Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bandipur Tiger Reserve – Lantana rains blanks


This potential IPL star was the highlight of our Bandipur trip
The title would seem to belong better in a cryptic crossword, but it literally describes the three things we came up against at Bandipur. Overrun with Lantana bush (that imported scourge of Indian forests), torrential rain that disturbed all animal movement and a virtual blank on the meaningful (predator) sightings scorecard.

We arrived in Bandipur with high hopes. And with the news that a tigress with 4 cubs was being sighted virtually on every safari. Now, add the odd leopard and wild dog sighting plus elephants and Bandipur seemed very exciting indeed. And right as we entered the park we saw a beautiful fishing eagle, which didn’t wait for a photo. And later that evening we saw a bear and her cub in dense lantana. A super first safari, and we couldn’t wait for more. After all we had 5 more safaris to go.

Back at the Bandipur Safari Lodge, we had dinner with our safari companions, a group of avid wildlifers mainly from Mysore, led by Dr. Shivanand, an eminent zoologist from Mysore, who has been visiting Bandipur for more than 30 years. He pointed out the proliferation of lantana in the forest and the potential dangers of this invasive plant. And as we noticed in subsequent safaris, more than 60-70% of Bandipur’s scenery was dominated by lantana, an impenetrable, thorny bush with spreads very quickly and is extremely difficult to control. 
A tusker surrounded by Lantana bush
We set out the next morning, with the forest lovely and fresh. It had rained the previous night, so all predator movements were awry. We had great sightings of a pair of striped neck mongoose hunting for breakfast; as they ran about in front of us, suddenly pausing to dig furiously in the dirt and gnaw at something. They did this over and over through the half hour or so we spent with them. According to our favourite jungle superstition, (and it works!)  sighting a mongoose guarantees a tiger sighting, but in Bandipur, someone forgot to tell the tigers!
Striped neck mongoose
That evening was a washout. It was ominously cloudy even as we set out for the safari, but within half an hour, the thunderstorm broke in all its fury. The rain came down in torrents and for once, we were really grateful for the covered roof on the safari vehicle. Back in the lodge with our (wet) tails between our legs, we waited for the rain to clear up for the next morning.

That it did, and we even saw an elephant herd, albeit a bit far away and a tusker just next to the road. We came across absolutely fresh pugmarks of a tigress. She had walked on the road till at one point, her paws had skidded in the wet mud road, indicating that she must have heard us and suddenly veered off into the bush. Our driver however, was not impressed with our attempts at tiger tracking and he drove on without waiting to check for any signs of movement. 

Strange we thought, but it was to be a recurring theme in the Karnataka forests. Unlike most other tiger reserves where guides would track pug marks or wait at typical tiger sighting points – there have been several instances where we have waited a long time at one place, (especially at waterholes to listen for alarm calls, tell tale signs of predator presence) the Jungle Lodges guides typically motor on, relying on their strong spotting skills, pausing just briefly at water holes before driving further. Is that one potential reason why you don’t see as many tigers in Karnataka’s forests, even though they boast of very high densities?

A bonnet macaque grabs a termite. Note the tiny hands clutching at her midriff.
The stars of the evening safari were the bonnet macaques. We were almost out of the park, when we saw a bunch of them come out into a clearing. As we stopped to watch, they began their act – the great termite catch – they ran, suddenly jumped up in the air, snatched at termites and put them in their mouths. Even having a young one clutching at her stomach didn’t stop one mother from launching into orbit. The youngster didn’t seem to keen though. And then there was the Special One – he would stand on 2 legs, legs spread, hands on his knees and wait for the termites to come, then reach out and pluck it out of the air. Blame it on the IPL, I guess.

A rather angry looking striped neck mongoose
On our last safari we saw more mongoose (we saw at least 2 on every safari) a cuckoo shrike, changeable hawk eagle and several hoopoe. But the highlight was a pair of paradise flycatchers at their nest. There must have been eggs in there because the female never even moved an inch, she was on the nest all the time. We saw more fresh tiger pugs, of a mother and two cubs, but we don’t believe in waiting, do we now?

White Bellied Woodpecker 
Shrike

Scaly bellied woodpecker
So that was Bandipur, some great bird, mongoose and macaque sightings, lots of lantana and the rain ruining our predator parade. Onwards!

Hoopoe
Changeable Hawk Eagle
Bandipur Trip Guide

Getting there
Mysore (77kms) is the nearest big city, with excellent rail and road connectivity with Bangalore (140 kms). It’s best to hire your car at Bangalore and do a round trip. Or take a train to Mysore and arrange for your car from there.

Stay, food and service
The Jungle Lodges’ (www.junglelodges.com) Bandipur Safari Lodge is one of many resorts in Bandipur and lives up to the JLR standards in every way, though it is more a ‘resort’ and less a ‘forest getaway’ like BR Hills. As always, great food and excellent staff, and a decent bar.

Safaris and Guides
If you’re staying with Jungle Lodges, they operate all safaris and the cost is built into your daily package, so it’s all taken care of. And since safaris are exclusive to JLR, private resorts also rely on them for their guests (at steep prices, I might add) Unless you want to try the 40 minute bus safaris run by the forest department. Avoidable, purely for the crowd.