Nagarhole and Biligiri

 

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Nagarhole and Biligiri

SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION SOCIETY ASIAN ELEPHANT STUDY II (2000)

(This Report by Dr Adrian Lister appears with the kind permission of the Scientific Exploration Society) 

The second SES expedition to help survey the elephant population of SW India met at Heathrow Airport at 5 am on 20th May 2000 to begin a 16-day trip that was to prove a resounding success. The 10-strong team was led by Dr Adrian Lister and Malcolm Proctor, with Sue Hilliard as scientific assistant and Dr Garry Savin as expedition doctor.

From Bombay we flew to Bangalore, and thence a few hours overland to the Biligiri Wildlife Sanctuary, our home for the next three nights. Up and out at 6 am the following morning, we had our first taste of the jungle and almost immediate elephant sightings. After brunch, Dr Raman Sukumar gave a long briefing session on how to classify and record elephants. 'Classifying' means sexing them, gauging their age to within 5 years or so, and noting any identifying marks such as ear tears and tusk shape. Worried looks on the faces of some expeditioners gradually dispelled over the next few days as they progressively became expert at the task. In two days at Biligiri alone we recorded well over 100 wild elephants - more than twice as many as in 1998. 

On the 24th we left Biligiri to drive to our main camp, just outside Nagarahole National Park in the foothills of the Western Ghats. 'Camp' was the Kabini Lodge, a former Maharaja's hunting lodge on the banks of the Kabini River, run for 20 years by the octogenarian Col. John Wakefield, whose tales ranged from encounters with 'Elephant Bill' to making a wildlife film with Goldie Hawn. The Kabini River and its surrounding grasslands and monsoon forests are close to paradise for anyone with even a passing interest in wildlife. Amid stunning scenery, we made two long sorties in open-top jeeps each day, seeing (as well as countless elephants) packs of wild dogs, sambar, spotted and barking deer, gaur (giant wild cattle), giant squirrels, langur and macaque monkeys, mongooses, many other mammals, and abundant and varied bird life (Garry's bird count totalled 99 - he is still recovering from the disappointment of missing his target of 100). Our very first evening at Kabini provided what was for me one of those images I shall never forget. Taking a boat up river to get a feel for the area, we witnessed on our way home the sight of thousands of fruit bats converging into a seemingly endless stream as they flew into an orange-pink sunset. 

In total, over 9 days, we recorded more than 1200 elephant sightings. These were of two kinds - either adult tuskers (bulls) alone or in small groups, or else the larger family groups of females and their young. Recording the elephants was never uneventful - we might witness a calf suckling, two bulls fighting, or groups of elephants frolicking in the water. A huge, majestic bull in musth might suddenly emerge from the forest, scattering younger bulls and sniffing all available females with his trunk to see if any were in oestrus. However, despite several very promising 5-foot erections which had us scrambling for our cameras, we never witnessed a mating.

Expedition members felt privileged to be working under the tutelage of the world's leading expert in Asian elephants - Dr Raman Sukumar - and his extremely knowledgeable (as well as friendly) team of Madhu, Vidia and Arun. Every afternoon, while others were snoozing in hammocks or catching up with the latest Jeffrey Archer, Sue and Vidia would set up a table and pore over the previous day's sighting sheets, looking for 'matches' where the same animals had been seen again, or perhaps finding associations between groups. This work is continuing after our return - with the aid of more than 50 rolls of film capturing elephant portraits, their times and dates carefully recorded so they can be matched to the observation sheets. It is already clear from our work that this is one of the healthiest Asian elephant populations in the subcontinent, with an adult male for every 4 or 5 adult females, and plenty of births each year. In other parts of India, poaching has reduced the male/female ratio to 1:20 or even 1:100. 

As a break from elephant counting, a very memorable day was laid on by Madhu, who took us higher into the hills (4200 ft) to visit a coffee plantation with stunning views over the jungle. We were received most graciously by the plantation manager and his wife in their art deco residence, and served what was unquestionably the best cup of coffee of the trip (not difficult). Then we were given a tour of the plantation, where coffee plants intermingle with avocado, pepper, jackfruit and other trees, and shown how elephants (which visit almost every evening) are discouraged with deep trenches and electric fences. 

After an outstanding farewell party at which we were forced to consume all remaining alcohol (following a spoof report that any remaining would be confiscated at the park gates), and some very silly games provided by Sheila Sully and Garry, we left our paradise on 2nd June to spend two nights in Mysore before the return flight home. The next day we were treated to another unforgettable memory in the form of the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary outside Mysore, which left even decidedly non-birdwatching expeditioners starry-eyed. In the early morning light we wound our way in rowing boats among beautiful islands in the slow-flowing Cauvery river, getting within feet of spoonbills and storks feeding their young, weaver birds constructing their hive-like nests, and crocodiles lying on the bank or slipping into the water. 

A great satisfaction felt by all members of this expedition is the sense that we have contributed in a valuable way to the conservation of the Asian elephant. Our data, and particularly our photographs, will be put to concrete use by Dr Sukumar and his fellow researchers in tracking the fortunes of this critical population in the years to come. A further SES trip to build on our success is being considered for 2002.


Adrian Lister