It began with a chance meeting in Sarahan with the Divisional Forest Officer, Mr. B.L. Negi. When I told him that I was a keen birder he casually asked whether I would be interested in doing some research on the Western Tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus) ? Off course I would be interested in doing research on the Western Tragopan, I almost shouted. (A PDF of this survey can be downloaded from a link at the end of this post.)
For anyone interested in Himalayan birds the Western Tragopan is like the Holy grail. With less than a thousand breeding pairs left, it is the rarest of five types of Tragopan. It has been voted as one of the top 10 “must see” birds in the world.
In Himachal Pradesh it is called the “Jujurana”. A Juju is a bird while Rana is a King, i.e. the King of Birds. Few have seen a Jujurana in the wild, and very few photographs of the bird in its natural habitat exist. Naturally I was very excited about this opportunity.
On a crisp December morning in 2006 Frederikke Tu, a keen birder from Denmark, and I embarked on our adventure. Our initial destination was the forest rest house at Sharnal, from where we would trek into the Daranghati Wildlife Sanctuary to try and meet “the King of Birds”. Two mules and a guide were waiting for us at the road head. After loading the mules we set off for Sharnal. It was a long but easy walk. The rest house, a small affair with two very basic rooms. Situated on a steep hillside over looking the Nogli Khad, it had a grand stand view of the Daranghati Wildlife Sanctuary.
We would have to leave early on the nextday as there was a problem about the availability of the porters. The Goddess of Kasha had been invited to an important religious fair being held at Deoti, a village about 20 km. away. All the Gods and Goddesses of the area, some from as far away as the Kulu valley, would be attending the fair which was being held after a gap of more than 80 years. Most men from the village would be accompanying the Goddess. We would have to leave early in order to allow enough time for the porters to come back and join the procession. Early suited us just fine.
We set off for our “base camp” early the next morning. Our team consisted of five porters and three guides, Shyamlal, Birsen and Kushal. The guides, would stay on and help us in our quest.
The trail led down to the Nogli Khad, the main river of this area. A small temporary bridge, a shaky affair consisting of two logs with some stones on top, took us across into the core area of the Daranghati wildlife sanctuary. From the bridge the track climbed almost vertically. Some patches even required scrambling up on all fours, not a very easy exercise when you have a pair of binoculars and a camera with a long lens around your neck. The hard work was amply rewarded by the beautiful views and regular encounters with wild life, especially Himlayan Monals (Lophophorus impejanus).
The campsite was a small flat area deep in the valley near the confluence of two streams, the Doabda Nullah and the Mamellan Top Nullah. We were in a thick forest with huge trees, and even taller mountains, towering above us. All the undergrowth had died out and the ground was bare and brown. It was a damp, dark, cold and forbidding place. Birsen cheerfully informed us that we would be receiving less than a couple of hours of direct sunshine, that too on a clear day. The site had its admirers, it was popular with the huge Himalayan Black Bears. They regularly used trees in the campsite trees as scratch posts. But there was no other alternative. This was the only flat area near a water source. At least the bears would be in hibernation.
Soon Birsen had a nice fire going. Having pitched our three tents, we settled down around the fire. Suddenly Birsen asked us to keep quiet. We strained our ears in the sudden silence. A minute passed then I heard a faint but distinct thumping sound. It lasted for a few seconds and was a bit like the sound of a Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle would make when heard from very far away on a still night. The sound came from the top of a hill located to our north. Birsen smiled and informed us that this was the sound of a Jujurana (Western Tragopan) flying up to its perch to roost for the night. Because of their heavy bodies and short rounded wings the Western Tragopan make a very distinct thumping sound when they fly. We had just heard the “King of Birds” fly off to his bed chamber. A meeting with the Jujurana suddenly started looking much more probable.
After dinner we retired to our tents. I was worried whether our equipment, especially our tents and sleeping bags, would hold up in this extreme weather. The temperatures were always below freezing and night temperatures of upto -15 C were expected. Although by the morning I was feeling a bit cold, I slept quite comfortably. Moisture from breathing had condensed on the cold inside walls of the tents and had formed a layer of frost. It even froze in a thin layer of ice on top of the sleeping bag. Our solution was to carefully dry the sleeping bags at the campfire each morning.
The next day, after an early lunch, we set off in two groups. Myself, Frederikke and Shyamlal surveyed the area down stream of our camp while Birsen and Kushal went up stream into the Mamellan Top nullah. After a full day of scrambling in the mountains, we were back at the camp with nothing to show for our efforts. Birsen and Kushal were luckier, they reported that they had flushed a covey of four Western Tragopan high up in the Mamellan nullah.
The next morning, after a hurried breakfast, we moved towards place where the Tragopan had been seen. We climbed up, cross-country, sometimes on all fours, on one side of the valley. Soon we were about 100 metres above the nullah. We could see Birsen and Kushal work their way up the other side. The valley was steeper on their side. At least we had trees and bushes to provide hand holds and to break our falls if we slipped. Birsen and Kushal were climbing on a bare, rocky and almost vertical cliffside. The valley here was a deep almost vertical gash with the two sides less than a hundred metres apart. Suddenly with a lot of loud thumping a male Western Tragpopan flushed. It flew up from a rock near Birsen and then glided magestically down the valley giving us our first view of the “King of Birds”. There was no time to lift the camera or even the binoculars, it was over in a few seconds, but my first audience with the “King” will remain etched in my memory forever.
We quickly hid ourselves and waited. Over the next quarter of an hour we watched Birsen and Kushal flush eight more Western Tragopan. One female even flew straight towards us, landed about fifteen metres away, and then ran off giving the tell tale Tragopan alarm call, a plaintive nasal “waa”, quite like a goat bleating or a small baby crying.
As the route down was too dangerous, we would have to climb up to the ridge to get back to the camp. The climb kept getting tougher until we were almost hauling ourselves up vertically over cliffs. A missed step or a lost hand hold would have resulted in a very long fall. As I pulled myself over yet another rocky ledge I saw a brown blurry thing rush at me. Somehow I managed to duck without falling off the cliff. The thumping flight sound was unmistakable. I had been “charged” by a male Western Tragopan. He had been hiding under a rock on the ledge I was trying to climb. Frederikke and Shyamlal got a close look at the bird and had a good laugh at my expense.
The climb continued and as we neared the top the route kept getting worse. In a couple of hours it would be dark and we would be, as the mountaineers say, “benighted”; stuck in the mountains without shelter. Walking in the dark was not an option and a night out in the cold, without shelter, could even be fatal. Shyamlal informed us that there was just a 100 metre stretch that we needed to cross to reach a proper footpath. This stretch was across a sheer cliff side which was about 200 metres above the valley floor. It was very risky. Any other time I would never have attempted it without a rope, but now there was no option. We set off in a single file, Shyamlal in the lead and me bringing up the rear. A couple of scares, and we were across. Soon we were sitting around our campfire. It had been an exhilerating day, and to celebrate our audience with “King of Birds” we treated ourselves to a bigger fire and a nice dish of “Badam Ka Halva”.
The next morning, by the time we set off to explore the upper reaches of the Doabda Nulla, the weather had started packing up. It started drizzling soon after we started and we decided to head back. By the time we reached the camp it had started snowing. The snowing continued intermittently through out the day. During a slight pause in the snow in the evening Birsen started the fire and we cooked our dinner while the snowfall continued.
Snowfall in a jungle is a curious experience. Strangely it becomes quite warm, even cosy. The jungle becomes silent and very still. In the silence the large flakes of snow float down, falling soundlessly and slowly painting the landscape white. A thick curtain of grey and white hangs all around. Visibility drops, and as the snow flurries move, strange grey shapes appear and disappear. We sat around our fire enjoying this feeling of total isolation. After dinner we reluctantly abandoned our cosy campfire and retired to our tents.
I woke up with the feeling that something was pressing down on me and trying to smother me. I frantically grasped for my torch and switched it on. A brief inspection showed that the snow had accumulated on my tent and it had almost collapsed over me. I pushed out against the snow, shook the tent to make shake the snow off, and then crawled out of the tent to a spanking new campsite clad in a blanket of fresh snow. The whole valley and jungle wore the bright white and cheery Chirstmas look. It had snowed more than 12 inches at night.
We soon realised that the snow was not a blessing. It now lay in a thin layer over all the rocks and slopes making them treacherously slippery. The snow was also dripping from the trees onto our cameras and binoculars. It was clear that with the present conditions we would not be able to trek to the areas where the Western Tragopan lived. This slight dusting of snow had made cross country trekking extremely dangerous. The only sane option was to break camp. We decided that at daybreak Kushal would go to the village and get the porters.
We were enjoying our last evening around the campfire. It had started snowing again and we were huddled over the fire to absorb as much of the warmth as possible before heading for our cold tents. The conversation had died out. Suddenly could hear a harsh grating sound, as if someone was using a huge saw. It was a panther’s call, perhaps he was looking for a mate or maybe he was just enjoying the evening like us. He must have been about a kilometre away, but in the still night we could hear him very clearly. The call of a large cat in a jungle never fails to get the blood flowing. For a few moments we forgot the cold and the snow and listened thrilled to the lonely call of the panther. It was snowing again. As I returned to my tent for the night I could not help but wonder; how much longer would unspoilt places like this last against the relentless onslaught of mankind. The panther was still calling as I went off to sleep.
You can read the full report of this survey by clicking on the link below.