The principal subject of investigation today is Similipal National Park, somewhere to the northeast. Similipal National Park has a multiple reserve distinction being also classified as a tiger reserve, wildlife sanctuary, elephant reserve and an international biosphere reserve. The park is spread over 2,750 square kilometres, contains over a thousand species of plants, 42 species of mammals, more than 230 species of birds, and about 30 species of reptiles. In 2004 there were about 100 tigers in the reserve, more than half the state’s tiger population.
At first there is some issue with getting my park entry paperwork completed in time but at the last moment I get the ‘ok’ from the Forestry Department, Jashipur. Entry permit firmly in my hand, my day camera fee of Rs100 paid, my newly appointed Orissa Tourism Agency tour guide by my side, and the additional obligatory park guide in command, I set off.
Our entry point is the Kaliani Forest Check Gate, Gurguria Range, at which we must first have our bona fides inspected by armed guards, each carrying .303 rifles. At the entrance gate is a sign requesting visitors to ‘do not sound horn’, alongside is parked a tractor and trailer, the rear of the trailer proudly displaying the words ‘Sound Horn’ in large type face. This could be the makings of an amusing border dispute, if only to me, but I resist the temptation to point out the contradiction of directives to the guards and my forest guide, none of whom, as it turns out, speak English.
Entering the park we pass large expanses of dry, broad-leaved evergreen forest. This appears to be dominated by Sal trees, Shorea robusta, a member of the plant family Dipterocarpacae. This species represents the north-western limit to distribution of the family. The genus Shorea is widely distributed in India, Sri Lanka, and throughout south-east Asia but is absent from Australia. Shorea robusta is native to India, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh and in the Hindu tradition is said favoured by Vishnu. One version of Buddhist tradition claims that Gautama Buddha was given birth under a Sal tree. In the Ramayana it was a flowering Sal tree into which Laksmana, brother of Rama, climbs so as to scan the approach of the great army led by his half-brother Bharata. Bharata has gathered a large entourage, including all his father’s wives, and is in search of Rama hoping to persuade him to return from exile. Later in the epic, fierce ‘raksasa’ forest demons rush at Rama wielding massive Sal trees in their frenzied but futile attempt to kill him.
Shorea robusta is one of the most important hardwood trees in India, its timber resinous and durable. It is the major source of leaf plates and leaf bowls in northern and eastern India, the manufacture and use of which has saved India from far worse pollution. Used plates are eaten by goats and cattle that roam city streets. Resin obtained from Sal trees is used as an astringent in traditional Ayurvedic Indian medicine. The species grows gregariously in nature, flowers during the dry season, and is pollinated by the agency of wind, although many other species of Shorea are pollinated by insects. The explosive-like release of pollen is triggered by gusty winds.
We pass picturesque villages set among low-lying dry paddy fields and pasture, then re-enter forested hills. There is evidence of the removal of trees within the park by tribal peoples, areas close to villages sometimes denuded through the extension of vegetable gardens and pastureland. The untouched forests have a very open understorey in which cows and goats are occasionally seen grazing. The floor of the forest is bare, with little leaf litter in evidence. I see no life on the forest floor, none of the small skinks or ants that I expected to find. However, the trunks of most trees are ornamented with termite galleries, and occasionally tree ants of the genus Oecophylla, these looking very much like the ‘green tree ant’ Oecophylla smaragdina, a common resident of forests and gardens in tropical Australia. This species is distinctive in that it builds nests by knitting the leaves of foliage together, in which the ants live, these issuing out in stout and vigorous defence when disturbed. Oecophylla ants can act as bio-control agents for their aggressive predatory foraging can overwhelm all other creatures found on trees and shrubs.
We are at an elevation of 750 metres above sea level, and take lunch at the Barehipani Falls, the drop of which is 400 metres. I walk some distance alone into the surrounding forest. There is no evidence of man, it was clean. No one ventures beyond the few picnic tables provided for the convenience of visitors. The tour guide has provided mandarins, bottled water, biscuits and bread. Everything is shared, the driver not left to mind the vehicle. This is no stylish inner city eatery. The hierarchy of caste, class and the size of one’s purse does not act as gatekeeper here. The food is consumed democratically in the shade of a derelict concrete structure that I take to have once been a wildlife or scenic viewing platform. The bread is somewhat like cake in texture and taste. I have three slices.
After lunch we drive to a park visitor centre adjacent a ‘salt lick’ site where wildlife are known to congregate each evening. Along the way we encounter a park service vehicle. Staff have found tiger droppings on the road. Photos are taken and specimens are placed in a sealed plastic sample bag. Laboratory analysis of mammal hair within will later determine the nature of the cat’s prey. It is the earthy stuff of biological science. Alas, there are no dung beetles in attendance at the morsel, a group of invertebrates for which I hold a particular fondness. At the visitor centre park rangers release a small barking deer, but the deer is not keen to be released and attempts to return. Several ring-necked parrots fly swiftly past.
The centre no longer allows overnight visitors. One of its buildings was destroyed by Naxalite guerrillas. These are active in the area. Our journey through the forests of Similipal National Park is more uncertain than my comfortable seat at the rear of the tour car suggests.
‘Naxalites’, or Naksalvadi, is a generic term used to describe various militant communist groups operating in different parts of India. In the states of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa they refer to themselves as Maoists, and are a declared terrorist organisation under the ‘Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of India, 1967’. The word ‘Naxal’ derives its name from the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal, where the movement had its origin. The movement split from the Communist Party of India (Maoists) in 1967. In 2006 India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, estimated that there were 20,000 armed cadre Naxalites operating, in addition to a further 50,000 regular cadres. As a consequence they were declared to be the most serious internal threat to India’s national security. In 2004 the Indian Home Ministry estimated there were 9,300 hardcore underground cadre members, and in 2011 Naxalites were believed to be active across nine states, and I was in one of them.
On the 6th April 2010 Naxalites, in two separate ambushes, killed 76 security policemen in the remote jungles of the state of Chhattisgarh, this to the immediate west of Orissa. On the 17th May they blew up a bus in Chhattisgarh killing 15 policemen and 20 civilians. On the 29th June of that same year at least 26 police of the Indian Centre Reserve forces (CRPF) were also killed in Chhattisgarh. And again in Chhattisgarh, in May 2013 Maoists ambushed a convoy, killing at least 23 people, 12 of whom were state Congress party leaders. In March 2012 Maoist rebels kidnapped two Italians whilst they were trekking in Orissa, the first Westerners to be abducted there. Their names were Paolo Bosusco, aged 54, and Claudio Colangelo, aged 61. After a month in captivity they are released.
It’s all about timing.
We drive back to the hotel through the forest in the dark. I do not have supper. In Test Cricket India continues to do poorly against Australia.