A walk is the best way to start your day in the jungle for it takes you through so many twists and turns with spy work along the way revealing what the animals were up to last night or where they are and what they might be doing at present. For the dirt tracks and the sandy beds around pools and rivers in the jungle record those signs and evidences that usher you gently into the realm of the wild and uncover a world so far unknown to you. Let’s go for a walk in the jungle.
Apparently, it is a full-grown male tiger and not very far from us. And then we hear a low growl coming from a dark bower created by drooping bamboo culms about twenty yards away. We have been duly warned …
Karmajhiri, December 2006, at 6.00 am, I am up and about. The sun is peeping through the morning haze to light up the horizon, the breeze is cold, crisp and piercing – I feel it on my already numb cheeks – the ground is still wet with dew. A herd of chital has just finished grazing in the meadow in front of the log huts and on seeing me emerge they move unhurriedly towards a patch of forests beyond the fire line. One of the stags suddenly stands on its hind legs and rubs his face against the leaves of a drooping branch of an Indian laburnum tree, the Amaltas – he is marking his domain with the scent of his facial glands placed below each eye – scent is a strong means of communication in the deer world.
Now, I am on to the footpath that, after a short walk, brings me to the forest road to Alikatta, an erstwhile forest village now resettled outside the park. The vacated village of Alikatta now has developed into impressive grassland touching the mid-east bank of the Totaladoh reservoir that submerged about 75 square kilometers of forest area that was once lush with stately teak trees. The felling of trees from such a huge area created a much-needed edge habitat which was almost absent within Pench National Park.
This artificially developed edge helped chital to thrive more than any other species for chital is an animal of such transitional habitat. The edge also becomes a congregation ground for almost all the animals of the park during the summer season when food and water become limited elsewhere. And in winter the apparently seamless reservoir attracts flocks of migratory birds, transforming it into a paradise for bird-watchers; the birds prefer to congregate in the small and shallow water pools created by the managers by building several earthen dykes in draw-down areas.
As I approach the causeway that leads to the old rest house, I find a newly built machan house, a house built on timber pillars from where you can watch animals, birds and butterflies without alarming them – here, I wait for Soni. We have planned a morning trek into the nooks and corners of Pench.
Soni is a fine forester, deeply interested in wildlife and loves his job. I recall how some twenty-four years ago he had applied to the post of wildlife guard but had missed the cut-off by a few marks. Despite this setback, and because of his smartness and enthusiasm, the ranger hired him as a barrier help at Turia – the gateway to the Pench National Park. I, then the director of this park, often met this boy at the barrier and every time he impressed me by displaying a rare understanding of the ways of the wild and his eagerness to learn – he deserved better. And soon came an opportunity to give him his due, and I appointed him as a regular wildlife guard, when a vacancy arose.
My walk down memory lane is interrupted for I hear whirring of a motorcycle – Soni has arrived from Alikatta. Alighting from the bike, he gives me a customary salute and smartly unpacks his haversack, takes out two pairs of binoculars and a bird book; we begin our walk through the jungle towards Gurshal ghat. Grasses under the trees are yellow and coarse and the seeds all shed by this time; the deer like chital and barking deer that mainly eat grass go through a tough time in winter as forage gets scarce, but in the park, they have some respite as there is a felt of soft green grass along both sides of the forest road. The green grass has come up as the staff has burned the roadside strips of dry grass recently – this is a strategy to control forest fires and as a bonus the deer get green grass – for the night dew has caressed the growing tissues and aided the production of fresh sprouts on this burned strip that now acts as a fire break and a favourite grazing ground for deer.
We leave the main road and take a right turn into thick lantana bush, as Soni finds an animal track, we plunge into it, my tall frame is not suitable for such dashes into a tangle of thorny bushes but this is a jungle walk and Soni is a hard task master. I bend and bow, turn and twist and wriggle my way through this thorny jungle and while doing so see the footprints of chital and sambar on the dirt track and a bulbul’s nest in the bush – bulbuls love to eat lantana berries for lantana, an alien from central and south America, is now naturalized in our country and many indigenous birds and animals love its juicy berries and the shelter it offers to them for resting, ambush and breeding.
You may ask how we know for sure that the pug of the leopard is fresh and the droppings of the hyena a day old – good questions, for questioning is a precursor to learning
Out of the bush we are now on the fire-line which runs from north to south and ends up on Bodanala road, where we shall be going soon after climbing up the Khairvan matta – matta is the local name for a plateau – for we hope to see bears or their signs here. Trudging up the murram – road to the plateau we find fresh tracks of a leopard and then day-old droppings of a hyena.
You may ask how we know for sure that the pug of the leopard is fresh and the droppings of the hyena a day old – good questions, for questioning is a precursor to learning. The pug is clear on the fine gravel its edges intact and the hollow made by its pad and toes have no litter ( twigs, dry leaves) in it, and the lines which are impressed on the pad is intact, if the print were old you would have found worn out edges, no lines within the pad and some litter inside the trough of the pad, one more thing that these lines or their absence within the hollow tell you is that whether the animal is young or old – a young animal will have a smooth pad which would leave a smooth impression on the soil, the lines are seen if the animal is old – as the animal grows old, it’s pad wears out over time due to friction with the ground and then the pad leaves these marks on the soil; as for the hyena’s droppings – a fresh dropping is moist and sometimes in winter you may see vapours rising from it and a very old dropping would be brittle or already disintegrated, the one we see today is intact and still slightly moist which tells me clearly that the dropping is a day old and it is of a hyena for the whiteness comes from its ability to crush and eat the bones of its prey.
On the flats of Khairvan matta we finally come across the foot prints of a bear and that this bear has feasted on the bel fruits is obvious for we see bear droppings at several places, quite slushy and full of bel seeds. We begin to go down the other side of plateau towards the natural spring which the locals have named Pandry aier (white water) for its water is turbid with some dissolved mineral that makes it look like diluted milk. This spring was embanked to store water. Previously water from this spring tricked down the slope without being availed of by wild animals except the bees and other insects – after containing the water with a mud embankment a pipeline was installed to siphon water down to the meadow in the valley below. This improvisation worked well – the sambar and wild pig got their wallows and other animals and birds a watering hole.
While coming down we spend some time at the spring, Soni cleans up the debris (pebbles and leaf litter) heaped at the mouth of the pipe to restore a smooth flow of water, and then we walk down into the valley – a herd of five sambar (one stag and four does), two tree pies and a troop of langur are around the water hole. The stag is in the wallow for this is the time of the year when sambar stags become raffish and try to impress the does with their scent, and to gain the does’ favor, they wallow in the mud leaving their strong scent (pheromones) that the glands under their eyes and between their hooves produce in ample amount.
Coming back to the scene at the water hole – one female langur is busy disciplining a young one whose puerile antics have become intolerable and another one is busy suckling its newborn. The dominant stag struts through its jungle realm supervising his troop members.
From the valley we return to the Karmajhiri road. As we move along, our eyes scan the gravelly road for footprints, the trees for birds and the woodlands for animals. Though it is difficult to find clear footprints on a road strewn with pebbles, a regular flow of vehicles on this one has created spots on the road where the soil has become fine grained and perfect to record the movement of the forest denizens, besides the staff have laid impression pads (a 2mx2m strip of fine soil so it may cover the entire width of the road) at several places to record the foot prints of animals. While going uphill to Gurshal ghat, in the fine dirt we see tiny footprints overlaid by a trail of parallel furrows – a porcupine had used the road in the night – and a few yards ahead on the flat portion of the ghat we see a deep brown beaded string – its droppings.
As we descend from the ghat a sambar bells and then a hind and two young sambar in velvety winter coats dart across the road and clear a ditch on the other side in graceful bounds; the sambar of Pench are so handsome.
At this place the jungle reverberates with all kinds of sounds – the clamour from the seven sisters or jungle babblers, the distant and monotonous kutroo-kutroo of the brown headed barbet, the piercing ascending pea-kahaan pea-kahaan of the brain fever bird, occasional wake up calls from the jungle fowl and the high pitched meow-meow of the peacock – that remind us we are not alone.
And then suddenly from our right, about 200 yards away, a langur sitting in the tendu tree begins to holler and chatter, this is no ordinary call – it is a typical signal to all denizens of the forest that a predator is on the move. But soon afterwards we hear the sawing sound and know that it is a leopard going back to rest after a night’s work and he doesn’t mind if his fellow beings know of his presence – for last night he had a hearty meal.
The sawing gets feeble and fades, as we move on through the jungle and reach the Sajajhori pond. We tip-toe up the embankment and are lucky, for a herd of seven gaur is drinking on the southernmost tip of the pond bordering the forests and a sounder of thirteen pigs are raking over the mud not far from us. This group includes some newborn piglets – adorned in shiny pale-yellow coats covered with dark brown stripes – they look adorable and nothing like their abominable seniors in their black mud smeared hides.
A common kingfisher is perched on a snag in the middle of the pond, he takes off like a rocket and plunges into the water and the next second, he is on the snag again – a small fish neatly wedged in his tiny bill. A racket tailed drongo dashes above flashing his beautiful shiny black feathers and the two stout wires projecting from its tail, each wire ending in a club like feather. Racket tailed drongos are master mimics, they copy the calls of a variety of birds and sometimes animals too, the one we see here keeps to himself.
We leave the pond and are back on the road, after about a kilometer, we turn into Mannu talab road; here, on the left is a teak plantation – a favourite spot for gaur. We see several young teak trees debarked; this is the handiwork of a herd of gaur. Soni stops and examines the road, he has noticed something interesting – he has found a colony consisting of numerous funnel-shaped pits in the dirt – the homes of antlion larvae.
The tiny antlion is a great schemer – the funnel it makes in the sand acts as a trap to catch unsuspecting insects – as ants or other small insects move on to the rim the sand shifts downwards toppling the insect into the funnel. Once the poor prey slips into the funnel, the antlion sitting hidden at the bottom of the funnel flicks more sand on to it burying the prey completely and then grabs it in one swift dash and pulls it deep inside the den; In the USA, people call it the ‘doodle bug’ – what an inept name for an intelligent predator.
Another amusing fact about the antlion lies in its habit as an adult – the beautiful insect that emerges from the pupa of antlion larva is an all and all vegetarian, it looks like a damsel fly and feeds on pollen and nectar. It is called an antlion lacewing.
In my childhood, I enjoyed playing games with this bug – the antlion larva keeps its home clear of all debris by flicking out all trash up and away from the funnel – I would gather my friends, find some antlion dens and then we all took turns to put grass seeds or small pieces of twigs into their funnels and watch them flick these items, one after the other, out of their hearth and we would thoroughly enjoy the antlion’s antics. But, in retrospect I realize that we were enjoying ourselves at the antlion’s cost – it must have been a little too much for the antlion wasting so much energy on flicking out a deluge of litter to keep us entertained.
After spending some time with the antlions we walk further and enter Bans nala – a damp, moist place overgrown with bamboo, here on the wet ground we see the spoor of a tiger – we examine it closely. The tiger came from the direction from which we are coming, in the depressions of the pugs there is no leaf litter, no twigs and the edges of the pugmark still intact means that the pug impressions are fresh – and then we see the shape and size, it is almost a square. To be precise Soni pulls out a tape measure from his sack and we measure the size of the hind pug, it is – length 14.5cm x breadth 13.cm.
Apparently, it is a full-grown male tiger and not very far from us. And then we hear a low growl coming from a dark bower created by drooping bamboo culms about twenty yards away. We have been duly warned and so, remembering some good advice from my childhood, ‘there is only a thin line separating adventure from foolishness’, we retreat to the main road taking care not to disturb his highness, and decide to walk back to Karmajhiri. As we reach Gursal ghat, we see my jeep coming towards us, Bhaiyyalal has a message to deliver – I am needed at Bhopal, the wildlife headquarters – urgently.
Saying thanks to Soni, I hop into the jeep and drive towards NH7. Good bye my dear Pench.
Such forays into the jungle are great teachers and I learn something new every time I tread on the dirt roads, schlep up the ridges and jostle through the bushes. Though, reading this jungle book demands keeping my eyes as sharp as a scanner, ears tuned to slightest sound, and nostrils clear to discern different aromas that emanate from the jungle at various places, and more importantly my brain alert to act smartly in the face of danger lest an aberrant tiger catches me unaware and decides to send me to Arcadia. I will end this story with a beautiful thought by Foss that captures the essence of the jungle and its seekers.
“The woods were made for the hunters of dreams, the brooks for the fishers of song; to the hunters who hunt for the gun less game, the streams and the woods belong.”
Sam Walter Foss
Photos: Suhas Kumar
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