sentinels of the preserve. The park rangers supervise the range and the activities taking place. It is a responsible job and assignments are given to the deputy. You can see the park ranger during the tiger show whence he supervises the event.

The DFO and the Field Director are the top echelon of the park management. Complete control is with the FD with maximum powers. The DFO (Divisional Forest Officer) is more active in the field along with deputies.

There are people at the gate which manage tourists’ entry. The park excursion takes place on open jeeps. These have to be registered with the Park office that allots a number to the vehicle.        

Elephant riders and their junior staff are trained to conduct elephant safaris. They also play a crucial role in patrolling during the monsoon, whence the slush hampers vehicle movement. The park is also patrolled with anti poaching vehicles which are specially designed for the task. 

Lot of labor is involved in building of the infrastructure of the park. These are local people who earn a living from the employment offered by the preserve management. These are not employed on daily basis and you can see them working on the roads doing manual work.

Thanks to conservation efforts and tourism a lot of people find subsistence from the tiger reserves. The impetus is on employing tribal and other local community members as a principle of responsible management and tourism.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bandhavgarh - More of it

After the notification of Bandhavgarh as Tiger Reserve the area was increased to more than 100 hundred sq km. This constitutes both the core zone as well as the periphery.  The neighboring Panpatha Wildlife Sanctuary was also brought under the aegis of BTR.

The enlarged area is meant to accord greater protection to Bengal tigers and co-inhabitants as well as the ecosystem. A number settlements exist in the tiger preserve. Panpatha has hitherto become and entrance especially for tourism- Pan Patha Zone. This patch of forest was till now unexplored

Another interesting part of BTR is Marzad Garh where few tourist visit. The bamboo bridge on River Umrar is a sight to behold...the jungle road leads to a watch tower at the top of the mountain. The vantage point offers a breathtaking panoramic view of Bandhavgarh terrain. Marzad Garh is a less visited place and worth a visit.    

Tigers and leopards are reported in these forest which is home to impressive wildlife and bird life. The main road after leaving the forests leads to Barhi Highway from where one can reach to Muchmucha via Kuan Village. One has to take a turn towards Kuan Village about 12 km From Khitauli on Barhi Road. 

Muchmucha is a small village on the periphery of the reserve. It is an agricultural settlement of tribal and mixed communities. The surrounding forests, wetlands and open fields constitute an ideal birding destination. The tigers and leopards often kill livestock here and the bold ones lift them right out of the cowshed. The incidence happened whence I was on a birding trip here. I stayed in Muchmucha Kothi a quaint accommodation which was once a hunting lodge during the British Raj. The property belongs to Mr. Avinash Pathak -conservationist,  landlord and hotelier. He also runs a package tour company in MP.

The Kothi is enchanting with simple services and few modern amenities. It is spacious, well furnished with old time paraphernalia and exudes class. Many industrialists and businessmen have visited the place on holidays. I had good birding time here, and saw much wildlife though missed the tigers due to preoccupation with the avian species.

Muchmucha is about 30 km from Tala but offers peace and serenity away from the mad tiger rush. It is more for the niche traveler interested in birding and safaris in unexplored quarters. It is also for those in quest of peaceful hang about in a village living in old times. A ride to Tala Gate from here offers exciting wildlife watching at many places with little disturbance. A part of the drive is through villages while most of it is through the buffer zone.  

The Kothi is a unique experience and unlike the luxury hotels in Bandhavgarh the lodge is not crowded. The accommodation is more of a farm resort in picturesque surroundings. In winters as you sit under the camp fire the starry night sky enlivens your spirit and augurs hope. The food is classic with lot of local touch, enhanced by the enchanting little dining room with mahogany table and chairs. Candles flicker wild in expectation as you dine in cozy ambiance created by the candlelight.     

The Khitauli Zone offers the best in wildlife safaris and birding. Apart from Marzad Garh other interesting places are: Chakri Dongri, Kumbhi Kacchhar, Garhpuri Dam, Tedka Munara and Nigahi Nala. The extensive forest cover, perennial streams and grasslands offer ideal habitat to the herbivores, tigers and leopards. Nilgai and Sloth bear are often seen in this zone in BTR. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Shadows in the Grasslands

The hub of activity in tiger lands take place the most in grasslands or meadows. The grassland habitats are  preferred by the deer species which are the main prey of the carnivores. The grasslands in tiger reserve contain short grass in summer while they are taller post monsoon. 

Meadows in Corbett, Dhudwa and Kaziranga are larger with tall elephant grass dominating the ecosystem. Most intriguing are the Boheras of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in MP. These grass lands are marshy in nature due to slush formation by the intersecting rivers such as the Charanganga and Bhitari.  The Sidha Baba, Bhitari and Chakradhara meadows are unique since no where does such an ecosystem exists. 

These are the ideal hunting grounds of the carnivores, since the movement of the prey is often stalled and they can be brought down easily. The predators descend from adjacent hillocks and hide in the shadows.  Dominant tigers hunt here and prefer to rest during the day, hidden in the shades in small openings. The hide at Chakradhara was built during the Shikaar Days but act as watch towers now. This is where the cameramen sit and film the finest moments of tiger hunting down prey. 

I find the Kanha Meadows as interesting as that in Corbett. The main hub of activity is the Kanha Meadow in the core zone. This is an edaphic grass land and quite a large spread. In the post monsoon period the grasses are quite tall but decrease in size as the climate becomes warmer. The grass land is extensive and offers habitat to Spotted Deer, Sambar and Swamp Deer.

Langurs, wild boars and sometimes sloth bear are sighted here. The grassland is the hold of dominant tigers and tigresses. The Hard Ground Barasingha or Swamp Deer are dependant upon grass for survival. They inhabit grasslands such as  Kanha, Saunf, Bisanpura and Saundhar. 

Grasslands attract predators like tigers and leopards in the jungles of India. The animals hide in the tall grass and mark out the prey. Tigers cannot chase their prey hence the grass cover provides an excellent opportunity to ambush and kill. They emerge like a shadow and pounce on the prey, it is a thrilling but grim spectacle - nature at its best. The predators control the number of herbivores in order to preserve the ecosystem and keep the food chain intact.

Once a tiger had killed a huge bison at Kanha Maidan right in front of the tourists. The killing could at best be describes as gory since the hunter cut of blood vessels in the hamstring of the animal four times larger. The death was slow and painful - unusual for a tiger kill. This is the way nature works but most tiger kills are instant with very little torture.    

A tigress was regularly seen here for couple of years to the delight of the tourists. Every day in these mega meadows the drama unfolds the alarm cries are constant a predator stalk prey. The event could be witnessed by the lucky ones. Besides luck can fetch sight of wild dogs on hunt or a sloth bear tumbling by. During the peacetime the grasslands are a silent spectacle with deers, peacocks and birds all around.

The best time for visiting these grassy phenomena is early morning and late evening. Keen eyesight and hearing can be rewarding at taking you to the place of action. I have witnessed ample drama in years of visits to this lovely paradise.                        

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A letter to the Tiger

Tiger By Peter Jones
Tiger Sir!

First of all beg pardon for what we humans have done to you and your home land.

Sitting at the apex of the pyramid or food chain. You encompass the whole ecosystem animals, birds, insects, everything. You have secured water for all, you have preserved natural vegetation - flora and fauna and as a result the whole environment - by following the rules of nature. Thank YOU. 

It is a shame that we have overtaken almost whole of the land and set you in small pocket. In India your Kingdom is reduced to barely one percent of the land - rest ruthlessly over taken by us. Even in that land we call protected areas there are fierce battles going on for access, manipulated by acts, this right and that right. These steps show no concern for other life is human first and that will remain... of course unfortunately you nor other wild denizens have learned to vote and join the mainstream. 

You are trying to give us back our natural environment and a better life for future generation. But it appears it is a battle in vain. We believe in a political system where human urgency dominates. We believe in and economy where you do not stand a chance ...psst neither I do.  We believe that we can err and be pardoned, but you cannot in spite of your behavior being gentlemanly to the core.      

We are a selfish and believe in only one life form that is US. I know and you know that it is a loosing battle. But while making your last stand you must remember that there are many who fought for you and are still fighting so that you survive in natural environment for eternity.

I met you this year in Corbett and Kanha this year.... you are so secretive many times we fail in discovering your way about.  You were as majestic as ever but I wanted to tell you that do not stand a chance. Hide in your den please. First it was the hunters than more vicious poachers who sell your parts to medicine makers in China and other Asian country's. You cannot change your stripes for some rich and ignorant people love to wear coat made out of your fur.

Tiger Tourism has increased your value one way or other. People come from far and near to have a glimpse of you. Is this not ironical, since we continue with our destructive way of life and have failed to protect you.

You are sometimes disturbed by us, but let me tell you many people realize nature conservation once they see you. Anyway you have known us for centuries.  Nothing survives in Human dominated World till it gains importance and value... you better learn. You have to increase your value by your charismatic appeal and the role you play on Earth.  Whatever Way!

All I can say further is that your well wishers wish to see you on Earth for eternity.   

warm regards 
Uday Patel