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FOOTLOOSE

Birder's paradise

SHOBHA MENON

Dandeli in Uttara Kannada offers a quiet retreat for the nature lover.

Photo: Sneha Menon

Flying free: The Malabar Pied Hornbill in Dandeli.

IT is that magical quiet time at dusk. Below the worn-out bridge on which I stand, the majestic River Kali flows swiftly and graciously. Periodic flocks of egrets skim homeward, their whiteness almost touching the waters. Ahead of us are the magnificent freewheeling Malabar Pied Hornbills. My tryst with Dandeli, a quaint little township in North Karnataka has just begun.

A variety of species

The Gazetteer of Karnataka State, Uttara Kannada, speaks of "bison, sambar, cheetal, barking deer, elephant, mouse deer, rabbit, porcupine, tiger, panther, bear, wild cat, civet cat and others" as recorded wildlife in the forests around the area. And with around 196 species of birds (in 1985), Dandeli is truly a birder's paradise. The Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary on the banks of the Kali was established in 1953 and has an area of 5,729 ha. Formally declared as a sanctuary on May 10, 1956, it has since reduced in size (to 834.16 sq. km.) and now incorporates the Anshi National Park.

On an invigorating ride through ancient forest tracts and the crisp clean air, we trained our binoculars on the many birds of the woodland. But bigger wildlife enthusiasts were rather disappointed. "The bigger mammals have all moved inwards toward the Anshi National Park," says a naturalist. There are more than 30 villages — who were early settlers — in the "protected" areas.

"Power generation activity has helped the opening up of many forest tracts. New roads and increased communication facilities have ended the isolation of many forest tracts. Wood based industries have helped the creation of more forest roads", records the Gazetteer, on what is meant to be a "positive" note. Not for conservationists though. Says a senior citizen and long time resident, "Fifty years ago, the forest cover, I remember, was so dense that sunlight would reach the ground only at noon. And my dining table set was sourced from Belgaum because there was no furniture making shop in Dandeli. Now there are around one hundred such shops within this area. Since most people who settle in this region are immigrants, very few are concerned about its environment or wildlife."

The forest is home to several tribal communities such as the Siddis who are the African slaves who escaped from Portuguese custody 400 years ago, and the Gowlis who are semi-tribal, nomadic grazers whose main occupation is to rear cows, and sell milk and milk products. According to local legend, Dandeli was the Dankaranya of the Ramayana, when Rama had stayed with Sita and Lakshmana during his exile. Supa (where a dam has now come up submerging many villages and forest tracts) was the haunt of Surpanakha. The place name, earlier known as Dandolli, Bidaravalli, was changed in the 17th century when Dandeliappa, a local hero, saved the area from Maratha attack.

Other attractions

At the nearby Kavala Caves we saw awesome stalagmites formed over centuries. Also fantastic views at the Shanmugha Sunset View Point, Nazhgari View and at the Syntheri Rocks over the Kaneri River. River rafting, canyoning, kayaking and canoeing are popular pastimes, also exciting coracle rides (past the many islands, you can actually see crocodiles lazing on the banks), night camps and treks, in the resorts that host adventure camps in this area.

Strychnos nux vomica, Caryota urens, mixed plantations of jamun, mango and many other Ficus varieties are seen besides the overwhelming number of teak plantations. But the area's rich vegetation — of moist deciduous and semi-evergreen forests, besides bamboo — even way back in the 1980s, was recorded as "under heavy pressure, with vast areas of forest felled licitly and illicitly. The rate of denudation is about four-fold the rate of planting, specially around urban areas". Industrial development in Uttara Kannada has often been forest based. It is not surprising that the insidious pace of development has slowly and surely been affecting this pristine habitat's biodiversity.

Riverine ecosystem

In a wooded grove one afternoon, lulled by a gentle cool breeze and the repetitive tuk tuk of the Copper Smith barbets that abound, I wake up to the loud chattering of the Malabar Giant Squirrels. There's magic in memories — a ramshackle little hut ensconced in masses of purple, mauve and yellow bougainvillea, mystic mauve and purple sunsets, a magical dawn in the Jungle Lodge's jetty with a lustrous moon on my left and a rosy red sunrise towards my right as I watch the swirling mists over the Kali's streaming speed while she gently laps my toes. Not to speak of the graceful flight of the roosting hornbills, and most specially the warmth of the people of Dandeli.

It is the Kali's unique and sensitive riverine habitat that is conducive to the many avian species she supports. And I fervently hope careful conservation measures can ensure the protection of an area that could well be the last stronghold of that magnificent but threatened bird, the Malabar Pied Hornbill, and a host of other species.

Quickfacts

  • Dandeli is approximately 125 km from Goa and is well connected with the other parts of the country.

  • The best time to visit is between March and October.

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