It is 10:15 on a Wednesday night. I’m sitting in the balcony of my cottage at Kabini River lodge. Through the canopy of trees I can the see the patterns and formations of the stars as they burn brightly in the night sky, accompanied by the moon, which is a sliver of orange. Some feet ahead, the waters of the Kabini reservoir push steadily ahead towards the shore only to be pushed back by the bank. This eternal tug’o’war plays on to the tune of trilling crickets and a soughing wind that shakes the leaves from their silent slumber. “Chuk-chuk-chuk,” calls an Indian Nightjar and is readily answered by another, until a Spotted Owlet breaks their reverie with “scree”.
Lucky birds indeed, to be able to call this beautiful forest their home. As for me, I’m just a passing visitor, trying very hard to finish (or even start) this piece about the time that I have spent here. Well here goes…..
“Yesterday, on the 8th of March 2011, I arrived at Kabini River Lodge in Nagarhole. This was my first time in the forests of the Nilgiris. I reached the lodge at around 2 p.m. after a rather long journey, most of which I spent trying to find my way from one end of the park to the other! But I didn’t mind the delay so much because the drive gave me a chance to hone my bird-spotting skills! I think I saw a Black-shouldered Kite; I know I saw a female Indian Cuckoo, lots of Red-rumped Swallows, Bee-eaters and I even heard a Malabar Whistling Thrush! Not so bad, if you ask me!
After lunch, I went on the jeep safari organized by the lodge and I have to admit, it was one of my best experiences in a national park. To begin with, the staff is polite yet firm in the enforcement of the park’s rules. This is compounded by the discipline within the park. Unlike its more crowded counterparts, Nagarhole doesn’t have hordes of ill-mannered tourists racing after each other behind clouds of dust, vociferously demanding their money back, should the big cat fail to grace them with its presence.
Anyway, we drove onto a narrow, bumpy road in an advanced state of disrepair-this is to prevent speeding vehicles from carelessly mowing down wildlife, which is an important consideration since a national highway runs right through the park. However, the Karnataka High Court has declared that the road be shut from 6 pm to 6 am, a rule that the Forest Department enforces strictly.
The guide promised us that he would show us elephants and maybe, even a tiger but asked that we first concentrate in the direction of a cacophony of screeches and squawks. We watched as Hill Mynahs, Rose-ringed Parakeets and Yellow-footed Green Pigeons gorged on bright yellow figs while chital waited patiently below for discarded morsels.
All my attempts to take pictures went in vain for the guide had gotten news that there were elephants near the banks and twitched impatiently while I tried to focus. I put my camera away glumly. On the banks, I saw a raptor- light brown with dark streaks. My guide was thrilled with the sighting and declared that it was a juvenile Brahminy Kite.
A little ahead, behind a tree hid a bonnet macaque. She emerged from behind the trunk with another female who proceeded to groom her. I zoomed in and saw a wrinkled, naked little patch of skin on her side and underbelly, which was a grasping baby monkey! As per our guide, it was only a couple of hours old. Meanwhile mother and baby continued to be inspected. Five minutes later, the monkey that played nurse decided that her midwifery duties were done and scampered off.
We too went ahead, further onto the banks of the Kabini reservoir where we watched an elephant feast on some bamboo, while further, a lone gaur bull sunned himself peacefully until some mynahs made it their mission to perch on his head. The poor gaur swished his head this way and that but in vain. Those mynahs were determined to stay.
Up ahead on our left, we watched some chital feast on the grass-there was a handsome stag accompanied by some does and fawns. Suddenly they all looked in one direction and quickly scampered off into the undergrowth. Some moments later, we all heard it-that high-pitched call of warning that can be a death knell for some animals but is manna to a wildlife enthusiast. Soon, a magnificent leopard proceeded onto the path ahead, casting a scornful glance at us. After all, this was his turf! He crossed the road and we looked until he disappeared. We followed him till he made off to blend into the forest and we assumed that, in true leopard fashion, he had decided to avoid unnecessary human attention. But this one had other plans.
The jeep sidled ahead till we found him stretched out on the grass. He snarled at something and proceeded to nuzzle his face against the ground. Unperturbed by our jeep, he then rolled on his belly and his back. This went on for a few minutes. He had a gash on his left cheek, probably an outcome of a fight with another leopard. While I debated the reasons for the wound, I tried to photograph this remarkable display of unabashedness , so uncharacteristic of this particular big cat! However, a rumbling jeep coming from the opposite direction put paid to our joy as the leopard bolted back into the thickets from where he emerged.
Our naturalist beamed as he proclaimed that he had kept his promise of showing us a leopard and elephants- all that was left was the tiger!
We then met a jeepful of excited tourists who told us that they had seen a tiger. The naturalist seemed most excited by this piece of news but unfortunately, our luck stopped short of the tiger.
On our way out of the park, we saw a herd of gaur that had come out to feed. Shy that they are, they snorted and trundled into hiding.
Day two: Morning
The park was surprising cold. Birdsong of all manner and sorts heralded our arrival into the park. Mynahs screeched and parakeets squawked while Grey Junglefowl crowed indignantly as they scattered out of our path. Far away in a tree, I watched a male Scarlet Minivet flit in and out of the branches of a teak tree, The naturalist, egged me to take a photograph but the bird wouldn’t sit still. Watching my futile attempts to focus, he signaled to the driver to move on. On the ground below, a Peacock poked his head out from behind a log and dove back in just as quickly!
We then made the customary drive to the banks of the backwaters of the Kabini to look for elephants. Sitting atop a tree was a Crested Serpent-Eagle, scanning the ground from his perch while a Grey Junglefowl unabashedly scoured the ground for grub. Meanwhile, two juvenile wild boar that were frightened by the jeep disappeared into the bushes, squealing.
We left the spot and came upon a tree where a Malabar giant squirrel had decided to take up residence. We watched him as he scuttled amongst the foliage of a tree, feeding on its leaves before abandoning it for greener branches. Close by, stood a fairly large tusker, patiently picking off tender bamboo shoots before they withered in the heat. Shortly, our jeep halted suddenly as the naturalist pointed to a pair of striped necked mongooses that were scampering towards the undergrowth. But no sooner than the jeep stopped did the shy animals make a quick retreat into the safety of the forest. Our last sighting for the morning was a black-headed oriole flitted from one tree to another, punctuating the silence with its fervent call.
My companions for this evening were Anil and Pamela Malhotra, conservationists who run ‘SAI sanctuary’, an NGO that works for wildlife conservation in Coorg. While we didn’t see much for a while, I listened closely as Pam and the naturalist discussed the differences between the barks of various trees-needless to say, I learnt something new that day.
The first elephant that we saw this evening was a young makhna- a tuskless bull elephant. Previously rare, their numbers are believed to be on the rise. Among Asian elephants, only males have prominent tusks and hence, were and still are the targets of poachers. This leaves more makhnas to mate with females thus passing on this particular quality down generations.
Then, a chital herd crossed the road. While the manner in which these deer leap gracefully across the road, is itself a beautiful spectacle, it was a lone chital fawn that got our attention. While her mother disappeared into a copse of bamboo, she stood firm and watched us with us with eyes that were dark with curiosity.
Our next sighting gave us a little peek into the familial life of a herd of elephants with two calves between one and three months old. We inched our way towards them careful not to rankle the herd but then again, mothers will be mothers, and so the two young’uns were hidden with a swift forward movement of the mother’s legs. But hunger got the better of the calves and soon they re-emerged to suckle.
We chanced upon a herd of gaur, their calves in tow as they crossed over to a salt lick. Since the heat had dissipated, we went to the banks to watch the animals that would come to drink. There, we saw a pair of Spot-billed Ducks (my first such sighting) as well as a herd of chital. On the edge of the bank stood a Grey Heron who craned its stately neck to examine the opposite bank for its mate before flying off to join it. The animals kept coming and going- as for us, we watched the sun cast its last rays upon the water before disappearing for the night.
Last night, I went to bed hoping against hope that I wouldn’t oversleep. I needn’t have worried for at the stroke of 6, a songbird (thrush or robin, I’m not sure which), perched next to my window-sill and sang its heart out for the next 15 minutes. Now, I’m not a morning person and don’t take kindly to those that disturb my sleep but some things will always be given leeway. (Later I did find an Oriental Magpie-Robin near my window, who was possibly my wake-up call)
Nonetheless, I awoke and left for the safari. We drove into a forest that was ravaged by a fire the previous night or perhaps before that. The heat caused by an impending summer or the friction between dry leaves must have sparked a flame that quickly charred the forest. By the time we got there, leaf, branch and twig were reduced to glowing embers in a carpet of hot, white ash. I was to learn later, that this was one of several fires that the park would suffer before the month ended. But then again, the fire drives out insects from their hidey-holes making it a free-for-all for insectivorous birds such as the Indian Rollers, and today, they were in full attendance. The fire and the heat limited our sightings to these birds as well as some elephants.
Until this trip, my sightings of wild elephants were limited to photographs and documentaries but in Nagarhole, I saw more than my fair share! Some were far away on the bank while others fed. I even saw one swim while he used his trunk as a snorkel. No matter what they did- even if they simply stood still- they were a delight to watch! Today, we watched one calf as he tried to pluck some leaves but realising that they were out of his reach, decided he would suckle instead. As much as we’d have liked to stay and watch, we had to make our way back to the lodge.
Thus ended my trip to Nagarhole. I didn’t waste time in getting upset that I had to leave, for I would soon be in Bandipur-just across river!