Bangalore - About the survey

The survey was about getting two types of information - tiger and prey distribution in a forest and assessment of human impacts inside the forest. So we identify a trail in the interiors of a forested area and start walking, typically two team members and a guide who is familiar with the route. We look out for signs of animals - tracks, scat etc and also lookout for human impacts - grazing, fire, timber extraction etc. On encountering any of these, we identify the animal or the impact and take readings. End of walk - complete all data sheets and transfer GPS information into the laptop.

Finding a carnivore scat on the track was always a good sign - the presence of carnivores speaks a lot about the health of the forest. It means that the forest is productive and if better protection is provided, it has the potential of sustaining carnivore population. Which automatically means that all the other denizens of the forest can also thrive. On one of our walks - it was a dusty track - my team mate identified a pug mark. And from then on we kept seeing those tracks every few meters almost till the end of our walk. We also got scrape marks and fresh scat on the track. We could hear the rumblings of a herd of wild elephants not very far - our guides got fidgety and hurried us along. It was an exciting walk. On another walk my teammate and I saw fresh leopard scrape with scent which was still wet on the ground. We got it twice more on the same track a few hundred meters further on. These encounters, though exciting, were rare. Most of the time, even a seemingly undisturbed forest would offer very few signs of animals. Signs of course depend on other factors as well - a leafy substrate does not offer many signs and rain washes away all tracks. But generally speaking, a forest where human impacts are less, animal signs are more. Which means a forest with less disturbance has higher probability of sustaining healthy animal populations.

So this was about the survey in brief. The other posts here are notes from a diary I started keeping when I was in the forest. I didn't have signal on my phone most of the time - so back from the walk and nothing to do, I started writing - this is more like a loose account of the day's walk, and some random thoughts at the end of the day. :)

Signs of human disturbance - Firewood Collection

Pole Cutting

Fire - vast patches grasslands burnt and along with it life in the understory

A rare reward!

Collecting scat sample

Hyderabad - May 06

So, camp's over. I am in Hyderabad now, being pampered. Which means, being fed. And for once, I am enjoying it. The last few days in Bangalore were a whirl wind and I hardly remember anything much. Getting off at Majestic, taking an auto home. I suddenly had this craving for food...good was as if I hadn't eaten for months. There were no provisions at home so I went to the next door Pizza Hut for a a bill of 200 something...from 12 Rupee full fledged meals to a whopping 200 Rupee snack...welcome to the city! :)

So back in Hyd...I am thinking about the camp. It was a good camp. A unique experience. I am missing the walks, the routine. What I am NOT missing is the heat and the grime. It's nice to be back - good food, comfortable bed. I miss the sound of birds though. Every morning I would wake up, often without the alarm to the sound of birds. In Thalacauvery, it was the Jungle Fowl and the long drawn, sweet, idle whistling of the Malabar Whistling Thrush, along with a variety of other bird songs, big and small. It was like waking up to a celebration - celebration of a new day. Quite similar was the scene in all the other places, except for the IB in Sakleshpur. I suppose being bang on such a busy highway, it wasn't a preferred bird habitat, though there were forests and trees all over - right behind it, across the highway on the other side. Says something about the disturbance these roads and highways through the forest cause, doesn't it? Birds, in general, avoid places of heavy human activity. Similar argument can be extended to animals as well. Back in the city, all I hear is the sound of traffic...buses, scooters, cars. It is disquieting. I'll get used to it soon. Which in a way is more disquieting. Hmmm....

So the camp offered opportunities of some really good birding. I am thrilled with the birds I saw in the forests and near the guest houses. Similarly the walks were a good initiation into understanding the delicate balance of nature - forests and animals. I have just about begun to observe, understand, co-relate, and make inferences. Also apparent in the walks was the impact of human disturbance in the forest - fuelwood and NTFP collection, timber extraction, livestock grazing, poaching. The forests which have high human disturbance are degraded and have low signs of wildlife - which in turn leads to further degradation. It's a cycle.

Forests that have good signs of wildlife, in addition to less human interference, are generally better protected by the forest staff. The forest staff in most cases is generally handicapped and gets a beating from all sides. In the cities we have an opinion that the forest department is generally apathetic, languid and demotivated, corruption ruling the ranks. The ground reality is different. There is always a lack of funds, which means low(and often late) salaries and poor infrastructure. So even where there is a will to maintain, to protect, it is severely inhibited by a lack of support. The poachers on the other hand, the timber mafia, the big plantation owners, the developers with those big development projects have big money, and big politicians in their pockets. If the forest department becomes strict with the peripheral villages for example, with respect to livestock grazing in the core forest areas or NTFP collection, the villagers get antagonistic, sometimes even violent. Villagers ganging up against the forest staff are common. The forest staff has no backing. It's highly political, everything, and it's all about money. And yet, in such circumstances also, there are so many of these men in khaki, from watchers to guards to rangers, who are battling all odds and trying to work with sincerity to protect the last remaining patches of our forests, our carbon sinks and fresh water sources.

Since I am suddenly on this remembrance drive, I'd stop by and remember the people I met in the course of all our walks. People in plantations, villagers, forest watchers and guards - most of them were warm and helpful. And most of them were really very poor. Just want to quote P. Sainath's Ramon Magsaysay Award acceptance speech which came in the papers a couple of days back:

In nearly 14 years of reporting India's villages full time, I have felt honoured and humbled by the generosity of some of the poorest people in the world. People who constantly bring home to you the Mahatma's great line: 'Live simply, that others may simply live.' But a people we today sideline and marginalise in the path of development we now pursue. A people in distress, even despair, who still manage to awe me with their human and humane values. On their behalf too, I accept the Ramon Magsaysay award.

Mudigere - April 30

My last walk. I suppose I was busy winding up and packing up that night that I didn't really get time to write in my diary. Looking through the pictures, don't think there was anything spectacular about the walk that day. We were walking in the same part of the forest where we had walked the previous day - just taking a different route. Since it had rained so heavily the other night, everything, whatever little tracks were there on the forest floor were all washed away. Fresh leaves and branches covered the forest floor, a reminder of the storm of the previous evening. There were signs of human disturbance everywhere - firewood collection, timber felling, encroachment of forest land and so on. I remember Kamal and I waited at the bus stop for a long time to be picked up. I started filling up my data sheets. After a while I realised I have an audience - 4 or 5 children from the village peeking inside, trying to make sense of what I was doing. We chatted as we waited...I was aware my last walk was done, tomorrow morning as everybody else would be studying the maps and marking the routes and going about their walks, I would be sitting in a bus to Bangalore.

Last walk

Signs of timber extraction

Probably a water snake

Walk to the bus stop

The bus stop - waiting to be picked up

Mudigere - April 29

So that day I did sleep out in the veranda. It was cool, a different experience! Just that the sound and light from the lorries made life a little uncomfortable. It became cool sometime around midnight and I passed into sleep. It's beautiful to spread out your sleeping bag anywhere under the sky and to just sleep.

We moved to this place last evening. Looks like a place in shambles - abandoned forest quarters - and I swear - no electricity, no running water this time. The water has to be fetched 100 meters away from a nursery hose. Anyway, quite used to 'no electricity' part, and also used to 'fetching water' for bath and toilet use, so this seems not very difficult. And interestingly, my cell phone shows 5 bars here! Full signal! I cannot recall when I had signal last. I took a bath outside - near the nursery behind an abandoned structure - in the dark. Was a bit apprehensive about the whole process so just got going full speed and was done before I knew it. Nobody comes that way I know. But it was in the open and I was uncomfortable. Anyway, it was cool and refreshing after the day's walk. It was a short and easy walk yesterday. Weather's playing friends so the sun was nice and gentle and didn't beat down on us with unrelenting fury. It was after the walk that we arrived at these quarters.

Today: My last but one walk. My last but one night as a part of this camp. I can't believe it, day after tomorrow I'd be heading towards Bangalore. I think Bangalore with it's traffic and people would be a little shocking. I've become used to living in quiet surroundings - often with no electricity or running water - with an odd bunch of people I call my teammates - Bangalore, city life, back to comfort and family, home, would kind of feel strange. At least in the beginning. Well, well, well....

I had grapefruit today, fresh from the farm. It was quite nice. The plantation owners knew the senior forest guard well. So courtesy him, we were treated very well. Fresh grapefruit, majjige, bananas...On our way back - dark clouds started gathering and it suddenly poured down. There was a storm and really heavy downpour accompanied by hail. I could see big branches falling off trees on both sides as we sped through the teak plantations. A huge bamboo cluster had fallen onto the road blocking it completely, so we had to stop and wait for the rain to subside. A forest rain-drenched, looks fresh and rejuvenated - nothing can beat the green of the forest at this time - it looks so beautiful.

What do we do now...wait, turn back, find an alternate way? Searching beneath the seats we found an axe, our field assistant keeps it there for emergency, and I could now understand why. So when the rain subsided a little, P and our guide jumped out and started clearing away the fallen branches. P started axing the bamboo, the guide and I cleared as many fronds, branches off the road as we could. It was still raining - we got drenched but managed to clear half the road so the vehicle could pass by, and it did! Our joy at clearing this obstacle and moving ahead got dampened when just a few hundred meters ahead there was this huge teak tree that had fallen on the road. There was no way we could clear this would take a few hours and it was already evening. So we turned back and took a detour into a mud road(between the first road block and the second). Our guide luckily knew the area well and on his hunch we continued on this muddy track which led us through some plantations and forests and finally after an hour(and a few other roadblocks)brought us onto a main road again. It was while clearing one of these fallen trees which probably had an ant's nest on it, and which unfortunately in a hurry and in the rain I didn't quite see, I got some nasty bites on my hands which were to itch and pain long after the camp was over.

End of walk - April 28

When you see something like this, hill after hill covered with trees, you want to keep it intact, just as it is

Where we stayed - planning the day

April 29 - Is that something there?

Mera walla Green!

Forest Bounty - wild fruit, which our guides always insisted we have

Drive back through teak forest

Oops! Dark clouds...

And it pours down...

Out of the window...

Clearing the fallen bamboo

A rain-drenched forest

This time it's a slender silver oak...

Sakleshpur - April 27

I remember thinking around the beginning of this month - time is really flying. April 30 is coming closer with each passing day. A couple of days back I was thinking - how many more days for the end of month? April 30 was my commitment. Once that's over, I am free to leave. And I am thinking now - oh no, just 4 more days and this camp is over!

Well, today's walk was a short and easy one. I was walking after 5 days. I felt tired and wobbly initially, just wanted to complete the walk and get it over, that's all. But later, I think I found a rhythm and walking was no problem except for water. The weather was nice and well behaved too. The sun was gentle and there was always a little breeze so it was actually quite pleasant. I just felt thirsty all the time and before the walk was over I was done with my supply of water. We waited at the bus stop for a long while but the bus was late. It was apparently stuck behind a lorry carrying bricks which was moving uphill an inch a second, and did not get enough leeway to overtake it. Well, these are the Ghats...

We waited and waited and waited, and finally hitched a ride in a jeep; it soon got packed. Hitched another jeep ride to reach Sakleshpur. This one had 14 people on board, with 5 in front, 8 in the back and one on the foot board behind; the driver didn't have place to sit, he was half sticking out himself - and he was calling out for more passengers. :-D

Nothing more to tell at all - I think I am too tired today. By the way, since we had to vacate our room because of some engineer's visit, we are all crammed in one single room, which can barely accommodate just the luggage. So where will the people go? Outside! So I am sitting in our jeep and writing all this - I am going to sleep out in the veranda, with all the fishermen, their wives and children.

Moss Green

The vast and sprawling Kadumane Coffee Estate



A big fat Pumpkin

Sakleshpur - April 26

This place reminds of Rewa. It is just so hot. Whether you are sitting, lying down, eating, sleeping, trying to read, there's one thing which is common - you are constantly perspiring. I can feel streams of perspiration going down my body, back and front. Theres no breeze here which makes it worse. Just crossing the Mangalore highway(that's where this IB is located) to a small eating place where we go for breakfast, lunch and dinner(sigh!) saps me out completely. It's difficult to eat in this heat, but eat I must, for I need the energy. And drink I must too, coz I am loosing salts and fluids constantly sweating like this. I really wonder how we used to manage in Rewa, as children. Most of the time there was no electricity. I remember this being 'bathed' in sweat feeling very distinctly. Especially as 4-5 of us children and adults would try to catch a nap in a small little room after lunch in the afternoons. No wonder I'd prefer not sleeping and just loitering around, passing time - in the cowshed, or in the veranda with the massive Neem tree, near the well, or just hopping from one neighbour to the other. Evenings would cool things down. A spray of water in the aangan and in the veranda, and a quick bath in the bathroom by the well would do the trick. Nights were cool too. We would sleep out in the aangan or up on the terrace. I remember seeing so many shooting stars during those summer nights. The only annoying thing was having to get up at day break - coz the terrace really heats up pretty soon. And you can't sleep forever with the sun smiling down at you. Sometimes it would suddenly start raining in the night - so we would have to wake up and run down the terrace helter skelter with our mattresses rolled up and crash into the small rooms. Rain was always an adventure. It would cool things down and was general fun watching it fall pitter patter in the aangan. We would run from one wing to the other, criss crossing the aangan, enjoying the few seconds of rain on us, much to the annoyance of elders who didn't like the additional nuisance of children running about all over the place, making even the dry corridors wet and dirty. Anyway. So back to this heat. I am off today as well. I'll walk tomorrow. This heat is making me nervous. But others are doing it. And I have done it before. So it should be OK. I suppose. Anyway not much point sitting here and doing nothing also. So I'll walk tomorrow.

Hey, I saw a snake yesterday. It was quite by chance. I came out into the veranda, and what do I see on the driveway - maybe just 5-6 meters away, there's something long and thin and its moving. The snake moved into a flower bed, crossed the driveway and went into grass cover. I saw it for a good 15 minutes. It was thrilling to just see it move. It was about 5 feet in length, dark brown with closely placed black bands on it with a yellowish underbelly. It probably was a Rat Snake, Bip says.

This IB is on the Bangalore-Mangalore highway. So, day or night, there is absolutely no respite from the sound of these lorries(trucks). In fact, since the IB is right in front of the check post, they all have to apply brakes right in front, the sound is atrocious. In the night, there headlights constantly come through the window and light up the wall behind my bed. Right in front of the IB, across the highway, is a very high, steep mountain, almost vertical, covered with thick forests. Midway through it, along the contour, runs the Mangalore - Hassan Southern Railway. I remember the trek Avi, Maggu and Jaya went on. They probably trekked on this railway track itself. It was getting converted from meter gauge to broad gauge, hence abandoned at that time. I think. But now a goods train runs through this track three times a day. Every time I see a light near the tunnel or hear the goods train pass, I remember the trek these guys did - must have been awesome. This railway track cuts right across the Ghats and I am sure it has beautiful scenery on both sides. A forest guard once saw a tiger walk right on this railway track and one of the teams from our group found elephant dung right on the track. So looks like its used by animals as much.

It rained in the evening, so it's much cooler now. I was sitting in the highway chai shop and looking at the lightening - the shapes it creates as it illuminates the sky. I don't like thunder but I enjoyed looking at the lightening. Today, maybe it was far away, therefore there was no thunder. Or maybe the sound of thunder got drowned in the sound of these lorries going past.

There are these people in our veranda today. They came in just when it started raining. Men, women and many children. With baskets full of utensils and stuff. I was annoyed at first. Because of the general nuisance the kids were creating and because there was no space left on the veranda. I realised that they are fisher folks - I had seen them near the stream behind the chai shop today morning. They don't have a house as such, not a permanent one at least. So when it rained, they came over with all their belongings to this veranda, spread out their mats and made themselves comfortable. Why am I getting annoyed if these people are taking refuge from rain here? How many times after a long and exhausting walk, throat dry and parched for lack of water, have I taken refuge in the homes of these poor people - and every time I have been served so well - cold water, bananas, tea, biscuits - even an offer for food - it is almost humbling. And yet, when this set of men, women arrive with their belongings and children to escape the rain - where's my compassion gone? With this thought my outlook changed almost immediately - I even smiled at a little child who smiled back. I couldn't smile at his bidi smoking, paan chewing nosy grandmother with stained and mottled teeth, but I am not annoyed now. It's true, I've seen it and the belief just gets stronger with each experience - the poor are always large hearted.

The Forest IB

I am sitting in the jeep and writing in torch light. I like sitting here, it's more like a comfy sitting room. I am reminded of Jaya - who used to do her school homework in their new Premier Padmini when she was a kid. Wonder which place Jaya's little daughter would prefer doing her homework?

OK, so spoke with Maa. Drove down to a small toll gate hamlet - it only has some shady restaurants(& bars) and shops with just one STD booth. Most lorry wallahs stop there. It was 9 in the night and one of our teams had not returned back, we were getting a little concerned. There was no signal at the Sakleshpur IB so C drove down here to get in touch with them and I tagged along to make a call to Bhopal. Spoke with Maa very briefly. Was surprised she knew I was unwell. I wanted to tell her only after I recovered. I am sure she would be quite relieved now. She had also called Ap in the evening and asked her to tell me to take lots of fluids, fruits etc. Ap is suddenly getting calls from all these unknown people asking about my health and stuff. But she is sweet about it.

Current Scene: We are in our room. She is filling data sheets in torch light....I am writing all this in torch light. Rest is darkness.

I am feeling much better today. I plan to walk tomorrow. I just had Nariyal Paani from the shady shop across the road. The women folk there are nice actually. What else, there's nothing much...So peace out!

Sakleshpur - April 25

Well, I finally fell ill. 20th evening I was speaking with Maa and she asked me about my health. I said I was perfect, no problem at all. I've been having hotel food for almost a month, many times not the best of places when it comes to hygiene, water from all kinds of sources, from forest streams to dingy hotels, to well water, to water directly from the wash basin in small towns. But I am doing fine when it comes to health you know! I think it's true what they say about 'Tathastu Devta'. 22nd I felt weak and puky and went down with diarrhoea. It's amazing how one day you are fine and the next day you become so weak that just getting up to fetch some water for yourself becomes such a pain. So I slept almost the whole of 22nd. I figured I got dehydrated completely in the last walk, so I drank a lot of water with electral. The next day I felt much better. We moved from Napokulu to Sakleshpur. I was looking forward to doing the Sakleshpur grids. We reached Sakleshpur around noon and it was just so hot that I started feeling dehydrated and weak again. Yesterday was no better. I just felt so weak and tired when I got up in the morning, just felt like sleeping on and on. I pulled myself together and got ready for the walk. Maa chose to call at that time and I suddenly felt so homesick. I wanted to get out of this heat and sweat and filth and into the cool comfort and warmth of home. I didn't tell her I am unwell. No point getting people all worried when they can't do anything. I wasn't feeling any better, in fact I was getting nervous about this weakness which wasn't getting any better. I pulled out of the walk and saw a doctor in the city. Doc said it was fatigue and exhaustion and dehydration and suggested I take lots of fluids and rest for a day or two. He had been to MP but not to Bhopal. He said I am his guest and didn't charge any money.

So here I am, sitting in a IB and resting. Everybody else has gone on walk. We moved here last night. Like all IB's, it's a neat place. The only problem is it doesn't have electricity. So in the hot and humid day, there's no fan. Most of the times, there's no breeze either. So it gets quite sultry in here. Today is also my rest day. I might rest tomorrow also, that depends. I will then have a few more days of walking before I pack up from here. It was really good that I was able to reach Preetam last evening. I feel more confident about my health after speaking with him.