A walk in the woods

Print edition : August 14, 2020

Snow-capped mountains seen from the ridgetop above Kotkendri, Uttarakhand. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The Bhoom forest rest house. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The Sharada river, on November 20, 2016. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The beautiful Ladhiya, a tributary of the Sharada, on November 24. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Kaladhungi forest rest house, now almost abandoned. Jim Corbett and Sir William Ibbotsons stayed here in April 1937. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The author’s travel companions in November 2016: (Left to right) Amitabh Dhillon from the Indian Police Service, Bivash Pandav from the Wildlife Institute of India and Ravikiran Goverkar from the Indian Forest Service. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

(right) a rustic butterfly (Cupha erymanthis) in Selagargh, Chuka man-eater area, on November 21. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A rustic butterfly (Cupha erymanthis) in Selagargh, Chuka man-eater area, on November 21. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A panoramic view of Chuka village. (Above). Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Gowri Singh, 83 years old and the liveliest person we met in the village of Chuka. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Gowri Singh, 83 years old and the liveliest person the travellers met in Chuka. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

(Right) The Ladhiya-Sharada confluence, on November 22. In his narrative on the Thak man-eater, Jim Corbett writes about the confluence being full of big mahseer, but on this field trip, the travellers did not see any fish here. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Golden mahseer in the Kosi river protected by Infinity Resorts and the Forest Department, on November 18. There is potential for a mahseer conservation programme in Uttarakhand as the State has a 500-km stretch of riverine mahseer habitat. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Residents of Chuka village and the team from the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB)camp in Chuka, on November 24. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A tiger pugmark, just short of Chalti. The reappearance of the tiger in the area can be attributed to the SSB camps along the Nepal border. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Notes from a five-day field trip in 2016 in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand that involved trekking through places immortalised by Jim Corbett and led to the welcome discovery that tigers were once again a part of the landscape.

THE sky was a cloudless blue and the warm, bright winter sun lit the forest and hills with a golden tinge. As we walked in the Ladhiya landscape in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand, we were greeted by leopard signs in numerous places and tiger signs in some places. Apart from me, our group comprised Amitabh Dhillon from the Indian Police Service, Ravikiran Goverkar from the Indian Forest Service and Bivash Pandav from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). We also had the able assistance of some forest staff and two field assistants associated with the WII.

Our five-day field trip started with the pleasing sighting of a healthy leopard on the evening of November 20, 2016, near Thuligad as we drove from the Bhoom forest rest house to the base of the Purnagiri temple. We needed to speak to people at the temple to learn more about the trail we had to take from Selagargh to Chuka via Kotkendri the next day. These places have been immortalised in the writings of Jim Corbett, who shot the Thak and Chuka man-eaters in the late 1930s.

Four earlier visits

As we prepared for the trek, my thoughts drifted to my earlier four visits to this landscape. In April 1993, on a warm day, I came down from Chalti, on the banks of the Ladhiya river, a tributary of the Sharada, in the company of my colleague G.S. Rawat. Our destination was Chuka, along the Ladhiya river, some 20 kilometres away. We were both on the faculty of the WII. A local resident carried our bag, and as we were young and fit, we crossed the Ladhiya in several places and reached Chuka—a small hamlet befitting Corbett’s description—by evening. Bullocks were used to plough the field and leg-driven wooden implements were used to dehusk paddy.

Sixty-two-year-old Umed Singh, the then pradhan of Chuka, gave us food and shelter for the night. Two days later, via Thak and Kaladhungi, we trekked to Thuligad, where the vehicle from the WII was waiting for us.

In May 1998, I travelled in the company of the late A.S. Negi, a respected forest officer who retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Uttaranchal (now Uttarakhand). We walked from Selagargh to Kotkendri and climbed the 1,500-metre (5,000-foot) ridge to Talla Des via Thak, Chuka and Sem. We returned to Dehradun after spending a night in Champawat.

In November 2002, I enjoyed the admirable company of Dhananjai Mohan, an exceptional birdwatcher, then serving on the faculty of the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy, Dehradun, on deputation from the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department and now director of the WII. We trekked from Chalti to Chuka largely along the right bank of the Ladhiya, and after spending a night at the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) camp in Kaladhungi, we walked to Thuligad to continue our journey to Dehradun.

My fourth trip was in December 2005, when the mountains were in the grip of winter cold. Dhananjai Mohan and Ravikiran, an avid fan of Corbett, were my companions. We spent a night at the forest rest house in Manch at an altitude of 1,800 metres in the Talla Des man-eater area, walked down to Chuka, trekked to Kumen Chak to meet Umed Singh, walked to Kotkendri and, as darkness was shrouding the valley, returned to Chuka via Thak. Our return journey was via Kaladhungi, where we spent a night enjoying the hospitality of the SSB. The next day we walked to Thuligad along the trail that goes between the Sharada river and the steep hills of Purnagiri. The trail was perilous, bounded by large boulders and dropped steeply to the roaring Sharada 40-50 m below. The path was exceedingly narrow in at least a dozen locations.

On these four walks, we never saw tiger signs although we did see leopard signs and, during the last three trips, plentiful evidence of sambar.

On this trip, we began in Selagargh, where a sign indicated that Kotkendri was 12 km from there and Chuka 6 km. At that point, we did not realise that the 6-km path I took in the company of Dhananjai and Ravikiran in December 2005 did not exist now and that we would be forced to take a much longer route to Chuka from Kotkendri.

As we walked uphill for nearly 900 m, blue-bearded bee-eaters, well hidden in the green canopy, called and indicated their presence. Jungle babblers noisily fed in the valley, a red-billed blue magpie flew across the valley and a barking deer ran ahead of us, all this giving the impression that the wildlife in the environs of the Purnagiri temple may be protected. For some distance along the trail, there were simple homes of hill people, and almost every home had some cattle and a dog and was set amidst fodder trees such Debregeasia longifolia, Ficus roxburghii and Grewia elastica.

The vegetation in the forest included trees such as Bauhinia malabarica, Mallotus philippinensis, Sapium insigne, Semecarpus anacardium, Shorea robusta (sal) and Terminalia tomentosa and bushes such as Artemisia nilagirica, Clerodendrun infortunatum, Flemingia macrophylla, Maesa indica and Pogostemon benghalensis. We saw Piptadenia oudhensis, a tree species that has a restricted distribution in the eastern Kumaon and the west-central Nepal foothills, and butter trees (Diploknema butyracea) as we walked towards the top of the ridge.

We had our first sighting of tiger signs in the form of pugmarks and a scrape on the trail around 11:00 a.m. when the trail led us past a natural salt lick to the left of the road. In another place, there was a patch of red cup plants (Holmskioldia sanguinea), their colour amidst the green bushes striking. A colourful butterfly, a rustic (Cupha erymanthis), was conspicuous on the green bush. There were more signs of leopard in the form of scats and scrapes. While approaching the ridgetop for the first time, I noticed the presence of the low-altitude banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) at a place where a group of rhesus monkeys giving guttural alarm calls moved away from the trail. Before we reached the top (1,300 m), we heard barking deer alarm calls twice and once a sambar belled, possibly alarmed by the noise we were making. At the top, there were stone benches where we could sit and relax, a temple and, in the distant north, a view of a row of snow-capped mountains.

Beyond the ridgetop, on the way to Kotkendri, we saw signs of habitat degradation in the form of wood cutting and the abundance of weeds such as P. benghalensis and Eupatorium adenophorum. We stopped at the first house in Kotkendri, which was in the middle of neatly maintained terraced fields with many malta trees (Citrus sinensis). The lady of the house was so agile that it was difficult to gauge her age. She was silent. As requested by our assistants, she made tea for all of us with fresh ginger dug from her garden but refused to accept the money (Rs.200) I offered her. She also silently moved away when I wanted to take a picture of her.

Standing near her home, we got a glimpse of the rest of Kotkendri and could understand the problems that most villages in the Himalaya faced: the youth moving to the towns in search of jobs, which resulted in a decline in the human population in the hills, the abandonment of cultivation and the encroachment of fields with weeds such as Adhatoda vasica (also a highly acclaimed medicinal plant for phlegm in the lungs), A. nilagirica, Cassia tora, Murraya koenigii and Xanthium strumarium.

After Kotkendri, we made our way towards Chuka, but the going was slow as we could only walk along the narrow bunds in the terraced fields. Further on, the trail meandered through the densely forested north-facing slope and was strewn with rocks in many places. We crossed bridges over at least two streams that flowed down the forested slope, merrily singing, into the Ladhiya valley. Roughly 3 km before Chuka, in the rapidly fading light, I saw another scrape of a tiger.

When some of us were about 2 km from Chuka, it became pitch dark, and as we were not prepared for this, we stopped, and Amitabh sent a message to the Chuka SSB camp via phone. After an hour or so, some jawans and village residents came to us with lights and led us to the two-room community hall in the village that had been kept ready for our stay. Hot water for a wash and warm food cooked over wood stoves were waiting for us before we rested for the night.

In the morning, the sun rising through the dense mist looked like a large moon. White-crested laughing thrushes raised their chorus in the jungle to the south of Chuka. While having tea, we learned about the village residents and their problems. Sixty-year-old Prahlad Ram, the pradhan of Chuka, supervised all the arrangements for our stay. He and a younger person from the village had brought provisions for us from Thuligad to Chuka along the 20-km rugged and treacherous trail. Everyone in the village complained bitterly about the lack of rain, and we could see that the wheat crop, only a few inches high, was withering. They said that sambars, wild pigs, porcupines and rhesus macaques raided their crops but were happy about the domestic dogs, which helped keep away the animals, particularly the marauding macaques. They also reported occasional predation of livestock by leopards and, occasionally, tigers.

The liveliest person we met in the village was 83-year-old Gowri Singh, who possibly weighed 45 kg and was bent with age. He wore glasses. There was always a beautiful, mischievous smile on his face. He sat comfortably on his haunches and could get up without anybody’s help though he moved around with a walking stick. His house was next to the community hall. The remarkable aspect of his life was the journey he made once in three months to Tanakpur to collect his meagre monthly pension of Rs.800. This involved a walk of three days to Selagargh (from where he could get a vehicle to Tanakpur) and a two-night stay in Kotkendri—the first night in Lower Kotkendri and the second in Upper Kotkendri—where he was provided food and shelter by residents who were in one way or another related to him. He spent some of his pension money on medicines and batteries for his radio (he was fond of listening to the news) and the rest he brought back. He said that while climbing the ridge he often crawled up along the trail, which in most places went through dense vegetation, knowing full well that tigers also used it.

Although his son lived in Chuka, Gowri Singh liked to stay alone and was a frequent visitor to our camp.

During our two-day stay in Chuka, we walked along the Ladhiya for about 1.5 km looking for tiger signs and assessing the status of the golden mahseer. Leopard and sambar signs were commonly seen in the Ladhiya riverbed, and the village residents showed us a cluster of bones of sambar killed by a tiger nearly a year ago. There was a gill net strung across the confluence of the Ladhiya and the Sharada, and the village residents said that it belonged to the people of the Sem village across the river who regularly arranged it across the confluence at night. The second reported victim of the Thak man-eater was the mother of the headman of Sem. She was killed when she was cutting brushwood close to her house. In his narrative on the Thak man-eater, Jim Corbett writes about the confluence being full of big mahseer, but we did not see any fish, and even the large, long pool in Sharada beyond the confluence showed few signs of fish as indicated by the presence of only a few large cormorants and the rarity of sightings of playful fish leaping above the surface late in the evening. The white-capped water redstart, the plumbeous water redstart and the wall creeper were the interesting birds we saw along the river.

On the second day, we walked to Kaladhungi as we had an invitation for lunch at the SSB camp. The distance was reported to be 6 km. A small boy and a girl from Chuka were herding their goats along the road in the direction of the town, and the goats were busy eating the leaves of A. vasica. There had been landslides in four nallahs, which had brought an avalanche of large boulders on to the road. This made crossing those stretches a bit risky and painful. So, on our return after lunch, we covered the same stretch by walking along the riverbed as there was water flowing only along the left bank close to Nepal. Leopard and sambar tracks were common in the riverbed. This is the only stretch where we saw some brahminy ducks. It appears that people from Nepal collect firewood from the Indian side of the river. We saw bundles of cut firewood and driftwood and tracks of barefoot people on the dry sections of the riverbed. The Nepalese deftly cross the river using inflated tyre tubes. The people of Parigaon village on the Nepal side of the river, comprising more than 500 houses, continue to collect firewood from the Indian side as the only trees visible on the Nepal side are large mature sal trees.

On the night of November 23, we bought a goat weighing 8 kg and almost the entire village had dinner with us. The next day, many of the villagers cheerfully accompanied us for about 2 km until we came to the first crossing of the Ladhiya. Thereafter, we walked rapidly, as Chalti, where our vehicles would be waiting for us, was far away. The Ladhiya river comes under the category of blue rivers in India (fairly pristine), and the problems I could visualise for it were pesticides and fertilizers draining into it from agriculture fields and unethical means of fishing (dynamiting, poisoning, gill netting and trapping). A pair of crested kingfishers flew ahead of us; we saw one more gill net across the river and, in one place, a trap made of long sticks into which the entire river water was diverted.

There were six small villages in the valley. We stopped for tea in Baelgate village, where the men reminisced about the past when the river had an abundance of large fish. We wished that a programme to protect the mahseer could be created for the whole of Uttarakhand as the State has a 500-km stretch of riverine mahseer habitat. We saw tiger tracks in several places, and at one place Ravikiran and Bivash Pandav saw what may have been fresh signs of a pair. Close to this location, a woman was cutting firewood in a dense lantana patch. The reappearance of the tiger in the Ladhiya landscape can be attributed to the establishment of SSB camps all along the Nepal border to control the entry of Maoists. This has, according to local people, prevented poaching by people from Nepal and led to the revival of the sambar population and the return of the tiger.

Before we reached Chalti, we saw goral in three places. The last climb to Chalti along a rugged steep path was done when it was dark. We estimated that we had walked about 55 km in total in the four days of our trip, and it was a tough walk because of the rocks and boulders along the trail. The woman we saw cutting firewood in the dense bush close to the fresh tiger signs made me hope that no man-eating tiger would make its appearance in the Ladhiya valley as that would frighten people and could lead to the imposition of a curfew in the area. If a man-eater appears in this challenging landscape of mountains and valleys, it will be an extremely difficult task to get rid of it. We may be forced to awaken Jim Corbett from his grave as hunters like him no longer exist.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru; WWF-India; and the Corbett Foundation. The author thanks Madhavi Sethupathi and Mervin Johnsingh for the help with this article.

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