God of Small Things
The Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, part of the northern Western Ghats, is a forest situated near Mumbai, on the highway leading to Ahmedabad. Measuring 85.7 sq. km., the forest was declared a protected area in 2003 with the sole objective of acting as a buffer to Sanjay Gandhi National Park lying to the south. Besides the wildlife sanctuary, this place is also famous for the 110 odd years old Mahadev temple, which gives the forest its name.
Staying close to the sanctuary, I have been visiting Tungareshwar for quite some time now. The place is abuzz with activity during certain Shiva festivals and also during the monsoons, when several small waterfalls start trickling down. Monsoon is also my favourite time to visit the place as activities of the smaller fauna are at an all time high during this period. Several insects, spiders, amphibians and reptiles can be easily spotted at this time of the year. During the winters, one can see various migratory birds visit the area; summer, I have found, is the best time to visit to spot butterflies.
The wide dirt track at the entrance of the sanctuary leads to the main temple in the core. This track takes you through some of the best canopy-covered patches a deciduous forest can offer. The 8 km trek, although a climb throughout, doesn’t seem quite tough because of the shade-providing covering; but it is advisable to carry a lot of drinking water, especially during the summers. One can even trek a couple of kilometres beyond the temple, but the track here is in steep contrast to the vehicle-friendly track from the gate to the temple.
THE FOREST DWELLERS
I have been visiting this place since my school days, solely with the intention of enjoying the waterfalls during monsoon. But since the time I got interested in wildlife and photography, my visits increased, and I started exploring the sanctuary during other seasons as well. Now, I have lost count of the number of times I have visited the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and I consider it to be my second home.
Personally, I have never seen any mammal besides the Bonnet macaques, Southern plains grey langurs and the Three-striped palm squirrels; but the sanctuary is known to house Golden jackals, leopards, Indian hares, wild pigs, Indian giant squirrels and some varieties of bats. The closest I have come to witnessing a carnivore was hearing the eerie calls of the jackal.
Resident birds like the Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, White-breasted Kingfisher, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Green Bee-eater, Shikra, Golden-fronted Leafbird and a few sunbirds are very common. Occasionally, you might even spot a Malabar Whistling Thrush, a Rufous Treepie or an Orange-headed Thrush. During the winters, a large number of flycatchers reside in the forest. Some commonly seen winter migrants include Ultramarine, Verditer and Red-breasted Flycatchers, and Grey and Citrine Wagtails. The Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher also nests in the forest during the monsoons. Although I have not found a comprehensive list of the birds of Tungareshwar, to give a sense of the diversity, I have personally seen 122 birds here.
Monsoon is probably the best time to explore the smaller fauna of Tungareshwar. (Clockwise from top left) Tree crabs, damselflies (Clear-winged forest glory in the pic) and spiders (Giant wood spider in pic) are seen a plenty during this period
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
If you wish to witness the richness of Tungareshwar forest, though, you have to focus on the smaller fauna. Among reptiles, my regular monsoon visits have yielded sightings of the Common bronze-back tree snake, Green vine snake and Spectacled cobra among snakes; Garden lizard, Forest calotes and Brahminy skink among lizards; and the Indian bull frog, Indian burrowing frog, Skittering frog and Common Indian tree frog among amphibians. Among the reptiles I still yearn to see at Tungareshwar is the Indian chameleon, which has been seen and photographed by my friends here.
Tungareshwar is the perfect place to photograph the macro world up close. These images of (top to bottom) the Garden lizard, grasshopper and owlet moth are a perfect example.
Tungareshwar is also home to an amazing diversity of butterflies. Common baron, Great orange-tip, Yellow orange-tip, grass yellows, Chocolate pansy, Spot swordtail, Blue oakleaf and Brown awl are just a few of the names. Collectively, my friend and I have spotted over 75 different species of butterflies.
The presence of the temple inside the sanctuary means that scores of devotees visit this place during certain festivals, such as Mahashivratri. The large crowd, walking for kilometres on, honking, playing music and singing loudly, disturb the entire forest and its denizens.
The Puff-throated Babbler usually prefers to spend time in the undergrowth and is rarely seen in the open
An increasing number of stalls en route to the ashram inside, and the resultant garbage which is created, is the major problem the forest of Tungareshwar is facing.
Encroachment is another serious threat to the forest as many people have settled just outside the entry gate. What started as a temporary settlement has now grown by leaps and bounds. Hawkers selling tea and refreshments have also made permanent establishments inside the sanctuary. Picnickers, who visit Tungareshwar to enjoy the waterfalls in the rainy season, dump heaps of garbage in the forest in the form of plates, polythene, plastic wrappers, alcohol bottles, etc. Nature is resilient, and the diversity of Tungareshwar has managed to survive so far. But with the increasing number of devotees, picnickers and squatters, for how long can this go on?
My tryst with wildlife has taught me one thing above everything else – change is possible. We definitely cannot ask devotees to stop visiting the temple, but volunteer groups can be organised for the days when these thousands of devotees will come visiting. Signage indicating dos and don’ts should be placed at regular intervals along the main path. Proper licences should be allocated to the locals running refreshment shops inside and strict action needs to be taken against encroaching establishments. As of now, there is no policing of people entering the forest. Placing an entry fee for picnickers could help limit the number of people entering. With a little effort and care, we can easily co-exist with our forest friends.