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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Chp 854. Farewell to Dampa Tiger Reserve

Previous posts:

And so this is it, my last blog update about Dampa Tiger Reserve of Mizoram regarding my visit there last month. A truly unforgettable moment spent with Mother Nature in her rawest form.

It was my first ever wildlife excursion, and indeed one of the most memorable trips I had taken in my life. I am truly thankful to Dr. Lallianpuii Kawlni (Lalani) and her team from Wildlife Institute of India (WII) for giving me the opportunity to experience what life is like in the wilderness, and also for granting me access to regions that are normally restricted to the general public.

But like all good things that must come to an end, it was time for us to pack our bags and head back to civilization too.

I think my series of blog updates about Dampa Tiger Reserve got a sharp increase in visit from Google search results when the official Tottenham Hotspurs twitter account posted this picture last week.

Yeah, even though I'm a hardcore Arsenal fan, thank you Spurs for the boost. :D

I wrote about our different Dampa adventures in my previous posts, but there's one thing I haven't mentioned yet, and that is the price we pay for taking such a trip. You must have a strong body and mind to bear the brunt of such a trip. Life is harsh out there devoid of any comfort, and people tend to get injured or fall ill frequently too.

For instance, one of the M.Sc students Junoo Chakma (whose wonderful wildlife photographs I had been sharing in my previous posts) suffered from typhoid because of the water she drank. Deep in the jungle, there are no such things as Bisleri mineral water bottles, and so one must collect water from a nearby stream and boil them before drinking.

People are prone to injuries too. I once fell down from a cliff during one of our treks across the Wildlife reserve, and broke my legs and arms and neck, but I rubbed it off and continued climbing. :P

Lalani too suffered from gastritis during our trip. The inflammation was due to stress ulcers because she was still in mourning and didn't have proper sleep after the sad demise of her beloved mother two months ago [read: In Remembrance of Nu Mahlimi].

None of us were prepared to deal with her ailment.

Back at the base camp, Joonu and Akansha applied pressure by pressing a hot pressure cooker on top of her stomach, which relieved some parts of the pain.

But the pain still persisted later, and the only medications we had with us for such type of pain were paracetamol and digene, which were quite useless.

The next morning, I went to the only shop in Teirei that sold a potpourri of items from vegetables and candles to shampoos and slippers, and luckily for us, they had a bottle of Ulgel!

However, the medicine was still ineffective even after 2 hours, and then Dr. Mapuii Crystalle and Dr. LṬ-i called me up and explained that Ulgel contained "Magaldrate", and then gave me a 5 hours long lecture with slide presentation, Zoom discussion and 3D display of the human anatomy about how Magaldrate worked, and finally I was like, "Ok fiiiinee, you've made your point, which medicine should I buy then?" and they told me to get any medicine with "Sucralfate" in it.

The only shop in Teirei of course didn't have that medicine.

Dama (our driver) and I discussed whether to go to Damparengpui (1.5 hours) or West Phaileng (2 hours) to buy that medicine, because even though Damparengpui was closer, West Phaileng was bigger, and they were both situated in the opposite direction from Teirei so we could select only one destination.

And then one of the Wildlife guards came to the base camp and told us to try our luck at "Salem Boarding" which was just an hour away, the closest settlement from Teirei.

We got the phone number of the nurse posted there and called her up asking if she had that particular medicine. She took around 5 minutes to search, and finally told me that there was ONE bottle available, their last remaining stock. We left for Salem Boarding straightaway!

We took the shortcut that I had mentioned in my post "How To Reach Dampa Tiger Reserve".

We passed a lot of betlenut and palm oil plantations on the way.

These plantations were quite controversial to many conservationists because they were created to prevent Jhum cultivation which were destructive to the environment and biodiversities, but however, International studies had shown that monocultures such as these were more destructive than shifting cultivation in the long run, as was reported in this article.

Anyway, we kept driving up the winding road and finally reached Salem Boarding.

Salem Boarding is a school and hostel run by Mizoram Synod, and there are around 20-30 families living inside the secluded settlement, taking care of around 200-250 students.

The settlement was spick and span with not even a tiny litter to be found anywhere, displaying that it was being maintained extremely well.

We followed the signboards and finally reached the Headmaster's house.

We were informed earlier by the Wildlife guards that we had to report to the Headmaster first, in order to buy the medicine. However, he wasn't present at his quarter as he was currently taking class. His daughter assured me that she would tell him about our visit and directed me towards their infirmary.

At their infirmary, the nurse greeted me with a smile and handed me the medicine we required. I gave her the money and she entered our details in her register. Sucralfate Suspension, yay.

We headed back to our base camp immediately.

Back at the base camp, the medicine worked in just a few minutes after Lalani consumed it, and she was back to her jolly self soon after, while I was engrossed in a book about plants, trying to learn how to identify a tree by its leaf.

So, yes, be prepared when you go to Dampa Tiger Reserve. We were extremely lucky that the medicine we required was available at Salem Boarding and we didn't have to spend 4 extra hours to go to West Phaileng and back. You, on the other hand, may not be that lucky during your visit, so do take a lot of precautions.

It was really sad to pack up our bags reluctantly and leave the base camp.

Goodbye Dampa Tiger Reserve.

Goodbye Teirei village.

We took the bumpy road towards West Phaileng village. The surrounding areas were filled with a mixture of terrace farms and dense forestland.

Finally we reached West Phaileng.

We took a short break to buy another bottle of sucralfate solution from a medical store and Lalani also had to eat something since she had to take her meds.

Meanwhile, the quirky signboards at the main square of West Phaileng entertained me.

We continued with our journey after that. Below, you can see Dapchhuah bridge.

Below is the route that I mentioned in my first post where we got lost and took the wrong route for a few minutes, since it was already dark then. Had we continued going straight, we would have reached Mamit district HQ instead. During day time, it is impossible to miss this turn.

Finally we arrived at Dapchhuah bridge.

Dapchhuah village is also referred to as "Tut Dapchhuah" because it lies on the banks of the river Tut. There are around 1500 people living in this village as per the latest census. There is a popular market next to the bridge that is known for its fresh vegetables (from surrounding farms) and river produce (fresh river fish, dried fish, fresh river snails and crabs from the river Tut).

A glimpse of parts of the village from the bridge.

Fresh water snails, called "Chengkawl" in Mizo. They are sold by the cup. "Tut Chengkawl" is considered to be the tastiest in Mizoram.

Lalani and I, as well as our driver Dama bought a lot of items from this marketplace. It is like a tradition in our Mizo society to buy vegetables and other produce from such a place while returning home from a trip, because they are of better quality and cheaper rate than the ones we get at our local market near our house.

We continued with our journey. We soon reached Rawpuichhip and we stopped there to eat.

Roadside eateries differ from place to place in Mizoram. If you are travelling towards Kolasib and stop to eat at one of the many hotels at Bualpui, you'll have to select which non-veg dish you want (chicken, pork, beef, egg etc) with your meal. Once you do that, you will be served that particular dish on a side bowl, along with all the other common veggie dishes. At Rawpuichhip, the system is a bit different. You can't select your non-veg dish, instead, your meal will consist of all available non-veg dishes along with the veg dishes! My favourite meal system indeed. :D

My yummy plate, consisting of Chicken, Beef and Pork. There were even two different types of pork dishes served that day. :)

Ahhh, what a filling meal indeed.

As we continued with our journey, Lalani cracked a joke that the reason why people call a banana by that name was because long time ago, Mizos used to stretch out their hands (bân) to pluck the fruit, and their hands used to hurt (a na) after sometime. Hence, people started calling it bân-a-na. We even took a pic together to remember that joke always. :D

Ok fineee it was me who cracked that stupid and corny joke, not Lalani. :D

We reached Aizawl by around 5 PM, and Dama closed the KM counter.

230 KM was the total distance we covered during our trip.

Overall, what an incredible and unforgettable journey it had been. Just thinking about the time spent there, not just because of the location but because it was with Lalani, makes me want to relive that journey all over again.

At the end of 5 blog posts dedicated to Dampa Tiger Reserve, I hope I was able to inform you about the magnificent wildlife reserve of Mizoram and answer all questions you may have. Feel free to contact me on email for any query related to this place and I'll try to reply asap (I usually don't check the comment section of my blog posts because half the comments I get are spams).

Hope to see you again on my next blog update. Until then, take care everyone, and have a blessed Good Friday and Easter.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Chp 853. Trekking at Dampa Tiger Reserve

Thank you all for "liking" and sharing my previous posts about Dampa Tiger Reserve. I managed to get around 1K visits each for those posts as of today, which will surely increase as time goes by because of Google search result hits.

I wrote those 3 posts to boost tourism at Dampa Tiger Reserve, and in case you haven't read them yet, you can click on the links below:

When I went to Dampa Tiger Reserve last month, I was tagging along on an official academic research, and so my experience was a bit different from what a typical tourist might experience there.

We (that is, the research team and I, along with the Wildlife guards accompanying us) trekked across vast mountain ranges planting motion cameras, collecting faecal samples (scats and pellets), recording various animal and bird sightings on a GPS map grid, and other scientific stuff that a civilian like me had never experienced before.

The entire expedition was extremely exhausting, but at the same time, a whole lot of fun!

I realized that if you ever want to be in conservation, you gotta have passion. Hardcore passion. Unless you are deeply interested in different biodiversities and don't mind roughing it out in the jungle devoid of any luxury or comfort for days and even weeks at a stretch, you will not survive in this rigorous line of work.

Here are some of the interesting things we did at Dampa Tiger Reserve that as a tourist you may not get to experience, partly because it was an official research related field work, and mostly because tourists are prohibited from visiting some of the areas we explored.

(For a list of things tourists can see and do at Dampa Tiger Reserve, do read my previous post.)

So the most important thing we did during our field work was to plant cameras.

The Research team from Wildlife Institute of India had installed numerous cameras across the gigantic reserve area, all strategically placed on a map grid, in order to study the ungulate population (animals having hoofs, like sambar and barking deer) as well as apex predators and smaller organisms.

To reach the camera locations, we had to travel across the vast forest area on foot.

We rambled through thick bamboo forests and evergreen trees, jumped across gentle streams and avoided not-so-gentle thorny shrubs, battled highly intelligent apes about to take over the planet and even found a crashed X-wing fighter!


Jokes aside though, this one time, we kept climbing for almost 3 hours on a never-ending slope and finally when we stopped to take a break, I asked how much distance did we cover in that 3 hours ascent, assuming it would be around 20-30 KM. The answer? 4 KM. Lolz.

Just freaking 4 KM.

It felt like we had covered a lot of distance because we climbed up from a height of around 200m above sea level (where our base camp Teirei IB was located) to almost 900m above sea level during that 3 hours hike.

By the way, I have censored out all longitude and latitude indications in this post, so as to maintain the location's confidentiality. I mean, there's absolutely no chance that a poacher will read my blog post and then go to the specific location, but still, it's a matter of ethics.

We took a route based on the GPS devices the research team was carrying. All the camera locations (planted and to be planted) were already plotted out on a map grid, and they were all evenly distributed across the forest.

Now here's the toughest part. The map grid doesn't care about the terrain. :D

The research team would occasionally stop and brainstorm on the best route to take, as there were usually no existing human trails to reach that particular point indicated on the map grid.

It was as if the map grid was taunting us, "Awwwee you poor babeee, you wanted a clear path to reach this destination, so sad, did I hurt your fweelings, did I hurt your tiny sensitive emotional fweelings, go cry to mommy if you can't reach this location."

And so like a bunch of WW2 Japanese Imperial soldiers rushing on a suicidal Banzai charge at Iwo Jima, we would rush towards that location marked on the map grid, trotting through the pathless slope in wild frenzy.

Once we reached the exact spot as indicated on the map grid, the research team got ready to plant the cameras.

This was one of the many cameras we planted on that expedition.

As you can see from the image, the camera has many LED lights above and those are the motion detectors. Once it detects any slight movement, it will start recording and stop a few minutes after there's no longer movement. This is necessary because such cameras are planted for weeks at a stretch and there is simply not enough storage space to save the video file if it records 24/7.

Here is a sad aspect of the camera...

The above text translates to, "This camera is for studying purpose only so please do not destroy it". One of the students, Valpuia, even wrote on his camera, Dear sir, I am just a humble student, please do not destroy my camera, if you do, I will fail in my course. *cry emoji*

So the sad reality is that poachers and insurgents who illegally enter the reserve area destroy any cameras they find because they think it's recording them. To them, these cameras are like "Big Brother watching", their version of an Orwellian 1984 at a dystopian Dampa.

The research team had already pleaded to the YMA leaders of nearby villages like Damparengpui and West Phaileng, but people don't want to take any chances for fear of getting into trouble later if they are caught on camera.

Lalani told me that elsewhere in India, in a Hindu majority region, researchers used to keep an idol of a Hindu God next to their cameras, and similarly in a Muslim majority region, researchers write passages from the Koran next to their cameras, and so the local people usually don't destroy the cameras.

However the problem with Dampa Tiger Reserve is that the nearby local population consists of Mizos, Brus and Chakmas, and so we have a mix of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Animists. You can't really play the religious blackmail card in this case.

I really hope they get to sort this issue out soon, because as I have mentioned above, reaching even just one camera location itself is an arduous task, and to find it smashed up or stolen is such a huge disappointment. The camera in itself is completely useless to the common folk, making it a total waste. I mean, you can't even take a selfie with it. :P

One way of solving this problem is to have every camera sync to a cloud storage seamlessly so that the data recorded is not lost (as well as a chance of identifying the perpetrators) but you'll require a lot more budget for that system to be implemented. As of now, this is the status quo.

Anyway, coming back to the topic of camera installation, the research team immediately got into action.

Setting up the camera was just the first part of the hurdle.

Next, they had to test the camera feed and make sure it was working properly.

And then came the most painstaking part of the job - calibrating the motion sensors.

They had to test the motion detectors of the camera for every 2 feet, 3 feet, 4 feet and so on, up to 8 feet, making sure that all the sensors were functioning at all required distances.

And finally came the documentation.

Once that was done, the team removed all the poles and measuring tapes. The camera was finally ready to operate.

It takes more than 2 hours to completely set up a single camera installation. And it takes just 2 seconds for someone to destroy it. The sad reality of conservation.

Before leaving, we had to erase all traces of our presence by getting rid of our footprints or butt-cheek marks, covering up the holes made by the poles we planted, and making sure we didn't leave behind any biscuit or chip cover packets etc. This is done so that we don't disrupt the wildlife or pollute and corrupt the vicinity. It also helps prevent poachers and insurgents from finding our cameras.

We proceeded to the next location where a camera was already planted a couple of days earlier. The team wanted to check if it was still there or not...

Thankfully, it was still intact!

We looked at some of the video files the camera had captured and the research team was extremely satisfied with the findings.

Overall, it was a very successful day of trekking across Dampa Tiger Reserve because we were able to plant new cameras and the old cameras were still functional. However, those weren't the only things we did. Below is a list of other tasks we did during our little expedition:

1. Collecting faecal samples.

During our entire trek, we stopped frequently to collect faecal samples. In order words, we were continuously looking around for poop. Yes, I know, it was a shitty job. :P

Below is the faecal sample of probably a leopard or a clouded leopard.

The sample is measured, photographed, documented and then bagged for further laboratory analysis.

The lab tests will reveal not just the exact identity of the animal but also other crucial information like the age of the animal, whether it is suffering from any diseases, what it recently ate, and so on.

We also found faecal samples belonging to smaller animals like a civet or similar wild cats.

While collecting scats for faecal sampling, we must collect just a few pieces only and leave behind the rest because wildcats and other animals use their faeces to claim their territory and mark their presence. Collecting all the scats can disrupt their normal behaviour, hence disturbing the ecosystem.

One can make an educated guess about the identity of an animal by looking at its poop. For example, the faeces below definitely belongs to a carnivore because you can see hair and fur mixed with the poop since their stomach cannot digest those parts.

And below is the faeces of a Barking deer as it is in the form of pellets.

And finally, we have an elephant dung, proving that there used to be an elephant in the Reserve.

I used the past tense because the dung is at least one and a half years old, and Wildlife guard Pu Zakhuma told me it definitely belongs to the lone female elephant that was known to roam around the reserve on its own, feeling all lonely and probably listening to "Alone" by the 80's glamrock band "Heart".

I hear the ticking of the clock
I'm lying here the room's pitch dark
I wonder where you are tonight
No answer on the Elephone...


2. Destroying traps and reporting poachers.

As we trekked across the forest, the Wildlife guards were busy exploring the areas around us looking for any animal traps or signs of poaching. By poaching, I don't mean just animals and birds, these Wildlife guards were also looking for signs of illegal fishing and the felling of trees.

Their duty was to destroy any traps they came across, but we didn't find any traps during that particular expedition. That was a relief.

We also found remnants of a small campfire left behind by the Anti Poaching guards (squad number *censored* who were currently patrolling that particular region) and it felt good to know they were somewhere in the vicinity, even though we didn't get to meet them.

3. Vegetation sampling.

Since we were following the map grid to plant the cameras, it was also an ideal time to do a bit of vegetation sampling. This is a method in which vegetation data is collected using a frame quadrant of a map. Each species is marked either present or absent, which allows the research team to calculate the percentage frequency of each species for the whole sample area.

Below is a Bombax cieba flower that we entered in our sampling grid.

The tree is used for feeding, nesting and roosting. Birds are attracted by the bright flowers, bees feed on the nectar, and monkeys too love to eat the flower. The presence of this flower automatically indicates that such animals, birds and insects are nearby too.

4. Assisting animals.

The Wildlife guards also act as support staff for the various animals and birds inhabiting the reserve area. They clear fallen boulders and trees (especially tall bamboo grass) that may block burrows or nests.

They were continuously on the lookout for such abnormalities during our trek too.

Below is a fruit known as "Elephant apple". It is a favourite food of monkeys, deer, elephants and other herbivores in the surrounding region.

As you can see from the above image, it has a very thick cover that is quite difficult to gnaw through. Sometimes the Wildlife guards would chop the fallen fruits in half with their sharp machetes and then leave the pieces at the same place again, so that it would be easier for the animals to eat them.

Though this gesture may seem kind and thoughtful, many conservationists, including Lalani, are of the opinion that this may disrupt their normal behaviour as wild animals are supposed to roam around looking for food by themselves.

5. Identifying the presence of animals and birds.

The team also looked out for the presence of other animals during our trek, apart from collecting the faeces samples. For example, we came across a tree that showed signs of an elephant presence (yes that same lonely female elephant mentioned earlier above).

You can see the bark of the tree above where the elephant apparently scratched her back. :D

I also took a few amateur photographs of insects I came across during that trek, like this beautiful giant red bug which is called Giant Red Bug. :D It is a petatomid bug (Stink bug) Microcheraia spp.

And then there was this cute little stick insect which I found walking gingerly on my pants. I gently removed it and placed it on a tree. I could have sworn the little fella said "Thank you!". :D

6. Avoiding insurgents.

Dampa Tiger Reserve also has different insurgent groups operating in the surrounding areas, especially towards the Bangladesh border, because it serves as a good cover from the Indian army. As a tourist, you don't have to worry because tourists are prohibited from visiting such areas anyway and the only people allowed are the Wildlife guards and people on official duty.

Some of the active insurgent groups in the region are the Shanti Bahini (a Chakma insurgent group), the NLFT - National Liberation Front of Twipra (a Tripuri insurgent group) and the BDF - Bru Democratic Front (a Bru insurgent group).

Apparently you can identify some of the areas where they operate by the markers they placed to keep out Wildlife guards and researchers, like this fallen tree we came across during our trek for example.

I shuddered a bit on seeing the blockade, but somebody once told me that even though the insurgents are prone to violence, they will not kill or harm any Mizos because of the backlash they will face from the larger Mizo community of Mizoram. There had been a few incidents of Mizo Wildlife guards being kidnapped by the insurgents, but none of them were ever harmed.

In fact recently when 22 BRO (Border Road Organization) employees were kidnapped at gunpoint, all Mizo workers among them were immediately released and only the non-Mizos were held at ransom.

Yes, nobody wants to see a repeat of 1997 again.

A small part of me, the reckless blogger part of me, was actually wishing that the insurgents appear and kidnap us (provided they don't harm us of course), so that I can have a new blog topic to write about. :D :P

But then again, which insurgent group, however heartless and cruel they may be, can ever get to kidnap these cute and sweet people, right? :)

7. Visiting APC.

There are various Anti Poaching Camps spread across the vast reserve, and Wildlife guards are posted there for months at a stretch. Their main duty is to prevent poaching and preserve the natural surroundings. Such places are off-limits to tourists.

The exact number of Anti-Poaching guards and the location of the camps are confidential, but researchers visit them occasionally, and sometimes take canned food and other items for them too. The camps range from a makeshift thatched hut to a simple concrete building.

All pictures below are courtesy of Wildlife guard Pu Zakhuma.

And so, these are my experiences at Dampa Tiger Reserve. As a tourist, you may not get to experience all this, but at least I hope I was able to take you on a visual journey across it and serve as your eyes.

I want to visit the place again, and maybe spend a night or two in one of the APCs. There are so many things yet to explore in that region.

What we did during my trip was just trekked across the forest at sunrise and returned to base camp before dark. But the research team frequently camped in the forest for many days as it wasn't possible to return to camp due to the sheer size of Dampa Tiger Reserve (500 Sq KM core zone and 488 Sq KM buffer zone).

Below are pictures of such camps sent to me by Joonu Chakma.

I'd like to experience this as well. :)

Hope I was able to inform and entertain you with this blog update. If this (and my previous 3 posts) aren't enough to convince you to visit Dampa Tiger Reserve, I don't know what will. But I really hope you visit the place one day.

I'll end this blog update for now, so, until my next post, take care, everyone.