It was in mid-January of 2013 when I first got a chance to visit the Kalesar National Park situated in the terai region of eastern Haryana. Although the visit chanced upon at a time when winters were peaking but fortunately the sky was clear and the environment haze-free. Intending to spend at least three days within the purlieu of the park, I set off from my hometown in Jind, Haryana.
Located in Yamunanagar district of Haryana, the Park lay spread in the foothills of Shivalik Range sharing its border with three other states – Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. The diversion towards Ladwa from Kurukshetra at NH 1 takes straight to Yamunanagar from where the Park is just 45 km on the State highway connecting the district headquarters with Dehradun via Paonta Sahib, a popular pilgrimage of Sikhs.
To make the best use of time at hand, I got a room in Kalesar Forest Rest House booked. Already familiar with the prevailing culture at such government properties, I got fresh vegetables and raw material for meals for the next three days packed from a roadside kiryana store in Jagadhri. Although, all such properties are sufficiently staffed with caretaker, cook, watchman, etc. but still, before moving in, one must confirm with respect to the availability of food. Lesser visited, as these destinations are, it is always recommended to get sufficient raw material for food as per the requirement. The cook will do the rest to provide the best possible service.
On the way, I made a brief stopover at the Hathni Kund barrage, located just before the dense forest cover starts, on the river Yamuna. A preferred bird watching site, Hathni Kund is known to attract a fair quantity and variety of migratory as well as resident waterfowls. Although water was stagnant, the barrage that day surprisingly did not live up to its reputation as the quantity of the collective bird species was quite low. Nevertheless, I spotted River Lapwing in its natural habitat among others and the view from the barrage was absorbing. The remainder of the drive from Hathni Kund to the FRH took less than ten minutes.
By the time the caretaker prepared tea, I took a quick walk in the FRH compound to make myself familiar with the area (mostly led by excitement). Situated in the SW fringes of the forest, the compound comprises two structures – a renovated colonial dak bungalow and a recently built multi-room building – beautified by a well maintained multi-layered garden. Commanding a sweeping view of the dry riverbed of Yamuna, the plush green colonial era FRH compound is one of the prime properties of the Forest Department of Haryana. From the FRH lawns, the ruins of a Mughal-era castle, frequented by Shahjahan during his hunting sojourns, could be spotted across the other bank of Yamuna. The region was hot favourite with Mughals as well as British residents to satiate their hunting inclinations.
I had already earmarked the next day for the jungle exploration. So having sipped the hot tea, I headed towards another famous bird-watching destination Asan barrage located not more than 25 km from the FRH. Not only bird-watchers but the wetland created by the barrage attracts numerous bird-photographers as well. With GMVN facilitated boating facilities available, photographing the waterfowls has become easier. I was particularly smitten by the first sighting of Pallas’s Fish Eagle. Having spent a few hours at the barrage and captured a few sunset shots, I rushed towards the FRH crossing the Gurudwara on the way.
At the dinner table, I met with three forest officers who were undergoing a refresher course by the state wildlife department. One of them invited me for a jungle drive the next morning to which I promptly agreed. Later while serving the sumptuously-cooked evening meal, the caretaker asked me to be ready by 0530hrs the next morning and handed me a checklist of animals as well as birds which had been spotted inside the Park. Spread over 25,000 acre, the protected Kalesar forest was declared a National Park in 2003. The Park is named after the famous Kaleshwar temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, located very near to the FRH.
Next morning by the time the incipient sunlight filtered in through the windowpanes, I was up and around with my camera as well as birding kit properly packed in the backpack. Having consumed a heavenly breakfast we left for the jungle along with a forest guard. The recently fabricated entrance gate was located a few kilometres ahead of the FRH, on the road to Paonta Sahib, right opposite the Kalesar Forest Range Office. There is not much formality but one needs to contact this office to get permission to visit the Park. The elephant safari which the department started a few years back, in order to promote tourism, is not operational any longer. Due to less interest shown by visitors, the elephant safaris as well as tented accommodations promoted by the state tourism department have been discontinued. The only way one could venture inside the Park is either on foot or in a self-driven jeep. A guide (usually a Forest Guard) is allocated by the department to accompany the visitors.
No sooner did we enter the Park than a small herd of sambar deer crossed the motor-trail. The forest manual says that the entire jungle is full of biodiversity with dense Sal cover which supports an amazing variety of bird and animal species including tigers. The eight-kilometre dirt-track culminates at an artificially constructed water pond to support the wildlife inside the Park. The area and the dry riverbed around pond is a good place to observe wildlife as was apparent from the pugmarks that we saw including those of a leopard. The forest department has strategically placed a few observation towers inside the forest, although, photography may not be possible from such high-rise points. We spotted an Indian muntjac, a small herd of Spotted Deer, a red jungle fowl among others from this area.
The surprising presence of fresh dung of elephant was a cause of worry for the officer who now had to institute a team to track the wild elephant and know its condition. Wild elephants from the neighbouring Rajaji National Park are known to venture into this area where they often create havoc. Later the officer told me that the Park is suffering from lack of funds from the concerned government. I was not surprised to hear his views on the failure of the authorities to protect the wildlife. Still I decided to find out the real truth and filed a few RTI applications. The response to most of those is still awaited.
Having parked our vehicle near the pond, we ventured, on foot, into the denser parts of the jungle. The chirrups which were unheard before worked to be a natural background score. The forest guard mostly kept us to the identified trails meandering from one range to the other. The hillocks forming the outermost layer of the Shivaliks comprises low sandstone and conglomerate rocks. Apart from the tall verdant Sal trees that constitute the lone Sal-forest belt of the state, other trees include Sain, Basooti, Rohini, Chhaal, Chirauli, Karu, Jhingan, Tendu, Kurha, Salai, Semul, Amaltas, Bahera, Sindoor. Cone-shaped anthills dot the landscape. Animals regularly claimed to be spotted include Leopard, Barking Deer, Sambar, Goral, Indian Porcupine, Spotted Deer, Wild Boar, Indian Pangolin, Indian Hare, Small Indian Civet, etc. Regular birds include Oriental Pied Hornbill, Black-headed Oriole, Scarlet Minivet, Common Iora, Coppersmith Barbet, Shama, Himalayan Barbet, Crested Serpent Eagle, Indian Pitta, Blue-tailed Bee Eater, Pale Harrier, Paradise Flycatcher, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Blue Whistling Thrush, Emerald Dove, Crimson Sunbird, Oriental White Eye, Indian Roller, etc. Over 300 bird species have been reported in this region.
By evening we returned to the FRH. The day was well spent in the lap of nature. The next day was earmarked for visiting the nearby destinations including the Yamuna. Other popular destinations within an hour’s reach from the FRH include Kaleshwar Math, Hathni Kund, Paonta Sahib Gurudwara, River Yamuna, Chuharpur Nature Park, Buria, Sugh, Bilaspur, Kapal Mochan Temple, Saraswati Udgama Sthal, Ban Santour, Adi Badri Temple, etc. For those keen on stretching the sojourn, Mussoorie is just a couple of hours away.