A River Runs Through It

The distinct nests of the Crematogaster ants, like oddly shaped footballs suspended precariously from the edge of a branch or jutted between two, remind me that I am in a familiar landscape. They’re quite rare to come by in the central Indian highlands where I now stay. These pagoda nests, as they are called, stand out starkly up in the trees. They are called pagoda nests because their papery roof-like structures made from wood pulp appear to be piled one above the other, like a pagoda temple – an adaptation used by the Western Ghat species of Crematogaster ants to drain off the rain.

I’m looking at a forest that is seven years older since I last saw it – and it looks beautiful – the hills that roll in front of me are straddled with lianas embracing their host trees, and the fruiting of figs has brought together the most iconic of this forest’s species together. The smell of the forest is the only thing that hasn’t changed in all these years – it is still indescribable but remains unforgettable and yearning.

The familiar faces of people that run Kulgi Nature Camp and the familiar traces of trees around this camp bring back some distant memories. Kulgi is situated in Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, a part of the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve. There are very few changes in Kulgi Nature Camp – much of the camp remains exactly the same, bearing the same colour even. The conference hall retains its beautiful wooden walls, but is completely transformed from the inside to a well equipped air-conditioned conference hall which looks nothing like what it was before. Kulgi still remains in a network shadow region – no mobile phones work here, and that has probably kept the essence of a truly wild nature camp alive. And then there are the ever prancing squirrels, chital, and other wildlife of Kulgi that reminds you of where you are.

When I had first heard the loud, resonating, metallic laughter of the Malabar Giant Squirrel, it was hard to recognize it as a sound made by a rodent. It reverberates all across the hills and is the sound of this landscape – to hear them sing to you again is as good a gift as is seeing them frolicking in the high canopy. Over the years, I notice that their population has increased – they’re more common now than they were seven years ago – I don’t mean that they were uncommon or rare earlier, but to see about three or four in one glance seemed quite easy this time than before. We saw several of them chasing one another, feeding on curious things on trees (not all fruits, some were also nibbling on stems) – but mostly we heard their calls echo deep in the ravines.

We are here to meet likeminded folks from the institution I work in, The Corbett Foundation, and to be mentored in the lay of the forests from Dr A J T Johnsingh and Dr Asad Rahmani, two eminent naturalists of India. Dr Johnsingh sings when he speaks of the forests – and I listen as if I were listening to a Narnian flute. Dr Rahmani orchestrates the ways of a biologist – and I listen as if I were listening to a canticle. We came to learn to read nature in a language that is unwritten, but can be interpreted by those who’ve been out trying to communicate with it.

Dandeli’s inherent richness has always been close to me. Having come here three times before, once as a student of Bachelor of Science, once as a Master’s, and once as a volunteer for a tiger ungulate prey-density estimation study, I had scoured these hillsides on my knees and elbows (because I kept falling, and crawling was the only way to pass through Calamus rotang), and got bitten and stung by the most nefarious of invertebrates – the infamous ticks and the painful paper wasps – nefarious, but also my most favourite – and fell in love with this landscape that defines the northern Western Ghats.

Being in a network shadow region, the only place for you to make a phone call is on a watchtower looking over one of the many valleys of Dandeli. It is a ten minute, gently uphill walk to the watchtower which is somewhat of a meeting place for strangers – tourists, forest department staff, and locals come here to make calls. On the way lies a waterhole that is visited by elephants. A larger-than-life painting of a leopard, and of a melanistic leopard standing boldly, its golden eyes staring into the actual forests beyond, is erected at the watchtower.

We made dutiful trips to this watchtower – every walk on this road revealed something new. Once I saw a male Malabar Grey Hornbill, a Western Ghats endemic, trying to woo a female by offering her a nuptial gift of a fig from the tree they were sitting on. I stood not fifteen feet from them, and saw him offer five times. On the next he gobbled it himself in the way of a hornbill, by ducking his head backwards to toss it once and then gulp it down whole. The female moved on, and he followed her. A pair of White-bellied Woodpecker flew across the hills in their broken flight when I walked under a tree they were probing. A Malabar Barbet knocked on his copper bell in a continuous monotone, and a pair of Sambar ran from under the skeletal remains of the deciduous trees on the opposite hill when I approached the watchtower.

We also saw fresh elephant dung on the road, and on asking an elderly man if it belonged to wild elephants, he was sure in his reply – it was wild, and he picked up the lump and carried it with him. We found elephant dung twice on this road – perhaps we were unlucky to not have seen this solo elephant – perhaps we were lucky. About 64 elephants are said to inhabit this tiger reserve, looked after by the management with utmost priority for their conservation.

Around the last bend on this road, right before reaching the watchtower is a tree that bears curious scratches that go twenty feet up the trunk. The going-up and coming-down claw marks are quite distinct and could only be the work of a sloth bear, if not a human. My delight in seeing these marks was especially profound since my first ever sighting of a sloth bear was in Dandeli while I was on a transect – I recalled this experience in To each his own  fear. It was also exciting because I was here to present our work on understanding sloth bear-human conflict in the Kanha Pench Landscape in Central India.

The Forest Department has undertaken enormous efforts in the last few years to bring Dandeli-Anshi in the forefront – not only for tourism, but also for the conservation of this landscape. A beautiful presentation by the Mr Srinivasulu, the Field Director, about this landscape is published online.

The rumours of the melanistic leopard, popularly called a black panther, were always around. We made a dusty ride of the reserve to explore the forest with a hope of seeing a leopard, but weren’t lucky to see anything through the dense tropical forests. Mr Srinivasulu informed us that 14% of leopards they camera trapped in 2014 showed different variations of melanism (for more details, read this paper). There is no surprise in telling that I saw none of the black panthers, but to be assured of its presence through proclamations of my colleagues sighting one was heartening (although a little envious!).

On a morning nature walk we stumbled upon the pugmarks of a leopard that had walked nearly a kilometre on this track, probably a day or two ago, not half a kilometre from Kulgi Nature Camp. A night before, I remember hearing alarm calls of Chital from behind the tents. This nature trail, created by the Forest Department exclusively to experience the mixed deciduous forest of Dandeli is an easy but an adventurous walk – halfway on the trail is a waterhole surrounded by tall trees, and by the edge of this drying waterhole we found the dung of an elephant. This dung wasn’t there the day before when we had made a short visit.

I had fervently documented all that I had seen seven years ago (read here), and was delighted to see some of them again. Ants in particular, the Leptogenys, the Crematogaster, the fiery Weaver Ants Oecophylla smargdina that had formed extended colonies spread over entire trees, the effervescent golden-backed ants (Camponotus cf sericeus), and arboreal Polyrhachis and Cataulacus were all a warm sight. What particularly piqued my interest was the high density of the Yellow Crazy Ant, Anoplolepis gracilipes (read about this ant here). I don’t remember seeing this ant in Kulgi seven years ago, maybe I had not noticed them then. This ant, capable of forming super-colonies and threatening the ground-dwelling invertebrate diversity, was the most common species of ant around Kulgi Nature Camp – an indicator of a disturbed habitat. I had proposed a study on the distribution and behaviour of this ant farther north in the Sahyadri closer to Mumbai and Pune cities – and it will be worth considering their distribution all the way down south to Dandeli, and perhaps even further below. What would be interesting to see, after genetic analysis, is whether they belong to different races or belong to one giant super-colony.

To see the signs of most of these animals, whether elephants or ants, and all the things in-between, regularly wandering about the area gives me hope. Dandeli-Anshi landscape is said to have many small hamlets spread over its entire protected area – and living with the wildlife, although with several intrinsic inconvenience of its own, is worthy of note if not celebration.

One of the outstanding things undertaken actively by the government was to do exactly this: to celebrate the connection of the people with the wilderness of the Western Ghats – an important but lesser known birthplace of many prominent rivers.

A river runs through Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve, and it has a name: Kali. This forest is an important catchment of Kali River, a gorgeous river with dark green waters around which the life – human and wild alike – breathes, pulsates, procreates and celebrates as one. A lifeline of a sort for the agrarian communities but with six major dams for hydroelectricity on its already short course of 184 km.

The Forest Department along with noted photographers and filmmakers documented and released a 23 minute film highlighting the landscape that is shaped by Kali Nadi, its spiritual connection with the people of this land, and of the wildlife to which this river is a mother. 

It is available for a modest Rs. 100 at souvenir shops, and can also be viewed on YouTube.

The documentary has won several awards and came to the notice of policymakers – and Kali, a river barely visible from space, was suddenly in the forefront.

On the release of the film, Deccan Herald reported on August 3, 2015 that the government was considering renaming Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve after Kali.

In December 2015, this reserve was officially renamed as Kali Tiger Reserve, after the river that is the heart of this landscape.

This literary change may seem little, but many will see this protected area now not just as a reserve for wildlife, but as a measure to conserve a vital resource that nourishes all life. To me this little change can have a profound emotional and practical significance for its conservation. The more the people know of the priceless value of conserving a river, the more people will believe in conserving a certain stretch of land.

We treaded this river for several kilometres watching Malabar Pied Hornbills gliding above the emerald waters, gazing at forests so thick that no light passed through them, and listening to insects so loud that no other sound would have been louder. To feel the rushing of the river splashing on your face, to drink its waters of the purest form was because of a protected area, and this was a tribute to a river which it deserved from the very beginning.

Nobody claims to have created a river, neither was the river reborn per se, nor was it newly discovered, but it struck a chord – a little nerve that will, I earnestly hope, make us think twice before damming and threatening an entire ecosystem that sustains human and wild life without prejudice.

Kali Tiger Reserve is still young, and faces many challenges ahead – forest fires are common especially in the adjoining territorial forest divisions; over 30 to 40 tigers are said to be present in the 2200 sq km landscape of Dandeli-Anshi-Sharavati valley-Khanapur complex (source) and 64 elephants in Kali alone – monitoring them in this hilly terrain is a daunting task; human settlements are spread over a vast area of the reserve; and hunting is still a menace. Fortunately, all of these concerns are being addressed by the Forest Department, and they’re leaving no stone unturned in tackling them.

It was a pleasure to be amidst the woodlands of Kali once again with experienced naturalists sharing the enthusiasm and concern of conserving India’s natural heritage.

A River Runs Through It is also the name of a novel by Norman Maclean