Barbara forests of Khordha district lies north of Chilika Lake and about 5 kms away from Banapur, an ancient Buddhist heritage site. These forests were once famed for their tigers. Though many trees have been felled and stolen by smugglers, one can still see magnificent age old teak trees planted by the British in 1910 - 1930 after clearing the thick mixed Sal forests. However, these plantations could only be seen in valleys and foothills since teak does not grow well on slopes or rocky terrain. The slopes still contained the old natural forests of a variety of Sal associate species including sal, piasal, ficus, arjun, ashoka, kasi, etc. Some of the teak trees are nearly 80 feet in height and with 12 feet girth, making it a rare sight in Odisha.
Overwhelmed by armed timber smuggler gangs from Nayagarh district villages, the government was forced to deploy the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in 1995 to guard the rich Barbara forests. The timber smugglers of Nayagarh and Daspalla had plundered these thick forests in the eighties due to rapid expansion of Bhubaneswar city that had created a roaring demand for good quality teak wood. The ill-equipped forest guards with a couple of outdated 12 bore DBBL guns were no match in the face of attacks by armed timber mafia.
Even though some CRPF jawans lost their lives to brain malaria, they continued to guard the forests of Barbara for 21 long years until they were withdrawn in 2016.
Barbara was proposed as a sanctuary around two decades ago in view of its rich bird life and giant squirrel population. The government is yet to notify this as a protected area. I think it will be better off as a community conservation reserve so that locals can be encouraged, motivated and engaged to protect this beautiful patch of forest that will enable it to retain its bio-diversity and continue to be a naturalists’ delight for years to come!
I was lucky to visit Barbara several times when it was well protected. We used to be thrilled to see a variety of wildlife that had come back after the protection. I loved the teak paneled two-room Forest Rest House with its expansive verandah where I have spent many lazy mornings sipping tea watching the jungle enthralled by bird songs. Myriad birds used to feed on the bushes around the rest house and it was a pleasure watching these bright creatures fly around so close. They were unafraid of visitors. I still remember the Champa tree that grew close to the verandah which used to attract the beautiful ash grey Himalayan Tree pie in large numbers. This bird is only seen in thick forests of Odisha.
There is a story to the name of the village which was called Barbara. Barbara happened to be the unfortunate wife of a British forest officer who had been snatched away by a tiger long ago. I had seen copies of shooting permits issued for tiger hunting in Barbara forest block that used to be regularly visited by rich foreign hunters before 1972 when tiger shooting was a foreign exchange source for India. Alas no tigers remained now!
THE GIANT SQUIRREL HAVEN
Once we decided to drive to Mahisagotha which was a small hill top about 20 kms from the Barbara Rest House. The local forest guards expressed their doubts about the condition of the road citing it may have washed away by the torrential monsoon rains that had ended about a month ago. However we decided to go ahead.
Barbara was also famous for its bison population and we had reliable reports from local guards that they were being sighted on the Mahisagotha road. Journeying through the road, we were delighted to sight a Gnetum creeper, which is the only conifer creeper found in Odisha, growing beside a gurgling stream. Footmarks of wild boar and Sambhar criss-crossed the path at many places. Bison hoof marks also marked the moist soil at many spots on the dirt road.
However, the road appeared impassable due to the unbridled growth of eupatorium (eupatorium odoratum) weed which is an ecological menace in our forests nowadays. We had to return disappointed half way as the road was not visible after a few kilometres and it was dangerous to drive unless a clearing party cut down the profuse weed growth. It was a climb with many twists and turns on the ghat and there was every chance of the vehicle going off road into a deep ditch or valley.
We returned crestfallen since it was impossible to see any bison in this thick weed growth. However, in the past drives in summer we had seen several bison herds in this area and we knew that the season was just not right this time. We had also seen barking deer, porcupine, mouse deer and sambhar in summer when the undergrowth had died down or was burnt by forest fires exposing the animals. Spotted deer were common in the cultivated fields just near the Rest House.
A forest wagtail which is a local migrant in winter busily fed on the ground ahead, its short tail jumping up and down as it hopped about. There were enough insects in the rotting leaves to hold its undivided attention. It had arrived soon after the rains ended, flying all the way from the foothills of Himalayas.
Next day we drove to Mahulia village which is about 15 kms away beyond the Rajin hill top. This hill dominates the landscape and is nearly 2500 feet high and is quite cool in summers. The drive up the dirt track ghat road is an exhilarating experience. As we climbed up, we felt the pure air recharging our body and mind. We peered into the deep valley towards our right which was a naturalist’s paradise with many rare herbs and orchids. Sunlight is scarce since the dense tree canopy blocks the rays of the sun from penetrating fully. Many species of orchids adorn the trees and numerous small fresh water springs gurgle their way down the hill cutting the road at various places. I recollected our wonderful experience on a winter evening a few years ago when we came across a porcupine along the roadside shuffling its dreaded spines shaking like a live pin cushion as we climbed the ghat! He was happy scurrying in front of the vehicle till we stopped for a few minutes so that he could leave the road.
There is a small forest beat house on the top of the hill which was abandoned in the early eighties after a few guards lost their lives to tigers. It was rumoured to be haunted too.
However, a dynamic DFO had repaired it with basic staying facilities in 2002 and we had spent a couple of nights at this remote beat house far from any village, during a bird survey. We prayed that the ghost would appear and we would carry back our memorable experience of the encounter but it diligently avoided us city folks!
We found a variety of medicinal plants like pippali, bhuin limba, brahmi, ashoka, asparagus, bajakoli, phenophena, patal garuda and aloe vera growing profusely beside the ghat road. Thick clumps of ferns also grew on the banks of the fresh water streams, their leaves aglow with bright green colour. We were amazed to find a dug well made in 1907 on the top of the hill which yielded fresh water for thirsty travellers.
Barbara forests has patches of tropical semi-evergreen forests that contain many uncommon species of plants, ferns, herbs which are rare in other forests of Odisha. Once, Barbara forests were famous for tigers; old forest officers recollect how two armed guards had to accompany them always whenever they did any fieldwork like survey, marking or inspection of timber coupes.
A pair of Lesser Racket tailed drongos, their beautiful iridescent racket shaped tails trailing behind them, flew across the hill road raucously calling out each other. If you haven’t seen these graceful flying creatures you have really missed one of the most beautiful birds of Indian forests. Barbara forests are a birder’s paradise!
During a bird survey on our previous visit we had sighted the yellow billed blue magpie seen in Himalayan foothills which was never reported from Odisha earlier.
Among other birds, these forests are home to the Little scaly bellied Green woodpecker, Himalyan Tree pie, Lesser golden backed woodpecker, Golden backed woodpecker, Mahratta Woodpecker Rufous woodpecker, Long tailed minivet, Scarlet minivet ,White eye, three species of bulbuls, Red Spur fowl, Chloropsis, Magpie Robin, Iora, Black-naped Oriole, Black headed Oriole, Red Jungle fowl, Jungle crow, Blossom headed, Rose Ringed and Alexandrine Parakeet, Indian Pitta, Baya Weaver Bird , Scarlet Minivet, White throated Ground Thrush, Emerald Dove, Paradise Flycatcher, Fan tail flycatcher, Nightjar, Jungle Babbler, Bay backed shrike, Tickell’s Flowerpecker, Black winged kite and Spotted Owlet.
A mixed group of butterflies were hovering on the banks of the Ashoka Nullah beneath the outstretched boughs of an ancient wild mango tree which was at least 150 years old. The dried salts on the exposed stones attracted them. Clumps of the extremely useful Ashoka tree grew on the banks of this nullah. I wondered how long they would last before greedy medicinal plant collectors hacked them down for their valuable bark used for Ashokarista medicine. A giant squirrel, its rufous coat shining brightly peered at us from the Fig tree branch still holding the fruit it was eating. Giant squirrels are accomplished acrobats and were once commonly kept as pets. Chattering excitedly, it jumped onto the next branch and scampered away.
Apart from rich herpetofauna, many North East species were also observed during survey. A few years ago my guide Prof SK Dutta had discovered three species of frogs, unknown to science which clearly signified the immense importance of these forests as a biodiversity spot.
It was time to leave. As the setting sun descended behind the high ramparts of the Rajin Hill, we packed up and left for our city homes in a cloud of dust bidding farewell to one of my most favourite Odisha jungles.
(The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. 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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