Friday, February 27, 2009

Bandipur burns - Part 2 : The view from Gopalswamy Betta

If you have been to Bandipur, you would have heard of a place called Gopalaswamy Betta. A little hill (1450m above MSL) lying to the north of the National Park. It is famous for a small temple on it's summit. The deity there, Himada Gopalaswamy, gets the first part of his name from the uncannily Himalayan conditions atop the hill. For most of the year the summit is covered by a dense cloud of mist and it showers even when the plains are hot and dry. The entire hillside is covered by a verdant sea of grass with clumps of taller vegetation along the valley's between the hillocks. On a good day you can see the slopes of the Nilgiri hills to your south and beyond Gundlupet in the north.

On February 22nd, 2009 the Betta bore little resemblance to what I was used to. For starters the cap of cloud was missing even as we started the climb up the steep ghat road. The slopes on the left of the road was barren and the herd of elephants that are seen were absent. As we turned right at the first hair pin the green grassy slopes were replaced by blackened ash and scorched shrubs.

Further up the road the picture turned more grim. The slopes on either side of the road was an uniform shade of black interspersed with brown. As far as eye could see the usually verdant green was absent.

The stray sambar deer wasn't there but a half burnt antler. I hope the owner who shed it escaped the inferno.

Things didn't look too good on one side and we were bracing ourselves for the worst as we parked the cars beside the temple. The usual nip in the air that greets everyone on the Betta was absent today. Instead, as we opened the car doors and stepped out, we were enveloped in a suffocating and hot atmosphere.

The temple had it's regular crowd of devotees and soothsayers but we were on a mission and these trivialities were the last thing on our mind.
The western boundary of the temple overlooks the Bandipur National Park, and the Muthanga WLS further west. The sight the we beheld was straight out a horror film, at least to this small group that were present there.

Endless stretches of burnt grassland, and a large plume of smoke from a fresh fire beyond the curve of the hill. At first sight, it was like a volcano erupting. The smoke obscured everything around it.

The usual blame falls on the heat but I'm not sure. As we surveyed the destruction covering more than a 180 degree arc from east to west we saw all the signs that these fires were possibly man made. At least a major contribution was by God's most destructive creation. There is more to follow. Watch this space.....

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bandipur burns - Part 1

This trip to Bandipur was meant to create awareness among our wild drivers about how we need to make room for the other creatures that share the world with us but are forced to live in an increasingly shrinking 'home'. The 5th Road Kill Awareness Campaign at Bandipur organized by the Kenneth Anderson Nature Society was my reason for driving down. I returned shaken.
The drive across the border gave me an inkling of what was in store but the "Live Action" left me shell shocked; and I'm still recovering.

The evening safari into Bandipur drew unprecedented reactions. I for one was not interested in my usual wildlife pictures (in any case my E3 was on a sabbatical). Through the smoke and haze I was witness to leaping flames consume the vegetation.

The flames were literally leaping up and consuming everything it could reach. So much so, that it did not spare even an isolated branch 20 feet off the ground.

As the jeep made the painful journey the entire forest suddenly took a strange tint. The sun was obscured by the smoke and the road, vegetation and the sky took on a brownish orange colour. My fellow traveller, an old lady, dropped her mask. "Is it safe to go any further", she enquired. "Anyway, we won't see much of wildlife with all this fire around".

I wanted to tell her that the wildlife & vegetation were more precious than her EOS MkII and 300mm lens but I just restrained myself.

Burning Forests & Charred slopes

I have seen forest fires before but this left me shaken. Perhaps, because I was in the midst of the flames and acrid smoke this time.

My favourite patch of real estate was a mass of charred vegetation. I was already primed for evidence of destruction by the newspaper reports that I had been seeing in the past week.

When I drove through Mudumalai I could see the ferocity of the fire on either side of the road and on the southern side of the Moyar the forests were still burning. The heat was singularly oppressive and it seemed magnified by the lack of green that characterizes a teeming jungle.

As I drove past the Kekkanhalla checkpost into Bandipur my heart sank at the sights on either sides of the road. Hillocks with all the vegetation wiped out greeted me. The floor of the forest was covered in a macabre shade of black and grey, with small patches still smoking from the embers beneath.

Bandipur was burning, and I was there. Seeing the mayhem first hand and only able to watch helplessly.

We blame global warming but evidence points to the hand of homo sapiens. Read on ..........

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Redrawing the line between Myth & Reality

“Kreegah! Tarzan bundolo”
With a blood curdling scream, a sinewy, half – naked man brandishing a shiny hunting knife drops down from the dense forest canopy above. The unwary creature that has the misfortune of facing this apparition would probably be too shocked to react or resist.
To the uninitiated, it means “Beware! Tarzan kills!” and it is uttered in the language of the great apes by Tarzan, alias John Clayton,Lord Greystroke. He was a creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs and perhaps, to me, the first introduction to the jungles and its denizens. With Tarzan, there was Tantor the elephant, Numa the lion, Histah the python and many more. Bolgani, the great apes, responsible for Tarzan’s development from an English orphan to the Lord of the jungle, were a species of mythical primates not described in any book of natural history.

This introduction to the jungles started at an age when the line between myth and reality was too thin to understand and I worshiped Tarzan as a hero; to such an extent that I carved a hunting knife out of wood, stuck it in my waist band and went about climbing trees!
Tarzan was the first conservationist I came across in my life. He killed to eat or in self defence. No trophy adorned his tree top house though game was plentiful in the dense jungles he lived in.

Years later, in my school, I discovered Kenneth Anderson and the real jungles. They were much closer and their denizens lived in a real world. I learned to differentiate myth from reality from thereon.
Tarzan and Kenneth Anderson were similar in many ways. They treated the jungles and its denizens with reverence. They killed only when an animal was a nuisance or for the pot.
They also taught me the fundamentals of jungle craft. I learnt that an elephant had to be approached from downwind because they had a great sense of smell though they were short sighted; that an animal could be followed in dense jungles by following broken grass or boughs.
It is irrelevant here that I never really got to use those lessons it real life but I was proud of the knowledge I owned.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reincarnation of Kenneth Anderson - Part 2

A few years ago a leading publishing house brought out two Omnibus editions of Kenneth Anderson's books. Each volume was a compilation of three books.

Volume I :
  1. Tales from the Indian Jungles
  2. Man-eaters and Jungle Killers
  3. The Call of the Man-eater
Volume II:
  1. The Black Panther of Sivanipalli
  2. The Tiger Roars
  3. Jungles Long Ago
He wrote eight, but why two of his other books were not included is a mystery. His first book published in 1954 "Nine Man-eaters and One Rogue" and "This is the Jungle"

The Omnibus editions fail on two counts. First, it does not include the maps and pictures found in the original publications. Second, the errors are numerous. Maybe the proof reader was not a fan of either Kenneth Anderson or wildlife. However, for anyone who hasn't had a chance to discover Kenneth Anderson earlier they make a riveting set of books.

Perhaps I should thank the publishers for their effort for introducing this master story teller to a new generation. I say this because even Google fails to throw up enough material on Kenneth Anderson.

However for those interested in the originals, you can download two of them (Nine Man-eaters and One Rogue & The Black panther of Sivanipalli) from the Internet Archive

Happy reading

Reincarnation of Kenneth Anderson - Part 1

To the lovers of India's diverse wildlife two names will remain deeply etched in conservation history. That of Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson (any comparisons of the two would be improper). The former, perhaps, had a more universal following because if his international footprint but it is the latter who always remains close to my heart.

I first met Mr. Anderson sometime in the late 1970s. Well? His ghost, you may say, because he left the world and wild he loved so much in 1974. BPS, my school in the Nilgiris, boasted of what then was considered the 'best school library' in the Blue Mountains. Among the books and journals that adorned it's shelves were the National Geographic Journal, The Time Magazine, Newsweek and many others unseen in high school libraries. Between these prominent publications, nestled in a corner of the non-fiction section was a shelf full of books on shikar stories. Kenneth Anderson's books demanded my immediate attention because the events he described occurred close to where
I sat reading them.

Perhaps it was his ghost, that I have forever been haunted by his descriptions of the jungle. Descriptions so vivid, that they remained an enduring mystery I wanted to experience sometime in my life. Those wild jungles lived on in a recess in my mind during my undergrad and PG years but never really went away. Even as I chose my profession as an ophthalmologist I carried along the passion for India's jungles, dreaming that some day would come that I could contribute to preserving them.

For that, I thank Mr. Anderson. He kept the embers glowing with just enough light that it never distracted me from my education.

Now that I'm a professional, and reasonably well settled in life, I find that the time has come to retrace my steps to my school library. I need to pick up the threads and start "GHOOMING" in the jungles again!

(Picture courtesy: Black Panther of Sivanipalli, George Allen & Unwin Ltd 1959)