Early morning 5 am and we head back into the forest. The plan was to head for the rhino reintroduction area and cover as much as possible on elephant back. As we drove towards Salukhapur (the forest rest house near the rinho area entry gate), we were moved by the grandeur and majesty of the saal forest once again in the cool early morning light. At Salukhapur, we hired Ismail and his elephant for the last 20 years – Roopmati. In Dudhwa you don’t have any railings on the platform on the elephant’s back. Handling a camera and kit on the elephant while you are sharing space with 3 others with no front railings was an experience in itself! Soon we adjusted to the rolling gait of the pachyderm and settled in.
We soon entered the tall banks of elephant grass and started moving towards a large water body inside the area. The grasslands were abuzz with various species of small passerine birds. The rhinos are usually spotted foraging in the grasslands beside the tal or wallowing in it. The whole area gets completely flooded during the monsoons. Soon enough we saw what looked like a grey boulder in the distance, a sole rhino foraging amidst the tall grass. This was our 1st sighting of the wild 1 horned rhino and we were thrilled to bits! It looked prehistoric, almost a curious oddity with its thick folded skin resembling armour plates.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, also known as the Indian Rhinoceros and Great Indian Rhinoceros, as vulnerable. Dudhwa’s rhino revival story began with the decision to translocate six individuals from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam. While one female died during the process at the Guwahati Zoo, two other females died before the programme could take off, leaving only three rhinos, two of them males. The plan was saved with the introduction of four females from Shukla Phanta Reserve in Nepal, which were got in lieu of 16 elephants. Starting with a population of seven, the 27 square kilometre area now hosts 31 rhinos.
Moving on after a while we approached and crossed the tal which was largely dry in places at this time of the summer. In the distance we saw a grey headed fishing eagle perched on a branch of a dead tree. As we rolled along, we heard an unearthly call repeated a couple of times. The eagle we were watching then started responding with the same kind of cry (listen to its call at http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Icthyophaga-ichthyaetus). We realised there were two of them, its mate hidden from us in the foliage nearby. The raptor is classified near threatened in the IUCN red list. This species is thought to be undergoing a moderately rapid population reduction owing to habitat degradation, pollution and over-fishing. Although widespread, it is now only locally common and is therefore classified as near threatened. We were not able to get a decent shot of them, but little did we know that we would meet them again and up close, on the last day of our trip!
Moving at a bit ahead we came across a pond heron and a woolly necked stork. The latter I imagined seemed to be quizzically looking at us with amused glint in its eye, 4 curious creatures rolling about unsteadily on the back of an elephant J
Ismail bhai. He regularly goes into the rhino area for patrolling with his elephant. He showed us snaps of a tiger sighting a few days back when on one of his patrols. He had surprised a large male resting in a dry stream bed. It was late dusk and the aggressive male had mock charged the elephant a couple of times before vanishing into the jungle. The raw blurry pictures of the tiger intact with red eye, one of them snarling aggressively, was enough to send a shiver up my spine imaging the moment. Ismail bhai had met with tigers often on his patrols, but he mentioned this one as exceptionally aggressive. He told us it might be the one which had attacked and killed a six-year-old rhino in Dec 2011. The park authorities came to know of the adult rhino killing by a tiger, when its partially eaten carcass was recovered near Salukapur. This was the second reported incident of a tiger attack on an adult rhino in the area in recent times.
After the rhino area safari we headed back to the S D Singh waterhole area. We spotted and followed a wild boar in the thickets for a while till it crossed the tracks and disappeared.
Coming to the waterhole we were rewarded by a sighting of a male baya weaver in breeding plumage. It looked as if someone had poured haldi powder on its head. What a beauty! There’s a tree whose canopy shades the track beside the waterhole. We saw many species flitting in and around it – the pompadour green pigeons with their super funny lunatic calls…….whooooo…hu..hu.hu..hu, great tits, paradise flycatchers, etc.
We raced to the spot to get a better shot, but the lizard sped off with amazing speed in the undergrowth.
We were now on the straight stretch about 2 kms from the Dudhwa FRH gate when I suddenly spotted a magnificent crested serpent eagle perched on a bough of fallen tree with something in its claws. It took off with almost no time to react. A large raptor it has an impressive wingspan indeed, a large bird reaching upto 155 cms.
It alighted on a branch of a tree nearby and we saw it had a snake in its claws! It must have just caught and killed it, preparing to eat it when we drove up. It then surveyed the scene and us for a while before settling in to eat its kill. We watched with bated breath as it made short work of the small snake gobbling it up in a single gulp!
After a while it flew to another tree across the road and sat scanning the forest floor for more prey. These raptors spend 98% of the day perched patiently looking for food! They appear to use a sit and wait foraging strategy.
The CSE is known to have a protective membrane (known as the nictitating membrane in eagles) around its eye. This membrane is a clear inner eyelid that closes to moisten and protect the eye while allowing the eagle to still see. Here we can see its nictitating membrane.
After this experience Basak was hyperventilating with Joyce and me closely following! This was again one of the 1st times any of us had seen a big raptor with its kill and had been lucky enough to get some good shots.
After a hot blazing afternoon we headed back inside at 5 pm, the memories of the morning safari making the boiling heat bearable. Our guide Sonu had for some inexplicable reason ditched us and we had only our driver – Kismet to guide us this evening. After discussions, we decided to head for the vast grassland near Banke Tal. Entry to the Tal area itself had been closed to tourists by the park authorities as a tigress had given birth recently and was reported to be unduly aggressive.
The grassland is a vast expanse for miles around and is unique to the Terai ecosystem. The entire grassland gets submerged during monsoons when the Sharda river floods. We had the whole place to ourselves and the sun setting over it was a beautiful sight. My friend Joyce felt more than a bit jumpy while we were travelling through it, the dense grass high beside the track, brushing past us. Ideal territory for a large predator.
Very soon we heard a rail engine toot and saw a train chugging in. The trail through the Banke Tal grassland ends at a high watchtower with a superb view of the vast grassland expanse and the railway line to its right. Remember that this was very much within the core area of Dudhwa in prime tiger territory, an extraordinary human intrusion, which the local wildlife must have got used to by now over so many decades. We stopped at the station for a brief while where Joyce and Basak went beserk on the RAP II engine of the train, bamboozling the old engine driver for all kinds of engine tech details!
Before leaving I saw a typical railway lantern (hurricane as it was known in the old days) outside the station master’s cabin.
By now we were getting really late as we had to head back to Dudhwa FRH, and head onwards to Sathiyana FRH, 25 kms inside the forest for the rest of our stay. Oncoming night transforms the jungle into a mysterious and totally different place from the day. The silver moon climbing high into the indigo jungle sky was unforgettable and gave us goosebumps. But more was yet to follow.
We reached Dudhwa FRH at 8 pm in complete darkness. We were held up for half an hour more as we sorted out which guide would accompany us to Sathiyana. It seemed Sonu’s services had been hijacked for some senior visiting bureaucrats. When we finally headed out for Sathiyana it was close to 8 30 pm and it was only because there were no rooms available in Dudhwa FRH that Mr Singh allowed us to make the journey. What followed was one of the most unforgettable journeys I’ve ever had in any jungle. The 1st 15-20 mns were through dense towering Sal forests on either side of the dirt track. The jeep’s headlight would occasionally pick out bright glittering eyes while turning corners and the sound of the jungle crickets buzzed loudly.
After a while we crossed a wooden bridge over a dry river bed and entered the vast Sathiyana grasslands. The moon shone bright in the night sky over the dense tall grass that pressed close brushing past us on both sides. Kismet maneuvered the open gypsy in 1st gear over the deep uneven sand of the narrow track with nothing but miles and miles of grassland ahead and around us. This was ideal predator habitat where you would hardly sense the presence of a tiger even if it was a couple of feet behind you!
A bit ahead we came upon a WTI jeep standing silently on the track. We cut our engine and slowed to a halt behind it. Our guide Baddal whispered nervously that it may be a tiger on the tracks up ahead because of which the WTI jeep had stopped.
Soon a guy got out of the jeep with what looked like a gun in his hand (it was a radio tracking device) and walked up hurriedly to us. ‘Tourists?!’ he asked in jumpy whisper. ‘Haan’ replied Baddal explaining we had been delayed due to a gear seizure (attempt to cover our presence here at this time). ‘You should not be here at this time’ the guy whispered angrily, ‘We have been tracking a tiger’s movement here for some time now, for you to be here in an open jeep is very irregular and highly risky’ he whispered, clearly rattled. Suddenly there was rustle about 10 paces behind us as some animal moved out and back into the tall grass, perhaps a wild boar or deer. The guy nearly jumped out of his skin, so did we! The eerie jungle night ambience, our thudding hearts, a ghostly silvery moon, the dense tall grass higher than our heads and somewhere a large male tiger on the prowl. A primal fear crept in unknowingly and the jungle took on a hitertho unfelt wild and savage dimension!
The guy hurriedly parted for the safety of his closed jeep, after ‘this is highly irregular!’ and reversed his jeep into the grass so that we could somehow squeeze past on our journey. Turning to look around we saw him back on the roof of his jeep circling the tracking device which buzzed and beeped. The rest of the ride was completed in tense silence as we covered 3-4 kms of the grassland and entered a final stretch of very dense forest. This stretch which opens out into a large clearing where Sathiayan FRH stands is an exceedingly beautiful stretch, full of creepers and previously unseen plant species with a thick and dense undergrowth. We soon cleared it and were glad to see the twinkling lights of the FRH come up.
After a while when we freshened up and settled into our expansive rooms (the whole FRH was a lovely surprise, very much like an old british bungalow with large rooms with fireplaces, high ceilings and large balconies). We met and sat up in the 1st floor open balcony looking out into the jungle. In the distance we heard that trademark jungle night sound – a persistent and continuous ‘chok chok..chok….chok’ of the nightjar and reflected over a truly unforgettable day!
Next day we saw the pug marks of a very large male tiger about 3 kms from the FRH. Baddal our guide reckoned the tiger had crossed the track about half an hour before we had driven past.