We had been looking forward to this trip for a while now. Divorced from the pressure of big cat sightings, the BRT Tiger Reserve in the BR Hills offers up a wide array of wildlife – from a wide variety of bird species to elephants and tree shrews. The trees here are greener unlike the bare bones trees of the deciduous forests in Bandipur or Nagarahole. The guide said that there were four varieties of forests in those hills – from shrubs and deciduous to moist evergreen and evergreen.
Despite the short distance between Bandipur and here, the elevation gain changes a lot. There are no peacocks, which are so ubiquitous everywhere in Bandipur. The Langurs are also fewer. And despite being a drought year, there was a surprising lot of water in the waterholes. The elevation helps.
The camp itself is set in the middle of the forest, unlike JLR’s properties in Bandipur and Nagarahole. This means that there is no external power connection. What they had last year was a diesel generator running for 3 hours in the morning and 3.5 hours in the evening. This time, they had installed solar panels which promised power all the way till 3 or 4 AM. It lasted till 1 AM one night, and I slept like a log the second to notice.
Being in the middle of the forest also means that you can be woken up by deer calls in the middle of the night, sounding the alarm over a passing leopard. You can stand around the camp and see spotted deer, wild pigs, and even one barking deer passing by. The birding in the camp is itself amazing, and we spotted both types of barbets, Jerdon’s leafbirds, a yellow-crowned woodpecker among others.
But the surprising thing this time was the safari. Unlike with the big two reserves where you drive around for a long time not seeing anything, and suddenly something big turns up, BR Hills has a lot more to offer. You are constantly noticing something every 5-10 minutes. The forests are noisy with birdsong – whistling thrushes, Indian and Hawk cuckoos compete to be heard above the din of horseflies. And of course, Crested Serpent Eagles!
Although we hardly seemed to have seen much the first evening, we came away happy. There was a lone elephant cow grazing on the side of a hill, and she looked very weak and bony. This being summer, and right at the fringe of the monsoons, this was expected. Hopefully, the monsoons will be good and there’ll be good fodder for everyone soon.
The next morning we drove along spotting a lot of birds, and one distant elephant herd with a calf grazing in the valley of a hill. Another passing jeep told us that there was a Dhole pack and we hurried back. He promised us a pack of 19 dogs, but this was corrected to 11 by our naturalist. Apparently, there are 4 packs in the forest, at least in the tourist area. One of 19, one of 11, one of 6 and a new one of 2. The one which we were supposed to be seeing was the one of 11.
We reached that spot with some really crazy driving, although some lack of speed never really hurt anyone, and the difference is likely to be just a few minutes! The pack was inside and we could see them moving in the bushes. The last time I had seen wild dogs was in 2015 November, but that was just a couple of them, never a full pack. The last full pack sighting was in May 2012 when I did not even know such a species existed!
To give a brief intro, Dhole, or Asiatic Wild Dogs, are Wild Dogs which inhabit the forests of India and those of SE Asia. They are, like all predators, endangered due to habitat destruction, and also from diseases contracted from local dogs in the fringes of the forests. Entire packs have been wiped out due to disease! They hunt in packs, and are known to start feasting on their prey alive, before killing them, earning them some notoriety. Their pack sizes vary from 10-20, but bigger ones are known. Smaller ones usually mean they are building up as a new pack.
After a while the rest of the jeeps waiting there moved on. The leader emerged from the bushes, followed by 4 other adults.
They moved around, sat on the road, played, marked territory, and then started moving along to the waterhole nearby.
Apparently, there were 9 adults and 2 pups. We hoped to catch sight of the pups, but they remained hidden in the bushes.
We left them in peace and returned to our camp. That evening, we first ran into a herd of very shy elephants that ran into the bushes the moment they noticed us.
We came to the same waterhole as in the morning, and saw a jeep standing there. We spotted the same pack of Dholes moving in the bushes. The other jeep moved on, but we waited for a while, enjoying the sounds of the forest. After a while, as we moved on, we saw the carcass from a spotted deer kill. It had been wiped clean by the dogs! It wasn’t there in the morning, so it must have happened pretty recently.
This time we could see all 9 adult and sub-adult members, but the pups remained well hidden inside the bushes. You can see 8 here in this snap. The 9th was ahead, past the turning.
They stayed on our path for a while, and kept a wary eye on us as we moved forward.
Unlike in Bandipur or Nagarahole, the drivers don’t spend too much time in one spot and prefer moving along after spending at most 10 minutes with each sighting. Once we made our intent to move on clear, the pack cleared the road and moved into the bushes.
We pressed on to the hill side, and the returning jeep told us that there was a herd of elephants ahead. We reached the waterhole where they were hanging out, and switched off the engine. The only sound there was that of horseflies, and it gave an eerie ring to the forest. The elephants came out once they were assured that there was no harm from standing jeeps. We were glad to note that there was a very small calf in the herd, maybe weeks old!
The herd got into the waterhole and spent a good time bathing and enjoying the water after a hot summer day. I decided not to click many pics, and instead put the camera on video mode and let it shoot while I spent my time taking in the spectacle of elephants enjoying the water. This is something we had never seen before! (The video isn’t great, but quality improves halfway through, after we moved a bit ahead.)
Again, after 10 minutes, we moved on and returned to camp. That night it rained after an awesome show of thunder and lightning. The next morning, there were no mammals, but lots of birds. We spotted a Brown Fish Owl, which decided to take refuge in a tree that had jungle babblers which made their displeasure clear.