As we drove up a hillock to the Forest Rest House at Dhaulkhand in Rajaji National Park near Dehradun, a female cheetal looked up in bewilderment at strangers in a heavy vehicle who had invaded her private grazing ground. For about a minute she refused to take her eyes off us, standing still, partly in fear and partly curious. Then I banged the car door shut. The noise alarmed her and she took to her hooves with lightning speed. We felt sorry for displacing the gentle creature from her chosen perch, hoping she’d be back soon.
We moved to the porch of the British-built, 1883 vintage bungalow and sat on cane chairs to familiarise ourselves with what would be home for the next three days. Then we noticed frenzied activity on the part of a family of stately langurs who had made two gigantic sal trees overhanging the verandah their abode. They too appeared irritated by the intrusion, but being tree dwellers, didn’t worry overly about our presence on the ground. They conversed animatedly, presumably placing on record their disapproval of our presence. A day later, they abandoned the vicinity of the bungalow, just like the cheetal whom we didn’t spot after that one encounter.
Three days in the splendid isolation of Dhaulkhand during the year-end were pure bliss. Although the mobile periodically sprang to life, the signal was rarely sufficient to engage in conversation. Besides, there was no electricity, so no chargers would work. The FRH selected for us by friends in the Uttarakhand Forest Department was better in terms of facilities than most such bungalows that I have spent earlier year-ends. The fireplace was not just functional but effective enough to keep the living room and bedroom warm, especially since there was no dearth of dead trees to light a searing log fire every evening. Although departmental staff is housed in a small colony on the main dirt track across the park, located about a kilometre away, we were provided with an attendant and one-armed guard at the FRH for the duration of our stay.
Winter is not the best time for spotting wildlife, especially in sub - Himalayan forests. Even birds don’t stir out of their cozy perches till the sun is clearly visible, which is usually not before 9 am. We were up early by our standards and guzzled many cups of tea sitting on the verandah, waiting for the occasional barking deer (kakad) to dart across the vegetation below the hillock or a family of wild boar to awkwardly trot into the forest, grunting all the way as if by way of warning to other animals to steer clear. After a sumptuous breakfast, we left with our armed guard to observe the sights and sounds of the rugged terrain.
The Northern Tropical Moist Deciduous Forests of Rajaji are the North-Western limit of both the Asian Elephant and the Tiger in their distribution in India. Other key species include Leopard, Himalayan bear, Cheetal, hog deer, barking deer, Sambar deer, wild boar, antelopes such as the Nilgai, Goral, Jackal, Hyena, Jungle Cat, Leopard Cat, Civets, Himalayan Yellow-Throated Marten, Sloth Bears, Pythons, King Cobra, Common Krait, Indian Cobra and the Monitor Lizard.
A hardy four-wheel drive is needed to explore the interiors of nature reserves because much of the time you have to make the road yourself, especially while fording river beds even if dry. Both the descent to and ascent from these beds are steep and the vehicle has to be powerful to negotiate sand, slush, boulders, fallen branches and other obstacles. I didn’t have to use the four-wheel since my SUV is powerpacked anyway but the fact that it has the option is comforting since one may have to exercise that quite suddenly.
Rajaji is a relatively small national park, a dwarf compared to its better known neighbour, Corbett. In many ways, it is an extension of Corbett into Uttarakhand’s Terai region, largely flat but occasionally broken by hillocks and some steep, craggy outcrops of the Shivalik ranges. For its size, Rajaji boasts a phenomenal variety of wildlife. It is also rich in biodiversity, a point repeatedly stressed by the park’s energetic Director SS Rasaily, a native of Darjeeling, who is passionate about his charge. From entries in the FRH’s visitor’s book, I discovered that he spent at least one night each fortnight at Dhaulkhand and his wife said he did the same with other blocks too. Forest staff told us that he arrives late evening and sets off on inspection tours at 3 am, keeping them on their toes and poachers, loggers and other antisocials at large. This is not an easy job because the park is located in close proximity to overpopulated human habitats.
I drove across to the Ranipur Gate, 21 km from Dhaulkhand, to find Haridwar’s BHEL establishment located right there. On December 31 evening, popular numbers from the superhit film 3 Idiots played loudly in the BHEL colony, their strains clearly audible to cheetal, nilgai and sambar grazing bemusedly at a stone’s throw from human habitations. Fortunately, strict enforcement of rules has prevented untoward incidents here in recent years. Rasaily being almost fanatical about preserving the park’s biodiversity, he sometimes actually interviews tourists seeking FRH accommodation to weed out the growing breed of uncouth vacationers who play loud music, throw plastic bottles around and create nuisance till late night. Those who don’t pass his rigorous “admission test” are denied permission to stay.
So, remember, these things are a strict no-no in Rajaji; only genuine nature lovers need apply. Having seen several nature reserves go to seed on account of official apathy and corruption, I can only pray Rasaily’s tribe grows. Like many young forest officers in Uttarakhand, he is a product of training and commitment instilled by the state’s legendary former Chief Wildlife Warden SK Chandola who remains their role model despite reverting to another department of the Government last year.
A Partly-underground Bunker For Wildlife Lovers And Nature Photographers To Lie In Wait Overnight For Animals, Including The Range’s Lone Tigress. From The Almost Hidden Glass Skylights, One Can Get A Clear View Of Animals Coming To The Water Body To Quench Their Thirst.
Park officials are worried about two factors — one immediate and another long-term. The first is water shortage, caused by poor rainfall, and the second, the continued presence of a growing community of Van Gujjars, who are agriculturists, graziers and milk suppliers. Various resettlement plans have been mooted from time to time but political pressure has resulted in interminable delays in execution. Unless this issue is handled within the next few years, efforts to protect and promote a wildlife and biodiversity haven are bound to fail.
This region suffered from acute monsoon failure last year and natural water holes are already nearing evaporation. Officers are concerned about the fate of thirsty animals by the time North India’s hot, dry summer arrives a few months from now and fear the worst if the next monsoon too fails to be bountiful. Innovatively, an anicut has been built on a mountain stream near Dhaulkhand to conserve water, especially for the park’s large population of elephants, who not only need to drink in big quantities but also love to wash themselves frequently in summer.
Near the anicut, there is also a partly-underground bunker for wildlife lovers and nature photographers to lie in wait overnight for animals, including the range’s lone tigress. From the almost hidden glass skylights, one can get a clear view of animals coming to the water body to quench their thirst. It is so well hidden from view that animals are usually unable to sense human presence so close to them. For the less enterprising, there is a machan close at hand, but the view from there is nowhere as good as from the bunker.
After exploring these spots, we retired to our bungalow for lunch and a brief rest. Suddenly news came on the walkie-talkie that a herd of elephants was romping through the forest right next to the staff quarters. I raced to the spot to find some dozen pachyderms, including a couple of calves, foraging through the dense undergrowth. A female, baby in tow, looked particularly aggressive as it led its child to low branches and taught by example how to pull down clumps of leaves. The bigbuilt mom’s ears were horizontally spread to the maximum, a sure sign of readiness to charge if danger was sensed. It was aware of human presence just 50 metres away and periodi- cally looked up to be sure we weren’t up to anything provocative. Suddenly, the patriarch bellowed loudly and his trumpet led the rest of the herd deeper into the forest, away from our view.
For some reason this herd was in a foul mood that day. We heard later that they had chased and overturned an official’s jeep. Although its occupants escaped their wrath, the vehicle was slightly damaged. That night they trumpeted relentlessly close to our bungalow; we had to bolt ourselves securely but were assured that they don’t enter buildings. However, some weeks ago, a particularly frisky lot came inspecting the FRH, twisted all water pipes and a special funnel built along the outer wall to carry hot water from solar-heated overhead tanks to the toilets. A baby managed to break the kitchen door and forayed inside, smashing whatever crockery was stashed within the range of his trunk. As petrified humans looked on, the mother pulled him out by coiling her trunk around his torso and presumably gave the playful child a few lessons in etiquette!
The area is inhabited by over 400 species of birds such as the Whitecapped Bunting, Red Munia, Tickell’s Flowerpecker, Paddyfield Pipit, Velvetfronted Muthatch, Goldenfronted Chloropis, Himalayan Goldenbacked Woodpecker, Oriental Pied Hornbill and the Himalayan Pied Kingfisher to name a few.
Once the elephants I managed to capture on camera with some difficulty because of the tall undergrowth moved out of range, it was time to set off on a safari across the park. Earlier in the day, we had spotted lots of deer but few other creatures. Shobori did get a glimpse of a male leopard, which ambled along the track ahead of us before it darted into the foliage, but although she got a good view as he watched imperiously from a safe distance, it was too distracted to wait long enough for the shutter to click.
While returning to the bungalow in the morning, we also spotted an infant cheetal, probably not more than three months old, licking a mound of salt placed by forest officials next to a water hole. It was a rare sight because the baby was alone and thus looked thoroughly petrified. It just froze and kept posing for several minutes, alarmed but indecisive about its next course of action. Sensing danger, its mother evidently watched closely from the nearby bushes but did not put in an appearance. After some time, the doe-eyed beauty mustered enough courage to take a wild leap into the undergrowth behind and disappeared from view.
Luck was on my side during the afternoon safari. As we drove along the track very slowly, my guard suddenly asked me to stop. Some 50 metres ahead was a mongoose-like creature that periodically darted along, but repeatedly stopped, rose to its hind legs, gave furtive glances in all directions and resumed its sprightly gait. The guard said it was an udbilau (otter). But its black fur, white stripe, bushy tail that curled up each time it stood up, made me sceptical. Besides, there was no water body in the vicinity and thus it was an unlikely place for a lone otter to move about friskily.
Next day at lunch, a forest researcher, Dr GS Rawat, solved the mystery on the basis on my description. It was a marten, he concluded, and that meant I had made a rarest of rare sighting of this reclusive member of the rodent family. Other forest officials at the lunch were almost envious for none had spotted this creature ever. Unfortunately, it was so quick on its feet that by the time I could focus my camera, it would recommence its dart. After a few failed attempts to capture it on film, I gave up as it raced up a tree, presumably to join its mate. Apparently, the cute-looking creatures are dangerous hunters for they attack cattle and deer near their ankles, tear the ligament with their sharp teeth and feast on live meat. The animals don’t die but are disabled for several days after a marten attack. If hungry, they even go for dead meat but prefer the live variety. Apparently, they are an endangered species and I was really lucky to have seen one.
Dusk is a great time to sight animals as most are nocturnal creatures, equipped to hunt in the dark. We spotted hordes of deer of every variety on the way from the picturesque FRH at Beribara to Ranipur, so many of them that one started taking them for granted. Soon after we resumed the journey back, I was again bestowed with a rarest of rare sightings.
It was barely light, forcing me to drive even more slowly than usual so as not to startle the animals. Suddenly, the guard caught my arm and whispered, “Woh dekho, goldaar.” There was hushed urgency in his voice and that made me gently bring the car to a halt. Ahead of us, a leopard ambled along the track close to the undergrowth. Just about a minute later it walked into the bushes, evidently unaware or unconcerned that we were tailing it. I took the car forward very slowly, trying to guess the spot where it had slipped into the foliage. My guard insisted it was hiding from us and would reappear on the track if only we waited patiently and noiselessly for a few minutes. That would lead it to conclude danger had passed.
After what seemed an interminably long wait, with darkness descending rapidly, we decided the animal must have silently walked away from the roadside, perhaps towards its mate whose roar in the distance became increasingly audible. So I restarted the vehicle and inched forward, not quite abandoning the hope of catching a glimpse. Again, suddenly, the guard’s arm gripped mine tensely. “Dekho, ekdum bagal mein baithi hai, (See, she is sitting by your side),” he whispered, having identified the magnificent creature’s gender.
Indeed, there she was, sitting on her haunches in cautious silence, a hand-shaking distance from my car’s passenger seat door. I began clicking over the guard’s shoulder. The flash bulb appeared to irritate her but still she didn’t move for a few minutes, all the while trying the look away and cover herself in the foliage. Time stood still as the camouflaged leopard seemed visibly disturbed that her efforts at hiding had failed. Then, in a show of defiance and determination, she got up, walked some distance away and hid herself securely in the bushes. The best sighting done, we resumed our journey, triumphantly.
The leopardess looked so innocent yet unfazed, my thoughts raced immediately to the almost daily reports of its kind being mercilessly beaten to death by villagers or shot dead by insensitive policemen. We have invaded their habitats, turfed them out of their homes and denied them food.
And then, when they stray into human habitations to quell their hunger, we kill them brutally. What kind of justice is that? Silently, I prayed for their survival and prosperity, thanking national parks like Rajaji for offering them a safe haven at least for now. But who knows for how long?
- By Air Chartered flights take you to Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun everyday. Air India has regular domestic and international flights to Delhi from where you could drive down easily.
- By Rail Nearest railhead is at Haridwar (9 km) and Dehradun (38 km). Regular trains connect these cities to various metros.
- By Road Rajaji National Park is well-connected to many cities in the region by luxury buses. All visitors to Rajaji National Park need entry permits in order to be allowed into the Park. Permits are available at Rs 30 for Indians and Rs 350 for foreigners.