It was a chilly cloud-covered morning of early January and dawn was yet to break as the Gypsys queued up for entry at the Moharli gate of the Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. The open-top Gypsys used for the jeep-safaris are modified to allow three rows of front-facing seats. One has to grab the side rails and step on the improvised footrests to climb into the rear seats. The heightened anticipation in the air was clearly palpable. A thundering roar had reverberated through the forest the previous night and had sent a thrill down our spines as we sat eating our dinner in the garden resort right outside the boundary of the reserve.
The roar was followed by a flurry of alarm calls by the forest denizens who scampered for cover. It is said that it is impossible to localize the tiger’s position from its roar and it’s only a ruse to scare the Chitals and the Sambars in giving out their positions by their frantic calls. In the general mêlée that follows the blood-curling roar, the terrified deer run in all directions and the tiger waits for one to run straight into his waiting jaws of death. His vicious canines lock over the windpipe of the prey in a frightful pincer grip that suffocates the victim, not allowing it even that tiny last whimper to bemoan its terrible fate.
The roar seemed doubly menacing on account of the ugly incident that had occurred the previous day. Some villagers from Kolara, a village on the north-eastern fringe of the Tiger Reserve, had ventured into the thickly forested ‘core’ area near Pandharpauni for collecting firewood. A tiger emerged suddenly from near the Waghai nallah and viciously mauled one Vidhoba Nogse. It then went on to eat up the poor victim, roaring threateningly at the huge crowd of locals who tried in vain to scare the villain into giving up the body. I later learnt that this was not an isolated mishap. A lady, Poonam Shende, had been killed by a tiger only a day earlier, in the forest near Lohara on the Chandrapur-Mul road, some 40 KM south of Pandharpauni. The Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, as it turned out, is notorious for its man-eating tigers. The notorious Man-eater of Talodi had wreaked havoc in the Brahmapuri forest area some 40 KM to the north-east of Moharli until it was shot dead by the sharp-shooters of the police department in November 2007. Wildlife conservationists decried the killing and blamed the Forest Department of having killed the wrong tiger. They had killed a male even when it was clear from the man-eater’s pugmarks that the culprit was a tigress. The killing did not stop the attacks on humans and there were a string of deaths in Janakpur village in this area in 2008. As per newspaper reports there were 31 deaths in and around TATR from April 2005 – April 2008 due to Man-animal conflicts. While tigers were the principal culprits yet there were also deaths due to attacks by leopards and bears. The ‘Man-eater of Vejgaon’, a leopard struck terror in 2008. Yet another leopard, the ‘Man-eater of Wardha’ caused numerous deaths in 2011. Even on the day that we made the safari, a female bear and her cub mauled and killed a poor, helpless mute of Dhaba village near Gondpipri some 60 KM south-east of Moharli.
The commonly believed reason for the increasing incidents of conflict is the deteriorating habitat of the wild animals that is being nibbled at the fringes by construction and developmental activity. The village common lands have disappeared over the decades and the villagers now venture into forests for collecting firewood and grazing their cattle, thus bringing them in conflict with the wild animals. The guide told us that there are four ‘Gond’ villages inside the thickly forested Tiger Reserve. Many villages have been relocated and rehabilitated over the years. As per the existing package a male adult is considered an independent unit and is entitled to Rs. 10 lac as compensation. Most want the compensation barring the exception of a few who spurn all attempts at persuading them to give up their age-old ways and the frugal traditional existence inside the tiger reserve. Their continuation inside the reserve is, however, getting increasingly dangerous with the rising population of tigers. Curiously enough, the recent tragedies had not caused too much of a flutter as neither the staff at the resort nor the forest guide or the jeep driver seem to be particularly perturbed by the incidents. ‘Gazella’ my younger one, however, was not looking too happy. She made her quiet queries about the possibility of a man-eater pulling off a victim from an open jeep. We reassured her that the safari was completely safe so long as one did not get off the vehicle. There was not much logic in our argument though as Jim Corbett does write about man-eaters forcing their way into closed huts to pick up a victim. True to her creed she is completely risk averse and did not look too convinced as she sat gripping her camera in a state of fearful anticipation.
Entry into the Reserve starts at 6:30 AM. A metalled road leads to a second gate for regulated entry to Taroba range. The jeep drivers while driving towards the Taroba Check-post, take detours through the narrow jungle tracks through the bamboo forests. The growth is too dense for most part of the year for any wild life to be spotted by the amateurs. It is only during the dry season when the foliage declines that one can hope to spot a tiger through the bamboos. The ‘Guide’ gave us his rehearsed introduction to TATR – the Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. There was also a short sermon on ‘the dos and the don’ts’ for the tourists. He pointed to the series of stone pillars along the metalled road that connects Moharli to the Taroba Lake in the north.
The pillars had been built by the Gond Rajahs of Chanda (Chandrapur) and bore decorations to announce the passage of the king in the olden days. Each of these stone obelisks was crowned by a curious forked stone. On being questioned about the reason for the same the guide spun some yarn about a rope having been run through these stones that was used for signalling. On another occasion, he told us that the pillars had been built to guide the traders through the forest lest they should lose their path. It was a pity that the Gond guide should have so little knowledge about the history of his people and the significance of the structures that they had built. Many of the pillars had crumbled and had been restored by the forest department. A portion had been plastered and white-washed and bore some unintelligible (to us!) instructions written over it in Marathi. It seemed a rather curious way of preserving these heritage pillars. The Tramp resolved to read up on the history of the Gonds of Chanda and to try and ferret out the real story behind these pillars. It would be fruitful at this point to narrate the story of the Gond Rajahs of Chanda as a brief interlude.
There are varied accounts of the History of Gonds of Chanda (Chandrapur) but their tale has been best told by Major Charles Bean Lucie Smith who was the Deputy Commissioner of Chanda for six long years. Major Smith reportedly loved the area and spent most of his tenure touring and discovering this little known area that came under the British Rule in 1853-54. His accounts of the traditions and folklore of the people of Chanda as well as the history of this Gond Kingdom were first published in the ‘Report on the Land Revenue Settlement of the Chanda district, Central Provinces’ in 1869.
The thickly forested area of Chanda is believed to have been occupied in the 7th century by the three warring tribes of Gowaree, Gond and Mana. The Manas established their pre-eminence around 650 AD and established their fortresses at Soorajgurh and at Manikgurh, high in the hills. The Manas retained their upper hand for some two hundred, strife-torn years until they were toppled by the energetic Gond Chief, Kol Bheel. Kol Bheel united the Gond people and taught them to extract iron from the ore that was plentiful in the area. Bhim Bullal Sing, established himself as the first Gond ‘Raja’ in 870 AD after subduing the rival chiefs and established his capital on the bank of Wurdah River at Sirpoor. A line of descendants strengthened the Gond rule.
In 1207 AD Surja Bullal Sing became the King and led a successful expedition against the Rajput Chief, Mohun Sing of Kaibur who would not give his daughter’s hand in marriage to the Emperor at Delhi. Mohun Sing died on the battlefield and his sword became a war trophy to be passed down the successive generations of the Gond kings. The Emperor conferred vast territories upon the Gond Raja who was now called Sher Shah Bullal Shah and his descendants now substituted ‘Shah’ for ‘Sing’ in their names.
His son, Khandkia Bullal Shah succeeded him in 1242 AD. The king had sores on his body that would not heal. To escape the disease he shifted residence from Sirpoor to the opposite bank of Wurdah, where he established a fort at Bullalpoor (modern day Ballarpur). One day while hunting to the north-west of Bullalpoor he grew thirsty and drank water from a hole in the dry bed of Jhurput. The drink partially cured his ailment and he returned to his palace. His joyous queen rode with him to the spot where they discovered that the hole in the rock was actually one of the five footprints of a cow that remained filled with water no matter how much water one drew from them. This was actually the spot where Goddess Mahakali had rooted her handsome son Bhootnath forever on the banks of Jhurput with the seal of a cow’s hoof. He was now ‘Achuleshwur’ – the immovable and could not philander anymore with the wives of the Gods’ who had complained against his conduct to his rather severe mother! Khandkia was bathed in the holy waters and got completely cured. Achuleshwur appeared in the raja’s dream that night and the queen read this as an omen for building a temple at the site of these miraculous healing waters. He was supervising the construction when one day he noticed a hare chasing his dog! The astonished Raja rode after the duo and noticed that while his dog ran in a wide circle the hare took zig-zag shortcuts to catch-up with his dog. The hare caught up at one spot but the dog shook him off and continued his flight. Eventually, they reached the spot where the chase had commenced. The dog now suddenly turned on the hare and killed it. The King noticed a white spot (Chundur) on the forehead of the dead hare. He narrated the episode to his wife who immediately interpreted it to be an omen for building a new fortified city within the circuit of the chase. The city walls were to follow the zig-zag path followed by the hare (as could be made out from the hoof marks of the King’s horse). Special bastions were to be built at the point where the hare had caught up with the dog and the point where the hare had died. The latter point would be vulnerable for the new city. The new city was called ‘Chundur’-pur or Chanda.
Khandkia was succeeded by Heer Shah in 1282 AD, who created rent paying Zamindaris by encouraging his loyalists to clear forests, establish villages and build tanks. He continued with the construction of the city walls and the gates and built a palace on a citadel inside the walls. The Gond chiefs came with their tributes during the annual festivities adorned in peacock feathers, beetle wings and wild berries. They danced and rejoiced and were treated to a banquet by the Raja of Chanda. The City Walls eventually reached their full height after 300 years of construction in 1522 AD.
A dispute between the Gond Rajas of Chanda and Deogurh resulted in a fierce battle with Beer Shah of Chanda severing the head of Doorgpal, the Prince of Deogurh with the ‘Sacred Sword’ of Chanda Kings. The head was offered to Mahakalee and Beer Shah’s wife, Heraee got a new temple built for the Goddess and a stone bust of Doorgpal was installed on the spire. Beer Shah was himself killed by his Rajput bodyguard in 1672 AD when he moved in procession for a second marriage (he had no son from the first). His queen got a beautiful tomb built in the memory of her beloved husband at the spot he fell. Thus, the 800 year old rule of the Bullal Shah dynasty came to an end. Ram Shah, a child from the royal family was adopted by the widow and he ruled Chanda for 63 long years till his death in 1735 AD. A popular king, he built Ramala tank and Ram Bagh in Chanda. His son Neelkunth was defeated by the Maratha Chief, Rughojee Bhonsle in 1751 AD and he died in captivity. The 900 year rule of Gond Rajas of Chanda came to an end and with them crumbled the fortunes of the once powerful Gond tribe. Bullal Shah son of Neelkanth escaped captivity at Bullalpoor fort and attempted a Gond insurrection, but was shot and captured and deported to Nagpur. He was later released and granted a pension of 600 rupees. Yado Shah, the deaf and dumb, great-grandson of Neelkunth was the official ‘Gond Raja’, living on a political pension of Rs. 1490 per annum at the time of the Settlement by Major Lucie Smith.
Chanda now became a province of the Bhonsla family of Nagpur and was placed under a ‘Sena Dhoorundhur’. The Maratha rule was marred with palace intrigues, murders and conflicts. To add to Chanda’s woes, the Eerai flooded Chanda in 1797 AD. The Pindharee raiders plundered the area and laid it to ruin. Appa Sahib, the Raja of Nagpur accepted British ‘protection’ in 1817 AD. He was arrested by the British Resident, Mr. Jenkins after a foiled intrigue in 1818 AD. The Gonds rose in rebellion and the Killedar of Chanda, Gunga Sing, raised the banner of revolt. The fortified city was besieged by the British troops and their guns breached the city walls, as had been prophesized some 500 years earlier, at the very place where the dog had killed the hare! The British captured the town and sacked it after a short but fierce battle. Chanda was a British Protectorate till 1830 AD and was finally annexed in 1853 AD. Gonds continued to be restive and robbed a British Treasury Escort at Mul, near Chanda in 1852 AD. They participated in the rebellion of 1857 AD but were finally subdued by the British. A defeated people with none left to carry forward the legacy of the 900 year rule of Chanda Kings.
The emblem of the Gond Kings of Chanda was a Lion (Sing) killing an elephant and it can be seen carved in stone on the Chandrapur Fort Gates.
Moharli was a large village some 30 KM north of Chanda and lay on the Chanda-Chimoor road. Moharli was situated amidst thickly forested area and had a large irrigation tank. The villagers grew rice and sugarcane in their fields on the fringes of the forest. Farther north lay the Chimoor hills and Chimoor. Chimoor was a Maratha town some 8o KM north of Chanda which was famous in the 19th century for manufacture of cotton-cloth and carts. People from the surrounding areas flocked to the annual trading fair held in the town in the month of January.
One may also reproduce Major Smith’s brief account of the forests and wild life of Chanda in the second half of the 19th century. Clearly, the tigers of Taroba were as much of a menace even 150 years ago!
Over six thousand miles of the country is the forest, which rolls league upon league one mighty wave of trees, and forms perhaps the most important element in the economy of Chanda, not only affecting the meteorological and agricultural conditions of the district, but making itself felt in questions of administration and trade, and giving to a large class of the people their principal means of support. The finest timber grows on the slopes and summits of the eastern high lands, and the teak and sheshum found there are probably unsurpassed for size or quantity in any other part of India, Beula, tendoo and ein, are widely distributed, the latter in great numbers. Mowah and char grow profusely in all red and sandy soils; and kowah is plentiful in the vicinity of water. Great tracts of bamboo jungle exist, some of whose canes are of immense size, and bel, cheechwa, doura, ghuraree, huldee, khair, khoosum, kullum, rohun, sheewun and teewus are common. Satin-wood is abundant in the central tracts, but does not attain any large girth. Fan palms grow profusely in the south-east, furnishing a fleshy nut and a pleasant fermented drink; and east of Bhamragurh the mago palm occurs. Wild arrowroot, buhira, wild hemp, hirda, kakursinga and kumela with honey, wax, lac, and tussah cocoons are produced in considerable quantities and the production is capable of indefinite increase.
But much as the forest gives to man, it exacts a heavy tribute in the injury wrought by the wild beasts which find shelter in its recesses. Pre-eminent for evil is the tiger, which not only kills great quantities of cattle, whose death represents the annual loss of many thousands of rupees, but it also destroys much human life- now springing on the herdsman as he tends his cows, now seizing the traveller on the highroad, and now in a jungle hamlet dragging the sleeper from his cot. Indeed no ten miles of country can be traversed without some token being seen attesting the ravages of this dreaded beast. Panthers and leopards are common, and bears abound in the hills. Bison are found on both sides of the Wyngunga, but are most numerous in the eastern forests, where also are herds of wild buffalo; while spotted deer, sambur, neelgai and wild pig roam the forests in immense numbers, and by night-raids inflict grave harm on the cultivated tracts. Fortunately the forests are also inhabited by wild dogs, animals about the size of the English fox and of great voracity, which hunt in large packs, and do something to thin the ranks of deer and pig. The Gonds have it that when wild dogs meet a tiger they never leave it alive, but course round and round in wide circles until at length the tiger becomes blinded by the effluvium of their urine, and being blind eventually perishes from starvation. According to tradition, wild elephants once ranged the Chanda wastes, and under the Mool hills is to be seen a large excavation into which it is said these animals were formerly driven. Pea-fowl, jungle-fowl, water-fowl and other game are plentiful, and in the vicinity of water the woods are alive with the twittering of small birds.
The Gond guide, clearly had had no lessons in history and we hoped that he would fare better at tracking and spotting wildlife in the forest. We had hardly started on the safari when we spotted an elephant feeding on bamboos! The trip seemed to have started on a lucky note!! To our great disappointment we learnt that Taroba has no wild elephants and it was only a tame one that is used for the 5 KM long Elephant-back Safari. .
The driver turned leftwards for a detour through the forest and we followed a virtual train of Gypsys. He speeded along at break-neck speed that allowed little room for any chance spotting of wildlife. We halted briefly at a watering hole. It was a cloudy morning and still too dark to get a clear picture of the crested serpent-eagle and the owl.
The eagle’s shrill call rang out through the morning stillness. Our jeep swept through the bamboo thickets to re-emerge on the metalled road. As we stopped at the check post for Taroba range we couldn’t help smiling at the ‘disclaimer’ put out by the TATR authorities by way of a cartoon to warn one against letting one’s expectations run too high.
Chital were beginning to emerge and were grazing timidly in the area around the check post. We drove through the tracks of Taroba range clicking the Sambar and the Chitals that were plentiful.
I spotted a Gaur in the undergrowth and we stopped to allow it to emerge and amble across the road.
It was a revelation to me that Gaurs belonged to the cow family and were different from the wild buffaloes!
We drove through beautiful landscapes. The soil was red for most part and the jeep track ran through beautiful golden, rocky grasslands and forests of teak and (S)ein.
We finally reached the scenic Taroba lake.
There is an interesting legend attached to this beautiful lake. I reproduce Major Smith’s description of the lake and also the popular legend about its mystical origin.
The Chimoor hills commence east of Chimoor, and run due south as far as Mohurlee, and are twenty miles long by six broad, with a height above the plain of 450 feet. Both slopes and summits are covered with thick forest, and all along the foot run numerous springs which never fail. In the basin of the hills is the Taroba Lake, which is far away from any human habitation, and though artificially embanked at one point has all the appearance of a natural lake. The embankment is 401 feet long, 93 broad at top and 60 high, composed of earth and boulders so strong and compact that it is difficult to distinguish the dam from the two hills which it connects. Under the bottom of the dam, and 180 feet above the plain, flows out unceasingly a strong clear stream of water which passes down the narrow valley to the south and then enters the plains, where it irrigates the rice and sugarcane of several villages. The surface area of the lake averages 158 acres, and the depth is probably over 70 feet in the centre and by the embankment. In the early ages, so runs the legend, a marriage procession of Gaolees was passing through the hills from the west. Hot and thirsty they sought for water and found none, when a weird old man suggested that the bride and the bridegroom should join in digging for a spring. Laughingly thet consented, and with a few spade-full’s of earth a clear fountain leapt to the surface. While all were delightedly drinking, the freed waters rose and spread into a wide lake, overwhelming bride and bridegroom and procession; but fairy hands soon constructed a temple in the depths, where dwell in peace the spirits of the drowned. Afterwards on the lake side a palm appeared which from dawn to noon shot up to meet the sun and with the sun sank down, disappearing into the earth as twilight closed. One morning a rash pilgrim seated himself upon the palm top, and was borne into the skies, where the flames of the sun consumed him. The palm then shrivelled into dust, and in its place appeared an image of the spirit of the lake, which is worshipped under the name of Taroba. Formerly at the call of pilgrims all necessary vessels rose from the lake, and after being used were washed and returned to the waters. But at last one evil minded man took those he had received to his home; they quickly vanished, and from that day the mystic provision wholly ceased.
In quiet nights the country folk still hear faint sounds of drum and trumpet passing round the lake; and old men say that in one dry year when the waters sank low, golden pinnacles of a fairy temple were seen glittering in the depths-
“On Taroba’s banks as the fisherman strays
On a cold calm eve’s declining
He sees the fair temples of other days
In the waves beneath him shining”
The lake is much visited, especially in the months of December and January, and the rites of the god are performed by a Gond. Wives seek its waters for their supposed virtue in causing child-bearing, and sick persons for the health they are believed to give. Fish in the lake grow to a large size, the skeleton of one which was stranded some years ago measuring eight feet.
We stopped briefly at the lake to photograph the Black Ibis, the Green Bee Eaters and the Egrets and the beautiful Snake birds.
A Chital fawn tagged playfully with his alert mother, gawking at the Egrets.
Death was lurking dangerously close. Some of those rocks that protruded from the beautiful lake waters were actually the terrible Gharials waiting patiently for that one false step that would bring its unsuspecting prey within range of its jaws of death.
Taroba has a good population of these marsh crocodiles that can be spotted basking in the sun on the banks of its numerous water bodies and large lakes. Equally numerous are the Crocodile Bark Trees – the Sein with a bark that is creepily close to the skin of a crocodile. Then there was that ivory white leafless ‘Ghost tree’ (Sterculia urens) with its branches resembling the clawed fingers of Satan.
A tigress with four cubs (average litter size is only 2 or 3) had been spotted by a number of tourists. ‘We trailed her along the path and made a video,’ announced a youth triumphantly, to our extreme annoyance. We searched high and low for this elusive tigress but there was no sign of her. The guide would make us park at different locations in the forest, patiently listening for the tell-tale alarm calls but it was all to no avail. Disappointed, we now drove into the large grassy open plain of the erstwhile Ramdegi (Navegaon) village. The village had been relocated in October 2013 to a place outside the reserve. This had released 400 acres of farmland and village land that was now being developed into a grassy plain with small water-bodies in the midst of the thick forest. The mud houses had been pulled down and only a single deserted hut and the village school now marked the site of the once thriving village. The village pond had been deepened and was now surrounded with thick foliage including the pink-flowered, bush Morning Glory. The area was full of birds. I photographed a Shrike. I then got a White-throated Kingfisher near the water body. A flock of Cattle Egrets had descended on the pond for a drink. I photographed Red-wattled Lapwings near the school building.
As we turned the bend in the direction of Chimur, I spotted a Common Kestrel (the guide insisted that it was a White-eyed Buzzard) perched on the electricity wires. A babbler-like bird that we could not identify. A beautiful close-up of the resplendent Indian Roller was the ‘Catch-of-the-day!’.
We then came upon a large Nilgai family with the male blue bull surrounded by his harem of brown coloured females that merged completely with the beautiful golden landscape. I noticed the curious black and white stripes that were visible inside the upright ears. All had the tell tale hairy pendants hanging from the chest which is characteristic of Nilgais.
I photographed a Black-winged Kite but missed the wild boars that scampered for cover.
Gazella had clicked a nice picture of the Egrets and had now beaten me to it in getting the Wild Boars. I clicked the Angel’s Trumpets of the Sacred Datura – the Witches’ Weed that yields a powerful, toxic hallucinogen that is known to bring delirium and death to the unwary seeker.
The 65 tigers of Taroba had however decided to give us the cold shoulder. It was mildly breezy and with the sun still hidden behind the clouds it was fairly chilly as we drove back to meet the 11:30 AM deadline for exiting the Moharli Gate. Czarevna’s nose was pink with cold and she sat huddled inside her heavy black jacket with its large furry hood. She never can understand her Dad’s enthusiasm for chasing the un-obliging Striped Cats in dusty, cold environs. We halted briefly to get the picture of a handsome young Gaur as it stood in a clearing munching lazily on the nourishing, golden grass.
To our utter surprise the jeep’s engine stalled suddenly in the middle of the forest, some 7 km short of the Moharli Gate. The driver cheerfully announced that we had run out of fuel and would have to hitchhike our way back home! The guy had made me miss some perfect wildlife pictures earlier that day due to his annoying habit of ignoring directions to halt and scaring the subject away by getting in too close. I struggled to reign in my flaring temper at his cheeky, unapologetic grin. With that novice driver and the poorly trained guide it was a wonder that we had managed to spot anything at all and could hardly blame the tiger for not showing up. ‘The King can’t be expected to oblige a pair of Court Jesters’,I thought wryly. We were eventually ‘rescued’ by an Aunt and her two nieces. The aunt seemed one of the typical matronly women from the Mofussil areas of Maharashtra. She was clad in a saree and had wrapped herself up in a dowdy, black shawl to stave-off the cold. To our surprise, far from being self-conscious about her rather out-of-place attire and appearance she immediately launched herself on quizzing us on the sightings we had made. She pooh-poohed the mention of the grass-eaters. She chuckled mirthfully on learning that we had missed the tigress and her cubs. I felt overawed by her spirited manner and thought it better not to mention the birds lest she should burst out laughing. Having first assured herself of our mediocre performance she then embarked on recounting her own successes. She had managed to see quite a few animals including the elusive tigress (the tail and the hump!). She had also spotted a tiger lying on its back with its belly exposed in the forest close to the Moharli Gate. She had spotted a leopard the day before. She rued having missed the dholes and the sloth-bear and then went on to compare all the wild life sanctuaries and national parks that she had visited. India is a land of surprises! By the end of it we were beginning to feel rather sheepish and I realized that my ‘natgeo-style’’ jungle hat and sun-glasses were looking rather stupid and phony in the presence of that pro!
Her nieces amazed us no less. They were researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and were working on camera-trap photography of the tigers. These plucky girls were walking several kilometres a day through the Taroba forests that are notorious for their man-eaters. Neither the aunt nor her nieces seemed the least perturbed by the fact that tigers had struck twice in the area on the previous two consecutive days. The girls had obviously inherited the genes of their enterprising aunt. They told us that sightings were best during the hot summers when the entire wildlife congregated on the artificial watering holes maintained by the forest department.
I later reckoned that the girls were a part of the WII team that had arrived to assist the TATR authorities with the Phase IV Tiger Estimation for the year 2014. The Tramp feels that his readers must be briefly introduced to the National Tiger Estimation Programme.
The National Tiger Estimation Programme was started in the year 2006 and involved a 3-Phase approach to estimation:-
- Phase I involved field data collection (scat samples, rake marks on trunks, pugmarks, scent marks etc) by following a standardized protocol
- Phase II involved analysis of habitat status of tiger forests using satellite data
- Phase III involved camera trapping in sample sites for an actual visual count of tigers by identification of individual tigers from the unique pattern of their stripes. This data of actual tiger population in sample sites was then compared to the corresponding data from ground surveys and habitat status and the relationship between the three was used to develop a mathematical equation for estimating tiger densities in areas that had not been camera-trapped.
This 3-Phase estimation yielded for the first time in 2006 a ‘snapshot’ of the tiger population in the entire country. The number was estimated at 1411 (+/- 246). This exercise was repeated in 2010 with the estimate being 1706.
The National Tiger Estimation Programme entered its Phase IV in 2011 with the shift to a camera-trap based intensive, annual monitoring of important ‘source’ populations of tigers in 41 protected areas. The Phase IV methodology for estimation of tigers (and their prey) was developed by the Wildlife Institute of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority. 25 double-sided cameras are deployed per 100 square kilometres with a minimum trapping effort of 1000 trap nights per 100 square kilometres. Thus, the Camera Trapping was no longer to be restricted to sample sites and was now going to be adopted at the Tiger Reserve Level.
The first Phase IV estimation of tiger population in TATR was done in 2012, when the tiger population in the 1325 Sq. Km Core and Buffer area was estimated at 65. This exercise was restricted to the Core area in 2013 due to intense man-animal conflict in the Buffer zone. The tiger population in the Core area was estimated at 41 in 2013.
The exercise for 2014 was now underway and the girls were a part of the 6 member WII team that was helping in the setting-up of camera traps. The TATR authorities had divided the entire reserve into 4 blocks and would be deploying 320 camera traps in one block at a time.
We finally reached our resort and alighted from the jeep after thanking the ladies. Our garishly painted resort had the advantage of being located just outside the Moharli Gate and its garden was full of colourful avian visitors from the surrounding forest and lakes. I scouted around to get some pictures to get over the day’s disappointing run. I started with the owner’s pet Turkey! A rather ugly-looking creature that would sooner-or-later end up on a Christmas table.
I then got a Pond Heron from close-quarters. This was followed by an Oriental Magpie Robin.
A Coucal skulked around in a tree and defied my efforts to get a photo. There were also a Drongo, a Bee-eater and an Indian-Robin in that Noah’s backyard. A Yellow-Oriole tap-tapped our bedroom window and the Gazella managed a quick picture through the glass. We had a garden-brunch and decided to rest for the afternoon safari.
The afternoon safari turned out to be rather uneventful. We had a new guide this time but this did not change our luck. It was no tiger again. But I did manage some nice pictures of Chitals and Sambars and also of a Muggermachh (Marsh Crocodile) that was lazing in the sun on the bank of a small pond.
We traversed up and down the forest tracks. I noticed that the Rhesus Macaque is completely absent in these forests though the Grey langur is present in considerable numbers.
I got a close-up of a Bee-eater and an against-the-sun shot of a Serpent Eagle. The Gazella is quick on the button and got a nice picture of the bee-eaters.
We drove along the Taroba Lake several times and went up to Ramdegi grassland a second time. The Nilgai family was still there and it scampered away on spotting us this time. The lakeside bungalow of the Field-Director of TATR looked enchanting and I once again rued having landed up in the wrong job. A large, shy boar with an impressive mane refused to emerge from its camouflaged position and pose for the picture that would have made him famous.
We enjoyed a long leisurely evening in the garden recounting the day’s experiences. The light evening breeze, the wine in plastic goblets, Gazella’s cheerful prattle and Czarevna’s soulful singing made it a memorable affair. We drove down the road towards Chandrapur through the forested area (outside the Reserve) after dinner to try our luck at late-night spotting. We spotted a large rodent that looked like the mongoose but could well have been a porcupine. Our headlights picked up a hare sprinting across the road. This one was chasing no dog!! The desolate moonlit Eriam lake was looking eerie and beautiful. There was no question of sitting by the banks of Eriam at night. It’s the time when the Muggermachh emerges from the waters to hunt on land. It sits in ambush on the forest trails leading to the lake and waits patiently for an unsuspecting prey to come within its deadly reach. The unfortunate victim is seized and dragged into the water to be drowned and devoured. There were no blood-curdling roars by the tiger that night.
The morning of day two also turned out to be rather chilly. We shivered in the breeze as we sat huddled up inside the open jeep waiting for the gate to open and to be allowed a one last chance at spotting the tiger. We were continuing with our guide of the second safari as he had seemed promising. We had barely entered the Reserve when he took us on a detour along a mesmerizingly beautiful lake. This was the Teliya Lake that lies close to the Moharli Gate.
The jeep track wound around the bank of the lake in a virtual ‘parikrama’. A fine mist hung over the still waters. A large flock of ‘Whistling Teals’ had descended on the lake and their wheezy calls filled the morning air, as they waddled around noisily in the shallow waters near the bank. The light was yet not very good but Gazella and I attempted to capture these noisy, long necked ducks.
Just then, the guide heard an alarm call by a Sambar and motioned the driver to halt. As we listened with anticipation the stillness of the bamboo forest suddenly registered on us despite the cacophony of the ducks in the background. We waited for the Striped Cat to step into the open but there were no further sounds. The guide now picked up the pugmarks of a tiger and also the human-like tracks of a sloth-bear.
He pointed to the globular flowers of a flowering bamboo-clump and told us that we were witnessing a rare phenomenon as the bamboos flower in Taroba only once every few decades.
Bamboo flowering is a phenomenon that has a lot of mystery and folklore attached to it. It is popularly believed across cultures that the flowering of bamboos bodes ill for the people as it is invariably followed by a period of widespread famines and starvation. It is now realized that the flowering of bamboos triggers an exponential increase in the rodent population that feeds on the highly-nutritive bamboo seeds that get scattered on the ground after the flowering. The seeds germinate after the rains thereby causing the food supply to disappear. The rodent army then destroys the crops and stored grains thereby triggering famines. Mizoram experienced thousands of starvation deaths in the famine of 1959 that was caused by the rodent outbreak after the bamboo flowering in 1958. Such a catastrophic flowering of bamboos is referred to by the botanists as ‘Gregarious Flowering’. The bamboos of one particular species suddenly flower and produce seeds irrespective of their geographical location. The bamboo plant expends so much energy in the process that it dies out thereafter. This mass flowering and subsequent death of a particular species is a rare and an awe-inspiring event. The botanists explain this apparently mystical phenomenon by the fact that bamboo is invariably replicated by division and re-division of the stem of the ‘mother plant’. The bamboos that develop from these divisions are all the same age as the mother plant. The timing for the flowering is believed to be hidden in the genetic code of the bamboo plant so that when the time is right, say after a hundred years, the mother plant and all its ‘clones’ flower at the same time as they are the same age. Thus bamboo plants that have originated from the same parent plant die at the same time across continents!! The hidden trigger for this mass flowering is as yet one of the unexplained mysteries of nature. Some bamboo species are known to flower sporadically or even annually without the subsequent death of the flowering plant. The plant dies after flowering only in the case of mass-flowering.
We could see that some of the bamboo clumps had died out after the flowering. Was an ecological catastrophe developing in front of our eyes? The bamboos in the Chandrapur forests are said to have flowered in 1982-83 when they triggered an insect outbreak with the swarms feeding on the bamboo seeds and then attacking the surrounding vegetation. Many birds are known to feed on the bugs that feed on the seeds. Some, like the Jungle-fowl, also feed on the seeds. Thus, it cannot be disputed that bamboo flowering does bring in a major change to the local ecology one way or the other.
Environmentalists do caution against the risk from forest fires, which can destroy the bamboo seeds before they germinate with the onset of the monsoons. The flowering bamboo clumps are also sometimes burnt down by the locals to prevent the looming danger of a rodent outbreak. The destruction of seeds by fire can potentially break the cycle of natural regeneration of bamboo and cause an irreversible change to the forest ecology.
Major Lucie Smith makes a reference to the bamboo flowering in Chanda district in his Settlement Report that is reproduced for the readers.
” The uses of the Bamboo, are almost infinite, and it could probably be the least spared by the people of all the products of the forest. It is of two kinds — the common and the Kutung Bamboo. The first grows in all light soils, and in each clump there will be one or two canes which shoot up above the others, with only a small hollow at the core, being the “male Bamboo”, so prized for the shafts of hog-spears. The Kutung is much larger than the common species, attaining a height of sixty feet, with a corresponding thickness of stem, and grows chiefly on the banks of streams. In the Khalsa country it is found principally in the dense Mohurlee forest, but the Zemindarees have it in great abundance. During the rains the young cane shoots from the ground, and being then tender, though of considerable thickness, are boiled and eaten by the Gonds. It seeds at irregular intervals, and the produce is carefully collected for food. With the effort the Kutung dies, and people of all classes believe that seeding only takes place during years of scarcity. My own experience is, that in each year since 1864, various clumps of Kutung have seeded in succession; but when mentioning this fact to the advocates of the theory of a special Providence in the matter I was met by the question- Have not those years been all times of scarcity among the poor? And as I could not answer in the negative, the theory was supposed to be triumphantly confirmed out of the mouth of a disbeliever.”
We re-emerged on the metalled road to Taroba Gate and stopped briefly to photograph the Yellow-footed Green Pigeons.
We drove through the Taroba gate and were following the forest track to the lake when our guide picked up fresh pugmarks of a tiger. Our luck seemed to be finally turning around and we followed the tracks with nervous anticipation.
The suspense seemed to have gotten even to Her Royal Highness, The Czarevna of Mornee, and she demanded to be told, every few minutes, whether the tracks were still there. She had, until this moment, been unable to understand what that ado was all about and found it stupid to be driving up and down that dusty road for that two-minute thrill of having caught a glimpse of that highly discourteous striped cat. It was high time, she thought, that one of these miserable Taroba tigers showed some grace and put in an appearance to end this ridiculous game of hide-and-seek. She would certainly be glad to over and done with the tiger chase head back home to saner pursuits.
To our disappointment the trail disappeared after some distance. The guide figured out that the tiger had left the track to seek the safety of a nallah that was enshrouded by a thick bamboo growth. We decided to continue along the track that ran parallel to the nallah and presently came upon a number of jeeps parked along the forest track. The excited safarists had their cameras pointed at the bamboo clumps that grew on the nallah bank and looked at us with open irritation for disturbing the peace. Our jeep had barely trundled to a stop when the tiger let out a short roar, more of an irritated growl, from somewhere inside the thick undergrowth. ‘It’s coming out,’ whispered our guide and we waited with bated breath for the big moment. I had my finger on the trigger (camera button), not wanting to be beaten to the draw. It was our turn to glare at those pesky ‘latecomers’, who were ruining the chances of a tiger sighting with the ruckus that their jeeps were creating. We waited for the King to grant an audience to his loyal subjects but it was not to be. The tiger never came out. ‘It must be walking down the nallah,’ reckoned our guide and we moved up to a spot where the nallah emerged from the undergrowth in a large clearing. The track bordered the fields of a village, one of the four that were yet to be relocated. We were told that a tiger had killed a wild boar in the fields the previous day and had the dragged its kill into the nallah. All the guides seemed to have hit upon the same idea and caused their drivers to endlessly manoeuvre the jeeps to capture the vantage point for sighting the tiger when it emerged from the nallah. We participated in this pointless ‘circus’ and wondered with irritation why the guides did not understand that no tiger was likely to show up with all that commotion that the jeeps were creating. A local villager and his wife appeared on foot and were heading in the direction from where we had heard the roar. Our guide warned them against venturing any further in that direction and they reluctantly agreed to turn back. It was not far from this spot that the man from Kolara had been mauled to death by the man-eater just two days back and it was beyond my comprehension as to how that adivasi couple could dare to walk through this dangerous area with such complete nonchalance.
We wasted the morning waiting for the tiger which did not appear. We finally called it a day and headed home. It was sunny and warm and we noticed the unusually high number of Sambars basking in the sun in the open. They had clearly not heard the roars of that nallah tiger.
I clicked a curious small mud embankment covered with straw mats to prevent erosion. Was it the traditional Gond way of damming up nallahs?
As we stopped briefly at the Taroba Gate I noticed a camera fixed on the bonnet of a jeep with an improvised mechanism for clicking pictures with the tug of a string. I wondered what its possible utility could be.
The Bison of the previous day was standing at exactly the same spot, feasting on the grass. A diminutive barking deer watched us shyly for some time and then disappeared into the bush, its upright white tail bobbing in the air cutely behind him.
We drove past a Gond bullock cart as we bid adieu to this land of the Chanda Kings.
Our tryst with the elusive tigers of Taroba would have to wait for another day.
Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve
The Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve made a modest beginning in 1935 when an area of 45 square miles of forest at Taroba, around the Chimur Hills to the north of Chanda district, was declared as a ‘Reserve’ forest by the British-Indian Government. This provided some measure of protection to the wildlife in the area and its habitat. Two decades later, in 1955, the Taroba Reserve Forest was declared as a National Park. Three decades later in 1986, the 509 Sq. Km area of the adjoining forest land that was drained by the Andhari River was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary. The Taroba National Park and Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary were then merged in 1995 to establish the Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) over the combined area of 625 Sq. Km. TATR became one of the 41 ‘Tiger Reserves’ under ‘Project Tiger’, with the reserve area being divided into Taroba, Moharli and Kolsa Zones.
The tiger reserve is bounded to the north and the west by the Chimur hills that have a rugged landscape with steep valleys, cliffs and caves. The land slopes gently towards the south and the forests thin out somewhat beyond the Taroba Lake that forms the southern boundary of the thick forests to the north. The Taroba forests are of the mixed-deciduous type and are dominated by Teak and Bamboo. Ain, Semal, Palash, Haldu, Tendu, Baheda and Mahuaa are some of the major species of flora. The fauna includes the Bengal tiger, Leopard, Gaur, Sloth Bear, Dhole, Nilgai, Sambar, Chital, Barking Deer, Chausingha, Civets and the Striped-Hyena. The tiger reserve has numerous big and small lakes like Taroba, Teliya and Kolsa. It is bound on the South-West by the Eriam River and reservoir near Moharli. The lakes and the marshy areas in and around TATR have a rich population of the dreaded Mugger, the Marsh Crocodile. Pythons, Indian Star Tortoise, Indian Monitor, Cobra and Russell’s viper are the other prominent reptiles. The Crested-Serpent Eagle, the Changeable-Hawk Eagle and Fish-Eagle are the prominent species of avian fauna.
Tourists make their entry to TATR for open-top jeep safaris through gates located at different points with the Moharli Gate being the most popular amongst the tourists. Moharli is generally approached through Chandrapur which is 140 KM from Nagpur. The Kolara Gate also caters to a large number of tourists. The gates at Zari, Navegaon, Kuswanda and Pangdi are less popular. In all about 50 odd safari jeeps are allowed into the reserve through its different gates for the 4 hour long morning and afternoon safaris. The permit for the jeep safari is issued from the office of DFO, Chandrapur District. The jeeps can be locally hired and generally charge Rs. 1800/- per safari (Rs. 300/- for the Guide). The timing for the morning safari is from 6 AM to 10 AM (6:30 to 10:30 in winters). The afternoon safari is from 2:30 PM to 6:30 PM (1:30 to 5:30 in winters). TATR remains closed to tourists on Tuesdays.