Monday, April 19, 2010

Snippets from Basavanna at Bandipur...

As I mentioned in the last post, I garnered some interesting snippets from my conversation with the naturalist Basavanna H.S (

Here is a random compilation of the interesting information:

The Bandipur park has 12 gates, and 20-25 vehicles with visitors enter every day. They have to register when coming in and sign out at the end, to regulate the number of vehicles and ensure that all are out when the gates close at 6.30 pm. Each resort has permission for 3-4 vehicles. Private vehicles are not allowed entry into the forest, so these are left near the reception center and visitors are taken in the forest jeeps.

There are many water holes in the park, with their names written on boards. “Katte” means “water hole” in Kannada. Basavanna says he uses these to find his way about in the jungle.

Round, red marks on some trees indicate the divisions marked for the tiger census conducted last year, which takes place every two years. Volunteers are given accommodation by the forest department, which also imparts basic training in recognizing scat and pug marks to track tigers. Another method used is a camera trap; cameras are fitted on two sides to capture the image of a tiger passing through its regular paths.

There are 6 adult tigers and 11 cubs in the forest, and each one has a different pattern of stripes, by which it is recognized. Two of the tigers in Bandipur: Gauri and Agastyaare supposed to be the most comfortable with humans around, and Basavanna has shot vivid images of both of them at close range. See them at

Hungry elephants often stray into human habitation, to be often hurt. In early times in villages, a rope would be strung up, coated with chilly powder, tobacco and any waste oil, as this combination gave off a smell to deter elephants.

Forest fires are man made and common during January and March, so patrols on foot or manning the watch towers spot and report fires to the department. As soon as an alarm is raised, the forest department personnel rush to the spot to arrest them. Tribals from nearby areas are recruited specially for these 3 months. Forest fires are started to collect firewood, and allow fresh grass to sprout as food for cattle.
The tribals (sometimes driven by poverty and frustration at not being employed) have an innovative method to start forest fires. They tie the rat snake (the fastest snake in the forest), pour kerosense on it and set it alight—killing the snake, burning many acres of land, and with it, birds, eggs and insects.

Some elephants have one tusk, as the other may have been broken in a fight. An elephant is not born with one tusk, as some believe.

The greed of human beings is unmatched. Once, some visitors fed a chital, while others lifted its baby into the car and drove off. Fortunately, a witness alerted the forest department, and the baby was rescued after a long chase. People are known to have offered Rs 10,000 to poachers/villagers to kill a tiger.

According to Basavanna, the practice of sighting tigers from elephant back (as in Corbett park or Ranthambore) is an unhealthy one for both animals. Fortunately, it is not possible in Bandipur, which has a number of wild elephants. The inhumane practice of elephant (joy) rides has been discontinued in Bandipur, as the elephant camp is near the main road and elephants attracted too many visitors driving along the highway. In Kerala, elephants are treated as god, and used only as temple elephants. There is an elephant camp in Bandipur, where they are fed with ragi balls and bananas, and sometimes baby corn and sugarcane! They are also given an oil massage before a bath in the water hole, and checked weekly by a vet. They go to the forest at 6.30 pm, and return to the camp around 10 am. Jaiprakash, one of the camp elephants, will participate in the famous Dussehra procession in Mysore this year. Initially 2 elephants were trained, and since calves are born every 2 years, the number has increased.

Elephants are not dangerous, (except at certain times in the year/life cycle) as long as one does not get out of the vehicle. There are solar fences along the edge of the forest to track elephants that wander off and bring them back with a mild shock! When there is a calf in a herd, the mother stays close to it, while the “aunt” makes a “mock charge” to scare away intruding humans. According to Basavanna, it is a serious charge when the elephant curls its trunk inwards. This is among his most memorable experiences in the jungle, the details of which I shall get on my next visit and post!! There is also an elephant which demonstrates her displeasure of human intruders by throwing stones at the vehicles!!

The elephant has a small hole between the ear and the eye, and this is used to insert a small iron ring to hold the stick used by the mahout to give instructions.

There is a camp house in the forest for the officers and guards of the anti-poaching department. Apart from tiger poaching, poachers cut down rosewood and teakwood, as expensive material for furniture. Basavanna routinely takes extra provisions for them of his own accord.

Chitals come outside the forest boundary around 6.30 pm to avoid the night predators, and then go back to the jungle in the morning!

There are 29 dhole in the forest, 11 adults and 18 pups.

It is not advisable to wear white in the forest--the colors should match with those of the jungle.

A 40 year old lady named Sunni Dhairyam has painted the pictures on the cottage walls—the elephant in the cottage we stayed in took her 3 months to finish! (See photo) Basavanna was full of admiration for the yeoman service she does in the surrounding areas—-for humans and animals alike. I hope to meet her some day!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another unsung hero...a naturalist par excellence!

As I said in an earlier post, the myriad hues of India are largely due to unsung heroes (like Deepa and Ashish in Sonapani, see who choose the (more difficult) path less travelled, and in so doing, leave permanent footprints. I had mentioned another such person in a post last year( Bandipur wildlife sanctuary—the naturalist Basavanna H.S. Anyone who has met him once will not settle to go with anyone else for the jungle safari conducted by the Jungle Lodges resort. (See the previous post).

Basavanna is not just knowledgeable and experienced, but spares no effort to show visitors the smallest inhabitants of the forest. As I said in the last post, it is really not essential to sight a tiger (though some feel cheated unless they can boast of seeing one!) –a safari trip with him is immeasurably enriching. The epitome of patience and perseverance, he painstakingly takes the most difficult roads to where some animal may be seen. A more skilled driver would be difficult to find. While driving through the winding, rough and uneven tracks, Basavanna is constantly alert, looking to either side for any signs of life, while the slightest sound elicits identification/information and location of the bird or animal. His knowledge and interest are incredible. His keen eyes miss nothing, like the 5 eggs that I wrote about in the last post!

It is also amazing to see how he finds his way around the 82 square km safari area of the forest (of the total 880 sq km). Apparently, the names of the many water holes and other markings act as signposts. It was incredible how Basavanna drove us in the pitch darkness once, without the benefit of headlights. On occasion, he has had to stay inside the forest till 10.30 pm, when 2 tires have been punctured. Earlier, jeeps were fitted with walky talkies, but their use has been discontinued, as news of tiger sightings led to a congregation of all the safari vehicles near the poor animal.

During our second visit there last week, I sought out Basavanna for an informal interview to get some material for articles and children’s books. Despite his busy schedule (and he is sought out by all visitors, including VIPs!) he graciously and patiently gave me plenty of time and the most interesting information. What follows is the gist of what he told me.

Basavanna turned 27 years on April 6, and has been working with the Jungle Lodges resorts (Karnataka government) for the last seven years. His inspiration has been his uncle, who works in the forest department. Even as a school boy, he enjoyed the wild, and trekking to the nearby hills. Interestingly enough, Basavanna prefers his present employment to even a better one with the forest department, as that would restrict him to a desk job, and keep him away from the daily visits to his beloved jungle!

He learnt some basics from the 3 months Naturalist Training Program conducted by Jungle Lodges, but his vast knowledge comes from experience and reading.
Basavanna's interests are bird watching and catching snakes (from the resort premises etc) to be released in the jungle. The stick with the curved end is used for catching snakes (see 3rd photo).

Apart from driving visitors around the forest both morning and evening on safaris, Basavanna's day is full with accounts (twice a day) and all the other duties at the front desk, as he is the only person with advanced computer skills. He also writes up the daily sightings of animals (with date, locations and time) on a big board set at the entrance. Basavanna has little time for himself, and manages to go home (5 km away) only for a couple of days once in 1-2 months! His spare time is spent in reading books on wildlife, and editing his photographs. However, this is possible only during the off season (June-July) when there are few visitors. We had noticed on our earlier trip that he’s a very accomplished photographer. In fact, his photographs can be seen on

Elephants are his favorite animals, as he says these big animals can teach us a lot about protecting and taking care of babies! Basavanna goes the extra mile for his favorites—sometimes buying sugarcane as treats for the elephants at the Bandipur camp!

He knows the tigers in the forest (6 adults and 11 cubs) by name, and can identify them by their stripes, as each animal has a different pattern. He has taken photos at close range of many of the magnificent creatures of the jungle in their natural habitat.

Given the opportunity, Basavanna would tackle wildlife/nature conservation in the region with a multi-pronged approach:
a) Clearing plastic (which he does while driving inside the jungle)
b) Putting up bigger signboards in all the southern languages and Hindi, in addition to the English that exists. Violations like stopping on the highway (where a board says it is dangerous to do so, in view of the elephants) and sounding the horn (though a board importunes the driver to be a silent passer) are seen all the time.
c) Effective highway patrolling to ensure these strictures are followed.
d) Encourage the planting of trees, specially the Indian beech, neem and other local specimens. His main goal is to extend the forest cover. Beech trees are good for butterflies, while banyan trees shelter birds. Neem trees purify the air
e) Stop grazing, as cattle take away the elephant’s food, forcing him to encroach on villages and causing damage to both sides. Though elephant proof trenches are made around the forests, villagers fill them with mud and encourage the cattle to stray into the forbidden areas.

Basavanna has already initiated measures with the help of a group of friends—10 teachers who teach their charges the importance of planting trees, need to stop cutting firewood in forests and cattle grazing. He hopes that they will go home and pass on the message to their parents. LPG gas is now being supplied to the villages around, so he reiterates that there should be no need for cutting firewood.

While driving on the highway, Basavanna makes it a point to stop offenders (like the ones I mentioned in the last post)—if everyone took upon himself even a little of this responsibility, the world would indeed be a safer place for animals.

When I asked why there was no awareness program at the resort, he said that they ran into trouble when a parent complained that with his wealthy background, it was demeaning for his child to collect plastic packets to clear litter! If this is the attitude of the so called “educated” class responsible for passing on wrong values to the next generation, the future is in serious jeopardy. There are funny sides too—like a visitor asking why lions could not be seen in Bandipur!!

I think Basavanna was amused when I asked him if he ever got fed up or wanted to leave the place—clearly feelings unknown to him! The external trappings of success or lack of them do not seem to bother him. Despite being sought out by the rich and famous, Basavanna is totally unassuming and humble. Many a lesson can be learnt from him---patience, contentment, simplicity, and above all, passionate love for nature, which transforms his work into a labor of love. The greatest testimony to this unsung hero is the relationship he forges with visitors, and the love and respect he commands from them. People like Basavanna are the only hopes to save our country from environmental degradation and extinction of wildlife.

(Read the full interview and responses to it on
(Watch out for interesting snippets garnered from the interview in the next post--

Bandipur beckons again!

On April 9, we went back to Bandipur National Park, which I had written about in November 2009 (
This time we decided on a longer stay of 2 nights and 3 days at the Jungle Lodges resort. The place has a warm and welcoming atmosphere, and after settling in, a sumptuous lunch and a quick tea, it was time for the evening safari. On our earlier trip, we had been very impressed by the knowledge, professionalism and interest of one of the naturalists who accompany visitors, (that makes a big difference) and we asked to go with Basavanna again (as does anyone on a repeat visit!) for all the trips, which are truly the high points of the visit.

There were a few light showers early in the evening, but that did not deter the herds of chital (spotted deer), some sambar, peacocks and other birds, and finally, a herd of elephants. Suddenly, one made what is called a mock charge, which Basavanna handled adroitly, while telling us that it was the “aunty” who was making the charge! Apparently, the mother stays with the calf while the aunt wards of danger. After a while, the herd moved to one side, while we got to see one at close range. All the while, Basavanna and the 3 avid bird watchers in our jeep pointed out a number of colorful birds, including some rare ones. The sunset cast a magical glow over the forest, and we returned to the resort for an evening program of a documentary, multi course dinner, bonfire, and finally, the restful sleep which can come only in such a place.

The morning began with another safari, and another magical round through the forest, resounding with the sounds of birds and insects. The early morning mist adds to the atmosphere, and Basavanna seemed to know just where the birds were to be found. Back to a lavish breakfast, and then a drive up to the Gopalaswamy hill/temple high up, with a panoramic view of the countryside. The second evening safari was every bit as interesting and enjoyable. My purely functional and jaded city mind was highlighted when I thought Basavanna was checking the jeep tyre periodically, not realizing he was checking for pug marks to follow the tiger’s trail!! As we were on the way back to the resort, he heard that a tiger was in the bushes, waiting to come out. Basavanna turned around and tried every path possible to see if the tiger could be spotted. Apparently, it had come out, seen the number of vehicles on the highway and retreated, and one can only empathize with the animal! so we were not really disappointed, though people usually think that should be the sole reason for going to Bandipur! The jungle has so much more to offer, even if no large animals are sighted---the play of light and color among the trees, from the first rays of the sun suffusing the forests and highlighting the various shades of green (and black and gray where forest fires have occurred) to the setting sun which casts a magical glow, the different water holes reflecting the trees on their banks, which are home to so many birds….the beauty and peace of the forest have to be experienced to be believed. The winding rough paths, branching off in different directions (Basavanna always seemed to choose the most picturesque one full of possibilities) reminded me of Robert Frost’s “Two roads” and “the road less travelled”! On the way home, we saw a solitary langur (monkey) sitting by the roadside, wrapped in pensive thought, and a group of chital crossing the road, in the face of fast traffic. This is just one instance of the disregard for rules and the safety of wildlife—on the highway, there was blatant use of horns (signs say “Be a silent passer”) high speeds (sign says to drive slowly, as animals may be crossing) cars parked (sign says it’s dangerous to stop the car) and people even out of the vehicle for a smoke. The worst was that of a couple of people in a car trying to feed a chital that had come too close to the road. At each instance, Basavanna had to stop and admonish the offenders, but there are very few who bother.

The next morning saw us back again for a last safari, and we were richly rewarded by a variety of birds, starting with a lapwig family. Basavanna said that he had seen 5 eggs a few days before, and sure enough, 3 of the little ones were trying out their feet. He showed us one egg almost merging with a stone—it took a while before our tired city eyes could spot it. In a short while, the mother had gathered her babies under her wing, till they were no longer visible! It was only his expertise and perseverance that got us a good look at a pair of dhole (wild dogs). The grand finale was a peacock dancing to attract peahens—the splendour of it cannot be described in words—it was mesmerizing, and thanks to Basavanna, who got some very good shots even with my basic digital camera! (The photos of the peacock dancing and the dhole were taken by him) A little later, there was another one, sitting in solitary splendour on the branch of a tall tree. As the sun rose higher in the sky, we left with a last look at the forest-—it’s so easy to understand what Frost meant by the woods being “lovely, dark and deep”. The 2 days passed by too fast, certainly too little a time to soak in the soothing beauty and serenity of the wild. Chances seem dim, but I still hope that we can one day, once again, follow the call of the wild!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A jumbo Dubare elephant camp, Coorg

Our recent visit to Coorg was to see the legendary beauty of the place and experience a home stay, but chiefly to visit the Dubare elephant camp, on the banks of the River Kaveri. A 4-5 hour drive from Bangalore, it is reached via the Mysore bypass road which leads to Hunsur and Kushalnagar, from where Dubare is a mere 14 km. One has to cross the River Kaveri in a motorboat to reach the camp. We also some people walking across a shallow stretch dotted with rocks.

This is one place to not just enjoy a break, but learn about Asian elephants at close quarters, thanks to the programs run by the Jungle lodges and resorts. We stayed at a Sidapur home stay (see earlier post) and went to Dubare for the ‘elephant activities’ between 9-12 noon. It is a wonderful sight to see the majestic elephants in the river, patiently allowing visitors to bathe them. One can then watch/take part in their feeding. This is followed by a short ride, which to me is inhumane, with the poor elephant hobbling (with short chains on their feet)round and round the small feeding enclosure with (sometimes overweight and insensitive) visitors on its back. One just wishes this could be discontinued, instead of exploiting an innocent animal to rake in revenue. It is advisable to wear shorts/capris and rubber sandals, as one has to wade into the river to bathe the elephants. The charges for taking part in the activities are reasonable. However, since the brochure and website are not updated, some of the activities mentioned in them do not actually take place.

There are training areas in the camp where they practice pulling down and arranging logs. We were lucky to witness one such session on our second visit, as it does not happen every day, though it was upsetting to see one of the mahouts hitting the elephant.

The nondescript reception center is manned by two knowledgeable naturalists, Basuraj and Shiva, who provided interesting information when we asked them about the camp.
Some interesting snippets from them:

Elephants have been trained at the camp, and used to capture other elephants, as well as help in their training. The twenty elephants in the camp include Gopi, Prashant, Kapila, Vikram, Shivsagar, Harsha, and 50 year old Ekadanta (with one tusk) being the oldest. Some of them take part in the Dussehra procession at Mysore. The two people who look after each elephant and scrub, bathe and feed him are the mahout/driver and kawadi/cleaner.

Elephants need 2 hours of rest and 4 hours of sleep, 150 liters of water and a large amount of food! They spend most of the 18 hours in the forest just eating! They are also fed at the camp twice daily after a bath—around 10 am and 5 pm, with snacks of ragi balls of 2 kg each. 20 kgs of these are cooked daily. Three of the staff of 40 take turns every week to cook.

Of the staff of forty, three take turns every week to cook. The workers take a lot of care, and the kitchen within the feeding area is airy and clean.

Elephants which had earlier helped to train wild elephants caught in the jungle—Abhimanyu, Sriram, Bharata, Mary and Balaram have been shifted to Murkal camp, near Nagarhole.

Jungle Lodges resorts provides excellent cottages, with logwood furniture, amidst trees and vegetation and overlooking the river. The half day program we took part in was comprehensive, but there is also a full day program which includes lunch and a trek into the jungle. Apart from taking part in the elephant activities, one can enjoy rafting, fishing, bird watching or a coracle ride. The latter was a pleasant experience, drifting under the trees, between rocks and islets, while a group of noisy rafters passed by!

Unfortunately, there were a few jarring notes. Presumably, the elephant have to have chains on their front feet, but one wishes they were slightly longer, so the poor animals can walk comfortably. It is particularly painful to see the ones giving the rides to visitors hobbling around the small feeding enclosure in the blistering mid day sun. Moreover, the whole place could be spruced up and made more tourist (specially children) friendly—with a brighter reception area, readily available information (in print or through guides) and clean toilets. It would greatly add to the experience of non-resident visitors. It is a pity too that many (even the so called educated ones) lack environmental awareness and sensitivity and respect towards the animals.

Nevertheless, a visit to Dubare is not just enjoyable, but provides valuable insights.

Update in September 2011: You can see an article on this at