Beware of the Quills!

One night and an experience of a lifetime - Memoirs from Haabalikhati

a night with hyenas and jackals





An early morning HDR Panaroma view of the serene Gahirmatha beach

          The 'wild' island of Habalikhathi at Odisha, famous for the Gahirmatha beach, which is well known for one of the rare beaches that provide a safe haven and reproductive grounds for the Olive Ridley Turtles. Olive Ridley Turtles (females) surprisingly can find their way back home, which they once left as new-born babies. These babies are born at night, and by sunrise they must accomplish the feat of crossing the sandy beach into the lap of mother ocean. How they sense the direction of the way to the ocean is still not known, maybe by the sound of the marauding waves or maybe the wind of salty water that lies beyond the ocean of sandy hurdles. Once the false Dawn wakes up, the turtles become alarmed by instinct and hurry up to the waves. In jungles, a false dawn appears first that stays for 15-20 minutes, which fool many of the jungle creatures especially the nocturnal ones to go into hiding. But after an hour or so, when the real Dawn arrives, the turtles have to fasten up their pace, if they are not to become a buffet for a ‘murder’ (a flock of crows is termed as ‘murder’) of jungle crows.

          The Odisha Forest department has made available forest rest houses adjoining the beach, which are the only available residing place for the Homo Sapiens Sapiens, as this is a core jungle area. These are situated at a distance of 40 ft from the waves (fun fact: the former forest houses already got devoured by the ocean in 2018). The reason of choosing such a place is because the if the construction was carried out in the middle of the forest, the wildlife habitat would have been disturbed immensely. So, it is in 2 of these houses (there are a total of 3 cottages that cost 3500 per night and has the capacity to accommodate 3 heads), I and my friends had gifted ourselves shelter for 1 night.

Where the Jungle meets the seas, bypassing the sandy beaches

           To reach this pristine beach of Gahirmatha, one must travel to the island of Habalikhati, which embodies it. A boat can be availed from Bhitarkanika mangroves, which will take you through 6-8 hours of marvellous journey along the edges of Bhitarkanika. It is a pure treat for the soul of any nature enthusiast or a wildlife lover as their eyes can witness the adorable wild boars grunting and roaming around for food; adult and juvenile Muggers (aka the fresh-water crocodiles) cum Salt-Water Crocodiles basking in the sun with some of their mouths wide open (basking off to regulate their body temperature as they cannot sweat under water, which is pretty obvious though. Just imagine you are trying to sweat under water, OOPS! AND THE HELL GATES GOT OPENED FOR SOMEONE, just kidding!),

a juvenile salt water crocodile


An adult Salt-water Crocodile getting aboard the sandy ship to bask off


a saltwater crocodile climbing up the river bank to a safe place for basking. Crocodiles bask themselves for regulating their body temperatures as they do not sweat
a huge mugger of around 17-18 feet crawling back into the water.

Monitor Lizards lying flat on the ground or sensing the ground in search of prey,

a Bengal Monitor lizard at leisure
A Bengal Monitor Lizard with the tip of its tail cut off, probably bitten off by a rival in a territorial fight.

Spotted Deers grazing among the mangrove roots and the trees’ leaves, 

A spotted deer staring at us with eyes full of suspicion and curiosity.

Fishing Cats waiting in search of fishes, and several species of Birds especially the Kingfishers, Egrets, plovers, sandpipers, and the Rose Ringed Parakeets which are found in plenty. 

Common Kingfisher which is soon becoming uncommon
Black-Capped Kingfisher
Collared Kingfisher
Green Bee-eater
a Red Hermit Crab
Intermediate Egret
The waters of the Baitarani river home to one of the most intelligent apex predator, Crocodiles, is extremely risky for the fishermen to practice their occupation. But when hunger and poverty overtakes the fear of death at the jaws of the monster, these fishermen secretly enter the rivers in the hope of bidding adieu to pangs of hunger. Fishing has been strictly prohibited in these waters by the forest department, as not only it’s a dangerous business, but the fishing nets are themselves a mortal trap for the innocent creatures of the river including the crocodiles, who once getting themselves trapped in the fishing net, are unable to get out and die a horrible death.


          It was a 7 hrs (approx.) journey from Bhitarkanika to Habalikhati. Once we reached there, a stretch of 2-2.5 km narrow path in the middle of the forest lay in front of us that had to be covered on foot, to reach the forest rest houses. The path is bordered on the left side by a small ‘nullah’ (thin streams formed due to two higher edged lands. Think of it as a river in valley between 2 hills from an ant’s view) while a thick outgrowth of various flowering and fruit trees and bushes bordered the path on the other side. At some sections of the path the ‘kutcha’ path was bordered on both sides by thick foliage of various trees and lantana bushes. 

Way to Heaven! oops, I got you again, didn’t I? Although it indeed is a way to heaven but for experiencing wildlife in its true sense and form.

       This was one of the most exciting walks I had in my entire life to date. The jungle was dead silent, and the only noise was of our footsteps. After 30-50 mins of walk (the time depends on one’s pace of footsteps), we crossed a rivulet over a thin bridge made of concrete slabs that could carry a load of a motorbike over it and was less than 1 meter in width. It is this bridge to which we came back after another 20 minutes of walking past it, when a forest ranger while overtaking us informed, that he saw a King Cobra crawling along the same rivulet’s bank. After we hurried ourselves to the spot for catching a glimpse of the King, we were greeted with only some mudskippers frantically jumping on the wide bank for grabbing insects hidden underneath the mangrove banks. Maybe the serpent sensed us from several metres away and hence decided to keep itself concealed among the bushes or in the hole of some tree’s base. After 2.5 hrs of hunger in our eyes and heart, this was like the smell of strong hot tea after a tiring journey. My experiences have so far taught me that catching a glimpse of Wildlife is all about luck and patience!

          Apart from few species that have adapted to daytime hunting, most snakes do not see well. Generally, they can see shapes but not details. Some species of snakes, commonly known as pit vipers can see well at night by a marvellous trick. Thy have pits (one on each side of the head) sense heat (infrared light) generated by living organisms and objects around, like night vision goggles.

And Mother Nature gifted us with a Greater Flameback woodpecker pecking into the woods

           We now hurried towards the rest houses (cottages) as it was already 4:30 PM and by another 30 mins the bright yellow sun would gradually change its colour, first to deep yellow, that would slowly change to orange and finally just before a last minute goodbye to the denizens of the forest into a fiery red, as if it got overheated by the end of its daily burning schedule. With the sun moving down, the diurnal birds called for a last minute to each other as if wishing their nocturnal brethren good ‘morning’, before the creatures of the night took over the duty from them. A Spotted Owlet form somewhere far gave us an alarm call It would be too late to walk in a forest in the dark hours of the night, that is full of predators like Hyenas, Jackals, Foxes, King Cobras, Pythons apart from other creatures like the Indian Porcupine, Spotted Deer, Fishing cats, Jungle cats, etc.  

          As said earlier, thick bushes and trees formed the boundaries of the narrow path, it is here, Mother Nature was kind enough and she gifted us with a glimpse of a Striped hyena pup (India is home only to the Striped Hyenas which unlike its African counterpart is bit smaller in size and usually roams in pairs or solo), which was very hardly visible through the thick network of branches and leaves. Photography was impossible, so we better thought of capturing on the canvas of our eyes and in the memory of our brains. (Being amateur wildlife enthusiasts at that time) Our movements made the pup aware of our presence and it hurried off. Wild Carnivores and Herbivores have extremely heightened senses and instincts, which help them survive the harsh rules of nature. It was only a few minutes, when we saw a spotted deer mother and her fawn gulping on the delicious leaves from the trees. Deer have an excellent sense of smell and hearing but a very poor sight. They were able to feel our presence at a fraction of second from meters away and were nowhere to be seen around the next instant. I guess we pretty much announced our presence with the sounds of our footsteps.

          Most of the forest creatures have an excellent sense of hearing, their ears are audible to even infra frequencies (frequencies below 20Hz.) Our ears are audible to only a frequency range of 20Hz to 20000Hz. And the residents of the jungle can communicate at frequencies that are out of this range. For example, a carnivore like Tiger, Lion or a Leopard might announce its presence to other rivals at frequencies more than 20K Hz. And the same being might produce infra frequency sounds that are used to make contact between a mother and her cubs/pups or communication between the same species. I wonder if we could decode these into understandable language what would they mean. Maybe even they are complaining about the human beings making their world miserable by burning timber, wiping out forests, increasing Earth temperature and sea level. A fun fact: the former forest houses on the Gahirmatha beach have already got devoured by the ocean in 2018 before April! Don’t believe me, well take a look at the below snap.

the former location of the forest rest houses marked by the 1-2 feet logs of wood buried into the sand, before (pre-2018) they were devoured by the marauding waves of the great Bay of Bengal

          Finally, we found ourselves at entrance of the wonderful forest rest houses. There were 3 cottages and 1 old cottage that was provided only on emergency needs to a guest. They are quite big to accommodate 7-8 people. And the bed was big enough for 3 obese or 4 slim tenants. The premises do not have any physical gate like other National parks or Forest Reserves, only an open entrance is present. There are no concreate or electric fencing as such. If you stand on the beach facing the cottages, a 2-meter hard plastic fence is put up at the back which separates the cottages from the forest. While another fence of approximately 5 metre is present to the left and right of the premises. In the front, a 1-meter-tall fence with a 1-meter and 6 metre gap in between are present. These act as exit, facing the sea, that was for the tourists to stroll into the beach. If one were to straightaway walk from the dock to the forest rest house, he would directly walk into the splashing waves of the great Bay of Bengal! Sounds funny and surprising, isn’t it?

          It was a 1-1.5 hrs walk, and we were in dire need of a bath and some refreshing hot tea. The forest officials were kind enough to provide us with a large jar of hot tea. We were rejuvenated to the core. And once water drops poured over our sweaty body, the soul was refreshed. The only ‘somebody’ that complained in the past 3-4 hours was our stomachs. I think crocodiles were bellowing and grunting from inside them for food. It was a ridiculously hot summer day with very mild breeze swaying sometimes. In India, and especially in the eastern side, the temperature rises as much as 42degC with humidity as high as 99%. Well, we were along side a beach, humidity probably was 100%! At times even the glass of our spectacles would be misty due to the water-vapour present in the air.

          So, after a refreshing bath, we were provided with a sumptuous lunch. Later we went for a stroll along the beach. After around 20 mins, at approx. 6:30 PM, the forest officials sent us a shout, we went running and saw in amazement an Indian crested porcupine in the forest rest house premises. The officials exclaimed that they daily come there to feed on the leftovers. We photographed them using our torches and mobile flashlights (using the flashes as torches) to our heart’s content. It was 7:30 PM then and pretty much dark, so even using the torches, I was able to get only some record shots of this beautiful nocturnal creature. Such a cute, innocent, beautiful, and delicate creature it was. With all of us there, it was a lot of uncommon and unknown faces to take for that poor creature, so it panicked and was escaping its way out from everyone’s proximity. At one moment it was just a foot away from me, but interestingly it did not panic and after few seconds of being in standstill, I tried touching its quills. And Gosh! it was such a lovely experience to feel those thorny prickly barbs on my hand which are the case of death of so many felines, that try to prey on it. This is something I can never forget. After photographing it and closely watching it for 15 minutes we left it to enjoy its evening snack of leftovers in the backyard of the premises.

 

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          Indian Crested Porcupines when threatened, first rattle their quills producing a sound that resembles clinking of plastic bangles (worn by Indian women) or the rattling sound of a rattle snake. If this does not deter the attacker from its quest, they move backwards rapidly towards the predator/threat to prick them with their quills. An interesting fact and a rather unusual belief that porcupines can shoot their quills is quite absurd and till date there is absolutely no record of any ‘quill-shooting’ by this species. However, when they move backwards suddenly to attack or one can say defend themselves, the quills once pricked into the skin of the intruder, are let go off by the porcupine and eventually it remains stuck in the flesh. The amazing part is it’s designed to remain so. The Quills have minute backward pointed barbs that prevent the quills from easily getting plucked out. Cases have been recorded of Leopards and Tigers harming themselves severely due to such attacks. As a result, such tigers and leopards are ultimately unable to hunt their normal prey and eventually become man-eaters or cattle-lifters.



          It was evening and a complete silence greeted us. We were playing some card games and having quite a lot of fun in one of the houses. Although we did try to make as less sound as possible and listen to the what the jungle had in store for us, but it was deadly silent. 2 hrs passed by and we did not even notice. It was time for dinner. The food provided there was good enough, taking into consideration the isolation of the island from the nearest market by several kilometres.  

           Have you ever been caught off guard between a pair of Hyenas and a pack of jackals in the middle of the night on a lonely deserted island that might be engulfed by a large Tsunami any day

 Well, it was a very bone-chilling and adventurous moment, that we would cherish for the rest of our lives. We barely sat down to dinner at around 9 PM approx. and all of a sudden, our cute friend, the Indian crested Porcupine came over towards the forest official sitting right beside us. It was quite timid and seemed quite nervous, its quills all spread out like that of a porcupine fish when alarmed. We sensed something creepy about the atmosphere now. As if something is out there watching us, stalking us, waiting in the shadows for the right moment to pounce or make a nerve racking cry. Within a fraction of second, our instincts were proven right, and we realized it was someone rather than something. We were completely startled, as a pair of Striped Hyenas came out of the jungle alongside the beach and started laughing, ‘Chieeeheeeee’ ‘Chieeeheee’ ‘Chieeee’ ‘yieeey’ ‘where are you’ ‘where are you’! which was as aforementioned earlier, just a few yards away. We deduced it was at the most a pair of them, as there were only 2 different sounds of slightly different frequencies (in layman’s language, intensities). Within seconds of their bone-chilling laughter, at a distance of few yards, a pack of jackals from the back side (the direction of the dock) started howling ‘Yowwwww’ ‘Yowwwww’ ‘Yoww’ ‘Yoww’ ‘Yowwwwwwwww’! This horrendous music of the wild froze us to the core for a few minutes (disclaimer: it was our first wildlife trip to a core jungle of the true sense). None of us moved even a inch or turned our heads. Our ears were so full of the chorus that we were stupefied. After a few seconds, our trance was broken and we found the Porcupine was quivering immensely out of fright. The forest official, who was used to such situations was trying to soothe the creature (the porcupine had a special rapport with the forest officials staying there. It had become sort of a pet). He gave it some food to divert its attention.

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          This gripping atmosphere prevailed for 15-20 minutes, after which the predators exclaimed their anguish, the hyena out of despair or anger cried out loud for one last time while the jackals yipped and yowled off to find some other easy prey for satisfying their appetite, leaving the porcupine to live for another day.

          Hyenas or Jackals have never been seen attacking humans. They are mainly nature’s clean off agents, especially the Hyenas. Hyenas unlike Vultures can reach carcases that might be within some dense vegetation, which Vultures might not be able to smell or see from above. They have the strongest bite force in the terrestrial animal kingdom. They can easily break and chew the hardest of bones. The acid present in their stomach is excellently strong to digest even the rottenest meat crawling with maggots and blue bottle flies. But unfortunately, these poor creatures have been always portrayed as evil or ‘satan’ characters in every story, documentary (except 2/3) or movies. These creatures are the cleanest animals in spite of doing the dirty business of devouring and cleaning the earth of rotting carcasses. At least they are cleaner than their feline and other canid counterparts. They have been rarely seen with ticks or fleas on them.

          The Stripped Hyenas that are found here are quite used to humans as another species living with them. Thanks to the amazing work done by the forest department. We have given them their space, so there has been no interference or conflicts. Human Wild conflicts arise only when we encroach into their territory and make it our own, restricting and shrinking their home turf. What would we do if some other unknown human beings enter our house suddenly and try taking it over? While returning to our rooms, we could see a snake’s wriggly crawl marks just beside our room. We were quite excited to see and analyze its direction of movement. Finally, after some ‘adda’ (a casual discussion among friends or unknowns over some topic is termed as adda in India), we took to bed by 12 and dozed off. A sound sleep it was, and I was awakened by my inbuilt alarm first by 4:30 AM, but sensing it was just the false dawn, I went back to sleep to find myself finally awake at 5:15 AM. Off I went to the beach and the cold breeze made me shiver like hell. I thought of taking a stroll on the beach with Soumitra, another great friend of mine (who is although is sort of big-time lazybones, but a great admirer cum enthusiast of nature and wildlife, was forced to wake up very early in the morning. Disclaimer: he is gonna kill me after such a honest description of him, LOL). The air was refreshing, the sounds of the gushing waves unlike the previous night when the waves appeared to be smashing onto the beach, was so soothing. We were only a few meters away from the settlement, and we saw footmarks of a Fishing Cat

Footprint of a Fishing Cat. A Fishing cat is one of the 3 cats (the others are Tiger and Jaguar) which enjoys being in water. Its main food is fish, and it is extremely expert at hunting fishes. Jaguars too are quite expert at hunting marine creatures like fishes, small pythons, and caimans. While Tigers enjoy cooling off or swimming in water, rather than hunting. And when they do, it’s mainly fishes.

and a dead Tortoise. I guess after laying her last clutch of eggs, she was too old to return back to the sea in time and died of hunger and age, or probably it died nearby the beaches in the waters and was left of by the receeding high tides before dawn woke up.  

A dead Olive Ridley turtle
Upside Down

           We were talking with each other, appreciating the beauty of the island and the incidents that happened the night before, when my friend suddenly braked me hard for what he saw in front of us. It was then, I and my partner indulged ourselves going in some adventure for the next 45 minutes. Two Golden Jackals who came out of the jungle (at a distance of 150ft approx. from our position) started walking along the edge of the jungle which meets the sandy beach and as mentioned before is just few yards distant from the splashing waves. We now carefully and silently but hurriedly tiptoed towards them. One of them sensed our presence too close, when we were 80ft from them, stopped suddenly on noticing us. The other jackal now stopped on seeing its mate stop and they both stared at us. The four of us were now in a standstill. After 7 minutes, they started jogging ahead but suddenly the curious and cautious one again stared back, but this time we were too close around 50ft, and worst part is we were detected in motion this time. This was enough for these two and they sprinted off to their right, into the dense vegetation. We entered the jungle too at that instant, went for 100 meters, but saw nothing, absolutely nothing! The jungle was full of bushes, shrubs, trees of all sorts, and most importantly the dangerous ‘wait-a-bit’ thorn bushes. If one steps into them, he is bound to leave some of his skin, clothes and flesh onto the thorns. And I was extremely fortunate to step into one of these. Do not ask what happened next! After 5-7 minutes of struggle, I emerged victorious, for only at some places my clothes were torn, but my skin and flesh were intact! I forgot to mention, I was lucky enough to bring in my Tamron telephoto lens, but extremely late in capturing good photographs. We finally emerged out of the jungle about 45 minutes later to find ourselves empty handed (obviously along with my camera and lens, LOL).

The jackal sprinting away
and into the jungle

            I was extremely disappointed for not able to click good snaps when I had the chance of. So, we came back to our rooms as we had to be ready for the return journey waiting for us. Another friend of mine was busy photographing the beautiful butterflies. One could see a lot of birds and insects and butterflies. Most of the birds are Asian open bill, egrets, black ibis, cormorants, lapwings, and darters. Mangrove species, casuarinas, and grasses like the indigo bush.

Red Wattled Lapwing

          We were just about to end our photography session when a spotted owlet caught my attention. It was so cute and adorable. A Spotted Owlet is termed as ‘Owlet’ because even the adults’ size resemble the juvenile or nestling Owl of other species. Also, I would really like to add fun fat that NO! OWLS CAN NOT ROTATE THEIR HEADS 360degrees.

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           After freshening up, we packed our bags and had treated ourselves to a sumptuous breakfast prepared by the forest staff chef. We left the rest house by 9:30 AM. It was quite sunny today. We were walking at a slower pace today. Two of us went ahead and the rest were far behind. However, after 30 mins of walking, suddenly one of them came running towards us and informed about the sighting of a king cobra. We hurried towards the spot but till the time I was able to click it, it went into a hole dug in the base of a large tree. Snakes that dig out their homes in mud, have large round black eyes with a thin layer of epidermis that remains over the eye surface to protect against mud. I am so grateful to Nature as she had sent us a parting gift ?. 

It was another 40 mins and we reached the dockyard to board the boat. GoodBye Habalikhati. Meet you soon.

The Pristine Gahirmatha beach


           Habalikhati, a nature camp in Bitarkanika National Park is quite difficult to find on the map, as neither it is tagged in maps by the google server nor by the responsible authorities. It is close to the Abdul Kalam Island, that is the only nearest landmark that can be given about this place (thanks to our boatman who gave us this information). We came here hoping to catch a glimpse of the Olive Ridley Turtles at Gahirmatha beach, but we were disappointed as there were none. Human interventions, climate change has forced them to shift their reproduction timeline and also to shift their actual place of laying eggs. Our entire three-night, the four-day trip was managed by Estuarine Village Resort, including one night in Habalikhati. Pick-up from Bhadrak station, drop, permission from Habalikhati from Forest Department; everything. We didn't have to worry about anything. No hidden costs or charges. The management of the resort and the behaviour of all the staff was very courteous. Every year, few inches of the island are engulfed by the marauding waves of the great ocean, thanks to the rising level of the seas and oceans caused due to global warming.