Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tryst with life in the East coast and Eastern Ghats

 Tryst with life in the East coast and Eastern Ghats
Part four of a six part series on my recent sojourn into this unique part of India.
Day 4: Sileru to Maredumilli

Giri was up already and asked if I would join him in a quick bird watching trail. Having just jolted out of sleep by mosquitoes, I borrowed some time to freshen up. It was 6 am. The sky was overcast. There seemed to be a lull in the bird activity. In about 10 minutes, Prashanth, Dr. Ganesh and Myself  got ready and decided to walk up to the town and have tea. Giri had started off and we could not catch up with him. En route, we saw a group of 6 men, carrying what looked like the SLR, AK-47’s. The men were somewhat big. They were in plain clothes. Reebok and Nike shoes adorned their feet. Looked like they were going for their morning walk to cut down their weight. We wondered if they were really the elite Grey Hound Cammando’s or just heavily armed AP state police. They saw the SLR in my hand too. I only shot birds though.  We also had binoculars and I hope no one mistook us for the reds. 
The township was a neatly planned one. Like all other dam sites. Lanes were marked, parallel to each other, and graded according to the hierarchy. The townsfolk had just woken up. Streets were being swept and all the plastic piled up and burnt. We had tea. It was not great but we had two cups. A flock of Black lored tits, a sub species of the Eastern Ghats flitted around in a nearby mango tree. The township had several large trees. Mango was quite common.  The town also had a cricket ground. It had its own IPL going on. The commentators were doing all possible things to attract the crowd. Who would come and play in the hot sun we wondered. Soon, loud blaring music began, destroying any little peace and tranquility that was left.  While returning back to our rooms, we took a slight detour and decided to walk up instead of taking a shortcut. A 100 m deviation yielded great results. A pair of Yellow footed pigeon, A yellow naped woodpecker and plum headed parakeets greeted us.
A yellow footed green pigeon
We packed up and left. A quick stop for eating and we were on our way to reach our next stop. The journey was long. We would see varied landscapes. A few tall trees were heavy with honey combs. It seems the bees were making plenty use of the Bauhinia wahlii which was in bloom everywhere. All through the road, we encountered people. More than twice, we saw people carrying bow, arrow and spear walking into the forest. They were poachers beyond doubt. At Donkaryi, we stopped and walked up to the Sileru river. The river formed the boundary between Andhra and Orissa. The hills of Orissa painted a sorry picture. The trees were clear felled. There seemed to be a timber mafia for sure. Entire forests on hill tops were cleared. This was the handiwork of the very tribals and forest dwellers we people from cities romanticize as to be living in harmony with nature. 
A panaromic view of Sileru river and Hills of Orissa in the background
 Everything seemed to be free for all. The forest was there, animals were there for the picking and so much so, that when we stopped in a village, one man came up to us and offered to show us animals. He proudly said he would go poaching. All this was very much against the law. And these people were not tuber eating, half naked tribes not knowing anything of the outside world. A group of drunk tribes, carrying some black slick stopped our car. Stuck a few grains of rice to our foreheads and demanded money. Threatening of throwing the slick inside the vehicle. In every village, there seemed to be electricity, Tata Sky satellite TV connection and a Refrigerator which had stocks of Coke and Pepsi. People usually drank that. Not some water from a stream or crushed water from a tuber like it’s shown on TV. These are the ‘tribes’ we were talking about. We ought to right the wrongs done to them. Or so we are told. The forest rights act enables them to have much more facilities inside the forest. Some of us felt that being in the city; we were leading the life of loosers. People here had so much and there was a law to give them more. Right the wrongs indeed.
I agree what I saw was a small fraction. There is indeed heart wrenching poverty in much of these places.
By noon, we got out of the forest and went to a place called Konta. It is in the state of Chhattisgarh. Apparently, you could get English Liquor!. The river, whose course we followed made the boundary between Orissa, Andhra and Chhattisgarh. 
English Liquor Shop, Konta it says.
 Konta was also part of the erstwhile Bastar region. Part of Dantewada too. Both places known for the activities of Reds. A few years ago, both the places were in news for blowing up several polices forces. A week or two after we returned, Mahendra Karma, met his 'karma' for arming youth with guns (Salwa Judum fame). They ambushed him and blew up a whole convoy, killing I think two cabinet ministers. What goes around has to come around. I was deeply depressed by the atrocities committed by the police forces on the locals by reading this.
Before we re-entered the forest, we stopped by a timber yard. Several truck loads of bamboo were stocked as several more vehicles came with fresh load. Recently, bamboo has been removed from the Minor Forest Produce and moved to Non Timber Forest Produce. Collection was happening left right and center.  

We had our lunch in a hotel where the owner and her son engaged us in a conversation that ranged from politics to world peace and what not. The lady complained of how they were STILL building the road and only two days ago pace picked up as some minister was to visit (That fateful minister was Karma and his convoy). The food was good. Served again in the infamous paper plate. With the goodness of the hosts, came a good fat bill. We paid and also had badam milk in a neighboring store.  We tried to reach the place where two rivers met at the intersection of three states. We had some hard time finding it and eventually left.  We saw several dilapidated houses and several shacks where people lived. Poverty was rife in contrast to the english liquor. 
An indigenous AC unit.

House with Natural AC!
A typical Juice Bar. Notice the Orangs, and Lassy Lemans!
Post lunch, we began our entry into the Papikonda National park (NP). One of the only three in that region of Eastern Ghats. Northern Eastern Ghats was an important place. It acted like a corridor with the forests of the neighboring states. Eastern Ghats in general was severely fragmented. No one had really bothered to study here. Many including myself, have concentrated on the Western Ghats. This was a prelude of sorts for my colleague Vikram. He intends to study the impacts of fragmentation on mammals. We were accompanying him on a field reconnaissance survey. Entry into the NP had raised my hopes of seeing wildlife. Momentarily though. We soon realized that there was no checkpoint for the NP. No guards. No nothing. A small bamboo checkpost which looked dilapidated was all that was there. 
Hardin's Tragedy of commons free ranging sheep and forest without protection
 NP’s in Karnataka like Kudremukh or Nagarahole have guards at the checkpost and they only let vehicles in after scrutinizing its contents. Here it was a free for all. As we moved in, things worsened. For about 5-6 km, there was a major road widening plan underway. It was not supposed to have been happening inside the NP. The road verges were being dug, the embankments were steep and several trees were toppling. Many were cut and used for fuelling the tar. Lorry loads of timber and NTFP kept passing us. Deep down it hurt. Why was all this happening? Was everyone hand in glove? Was this not an entire collapse of the administrative system?.
Roads and other developmental works are not allowed inside National parks, On paper that is!
Moving up the road, we hit what looked like a recently completed road project. An 60 ft wide road in the middle of the forest, that too in an NP. Our driver needed constant reminding to slow down. He must have cursed us. No music playing, no movie playing and no over speeding. We might have been his worst passengers. Who the hell gives a damn. There were more burning issues than to worry of him. Literally so. Over a kilometer of litter along the road was on fire. A few small ones we stamped out. Soon, the fire certainly had gone out of control. The fire from the verge had spread to the forest. There was certainly nothing that we could do. 
Forest fire, intentional or not. Worst forms of damage is caused by them
 The vehicle traffic too was high. Not a single speed breaker on the road. Average speed often topped 60 kmph. Plus incessant honking. I stopped myself short of openly cussing at them and showing the finger at every idiot who honked when we all were on the very edge of the road. The road was wide and empty. As I have said before, if one wished, they could land a small freaking plane down there. Yet, the morons had to honk.
Such good roads are seldom seen in cities
 We decided to ask the vehicle to wait up ahead and decided to walk. The forest was nice, or so it seemed. Especially when there were no vehicles.  A lot of birds grabbed our attention. A green pigeon in particular. It was feeding in the undergrowth on some berries. We thought it was the yellow footed pigeon we had seen earlier. Somehow, I took a brief look with my optics and felt it wasn’t. I asked Prashanth to check if it were an Orange Breasted Green Pigeon. We spent some time there and managed to get a good look. It was indeed the Orange Breasted Pigeon. I tried getting a few record pictures but failed. It was getting dark, so we left. Half way to the vehicle, prashanth asked me to run up and see something. I ran. Carrying the big telephoto lens and running was quite some task. Once there, he pointed to two pigeons sitting on top of the tree. They were indeed Orange Breasted pigeons. We began discussing how people mistakenly pursue it as rare. It may be uncommon the Western Ghats but Eastern Ghats was really its home turf. A lone White Rumped Shama made a cameo. All through this journey, we kept searching for the Plum Cakes Prashanth had picked up. It was nowhere to be found. It was as if it vanished into thin air. No one had a clue. Nor would anyone have munched on half a kilo cake without having repercussions. 
The orange breast and a lilac  wash to it are unmistakable traits of this bird
 Either ways, we munched on whatever we could and reached the town of Maredumilli by dusk. The sun had gone down. We went to Giri’s friend’s house. A small house which was vacant. We paid off the taxi guy. We also searched the vehicle one round but no sign of the cake. We thought it got misplaced when we shifted luggage back and forth at Sileru. It seems eating the cake was not our destiny. Suspecting that the room might be a bit too small for all 7 of us, we decided to hop back into the vehicle and go to the forest department guest houses instead. We went, a bit of confusion prevailed as a few got down, a few went off straight to the guest house and a few others were not to be seen. We walked back and forth trying to figure out. About half hour was spent in this. Finally Giri and co, came and asked us to pick up stuff and climb a short hillock. It was a steep climb. All of us were sweating. We were given accommodation at the prefabricated house, fitted with AC and a mini refrigerator. We got in. Two beds and just about enough space was left for all of us to crash. We decided to head back, get water, have some dinner and go for a night walk. Earlier we had seen that an adjacent hill was burning. Yet another forest fire. We took some pictures and headed down. The dinner place was yet to open. We sat down by the bungalow. A few of them went to check out the ‘Bamboo chicken’. It was a local delicacy. Chicken with masala and all is shoved into a bamboo culm and barbequed on fire. Allwin ordered one and got one back. I wonder how many good sized bamboo was sacrificed for this. I also hoped they sold only domestic chicken and not the junglefowl!

The wait for dinner was far from being calm and quiet. Bang in the middle of the forest, there was blaring music. Terribly out of tune songs of ‘Hallelooyea’. What the heck I thought. There seemed like there was no escape from Hallelooyea. Whoever it was. The loud noise went on till late in the night. It was a Sunday and was perfectly normal. My expectation of seeing wildlife was shattered forever. The place did not look or feel like a national park by any stretch of imagination. We all realized after some of us met the forest department folks and got a map that Maredumilli was indeed not part of the NP.
Hell, we thought we might as well take a walk and stay away from the noise. We walked on the main road for over a kilometer and all that we saw was a white bellied wood rat. That’s all. No birds, no other nocturnal mammals. We did hear frogs. Skitter frogs and Tree Frogs but they were far away. Dejected but relieved that Mr. God knows who had stop braying, we trekked up to the pre-fabricated house. The roof of which had a big hole. One strong thunderstorm and the building looked like it would be no more. A horde of insects gathered outside. Inside, a cicada had emerged. They usually come out of ground after several years. This one, had come on Allwin’s backpack. Seemed like the bag and its contents were better than the forest soil litter! 
A moulting cicada
The cicada got disturbed when we moved around the bags for sleeping. We hit the beds. It felt good. Especially with the AC. Occasionally some of us woke up. Thanks to the AC becoming too cold. No one slept really soundly I think. Morning was not too far away. Tomorrow was another day.

The previous post can be viewed here

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