Winter Symbiosis 2001: Bandhavgarh National Park

Report by Nikhil Sethi

This report is an account of Wildlife Club, IIT Bombay’s Winter Symbiosis 2001 held at Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh from 23rd December to 29thDecember 2001. The team from IITB participated in Tiger Census conducted by the park officials during this period as volunteers.

Basic Information About Bandhavgarh National Park

Situated in the Central highlands in the Deccan Peninsula of India is this luxuriant ecosystem which boasts the highest density of tigers in the world. The tropical moist deciduous forests, dominated by Sal and bamboo, support a rich variety of flora and fauna, including carnivores like tigers, leopards, wild dogs, wolves and jackals which are in turn dependant on a well represented prey base consisting of chital, sambhar, barking deer, nilgai, chinkara, wild pig, chowsingha, langur and rhesus macaque. Over 250 species of birds, including a good population of Malabar Pied Hornbill, Peafowls, partridges, red jungle fowl, sarus crane, lesser adjutant stork, Crested Serpent and Hawk Eagles, Shaheen falcon, Bonnelli’s eagle etc. make it a birdwatchers delight. Not to mention the over 70 species of butterflies found here. Also of historic importance, there is a legend that, the fort around which this forest is spread, was bequeathed by Lord Rama to his brother Lakshmana, thus giving rise to its name “Bandhavgarh” meaning “brother’s fort”

How To Reach Bandhavgarh National Park

Entrance to the park is from Tala, a small village on the Umaria-Rewa state highway. *Private transport buses to reach Tala are available from **Umaria(32 km.), **Amarpatan(80 km.), **Shahdol(102 km.) and **Rewa(105 km.)

Nearest railway stations are:
**Umaria(32 km.), **Jabalpur(164 km.), **Katni(92 km.), and **Satna(164 km.).
Nearest Airports are: **Jabalpur(164 km.), and
Khajuraho(237 km.)

How Census Is Conducted

Method of Tiger Census: Tiger census is done using pugmark tracing technique. Pugmarks of no two tigers are same just as finger prints of no two humans are same. When ever a tiger pugmark is found a tracing of the mark is taken and at the time of census all these tracings are matched and we get an estimate of tiger populations by number of different pugmarks found.

As a convention the trace of left hind paw is taken. A number of other details – location of mark, date and time when trace was done, an estimate of when the pugmark was made, kind of soil, length of stride and step and any other special observations – are noted. here is an example scan of one such pugmark tracing that I took.

Method of Herbivore Census: The number of herbivores is much much larger so it is not feasible to do a very exact count of herbivores. Herbivore census is done by method of sampling. The method we used was called Line Transect method. In this method we start walking perpendicular to some jungle track. At a distance of every 50 meters there is a circle of 5 meter radius 15 meters from our line of walk alternately on the right and left sides of our walking line. In each of these circles we count the number of animal droppings from various animals. We also noted the type of soil, Amount and type of vegetation, vegetation cover etc. At every 200 meters we note the forest cover (a visual estimate of % cover).

To finally arrive at the estimate of the population a statistical method is used.

How Accurate is This Census

As far as tigers are concerned this method turns out to be quite accurate. As the number of tigers are quite few, all of the tigers are known to the guards and forest officers by sight and pugmarks only help to confirm that the tiger is still healthy. Pugmarks basically help them to find new cubs.

But the story with herbivore census is very different. The basic problem is that the sheer number of herbivores is too large. Also accurate data about amount of excreta generated by these animals is not available. During our interactions with park officials they also admitted that the herbivore census is prone to wide errors. It basically serves as a relative measure of the variation of population over years and not as absolute count of animals.

Day 0, Sunday, 23/12/01.

We went on a tourist tour of the Park. The first animals I say were lots of sambhars and cheetals. We also saw a lone Jackal after some time. Carnivores are very rare to see and it was very exciting to see the Jackal in the jungle, Especially for me as this was my first jungle trip. After about 2 hours of roaming in the jeep we got a message on the wireless that tigers have been sighted and immediately our driver made for that location.

It was a kind of anti-climax to see the tigers. There were about 10 jeeps lined up with tourists. And about 3-4 elephants. We went to see the tigers on elephant back and got quite close to them. They were just lazing about doing nothing much, while all around them elephants and tourists were making all this racket. It did not seem much different from zoo, other than that there coats were literally shining from health.

The tigers finally got irritated and started to walk off. To our horror the elephants and the jeeps started following them. The jeeps (including ours) seemed to intent on not letting the Tigers cross the road. It was really disgusting and I was quite happy when the tigers finally escaped.
The tigers were a pair of cubs 19 months old. To me they looked huge (you can see their picture in the photo gallery. I never imagined that the stripes of tiger could be such good camouflage. They completely disappeared in the bushes. My untrained eye couldn’t make them out even at the distance of 15 meters if the tiger was not moving.

Also saw a number of birds and pugmarks of a tiger dragging a kill. Tomorrow we go to the fort. It is also a known tiger haunt and off-limits to tourists. May be we will see a tiger in its natural surrounding.

Day 1, Monday, 24/12/01

It was a quite and uneventful trip to Bandhavgarh Fort. The fort lies in the core area of the park and is closed to tourists. I realized that it is practically impossible to see animals on foot. We only say a couple of spotted deer (cheetals) and that too from quite far off. But that was made up with all the beautiful birds that were there. It was fun and I am beginning to like bird watching.
The fort is very old and had a number of interesting ruins. Specially worth mentioning were the ten avatars (reincarnations) of Lord Vishnu. These were big stone statues of the mythical avatars that Lord Vishnu took. There are also a number (12 I think, Gaurang please confirm) of big man made lakes inside the fort. These lakes were huge and it was really amazing to know that they were made by man.

Day 2, Tuesday, 25/12/01

We leave at 6am in the morning for first day of line tracking. My group is going to the Panpatha circle. Panpatha is 268 sq. Km, and is divided into 4 ranges. There are about eight villages inside the sanctuary, each with population of about 500 to 700. Each range has 4 to 5 guards. This area is mostly open with some cheetal, sambhar, neelgai, and chinkara but the density is low. The cattle population in the villages is very large and the reason why the wild animal population is not very good.

The line tracking started at 7:00 am and was finished by 1:00 pm. Its tiring, very tiring. We didn’t have time to see many birds and were making too much noise to see any animals. Our guides were very friendly. They invited us for tea and gulab-jamuns. These parts have a custom of giving the guests a clove at the end of refreshments.

The only animal I managed to see was a neelgai. It was a bull and very beautiful with a shiny bluish coat, nothing like the ones I had seen in zoos which looked dull and sorry. We did manage to see a number of birds. Tomorrow we go to Khitauli.

Day 3, Wednesday, 26/12/01

Today we went to Khitauli. The team that had gone there yesterday had hit jackpot, seeing many animals including, Wild Boar, Neelgai, the usual deers and most important a pack of Wild Dogs feasting on a kill of Sambhar. Well we didn’t get to see all that, but the remains of the kill were still there. There is a nice little stream going through the forest. The water in the stream was clear and drinkable. The stream was very shallow and we spent a lot of time walking in it. The forest of Khitauli was one of the most beautiful and the guide friendliest. Khitauli is also not open to tourists and so he guards were specially pleased to show us around. Well a lazy day.

Day 4, Thursday, 27/12/01

Back to work. Today is the first day of Tiger Census. Today my party was assigned to Tala Range. This is the main tourist range and has the highest density of animals. Also the animals are quite used to people so we were expecting to see something before he end of the day.

And as expected sightings started soon enough. First we saw a pair of jackals (they could have been wolves but we cannot be sure). We also found four different pugmarks. One set was those of the two cubs (that we had seen on first day) walking with there mother. On returning we saw some Barking deer, apparently very rare. We were back early and spent rest of the day just lazing about. I had a bath for the first time, freezing water, I actually suffocated when I poured the first mug. God those Titanic flos must have suffered badly.

I am really amazed by the dedication of the forest officials. Considering the minimum pay, no facilities, and general hostility from politicians, villagers and even environmentalists, there dedication is commendable. The guards can’t even use jeeps etc. freely due to lack of equipment. One of the member of our group had a $80 GPS. He showed it to one of the beat guards. The man was very excited to see it and it was obvious that he found it very useful for his job. When he heard the price (more then a month’s salary for him), it was obvious he was disappointed. I wonder if it was wise brag about the GPS to him. Did we hurt his feelings?

Day 5, Friday, 28/12/01

Back to work again. We went to Khitauli to continue the tiger census. There are few tigers here and we didn’t find any pugmarks. Though we did see leopard pugmarks. Just trekked in the jungle and did lots of bird watching. The most interesting thing was the fault line. There was this gorge like thing about half a mile long. The locals told us that it was a fault line. It did look like earth had split up at that point. But may be it was just a gorge formed due to erosion.

Day 6, Saturday, 29/12/01

The alumni group went back yesterday. Today we students only were supposed to go for tiger census. No one had much enthusiasm for working so we conned the forest guard to just take us for a pleasant walk. Soon there was a announcement on the radio that tigers had been spotted. There were the same cubs that we had seen on our first day. We quickly made our way there. How appropriate that the start and the end of our adventure(:-) should be these same two cubs. This time there were no tourists and we watched the cubs from elephant back for quite some time. They were having there breakfast of wild boar. And that was the end of the jungle adventure.
Two of the members of our group Nari and Sujoy volunteered to make a webpage for the Bandhavgarh National Park and maintain it. The SDO Mr. Khan gave them a CD with all the park related data that they could use in there website. When I last heard the website was coming along nicely and will be, hopefully, up soon.

Day 7, Sunday, 30/12/01

Back to Mumbai. The first thing we did on reaching civilization was buying all the newspapers that we could find. Were astounded to find that India was almost at war with Pakistan. Well Welcome to the real world.

Bandars of the team:

Ankur Rudra (Bade Saab) [Troupe Leader — Secy, WC]
Chinmay B. (Shweta)
Kaushal Chandak
Gaurang Kanvinde
V. Narayan Raman (Nari)
Nikhil Sethi
Nikhil Jain
Kishore Bhalerao
Prem Ratan Baranwal

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