The light of the pale half moon cast its silver rays on the dark forest in front of the Rest House of Dhuanali in Barbara Forests of Khurda district. The faint sound of conch shell being blown in a distant forest hamlet to welcome Goddess Durga on the sixth day of her worship could be heard. The soft moonlight could not penetrate the inky black darkness beneath the shadowy litchi trees planted by the erstwhile British officers.
Hot piping tea revived our spirits which had been sapped by the bone jarring journey through the rain damaged rocky road. The loud mating sounds of the cicadas broke the stillness of the evening as the jungle smells wafted through the air. Messages had been sent out to all forest posts by the Range Officer to report kills of carnivores. After a quick dinner on the antique teak dining table, we fell asleep.
Just as the first rays of the sun lighted up the horizon and the call of the jungle fowl broke the morning silence, we were awakened by urgent tapping of our door. “Let us rush to Betuli Sir! A kill has been reported!” Immediately, we dressed and were off to Betuli post which was around 10 kms away.
The early morning sun’s mild rays could hardly penetrate the thick canopy of forest. The tall teak trees with sparse undergrowth gradually gave way to thick growth of mixed forests. We could see that the valuable old teak trees had disappeared, felled by timber smugglers of Ranpur area. No dust flew on the narrow forest road which was almost wet from the dripping of the heavy dew drops of the night. On both sides, thick undergrowth obscured our view. In a few places where no sunlight could penetrate the canopy, there was profuse growth of a multitude of jungle creepers, namely, siali (bahunia) and atendi which snake-like embraced the tall sal and teak trees.
After about half an hour of travel on the narrow dirt road we arrived at Betuli. It lay in a small valley and was a strategic control point for illegal timber smugglers who regularly entered the thick forests of Barbara through this route. Slurping down piping hot refreshing liquid invigorated us as we wondered whether we could see the hunter. Who was the killer, we enquired? The guards reported a pack of wild dogs, the elusive dhole had been sighted! My heart beat faster, since I had never got an opportunity to sight these elusive ghostly creatures.
All of us started walking towards the kill spot, the guard motioning us had to be absolutely silent as the wild dogs had a keen ear and eye. We knew these shy creatures would flee at the slightest sighting of any intruder! We asked the guard to go right ahead and keep a distance of at least 100 feet from us so that we did not surprise the pack suddenly.
A brisk walk for about 10 minutes took us the edge of a tiny little glade in the forest which was abandoned after some local farmer had tried his hand unsuccessfully at rice cultivation which no doubt was invariably gobbled up by wild boar and deer.
Suddenly, our guide reappeared and waved his arm at us motioning us to creep up carefully. Lying before us, were the fresh bloody remains of a semi-adult sambhar which had been successfully hunted by the pack. On the meadow lay the scattered remains of the animal with bones strewn all around. Dholes are extremely fast feeders and in no time can strip down a full grown sambhar to its bare bones. Their restless character prompts them to gulp down mouthfuls of meat before lopping away to their next destination.
We were now agog with excitement! If we were lucky maybe we could sight them ahead. After a heavy meal they might have decided to take rest. Carefully lifting our feet, we trod softly ahead. Noticing the direction of the tracks of these fleet footed predators, we followed them inside the forest. A little ahead there was a clump of cane brake which obstructed our line of sight. However, we soon crossed around this. We could make out the sounds of a gentle flowing jungle stream ahead and carefully we stepped ahead, a few inches at a time with extreme caution! We could hear the thudding beats of our hearts resounding in the morning stillness.
With mounting expectations, we wondered where they were! I detected a movement from the corner of my eye. A dhole inquisitively stared at us from the edge of the forest clearing. There they were! On the sandy banks of the boulder strewn stream were the fearsome ruddy grey hunters of the Indian jungle, whom every animal feared! Their legendary speed and habit of hunting in a pack gives them an unassailable advantage over other denizens of the forest helping them to effortlessly chase and tire out their prey. Suddenly, the entire pack of dholes broke cover and sharply bounded away, their lithe bronzed bodies swiftly flowing over the short grass of the meadow. We could make out their powerful jaws, their principal hunting weapons as they melted soon into the surrounding forests. We were left awestruck by the flowing grace and speed of these ghostly forest hunters!
A wood spider’s half built web was glittering in front of us. It was almost 80 per cent complete. The sun rays bounced off the shimmering strands of strong silk as the spider resolutely continued with its arduous task. A flight of blossom-headed parakeets noisily screeched and flew overhead. We returned to Dhuanali and had tea before we left for Barbara Rest House which was 20 kms away. We saw a thin pale coloured strand of grass flying in the air. Peering through my binoculars I saw a spotted munia carrying its nest material which trailed behind it like a streaming banner! Near Niladriprasad a short walk of around 2 kms took us to Bankada gada where the dilapidated ruins of a lovely old 16th century AD Shiva temple nestled at the foothills of a low hill range. The fast flowing Salia stream was behind the temple. Seeing the lovely carvings, our curiosity was aroused. We carefully examined the exquisite statutes as we circled the temple. We found an excellently carved graphic hunting scene stone panel. A wild boar was attacking the hunter who was mounted on a horse. At another place a tiger was displayed attacking the hunter. The scenes clearly indicated that these animals were plentifully found around these forests in the distant past.
Soon we arrived at Barbara where there is a lovely teak wood paneled Forest Rest House at built by the British in 1912. The village is named after the wife of a British forest officer who was supposed to have been killed by a tiger while sipping tea on the verandah, I wondered how difficult it must have been almost hundred years ago to reach this remote spot in the midst of a dense tiger forest. Barbara was famous even in post Independence for its tigers and the DFO office records reveal the large number of tiger shooting permits issued in the pre 1970 era. After breakfast we departed with fond memories of the ghostly hunters of Barbara!
[The author is a conservationist and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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