Walk on the wild side

Walk on the wild side

As the convoy of elephants trundled their way through the dew-laden grasslands in Kaziranga National Park, I came across a pair of one-horned rhinos gently grazing in the elephant grass. This was my first rendezvous with rhinos, in their natural habitat. Built like a battle tank on stubby legs, the rhino is the star attraction of the park. From my lofty vantage point on elephant back, besides the endangered one-horned rhinos, I spotted wild water buffaloes, hog deer, and also hundreds of swamp deer trot past wild boars before they retreated into the high vegetation. This wildlife Eden also shelters hoolock gibbons, tigers, leopards, capped langurs, sloth bears, jackals, and pythons. It is also the most beautiful national park in the subcontinent, with superb ponds, lakes and rivers where otters frolic and herds of elephants splash around.

Lower down, in West Bengal, as the boat cruised through the muddy estuaries and mangrove forests in the Sundarbans National Park, my eyes kept peeled for the tigers which are rarely seen but always sensed. Sprawling over 26,000 sq km, it is the largest single tract of a unique mangrove ecosystem in the world. Water bodies crisscross the forest and separate the hundreds of islands that dot the delta. Here, in the tangle of mangrove roots, a unique mid-world between sea and land, I saw only saltwater crocodiles and mudskippers (fish that climb tree). These are among the many wonders of this wild paradise. Travelling across the mangrove-lined backwaters of Sunderbans and communing with nature at its rawest level was itself an unforgettable experience!

To experience Kipling country, I visited Madhya Pradesh, Kanha, Pench and Bandhavgarh which provide among the finest wildlife experiences available on earth. Bandhavgarh is also steeped in history, myths and legends besides playing host to a bewildering variety of animals. As Bandhavgarh flaunts the largest density of tigers in the country, it is seldom that one returns from Bandhavgarh without seeing a tiger emerging out of the tall grass, or pursuing the pugmarks crossing the jeep tracks. I had my first darshan of a tiger in the wild here. It was an experience that was both magical and mysterious. The bird life here is no less astounding, with as many as 250 species of nesting in the park, including the stately adjutant stork. In Kanha and Pench I went on wildlife safaris scouting for the Sher Khans, but luck was not on my side. My wildlife jaunts took me to Gir Forest, where I had my first fleeting glance of a lion and lioness lolling a few feet away from the jeep.

Down south in Kerala, I followed the footsteps of the nimble-footed Nilgiri Tahr, a highly endangered animal, listed in the IUCN Red Data Book, which lives in herds on the steep black rocky slopes of the mountains of Anaimudi in the Eravikulam National Park. About one-third of the world's population of Nilgiri Tahr reside in these emerald grasslands. In 2006, I witnessed in this unique ecosystem the spectacular blooming of Neelakurinjis.

At Periyar Tiger Reserve, I had glimpses of nature's wonders while the boat glided along the picturesque Periyar Lake, the sanctum sanctorum of the reserve. I sighted elephants ambling along the banks of the lake, gaurs grazing peacefully on the grasslands along the wooded waterfront, darters and cormorants drying their wings perched on the ghostly deadwood protruding from the lake. This reserve is synonymous with Asiatic elephants, but sightings of tuskers have become very rare.

This wildlife haven also houses several endangered species like the lion-tailed macaque, small Travancore flying squirrel, Salim Ali's fruit bat, and the rarely sighted Nilgiri Marten. Though there are more than 40 tigers in the reserve, they are rarely sighted. Of the 160 species of butterflies spotted here, the Travancore evening brown, one of the rarest butterflies in the world, was spotted here after a gap of several decades.

A community-based ecotourism initiative originated in this blessed place where rehabilitated poachers-turned-forest protectors earn their livelihood as guides and facilitators. I was lucky to witness the Chitra Pournami festival at the scattered ruins of the ancient Mangala Devi Temple that forms a part of the core area of the reserve. The forest road to Mangala Devi is open only once a year to the public when pilgrims from Tamil Nadu and Kerala congregate to offer worship to this deity.

Valued ageing  

In Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, the sight of Kannimara Teak, the world's oldest and largest teak tree (girth of 6.57 m and a height of 48.5 m), left me gaping in wonder. It takes five adults to encircle it with their hands outstretched. This living relic of the once-luxuriant natural teak forests was awarded the Mahavruksha Puraskar by the Government of India in 1994-95. In this unique wilderness area I saw three dams that serve as freshwater storage reservoirs, and the first ever scientifically managed teak plantation. With a rich diversity of bird life, Parambikulam is a great birding getaway, once the favourite haunt of ornithologist Salim Ali.

Located along the western corner of the Nilgiris in Palakkad district, the Silent Valley National Park deserves a special mention as it came into the limelight in the 1970s, when the government planned to dam the river. The protests that followed were the beginning of the environmental movement in India. And the entire valley was declared a national park in 1985. It is one of the last vestiges of undisturbed tropical evergreen rainforest which covered most of the Western Ghats. Ecologists call it an 'ecological island', one that boasts of a wealth of biological and genetic heritage. It is called the Silent Valley, yet I could hear it throbbing with the sounds of the forest.

There is an incredible number of sanctuaries and parks that I have not journeyed to. Ranthambore National Park, which is widely regarded as one of the best parks for tiger sightings, is one of them. Tadoba also has become a hotspot for tigers. Each national park has its own signature wildlife. In Tamil Nadu, the lesser-known Mudumalai National Park, Kalakad-Mundanthurai, Point Calimere can provide unending delight and a variety of experiences to nature enthusiasts. From Chennai, every January, I used to go to Vedanthangal, the oldest water-bird sanctuary, when it resonates with the melodious birdsong - of the winged visitors of exotic plumage. Other winter havens for migrants are Point Calimere and Pulicat Lake where large flocks of flamingoes can be spotted.

Karnataka boasts of some of the largest jungle tracts south of the Vindhyas. From the majestic evergreen forests of the Western Ghats to the scrub jungles of the plains, a wide variety of habitats teem with diverse flora and fauna. Bandipur, Bhadra, BR Hills, Nagarhole, Kudremukh and Kali tiger reserves boast of admirable heterogeneity of faunal heritage. Though elephants take the lead role in Bandipur and Rajiv Gandhi national parks, it is also the land of roars. Photographers troop to these reserves to capture wildlife in close proximity. Ranganathittu is my favourite bird sanctuary where I have experienced the thrill of a boat ride that took me within touching distance of the birds. Kokkarebellur, where pelicans and painted storks live in harmony with villagers, is claimed to be one of the best among the 46 community reserves in the country.

The genesis of Indian wildlife can be traced back to the days of yore when royalty used the jungles as their hunting ground. They had an unsurpassed communion with wildlife. Bandhavgarh was once the shikargarh of the maharaja of Rewa. The Baghel Museum has on display ancient hunting equipment  used by him. Even late Rajmata Gayatri Devi, the maharani of Jaipur, indulged in hunting, right from the days she was the princess of Cooch Behar, a state in North Bengal, which perhaps has an unrivalled record of big game shooting in all of eastern India. The Keoladeo Ghana preserve was created by the maharaja of Bharathpur at the turn of the century to attract migratory birds, which he and his guests took pleasure in shooting! Even the venerable forest of Bandipur was once the private hunting ground of Mysuru's royalty. In Mughal and British India, tigers were hunted for prestige as well as for taking as trophies. During the reign of Mughals, efficient hunters were awarded titles such as 'Hunt Master', and in the first phase of the reign of East India Co, tiger hunters were highly rewarded. Subsequently, many hunters turned into conservationists.

Wildlife first

Wildlife conservation in India through dedicated parks started with the Jim Corbett National Park in 1936. India's first national park was established in 1936 in Uttarakhand as Hailey National Park, which was later rechristened as Jim Corbett National Park. The rich saga of Indian wilderness, started by the legendary Corbett, continued. By 1970, India only had five national parks. In 1972, India enacted the Wildlife Protection Act to safeguard the habitats of endangered species. Project Tiger was launched by the Government of India in 1973 to save the endangered species of tigers in the country. Starting from nine reserves in 1973, currently, the number of tiger reserves is 50, with a total area of 71,027.10 sq km. Tiger population, as per the last census, is 2,226. Further, federal legislation strengthening protection for wildlife was introduced in the 1980s. As of July 2017, the number of national parks has burgeoned to an impressive total of 103, encompassing an area of 40,500 sq km, comprising 1.23% of India's total surface area. The number of wildlife sanctuaries has increased to 544.

Quite a few important faunal habitats have gained recognition after their inclusion in the 'biosphere reserve' and the 'world heritage site' programmes. However, many species of the wild fauna and flora still remain greatly endangered, and so do their habitats. The loss of these fragile habitats is counterproductive to wildlife conservation efforts. Equally disheartening is the poaching activity rampant throughout the country, made worse by matters beyond the control of conservationists. The introduction of site-specific innovative conservation measures will help save many endangered species.

The wildlife movement has caught the fancy of people, and wildlife tourism is growing by leaps and bounds, something that could not really have been envisaged when the first national park was declared around 1935. The need of the hour is not tourism control, but tourism management. Concerted efforts should be made to divert the attention from tiger-centric tourism, which has become the norm in our national parks. I have seen overenthusiastic drivers embark on 'tiger-chases'. Tiger fixation leads to a bizarre concentration of vehicles, which often causes distress to the beleaguered animal, besides destroying the serenity of the forests. One has to break the mould and concentrate on other equally interesting denizens of the forest such as small mammals, birds and butterflies through ecologically sensitive means.

From this World Wildlife Day, celebrated on March 3, whenever we visit a sanctuary, let's remember that we are guests in the animal's habitat, and that we have to be quiet, considerate, and respect our hosts and their space.

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