Monday, June 4, 2012

Dudhwa Tiger Reserve - 'Terai-ffic'

The sun disappeared. As we entered Dudhwa National Park, a dense stretch of incredibly tall Sal trees created a beautiful canopy maybe seventy to a hundred feet off the ground, making sure that very little light reaches the forest floor. Combine that with grasslands, swamps and dense forests, it makes for one of India’s finest (if lesser known) tiger habitats.

Dudhwa's beautiful Sal forests
Dudhwa was on the agenda primarily due to the legend of the late Billy Arjan Singh, Dudhwa’s most famous resident and how beautiful the forest seemed in his writings. And once we got there, I could not help feeling that seeing a tiger in this amazing habitat would probably be the sighting of a lifetime.


So, with that burning desire, we drove into the forest. And in less than a couple of minutes, Sonu, our guide pointed to fresh pugmarks on the road. They belonged to a tigress and were less than 15 minutes old, he said, since they were superimposed on the tyre tracks of the gypsies that had preceded us on the route. The chase was on! We traced the tigress’ route, conjectured on where she could have gone and scanned the whole area for her. But no luck, it was almost as if the dense forest had swallowed her up. And I’m sure she was somewhere close by, watching our futile search and smiling to herself! That’s when we realized that seeing a tiger in Dudhwa wasn’t going to be easy at all.

But the beauty of the forest meant that we really didn’t miss seeing the tiger. Through the morning and afternoon safaris, we drove through the thick sals, and across the open grasslands and on the edge of the swamps, seeing spotted deer, some sambhar (they’re rare to spot here) and some hog deer and swamp deer (barasingha) as well. And some great sightings of the lesser adjutant stork and the hoopoe – the first time I’d seen either of these birds.



Hog deer
The next morning, we drove again through the swamps and tall elephant grass that is a distinctive feature of forests in this part of the world. Till we reached the Rhino enclosure.  Dudhwa re-introduced Rhinos in 1984 into a 27 sq km fenced off area in the heart of the park, with 7 Rhinos initially brought in from Assam. Over the years this number has grown to almost 30 now and while they’re still protected in the fenced-off area, tourists can try and spot them on elephant-back.




So we set off on an hour long elephant safari, and I was super excited since I’d never seen Rhinos in the wild before. 30 Rhinos, grassland habitat, should be easy to spot… Wrong. It took us almost 40 mins of searching before we finally tracked a mother and calf. They politely gave us a sighting and then quickly disappeared into the tall grass. Amazing how such a massive animal can disappear so quickly!

Indian Rock Python - half hidden in the swamp
On our way out, we saw some storks gathered together and staring at something near their feet. At once, our mahout said ‘python’ and on closer inspection, we saw it was indeed a fully grown python resting in the swamp, with only the hind part of its body and head above the mud. And what we realized much later, when we zoomed in on the picture was that the python had a kill, possibly a stork, coated with mud and half buried in the swamp. That’s why the birds were gathered around it. Superb sighting!

The grasslands at Sathiyana
That afternoon we came really close to a tiger sighting. We went to a different area of the park called Sathiyana (which literally means to go senile, no one has any idea why it’s got such a strange name!). We were up a watch tower amidst a massive grassland patch and suddenly we heard the “kharr kharr” alarm calls of barking deer, the forest’s most reliable sign of a predator’s presence. And when the reclusive hog deer began to call as well, we were sure that there was a tiger around. So we waited and moved back and forth across the grassland, but no dice. Dudhwa’s tigers obviously didn’t want to show themselves to us! So reluctantly, we headed out and on the way we saw a croc sleeping on a log, half in and half out of the water. And just as we were leaving, we saw a leopard flash across the road ahead of us. By the time we reached the spot he’d disappeared into the undergrowth, so no pictures. But at least we’d broken our carnivore duck!


Barasingha Parade



The next morning, we headed to another part of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, the Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary. While Kishanpur is separated only from Dudhwa by a river, the entry gate is 30 kms from Dudhwa, so it meant we had a 4:00 am start.  Kishanpur apparently had a much higher density of tigers, but our morning and afternoon trips yielded none. We got the alarm calls and once our guide even shouted ‘Tiger crossing the road” which turned out to be wild boar! But we saw masses of swamp barasingha, a beautiful fishing eagle and lots of herbivore, including cattle grazing illegally in the Sanctuary, barely a kilometer from the main gate.

Eagle
And we knew our tiger luck was out when we heard that, in between our morning and afternoon trips, a tourist vehicle, casually entering the forest at 1:30 pm (the peak of the day, usually the worst time to see anything) saw a tigress walking on the road for several minutes! And, to rub it in, they’d spotted a tiger on the main road in Dudhwa, while we were in Kishanpur. We gave up!

Billy Arjan Singh's Home in Dudhwa
On our way out from our last safari, we stopped at Billy Arjan Singh’s home and estate. Amazing to see where he lived and imagine where he would have brought up his tiger and leopards! Now maintained by his nephew, it’s a real shrine to those in India who believe that we can preserve our wild treasures, despite opposition and skepticism. May his soul always keep showing us the way.

Our Tiger Score in Dudhwa
So, with superb memories of this wonderful forest, despite a tiger score of zero, we set out to our next destination – Corbett!

Dudhwa Tiger Reserve Trip Guide

Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, in UP’s Terai region is made up of three different Parks – Dudhwa National Park in Lakhimpur Kheri, Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary (about 30 kms away) and Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary (about 70 kms away) We visited the first two and loved both! Hopefully we’ll get to Katarniaghat the next time, if only to see Dolphins and Gharials. The last two have no tourist accommodation, so you will need to seek Forest Department Rest Accommodation



Also, don't be surprised if, amidst all the bird calls and the occasional alarm call, you hear the loud 'Poom' of a rail engine or the clackety-clack of wheels, Dudhwa has a railway line running through it and the occasional passenger or freight train pass through, sometimes with disastrous consequences. There's the story of a speeding train that ran over some elephants some time ago and the pachyderm family extracted revenge on a poor, hapless gangman patrolling the tracks a few weeks later.

Dudhwa is set in the Terai’s sugar belt. Acres and acres of sugarcane fields, and the most surprising thing for us was to see tractors driven by Sikh farmers. Our driver then told us that in the 80’s, many Sikh families sold their ‘premium’ Punjab farms and settled down with much larger farmland in the Terai. So don’t be surprised if you come across Sikh gentlemen on tractors, or a gurdwara or homes blaring the latest Punjabi hits.  

Getting there 
Dudhwa National Park is around 280 (5 hours drive) kms from Lucknow (the nearest metro and air link). The closest station is Shahjehanpur (100 kms approx.) on the Delhi-Lucknow trunk route. We took the excellent Delhi-Lucknow mail, left Delhi at 10:00 pm, reached Shahjehanpur at 4:00 am and got to Dudhwa in time for the morning safari.

Stay


The tents at Camp Jambolana
We stayed at Camp Jambolana, Dudhwa's luxury option (www.jambolanasafaricamp.com) Their location is fantastic- our tents were on the banks of a little river, and we saw birds and even a crocodile swim by one afternoon. But it’s certainly not luxury – the open bathrooms can definitely do with some basic improvements, so can the mosquito-proofing and the pathway between the dining area and the luxury tents. They also need to figure out their power situation and at least provide one charging point in each tent. I would never point these out in a regular forest resort, but for a premium one with claimed luxury status, it’s something they should certainly make happen. It’s also around 30 mins away from Dudhwa’s entry gate, so that’s an extra hour every safari.

Cottage at the Forest Complex, Dudhwa
The other option is the Forest Rest House complex at Dudhwa itself. From the outside, they seemed basic but comfortable and charming enough and there is also a VIP bungalow, for those with connections. The biggest advantage is the proximity to the gate – it buys you at least 30 mins of sleep every morning!

Food and Service
The people at Jambolana are pretty good and the food is very decent. And they have a unique ‘minder’ concept for the tents – there is one person for per tent category who looks after you – from putting on the boiler for the hot water to guiding you back and forth from your meals. Kishoreji, our ‘minder’ was a fine gentleman with a lot of experience in the forests. He has a very difficult job (for example he also sits outside the tent all night) so please leave him a decent tip if you do visit the Jambolana. Pandeyji, the other minder also doubles up as a forest guide at times and his knowledge of the forests is second to none.


Safaris
There are organized gypsy safaris into the park, with forest guides at the gate. Our driver for the most part was KK Chowdhary, an excellent driver, who was at least as good as the guide in spotting and tracking. At the end of it all, he was very upset that we didn’t see a tiger. He kept calling us in Corbett every day to check and sounded genuinely happy when we did see tigers in Corbett. You can call him directly on + 91 9793717839 to fix your gypsy safaris. There isn’t too much tourist pressure at Dudhwa, so entry permits shouldn’t be a problem. Yet.
The guides come to you on a rotation basis, from a roster of approved forest department guides.