Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary

The stone giants had put up a show by playing under the pre-monsoon showers of June the Second. A car had fallen prey to their nasty games. As we passed by its wreckage, staring at the giant sitting with his head in his hands, his hands on his bent leg, his large feet by the wreckage, sent shivers down my spine – it was awesome. Only a day ago I was roaming the hot and humid forests of Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary.

We passed through blinding rains twinkling for a few seconds by lightening; silhouetting the somber figure of the stone giant from whose feet we turned left around the edge of Parsik hills range. If you follow this range down south, you will reach Panvel Creek as it pours into the Arabian Sea. The range continues as small hillocks as it spreads as Karnala Bird Sanctuary. South of this sanctuary, the range again breaks into small hillocks, several villages, towns, and roads crisscross this terrain, until, a little to the west – and closer to the sea – lie the typical coastal woodlands of Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary.

I spent two days here in the company of Mid Earth, a young organization working in creating awareness amongst the masses about India’s vanishing wilderness. With young explorers eager to talk about ants and plants, reptiles and birds, and giant spiders, this trip was organized in a particularly “thirsty” season, when a few pre-monsoon showers have brought about a rapid change in this coastal woodland, and made the earth a bit thirstier.
North-East of Phansad; Supegaon is the base set up and run by the Forest Department and locals
Coastal woodland, however, is a generalized term where forests meet the sea. More correctly, the woodlands of Phansad are dry-deciduous, with a few areas containing evergreen species. Also, don’t be surprised to see towering alien species like Eucalyptus in the heart of the jungle, which were planted decades ago (some claim them to be more than 50 years old). The forest paths pass through a tangle of lianas and Ironwood trees (Memecylon umbelatum), usually leading to a gaan and mal, literally meaning a marshy or water inundated area due to a natural spring, and a meadow, respectively.
Ghunachya mal, a natural meadow on a summer's day
One of the most visited gaan’s is Chikalgaan, the route for which passes through several beautiful expanses of meadows. Fleeting glimpses of Indian Jackal, Barking Deer, Monitor Lizard, and other reptiles are common along the edge of meadows. About half the distance to Chikalgaan is a meadow unofficially called as “Vulture Restaurant”, where an area is dedicated by the Forest Department to dump carcass of cattle (hopefully those which are not illegally treated by Diclofenac), upon which the vultures come to feast (hence the name).
One of the small pools of Chikalgaan; Chikalgaan is a cluster of small pools trickling down at a steady pace.
It is full of water year round.
Closing up on Chikalgaan is a feeling of deep expectations, especially if you make the journey in the middle of the day. Morning times are usually best because they offer excellent sightings as well as a pleasant atmosphere. I’m one of those lucky ones to have explored this trail late in the evening and early in the morning, both during the hot summer season – and it has proved to be quite a challenge on both occasions. But it only takes one turn down the valley to come to a cool environment with dense evergreen trees and equally dense undergrowth. The air is damp but cool to feel.

If you are a fan of the dragon-blood fruit tree, you must look out for Calamus rotang, the most fearsome canes of India’s evergreen forests in my opinion.
Calamus rotang, one of my favourite plants
This gaan is famous for its birds, from the uncommon Scimitar Babblers to the more common Malabar Whistling Thrush, the Grey Hornbills and the Fly Catchers, the Drongos and the Buzzards; this is a bird-watchers paradise. One of the effervescent residents of these giant trees is also the state-animal of Maharashtra, the Indian Giant Squirrel, Ratufa indica.
One of the Indian Giant Squirrels scampering through the minarets of Chikalgaan
They are generally seen during early morning and late evening hours running from branch to branch, their metallic chuckle echoing deep inside the valley. All you have to do is find a suitable place and sit in dead silence. My favourite place has always been a few yards left of a hide made out of cement to look like a tree; under the shade of the outer rim of a lovely Ficus tree (you will know it once you get there).
The Ficus along the edge of Chikalgaan
Wait here, and an expanse of tall trees lies in front of you. Wait here in silence. Relax. I’ve often stopped trying to see hidden birds and gazed at the might of the trees: it is vast, magnificent, and awe inspiring. It’s okay if you don’t see the Giant Squirrels, or the laughing Babblers. It’s okay as long as you breathe in the scent of the trees; see the ant trail by your feet, an orb-web gleaming in the sunlight, or the last light upon the tree canopy. It’s okay to miss seeing Ceylon Frogmouth that your companion did. You also probably saw something that no one else did: nature in her finest: the whole picture.

Spending only a day in Phansad does not do justice to your curiosity. If you identify yourself with reptiles, or Nightjars, or Owls and Bats, Phansad is as beautiful in sunlight as it is under moonlight.

First, watch your step.
A Saw-scaled Viper with the arrow-mark on its head
Snakes hidden during the day are active at night, and occasionally cross the path in search of prey. One of the venomous residents of Phansad is the Saw-scaled Viper. You can also get lucky to see Bamboo Pit Vipers hiding in the thickets.
A Bamboo Pit Viper checks for scents
Or the bedazzled Ground Gecko (Geckoella deccanensis), out on a hunt like a leopard of the undergrowth.
A Ground Gecko licks her eye to clean it
Phansad is quite well-known for its reptilian diversity. If you’re lucky, you might also see an Indian Cobra, a Vine Snake, a Monitor Lizard, and even Rock Geckos (they’re pretty big for a gecko), all around you. The only caution you must take is of using torchlight and wearing shoes.

Of the insects, the most common here are ants in their overwhelming numbers. One of my favourite ants is found in Phansad, which is actually pretty common in any wooded area: Cataulacus sp.
A Cataulacus ant exploring the tree bark at the entrance of Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary
These are tiny arboreal ants found on barks of trees. Another predator of Phansad, which, without exaggerating, would weigh more than all the mammals of Phansad combined, is an ant: Anoplolepis gracilipes, or the Yellow Crazy Ant.
Yellow Crazy Ant: A guard checks for a human intruder
These ants are highly territorial and would nest underground or on trees. Colonies are broken down into satellite colonies, and they can grow in thousands and even lakhs (own estimation), and in places you will find only this ant over tree trunks and forest floor. Such places are very poor in invertebrate diversity. An extensive research of the destructive and invasive power of this ant, and their impact on the diversity of a certain niche needs to be conducted.
Orange Awlet (Bibasis harisa)
One of the prettiest residents of Phansad is the Orange Awlet, a little Skipper (family Hesperiidae). It is commonly found around the camp, especially in damp places. Watch for this butterfly near scat or cow dung.
Poecilotheria regalis; the night stalker
What one must know about Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary is that it has humongous spiders, sometimes bigger than the size of your palm. Like a phantom they lurk in the dark.
Its striking yellow thighs give it the name Yellow thighed Mygalomorph, or more aptly the Regal Spider
Spiders in the family Theraphosidae are fairly common in the Western Ghats if you know where to look. The most common are Burrowing Spider (Plesiophrictus sp.), the Indian Violet Tarantula (Chilobrachis sp.), and the Yellow-thighed Mygalomorph, also called Regal or King Parachute Spider (Poecilotheria regalis). Of these, P. regalis prefer an arboreal life; yes, in your walk through the woods of Phansad in the dark, there is likely a giant tarantula sitting on a branch right above your head. And remember, it’s also called King “Parachute” Spider!

I have found them to be common along the Forest Department base-camp at Supegaon and the trail leading to Dharnachi gaan. Look closely along roadside trees, especially tree barks.
...and its arboreal habitat give it the name King Parachute Spider
They hunt large insects to geckos and lizards. During the day they hide in tree crevasses, creep out silently as night falls, and lay still in wait of unsuspecting prey. They are aggressive if mishandled, so never try to get one out of the tree to be photographed.
Close up of the eyes of P. regalis. Tarantulas typically have 6 small eyes (Ocelli) clustered together
If you dare look one closer, their eyes really are tiny, but they rely mostly on vibrations that they sense through their hair (or bristles).

Every nature reserve is unique in its own sense. The identity of Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary is varied: vultures, Ceylon Frogmouth, reptiles, spiders. It is unique because it lies very close to the sea, and it is still free of the groping hands of development. A few hundred yards from Phansad is a Sacred Grove of Supegaon, a beautifully peaceful forest preserved by the locals. You may request one of the Self-help Group members to take you to the Devrai. But Phansad is not free of troubles. This coastal woodland is getting isolated.
Satellite image showing Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary marked by a red arrow and the closest towns around.
It has a fairly good tree cover around, which could be conserved as wildlife corridors
If you look at Phansad, it is surrounded by rapidly urbanizing cities of Revdanda to the North, Nagothane to the North-East, Roha to the South-East, and Murud to the South, leaving a significant buffer with a few villages scattered all around. Although the current status of Phansad is better compared to its sister Karnala Bird Sanctuary or Sanjay Gandhi National Park, it may not be so in the near future.

With all due respect to the development (and upliftment) of villages, it is crucial to identify key corridors to the East and South of Phansad, and undertake thorough assessment on the usage of corridor by large mammals such as Leopards and other cats. Instances of leopard lifting livestock, and of poachers trapping leopards, are also the problems facing Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary. In fact, poachers using these unidentified (and unpublicized) corridors are also a plausible explanation for poaching cases going unnoticed.
A Plumeria flower at the Devrai (Sacred Grove) of Supegaon
With most of the nature reserves lying to the west of the Sahyadris now facing the imminent dangers from urbanization, I found Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary to be a safer sanctuary for a variety of habitats and its inhabitants. The Forest Department has employed a Self-Help Group of local, big-hearted women who look after the campsite, and cook simple, delicious food. Phansad always leaves me with a feeling of returning some other day.