It all started as a search for wildlife photography. I wanted to go for some of the forests in Karnataka for my new interest – wildlife photography. I accidentally stumbled upon a link that came as a search result in Google. It read as Tiger Census to be held in Dec from 16th Dec to 23rd Dec. It was already start of November. The census should have started in Oct but had gotten postponed for god sake reason. I told my wife who is always supportive of my mad endeavours. Immediately she gave her green signal saying it would be one of lifetime opportunities. So by now I had conquered one hurdle.
Next hurdle was – how to contact the forest officials and become a volunteer for the Tiger Census. The search in Google resulted with much information but none on how to contact to become a volunteer. Also almost all the reports said that the volunteers for this year’s census are not coming forward and main reason being the ban on usage of Camera. So I was happy that my chances would be high on being selected as a volunteer. Finally Facebook came to my rescue. A group in Facebook on Tiger census carried the information on whom to contact.
With new found interest and enthusiasm, I sent an email to PCCF Wildlife (firstname.lastname@example.org) on 4th November and received an email from PCCF on 5th November. I was allocated Bhadra Tiger Reserve called as Protected Area (PA) to volunteer along with many others and was asked to contact the respective PA official. I was also asked to sign an agreement which effectively said if any mishaps happen, I was solely responsible and nobody else will be held responsible.
Now that I have green signal from wife and forest department but most importantly I hadn’t applied for leave. I had different plans before I stumbled upon the Census. Now, I need to reschedule my family trip to Goa that was supposed to be from 21st Dec. I applied leave for two weeks with apprehension because I had taken two weeks leave in August for my bike trip from Manali to Leh to Khardungla to Nubra Valley. But my boss who is again supportive of these endeavours said “go ahead”.
Now, there is no stopping for me. I rescheduled the family trip to 25th keeping one day for rest after returning from Tiger Census. Preparations started for 8 days trip to Chikkamagalur and Bhadra forest. Buying camouflage clothes, shoes and other materials.
Meanwhile some of the volunteers started exchanging emails to know more about preparations, developments, regions they are coming from etc. Since I decided to drive my car, I offered to take four more. Finally only Sushobhan came with me in my car while Nayaz brought his car and along with he brought Rajkumar, Yashodhan and Pramod.
While I was excited about the tiger census an email came on 12th Dec that the census would start on 17th Dec. Some of the volunteers who hadn’t seen the post had already left their hometowns. As it was postponed to 17th, I decided to take off from 17th instead of 16th.
Meanwhile I and Nayaz decided that we start early on 17th so that we could reach Chikkamagalur by 10 or 11AM. I left home at 4:20AM and Sushobhan joined me at 100ft and Old Madras Road junction at 4:30. By 5AM, we were at first toll plaza near Parle G factory. We waited for Nayaz to join us. To beat the time and cold morning, I and Sushobhan got off my Tata Safari and had a cup of tea. By 5:45AM, Nayaz joined us. Rajkumar came to my car. From then on, it was fantastic drive till Chikkamagalur. We had breakfast at Kamat at around 8AM and reached Chikkamagalur at around 9:15AM. As Nayaz is from Chikkamagalur, I didn’t have any problems in finding the routes. I just followed him till our destination.
After having some refreshments at Chikkamagalur club (courtesy Nayaz) and having the fuel, we went to the Forest office. Already some 45 people had assembled there. We were asked to register ourselves and submit the declaration forms. We did so and the long wait started. Forest officials were working on the plans to assign all these people to different parts of Bhadra forest. They were also expecting some more volunteers. At last the introductory session happened at around 1:30PM and went on for about an hour. After the session, we were asked to pick a paper chit. This was their allocation method. Various volunteers were allocated to the regions and the camps in various Protected Areas based on this random chit selection.
Some information on Bhadra Tiger Reserve
I got allocated in Tanigebyle. Along with me, there were 10 to 12 more volunteers allocated to Tanigebyle. By around 4PM, we were asked to proceed towards the respective Forest Range offices. Forest Department had arranged their own vehicles to transport the volunteers to the Range office and the people who had come in their own cars/SUVs, followed the forest vehicles.
I took 4 other people (all are new to me now) and followed another car (again all new people). I had with me Byrappa (a veterinary student), Dr.Ravi (a veterinary doctor), Sidharth (freelance web designer) and Stephannie. Another car had Nagesh, Tautik, Dheeraj, Vijeth and a forest official to guide us to Tanigebyle Range office. Rest of the people came in Forest Department’s vehicle.
We all reached Tanigebyle Range office by 5:45PM and were waiting for Mr.Manjunath (Range Forest Officer, RFO) and Mr.Harish. We were then allocated different camps in Tanigebyle Protected Area. Tanigebyle has 8 anti poaching camps and I was given Godgal camp. The other camps were Kesarahalla, Beeranahalli, CN Kere (Chennaiyyana Kere), Saldhana, Lalbagh, Shantaveri and Kemmannugundi.
We parked our vehicles in the Range Forest office and then went with the forest officials to the respective camps in Forest Department’s vehicle. The camps were located in various parts of the Protected Area and the Godgal camp was almost deep inside the jungle. Reached there at about 6:30PM and it was already dark. The Mahindra Bolero (which is ideal for the jungle road) dropped me at Godgal and went to other camps to drop other volunteers.
At the camp, I met Sampreet, Pramod, Rangappa and Vijay who were guarding the region. The camp was in the middle of the jungle with solar power and walkie-talkie to the guards. Rangappa, who is the senior most person (aged around 50) started chatting with me while Pramod and others got busy in preparing the food for dinner. Sampreet handed me the camera of theirs (which every camp has and must be carried whenever these people venture into the fields and capture whatever the creatures they see and report to the range forest department) and I started looking at the pictures taken by them during their field works. Time passed and we had dinner and then went to sleep thinking of next day’s trek of 10kms in the Tiger transect.
Anti poaching camp at Godgal-Tanigebyle, where I stayed. In picture, Sampreet, Vijay and Rangappa (face not seen)
Day 1 through Day 6 from Dec 18th to Dec 23rd 2013
Day1 started off with a trek to the top of the hill in the Godgal and Kesarahalla camp region. Got up at 5:45AM and ready by 6:15AM. I, Sampreet and Pramod set off towards Kesarahalla camp to be joined by Vijeth, Krishna and Anand. A small walk of around 2 kms through the jungle lead us to the Kesarahalla camp. We then set off towards the hill. We first heard the sound of bamboo plants/trees breaking and then sighted a herd of elephants. More interestingly we saw a huge elephant and a baby elephant sleeping on the jungle ground. It was the first time that anybody in the team saw elephants sleeping on the ground. We were just around 10 feet from the sleeping giants. We whispered and didn’t make sound fearing that elephants could attack us. We quietly moved forward. While we couldn’t spot any tigers, we did spot some scats of the tigers and bears and sambars. These guys are experts in identifying the scat and which animal has dropped it. Also, these guys are also supposed to take notes on the findings with geo coordinates and photos. This is also the part of the census that they note every bit of evidence through the Tiger transects.
We all reached the top without much success. Took some rest and headed down in another direction towards our camps. By 10:30AM we reached our respective camps. Rangappa and Vijay who had stayed back, had already prepared breakfast for us. We had breakfast and the whole day was there for me to take rest. Time spent chatting and discussing the life in Jungle
This was the train track earlier for carrying iron ore from Kuderemukha to Bhadravati.
Day2 was not that tiresome as it was on first day. The second tiger transect was in plain land (with thick vegetation). Today we spotted some pug marks. Our forest guards had already laid fresh mud in some select places of the tiger transect to get the tiger pug marks and other animals foot prints. It seemed from the pug mark that the tiger might have passed through the line only couple of hours back. Our forest guards took photos and geo coordinates of the pug mark. We continued our journey through the thick vegetation in search of tiger but spotted couple of Sambars.
We returned to the camp without much success. Since I had the whole day to spend now, I started taking pictures of nearby plant and whatever animals I used to see. I noticed couple of animals are regular visitors near the camp where I stayed. One of them is the Malabar Squirrel. Other animals and birds include Monkeys, a peacock and other birds.
Day3 was again a trek towards the hill. We spotted some elephants. Meanwhile, Sampreet, Pramod and Rangappa went to mark the Deer transect for the next three days.
While the first 3 days were reserved for mainly tiger counting, the last 3 days were reserved for herbivores counting. It was around 5km trek to the nearby hill again but all the three days were supposed to be the same transect unlike the one we did for tiger transect.
Day4, I, Sampreet, Rangappa and Vijay set off towards the deer transect. We spotted a sambar in the beginning and nothing else. The final 400 meters was a steep ascent. I stayed back with Rangappa hoping to get some photos of birds. While we were waiting, Sampreet and Pramod went to the top and did the survey of the spot for any herbivores, the plants and trees nearby. After around 20 or 25 minutes, they came back and we started descending and walking towards the camp. I must explain a little more on today’s trek as it was different experience especially for me. We were descending from the hill and that’s when Rangappa’s strong ears and nose sensed the movement in the nearby bamboo plants. Rangappa said there are elephants down the lane. So we thought of going left but again heard the sound of bamboo trees tearing and saw another herd of elephants on our left. Ok. We now have to turn to right but there also there was another herd of elephants coming towards left side. We were trapped deep inside the jungle from 3 sides. We only had the option of running back to the top of the hill. We kept silence and watched as the elephants started moving towards the stream of water. There were baby elephants also in the herd and the chances of these elephants charging towards us was more because of the baby elephants. We just stood there watching them going slowly. I took my camera out and tried to capture some of these big creatures. One of the elephants stared at us but didn’t bother to charge towards us. After waiting for some time, we then descended and walked towards our camp. This was one of the unforgettable moments for me in the whole Bhadra Tiger Reserve experience.
In the evening, thought of giving a visit to Kesarahalla camp hoping to get some nice pictures of birds and deers as the camp is next to some fields where birds come to catch the insects and deers to eat some plants. I and Rangappa went to Kesarahalla camp. I soptted two Malabar Squirrels near the camp.
Krishna was excited to take us to the wild to spot some animals, especially tiger. So I, Vijeth and Krisha started walking into the jungle. I carried my camera with me. We spotted Hornbill at a distance but by the time I was ready to take pictures, the bird had vanished in the jungle. We walked deep and now spotted a herd of deers. As soon as they saw us, the deers vanished into the jungle. Meanwhile we saw fresh scat of a leopard.
We further walked and thought of going towards a lake hoping to get some wild beasts and we had a surprise. There stood 3 female elephants, seemed to be sisters. We went as near as around 20 feet from these elephants without their knowledge (at least we thought so). I started taking pictures of these magnificent creatures. One of the elephants moved opposite to us while two other elephants were busy in tearing the bamboo plants and eating them. But somehow they got disturbed by our presence and with a huge trumpeting and lifting their tails, they started running in the opposite directions. We got scared and started running back. It was once again an unforgettable moments. Had these elephants charged towards us, we would have been inside the photo frames now as we were very close to these animals.
Day5 went off without any success except the spotting of a lone sambar. After returning from the census, in the afternoon I and Vijeth thought of visiting other camps Saldhana and Lalbabh. The forest officials were very cooperative and they let us use their vehicle which was going for regular ration distribution for each camp. We went to Saldhana an Lalbabh and returned to our camps in the evening. While returning, we spotted 3 tuskers and mouse deers.
Day6 was usual affair. Since it was the same transect, I told Sampreet that I would go towards Kesarahalli and look for some animals to capture in my camera. But once again, I couldn’t spot any animals there. I returned to the camp as we had to leave the camp on day6. We waited for the pickup vehicle and got the news that we need to assemble in Kesarahalli camp and pick up vehicle would pick us up from there to the Tanigebylu range office but after the lunch. By 2PM, we were picked from the Kesarahalli camp and reached Tanigebylu range office. We then set off towards Chikkamagaluru in our vehicles.
There we were told that we would be given the certificate of appreciation for participating in the National Tiger census and a small gift. We waited for the Chief Conservator of Forests to arrive. We were all eager to leave and head towards Bangalore. By 4:30PM we got the certificate after a brief presentation and talk by Mr.Ventakesan, Director and Mr.Yadav, Chief Conservator.
I really thank the forest officials for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the census and more importantly to be in the jungle and live with the people there and understand them and for giving us a new experience that is unforgettable down our memory lane and cherish our experiences of the wild.
My entire camp team