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Wild Walk In Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve

Wild Walk In Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve

One of the least-known forest wonders of India has to be the Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve, a biodiverse wilderness that stretches over 800 sq. km. in Uttar Karnataka. In 2009, young Adithi Muralidhar volunteered to be part of the field surveys seeking to estimate the tiger-prey densities here, and shares with Sanctuary readers, a novice’s fascination for all things wild.

Sunlight filters through the canopy of the Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve, one of the most beautiful forests of South India; a paradise that is under direct threat from manganese ore mining amongst other serious environmental issues. Photo: Adithi Muralidhar.

What had I signed up for? Our first day was primarily a training session; we were taught how to walk, at what pace, how to respond to wildlife sightings, the procedure for readings and data entry. Armed with this information, the next morning, I was partnered up with a local boy, Vishnu, who was almost as old as me, but better acquainted with the terrain. We were dropped at our study site with no warm up, or even a quick chai to kick-start our day. Within the 100 m. of our first climb I found myself huffing and puffing, even as Vishnu surged ahead offering me no respite whatsoever.

We managed to document every gang of curious bonnet macaques and every spying giant squirrel in sight! The idea was to walk along the “line” in the forest that had been marked out for us by the experts. The “line” was made identifiable by “marrai-dali kempu banna” (Kannada for “red paint on trees”), which told us that we were on the right path. And I blindly followed Vishnu, completely in awe of the way he handled himself in the forest; how he managed to emerge unscathed from a thicket of thorny undergrowth, while I was bruised all over! Once he helpfully informed me that I was making too much noise while walking! To prevent myself from falling, I found myself grabbing hold of any tree or bush within arm’s reach, causing mini-havoc around me in the process!

I must confess, this being my first day of walking an actual transect, my focus was more on ‘finishing the line’ in time, and less on ‘experiencing nature’. But as the days went by, I slowly learnt to watch for movement in the canopy, even as I became more sure-footed and confident walking through undulating jungle trails.

Line-transect sampling is a widely-used technique employed to estimate the size of wildlife populations. A transect is a path, usually straight, across the study region, cutting through varied terrain, along which a researcher moves, keeping count of wild animals seen and even heard. This helps create a distribution model of the target species, which in turn enables us to estimate population densities and diversity within a group. The work involves long and arduous hours in the field, maintaining a high degree of alertness all the while. Since transects often cut through the core areas of protected forests, they offer a glimpse of wild nature that one is rarely blessed to see.

Anshi-Dandeli supports all manner of arboreal and avian lifeforms. Two of the most common arboreal mammal residents of Dandeli are the Indian giant squirrel Ratufa indica and grey langur Semnopithecus dussumieri. Photo: Adithi Muralidhar.

THE INITIATION

At the end of each day, we would excitedly share wild encounters, ranging from the usual chital and barking deer sightings, to an unexpected rendezvous with a sloth bearor gaur! Small talk revealed that most members were a touch apprehensive of encountering bears and elephants and entering the forest with that thought in mind had its own consequences.

I remember one particular day when we were walking a spectacular line through undergrowth studded with thick, spiny cane where we saw several green vine snakes slither their graceful way through their thickets. Suddenly, my team-mate, a senior field researcher stopped dead in his tracks. Can you see it? he asked, gesticulating with quiet hand signals.

I saw nothing. He then bent down to enable me to get a clearer view and squinting through the vegetation, I saw something large and black. My heart skipped a beat. Sloth bear? My flight response was about to kick in when, in what seemed like an eternity but was probably less than a minute, a massive gaur stood staring back at us. The thick undergrowth offered some sense of security, but the gaur had no interest in us at all (most animals rarely do), and moved away. Giving time to create some distance between us, we continued to walk the rest of our transect.

I am unlikely to ever forget the experience, which is so vastly different from watching wildlife from a moving vehicle, or from atop a machaan.

Soon our eyes began to spot wildlife of all kinds, arboreal and avian, creepy-crawlies of the leaf litter and larger ungulates. Snakes always won right of way as they crossed our path and we made a very conscious effort not to step on the regiments of army ants that went about their lives, maintaining the forest through which we walked. Bird song kept us company in the lively, yet quiet jungle. All these encounters multiplied my respect and appreciation of the role each organism played in the intricately woven web of life.

Walking a line-transect field survey enabled the author to savour the sub-tropical forests of the Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve, which support a diverse variety of herpetofauna including the forest calotes Calotes rouxii.
Photo: Adithi Muralidhar.

DIGGI

Our final campsite was Diggi – a small, remote village at the foothills of the Western Ghats, much talked about for two reasons. One, the village location was arguably the most beautiful in the entire Anshi-Dandeli Reserve and, second, Diggi’s predominantly mountainous transect lines were reputedly the toughest!

We reached Diggi late in the evening exhausted from the day’s “walk” and the bumpy ride to this secluded location. We stayed in a village home surrounded by misty hills on one side and green fields on the other. Some of us opted for a short nap immediately on arrival, others chose a cold shower in the two-walled bathroom behind the house. We slept under the stars on flat ground next to a hay-shed and were woken at three a.m. when the rain came down, causing us to scramble indoors to the small, square room. The downpour put paid to our planned transects the next day, which we spent cocooned in warm, welcoming sleeping bags. Sitting out on the verandah, I looked out at the deep navy blue sky with clouds dimming what little light a rising sun delivered. Wrapping the shawl tightly around me, I shut my eyes and concentrated on the pitter-patter of the rain… and the intoxicating smell of fresh earth.

Diggi, the author’s final campsite, is a small, remote village at the foothills of the Western Ghats, arguably the most beautiful in the entire Anshi-Dandeli Reserve. Photo: Adithi Muralidhar.

IT FELT GOOD TO BE ALIVE

When daylight had well and truly broken we chose to venture out to explore the surrounds in the company of 23-year-old Dinesh, the owner of the house at which we spent the night. “Cross the hills ahead and you will reach Goa,” he said, adding that when villagers had to visit Kumbarwada, (the campsite from which we arrived using a four-wheel-drive), they had to walk! During the monsoons, Diggi was practically cut off from the rest of the world! There were no hospitals in the vicinity and the villagers largely relied on medicinal plants as cures for ailments. Dinesh said he built his home with his bare hands over a period of two months, baking bricks himself and cutting timber!

We returned by a different route and came across a barren, scarred land, an open pit really, which stuck out like a sore thumb in these verdant surroundings. It was an abandoned manganese ore mine. This dead chunk of land with no vegetation, stripped of all soil, underscored the sorry plight of some of our most remote (and exquisite) locations and gave us a first-hand understanding of how mining poses one of the greatest threats to the Western Ghats. I had undergone a crash course in environmental education in the passage of just a few days.

Beyond its beauty lay the dark and desolate truth of Diggi – its brutal mining that has left the now-abandoned manganese mine virtually devoid of life.
Photo: Adithi Muralidhar.

QUESTIONS THAT KEEP COMING BACK…

Questions still echo in my mind. How come we urbanites take so many things for granted – easy access to education, health care and transportation, day to day comforts, and the ownership of the materialistic luxuries of modern living? How come we pay so little heed to the survival needs of people staying in virtual touching distance of us, who can harbour not even a sliver of hope that their lives might get even a touch better in their lifetimes? How come Diggi, despite being rich in water resources and fertile land is so callously exploited to feed the unbridled consumerist demands of us urbanites? What was that manganese ore being mined for… and who was eventually using its end product?

Somehow I knew many of the answers to those questions would lead back to my own unthinking lifestyle. I have no answers to share with Sanctuary readers, but I suspect that just asking such questions could move us all forward, even if just a step or two. We are pushing Nature over the edge, and in time, we are going to find ourselves falling off that very edge! Even those who do not “love” nature or look cynically at “nature lovers” need to ponder upon a basic fact – our survival! A healthy environment ensures our survival.It is time to make amends; it is time to show some respect and gratitude.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 4, August 2014.

 
 
 

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Sameer Bhargava

August 8, 2014, 05:22 AM
 Very well written article!