Before Independence, Dudhwa was an untamed land of marshes, grasslands and dense forests. Menacing malarial mosquitoes, recurrent plague and oppressive famines were associated with the region, making it rather inhospitable to humans, but just perfect for wildlife. By the 1950s, the marshes and grasslands were largely replaced by sugarcane and paddy. Under the guise of crop protection, the tiger and the gond, which is the local name for the barasingha, suffered terribly at the hands of poachers.
In 1968, Billy Arjan Singh, operating out of his farm in Kheri, which he christened 'Tiger Haven', began his battle to protect Dudhwa. His efforts resulted in an area of 212 sq. km. being declared as 'Dudhwa Sanctuary' in the same year. With protection, the habitat improved and soon people began to talk of the magic spell woven by nature, with help from Billy. It was only a matter of time before Dudhwa's fame led it to be declared a National Park in 1977. Thereafter no disturbance or non-wildlife oriented land management of any kind was legally permitted. But it took another 10 years before it was brought under the purview of Project Tiger.
Dudhwa, even to the uninitiated, is the story of Billy Arjan Singh's lifetime devotion to the cats that seek to survive here. Both Billy and Dudhwa have, nevertheless, been the focus of conflict and debate. The story of Tara the tigress, hand reared and released by Billy Arjan Singh into Dudhwa's wilds, is legend. The stuff of romance, his experiment is nevertheless mired in controversy with experts suggesting that the tame zoo-born tigress had become a man-killer, which had to be fed to the day it died. Billy's contribution to the tigers of Dudhwa is nevertheless irrefutable.
Dudhwa's terai belt abuts the Nepal border. The habitat is nurtured by the Sharada river and its tributaries. The Mohana arm to the north flanks the Park and from there one can see the Himalayas, a mere 30 km. away! The Suheli river forms the Southern boundary and both eventually flow into the Ganges.
The park covers an area of 498.29 km. and the topography is rather flat, with a mere 32-metre drop differentiating the extreme northern and southeastern corners. The soil structure is typified by an unusual absence of surface stones and rocks. The forest soaks in 1,600 mm. of rain annually and because it is well vegetated, ground water levels are high as they are along most of the forested terai.
The abundance of rain makes Dudhwa brim over with fresh plant life-grasslands, thick forests, marshes and wetlands. Seasonal floods are a common feature. The North Kheri Forest Division, in which the park is located, comprises moist deciduous forests and possibly has the finest quality sal in India. The grasslands lie south of the sal woods reaching their zenith after the rains. The tall and coarse grasses are often difficult even for elephants to negotiate. The region is characterised by dense thickets as well as swampy depressions.
Moisture-loving jamun trees flourish along the rivers and streams. Large stands of Imperata cylindrical and sisam trees are plentiful. Commercially valued timber species include semal, khair, sirsa, haldu and tun. Protecting such trees from timber poachers is a full time job for the park authorities. Agricultural crop fields, mainly sugarcane, encircle the forest. Teak, sisam and eucalyptus, all alien to this region, were planted for commercial gains.The floral scene is highlighted by the silvery munj and the dry red retwa petals that give way to the golden blossoms of narkul or cotton-like kans, near the waterbodies. Dew-laden flowers add to the freshness of early morning outings.
Dudhwa is tiger country. Billy still points out that vast parts of the tiger's range that abuts Dudhwa were left out of the park and he lobbies constantly to increase Dudhwa's area to safeguard tigers. The fringe area of the park, where sugarcane fields grow cheek by jowl with the forest, has become an area of conflict. Tigers that enter cane fields have come to be known as 'Cane Tigers' and have earned notoriety for their repeated attacks on humans and their livestock. With a high density of tigers, predictably there are fewer leopards in Dudhwa, however, these stealthy cats do make an appearance at a frequency enough to remind visitors of their existence.
Dudhwa is one of the few places in India where as many as five species of deer coexist, including the chital, sambar, muntjac, hog deer and the swamp deer. The swamp deer inside the sanctuary are relatively few in number (about 1,800) and have been relegated to the wetlands. Vast areas that historically supported the species have been left out of the 'protected area' and the deer still fall prey to poachers' guns.
Visitors can easily see the expanding herds of the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis, the largest and the best known of the three Asiatic species of rhino that was re-introduced from Nepal and Assam. The primary needs of the pachyderms are a well-watered habitat with plenty of food and water. This is offered by the Dudhwa system in abundance. Rhinos had been wiped out from most of their earlier range in Uttar Pradesh and the idea was to translocate a viable population from Assam to restock the Dudhwa terai, initially in a protected enclosure where their young would be free from predation. There was much bad blood at the time because Assamese sentiments veered around the view that people were trying to take their tourism revenue from them! Fortunately better sense prevailed, though India did have to look towards Nepal for stocks as well.
Wild elephants, which were previously only seasonal visitors, were forced to seek refuge in Dudhwa following massive habitat destruction in Nepal in the 1960s and 70s. They have returned to their original habitat since, but occasional visits are not uncommon. With luck, visitors can still see the magnificent herd bull estimated to stand over three and a half metres tall.
Another prime beneficiary of conservation efforts has been the hispid hare, a dark brown grassland creature with characteristic bristly fur. Elsewhere in the terai, the hare has been all but wiped out by agriculture.
Trips to Dudhwa will reveal sounders of pig and the occasional nilgai or blue bull, India's largest antelope. With a bit of luck you may also spot a solitary sloth bear or a pair of jackals. Ratels, civets and fishing cats are also found here, but are less visible.
In winter, mugger crocodiles can be seen basking lazily on the sandy riverbanks of the Soheli-Neora. Otters, pythons and monitor lizards, in search of crocodile eggs to feast upon, are some of the other creatures that can be seen in the well-watered areas.
Dudhwa is a veritable bird haven. Over 400 avian species have been recorded. The tals and jheels are ideal spots for birdwatching. Owls and storks alone can take centre-stage with the sheer variety spotted here. Among the nocturnal birds are the Great Horned Owl, the Forest Eagle Owl, the Brown Fish Owl, the Tawny Fish Owl, the Dusky Horned Owl and the Brown Wood Owl. The Collared Scops Owl and the Jungle Owlet are more easily seen, but this does not mean they are more numerous. On cool Dudhwa nights, the Indian Nightjar or the Franklin Nightjar calls incessantly. Magpie Robins are permanent fixtures and their soft melodious calls set the perfect stage for an attractive jungle orchestra.
Apart from the Sarus Crane, there are Black-necked Storks, White-necked Storks, Black Storks, White Storks and Painted Storks! And, lest we forget, Asian Openbills and Lesser Adjutant Storks as well!
Dazzling flashes of colour are provided as the beautiful Asian Paradise Flycatcher makes an appearance beyond the green curtains. A trip into the field could reveal an astounding variety, maybe a Blue-bearded Bee-eater sitting by a stream, or a flock of Great Hornbills. The Indian Pitta, Emerald Doves and cuckoos perform abrupt disappearing acts, followed by their equally mysterious reappearance in large numbers, possibly following food availability.
Innumerable species of woodpeckers, orioles, barbets, kingfishers, minivets and sunbirds abound. Dudhwa's extraordinary range of raptors includes the Grey-headed Fishing Eagle, Pallas' Fishing Eagle and Marsh Harriers. Crested Serpent Eagles and Changeable Hawk Eagles are also to be seen. The sheer number of bird species can baffle even the most ardent ornithologist! By some estimates, as many as six species of vulture are present, a sign of great hope because throughout India vultures are in decline. Hornbills, bulbuls, drongos, prinias, chats and warblers will surely enable you to add to your life-list of birds if you maintain one.
Some naturalists talk in hushed whispers of the possibility of some of the smaller, inconspicuous tals in Dudhwa still housing the officially-extinct Pink-headed Duck. Others say this is nothing but wishful thinking. But the wetlands, nevertheless, play host to thousands of migratory birds, including the Lesser Whistling Teal. Dudhwa's position at the Himalayan foothills makes it the perfect staging point for birds en route to distant destinations on the subcontinent.
Of course, the star attraction of the avian world is the Bengal Florican, an endangered bird whose aerial mating rituals are ballet-like and most impressive. The Bengal Florican was once present throughout the terai, but Dudhwa now holds the distinction of being one of the few grassland habitats in the world where this beautiful bustard can still be found. The courtship display of the Bengal Florican is indeed unique. Costumed in a spectacular black body with stark, white wings, framed by an emerald forest, male bustards take to the air with a noisy flapping of wings, only to descend slowly, and then take a bow before gaining height for an encore. The ritual ends with a graceful dive and is accompanied by the distinctive high-pitched 'chick-chick' calls of the birds.
The Swamp Partridge uses Dudhwa as a transitional habitat, while Black and Grey Francolins occupy its higher grasslands with sandier soils. For reasons yet unknown, the White Ibis has vanished from here and the celestial trumpeting of the Demoiselle Cranes is no longer heard.
In Dudhwa, the spotlight is understandably on the swamp deer. The largest numbers of grazing barasingha occur in the wet grasslands, especially in the Sathiana and Kakraha regions. Sathiana is the wetter area. Each season offers sights of deer in different aspects.
They spend the monsoons in the adjoining crop fields and swamps, possibly to escape biting flies that swarm over the grasslands. In the swampy areas of Ghola and Gajrola, the annual rut begins at the end of October. Wallowing is an intrinsic part of the breeding ritual and stags with mud-caked bodies will almost invariably be found near jheels and swamps. During the rut, the deer tend to roam less so as to establish breeding herds. At such times, the congregation of buck parties is most impressive.
By the end of January, the swamp deer return to the park and gather to feed on the new shoots emerging on recently burnt grasslands (part of the annual management practice). Adult stags now sport massive branched antlers and does move about with ever-hungry fawns at their heels, butting their mothers for access to milk. This is the ideal time for a tourist to catch a glimpse of the large herds.
When summer returns, the stags begin shedding their antlers and their long dark winter pelage begins to reveal lightly spotted chestnut coats. In these months, isolated deer are the order of the day as the great herds have long dispersed. Barasingha will visit waterholes at least twice a day in the hot season, usually at dawn and in the late afternoon. In no other season is the drinking as regular and frequent. Waterholes in the southern grasslands offer visitors guaranteed deer sightings.
Basking crocodiles can also be seen on the sandy banks of the Soheli-Neora river and with luck, swimming otter and perhaps a rhino wallowing in the mud.
Tigers have most often been spotted by vehicles on the road, or from a machan. Navalkhand is a good place to chance your luck with both the tiger and the Bengal Florican as Dudhwa has virtually no buffer area at all.
Banke Tal is another popular haunt. Egrets, cormorants, herons and several species of waterfowl, including mallards, geese and teal can be spotted here. The drive from Dudhwa to Sathiana is a splendid excursion: the avenue lined with stunning sal and huge, intricate termite mounds.
The unique Frog temple, constructed by the former Maharajas of the Oyal State, must be visited. The temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, has a unique architecture, having been built in the shape of a large frog at the base! It lies in Oyal village, 10 km. from Hargaon, en route to Lakhimpur-Kheri and Dudhwa.
On the Lakhimpur-Nighasan-Dudhwa route lies the Surat Bhawan Palace, which is located in a nine-acre green expanse. It was built in the exquisite Indo-Saracenic architectural style by the Singhai rulers. It is one of the most famous palaces in this region teeming with lavish lawns, fountains, and a swimming pool. The Palace can only be visited with permission from the Manager.
Permission to visit the park must be obtained from the Director of Dudhwa National Park at Lakhimpur-Kheri.
The park is open from sunrise to sunset, and night driving is not permitted. Dawn and late afternoons are usually the best time to view wildlife.
Try not to do too much in too little time, irrespective of the temptation to try and fill everything into one trip. Allow yourself time so that Dudhwa can soak into your city bones!
It is vital that you obtain a clearance certificate before leaving the park, or you could lose time retracing your steps. You are in a remote location. The nearest banks and medical facilities are available at Palia and Lakhimpur-Kheri.
At most places of stay, cooking has to be done by the visitor. Provisions must be brought in from Palia. Only crockery and utensils are available at the Rest House. At Dudhwa alone, one might obtain minimal canteen facility on prior intimation.
Uttar Pradesh Tourism Helpline. Tel.: 0522-3303030.
Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), 17, Rana Pratap Marg, Lucknow - 226001. Tel.: 0522-2206168; Fax: 0522-2236053.
Principal Secretary, Forests, Uttar Pradesh, 6th Floor, Governance Bapu Building, Lucknow. Tel.: 0522-2238669/ 2214564; Fax: 0522-2235206.
Field Director, Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, District Lakimpur Kheri – 262701. Tel.: 05872-252106.
Field Director, Project Tiger, Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, Lakhimpur-Kheri - 262001. Tel.: 05872-252106.
Brinda Dubey, Tiger Haven Society. Tel.: +9111-24112550; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jairaj Singh, Tiger Haven Society. Tel.: +9122-26041518; E-mail: email@example.com
The best time to be there is between November and May, with January being the peak season. The Park is open for tourists from November 15 to June 15. The climate is equable. Temperatures range from 200C to 300C between November and February. In summer, they rise to about 350C between March and May. Nights are pleasant at 100C to 150C. There are heavy rains between June and September, hence the park remains closed. The grasslands are in their prime just after the monsoons when most animals come out of hiding to feast on young sprouts.
The forest department has rest houses at several locations. The Bankati Forest Rest House has 4 suites equipped with electricity. Dudhwa Forest Rest House with 4 suites and 25 beds in a dormitory has electricity as well as bedding facilities. The canteen at Dudhwa provides meals and snacks. Ideally, the Park Officer or caterer must be apprised of meal requirements immediately on arrival, so that adequate time is provided for arrangements to be made.
For reservations at any of these rest houses, contact: Field Director, Project Tiger, Dudhwa National Park, Lakhimpur-Kheri – 262701. Tel.: 05872-2106.
Sathiana Forest Rest House (Bedding and electric generators for limited hours are available on payment). For reservations contact: Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Uttar Pradesh, 17, Rana Pratap Marg, Lucknow – 226001. Tel.: 0522-2206584.
Tharu Hut, Dudhwa (12 suites and 24 beds are available). For reservations contact: Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Uttar Pradesh, 17, Rana Pratap Marg, Lucknow – 226001. Tel.: 0522-2206584.
By Air: Lucknow (238 km.) is the nearest airport.
By Rail: Dudhwa (4 km.) is the nearest station.
It is connected to Lucknow and Nainital via Mailani (37 km.) on the metre gauge.
Another option is to undertake a 301 km. journey from Delhi to Shahjahanpur by rail, and then proceed by road to Dudhwa, which is another 107 km.
By Road: The nearest town is Palia (5 km.). It is linked to Lucknow (238 km.). UPSRTC and private buses ply between Palia and Lakhimpur-Kheri, Shahjahanpur, Bareilly(260 km.) and Delhi (430 km.). Palia may appear to be a dusty and noisy town but a stopover here is very important for this is where all provisions must be bought, as nothing may be available beyond this point. A bus connects Dudhwa and Palia.
Within the reserve: Coaches and jeeps can be hired from the National Park office at Dudhwa for travel inside the park. Elephants are also available for wildlife viewing. Virtually impenetrable on foot, the grasslands must be seen on elephant back to capture its splendid glory.