Thursday, January 10, 2013

Nagpur-Waghpur - Hidden Jewels of Central India


Herd of Chital in golden light at Pench 
Butterfly at Nagzira

Black Shouldered Kite at Tadoba
The lure of seeing a new forest is always impossible to resist. So when my good friend and Vidarbha forest champion Rajnesh Naidu suggested we do a trip around Nagpur, the feet clicked into gear immediately and we set out early November on a one-week round trip around Nagpur's awesome neighborhood. 

Rajnesh set us (actually himself, since he was driving) an action packed schedule, barely pausing for breath anywhere! So our 8 day trip covered Koka, Umred, Nagzira, Pench (Mah), Tadoba and Bor. Of this lot, I'd seen Tadoba and Nagzira and was keen to reacquaint myself with these forests. But the real attractions were the new forests, all teeming with wildlife and under new management, showing all the signs of an open and welcoming forest administration. 

My favorite spider - Doesn't he look like Darth Vader?
But the highlight was undoubtedly the arachnids - giant spiders with webs strung across the road at times. At the end of the monsoon, these beautiful creatures create large, intricate webs to take full advantage of the increased insect activity in the post monsoon jungle greenery. At every turn, there was one spectacular web, with a beautiful resident at the centre. The first time I'd paid so much attention to these wonderful creatures and man was it rewarding!

Koka
Full Moon at Koka
A brief stopover on our way to Umred. Set barely 20 kms from Bhandara, Koka is currently managed by the FDCM (Forest Development Corporation) and there are efforts underway to declare it a Sanctuary. We drove around the outskirts of this beautiful park on a full moon night and our friends from Bhandara, Bhavesh Nirwan and Nadeem Khan (regular visitors here) have sighted many different animal and bird species, including big cats.

Umred-Kharhangla Wildlife Sanctuary

A Black Shouldered Kite hovers over Umred Lake
Set to the South of Nagpur, Umred is part of a vital corridor that connects Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve to other protected areas like Pench and Nagzira. I was fortunate to accompany a forest department vehicle and watch as they set camera traps to photograph large mammals. Also fascinating was their experiment with a new type of waterhole. Don't want to dwell too much on it since it is still in concept and testing phase - but it looks very promising and hopefully will eliminate the ugly cement structures that make up our man made waterholes!

Giant Wood Spider on its web
Coming back to the Wildlife at Umred, there are several tigers here, including a family with 4 cubs. We met a forest guard who had seen the mother and cubs play on the main road the previous evening. There are also regular sightings of other tigers as well, in addition to a vibrant prey base. In my short trip there, I spent some quality time on the Umred dam, watching dragonflies flit back and forth from the water and a Black Shouldered Kite hover in the air, looking for prey. All these signs of a very safe and stable environment are music to the ears of any wildlife lover, and the tourism infrastructure in Umred is definitely gearing up and should be completely functional over the next few months. 

Pench (Maharashtra)


It's amazing how a change of attitude can transform a place so quickly. Pench (Mah) was the forgotten sibling amongst the two Pench's. The MP side had all the resorts, the jeeps and the tourists. And the Maharashtra side had squat. Though they're part of the same forest (separated only by an invisible state border) The issue - MP welcomed tourists and Maharashtra didn't. With Mr. Reddy taking on the leadership of these parks, it's almost like an overnight change - the whole place seems to have woken up from its slumber, the people are energized and the tourist profile is changing (from weekend party-types from Nagpur to wildlife watchers) And it's all being done with the participation of the local community and structured to provide them with the most benefit. For more, please check out www.mahapenchtiger.com

Racket Tailed Drongo

Dramatic Gaur
And the forest itself is spectacular. The classical beauty of the Central Indian forests is accentuated by the beautiful Pench reservoir and the terrain is more rugged than over on the MP side. Add the relatively low levels of tourism and you get a truly 'wild' forest. And yes, teeming with wildlife. We saw evidence of several tigers (pug marks and scat) and wild dogs and I personally was lucky enough to see two species on my 'must see' list - a proper 'photographic' sighting of a racket tailed drongo and a glimpse of a honey badger. The latter is a very nocturnal creature and seldom seen, so to see one zip across the road was thrilling to say the least - no photos of course!! 

We saw a lot of prey animals, pointing to a healthy eco-system and with reports of tiger populations higher in the Maharashtra side (than MP) Pench is certainly set for a lot of tourist action in the coming months!

Nagzira

Spider in the rain
The one disappointment of this trip. I'd had a memorable trip in May with wild dog and tiger sightings galore. This time two things conspired to make it something of a downer - one man-made and the other nature-made. Hurricane Neelam blew clouds all the way from South India's coast and caused it to rain over Nagzira. Which in turn threw everything out of gear. The second issue was a strange lethargy by the forest administration (surprising given how on-the-ball they seemed to be in May when Mr. Reddy was Field Director) - the park's route system was altered and the result was much lower coverage and two-way traffic on narrow (and wet) forest roads. A recipe for chaos (and potential accidents) The forest staff took 1 hour to issue our permits and generally seemed disinterested with things in general. 

We went into Nagzira in the morning, saw a family of Sloth Bears in thick bush and a couple of beautiful spiders, one struggling to build his web amidst the rain. Then we stopped off at an under-construction resort outside the forest where we spent an amazing hour with hundreds of beautiful butterflies. Really incredible to see so many of them flitting all around you. 


That afternoon we went to New Nagzira, a newly notified part of the Park and again, we immediately saw evidence of lax management. The guides were all young boys, who weren't' even trained. We were told that their 'training' was happening in parallel! So we got a young lad, who (not his fault) didn't really know the forest well and the result was that we went round in circles, till one of us figured that out and somehow got us back on the right path and out of the forest. It helped that we were all reasonably experienced 'wildlifers' and not fazed so we got out fine, but I can only imagine what a regular tourist could go through, lost in the forest in pouring rain, with the light fast fading and a guide with very little experience. It's time the Forest Department there woke up and realized that tourism is not just about issuing permits and setting 'rules'. They have to take responsibility to ensure that such fundamental errors do not happen. 

Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Signature Spider
The (current) crown jewel in Vidarbha's crown. I've written about Tadoba earlier, so won't dwell too much on it here, but suffice to say that it is truly one of India's best places to see tigers. Even in thick post monsoon forest with a lot of routes closed down, we saw one tiger family and narrowly missed a couple more. 

The first two safaris were memorable just because we were able to ride through lush green forests, refreshed by the recent rain. (thanks to Hurricane Neelam) Again, the arachnids were the highlight, including a beautiful 'Signature Spider', a species that leaves a tell-tale signature on a part of its web. 

Telia Cub

Telia Tigress

The night before the third safari, something told me that we would see tigers the next day and I mentioned that to my friend Nishit Pandey, also visiting from Mumbai with his family. And we arranged to be the first vehicles to enter the park the next morning. And sure enough, as soon as Nishit's jeep (which was the first) entered the road to Telia Dam, they saw all 4 of the Telia cubs on the road. The cubs then went into the vegetation and a couple stayed out briefly to give us some pictures. Then we heard them play for over an hour, growling and roaring in turn. Then, one call from their mother and they all fell into attention. The sounds vanished for a few minutes and the next thing we see is all 4 walking across the Telia dam with their mother. It was the first time I'd seen this beautiful tigress and brave mother of 4! They came to the water to drink and then disappeared into the jungle. Another great sighting of this wonderful family!

Bor Wildlife Sanctuary

Fresh Water Crab
Another little jewel around Nagpur, this one is to the South West, near Wardha. It is popular amongst the locals for the nearby Bor-Dharan Dam a popular picnic spot. But not many of them know that it is also a vibrant (albeit small) tiger forest.


We spent a serene day at Bor, wandering through beautiful forest, interspersed with rocky nallahs and open grasslands, topped by a lovely water body. Again, we saw lots of herbivores, especially Chital and Sambhar - more evidence of a thriving forest. We also heard reports of 2 different tiger sightings to two sets of tourists!

Most importantly, we saw more evidence of proactive work by the Department with more waterhole experiments. But the most heartwarming part was the improved facilities for the forest guards in their forest huts. Thanks to the efforts of the Wildlife Conservation Trust (founded by Mr. Hemendra Kothari and run by Dr. Anish Andheria) the forest guards have revamped huts with much better amenities - simple yet vital things like a cooking stove, water filters, solar lamps and mosquito nets. For the people with the toughest (and most thankless) jobs in the Indian forests, providing these basic facilities was long overdue and thanks to the WCT, these are now making a huge difference to the lives and morale of our brave forest guards. Check out more on WCT on www.wildlifeconservationtrust.org

Parakeet taking off
But our real adventure started as we left Bor. At the gate, we discovered we had a flat tire. And to our horror, the spare was also flat (the previous puncture hadn't been fixed properly) Rajnesh maneuvered the car to the forest department complex, and that blew the existing tire completely. He  then took the tire to the nearby village to get it fixed. When they got back an hour later, it was mixed news, the tire was fixed for now, but it was in bad shape! And I had a train to catch from Nagpur (60 mms away) in 2 hours. So, he had to nurse the car through forest roads in pitch darkness with a dodgy tire. And no mobile network. I don't know how he did it, but we entered the outskirts of Nagpur without a hitch. Then, the tyre blows up! I missed my train but was eternally grateful to the tyre for not blowing up in the middle of the forest! That would have been something else!

Anyways, a superb trip ended with some adventure! The 'Nagpur as tiger capital' debate is pretty redundant given the riches that surround the city. As for sightings, I'm sure the dry season will provide some serious joys to the dedicated wildlifer!  Till next time then...