THE SATPURA EXPERIENCE
The Journey Begins…..
As soon as the Indore-Bilaspur Express pulled away from the Bhopal Railway station on the chilly night of 13th Feb 2010 at 11:10 pm, I could feel the Butterflies in my stomach. Our destination—Sohagpur, an obscure station in the Hoshangabad District of Madhya Pradesh. I was going to Satpura Tiger Reserve (STR) as an independent volunteer in the ongoing Tiger Census (10th -15th Feb) after my application was graciously accepted by the Field Director of STR, Mr. N.S. Dungriyal. I was accompanied by my cousin whose application for volunteering was also accepted. As we hadn’t pre-planned the visit, so we had to somehow manage our journey in the General Compartment of the train and it was one unique experience – no sleep at all, the crammed conditions, seeing a conglomeration of people with their interesting discussions and somehow managing not to fall off the seats as a snoring old man kept on ramming me with his legs. We passed through Hoshangabad, the train crossing the familiar route--thick hilly forests of Ratapani Tiger Reserve (some day I hope to visit this reserve too) and then as the train crossed Itarsi junction, it changed tracks and moved into unknown territory. It was about 2:00 a.m. and I was feeling extremely sleepy, but the constant shoving of my old companion meant that I couldn’t even take a nap. So finally, I had had enough; I left my seat and went to the compartment’s door and voila!!!--- the smell of the forest along with the chilly wind and strange silhouettes of the landscape meant one thing---I was wide awake, not an iota of sleepiness.
We reached Sohagpur at 3:00 am-- Dungriyal Sir and one of his Range officers Mr. Sandeep Fellows had arranged a room in an old forest Resthouse which was just a few meters from the Sohagpur Railway Station. Now, at 3:00 am, the look of the station was very (and I mean VERY!!) creepy. The station was a small British era station—and spine-chilling part was that the look of the station was still the same, as if we had been teleported back in time-- the eerie silence, not a living soul to be seen anywhere and the pitch dark night. I and Aamir Bhaiya (my cousin accompanying me) gave each other petrified looks and we moved towards the exit, shaken by this whole affair. And the sight outside the station was even more unnerving—there was nothing, absolutely nothing outside the station—no humans, no lights, no rickshaws, no auto-rickshaws, no chai(tea) or paan-stall—nothing that you associate with railway stations. And to spook us out even more, below a flickering light bulb (the only source of light there), there was a lone Taanga (Horse-carriage) and a man standing beside his carriage, covered from head to toe in a blanket. Now, you all must have read stories of haunted stations and Ghost Carriages, even we had; so the pitch dark chilly night, the lonely British era station, the eerie surroundings and to top it off this single Taanga with the ghostly carriage driver, all this was honestly scaring us off like anything. However, summoning all our courage, we moved towards this ghostly figure, with all the terrifying moments of the all horror shows we had ever watched playing before our eyes. We somehow blurted out—“Hamein Forest Resthouse jaana hai, koi autorickshaa ya rickshaa kuch mil sakta hai aaspaas” (We need to go to the Forest Resthouse, can we get and Auto or rickshaw somewhere around here).The spooky figure replied “Yahaan koi rickshaw ya auto nahin chalta” (No rickshaws or auto-rickshaws ply out here). Now seriously scared we asked “Then how do we get there” to which, in complete anti-climax, the guy lifted his hood (thankfully he was human after-all!!) , smiled and told—“Arre , rickshaa ki kya zaroorat, aap paidal jaa sakte hain naa, Wo dekhiye, saamne wo light jahaan jalti dikh rahi hai naa, wahin aapka resthouse hai”(Hey, why do you need a conveyance, you can walk, see that light there, that’s it, there is your Resthouse). Surprised at this unexpected anti-climactic turn of events, we smiled and then laughed at ourselves for our foolish take on the events that had unfolded. After thanking our “Ghostly driver”, we walked some 200-300 yards on a Kaccha road running parallel to the railway lines, and we eventually reached the Old British Style Sohagpur Forest Resthouse.
There we were welcomed by Babulal--the Chowkidaar (Guard) who took us to our room. We were scheduled to leave for Satpura Tiger Reserve’s Madai entry point (about 24 kms from Sohagpur) at the crack of dawn. Dungriyal Sir had arranged for a vehicle to take us there. It was 4:00 a.m., and we desperately needed some sleep, so we decided to take a nap for an hour, but when we woke up it was already 6:10 a.m.—we were way late. I ran outside the room only to find out that the vehicle hadn’t arrived yet. There was a sense of relief which instantly transformed into disappointment because I knew that the vehicle not showing up meant that something had gone wrong. I walked down to the Kamti Range Office, a small house-like Office just behind the Resthouse. There I met up with one Mr. Madhu—the wireless operator. I enquired as to why had the vehicle not turned up; he sent a wireless message to Madai enquiring the same and the answer was that they hadn’t received verbal orders from Dungriyal Sir regarding the vehicle. As he was inside the park with other higher officials carrying out the census work, they could not reach him and so we would have to wait until he returns to the Madai Resthouse and gives them verbal instructions. I will admit that I was quite disappointed as I knew that all this would definitely take some hours. So I decided to have a chat with Madhu who used to be a driver for the park a few years back before he was transferred here as a wireless operator. Time flew as we talked about Satpura, his work, his home and family and interesting experiences he had had over the years. At the same time I was hearing the various messages (coming in from a number of patrolling posts scattered within the reserve) being relayed by the wireless set. One of them aggravated my restlessness exponentially. It was --- “ Haan, Baagh pahadiya par chadh gaya hai….Director sahib aur doosre sahib log gadi mein hain,dekh nahin paayein hain, par baagh aawaz de raha hai….Haathi ab aur upar nahin jaa raha hai…..Baagh aur upar chala gaya hai ab ” (Yes, the Tiger is up on the hillock….Director Sahib and the other officials in the vehicle haven’t been able to spot him yet, however they have heard the Tiger’s growls…..The (Kunki) Elephant won’t go up any further…..the Tiger has moved up high on the hillock now). I was cursing my luck--I am stuck here in the Rest-House while there is a Tiger playing hide-n-seek with the staff just some 30-40 odd kms from here. But the biggest reason behind my heightened anxiety was the fact that in this 19 year long life-span of mine, I had seen wild Tigers just once—two cubs in Betla, Palamau—So I was yet to “technically” see my first full grown Wild Tiger (“technically” because when I was a baby in my mother’s arms, my parents did come across a huge male in Palamau Tiger Reserve, resting just besides the road leading them to Garu, a small village town. Obviously I remember nothing of it. Apart from spending a whole lot of time in Palamau, I had been to Ranthambore (3 days) and Corbett(twice for 3 days)—anybody who has been to these two places for the number of days that I had been, he would perhaps have seen a dozen Tigers—but for some strange reason I hadn’t managed even a single glimpse. I couldn’t break the jinx in Kaziranga and Sunderbans nor did I manage to do that on my first visit to Satpura in September last year.
So, as I waited for the vehicle to arrive, I decided to have a look around. First I went to the last night’s “creepy station” which as I found out in the morning was just across the road running besides the Resthouse. Strolling along the platform I realized that this was definitely a unique station—only diesel engines train plied, there were hardly 4-5 trains that stopped here, no tea stalls, no newspaper stalls, no announcement systems, even the arrival of a train was signaled by a man ringing a huge gong---all in all it was a station frozen in time which still lives in the era gone by. I sat there trying to soak up the strange aura of the place—I felt as if I had time-traveled back some 30-40 years. After an hour just sitting at that unique place, I went back to the Resthouse for lunch. The restlessness and irritation at not being where we intended to be was intensifying with each passing hour. So I kept on strolling here and there, talking to the forest staff and observing birds and small mammals that were going about their daily business in the Resthouse campus. Then finally at about 1:00 p.m. the vehicle arrived. We thanked all the staff at the Sohagpur Resthouse viz. Mr. Lalsingh (Caretaker), Mr. Madhu(Wireless operator) & Mr. Pankaj (Computer Operator) and then bursting with enthusiasm and excitement, we finally took off for Madai entry point. The “Stomach Butterflies” were back in action after a 12 hour lull!!
Sohagpur Railway Station
We reached the Madai entry point crossing the relocated Madai village (which was relocated from the Reserve a few years back) at about 2:00 p.m. Now just to give you an idea of the Madai entry point---It’s perhaps unlike any other entry-point to a Tiger Reserve. This entry point doesn’t have any check-posts/gates etc. as you would expect elsewhere, rather this place has a natural check-point that’s perhaps makes it the most well protected entry check-post in the whole country. Let me explain— This is so because just as you cross Madai village, you will see a huge expanse of pristine blue; these are the backwaters of the Tawa Dam constructed in 1978. This reservoir forms the western boundary of the STR and hence acts as a natural barrier, preventing any encroachments into the forest from this side of the reserve as well as acting as a impediment for the villagers on the other side who might have indulged in hunting on a regular basis if this barrier wasn’t present. So even though the construction of this dam submerged the peripheral forests of the reserve, this dam has given back a lot more to the Reserve as compared to what it destroyed. Moreover, it has also become a haven for hundreds of crocs & thousands of winged guests who flock here from far off lands.
Satpura—The Enigmatic Forests…
Now a bit about this relatively unknown jewel in the crown of India’s Tiger Reserves whose worth is yet to be realized by most. The Satpura Tiger Reserve in spite of having an extremely rich history, having some of the finest tracts of forest in India and being bestowed with an amazingly rich and diverse faunal life, has always lived in the shadow of its more illustrious counterparts in Madhya Pradesh i.e. Kanha, Panna, Pench and Bandhavgarh. These forests were the “Karm-bhoomi” of the legendary wildlife-author of yesteryears, Captain J. Forsynth.
I found the perfect description of these forests on the Project Tiger Website, which is as follows:
“The Satpura TR consists of hill ranges, valleys, plains, deep gorges and water bodies providing a verity of habitats for different kinds of wildlife. These verdant forests of Satpura form a junction of different forest types occurring in the Tiger State of Madhya Pradesh. The sheer vastness of topographical variations of STR is unmatched. While the general configuration of the area is hilly having undulating terrain with precipitous slopes at places, several areas in the Pachmarhi plateau including the Mahadeo hills have deep and narrow gorges. The Satpura hill ranges run east to west and the Panchmarhi plateau is in the center of the reserve. The Panchmarhi hills have steep slopes in the north and in the south. The interior of these hills consists of a series of hill ranges cut up by streams due to their fragile rocks and soils while the Panchmarhi plateau consists of deep gorges having many waterfalls, marshy places, perennial steams and hills of various elevations. As mentioned earlier the backwaters of the Tawa Reservoir spread far into the channels of the Tawa, Naini, Sonbhadra, Denwa and Wagdwari---The major rivers of the STR.
Satpura TR is bestowed with biological diversity of different forest types ranging from dry thorn forest to tropical dry deciduous, moist deciduous and semi evergreen forests. There is a considerable variation in the vegetation and the forests may be broadly classified into (i) tropical dry deciduous (ii) tropical moist deciduous and (iii) sub-tropical forests. On the basis of composition, three major forest types are Teak, Sal and mixed forests.”
View of the STR Terrain (as seen from “Lagda Viewpoint”)
A Haven For Sundry & Copious Wildlife:
The fauna of STR is absolutely stunning; all the wildlife of Central India can be found here in large numbers. Among the members of the Deer family, one can easily come across large Cheetal herds (primarily in the Grassland areas) and huge Sambhars in large numbers. There was a debate over whether the Reserve still had Mouse-Deers (Or Indian Chervotain) which historically did have a distribution in here. The debate was put to rest when a few weeks before my arrival the D.F.O. Mr. Mridul Pathak managed to capture one on video while returning from a night-patrol. Amazingly they came across this small shy creature just about a kilometer away from the Madai entry point in the Madai grasslands. Barking Deer is widely distributed throughout the Reserve but as is the case almost everywhere, sighting one is really difficult owing its shy nature as well as the added disadvantage of a perilous terrain. Then there are four members of the Antelope family in STR---Nilgai (or Blue-Bull) and Chousingha (or Four-Horned Antelope) are well distributed throughout the TR (while Nilgai can be easily sighted, sighting Chousingha needs some keen eyes and a bit of luck. The other two members i.e. Chinkara and Blackbuck aren’t really found inside the TR (barring a group of Blackbucks that were rescued and reintroduced into the Madai grasslands which is their home now), rather they are found in good numbers on the periphery of the TR around the agricultural fields of the surrounding villages. The villagers are quite tolerant towards these crop-invaders which has resulted in a steady rise in their population, still some instances of their hunting does occur. Wild-Boars, Langurs and Macaques can be seen everywhere. And then there are all the other creatures of the Central Indian forests i.e. Badgers, Pangolins, Porcupines, Civets, Mongooses, etc. I was lucky enough to spot a Porcupine pair and a Ruddey Mongoose. Giant-Squirrels are chiefly concentrated in healthy numbers in the Bori Wildlife Sanctuary though they occur throughout the reserve.
One can see huge herds of healthy Gaurs here especially in Satpura NP. Perhaps this TR is one of the richest Gaur tracts in Central India.What makes the Gaurs of Satpura even more special is the fact that this area produces a lot of Albino Gaurs which have a very light coat (some pure white i.e. true Albinos have also been reported) as adults and are almost pure white as young. I personally came across at-least 5-6 such Gaurs in this trip(while I saw about 3-4 such individuals in the previous trip I made in September last year).
A Young Albino Gaur at STR. This Young should have been a lot darker and will grow up to be a whitish Pale Gaur
The TR has surprisingly high Bear-population. Moreover, seeing a bear is astonishingly quite easy here given that it is not easy to see one in most of the Indian forests. I was extremely lucky to see a mother with her 3 cubs, a very rare sight. I even came across one while I was on foot taking pugmark casts along with a Forest Guard. The STR also has a very healthy population of Wild-Dogs or Dholes. And as I mentioned earlier, the Tawa reservoir and lower reaches of the Tawa River support a healthy number of Crocodiles. I saw a huge one basking on the banks of the reservoir while I saw one swimming across in the Sonebhadra River. Wolves, Hyenas and even Jackals are reported mostly on the peripheries of STR (it’s interesting that the Jackal population isn’t much within the Reserve itself while they thrive on the fringes).
The Croc I Saw Basking On The Banks of Tawa Reservoir
A Crocodile Swimming in a Pool At a Place Called “Lagda Viewpoint” (Sonebhadra River)
However, the forests of STR have also has suffered their share of loss of faunal wealth: Historically Swamp Deer was once found in the forests of Satpura. Apart from the Swamp Deer, these forests were once also the abode of the Central Indian Wild Buffalo. They went extinct from these forests perhaps half-a-century ago. The Central Indian breed of Wild Buffalo characterized by its robust built and huge sweeping horns is considered the purest breed of Asian Wild Buffalo in the whole world (and is different from the breed in North-eastern India which is considered slightly less pure) and today its status is unknown. The Buffalo just like in Satpura, vanished from almost all the Central Indian Forests owing to the combined assault of excessive hunting, habitat degradation and intermingling with the Domestic Buffalo. Today their current status is unknown as the last known habitats of these Wild Cattle are the Naxal Heartlands of South Chattisgarh (and a few reported sightings from Gadhchiroli in Maharashtra and Koraput in Orissa). This is one animal that is even more endangered than the Tiger and some experts believe that it might be well extinct by now. And lest we forget, the hilly fringes of these forests with the plains below were also once the favorite haunt of the now extinct Asiatic Cheetah, the final post for this Cat was sounded in these forests somewhere around the late 1800’s or the early 1900’s. This is an extremely short obituary on the three great erstwhile forest denizens of Satpuras who have now vanished into oblivion.
But we shall celebrate what we managed to save, so now on to the ones we all want to see, i.e. the Great Felids. The presence of two smaller cats i.e. Jungle Cat and the Leopard Cat is confirmed. While seeing a Leopard Cat might be really difficult, STR has a very good track-record as far as sighting his Big Brother i.e. the Leopard goes. A proof of how healthy the Leopard Population of STR is evident from a 2007 study on ecology of Leopards in Satpura NP and Bori WLS (Both part of STR) by WII which puts the density of Leopards at 8.87 per 100 sq.kms, which is outstanding and considerably more than most Central Indian TR’S(including Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench). Considering that this area is also home to healthy Tiger Population, I personally think that such a healthy Leopard population thrives here because of the rugged terrain that doesn’t bring these animals into as much conflict with tigers, as in some other TR’s. So it isn’t much of a surprise when a number of guards came across Leopards during the Census. Even though I haven’t been lucky enough to site one, a particular mating-pair was sighted by a number of Tourists. However, the same cannot be said as far as sighting a Tiger goes. Even though we came across a lot of Pugmarks, scats, claw-marks all over the Reserve indicating a very healthy population of Tigers, but actually seeing one is quite difficult owing to the terrain of the TR. One is more likely to hear their growls than actually see them.
An interesting news that I came to know of while in Satpura was that the Forest staff at Madai claimed to have seen one of the rarest small Wild Cat of the Indian Subcontinent---The Caracal--- in the Madai grasslands a month back. The claims were backed by the Beat Officer of Madai Mr. Chauhan who also claims to have seen one while he was observing the grasslands one morning from his staff-quarter in the Madai Rest-house campus. He said-- “ About a month back in the 1st week of January, as I was simply observing the Madai grasslands from my room, I saw a reddish earthy-brown Cat with black tufted ears move swiftly in Madai grasslands hardly 50-60 feets from where I was sitting. The cat was extremely fast and before I could get a camera it was gone. I haven’t seen one since.” Caracals haven’t been historically recorded in STR, but after this encounter, the possibility of its existence can neither be proved nor denied until we get some photographic evidence.
The Three Protected Units of STR
The Satpura Tiger Reserve spanning over a huge area of 1427.87 km2 consists of three units.
· Satpura National Park (524.37 km2) which forms the western boundary of the Tiger Reserve. The NP has the highest concentration of Tigers and other Wildlife in the whole TR. The reason is obvious:
Right now, there are no villages in the NP and ones that were like the Madai Village were successfully relocated. The result—the forest reclaimed these village sites to raise beautiful vast grasslands; as a result the herbivore population swelled in these areas and hence a healthy herbivore population was established throughout the NP. And with the departure of these colonies of Homo Sapiens and the arrival of herbivores, the Tigers came back and have since thrived in the NP. The Madai grassland (site of the original Madai village which was then relocated to the land on the other side of the reservoir) is a testimony to this change. Situated just behind the Forest Resthouse, one can see hundreds of Cheetals and huge herds of Gaur. I have seen Tiger Pugmarks at the edge of this grassland as well as Wild-Dog tracks. Leopards regularly prey in the Madai grasslands and some even take a nap in the verandah of the Madai Forest Resthouse!! A few weeks before my arrival a pair of leopards slept all night on the Forest Resthouse verandah, obviously the terrified staff bolted themselves inside their rooms till the unwelcomed guests were around).
· Bori Wildlife Sanctuary (485.72 km2) which forms the south-west boundary of the Tiger Reserve. An interesting piece of history related to Bori Wildlife Sanctuary is that the forests of Bori are India's oldest Reserve Forest. The Bori Reserve Forest was established in 1865 along the Tawa River. Bori WLS has one of the finest untouched teak forest tracts. However the presence of villages within Bori WLS has meant that the wild denizens of the forest aren’t as abundant as in Satpura NP, but still the population is quite healthy and will surely improve with the relocation of villages.
· Panchmarhi Wildlife Sanctuary (417.78 km2) forms the north east boundary of the Tiger Reserve. A part of Panchmarhi plateau consists of deep gorges with perennial streams, which provide an environment for the luxuriant growth of several moisture loving plants like ferns, orchids, bryophytes, algae and several herbs having immense ecological and economical value. These areas are considered as gene bank of rare and endangered species. Over 48 species of fern and several species of fern allies are found in these areas. Unfortunately I am yet to visit this part of the TR.
Into the Jungle…
Now back to where I left off; So we reached Madai, the first thing I noticed was that the water level had dropped considerably as compared to what I saw in September last year. This had created swampy grasslands on either sides of the reservoir bank. The only difference was on one side this grassland was actually green paddy fields which had humans operating in it while on the other side of the reservoir, there were green grassy patches which were attracting Cheetals by the dozens. Just then a Forest Department boat came up to take us onto the other side. We hopped into it, but the forest personnel on-board refused to take along some “Wildlife-Tourists”---a large family consisting of noisy kids, a bunch of sparkling bright-red sari-clad ladies, some extremely hep Gen-X youngsters and a couple of middle-aged men smoking cigarettes!!---as the park was closed for tourists during the census. Obviously this bunch of Cigarette smoking, noisy, dazzling and hep “Wildlife Tourists” weren’t pleased when they were refused entry; the result was a barrage of curses directed towards us and the forest staff on board. Ignoring that trash-talk, we landed on the other side; we had finally reached our destination!!
A view of the Tawa reservoir from the Madai Rest-house & the Grassy patches it creates in the dry seasons (this area is submerged during monsoons)
And just as we landed at the bank, I could see one cheerful man all smiles at our arrival. Dressed in his trademark style—a safari-suit and that peculiar Cow-boy Hat--he was the Field Director, STR, Mr. Nayan Singh Dungriyal. A man of the Garhwal Hills, he exemplifies the affable spirit of the Hill-people; he is the most warmhearted, friendly and lively person you’ll ever come across. And being a Garhwali, nature and wildlife must have been a part of his growing up. A dedicated Wildlifer to the core, he is in love with his job.-a rare quality these days. He almost single-handedly transformed Pench Tiger Reserve from a relatively unknown “Average Reserve” to one of the “Star-Reserves” of India during his 4 year tenure. Even though he has managed some of the richest reserves having a plethoric conglomeration of vivid mega-fauna, like a true naturalist he has the eye for even the smallest of them all--the ones a casual visitor so easily overlooks—various bugs, dragonflies and damselflies; he possesses remarkable knowledge about them. But his forte is the most beautiful winged insect---Butterflies. Being one of India’s foremost Butterfly-expert, he introduced me to their fascinating world, apprising me with the names of all the butterflies we encountered in the forests during this trip (and I shall concede, though always bewitched by the beauty of Butterflies, I didn’t know a thing about them until I met him). And then, he is an avid Birdwatcher too, often stopping the Gypsy to observe even the tiniest of birds sitting on some far-off branch, completely invisible to the eyes of a novice like me. He would then let me have a look at them through his binoculars; tell me their names and some of their peculiar habits. Add to this his excellent managerial skills which have seen STR prosper and earned him the respect, admiration and love of the whole Satpura Staff. Such a multi-talented man and yet so warm and loving, a true gentleman, he feels like family. Apart from my father, there isn’t any other individual who has taught me more about nature and wildlife than Dungriyal Sir. That’s Mr. Dungriyal for you—an excellent Officer, an extremely knowledgeable multi-talented Wildlifer, a father-figure and with all these amazing attributes, one of the most humble, friendly and affectionate person I know- A role-model, an inspiration.
So after this warm welcome, we seated ourselves below a huge Peepal tree just on the bank of the reservoir. He told us how things were going about, how do the forest staff go about census; now I will admit that as this was my first tête-à-tête with a senior forest officer about how the census work is done, I along with my cousin knew almost nothing as to how exactly is it done. While listening to him carefully, we were also ashamed of our ignorance on quite a number of things he told us; but we also didn’t want him to get an impression that we were rookies when it came to technical things related to wildlife conservation, so to cover up for our callowness, we would intermittently try to show off some of our bookish knowledge of the wild. And he would humbly listen to our childish babbling and then share his experiences on the things we told/asked him. The most astonishing fact that came out of this dialogue was that even after almost one and a half years, inspite of numerous sightings by the DFO Mr. Pathak (an extremely dedicated officer, he has a highly commendable habit of video-recording many of his sightings which can then be used to identify different Tigers) and other staff, Dungriyal Sir was yet to see a Tiger in STR. He told us he had heard their roars on countless occasions in various parts of the forests, but as the combined mix of terrain and fate would have it, the Satpura Tigers always managed to elude him as he missed them by nanoseconds on numerous occasions. “Even today, I missed him, I could hear his roars barely metres away from my Gypsy, some of the other staff patrolling in the area saw him but I failed to see him”, he said referring to the morning wireless message I had listened to in Sohagpur. He told us that we would have to be extraordinarily lucky to see one. By the time the conversation ended with the final sip of the hot tea, I knew that I had learnt some precious lessons in the field of wildlife conservation. More important, we finally understood the tremendous technicalities involved in wildlife census work. All of us got up and then I heard the magical words from Dungriyal Sir that I had been dying to hear “I have to go on a patrol, would you both like to come along?” Do I need to tell you my answer? Yes, Yes, Yes……….!!!
Mr. N.S. Dungriyal, Field Director, Satpura Tiger Reserve
As we prepared to get on with our sojourn into the forests, I saw a rather unique site, three Grey Francolins a.k.a Teetar and what was the first thing that I thought of on seeing these three Teetars—Yes!! You guessed it, all I was thinking was “Waah, the famous riddle Teetar ke do aage Teetar, Teetar ke do peeche Teetar to bolo kitne Teetar? is being played out for real.” I chuckled and then lo! There was another surprise in store. I saw a baby blackbuck coming jittering towards me, his big innocent eyes looking at me intently. I was elated to see this new addition to the family of three female blackbucks that were rescued and have now adopted this rest-house as their home; they live with the staff, apart from grazing in front of the Resthouse, they stake claim on every meal prepared for the staff and sleep in the Resthouse campus. The father of this baby as I was told was one of the dominant males of the Madai Grasslands behind the Resthouse. By now the Gypsy was ready and we finally took off. It must have been about four when we entered the pristine forests of Satpuras. The usual residents of the Madai Grasslands such as Cheetals, a few blackbucks, Langurs, Macaques and sounder of Wild Pigs went about their business unperturbed by our presence. Then we came across huge Sambhars, personally I feel that Satpura boasts of some the healthiest Sambhars I have seen. A crocodile soaking the last rays of Sunlight was least bothered by our presence while some of the smaller denizens such as the peafowl would run helter-skelter everytime they heard the Gypsy. The gypsy would be stopped by Dungriyal Sir every now and then to show us a beautiful butterfly (He would tell us the name of each one, I can atleast identify a few of themselves myself now) or a bird that our novice eyes so easily missed. The most cherished and memorable birding-experience was when he showed us a Forest Owlet (which again I had missed), a critically endangered species, once presumed extinct until it was recently rediscovered(declared extinct in 1884 and rediscovered 113 years later in 1997) in the forests of Central India. All the while I marveled at the beauty of this forested terrain, plains, hilly slopes on one side and Tawa Reservoir backwaters on the other side of the road, huge rocky boulders reminded me of the Volcanic origin of this land. It also made sense why sighting the Big Cats is so difficult here. The only vast Grasslands in STR are at the junction of Satpura NP & Bori WLS while there are vast meadows in Bori WLS at Dhaain and Madai in Satpura NP (but given the proximity of Madai meadows to the Madai FRH & the associated buildings, Tigers hardly venture into these grasslands during daylight). Everywhere else, the terrain is the same. We came across a huge herd of Gaur and we could clearly see at least 2-3 partially Albino members (as I already stated, a unique specialty of STR).
Madai Forest Rest-House
The New addition in the Blackbuck Family “Teetar Ke Do Aage, Teetar Ke Do Peeche Teetar”
The Baby Blackbuck Feeding ---- Madai Forest-Resthouse Campus with the Tawa Reservoir & The Relocated Madai Village (on the other side of the Reservoir) in the Background.
The “Entry Road” into STR with Madai Grasslands in the Background
Apparition Of The Elusive Lord….
The sun had set by now, it was getting dark and on top of a hillock (known as Shankargarh Hills), we came across fresh Tiger Pugmarks. We had a look at it; they were barely half-n-hour old. Though I had read about it, I hadn’t practically done a pugmark measurement to determine the sex of the animal. Now this is one educative experience for which I thank Dungriyal Sir from the bottom of my heart. He told me that it was a Tigress, and then explained how one takes a pugmark measurement. The Rectangle-Method for pugmark measurement as he explained to me is the most commonly used method. We draw a quadrilateral around the pugmark with its sides touching all the four extremities of the pugmark. If the quadrilateral is a rectangle with elongated sides, it’s a female while if the quadrilateral turns out to be a square it is a male. He also taught me how we distinguish between the left and right pad as well as the front and hind pad. By the time this exercise was done, it was completely dark. My hopes of seeing the one who made these pug-marks dwindled as it was almost impossible to see one now with night setting in. We could see the majestic beast only if he would show up on the road (and the possibility of this happening was perhaps one in a billion.), we would miss him even if one was meters away on either side of the road as it was pitch dark. So as the Gypsy’s headlights illuminated the benighted forest roads, I started imagining--A Tiger could be just next to us, maybe sitting on a hilltop watching us go by, or maybe we just missed him as he hid in the dark forested thickets just besides the road. I can vouch for this--you can feel a huge rush just imagining such scenarios—a rush which only a Tiger-forest can provide you with.
The Tigress Pugmarks that we came across atop the Hillock (The Quadrilaterals were drawn by Mr. Dungriyal to teach us the “Rectangle-Method of Pugmark Measurement)
While thinking of all my past failure in sighting a Tiger, my mind spoke out these lines:
Well, why blame the Tiger if one fails to see him, after all he is the “Striped Phantom”. Actually, It’s much more exciting to know that the Phantom is around, watching all your moves from some hidden vantage point without your knowledge as you come-across his various manifestations--- be it the imprints he left behind on the ground, his claw-marks on a tree bark, a kill ripped apart by the beast’s powerful jaws or his menacing voice that makes the whole forest tremble —all the while adrenaline being pumped by the gallons while your heart pounds madly. Suddenly through the corner of your eye you feel you saw something move, your heart skips a beat, you turn immediately but there’s nothing. Did you really catch a fleeting glimpse of the Phantom or was that your own mind playing tricks on you? You can never be sure for this is what happens when you venture into a Ghost’s domain, and this creature is the “Ghost of the Forests”. The forests are his demesne, and it’s a well-established tenet of all Ghost-Stories that we humans are oh so well aware of—“A Ghost allows himself to be seen by a Human eye only when he wishes to do so, if he doesn’t then a Human eye can never see a Ghost”. It’s the same with this “Ghost of the Forest”, you never see a Tiger per se, it was his magnanimity and benevolence that he allowed himself to be seen by you. No place embodies and epitomizes this truth more than the rugged forested terrains of the Satpuras.
I am no creative literary artist so even I was a bit taken aback when I wrote down this romantic description (I hope you found it so!), perhaps this is the magic of the Tiger--it brings out the best in you.
As these thoughts clogged up my mind, it was almost 8:15 p.m., I swear on my life, I said to myself “How I wish a Tiger comes out on the road, Sir would go gaga over how lucky we are, what a moment it would be.” Just then our Gypsy took a sharp turn at a place called “Baazari Jhonth” and what I saw--nothing could prepare me for what I saw. It was a huge Tigress which came out of the bushes onto the road barely 10 feets in front of us. The “One in a Billion Possibility” had actually happened; I WAS FACE-TO-FACE WITH MY FIRST ADULT WILD TIGER!!! When I saw the first glimpse of the Tigeress coming out, I thought maybe I’m hallucinating because of the whole drama that I’ve been scripting in my head for the last hour or so. But then I realized that I wasn’t hallucinating, this was actually the moment that I had waited for all my life, it had finally happened-- the Ghost had finally revealed himself to this mortal minion. Finally he had obliged. I whispered to Sir about what I had just been thinking about how great it would be if a Tiger jumped on t the road, he was awestruck too, afterall inspite of seeing so many Tigers, this was his first at Satpura, he had also waited more than an year for this moment. All he could blurt out was—“Tom log Sachme Bohot Lucky Ho!!”(You guys really are very lucky!!). Do Tigers have some supernatural telepathic powers, did the Tigress know what I was thinking seconds ago—Well, who knows…after all he is a Ghost!!
The “Ghost” Finally showed up………My Very First Adult Wild Tiger!!!!
All four of us—Me, Dungriyal Sir, Aamir Bhaiya and the Driver Mr.Bhagat were dumbstruck by this sudden and unexpected turn of events. . And what followed was 45 minutes of pure delight, excitement, huge adrenaline rush--an ethereal feeling, it was heavenly!! We figured out that this must be the Tigress whose pugmarks we had come-across about an hour ago on the Shankargarh hills. This road was directly at the foot of that hillock. The majestic cat sat just besides the road and groomed herself for about 15 minutes while I just looked on, dazed and delighted. She then stood up and started walking on the road, scent marking almost every 3rd-4th tree. Our Gypsy quietly followed her while she kept on walking regally with royal grace. But whenever our Gypsy moved any closer than 10-15 feets, she would turn back, give a stern and austere look and our driver would stop the Gypsy dead on the tracks. Such is the power and aura that a Tiger possesses; a mere single look— that glow in those fiery eyes--- is enough to take the wind out of a mortal’s sails.
The Tigress walked for some 3 kms along the road for about 30 min before she finally decided to go back into the forests at the “Andheriya Bawadi” nullah. And this is how I saw my First Adult Wild Tiger---her sudden appearance on the road, her graceful walk, that look she gave when the Gypsy intruded her space, just everything about her---It has all been etched in my memory forever. And so has Satpura Tiger Reserve. Each and every second of those 45 minutes made me feel—The 19 year wait was definitely worth it, perhaps I was destined to see a Tiger with all his idiosyncrasies that have captivated so many since time immemorial.
Feeling over the moon, we returned. The news of this encounter had reached the Madai Resthouse through wireless messages; I showed everybody present there the blurry photographs and a somewhat decent Camera-recording of the Tigress. I thanked everybody especially Dungriyal Sir and then after a delicious dinner we headed back to our rooms. I knew I would see that Tigress again, maybe not in the forests though, rather in my dreams that night.
The Best 12 Hours...
Next Morning I somehow failed to get up early and by the time I got up it was around 6:30 am. Though disappointed at not getting up on time, I decided to take a walk around, interacting with the staff and the new addition to the blackbuck family. By 10:00 am we were again in for a treat, Dungriyal Sir again graciously allowed us to be tagged along on a long patrol that he was about to undertake. This saw us travelling roughly 60-65 kms up and then back. One of the best Wildlife experience, we crossed the Satpura NP while getting the treat of varied fauna and the amazing landforms that makes Satpura one of the most beautiful parks in India. We revisited the road where we had seen the Tigress on the previous night; here we had another surprise in store for us: Like a True teacher, Dungriyal Sir told us “Today I shall teach you how to identify the scent marking of a Tiger”. And we were all up for it, he told us “Smell the tree barks on the either side of the road at a height of roughly 3-31/2 ft. and wherever you get a pungent smell of cooked rice, that is the tree marked by the Tigress and that is what the scent markings of Tigers smell like.” Some of you may find this whole exercise a bit gross, but we were very eager to undertake this exercise—So there we were, me and Aamir Bhaiya sniffing trees on the either sides of the road like those police-sniffer dogs and when we would suspect some unusual odour emanating from a bark, we would bark!, I mean we would shout out to Sir to come have a look or shall I say come have a sniff!! Finally after a few failed attempts, we finally started getting better at sniffing out the Tiger’s scent-marks and now I am quite confident that I can identify a Tiger’s scent marking whenever I come across it. And I thoroughly believe that if there ever was a man who would teach a bunch of wildlife enthusiast kids such a valuable lesson it would be Mr. Nayan Singh Dungriyal. Then he stopped the Gypsy at a nullah known as “Basaniya Nullah” to have a look around. And to my delight, I succeeded in finding a 2-3 day old Tiger Pugmark in the vicinity which had somehow slipped out of everybody’s sight. And a pat on the back by the teacher i.e. Dungriyal Sir, was the best feeling that I as a learner experienced.
The 2-3 Days Old Tiger Pugmark that I managed to find at “Basaniya” Nullah
We kept on moving ahead and reached Bori Wildlife Sanctuary which started at the end of a huge grassland that marked the end of Satpura NP. And as soon as we entered Bori, the forests had a completely different look. Huge, and I literally mean huge (probably the biggest) teak trees I have ever seen that gave the forest a prehistoric-Jurassic era look; even the bright sunlight could only penetrate the forests in small patches. However as we moved further, the forest started thinning out, and the culprit was as expected—Man!! Unlike Satpura NP, Bori WLS still has 16 villages inside it and hence the forest is comparatively degraded in some patches. However all in all this historical forest is still in great shape. One of the most memorable experiences while on the road in Bori WLS would have to be the sighting of a Bear with 2 cubs. A brief look as our Gypsy arrived and then the whole family scurried off into the bushes. A family of Bear--this indeed is a very rare encounter. A solitary Bull Nilgai and another pugmark in what I may regard as the slightly degraded forest patch of Bori was even more heartwarming and hope-giving. We stopped briefly at Churna Forest Resthouse in Bori WLS---one of the oldest Resthouses in this part of the country which was constructed in 1910 by the British---it still had the same ambience and feel to it as would have been in those days. It’s especially commendable that the management of STR didn’t try to modernize the historical Resthouse---a mistake that has been committed with a number of other such structures in India. The magic of these Forest-Resthouses is only when they are kept in the same way as they were in their early days during the Raj because when one visits such a place, the first feeling that you get is that you have time-travelled back decades. The aura one feels in such a place cannot be described in words and I for one believe that modernizing such historical monuments destroys that special aura that they withhold. We had the typical delicious forest-Resthouse style lunch, then had a look around as I was greeted by some playful Langurs and a few perplexed looking Cheetal a few metres outside the Rest-House Campus. And then again, we were called by Dungriyal Sir, the enthusiastic Wildlifer wanted to show us something---Giant Squirrels that inhabited the trees in the Rest-House campus—another added attraction of Churna. The staff reported that their personal preliminary Census estimation for Bori WLS doled out a figure of roughly 15-18 Tigers in Bori WLS—A staggering figure considering that I had expected a much lower figure owing to the significant biotic pressure from the surrounding villages. They informed us of a cattle-kill that they had been informed of—they immediately burned the carcass to avoid the risk of poisoning---this is the highly effective standard procedure for dealing with cattle kills in STR, burn the carcass and then compensate the villagers. The result is that there have been negligible cases of Tiger-poisoning in the recent years. This procedure should be adopted in all other TR’s of India. We then moved forward and proceeded towards Dhaain Resthouse. On our way we were informed of a Tigress with 2 cubs sighted by the driver 2 days back on the very road that we had underaken.
Churna Forest Rest-House (Bori WLS) Constructed in 1910
Dhaain---A beautiful Resthouse on the edge of the huge grassland with a small pond, it’s perhaps the most magical Resthouse in Central India. Here, you actually feel that you are one with nature, one with the Tiger’s realm--completely cut-off from the outside world. The grasslands are the testimony to the successful relocation of Dhaain Village in 2005. Apart from this successful relocation giving a new grazing ground for the herbivores, the success story has motivated the villagers of other 16 villages in Bori to move out of the forests. Now it’s the job of the Centre and the State to fulfill this welcome demand of the other 16 villages.
After spending about an hour in this bewitching and charismatic Rest-House, we decided it was time to head back. We took a detour to reach back to Churna, we travelled along a forest Road running parallel to the Sonebhadra River — its banks being a favorite haunt of Tigers and Leopards. Just as we entered that stretch of road, suddenly the whole forest went in a frenzy of cacophony--a single Sambhar started giving sporadic but frantic alarm calls, a Langur too joined him howling as loud as he could. We waited with our hearts literally in our mouths---however as all the Staff along with Sir pointed out, most probably this time-around it wasn’t the “King of the Forest on the Prowl ”, rather the forest denizens were in a tizzy because they had seen the “Prince of the Forest”—The Leopard. We would stop, then try to follow the path we assumed the Leopard had undertook, going back and forth on a number of occasions. Then just as instantaneously all this started, suddenly the whole forest was silent again. We had missed him; the “Master of Stealth” had proven his mettle yet again. We moved parallel to the river bed, the sun had gone down and it was getting dark, we must have travelled some 2-3 kms and then again, we heard the frantic calls of another forest inhabitant---this time it was a peacock and the agitated calls were definitely coming from the river-bed. However the thick undergrowth between the road and river coupled with the fading light meant that we couldn’t see whatever it was. But still, that rush I felt during that hour-long game of hide-n-seek is beyond description. By the time we reached Churna, it was 7:00, after a brief 15 min halt there, we again hit the road; it started drizzling and by the time we reached Madai it was 10:00 p.m. These were perhaps the best 12 hours of my life, an experience which was made even richer and much more special because of Dungriyal Sir.
Dhaain Forest Rest-House (Bori WLS)
View of The Kaccha Forest Road from Dhaain (To The Right There Are Vast Grasslands created after the Dhain Villager was successfully relocated in 2005)
When we reached Madai at 10:00 p.m., another two surprises were awaiting us. The DFO of STR, Mr. Mridul Pathak, showed him what appeared to be a Tiger-Claw that he had confiscated a few hours back from a family travelling to Panchmarhi. Dungriyal Sir had a look at it, then took it in his hand and instantaneously blurted out “Naqli Hai” (It’s a fake). And as soon as he said this, both officers broke into a loud laughter. He then showed me how he identified that it was fake---it had definite marks of being carved out by something sharp to give it a claw shape, the nail was too light even though its look was quite similar to that of a real claw—in all probability it was some sort of plastic and then the skin on the root of the claw was clearly that of some domestic animal that had been mound on it using a glue. And the most interesting part was that this family was framed by a small-time poacher who himself was absconding; as soon as he came to the department to report this he was arrested (as he was already an absconding poacher). So this was another completely new experience for me. Mr. Pathak also informed us that he came across a Huge Male Tiger on the previous night at around 2:00am while returning from a patrol.
Dungriyal Sir then informed us that he would be leaving for the Headquarters i.e. Hoshangbad; we thanked him for all he had done for us and bid him goodbye. And so another eventful day at Satpura finally came to an end.
The Last Leg…
The next two days had their share of exciting moments--I saw a herd of around 30 sambhars in a waterhole, a very young almost completely white Gaur Calf and a large Pied Hornbill that gave out loud raucous roars, screams and squeals* (* This descriptions of the Hornbill’s call is taken from Salim Ali’s book “Common Birds”) while hovering around the Madai Rest-house for a good 30 minutes. But perhaps the most exciting and at the same time unnerving experience was on the last day of my trip. I along with a guard Mr. Ashish Patel were on our morning foot-patrol through the forest. We came across a huge Male Tiger’s pugmarks at the edge of the Madai grasslands (we had heard alarm calls on the previous evening) , we sat down and started taking the measurements when suddenly I saw what looked like a black-boulder move in the bushes about 25-35 feets ahead of us. I got up while Mr. Patel was busy with the Pugmark and to my horror there was a bear foraging in the bushes hardly 20 feet ahead of us. I slowly pointed it out to Mr. Patel. Even he was taken aback by this sight, we slowly moved up onto elevated ground on the other side while Mr. Patel whispered the evasive course of action that we would undertake in case of an attack (and all that I was thinking about was this fact that I had read--Bears are responsible for the second highest number of human casualties in India after Elephants). Fortunately bears have poor eye-sight so he didn’t see us while his excellent sense of smell was countered by the fact that the wind was flowing opposite to him. Moreover what I felt was that he was more interested and busy in digging up termite mound. We watched his funny antics for a few minutes and then slowly and carefully we finally moved out. I had to return that evening and this exhilarating experience was the perfect parting gift by the beautiful Satpura Forests.
The Bear that I & Mr. Patel Encountered at a Distance of barely 20 feets on Our Morning Foot-Patrol
After visiting this amazing wilderness twice, I can confidently say that Satpura Tiger Reserve is at par with any other “Star Tiger-Reserve” of Central India be it Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench,etc. Still, this Reserve hasn’t succumbed (thankfully so!!) to the tourism frenzy that plagues the other Star-Reserves; or let’s put this in a better way--- For a park as rich in wildlife as the Satpura Tiger Reserve, well the place undoubtedly epitomizes one of the best examples of regulated wildlife tourism. I thanked my stars that my first encounter with an Adult Tiger occurred as it did and it wasn’t in a park with hundreds of mad tourists on gypsies jeering at a poor cornered Tiger—I didn’t see my first Tiger in a “Tiger-Show”. While discussing this tourism issue, a forest Officer present there exclaimed “HUM YAHAAN DOOSRI JAGAHON KI TARAH TIGER SHOW NAHIN KARWAATE AUR HUMEIN IS BAAT PAR GARV HAI” (We here in Satpura do not organize “Tiger Shows” as done in other Tiger Reserves and we take immense pride in this policy of ours). This exalted and impressive statement sums it all up.
It’s a place like no other---a forest whose beauty and wilderness is unparalleled---This is Satpura Tiger Reserve---my forest home in Madhya Pradesh.