2015 publications

 

An Encounter with the Tigress of Ranthambhore. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2015

tiger Ranthambhore

The Tigress of Ranthambhore. Photo: Ranjan Mukherje

The warning growl, a flash of orange, tension crackling in the air: a tiger is near!

This is what I had imagined and wanted to experience. Mention the word “tiger” and “India” comes to mind. So, a few years ago, my wife, son and I decided to visit Ranthambhore, a one-time princely hunting ground turned tiger preserve, located 112 miles from Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, a state in western India.

We stayed in a luxury tent, once used to accommodate guests during tiger hunts in the last century. This irony did not escape us. That evening we went on a safari. We saw several deer who seemed alert and restless. The forest guide said they sense the presence of a tiger nearby, but we saw no tigers. We returned to camp slightly depressed, had dinner around a blazing campfire under the stars and went to bed hoping for better luck the next day.

Next morning we woke early, had tea and biscuits and left for a second safari. It was still dark and freezing cold. We had sweaters and jackets but were still glad for the blankets that were in the Jeep. Routes in the forest were selected by lottery. I drew a number and we proceeded into the forest. We drove for a while on the prescribed route. We saw fresh pugmarks, a hopeful sign. We came across three Himalayan black bears, a mother with two cubs. They came frolicking down the hillside right in front of our car, saw us, turned and ran. They were hilarious to watch but kicked up so much dust it was hard to get a good photo. Still, no tiger. The sun rose, the temperature started to rise along with our anxiety. We continued driving with a sharp look out on all sides.

Three Himalayan black bears hidden in a cloud of dust.

Three Himalayan black bears hidden in a cloud of dust.

Suddenly, as we were driving up the slope of a hill, we saw the silhouette of a tigress against the skyline, right next to the car track. She turned and started walking away from us. The driver drove faster to catch up. We gazed, spellbound. She was a magnificent animal, beautiful and fearless. She paused behind a bush and turned to look at us. Her coat was bright orange with jet black stripes and blended perfectly with the dry leaves of the winter forest. At that moment I truly understood the meaning of camouflage and how tigers became such stealthy, effective hunters. I told the driver to stop, grabbed my camera and took a photo.

We returned to camp with great joy. It is very rare to see tigers in the wild and we were extremely fortunate to see the tigress and the bears. We left with incredible memories and great photos. The picture of the tigress is now the background of my computer desktop. It elicits gasps of admiration from viewers and gives me a chance now and then, to tell the story of our encounter with the tigress of Ranthambhore.

Deer watching out for predators.

Deer watching out for predators.

My Nepal Trip (Part 1). Du-Kool, May 2015

This article is dedicated to those who lost their lives in the devastating earthquake in Nepal, May 2015.

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Annapurna at dawn. Photograph by Ranjan Mukherjee

 Nepal, the land of high mountains, secluded valleys and dense jungles, has always held a fascination for mountaineers, trekkers and adventurers seeking an escape from their humdrum daily lives. Geography has indeed blessed this land. It hosts some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas to its north and hot and steamy jungles of the Terai to its south. It has swift clear rivers suitable for rafting, challenging peaks for mountaineering, soaring thermals for paragliding and verdant jungles for wildlife viewing. The recent political upheaval is over and the country is once again, fast becoming a Mecca for tourists. Having a wild, adventurous streak in me, I had always secretly dreamed of a Nepali adventure. On a trip to Kolkata last December, I finally turned that dream into reality. Read more.

 

My Nepal Trip (Part 2). Du-Kool, July 2015

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Photograph: Ranjan Mukherjee

 After Pokhara, we were on our way to Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal and I was looking forward to seeing the wildlife and getting some good photos. But the picture of Annapurna at dawn was still haunting me, I was indeed fortunate. The day was clear and I kept turning my head around to see the Annapurna massif slowly receding into the distance. I felt a twinge of regret.

The drive to Chitwan would take 4.5 hours and we would be leaving the cool heights of Pokhara and descending to the warmer confines of the Terai. The temperature progressively got warmer and the vegetation more lush.    Read more.

Next for the Displaced: Chill Winds and Snows of Winter. Courier Times, September 2015

Nepal Earthquake

Photo: Ted Wendel

News of the devastating earthquake in Nepal has moved off the front pages of our newspapers. But in Nepal, heavy monsoon rains are drenching the country and will be followed in a few months by the chill winds and snows of winter. People need to rebuild, but how exactly? Do they build the same structures as before? Perhaps this disaster gives us an opportunity to build safer houses and improve infrastructure.

Nepal is a small, developing, Himalayan county sandwiched between China and India. Its area encompasses eight of the ten highest peaks in the world.  Millions of years ago, what is now the Indian subcontinent plate drifted north colliding with the Eurasian plate forcing the Himalayas to rise skyward. This slow, relentless drift continues and strain builds up continuously along the fault line which passes under Nepal. Occasionally, the strain is released causing earthquakes. There has been a record of large earthquakes in Nepal through the centuries. The latest, on April 25, released some pressure but not enough. Seismologists predict that another, potentially bigger earthquake is in the offing but cannot pinpoint the exact time. Although forewarned is forearmed, this does not allow us to sleep in peace. What can we do? It is clear that we cannot prevent earthquakes which are a result of natural geological forces over eons. But we can certainly minimize the devastation and loss of life.

First, is to rebuild as quickly as possible but with buildings that are more resistant to earthquakes. Modern concrete and brick structures survived the earthquake much better than the more traditional brick, wood and mud structures. The excess cost of a reinforced home (e.g., having concrete or timber supports at the corners of the building that are tied together with horizontal runner beams) is estimated to be only 5 to 10% more than traditional homes, but more flexible and resilient to tremors. The Nepali government should clearly communicate this message and help financially as needed, with loans on easy terms. The Nepal National Society for Earthquake Technology could design simple, low-cost, earthquake resilient houses, train masons and communicate en masse to the entire population with the local government enforcing the new building codes. These activities have begun but momentum needs to increase, time is not on our side.

Then, once the rubble is cleared, houses are rebuilt and the displaced moved indoors, attention has to focus on improving the infrastructure. In an emergency, supplies need to be moved rapidly often to very remote locations. In the absence of trains in Nepal, roads and air are the two main conduits. There are highways in Nepal but the heavy monsoons with the accompanying floods and landslides renders them impassable at times. Many roads have large potholes that often reduce traffic to a crawl and sometimes lead to severe damage of an axle or two. Better roads are needed. The April earthquake has clearly demonstrated the importance of resupply by air. Many of Nepal’s remote towns and villages could only be reached by helicopter, so more helicopters and heliports are needed. This would also boost tourism. Kathmandu International Airport needs to be expanded. If that is not possible, another airport with more modern facilities should be built. In April, the increased influx of relief supplies caused a veritable traffic jam on the runways forcing some relief planes to turn back, unfortunately, when the need was greatest.

How best can we help? Money, of course, is needed. But, in addition, technical help in designing affordable, earthquake resistant houses using materials readily available in Nepal and planning for emergencies and disaster relief is crucial. I visited Nepal last December and spent many delightful hours among the ancient historic temples in Durbar Square, Kathmandu. These have stood for a very long time. Sadly, they are now a jumbled heap of wood, bricks and tiles.  The Nepalis are courageous and resilient and they will surely rebuild as they have done on countless past occasions.  Only this time, I hope the use of modern technology makes their new homes safer and minimize the devastating impact of any future megaquake. The scenes from the last one are still vividly etched in our minds.  Link to Courier Times