I departed London for India on the morning of February 10th, arriving at Kolkata at 05.00 on the morning of the 11th, after a domestic flight from Mumbai. I met up with Indrajit Sengupta of Saving Tiger Society, a local ground level NGO that we support and have been working with for 3 years. We went upstairs to the next level of the domestic airport, as we were to get a flight to Guwahati, this was due to leave at 09.50 by Air India and the flight lasted just over an hour. Once we arrived, we were met by a driver from the ngo, Manas Ever Welfare Society ( MEWS),they work in Bansbari range, Manas, Assam. We drove on for about an hour had some lunch, then it took us a further five hours by car to get to Florican cottages, which is run by MEWS, as eco tourism, they use this also as a base for their conservation work. On arrival the team welcomed us and gave us a brief outline of some of their work in the area, they have a team of fifteen and have been working in the area for eleven years. One of their iniatives, is piglet introduction, they give a villager a female piglet, they mate it with a male, twelve months later MEWS go back to the villager, the villager keep fifty percent of the piglets, MEWS will take fifty percent and take them to other villagers, average pig has eight piglets. This scheme in the long term will reduce illegal cattle grazing and reduce man animal conflict. The scheme has been in place for four years at present and has this working presently in five villages, they also explained that there had been a person killed in Tiger / man conflict about three months previously.
Next morning at 0600, we visited the park by jeep, we also had a forest dept armed guard, in the first five minutes, we observed hog deer, small herd of elephants both sides of the road, which we observed for about ten minutes. We then moved on, as we did, we observed a large herd of elephants, gaur, an eagle and wild buffalo, which was a first for me, as was seeing the gaur.
We visited many anti poaching towers, which was good to see they were all fully staffed, we then reached Mathanguri, which is on the location of the fast flowing Beki river, on the other side, we could see Indian forest dept elephant teams patrolling the border with Bhutan, the mountains that separate the two countries were only a short distance from ourselves. On the way back to the rest house, we observed a foot patrol by the forest staff. We also observed capped head Langur monkeys and pug marks of a male and female Tiger, which was very encouraging.
We also observed camera traps, which had been set up by another local ngo.
The route used to visit the park area, the road is the main route also between Bhutan and India. The forest dept has tried to close the route, though have only been successful in reducing traffic, we observed only two vehicles in the four hours we were on the route. After some breakfast, MEWS asked if we would present a couple of villagers with their piglets, they also explained that the villagers have to sign an agreement when participating in the programme, as mentioned earlier they have to give fifty percent of any female piglets to MEWS after the twelve months, attend MEWS awareness function once every twelve months, also they cannot sell the mother pig, without permission of MEWS. Villagers can make eighty to ninety Thousand Rupees per year, on the piglets after the first year, therefore a win / win situation for all, as it in the long term will help reduce illegal cattle grazing and man animal conflict with Tiger. After lunch, we visited a family, which was taking part in the piglet scheme with MEWS. They had six piglets at this time, the person felt it was a beneficial scheme, after the first twelve months and understood the long term benefits. We then visited a family, that make head and neck scarves by traditional looms, they mentioned some are exported, we also noted they are using the clay stoves in their house, which reduces wood from the forest and cook for 8- 10 people.
MEWS have also installed in their time working in the area, solar lighting on the periphery of the Tiger reserve, this costs 27 K Rupees for each unit, including battery, which is protected and locked in a metal box. This has stopped elephant crop raiding in the six areas they have implemented it, as elephants will not go with in seven hundred metres of the lights, as this is the arc of each light. They have also introduced a lemon project, which elephants do not like the thorns on the outside of this particular type of fruit.
Next morning, we visited the park area by elephant, the weather like the previous day, was over cast and about seven degrees, the day temperatures were about twenty five degrees.
After a short time, we observed a small herd of hog deer and then a sub adult rhino, which was not happy to see us, as he gave a warning hiss to us, to stay away, which we kept a respectable distance to observe him. We then also heard some trumpeting by some elephants not too far from our location, though we could not see anything, our time on the elephant was just short of two hours. After some breakfast, we then made our way by jeep to Mathanguri, as we were to take a raft ride down the Beki River. On the way, we observed elephants, buffalo, capped langur monkeys and some birds. Once we arrived at Mathanguri, we put on our life jackets, whist the two forest staff and our forest guard, took the rubber boat into the water. This was a first for me, also a new opportunity to see the forest and landscape in a different way. We went down many rapids in the two hours on the raft, we observed many birds, mainly duck species, also observing a fish eagle flying off with a fish in its talons. The highlight was observing some otters, one was chasing fish up a small rapid, also two others on the riverbank, one of which was on its hind legs, watching us go down our rapid in another direction, this brought a smile to all in the raft. Tiger had been seen crossing the river in this location about ten day previous. After lunch, we visited Thakmapara hamlet, part of the revenue area, we went on motorcycles, it took us about twenty minutes from the Florican camp. We met up with a couple of men, who are contacts with MEWS, they explained how the lighting is benefiting and stopping elephants from crop raiding, I took some pictures of the light posts, there are a few on this stretch of boundary to the park area. They said Tiger had not been seen in this area for a few years, though some villagers had lost approx ten cattle to Tiger inside the boundary fence of the park, in the last three months. We also noted cattle grazing inside the boundary of the reserve, though had not seen this in other places visited so far. We also were shown an anti poaching tower in the area, these are another useful tool to help reduce crop raiding with elephant and herbivores. Mews have also built a few of these working with local communities in the area.
Next morning, we had a meeting with the Field Director of Manas, he is also conservator of forest . We spoke first to the deputy field director, a young lady by the name of Sonali Ghosh. She asked about our work and she hoped we were enjoying our visit to Manas, she also mentioned that they are looking to take forward more community based schemes and learning more about MEWS work, to hopefully replicate in other areas, after around fifteen minutes, we concluded our talk and then went to meet the Field Director. He also asked about Saving Tiger Society and Tiger Awareness work, also how long we were visiting the area for. He explained some of the challenges for the department, poaching, that they could do with approx 250 – 300 more staff in the field, he too mentioned the need for more community based work in the entire areas to help reduce poaching. After about twenty minutes, we conclude our talk and made our way back to the rest house, as we were to visit the park in the afternoon.
The visit to the park area, we were hoping to see Tiger , as we had permission to go into some new areas. We observed buffalo, a mother rhino with calf close up, civit cat and many birds, though not to be lucky this time to see Tiger, after four hours we went back to the guest house. After arriving back, we had a meeting with all the MEWS members, saying our thanks for looking after us for the three days and showing us their community based conservation work and organising the rest of our schedule. Tiger Awareness made a donation of 10,000 Rupees ( £ 100 ) towards the piglet scheme, this would allow them to purchase six more piglets and take forward with other villagers, requesting, they send me an update on the area the piglets are given to villagers, we suggested Thakmapara area. They also mentioned they need support in future for vetinarey call outs to the pigs, I said it is something we will try to look at supporting in the future.
Next morning, we had some breakfast, the car then took us to the railway station, approx 20kms away, so we could get our train to Falakata, which is the closest station to Jaldapara National Park, North Bengal, an area we had helped with some snake education training for forest staff, also supported villagers with mosquito nets and other items recently. We had a five hour train journey to Falakata, we were met by a friend of Indrajits, that works in the forest department. After some lunch, we made our way to Holong forest rest house, where we were to spend the night, it was dark by the time we arrived, so we had our evening meal and turned in for the night. In the morning, I went for a visit to the forest area on elephant, as it was the weekend, it was busy, the forest dept was using five elephants, also a baby calf, following its mother, and they also had staggered start times. The visit, lasted for just over an hour, we observed a male rhino, also noticing it had a fresh injury at the rear left side, which we reported to forest staff when arriving back, they were already aware and said would monitor the situation. We observed sambar deer also a pair of eagles calling each other. Later in the morning, we were to visit some villagers we supported recently, this had been put back till the next day, we then took a drive up to the Bhutan border, on one side of the main road was Jaldapara national park, the other side was Buxa Tiger reserve. The weather throughout the day had become more overcast and eventually it rained,Indrajit also got a call from one of the members of Saving Tiger Society in Sundarbans, to say it had been raining there for the last two days. After some food in the early evening, we then made our way to Khairbri forest rest house, it was on the site of the Eco Park, it rained very heavy overnight, with the metal roof, and it was so much louder.
In the morning, the weather was overcast, with the sun occasionally peeping through the clouds. On the same site is a rescue centre for Tiger and leopards that was opened in 2005. We after some time, had chance to go visit the centre.
There are three circus Tiger there, one also from Sundarbans, that has lost its rear foot, due to being caught in a snare in 2008. There are also many Leopards, two young cubs ( 10 months old) that were found abandoned in a tea garden close to here, also adult leopards that have been in conflict with people in the wild. They are all fed six days a week and get time out of the pen areas, into larger grassy outdoor areas, with water.
After visiting the rescue centre, we had a meeting with the villagers of South Khayerbari, there are six ADCs, there were around 100 villagers present from all ADCs, we had supported the villagers with mosquito nets and children with education packs and back packs recently. Indrajit explained, we would like to continue the support in future where possible, we also explained that we needed the villagers to work with forest staff, to include stopping illegally grazing cattle in forest area we also listened to the concerns of the villagers.
In the afternoon, we had an informal meeting with the guides of Jaldapara national park, I was informed there are around fifty, there were twelve present at our meeting, as others had gone on other business. There is one route in the park, the guides asked if we could provide some information in Bengali, such as books, literature, brochures, so this can be communicated on to visitors, I asked if they could email the information needed, so we could look to help, we also said, we would try to get them some further training, via other organisations and binoculars. The training, Tiger Awareness would look to cover travel costs, forest dept have said, they will cover food / lodgings for the stay.
A short time after, we made our way to the train station, which was due to depart at 18.00 for Kolkata, Bibek a volunteer with Saving Tiger Society in Jaldapara also came with us, to further his education and training. Our train was overnight and arrived in Kolkata at 08.00, we then took a short rickshaw ride to Indrajits mums house, we did some admin, then early afternoon, paid a short visit to Alipore zoo, as I wanted to visit the Tiger enclosure. The old one had been closed down, the new enclosure had a waterfall, lots more room, with a pool also at the end of the waterfall, with lots of shade, there was one Tiger outside at the time, with three in their night enclosures. We then went to visit the forest dept admin building in Kolkata, to get our permit to enter certain forest areas, to do our footwear and cap programmes with beat staff in Lothian, Boni Camp and a compensation programme with a family in Kultali. We explained more about our work and the reason behind our visit, the ADFO was very supportive and helpful for our visit and giving us the permit under forest government training. After we then went to a member of Saving Tiger societys house, I did some more admin, whilst Indrajit and Bibek, went to collect the camouflage footwear , we were to give to the beat staff in a couple of day’s time. On the way to Jharkhali, we stopped at a supermarket, to get some supplies and food, which we could not get in forest area. We arrived at the school / handicraft project area after a three hour drive, we were met by some of the school children and teachers, it was dark, they had also just completed their evening lessons.
Next morning, we went to the school, classes are from 06.00 to 09.15 in the morning, also the same in the evening, in between they have their government school lessons also. There are 125 children involved in education classes, 50 children involved in Nature / Art lessons, some cross over in both areas, some of the children also travel over 10kms..At the end of the lessons, we took a group picture, and then had a meeting with the teachers and Saving Tiger team members. We explained, that we are looking to support for the long term and will look to complete the remaining concrete of the floors in some of the class rooms / office, once the ground is totally dry, which should be in the next month.
One of the teachers asked, if we could look to build a library of books, also benches / tables, so the children, did not have to sit on the plastic sheets, to which I replied we would look to add these in the near future, we are looking to keep the school in village style, not urban style.
In the afternoon, we had a game of cricket, between some of the local students and Saving Tiger Society team. Later that evening, I again visited the classes, trying not to distract the students, they were also practicing some drama / play that they were to perform tomorrow evening, as the teachers and villagers, wanted to show local traditions in a way of thank you for the work, we are doing in the area, which would not be possible without Saving Tiger Society.
Next morning, went for a walk around the local area, Then in the afternoon, the villagers, students, teachers put on musical dramas / dances, about conserving the forest, there was also some speeches from the local landowners, school teachers. Saving Tiger Society also showed a film on wildlife at the end of the evening.
Next morning, we started early, as were to take fifty students on their first nature trip to Sundarbans with teachers and some parents for supervision, they were on one boat, we had another boat, as after their trip concluded at the end of the day, we would continue on for our field trip further into forest area of the Sundarbans, which included giving footwear / caps to forest beat staff and compensation to family who lost husband in confirmed Tiger conflict.
We first went to Sajnekhali, to get our permits for both boats to visit, the buffer area, as we had separate permit for our extended field visit. The children had the opportunity to see the museum here, I also noted forest staff, joining nylon nets together, that would be used in areas, opposite islands where Tiger movement takes place, this helps reduce conflict. We then went onto Sudhanyakhali, we observed Chital and some macaque monkeys, our guide also talked to the children about the forest / wildlife of Sundarbans, the way to behave and how to protect it for now and future. After some lunch on the boat, we then went to Dobanki watch tower. After our visit to Dobanki area, the children and our guide made their way back to Jhorkhali, we went to another jetty in a different park of Jhorkhali, as were to pick up a couple of other people from Saving Tiger team, after a short look round the Eco park there. We arrived at Lothian camp, Bhagabatpuri range by just after mid day next day. We met with the forest officer, then carried the footwear and caps we were to give to the forest staff here to the area they were looking to do the programme, we supported the same staff with snake training / equipment a couple of months previously working with Saving Tiger Society. Indrajit got some feedback from the beat staff, they have varied lengths of service in the dept, from eight years to seventeen, to thirty four years, they said they would like more support from the dept, they also mentioned it was beneficial to have the snake training programme and the footwear / caps today, they also asked if tranquilizer gun training could be arranged at beat staff level, not just officer level, as would be useful around Tiger census time. We gave seventy pairs of footwear and caps in this area, after giving them, a couple of the forest staff too us to a watchtower, close to the camp area, and we observed some chital and wild boar whilst here. Then we visited Bhagabatpur saltwater crocodile breeding centre, they had crocodiles at all stages in enclosures from a few months old to ready to be released in to the wild. On arriving back at our boat, there was another boat moored next to ours, which was blaring music out of two boom box speakers, we asked them to turn it off in the forest area, which they did. We made some of the distance to Bonnie Camp, our next beat camp, to give footwear / caps, we moored after a few hours, again in a small inlet. Next morning we started again for Bonnie Camp, arriving around mid day. A couple of hours later, we gave 50 pairs of footwear / caps to beat staff, also again, asking for feedback from the staff in support needed for future. They mentioned that stricter management of fishing is needed, as many fish are also taken at breeding season, hence reducing the chances to replenish certain fish levels. They could do with a camera, to help show illegal activities, binoculars and first aid kits, life jackets, searchlight and Gps training. The first aid kits would be supplied by Saving Tiger in the next couple of weeks, we would also look at camera and binocular support.
They mentioned in the last year in this area, there had been no conflict in villages with Tiger. A few of the forest dept, then took us on their boat to an area a short distance away from the camp area, which is also under their responsibility. There is an anti poaching tower, seed plantation, that after three years the plants are planted in areas6 were needed. There is also a meteorological mast, that measure wind speeds at three different heights, whilst taking us their and back, you could see Tiger pugmarks, next to the fence that protects the footpath. After we left there, they took us down a couple of channels and you could see fresh pugmarks of Tiger, including cubs pugmarks next to them, as they had crossed the river together. On arriving back at Bonnie Camp, I initially went to the watch tower, there is a water hole some 300 metres away, after some time, I went back to the boat to collect my bags, as we were to stay here the night, rather than on the boat. As I was coming back, Indrajit shouted me to come quickly, as Tiger was sighted at the waterhole, I had only left a few minutes before been at. We ran quickly, dumping my bags outside the room, many others ran also, sadly we had missed Tiger by about thirty seconds, It was Indrajits first Tiger sighting in Sundarbans after seven years, I was really happy for him, for me if I had seen it, would have been my first physical sighting in five visits to Sundarbans. We stayed at the watch tower for some time, we observed more chital, wild boar, later in the evening, and others heard Tiger calling. Later that evening, I could hear a lot of shouting ,close to the camp main gate, on asking what had happened, Indrajit said that the two fishing boats, had their fishing nets confiscated, as they were using mozzy nets, also, they did not have permits to fish there.
Next morning, my last day here before leaving for Kolkata. We made our way to Kultoli, Raidighi Range, we met the beat officer, Uattam Biswas, who had recently received a bravery award from WWF, as he had fought off Tiger twice, when trying to stop Tiger from entering village, he also received permanent injuries to his right leg. He had organised the compensation, we were to give to a lady who had lost her husband to Tiger, and we gave 10,000 Rupees (£ 100). Kultoli beat area is very close to local communities and it was mentioned there are three Tiger in this area. After taking a look around the camp area, we made our way back to Jhorkhali, then took a car back to Kolkata, then I flew back to UK, later that evening..
Overall view of trip
The visit had gone quickly; we had visited many new areas, such as Manas Tiger Reserve and Jaldapara National Park. Sundarbans, the school, it is very good to see classes taking place, we have to concrete the rest of the class room floors, also raise some funds for benches and desks, so the children can learn off the floor. We will also, look to provide some books, to help with further education, I had taken a few Tiger / nature books to start the process.
We had supported other Ngos in a pro active way, such as the piglet scheme in Manas, forest staff at ground level, the forest departments in all areas had been very frank and supportive. Saving Tiger Society team, are growing and making a difference in the field, after arriving back in the UK, they have supplied information and helped forest department, apprehend a boat and van full of illegal wood from forest area. Indrajit Sengupta, works hard and is the founder of Saving Tiger and is able to communicate well with local communities and forest staff. To continue forward, we have to raise further funding to maintain school for future, also further support for the forest staff at beat level.