He started stories on how elephant tusks were being smuggled with help of forest department insiders and later the smuggler was caught and jailed. I was dumfounded when he asserted that nothing could be done without knowledge of any forest staff!
It was my first visit during March, 2018 to the much talked “Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary”, known for its unique and varied flora & fauna. I stayed at Bargarh for two days and approached the sanctuary from Vatli-Lakhanpur side. For next two days and a night, I had booked the Eco-cottage at Barakhandia, right inside the sanctuary. My friend who had visited the sanctuary during winter, told me once that no wild animals could be seen as there was water everywhere and the animals didn’t come down to drink water in the reservoir and he was advised by the forest staff for visiting in summer again to watch thousands of animal quenching their thirst. And I preferred the last summer in the March for the wilderness of Debrigarh.
Spread over 347 sq km of dry deciduous mixed forests, Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary forms part of the famous Hirakud Dam that attracts numerous migratory birds during winter besides other mammals. Debrigarh is beautifully situated between the Hirakud reservoir on one side and hills on the other. The geographical feature of the forest and its parallel 20 km track that runs from main gate up to Chourasimal via barakhandia makes it an ideal place for sighting wildlife as all the animals are expected to cross the road when they need to quench their thirst at the reservoir.
The nature camp is located right on the bank of the reservoir and is indeed an excellent place to stay in with all the modern amenities like AC, Geyser and a wide balcony facing to the large water body. The best place is the dining area where one can sit and sip coffee watching the magnificent view of the entire reservoir! I was attracted by all these rosy pictures and features of the sanctuary and planned my trip to have an on the spot understanding of the beautiful habitat I was longing for. Since I am not one of them to visit jungle for peace or spending leisure vacation but being a wildlife enthusiast and photographer, I keep a keen interest to know and understand the real picture of a jungle.
Accordingly, for the first two days, I started looking around the other side of the sanctuary i.e. Vatli wildlife Division. Travelled through ‘Murkuti’ forest gate on ‘Dungri road’ towards ‘Lakhanpur’ with a great hope to shoot few forest birds and if luck favoured then any wild animals. But to my dismay, I found the entire forest on both the sides of the road gutted on fire. No insects, no birds and no animal traced. I diverted my route to a small village ‘Govindpur’; adjacent to the reservoir and took few shots of the submersed Temple. I was not having an idea about the Hirakud side of the sanctuary till then, imagined the condition of the whole sanctuary might be like that. I was feeling sad as to why did I come all the way from Bhubaneswar for witnessing such a horrible state of affair of our own forest!
Since there was no further hope of photography, I decided to roam around Lakhanpur area and to interact with local people about the forest and its fauna. I stayed in the areas till late evening as many interesting facts and figure came to my notice while talking to the innocent forest dwellers. One thing I learnt that the children, if you befriend with, would reveal a lot of untold stories on forest and forest staff. They are the real inputs for developing intelligence on wildlife crime. I wanted to spend some quality time with the young and the old. I took them into confidence, befriended with the young boys and asked for a smoke; one of them happily offered me a ‘Bidi’; and we shared smoking. I took advantage of my “Katki” language, fair skin with grey hair; asked them few tricky questions. They also understood my motive that as if I have come for a big deal with them, or else as to why was I there in the jungle till late evening around 80 km far from Bargarh!
One of them signaled me to come to a dark corner in the pretext of sharing a cigarette and whispered into my ear if I am interested to buy a kilogram of ‘Pangolin Scale’ for ten thousands only? Thank God, he couldn’t read my face in the dark, I was literally pale, my mouth wide opened and I was sweating. Too shocked and scared to continue my stay for a minute, but on the other hand it was quite interesting too to learn the trick of the trade, I gathered my courage and nodded to his offer and promised to contact him next day evening at same place and same time which would, I knew, never happen. Then he started stories on how elephant tusks were being smuggled with help of forest department insiders and later the smuggler was caught and jailed. I was dumfounded when he asserted that nothing could be done without knowledge of any forest staff. He also narrated as to how a truck load of Sambar antlers were caught in the year 2017.
My head ached when he said all such things are going on as usual even today; and gave a vivid picture of a village called ‘Jhagada Behera’ which was situated right on the heart of the sanctuary and very recently shifted from there by the Govt. Jhagada Behera, the notorious village of Debrigarh consisting of around 100 houses was shifted with heavy compensation borne by the Govt. The village was only five km away from the Chourasimal beat house and 25 km from the main entry gate from Hirakud side. The boy kept narrating stories as to how resident of Jhagada Behera used to kill deer or Sambar or wild boar almost every day for food and skin as well as the well-established network, which still runs in the area. Mostly, they used to poison the small water bodies in order to kill the animals under the very nose of the protectors of the forest. “Killing was rampant and still going on”, he said. However, I was confused to digest his stories at the end, offered him a token of money for his drink for the night and wished him Goodnight.
Next morning I set out for the other side of the sanctuary i.e., the entry gate of Hirakud side, reached at the gate at 8 in the morning, though my check-in time was at 12 Noon. The moment I entered into the sanctuary I was mesmerized by the beauty of the forest. This was a different story all together than that of Lakhanpur area. There was no trace of fire at all in the entire 20 KM stretch of the sanctuary from main gate to the Chourasimal beat. A fantastically maintained dense dried deciduous forest one would fall in love with. At the first look I remembered the earlier discussion with my friends about its beauty.
With High anticipation to have a good sighting of wildlife, I moved ahead. Chirping and twittering of birds, my first love, welcomed me. From the main gate to the Barhakhandia I saw the paradise flycatcher in action, a pair of running painted spur fowl, a crested serpent eagle taking shelter from the cruel crow, a large cuckoo shrike and a lifer bird after many years of birding was the rarest mottled wood owl, that brought real smile in my face that was vanished after hearing the harrowing stories of killing and smuggling of animal parts. Before checking into the beautiful AC cottage that runs on solar power in the midst of the Jungle, I scaled the entire stretch of 20 Km inch by inch till 12:30 Hrs. Moved on the forest road with hill on the left and a huge Hirakud reservoir at the right. Blending of the contrasting colour of the blue reservoir with the dry forest brought solace to my mind. I reached at the end point Chourasimal but not a single mammal was encountered. Frustrated but self-consoled that timing was not proper. However, I enjoyed the forest most minus a wild animal though!
When in the Jungle, my routine also adjusted to jungle. I get up at earliest possible time in the morning, without brushing and without bathing I set for targeted destination till I am tired (In fact I never get tired in the jungle)
Freshened up at the cottage and just after lunch, I moved again on the same road to sight something I could photograph, but in vain! Moved from one end to other, stopped my vehicle in between, and entered into the jungle wherever found a track, climbed down to the grassland on the bank of the reservoir expecting some mammals at least. Felt really hopeless about our wilderness without any wildlife. Like a madman, kept moving up and down in the sweltering heat till fall of the evening without finding a rabbit even.
Next day early morning again moved into the forest and finally saw a herd of Indian bison grazing in the bank of the reservoir. Finally, I managed to click few shots of those herds till they also started running helter-skelter; as if I was the hunter with a gun. While returning to the cottage I saw narrow track leading towards the reservoir, wished to scale the area too and my companion also agreed. After walking for a mile we discovered a tiny village ‘Kurumkel’ having only six numbers of houses inside the sanctuary. They are simple fishermen and depend on fishing and nothing else, we spent some time with them and came back to the cottage at around 9:30 Hrs. Checked out at 10 Hrs. and again before coming out of the sanctuary we felt like to have a look around the entire stretch of 20 KM road and we did so. We saw one wild boar just near the gate of the cottage. When we reached the end point at chourasimal, a person, may be a local – who have been observing us from the last morning to evening at least five times, walking up and down looking for an animal, came to me and with a mysterious smile showing 32 colourful teeth, whispered in typical Bargarh dialect using “kaane”, “What are you looking for Sir? Poachers have not left anything for you. Yes, after displacement of ‘Jhagada Behera’, we may see few animals in coming four to five years! Please don’t take my name Sir, Poaching is everyday affair here in Debrigarh and it is a poacher’s paradise! Again with my mouth wide open and protruding eyeballs, I was silently recalling the young boy’s narration of truck load of antlers and rampant killing of animals!
Once again, back home, I received a message from my source with a pictures of Hunters dealing with Leopard skin smuggling, who were arrested in May 2018 and subsequently he sent me a picture of LIVE pangolin kept captive for smuggling, who was also arrested later. Before getting over the harrowing stories of Debrigarh , another news of sighting of lone Royal Bengal Tiger in Debrigarh in Sept 2018 alerted me, I was under apprehension about safety of the RBT in forest where poaching is usual. Unfortunately, the lone RBT was also killed by the poachers in Oct 2018. And this time I was not at all confused but slowly digesting the story of young boy,” Debrigarh- A poacher’s Paradise”