Monday, 20 May 2013

Bardia, water snails and waiting for the tiger

Republished from www.nepalnews.com

The area surrounding Bardia National Park in Western Nepal has a unique weather. While the surrounding Banke district boils like a hot cauldron, the cool breeze from the nearby dense forest and branches of Karnali River make the area pleasant, even in summer. Surprisingly the evenings are cooler and in the mornings are misty.   

As we reached Thakurdwara, the ambience, the weather, and the smiling people, all seemed to welcome us to their land. We chose to stay at the Tharu Home Resort, on the banks of a branch of Karnali River. The river flowed gently; the water was cool and refreshing. The park is close by the resort. And, we could hear the peacocks screaming in the forest. The huts are traditional from outside, but inside you will find all modern facilities. There are around 19 such small resorts in the vicinity.

Thakurdwara is the main entrance of the Bardia National Park. It is around 13 kilometres from the East-West Highway. At Ambasa, you will find a huge gate to the south of the highway, leading to the road to Thakurdwara, with hoarding boards displaying messages of conservation. The ride to the park entrance is a bumpy one with only a small patch of black topped road. Rest of the road is gravelled and adventurous for off-road drive lovers. There’s a river on the way which generally remains dry in other seasons but has knee-deep water in the rainy season. 

Thakurdwara is named after the famous deity “Thakur Baba”, worshipped by Tharus and locals of the
area. “Dwar” means door. Literally translating, it is door to Thakur Baba’s temple. On 1st Magh (around 15 January), every year people from the region and neighbouring India flock to the temple to observe the “Maghi festival”. 

Sunset, dolphins and Thyodene laced grass
Having travelled to the area many times, I suggested driving to Hattisar, the elephant stable for a scenic sunset. The stable is around six kilometres from Thakurdwara. Having reached the location, our two shutterbugs were busy capturing the sunset, cattle and women crossing the Karnali, wooden canoe-like boats tied to the river bank, and of course posing for the perfect picture.

“The three boats are used by villagers to cross the Karnali River,” said Madhusudan Pokhrel, owner of the Racy Shade Resort. “Every villager pays ten kilos of rice in a year to the boatman to cross the river every day.” The Rajapur island houses many villages and the only way to cross the river is either a boat or a pontoon bridge at Kothiaghat downstream. During the rainy season, a ferry is used to cross the river – and it is full of people, children, motorcycles, cycles and even cattle!

As we talked about the beauty of the place, Madhusudan disgruntled with hate, “We don’t know how to save our heritage.”

“See, the water level was much higher in previous years. The people in adjacent Kailali district started extracting sand and pebbles unsustainably, making their side of the river deeper. The park authorities don’t allow people to extract even a piece of pebble from this side of the river. The result – the water level is lower here, whereas it is increasing every year at their end.”

He was sad. “Well, if you come here after few years, you will not find any water in this season, if the practice of extracting sand is continued in Kailali.”

We were curious about dolphins. On enquiring, he replied with zeal of a conservationist, “Dolphins were found here, but they are almost extinct in this part of river – the reason – snatching away dolphin’s prey through unsustainable fishing, throwing plastics in the river which is eaten by dolphins, causing deaths.”

Our topic of discussion then moved to tigers and deer. As we were figuring out the number of tigers in the park and discussing famous Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio’s visit to the park, we were bewildered to hear the unusual method of hunting deer.

The poachers spray lumps of salt on grass patches frequented by deer. Then they spray Thyodene on the patches. After few days of exposure to the sun, the odour of the chemical normalises and when the deer come to the patches, they eat the salty grass. Due to the grass laced with poison, they die on the spot. The poachers then take away the carcasses and make dry meat. The meat is sold at an exorbitant price. 

“Don’t ever eat dried deer meat, it is poisonous and harmful to health,” Madhusudan warned us. 

Elephant ride and wild animals
The early next morning we opted for elephant safari. The elephant ride inside the park is an exciting affair. Every second is precious and your eyeballs will remain busy searching the animals. Though the safari lasts for only an hour, you will enjoy the ride. The elephant crosses a river branch, moves through sal (Shorea robusta) forest and open grassland. You will obviously see spotted deer, monkeys (long tailed langur and common red monkey) and birds. If you are lucky, you might spot sambar deer, hog deer, barking deer and even a rhino. However, it is very rare to see a tiger during the one hour’s ride.
In Bardia, even in May, the mornings are misty
We came across a foreigner couple who had been visiting the park three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening in search of the elusive tiger. They were hell-bent on seeing a tiger. I don’t know how many days they will spend riding elephant inside the park. And, the amount they were spending every day in the process is, I would say, staggering. They ended up spending a thousand dollars every day!

The park entrance to the park is Rs 1000 (1 USD = Rs 87), and elephant ride for an hour costs Rs 2500 for a foreigner. Spending six hours inside the park on an elephant, including the morning and evening jaunts, sum up to Rs 42,000 for a couple. Paying the guides, luxury accommodation, food and jeep rides to and from the park entrance almost summed upto a thousand dollars per day. However, for Nepalese, the entrance to the park is Rs 50 and one hour elephant ride costs Rs 500.

Though the ride was short, it was much more exhilarating than the one in Sauraha of Chitwan. The ride inside the park takes you to another world – a world without human clutter and tonnes of fresh air for your punctured lungs. The greenery and grassland is a marvel to watch and the momentary glimpse of animals in wild add thrill to the excitement.

Tharu Home Stay and collecting water snails
In the evening, we drove to the Tharu Home Stay in Dalla village, around 12 kilometres from Thakurdwara. We met Shalik Ram Chaudhary, owner of house no. 8 (if I remember well) of the home stay. He is a cheerful man of short stature. Before entering his house, we had asked for local Tharu food in other houses. And all of them had the same reply, “We need to be informed in advance, at least few hours, to prepare local food.”

Shalik Ram is a man of action – he responded quickly to our demand. He said, “If you want to eat ghonghis (water snails), we can collect a handful, so that you can savour its taste tomorrow.” We gladly accepted his proposal and followed him and his two friends to a series of water holes in the nearby Shiva Community Forest frequented by rhinos.

On the way, we came across a mark, scratched by a wild beast. “Look, this is the mark of a tiger: a tiger marks its territory by scratching on the ground,” said Shalik Ram. He was pointing to the rhino and elephant droppings on the way. We were scared and I prayed silently to avoid encountering any wild beast.

The three men started searching the snails. In the fourth water hole the water level was low and they started finding the snails. To test the waters, my friends Sanjeev, Sushila and Kapil also joined the team and started picking out the snails from the muddy water. Soon the team gathered a handful of ghonghis.
Searching water snails
With the catch in hand, we returned to Shalik Ram’s house. He showed us the room for the guests – it was a decent room with two beds. The room was clean and decorated with local handicrafts. To spend a night at the home stay, you will need to pay Rs 150 per bed (turns out to be Rs 300 per room). You are invited to eat with the family with whom you stay.

Two tables were laid for us quickly and the couple brought chairs and stools. We were served homemade wine (might have been stored for more than a year, the taste was sour). To munch with the sip of wine, they brought two platefuls of sliced cucumbers. Although the taste was strange, our liquor connoisseur friends gulped the wine with new found excitement.

After sipping the wine, we were offered tea. In addition to that, we received instructions to cook the snails from the couple. It was already getting dark and we bade farewell, promising to return soon for spending a night at theirs.                        

Jungle safari and waiting for the tiger
As the sun rose, two jeeps were ready for the jungle safari. Two drivers and a nature guide wearing greens took us to the park for the much anticipated tiger viewing. The entry fee of a jeep inside the park is Rs 2000 and you will need to add Rs 3000 to hire a vehicle for a 3-4 hours ride inside the park.

The jeep safari was a completely new experience for many of my friends. Though it was not the first one for me, the view was completely new to me as well. I had never been to the park in April-May. To our dismay, wildfire was rampant, devouring the grass, bushes and shrubs. The fume of smoke was causing irritation to our eyes.
Forestfire devours the forest
 “The park authorities burn the grasses, so that tender and young grass sprout up,” said our guide. The same fire had spread to other areas as well. The crackling of fire had scared the animals to run to safer areas. Only few spotted deer could be seen in the dense jungle, followed by the langurs jumping from trees to trees.          

“The park authorities and the army guarding the park should have taken this (issue) seriously,” a faint murmuring started circling our group. “Slash and burn practices are agreeable, but the unwanted spread of wildfire is unacceptable. Why are the authorities sleeping?”    

We continued our drive. The warm gust of wind slapped our faces and in between cool gushes of fresh air brought pleasant feeling. We stopped by a waterhole, only to see a herd of deer gallop away from the site. It was the most amazing sight since we entered the park. But we were sorry for our friends in the jeep following us – they could not see even a single deer.

As we passed an army barrack in the park, our jeeps screeched to a halt. “Now don’t utter even a single word, this is the best opportunity to locate a tiger,” our guide said. “Follow me and from the high vantage point you will see a tiger, if you are lucky.”

The site was perfect! We were almost 100 feet above the river bank and the sight of the river snaking around a small piece of forest was amazing. The view of white pebbles and sand on the bank, and clear bluish green water was so stunning that we once forgot about the tiger. This is the site where I once encountered a fresh kill; the deer had been killed by a tiger only few minutes ago. The blood was still oozing out of the deer. I was on the back of an elephant and my heart was thumping with the fear and excitement of seeing a tiger. But it never happened. So, I was more excited than others.
Wild animals come to drink water in the river
We stood there waiting for the tiger, but to no avail. As we were getting restless, we met a young Dutch couple who were waiting for the tiger as well. “We saw a tiger, a rhino, and an elephant by the river – all at a single setting,” the couple exclaimed enthusiastically. “The tiger crossed the site twice.”

Hearing this we could no longer wait to reach the site mentioned by them. We asked our guide to take us to the place. As we rushed towards our jeeps, a patrolling van stopped by us and the team enquired our purpose of visiting the park. They requested for entrance tickets and asked us whether we saw a tiger. To our chagrin, the man in command said, “I have been inside the park for the last one and half years but haven’t even seen even the stripe of a tiger. Best of luck!”

With heavy hearts and eagerness we drove towards the lucky site. Reaching a river branch, the jeeps stopped and the guide summoned us to gather in a circle. “Earlier they (the park authorities) allowed the jeep to enter the core area of the park,” he said. “These days, they have banned the entry, so that the animals don’t get disturbed. Now, listen, don’t make any noises, follow me and keep your eyes and ears alert. You will need at least 20 minutes to reach the site.”
Walking through the jungle
As we were taking off our shoes to cross the river, we located a tiger pugmark. It further encouraged us and instilled hope to see a tiger. We then crossed the knee-deep river. The water was cool and relieved our tiredness. “Are there any crocodiles in the water?” one of us feared. The guide said that they would lead the way and won’t leave us in uncharted waters. We obediently followed him.

On crossing the river, we were inside the core area of the park, the forest was denser and we were on our feet! As were passing through the vehicle track, we again came across fresh pugmarks. The guide was explaining, “This is the pugmark of a male tiger; next to it is that of a female tiger.” He exhibited the difference between the pugmarks.
A tiger pugmark
Veering off the track, we encountered few foot-stamps of elephants. The branches of nearby trees were broken. Fear prevailed upon us but we still followed the guide. On the way we saw elephant and rhino droppings. The guide explained the difference, but whatever the dissimilarity, we were happy to see the piles of dung.     

On reaching the said site, we assembled in a row along the vantage point. The guide told us to settle well and keep looking at the brook below. “The tiger will come to drink water as the temperature will rise,” he said.
Dry tiger scat
Then out of nowhere, he showed a lump of dry scat. “See you are lucky, this is a tiger scat,” he said. Our cameras started rolling and clicking the pictures of the scat. It was scat of an elusive animal. We thought we were getting luckier.

However, after an hour’s wait, our hopes started simmering. We were getting restless, but still, with a faint hope of seeing a tiger, waited and waited. Not only us, but many groups like us were waiting to get a glimpse of a tiger. After almost two and half hours’ waiting, as our time permit was coming to an end, we left the place. We were disheartened but the beauty of the surrounding was inviting us to visit the place again.
 

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