Project Croak
katerniaghat wildlife sanctuary nilgai india

Tales from the terai: the field station

While part of the tiger-monitoring team in the terai, we had a lovely field station with a huge expanse of a meadow to the west and surrounded by dense sal and deciduous forests on all the other sides. Here is a brief glimpse into the fauna that was thriving in the area and the tranquility of life in the terai.

katerniaghat wildlife sanctuary nilgai india
A male Nilgai gallops in the maidan adjacent to our field station which can be seen in the background, behind the eucalyptus trees

There is something inexplicably satisfying about staying in a forest rest house in India, soaking in the rawness of the jungle. Sleeping in your machardani under a jackfruit tree on a jute rope charpoy as the nightjars ‘chweep’ at their regular intervals and spotted owlets screech at each other while swopping onto unsuspecting moths and insects. The wild boar and porcupines rustle in the undergrowth, crackling the dry teak leaves as they go by, close enough for you to hear them and feel their presence yet too well adapted to the jungle to be seen. In the distance where the sal forest meets the maidan the spotted deer are grazing on high alert, a big cat is lurking nearby hoping to make a meal of an unaware ungulate.
But the sentries have smelt him and are now with their heads raised and ears cocked, giving the loud honks in alarm to let the other forest folk beware of the big cat’s presence. The langurs who are sleeping at the extremities of trees as a safety measure against the wily nimble leopard hear this and sleepily cough out two repetitions of their alarm call out of habit and settle back comfortably onto their perch, the night is short and the day long and dangerous, they need the rest and are secure on the supple branches.
The last thing you see is the star studded sky like a dew drenched spiders web on a cold winter morning and the crescent of the moon just emerging over the horizon.

Indian porcupine terai india katerniaghat
An Indian porcupine scurries across the road in the headlights of our car

You wake up at the crack of dawn the next morning as the sun casts a violet and vermillion hue onto the cumulus clouds without showing itself. The spotted deer are still calling but from the inside of the dense forest, you wonder whether they have got any sleep at all but well, that is the law of the jungle. Oh there are a couple of Sambhar calling too; maybe the big cat has made himself visible.

katerniaghat wildlife sanctuary terai sunset field station
The surreal orange of the skies at the crack of dawn in the terai

You rub the sleep out of your eyes and dismantle the bed, you do not want the magpie robin who is wide awake and calling out to his mate atop the jackfruit tree or the grey hornbills who are hopping from branch to branch to leave their mark on your bed. You go over to the handpump to draw out a mug of water to drink, the hot air of the loo blowing through the night has parched your throat and, oh what is that on the dirt track; a large snake has slithered across at night, must be that humungous python who raided the parakeets nest in the gular tree day before yesterday. Ah the full-bellied call of the peacock has begun and another one across joins him from atop a khair tree, they continue together, almost trying to outdo each other until they suddenly stop.

A nightjar in katerniaghat wildlife sanctuary india
A nightjar with her offspring lay perfectly camouflaged on the ground.

Oh no, the water has leaked out of the handpump, you shall have to go to the jheel down the pugdandee to fetch a pail. The maniacal call of the brainfever bird stops as you cross him but the brown-headed barbet continues unperturbed. As you bend at the pool, two skittering frogs true to their name, scurry across the surface of the water, dive underneath and disappear only to reappear a few feet away floating with their liquid eyes turned on you, the weird animal that walks on his hind legs and has a different coloured skin each day. You fill the pail and turn around when your gaze falls onto two large pugmarks on the squishy, squelching muck, a large leopard had had a drink from this pool not too long back the imprint is still moist and the creases of the pad are still visible. From the look of the pugmarks, one on top of the other it seems as though the leopard was in no hurry, and had a drink leisurely, maybe even in contemplation. Perhaps this is what the hullabaloo last night was about.

huntsman spider in india feeding on ants
Gorging on a trail of ants
Skttering frog euphlyctis india male calling
A male skittering frog amplifying his croaks with his vocal sacs

The gecko that lives in the gap of between the wooden door is not there today, wonder where she has gone, maybe after that huntsman spider that was feeding on the trail of ants near the kitchen. Or could that stealthy wolf snake made a quick meal of her? The serpent is too sharp to be seen but he cannot hide his shed skin which was lying in between the bricks. As you ponder over this, a white throated kingfisher flies cackling over your head to sit on the eucalyptus tree a few feet away with a large grasshopper in his mouth.

All you see around you is abound with the fragility and impermanence of life, a reminder of our own transient and ephemeral existence. The wild, a symbol of freedom and death, juxtaposed together.

The wild, a symbol of freedom and death, juxtaposed together.

All text and photos by Arjun Kamdar

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