Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kaziranga - the original land of one horned rhinos

My last visit to Kaziranga, the original abode of one horned Indian rhinos, was well before I started wildlife photography. This is where I shoot my first wildlife photo. It was in 2003 when I was posted at Sivasagar, some 150km further east of Kaziranga. I was just a novice in photography then, but is heavily into wildlife photography now. I had a film SLR then, and now have a 5D III and 60D. Therefore this trip to one of the finest jungle of India was special.

The flash airfare sale of Feb came as an opportunity for an unplanned visit my hometown Guwahati after my daughter’s exams are over in March at unbelievably low fares. Normally I visit my hometown either in May-June or October when Kaziranga remains closed. Thus I have been missing opportunity to visit Kaziranga since I got transferred to Delhi. But this visit happening in March, and also the fact that the park would remain open, I squeezed in a one day visit to Kaziranga out of a hectic schedule. The 240 km road from Guwahati to Kaziranga via NH37 is in excellent condition this year as the tar is newly laid. As we had started early in the morning, it took us 4 hrs to reach our resort at Bagori. The Nature Hunt Eco Camp, our abode, is a small facility with 3 huts and 1 dormitory. All huts are made of bamboo and other natural materials to give you an ethnic feel. The campus had decent green cover and a small captive tea plantation. The location is about 4km from the Kohora junction on NH37. As I had a vehicle at my disposal, I did not opt for the lunch (grossly overpriced) at the resort.

Post a sumptuous traditional lunch at the Maihong Restaurant close to the Kohora gate, we proceeded to the safari booking office. The office is located about 1km from the Kohora junction on NH37. You can book jeep and elephant safari for the central range at this office. The Central range, also known as the Kohora range, is the most popular with tourist because most of the hotels / resorts are located within a radius of 4 -5km from here. There are two other ranges viz. Bagori and Agratoli. If you are travelling from Guwahati, then Bagori is about 10km short of Kohora while Agratoli is about 20km further east towards Dibrugarh. Each of these three ranges has slightly different landscape and hence its unique appeal. Central range gives an overall feel of Kaziranga. For general information, the park remains opens from November to around second week of April. It can close anytime after second week of April because of rain. Assam generally receives excessive rainfall.

Jeep safaris can be booked on the spot and jeeps are available at the booking office. I never saw any mad rush for booking and one can do it on his own without any hassles. Rates for gypsy are fixed by the union. This eliminates bargaining or possibility of getting cheated. If you do not have a vehicle at your disposal then you can opt for safaris through the resort. They tend to charge 200-300 extra which is quite nominal. It is advisable to get gypsy from your hotel for Agratoli ( Eastern range). I did not find any gypsy waiting there. The only resort at Agratoli has a gypsy, but they may be already booked.

We had our first safari in the afternoon at the Central range. Safari is generally along an elevated road with swamp, wetland or tall elephant grass on either side of the road. Game viewing is through open patches along this trail. Kaziranga is about rhinos and you will get to see rhinos against fantastic backdrops which are photographers delight. Other common species are elephants, water buffalos, swamp deer and hog deer. The jungle is generally very colourful. By end March, the dry elephant grass are set on controlled fire to let new grass grow after rains. Because of this clearing of grasses, you tend to get a better view. Thus March end – April beginning is the best time to visit the park.
Rainfall in Assam has been scanty this year. Compare this to the unseasonal rains in Delhi all though Feb and March. Climate is changing for sure. The afternoon drive at central range was quite dusty. Fortunately it had rained that evening, leaving us with a clear sky next morning. Drive into the park during peak animal activity hours of early morning and late evening is not allowed. It gets dawns (in March) by 5am. But park entry is allowed after 7 am which is well past prime wildlife hours. However elephant safari at Kohora range is allowed between 5 to 7 am. As this safari is conducted along the periphery of the forest, and also the fact that I had done this once earlier, I decided to skip this popular touristy activity in favour of another jeep safari. I had the choice of going to either Bagori or Agaratoli. After discussing with the resort staff, and also because of the invitation of my friend Bhaskar Baruah, who runs the only resort at Agratoli, I decided to visit the Agratoli range. This range is known to be good for birding. Bhaskar told me that Kohora range is for tourists, but Agratoli range is for photographers. The range is about 20km from Kohora of which around 16km is along NH37 and then a bumpy 4kms ride through a tribal village. On this stretch you get a glimpse of the Missing tribe style of living in plat-formed houses, locally called chang-ghar. During rainy reason, these areas often get inundated.

As we had reached Agratoli forest office, we found few foreigners and a lone Indian tourist (apparently a birder / photographer), in all max 6 gypsy. This indeed turned out to be one for connoisseurs. We had good number of bird sighting alongwith one very close range rhino sighting. This range is the only range where tourist can reach the bank of mighty Brahmaputra, and actually go down the bank to touch the river. The landscape is altogether different from central. The total distance of safari route at Agratoli is about 33km as against 25 odd KM of central and further smaller Bagori range. However a fair part of the route passes through open stretches without any tree cover and hence you require good sun protection.

We had two very productive safaris. Bagori range had to be left out in this visit due to paucity of time. On our return we came to know about the sad incident two rhino poaching that had occurred during past 24 hrs. Poaching rhinos for horns has taken an ugly turn with alarming rise in incidences this year. Lack of political will, changing demographics, rampant encroachment by illegal Bangladeshis which gets patronized by ruling political party for vote bank politics, are some of the reasons for increase in poaching incidences. Now the Govt is planning de-horning of rhinos which are objected to by all concerned. Hope the majestic beast who had survived since prehistoric times will survive this human onslaught.

Safari cost:

The applicable safari rates for as on March 2014 :
Jeep / Gyspy charges (as published by the local owners union):
Central range – Rs.1500/-
Western range – Rs.1600/- (Rs.1300/- if you hire vehicle at Bagori office)
Eastern range – Rs.2000/-

Entry fee :
Per person : Rs.50/-
Per vehicle : Rs.300/-
Guard fee : Rs.100/- per vehicle
Camera fee : Rs.50/- per camera

The cost for 4 adults is about Rs.2200/- per safari. Mid sized taxis like Dzire or Indigo are available from Guwahati at about 1500 per day + Rs.6 per km. So plan your visit to one of the finest jungle of India.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bleak feature for Dhikala grassland at Corbett

Was back to Corbett in March for yet another visit to one of my favorite destinations. The 3N/4D visit this time was split between Bijrani FRH and Dhikala FRH. This was my first night stay at Bijrani range. Dhikala has always been the favorite. The landscape of Bijrani range is altogether different from the Dhikala range. So are the animal dynamics. After a couple of dry years, tiger sighting reports at Bijrani is encouraging. My first trip to Bijrani was not that fruitful as we had missed the majestic animal. Or rather it decided that we need to come again in search of him.  
as mist rises from the Ramganga riverbed, the Dhikla landscpe transforms into a canvas
Bijrani FRH is somewhat similar to the Gairal FRH. However Garial is better located by a river. Bijrani has 4 double bedded rooms and 2 four bedded rooms. The canteen has been taken over by KMVN. There is no running electricty. Solar powerer electricity is provided between 6 pm to 9 pm. If for some reason you want to stay awake beyond that then you have to manage with a solar lantern provided in your room. There is not even a electric plug in rooms for you to charge your camera batteries. Me and my friend decided to sit on the open varandah and observe what happens after lights goes off. Under the moonlight we could see couple of deer and probably a fox roaming around inside the solar powered FENCED campus.

Excitements in safaris at Bijrani were low. The highlight was the rare sighting of a Yellow Throated Morten. We left Bijrani after two safaris and headed for Dhikala. As we left the Dhanagiri gate, we could feel the familiar smell of forest. In Dhikla range, there always is the possibility of facing a rampaging elephant at next corner. We missed the tiger in one of the safaris by a whisker. It came out of the bushes, but went back immediately seeing the waiting vehicles.  So no tigers this time, despite 3 days and 6 safaris. Yet we enjoyed every bit of out four safaris. I do not go to Corbett to see tigers. If you get to see one, then consider it as bonus. Unlike Ranthambhore, the tigers in Corbett are very shy.  

the view from platform at Dhikla FRH

What was of great surprise to me was flooding of the famed grassland at Dhikala. A substantial part of the grassland was submerged under the water released from the Ramganga reservoir. In fact water was flowing upto the walls of Dhikla campus. One can see fishes standing at the wooden platform at the campus. The floor of the grassland is wet and hence grasses had not dried completely. This is preventing forest department from setting them on fire to let new grass grow. Grasses have grown quite tall and are not allowing good game view. With next monsoon due in couple of months, the situation is likely to detoriate. Dhikala may end up losing the grassland again this year. It happened couple of years ago.

Dhikala grassland submerged
Let’s hope for the best and keep our fingers crossed. It has been the wettest March in Delhi (and North) in years. Climate is changing for sure. Before ending, I would like to warn roadies about the extreme condition of the road. Once you leave the NH24 at Moradabad and heads for Kashipur, the road has lost its topping completely. It is as bumpy and dusty as you can imagine. Then you compete with the trucks and overladen sugarcane tractors. Of the 90 odd kilometres thereon, around 10 KM are extremely bad, further around 30 KM are in bad shape. It will take years for tourism facilities in Uttarakhand to revive. Appalled at the road condition, I had booked train tickets for my next visit. Looking forward to my next visit in April first week as part of Canon Wild Click.