What is my crime?

What is my crime?

The killing shot is just behind the shoulder. Aim for the spot behind the elbow and your bullet will tear through skin and muscle, enter the rib cage and pulverize the heart. If it gets deflected by a rib it will still go through the lungs and graze the heart enough to cause massive bleeding. But it is not a disabling shot. It will kill but after a while, when the thoracic cavity is filled with blood and the animal starts exhaling it, spraying trees and grass with its lifeblood as it runs, pain and fear crazed, trying to escape. Not knowing that it is already dead on its feet. All you need to do is to wait. Eventually, in agony that I can’t even begin to describe and terror that only the one who feels it can know, the matriarch falls.

She was the repository of wisdom for her family. Wisdom learnt from her own mother and her mother before that, as long as elephants walked on the land. Wisdom which she taught to her progeny, especially her daughters. Wisdom which told her where to dig for water in the drought, which not only ensured the survival of her family but from which all other animals and birds benefited. Wisdom which reminded her of the best paths over mountains. Paths that men later converted to roads, so well ‘surveyed’ they were and suitable to movement of heavy traffic. Wisdom which told her where the best fodder was, the most succulent grass, new leaves on the Mopani and soil with salt and minerals which elephants need to complete their diet. She was the matriarch. They followed her, obeyed her, respected and loved her. Sometimes in their wandering they would come across elephant bones. The skeleton of another, long gone. She would stand by them in silence and they with her, handling the bones, gathering those scattered. Sometimes, covering them with leaves. She and they knew that one of theirs had died and they mourned their dead. The intelligence of the elephant and their close family ties are their burden.

But today, she had been mortally wounded and had fallen and lay dying. The herd, her children and family are also mortally wounded like her, also fall, one by one. The only ones’ left are the calves. Nurslings, whose tusks have not grown yet. The tiny ones who are still nursing, dependent on their mother’s milk. All their aunts, cousins, older siblings, are dying and have died in one manic morning of blood and death. The calves cry out; literally weep. Crying for their mothers and weeping with terror and grief because for the first time in their short life, she doesn’t answer.

The calf never knew this to happen before. His mother was always there. He talked to her, threw tantrums, got smacked on his behind, walked under her belly if the sun got too hot, just reached up and drank his fill of milk if was hungry and simply lay down to sleep if he got tired while she stood over him to shade him, while he slept. If he strayed away from her, one of his aunts, cousins, grandmothers, someone was always at hand to answer, with a rumble, a honk or a comforting trunk on his head.

But not today. Today he wails in vain. He cries out, screams in despair, but nobody answers him. His mother is lying there but doesn’t respond. There is an overwhelming smell of blood and guts and dung. He is dazed and can’t understand anything. All he knows is that his mother is lying down and no matter how much he cries and butts and nudges her, she refuses to get to her feet. He needs her, he is terrified, he calls to her, but for the first time, she is silent.

The hours pass, because elephants don’t die easily. Then come the executioners. He smells the hated man-smell, as they come. Not with guns now, as they know there is no danger. They come with machetes and chainsaws. They come to his mother’s body. He tries to protect her but they just push him aside. One of them slams his head with the butt of a rifle. The blow dazes him but he is still standing and watching as they hack away his mother’s face. Where machetes find it tough going, the men use chainsaws. They rip out her tusks. Then they go to his other family members who are lying where they fell. Other men load the tusks onto a truck they came in. Two hours or so later, they are gone. All that is left is the smell of blood and the smell of man. And there is silence. It is then, that he hears something he recognizes. Not with any pleasure but with a strange fear that he had never felt when he heard it many times earlier. The laughing of Hyenas. He had not felt any fear as his mother and the herd was always there to protect him. But today?

For predators on the plains, elephants are almost impossible to kill. There is no throat to throttle, no neck to break. The only way that an elephant can be killed is by tearing off enough flesh to inflict wounds, grievous enough to create massive loss of blood, so that the animal falls. Then it can be eaten alive. It takes many hours of unspeakable agony for the elephant and normally can’t be done to an adult. But a baby is another matter. Normally, no lion, leopard or hyena can even dream of getting close to a baby elephant. The herd is always there to protect the individual. But when ivory hunters have evened the odds in their favor, lions and hyenas are most thankful.

So, while one waits in dread, the other comes in anticipation.

I hope those who still insist on buying ivory ornaments, really like what they wear. They are the real killers. It is their fingers which are on the triggers of poacher’s guns. Because poachers work for them. If there are no buyers, there will be no poachers. The real price of your trinkets is in blood, tears and unimaginable agony of innocents. Enjoy them!!

Jhalana, Jaipur’s secret paradise

Jhalana, Jaipur’s secret paradise

The Blue Bull had been killed by hyenas. The Striped Hyena pack, led by the matriarch had lived in this forest for generations beyond number. Their ancestors lived off the kills of tigers, until the last of those great hunters fell to the guns of men. Men, forever on their quest to kill, burn and destroy and call it conquest. The hyenas didn’t know all this of course. What they did realize was that one day, the roar of the tiger was not heard any longer. That brought about a great change in lifestyle for them. They turned from scavengers to hunters. Actually, that is a bit of a false blame. Hyenas are formidable hunters in their own right but when the pickings are easy, they make no bones about taking advantage. In this case, the old Blue Bull cow, actually India’s largest antelope, called Blue Bull for no fault of its own, was sick and dying. She was sitting under an Acacia Juliflora (Prosopis juliflora) tree. Acacia Juliflora is an invasive weed from Mexico and the Caribbean that is found all over Africa, Asia and Australia today. Its major strength is that it has very deep roots, the deepest of any plant and so, is drought resistant and remains green in the summer. The major disadvantage is that it doesn’t allow anything to grow under it. Its fruit is a bean which is very nutritious and so its seeds are spread far and wide by herbivores which eat the Acacia beans with great relish. When you have large stands of this plant, you will find the ground free from undergrowth and grass. A serious disadvantage for all herbivores. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosopis_juliflora

The old cow was half asleep and unable to keep up with her herd, sat down to rest. She didn’t even see the Hyena matriarch come up behind her and when she felt the bite on the back of her neck, her spine was already severed, and she couldn’t move. The Hyenas ate their fill in the course of which they broke up the carcass into two just above the hindquarters. As the sun rose, the Hyenas moved off into the hills as they are almost completely nocturnal in habit. The carcass remained where it was, attracting others, smaller but no less hungry. The Jackals came first and dived head first into the abdominal cavity for the delicacy of the intestine. Not much was left but they ate what they could find. There are no vultures in this area or nothing would have been left for the leopard pair which came a little later.

Ancient instinct drove the leopard to first secure the kill from other predators and scavengers. The big male carried the front half of the carcass into the first fork, about 10 feet up, in an Acacia Juliflora tree and wedged the head into the fork to leave the neck and rib-cage hanging down. The fact that this carcass probably weighed more than his own body weight means little to a cat which is, pound for pound, the strongest in the cat kingdom. There is no other feline which is stronger than a leopard which is why leopards regularly kill prey which outweighs them enormously. The Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) is smaller than its African cousin (Panthera pardus pardus) but not lacking in either strength or courage and tackles prey much larger than itself. In Jhalana though a full grown Blue Bull is perhaps too big to be in any danger, leopards take subadults and calves when they can. Other prey they depend on are peafowl of which there is a large number. The Forest Department has attempted to introduce Cheetal (Axis Deer or Spotted deer) in Jhalana but with limited success. Another species which should be introduced is Wild Boar. Prey species are critical to the wellbeing of predators and most importantly, a means of avoiding wildlife-human conflict. When prey species are scarce in the sanctuary predators go into surrounding habitation in search of food and take domestic animals and sometimes humans, which has only one ending for the animal. Death. A very good example of excellent conservation is Yala National Park in Sri Lanka where thanks to a profusion of prey species, leopards stay in the park and human animal conflict is avoided. The Sri Lankan leopard is a different subspecies from its Indian and African cousins, (Panthera pardus kotiya) and has evolved to become a very large animal with habits of an apex predator which it is, in Sri Lanka which has no tigers.

The only contenders to the leopard’s cache in Jhalana are Roufus treepies. Wikipedia says: The Rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) is native to the Indian Subcontinent and adjoining parts of Southeast Asia. It is a member of the crow family, Corvidae. It is long tailed and has loud musical calls making it very conspicuous. It is found commonly in open scrub, agricultural areas, forests as well as urban gardens. Like other corvids it is very adaptable, omnivorous and opportunistic in feeding. I advise you to believe Wikipedia. As for opportunistic feeding, well, the first on the Blue Bull carcass in the tree, were the Treepies, picking off pieces of flesh from the ribs. They are so bold that they don’t even care about the leopard when he and his sister come to feed from the carcass that they secured for themselves. They still pick pieces off the opposite side. The Hyena matriarch and her pack can only look upwards and salivate because the carcass is beyond their reach.

The amazing thing is that all this is not happening in some lost wilderness but in the heart of one of India’s most beautiful and famous cities, known for art, craft, historical monuments and mouth watering cuisine, Jaipur. The great secret of Jaipur is Jhalana Leopard Conservatory. It is called Jhalana Leopard Safari; safari being a much-misused name for anything to do with wildlife as ‘trekking’ is used for walking one kilometer on a regular road, when you decide that you are going ‘camping’. I think calling it Conservatory is more appropriate and will keep our attention focused on what we need to do to ensure that this remains viable and protected for wildlife to live and people to enjoy. Jhalana is 17.5 or 21 or 24 square kilometers in area, depending on who you ask. Typical hills of the Aravalli Range with quartz rock, dry deciduous forest and ravines where the run-off from monsoon rains digs ever deeper as it scores the land and carries away the soil. On the lower slopes running into flatlands, grass should grow and would, if it were not for the Acacia Juliflora which abounds here and doesn’t allow anything to grow under it.

However, Jhalana has a very valuable resource; local people who are deeply interested in preserving the sanctuary and protecting its inhabitants. I had the privilege of having one of them, who I like to call their ‘chief’, be my companion and guide when I visited Jhalana earlier this week. He is Mr. Dhirendr Godha, publisher of a Hindi daily newspaper and a great wildlife enthusiast and photographer. It was my good fortune that he agreed to take me on two drives in the morning and evening with spectacular results. I say that people like him are the most valuable resource because ultimately forests and wildlife depend on the support of the local population for their survival and protection. The general failure of wildlife conservation thanks to poaching and habitat destruction in India and the success in Africa show very clearly the importance of the support of local people for the wellbeing of animals and forests. In Jhalana this exists in the efforts of people like Mr. Godha who have dedicated their lives to this piece of paradise in the middle of a city.

My visit was arranged by my host, Mr. Rajesh Sharma, the publisher of Rashtradoot, who requested his friend, Mr. Sunayan Sharma, the former Director of Sariska and the man responsible for the successful reintroduction of the tiger into Sariska National Park, to facilitate my visit. To my great delight, Mr. Sunayan Sharma accompanied me himself and introduced his friend Mr. Godha, who arranged everything and came with us. The trip was an education for me in the flora and fauna of the region and the peculiar challenges to wildlife conservation in this region. Much of what I have written here is the result of the conversation I had with Mr. Sunayan Sharma who is a treasure of knowledge about the Aravalli Hills and its habitat. Having successfully reintroduced tigers into Sariska National Park from which they had been eliminated by poachers and widespread habitat degradation, his extremely practical knowledge about what works and what doesn’t is a resource without parallel.

I am not merely praising these gentlemen here. I am saying all this in support of my earlier article on the challenges of wildlife conservation in India where I suggested involving young people from schools and colleges. This would need two things; easy access to forests and people with knowledge who are willing to share their knowledge. In Jaipur (Jhalana) both are present. A beautiful forest within half an hour’s drive from the city. And people like Mr. Sunayan Sharma and Mr. Dhirendr Godha. I would strongly recommend that the Government recognizes such people and invites them to form a National Forest Core (like the NCC) which can educate young people about conservation. It is important to give young people a taste of the forest and its inhabitants, plants, animals and birds, so that they learn to love them. Give them memories that will last them their lifetimes. When that happens, they will stand up to defend what they love. Our forests today are the victims of apathy arising out of ignorance. A program like the National Forest Core can address and correct that.

To return to Jhalana, we saw a young female leopard eating from the kill on the tree, clinging to the trunk like a lizard. Leopards here are used to traffic and tourists and if you don’t make too much noise they continue to do whatever they are doing, undisturbed. A great boon for photographers. After a little while she leapt to the ground and leisurely strolled away and entered a thick bush nearby. We knew that she would  stay there until we had well and truly departed and so we left her in peace and proceeded homewards. The light was failing as dusk approached.

As we took a turn in the road, we saw her brother, a young male, sitting just inside the tree line. He was totally relaxed and continued to sit there and even groom himself as we watched. As we had to leave the park and it was very close to the time the gates would be closed, we headed back. But just as we came to a watering point, a cement saucer made by the Forest Department and filled by tanker, we saw the mother of the two cubs, drinking. She appeared to be heavily pregnant, a very good sign. The water was green with algae which in itself is not such a problem but was also probably contaminated with urine which could lead to sickness for those drinking it.

This brings me to the close of this article with three recommendations about what I believe needs to be done in Jhalana urgently.

Remove the Acacia Juliflora immediately. This requires uprooting as it is a resilient plant and if cut, will simply grow back. Until this is done nothing will grow under it. This scarcity of fodder is lethal for herbivores and therefore for predators. The Forest Department has planted other species under the Acacia but these will never flourish or even grow as long as the Acacia is alive. The Acacia must go.

Plant grass after uprooting the Acacia. What can be done is to fence small areas, say about a quarter of an acre, and remove the Acacias in that area, plant other species and infill with grass. The fencing can be removed once the trees have come up well and are impervious to damage by herbivores. I saw that the trees planted by the Forest Department under the Acacia are individually fenced. But in the summer, it is a safe bet to say that the Neelgai and Sambar will get to them in their search for fodder, not matter how they are fenced. This won’t happen if a large area is fenced, perhaps with solar powered electric fencing and the trees will have a chance of surviving.

Waterholes must be earthen floored. There are some excellent ones made recently with earthen floors lined with lime. Cement ‘waterholes’, which are really cement pans must be broken up. Herbivores, especially Sambar, walk into the water to drink and they urinate as they drink. Cattle do this also, especially buffaloes. In an earthen floored waterhole, this gets absorbed and the water remains relatively uncontaminated. In a cement waterhole, everything remains and it becomes highly toxic.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I believe Jhalana is a gift to Jaipur and an excellent environment to introduce young people to the wild. Combined with knowledgeable people like those I have mentioned and many others who live in the city, Jaipur can launch the National Forest Core. I don’t know of any other city which has wilderness with so many different species of herbivores, carnivores and birds in easily accessible terrain. It is easily possible to have weekend camps and familiarization programs where young people are introduced to nature and wildlife and taught how to enjoy both safely and without creating any interference.

I firmly believe that the key to wildlife and forest conservation is the wholehearted support of local people. That can’t happen when they don’t know the forest, don’t know how to conduct themselves respectfully and safely in it and so live in fear of forests and wildlife instead of loving and enjoying them. It is only when the young generation learns to appreciate nature that they will do what needs to be done to protect and preserve it.

Future of wildlife conservation in India

Future of wildlife conservation in India

One of our big challenges in wildlife conservation is to stop poaching and habitat degradation which leads to animal human conflict which always has only one ending, destruction of the animal. The backbone of the conservation team in a Reserve Forest or a National Park is the Forest Guard. This individual lives inside the forest, many in the Core Areas in highly substandard conditions, is paid a pittance and is expected to be self-motivated enough to walk miles of boundary tracks to ensure that no illegal activity is happening. He is unarmed, except with a stick and walks as he has no vehicle. In many places where he is required to go there are no roads for him to use any vehicle, even if he had one. He lives away from his family who he sees perhaps once a week.

I am given to understand that the average age of the Forest Guard is 50 years and that young people are unwilling to take this job because of its hardship and deprivation. All these forests are starved of funds, thanks to our bureaucracy and many a time, even sanctioned funds are not released by State Governments.  Be that as it may and no matter how unglamorous the job of the Forest Guard is, it is the most critical link in the chain that protects our wildlife and forests. It is critical that State Governments take note of the plight of these people and enhance their salaries and living conditions and do what it takes to ensure that they can do their jobs comfortably and effectively.

I firmly believe that the key to wildlife and forest conservation is the wholehearted support of local people. That can’t happen when they don’t know the forest, don’t know how to conduct themselves respectfully and safely in it and so live in fear of forests and wildlife instead of loving and enjoying them. That is also why we see the completely despicable and deplorable behavior of people when they do go to spend a few days in our National Parks. Go to any of our major parks and you will see people drunk, smoking and throwing cigarette butts and matches, eating junk food and throwing plastic wrappers anywhere, blaring radios and music from all kinds of devices, shouting and behaving in ways that can leave one in no doubt that the humans didn’t descend from monkeys. If they had, they would behave like monkeys, with respect and sensitivity to others who share the forest with them. Darwin would have changed his mind if he had visited Dhikala in Corbett National Park. But how do you get local people involved and interested in forests and wildlife conservation?

What I believe will help hugely in more ways than one is to involve our High School and College youth in wildlife conservation. It is only when the young generations learn to appreciate nature that they will do what needs to be done to protect and preserve it. I spent my entire school and college time in the 1960’s and 70’s, in the forests of the Sahyadri Hill Range in what is today called the Kawal Tiger Reserve. I would go off to the farm of Mr. Venkat Rama Reddy on the bank of the Kadam River and spend my entire summer and winter holidays with him. No electricity, no telephone, no running water. Wake and sleep with the sun.

I walked uncounted miles of animal tracks with my friend Shivaiyya, Uncle Rama’s Gond tracker, fished, bathed and swam in the Kadam and Dotti Vagu Rivers and sat at innumerable waterholes, watching animals and birds come to drink water in the summer where water is very scarce. As most of these rivers dry up in the summer, you can walk long distances on the river bed, where though the soft sand underfoot makes the going a little strenuous it saves you from the thorn bushes on the bank. If you walk up in the Kadam streambed and turn right to go up the Dotti Vaagu, you would come to some deep pools in a very shaded spot.

The water there does not dry out for a long time even in the summer. It is amazing how, as I write this today more than 45 years later, I can literally see in my mind the river, the pools, the bamboo fronds that cover that part of the forest, the light, and shade. I can still smell the forest on a sweltering hot afternoon and then the fresh smell of the earth in the morning, still wet with dewfall in the night. Memory is a powerful thing indeed. We didn’t have cameras then, but we lived these beautiful times and the memory will stay with me for as long as I live. After that, who cares?

I recall vividly as if it were yesterday, one time when I was sitting in a blind that had been cut into the middle of an acacia thorn bush, about 30 feet up the bank of the Dotti Vaagu. Very cramped space, a log to sit on and a small space opened in the front of the bush to stick the barrel of the gun through to give me a clear shot, if some animal came to drink water. The bush itself was about 50 yards up the slope that borders the water hole. On this very hot summer day, this is the only source of water for miles around, left over dregs of Dotti Vaagu. When you sit silently, you become a part of the surroundings. Your ears initially buzz with the residual sound of the bustle you have left behind. But after a while, they fall silent and then you begin to hear the sounds of the forest. The buzzing of the cicadas, the incessant call of the Brain-fever bird, the distant barking of dogs from the village.

Then as your ears get more attuned to the sounds, you start hearing the subtler ones; the rustle of the leaves as a rat snake makes his way from one shaded spot to another, the cooing of the turtle doves, bark of the Chital sentry when she sees something alarming. You hear the breeze in the dry leaves on the forest floor as they play chase with each other. The teak trees having shed most of their leaves, the dominant color is brown. There is very little shade, except under the acacia thorns like the one I am sitting in. There is some bamboo, but most of it is young and does not provide shade. There are no elephants in this forest, but the Bison (Gaur) browse on what they can reach of the bamboo and so do the Chital, Sambar, and Nilgai.

As I keep sitting very still, even controlling my breathing, knowing that above all else it is movement that attracts attention and becomes visible, I suddenly see a pair of jackals materialize in front of me. The bitch is more cautious and is lagging behind. The dog is ahead. Both sense that something is perhaps not as it should be. However, the wind is blowing steadily in my face and so I know they can’t smell me. The bitch even looks directly at me; perhaps she knows, maybe she can sense the rise and fall of my chest as I breathe or maybe it is an old memory she is trying to place. The moment passes and she follows her mate into the open. First, they drink, then they sit in the water on the edge and cool off in the intense heat of the day, then they start playing, chasing each other around like little puppies, secure in the knowledge that they are alone. It is a very rare moment for me, to be observing animals doing what they do when they are not afraid.

Even if I had a video camera, it could never capture the entire atmosphere; the excitement, the challenge of sitting silent and still like a tree stump, my outline broken by the bush I am sitting inside. The memory of those jackals is still so vivid in my mind that even today, 45 years later, I can see them playing in and around the water. Nothing lives that long in the wild. That pair of jackals is long gone. But I will remember them and that day, all my life.

After a while I realize that the jackals are a mixed blessing. Their presence will allay the fears of other animals heading to the water, as it is an indication that all is well. But at the same time, it will keep the smaller game, the Chinkara, the Chowsinga, and the Black-naped Hare away from the water hole. I want to make them leave but without alarming them so much that they warn everyone else of my presence. I gently clear my throat. It is as if an electric shock goes through their bodies. One minute they are carefree playmates. The next instant they go rigid for a split second and then like a flash, they are gone, each in a different direction to confuse the pursuer. I settle once again into the ritual of watching life happen. This enforced immobility and silence, the attendant boredom, initially; then the flow of thoughts in the mind, while trying to keep aware of the surroundings, is an incredibly powerful exercise for introspection. And waiting for and watching animals on a watering hole is the best way to do it.

I have not seen any initiative in our schools and colleges to encourage youth to spend time in the forests, not zipping around in Gypsies but actually camping and walking. They have no idea of the joy of waking up and watching the dawn breaking at the edge of a lake, waiting for the flights of duck and in season, geese to start coming over the horizon. I recall the incredibly beautiful magic of these flights, in V-formation come from one side before the rising sun, ‘disappear’ into it and then reappear on the other side as if they came out of the sun itself. As you watch the flights, you can hear fish plop in the water in the early morning feeding frenzy. They have no idea of the joy of listening to Cheetal alarm calls, asking a question and Sambhar answering it. That is when you understand the meaning of the term, ‘Silence speaks louder than words’. Because if a Sambhar doesn’t confirm the Cheetal’s sighting, I for one, would put it down to the Cheetal’s natural skittish nature of taking alarm at every shadow. I think this is the key to conservation, get the youth involved.

The problem is that today parents and teachers don’t know the joy of spending time in a forest, so they can’t teach others. Also, since they never learnt how to live in a forest, they are afraid and don’t enjoy it. It is a vicious spiral. The love of the forest must be inculcated early in childhood through controlled experiences which are monitored to ensure safety and are essentially immersion learning classes in life skills. If we do it right, then I believe that we will create a generation that truly loves the wild places and will invest time, energy and resources to ensure that they remain unspoilt for future generations. This will also bring about a better understanding of matters critical to survival like Global Warming, which currently seems to be suffering from the problem of having been defined in a way that makes it almost impossible for the average city dweller who thinks that his eggs and milk come from the supermarket, to comprehend, much less relate to in a personal way.

I suggest that the government starts a program like the NCC (National Cadet Core) which we have in most schools and colleges. A National Forest Core (NFC) can be formed which can be run by the Forest Department (Wildlife Conservation Wing) which can hold jungle camps, seminars, photography lessons and contests and wildlife tracking and spotting activities in school holidays. All these can be self-financed, paid for by the children as they are excellent educational and leadership development activities. In these camps in addition to learning about nature, flora and fauna, they can be taught orienteering, survival skills, camping, tracking and photography. These camps must be held inside forests and Forest Guards must be involved in them. They can talk to the children, tell them stories of their encounters with wildlife and teach them the basics of being safe in a forest. They can take small groups of children and their teachers on nature walks where they can experience the forest. Walk to a lake and sit quietly on the bank, just inside the tree line and sketch the scenery. As they sit there, they can watch animals and birds that come to the lake and observe their behavior and try to identify them. What can be done on such outings is endless and beyond the scope of this article. I just want to give you a taste so that you will be motivated to take action.

What is more important is that children will learn to appreciate and love nature and the natural world and understand how much quality it adds to life and how much we need it. They will meet tribal people (Adivasis) and learn about their lives, stay with them, understand their problems and learn to empathize with them. They will learn the importance of the many cycles of life and death that take place in the forest, where everything that dies, gives life to something else. They will be detoxified and experience what it means to breathe fresh air where it is made; in forests. They will remember the sight of the night sky above them and see the millions of stars that they can never see in their cities. They will learn to enjoy silence, punctuated by sounds, each of them evidence of life and activity. They will take away with them, memories which will last them their lifetimes and remind them of what they owe the earth.

The Forest Department can give children who participate in these programs, Honorary Forest Guard badges and a National Park Membership card which will entitle them to concessional fees when they visit any National Park in the country. They can hold competitions, quizzes and practical challenge competitions and give prizes. The first prize could be a badge making that child, Honorary Wildlife Warden. Children who have been to several camps could be recruited to participate in the Annual Wildlife Census that happens in all parks. They will be energetic, enthusiastic and incorruptible and not likely to write numbers of tigers and leopards in census forms, while imbibing tea in the village.

What better way to spend the holidays camping out in forests, walking the earth and learning about those who we share the earth with?

A day in the life of an SBA student

A day in the life of an SBA student

The Adhaan for Tahajjud was just called. I know Tahajjud is very important but sometimes I’m lazy. Nothing will happen if I don’t go. No punishment. There’s no punishment here for anything. Except if you tell lies or do anything dishonest or immoral. Then the punishment is expulsion. And that is something that none of us want. We love being here too much.

I get out of bed and make the bed. That’s one of the non-negotiable rules here. We always make our beds and line up our shoes beside them. On that subject, we clean our own dorms and toilets and bathrooms and our own classrooms. We do that because this is our home and you keep your home clean. Nothing remarkable about that, though visitors usually look very surprised. One asked me if I didn’t feel bad to be made to do this. I replied, “Nobody makes me bathe but I do. It’s just like that.” Keeping yourself clean includes keeping your environment clean. It’s as simple as that.

Our four huts, the Dorm Parents hut and the common room are all built around a central courtyard with grass and a shady ornamental or fruit tree. Bird feeders and nesting boxes are attached to building gables or placed safely in the tree. Each hut has a veranda on the courtyard side. The whole complex is surrounded by an 8-foot-high Bougainvillea hedge with a chain link center; very secure and impenetrable. There is a gate near the Dorm Parents hut. The whole complex is called a ‘Kraal’ and the fence is the ‘Boma’. There is a gravel pathway around the whole complex inside the hedge to give access to all the huts. It is wide enough to take a vehicle in case of any emergency.

Our dorm common rooms have a Musalla, a large hall very comfortably furnished with bean bags and arm chairs, books lining the walls, low tables, game boards, a pool table and a fridge stocked with fruit juice, flavored milk, yogurt, fruit and nuts. No sugared fizzy drinks and definitely no Coke or Pepsi. In one section there are a couple of terminals and highspeed internet to allow us to do any research that we may need to do. There is also a widescreen TV for us to watch news, sports and any useful programs. Our school has its own TV and Radio station and so we watch our own programs also.

We spend time in our common rooms, either reading by ourselves, discussing our projects, playing one of the indoor games or reading Qur’an in the Musalla. The noise sometimes gets too loud, but we regulate ourselves as much as we can to ensure that we’re not disturbing those who’re trying to read on their own. If it gets too boisterous we go out into the open courtyard and sit on the grass. Except when it’s raining this is the best place to be, you lie on the grass and look up at the stars. When it’s raining, one of the nicest things in to sit inside our classrooms or common rooms and watch the rain falling in the courtyard and dripping off the roof. The grass ensures that the rain doesn’t splash into the room, as does the wide verandah that circles the courtyard into which you walk out from the class or common room before you step on the grass. These verandahs also have chairs and hammocks in them and on a lazy afternoon, there’s nothing more pleasant than to lie in a hammock and let the breeze gently rock you to sleep. The walls of all our Kraal buildings are decorated with African designs, murals and are strikingly colorful. This is the case with all the buildings in the campus, which gives it all a very cheerful atmosphere. This is Africa and that is reflected in every building on the campus. SBA Africa is African.

I head out for the masjid. This a very beautiful part of the day. I love the quiet. The peacocks on campus have not woken up yet and I can see the big male on his habitual perch on the topmost branch of the tall Ficus. The tree is like a magnet for birds when it is in fruit and attracts Green pigeons, Blossom headed parakeets, Mynahs, Hoopoes, King Fishers, Egrets, Pond Herons, several types of doves and of late, Blue rock pigeons. Our resident Pea fowl and Guinea fowl compete furiously and noisily with these birds who I’m sure they see as intruders into their property but the Ficus is generous and there are enough berries for everyone.

On the ground the several species of deer, sheep, goats and hares that are all over our grounds gather under the Ficus to eat what the birds drop. Symbiosis in action. How do we learn about symbiosis? By watching these relationships between animals. We also learn politics this way. How do I know about the birds and what they eat and their lives? We learn about them in our natural history and photography classes under this tree.

All these thoughts are going through my head as I walk to the masjid. I’m in my kurta as I will change into my riding kit after Fajr. Most boys wear our sports uniform, track suit and running shoes. They wear that to the masjid for Tahajjud and Fajr as they go straight to the sports field after Fajr. We all jog around the athletic track for three miles and do various aerobic exercises before we go off to practice the different sports we play. I ride horses and so I don’t go jogging. Those who play cricket and tennis change into their kit after Fajr. The athletics and track event guys have it easier as they are already in their kit. The others must race back to the dorm and from there to the field to get there in time.

Kits are very important as they are an indicator of attention to detail which is a key factor of quality. I remember the dialogue we had with our teacher, sitting under this very tree, when I asked him why we needed to go and change into different clothes for different activities. He takes all questions very seriously and listens carefully and doesn’t try to impose his view on us. In this school if you have a reasonable argument about any policy, the management is willing to listen to you and even change that policy. He told us that when we change into the right clothes, not only are we wearing the clothing that is most suited and evolved and designed to suit the activity but we are also giving ourselves a message about the seriousness of what we are doing.

Here’s the masjid, bright and welcoming. As I enter I leave my shoes in the rack and wonder why we are the only masjid in the world where people don’t throw their shoes in the passage. Everyone puts their shoes in the racks and if the racks are full, usually on Friday because local people also come for Juma, they’re lined up neatly along the racks with a clear pathway down the center for people to walk to the door.

As I enter the masjid I breathe in deeply the beautiful aroma of cleanliness. On Fridays we burn incense, the aroma of which remains for a few days after. Each of us students have masjid duty which includes everything to ensure that anyone who comes to pray, has the best experience of his life. We know that by doing this Allahﷻ‎ will give us a reward for their prayers, so we look forward to our turn which comes once per term. Masjid duty includes calling Adhaan, sometimes leading Salah and even conducting the Juma on occasion. The boys are all taught all these things as these are basic requirements of being a Muslim man. We take all these things very seriously and practice our Qiraat, Adhaan and spend a lot of time over our Juma Khutba when it is our turn to do it. The masjid is a place of much activity which I love to visit often.

It is very quiet and peaceful. In the back there’s a very quiet hum of some of the boys reciting Qur’an, taking care to keep their voice low, so as not to disturb those who are standing in Salah. Consideration for others is a very important value we learn here, not by lectures but by watching our teachers and seniors. We enjoy it when others are considerate of us and, so we know that we must do the same to create a culture of mutual care and concern.

As I stand getting ready to start my Salah, I can’t help but be impressed by the rapt concentration on the faces of some of my friends. It’s as if they’re in a different world which I suppose they really are as they’re connected to their Rabb and are standing in His presence, oblivious to the world around them. I envy them and ask Allahﷻ‎ to bless them and make me like they are. It’s my dream that one day I reach a state of perfection in my Salah where I can concentrate like some of my friends. In the masjid I can see most of our teachers also in Salah or reading Qur’an. This is one of the best things about our school, that our teachers are our role models. There’s a huge emphasis here on practicing our core values and everyone does it without compulsion. We see how this helps us all to create a wonderful, caring environment which we all appreciate and enjoy. And we know that this can’t happen if even one of us doesn’t pull his weight. It’s peer pressure which is the most powerful force to encourage us to do our bit. And we all do it. Can’t let the side down, you see!

Fajr Adhaan is called and after praying Sunnah we line up for Fardh. The Imam says, “Allahu Akbar.” My heart misses a beat because I recognize the voice of Shaikh Saad Al Ghamdi, whose style of recitation I’m trying to learn. And here he is in person and I’m praying behind him. What good fortune for me! I bet there’s not another school in the world which can boast of this. But our school regularly has scholars, religious and otherwise, who come to spend time in our Retreat Village and share their experience, knowledge and time with us. Imagine the thrill of being taught a subject by the author of the books on that subject which we’ve been reading!! Or like today, to listen to Qur’an being recited by a Qari whose recitation we follow and learn from. Or to be coached in sports by those stars who others only see on the TV screen.

After the Salah and Fajr Reminder, we leave the masjid for the sports field. I head off to my Kraal to get into my riding kit. Two of my friends join me to change into their cricket whites. The chatter of the boys running off to their dorms or sports field is matched by the rising cacophony of the birds in the Ficus and many other fruit trees on our campus. Loudest among them is the mournful, scream of the male peacock as he announces to the world that he’s finally awake.

My ride was lovely as always. My mount, Fascination is a Thoroughbred mare and my dearest friend. She is the most intelligent thing on four legs and many times more intelligent than those on two legs. I love and trust her with my life and I know she feels the same. I talk to her and she understands me.

My riding class begins with mucking out her stable, grooming and saddling her and leading her out into the schooling area. Then we do our morning routine of exercising to warm us both up first. Then schooling for dressage, alternating with going over the course in the show jumping arena every other day. Fascination is a natural jumper and loves to go over the obstacles. The dressage movements come to her naturally and she is so experienced in them now that even if I fall asleep on her back she’d do them all perfectly on her own.

After I finish my hour of riding, I take her back to her stable, rub her down to dry the sweat, then take her to have a drink at the trough, taking care to see that she doesn’t drink too much water. Then I give her grain feed and throw fresh hay in her stable for her to lie on and fresh hay in her feeding trough. Finally, I give her, her daily treat of green Lucerne and a couple of carrots or an apple which she loves. She shows her appreciation by pushing her nose into my chest and making her soft neighing sounds.

Horse riding builds balance, boosts your courage, builds the muscles of your core, back and thighs. It corrects and gives you a great posture, heightened sensitivity and makes you a considerate and compassionate person. It teaches you how to communicate and that communication is different from speaking. Communicating is about understanding the other first and then about helping them to understand you.

A horse is the best judge of character that I know and senses fear, lack of compassion and hesitancy and reacts accordingly. Treat a horse with respect and love and it will take care of you, fight for you and give his life for you. Treat him or her badly and it will throw you at the first opportunity. Good horse riding is not about forcing the horse to do something it doesn’t want to do by applying the whip. It’s about helping the horse to see why doing what you want it to do is the most pleasurable thing for it to do. Once the relationship is built and mutual trust is established, the horse will do whatever you want without any hesitation. But building relationships is about spending time, communicating and taking care of the horse. This is where the daily grooming comes in. It’s not about cleaning the stable but about paying your dues to build the relationship with your mount. If you haven’t got it already, all this is part of our leadership education.

Riding is not only for fun, but our second class for the day. The first is always connecting to Allahﷻ‎ in the masjid.

Back to the dorm after riding, quick shower, change into our school uniform and off to the dining hall for breakfast. Choice of oatmeal or mixed grains porridge, eggs, milk, coffee, tea, fruit. We can all eat as much as we like but no wastage. So, we learn to take small portions and go back if we’re still hungry. Our dorm parents eat with us and are there to see that everyone eats well. We have various versions of this menu, but the basic principle, that it should be wholesome, filling and nutritious, remains the same.

We all eat together. That’s one of our school’s policies. School staff eat with everyone. This includes maids, guards, gardeners, drivers, everyone. Naturally this depends on their work schedule but whoever is free to eat at regular meal times eats with us. And everyone eats the same food. No differentiation between staff, management, teachers or us. We know many of the staff personally. We address them as aunty or uncle, not by first name and they treat us like their own children. Many staff children stay and study with us. Some are on concessional fee; others on scholarship. But as far as we are concerned there’s no difference between us and them in anything.

How do I know all this? Because my Dad is a driver and my Mom is a housekeeper and I’m on a full scholarship. But I’m my House Prefect and Head of the Dressage team.
Everyone is treated with equal dignity and respect in this school. The only way you get extra respect is by your behavior, your sports wins and your academics. That also is different here. In sports, while we compete with each other, we get points for showing consideration to others, politeness, helping one another and good citizenship (sportsmanship). Dog-eat-dog, is not in our school because we’re not dogs. In academics we routinely help one another, study together, share knowledge and teach one another. We don’t get comparative class ranks i.e. there’s no First in Class academically, but there is in terms of demonstrating Good Citizenship, Integrity, Truthfulness (not carrying tales), Loyalty, Friendship and Trusteeship. We take our values very seriously in this school. Lying is considered the root of all evil and that’s one thing that you can get expelled for. Sounds strange today because lying is almost a part of our popular culture, but not here.

Here lying is treated as a crime and is publishable by expulsion. So, no matter what you did, it’s safer to own up than to lie about it or try to hide it. If you own up, you are asked what you learnt from what you did. Then depending on what it was, you may be put on a watch list, be assigned to speak to a counselor, be helped to get over your issue, be gated for some time, given extra PT or something like that. No corporal punishment whatsoever in our school. As I said earlier peer pressure is the biggest motivator. Our fellow students don’t let us do wrong things.

There’s enormous focus and emphasis on student safety above anything else. We all have 24 x 7 access to a Help Line where you can ask for any help of any kind, physical, emotional, spiritual, material and report any misbehavior, harassment or offence committed by anyone against anyone else. Complete confidentiality, immunity and protection for the one reporting is guaranteed. We need to give our name and ID number and narrate what happened. No anonymous complaints are entertained, so that nobody can falsely accuse anyone. We can ask to meet the Ombudsperson and report face to face or do it on the phone. Action is guaranteed before the end of the day. For emergencies, it is instantaneous. We’ve never had an emergency, but I know this from the drills we do, every term.

Breakfast done we head for class – the academic classes, that is. This period lasts until lunch which means from 0930 am to 1230 pm. While we’re in class we’re free to go and pick up a snack from the snack station; there’s one in every common area; or to go to the loo any time we want. Nobody comes looking for you unless you disappear for a long time and when they do, only to make sure you’re alright. But nobody has ever disappeared like that, as long as I can remember because nobody wants to miss class. Our learning is highly interactive, we’re moving around all the time. Our classrooms are designed to bring the outside, inside. So, they all open into courtyards with grass and shade trees. We can go out and sit on the grass to do our projects and work together in small groups. There’s no formal break time because there’s no need for it. We also don’t have bells or buzzers to announce the end of a class. Time keeping is our responsibility and we do it. After all, how hard is it? Bells are so undignified and prison-like. We are a school, not a jail

Our classes are multi-age group. In my class I have children between 8-12 years old. That’s because our school doesn’t segregate us by date of manufacture and believes that humans learn best in multi-age groups, like we do in our families. As they say in Africa, “It takes the whole village to raise a child.” That’s what we practice in our school. We take care of each other in class and teach each other. That’s the best way to learn they say, and I agree. We have at least two teachers in every class of about 20 students. No class is ever more than 25 students. In many classes we have 3 or sometimes 4 teachers, depending on what we’re studying. Two are our class teachers. A third may be the subject teacher who has come to talk to us about whatever we’re studying. We also have external experts who come to our school to talk to us, take classes, help with projects and take us on excursions and study trips.

We don’t study discrete subjects. We do projects. Let me tell you how it is done. In my class, this term we’re doing Mountains. We begin by brainstorming on the question, “What would you like to know about mountains?” There’s no rule about what you can ask. I said that I wanted to know the weight of Kilimanjaro. Nobody looked at me like I was crazy. We truly believe and practice the adage, “The only stupid question is the one that wasn’t asked.”

We all ask our questions. The teachers add their own. Then these are all organized into buckets of subjects e.g. History, Geography, Economics, Biology, Islamic sciences etc. Then we all work in smaller groups and try to answer our own questions. To do that we read, research the net and libraries (our own and open source), meet experts and seek their opinion, conduct experiments and constantly share our learning with the whole class. We publish a daily bulletin of our ongoing project. For each bucket subject we seek a time and go to the room which houses the teacher and resources for that role topic. To understand the effect that mountains and mountain ranges have had on history we go to the history classroom. To understand the effect of mountain ranges on rainfall and regional climate we go to the geography room. Each of these rooms is a treasure house of information about that subject. There we listen to lectures, watch films, look at working models and permanent exhibits of whatever we’re studying. Then we compile our learning and build our project. Most of that work we do in the evenings when we study or have discussions on our own. Usually in our dorm common rooms.

At the end of each day we write our Learning Journal in which we write what we learned that day. In that journal there is a full page for the questions you asked that day. Every week prizes are given for the best question asked that week. What’s the criterion? A question that nobody could answer immediately. I got that for my Kilimanjaro question. But then with that prize comes a challenge; find the answer. You are allowed to collaborate, use any resource you like and when you find out the answer, there’s a prize for you and all those who helped you. That’s what gets us really engaged in our learning. We do our own research in the evening in the student led session and present it in our class the next day. More about that later.

There is a huge focus on the spirit of enquiry, creativity, seeking knowledge and trying to truly understand it. Just quoting someone else’s answer is not acceptable. You’re asked for your opinion and the reasons for that opinion. And most importantly, you’re listened to with respect and seriousness, even when what you’re saying may sound crazy. We are never asked to memorize anything. We can refer to notes, books or other resources. We’re not allowed personal screens in class or on campus, so no smart phones or tablets. But we have high speed internet and terminals in class which we can use for research. Shaikh Google is at our service. At first, I found this ban on social media screens, irritating but now I have become so fond of reading, even addicted to it, that I love books. We’re allowed Kindle if we prefer to use that, but I like to hold a paper book and turn pages as I read. Sorry trees!! I hope all the books I read are made of recycled paper. Should be. Why not?

We’re supposed to read at least three books per term. These can be on any subject, related or not to our course. Every week on Thursday evening we have a Learning Sharing session where we present the lessons learned from our extracurricular reading. This is also good public speaking and presentation skills practice, which is one of the objectives for doing it. These sessions are very well attended and we get a lot of support from our school mates and staff. My own average is at least six books a term. And I’m far from alone in this. Children here love to read and discuss what they read.

Our discussions, I dare say, would do credit to much older gatherings. We discuss ideas, not people. We discuss strategies for change. We don’t complain. We look for ways to influence. We get frustrated sometimes. We go to our Dorm Parents or teachers to talk about anything we don’t understand fully. They listen, smile and point us to sources for research. Or ask us questions to nudge us to think in ways and about matters we may not have thought of. Sometimes when I’m feeling lazy, I wish they’d simply give us the answer, but I know the enquiry method is far more interesting and beneficial. And of course, many times they don’t know the answer, but that’s fine. That’s why we always share whatever we learn.

And, I must tell you, this summer vacation, we’re going to climb Kilimanjaro.

Our midday break is from 12.30 pm until 2.30 pm for Dhuhr and lunch. Lunch today was as good as it always is. Fresh vegetables in a Caesar salad, freshly baked bread, hot from the oven, jacket potatoes with a dollop of sour cream, a thick slice of juicy roast mutton haunch with boiled carrots and beans. And of course, you can go for seconds. Fruit for dessert. We stay far away from sugar which is addictive and harmful. We have ice cream freshly made with the fruit of the season with natural fruit sugar being the sweetener.

Then we begin our afternoon session. Some of us have swimming coaching, others go to their hobby clubs, Moot Court, Shadow Parliament, special project work, hospital duty, kitchen duty, vocational skill class or the farm.

Two days a week we work in the school farm. We grow all our food on-site. Our poultry farm gives us eggs, chickens, turkeys and ducks. The sheep, rabbit and goat farm gives us mutton and goat milk. The greenhouses give us most of our vegetables, mushrooms and some fruits. Other vegetables and fruit are grown in the open. Our bees give us honey. We plant flowers close to them and don’t use any pesticide anywhere on the property and so the bees are safe. Our dairy and processing plant produces milk, cream, butter, yogurt, buttermilk and cheese and loads of dung which we use to produce biogas with which we cook our food.

The waste from the biogas plant along with all the organic kitchen waste, leaf litter from the gardens, grass cuttings from lawn mowers, litter from the stables and so on, goes to our organic manure plant to produce, you guessed it, organic manure and vermicompost. So also, the poultry litter from the poultry sheds which is changed annually. We harvest fish from our fish farm tanks which are connected to the lake around which are the villas of the Retreat Village. Our fields produce wheat, barley and maize and the fruit and spice orchard gives us oranges, bananas, papayas, lemons, lime, pepper, cardamom and other spices. What we don’t use in the school kitchens is sold in our Department Store at a concessional price to cover costs and generate a modest profit. We harvest rain water and recycle waste water which we then use to irrigate our orchard, farm and all the greenery in SBA Africa by drip irrigation. Our electricity comes from the solar panels on all our roofs which is sufficient for all our lighting and heating needs.

The farm makes a small profit annually but that’s not why we have it. We have it for three reasons:

  1. So that all of us can eat pure, pesticide free, organically produced, fresh food
  2. So that we can train local people in better farming techniques
  3. ‎So that we, students and teachers, reestablish our connection with the earth.

That’s why everyone participates in the farm in one way or another, as they say, from the Chairman to the Coachman and woman. We each of us know how to grow things, take care of animals, milk cows, tend to sheep, goats and poultry, catch and clean fish, slaughter and dress a chicken, rabbit or sheep and then convert it into a mouthwatering curry or roast. Sometimes people wonder why we need so much land for a school. I say to them, it’s to teach is leadership, stewardship, connect us to the land and show is the signs of Allahﷻ‎, daily. Give us enough land and we’ll feed the world.

Our motto is:

If it can be done, learn how to do it. If it can’t be done, discover a way to do it.

It’s ploughing time and we use two very large and strong bulls to pull the plough. A tractor can do this job faster, but you can’t contemplate life, tell your story or ask really intelligent questions to a tractor, can you? You say, “But can you do that to a bull?” I say to you, “Try it and see.” Do the bulls answer you? No, they don’t. But understanding begins with framing good questions in a way that the answer appears from within them. That happens when you’re riding a horse, walking a dog or walking behind a plough; not when you are driving a machine. Moreover, we want the children to learn farming and for that tractors are not safe. And bulls? They love the children and take care of them. While indulging in this philosophic mood, you must remain aware enough to ensure that your furrow is straight. And most importantly, tie the tails of the bulls to the plough or to each other if you don’t wish to have a face full of usually urine soaked bull tail tassel, when he swings it to drive away the flies.

Do you know the smell of freshly ploughed earth? Do you know the feel of fertile loamy soil in your hand? Can you tell, by crumbling a lump of compost in your hand, if it’s ready to be applied in the field? Do you know the companionship of Pond Herons and Egrets, Mynahs, Bee Eaters, Crows and in our case, free range chickens which follow your plough and pick up insects which get exposed?

A Rat Snake just showed up and is now moving rapidly across the field to get into the grass on the edge before he’s spotted. Do you know what to do when a Rat Snake comes out of a hole and moves away from you towards the edge of the field? You do nothing except wishing it well while hoping that the Brown Snake Eagle doesn’t see him while he’s still in the open. That’s not the only enemy he has. There is a family of Mongoose which would happily make his acquaintance as would the big Barn Owl, at this moment, dozing in his favorite hollow in the Ficus. I wish him health and safety because Rat Snakes eat rats which are the bane of our lives, on the farm. We don’t use poison because it doesn’t stop with the rat but goes up the food chain and kills anything that eats the rat and onwards. Rat Snakes are our friends and family and we protect them. All snakes and all life. We don’t kill anything because everything has value and a place in the overall scheme of things. We are only one cog in the wheel of life. Not its owner or the reason for its existence.

Farming teaches us Tawakkul (reliance on Allahﷻ). It trains us to be patient. It shows us that if we want a certain result we must make the necessary effort. It demonstrates the importance of nurturing and that to do so, it is not only important to feed, manure and water but also to train, prune and stop. All lessons in leadership of people. It teaches us that despite all the effort we still need the Fadhl (blessing) of Allahﷻ‎ to get the result. Because after all a farmer can prepare the field, dig canals, take steps to harvest rain water, but he can’t make it rain. Or rain just enough. Or rain at the right time. So, he learns to do all that he needs to do and then to stand in the night and beg Allahﷻ‎ for His favor. Farming opens our eyes both to our strengths as well as to our weaknesses. And it inculcates humility.
Farming teaches us to be sensitive to the needs of those that cannot speak and so it’s up to us to be ever watchful, recognize the signs and respond without being told to do so. Farming teaches us that the needs of those in our charge always precede our own. So, it’s not remarkable, in the lambing season, to find some of us sitting in the sheep pen waiting for an ewe to give birth, rather than cheering our favorite team playing in the World Cup. To give us company is always ones of our sheep dogs, Border Collies, which we helped to train. They are the best companions that you could wish for and our role models for being sensitive to the needs of others. You may be surprised that I’ve said that a dog is my role model. That’s because the fundamental lesson that we’re taught here is that there are opportunities to learn, all around us, all the time and that we can learn from anything and anyone. Especially from animals. It’s become second nature to all of us to constantly ask in every situation and many times a day, “So what did I learn from this?”

Farming teaches us the importance of preparing the soil before planting. Without proper preparation the best seed won’t germinate. It shows us the value of digging a straight furrow, of preparing irrigation channels and water harvesting, without which the best rain will simply flow away and give no benefit. So, success is not an inevitable result of resources but of preparation. Without preparation the best resources will simply be squandered.

Farming teaches us that what we have in our hand is the seed. If we hang onto it, that’s all we’ll have. But when we plant it properly and nurture it, it yields a harvest. And that the smallest harvest is more than the amount of seed that was planted. Only empty hands can hold. Something must leave your hand before you can receive anything. So also in life, to receive rewards, we must invest. The investment in life which has the highest rate of return, ROI, is the investment we make in others. To help others, to alleviate suffering, eliminate poverty, enable learning and open doors for others that they couldn’t open for themselves. It is to understand that possessions add cost, not value. That true happiness lies in the hearts of others, in their smiles. That there’s more pleasure in giving than in acquiring. In helping someone else than in indulging yourself. No investment, no return. It’s only when we strive to please Allahﷻ‎ that He sends His blessings on us. Our actions must rise towards the heavens for the blessings of Allahﷻ‎ to descend.

That’s why we have our farm.

We break off at 4.30 pm, pray Asr and head off to the dining hall where we have high tea. We have high tea every day. Scones, sandwiches, croissants with fillings, curry puffs; our bakery is excellent. Hot chocolate, tea or coffee. They feed us well in this school.

From 4.30 pm – 6.30 pm we’re free. Most of us head off to the sports fields. But this is not compulsory. If you don’t feel like playing, you needn’t. This is just free time to do whatever you want, including nothing. At 6.30 pm Maghrib Adhaan is called and we head for the masjid. After Maghrib is our second academic class. But this is different from the morning. This session is student led with we Prefects being principally responsible. It’s my responsibility to ensure that all the boys in my house are accounted for and get to whichever class they’re supposed to be in. How do I know which classes they need to be in? I ask them. They plan what they need to learn depending on what project they’re doing. They’re supposed to inform me and the teachers they need so that everything is in readiness for them. That’s the meaning of student centered learning.

Some people are surprised and ask how children can be left to decide what they want to learn. I say to them that in any case, it is children (all learners) who decide what they want to learn. When adults try to force them, not only do they not learn but they get turned off from learning. Adults may have the illusion that they’re achieving something but that’s an illusion.

You may be surprised that I haven’t mentioned Islamic studies as a special subject. It isn’t. We learn and live Islam. Our ethos is Islam. We are taught about the importance of remembering Allahﷻ all the time and of following the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ. Every project we do has a significant amount of Islam in it; laws and rulings applicable to what we are studying, history that relates to it, mentions in the Qur’an and Sunnah, incidents and lessons from the Seerah and stories of the Sahaba and later generations. Our philosophy is that Islam is a practice, not a theory and so it must be practiced, lived and benefited from. It is not something to be studied like a philosophy or theory.

At 9.00 pm we go to the masjid for Isha followed by dinner and bed. It’s lights out at 10.30 pm. We need the sleep because tomorrow is another day, as full as today.

Some final comments before I end; this school is all about inculcating leadership qualities in us. The stress is on service, integrity, honesty, quality, industry and compassion. Concern for others precedes concern for ourselves. A thirst for knowledge is kindled and I hope it will remain with us throughout our lives. Our teachers are our role models and we learn by seeing, doing and experiencing. Ours is a fully boarding school because you need to be here full time to understand the meaning of inculcating values. Happens unconsciously and quietly but very powerfully.

I am nearing the completion of my time here and know that the saddest day will be my graduation day when I will have to leave school. However, I take heart from the number of old students who visit us regularly and hope to join that brotherhood and contribute to the school that gave me so much. I ask Allahﷻ for His help.

Yala, Leopard Paradise

Yala, Leopard Paradise

He had killed the buffalo late the previous night. The dark was his friend. Thanks to the reflectors in his eyes, he could see as clearly in starlight as we can see in bright daylight. If he could have read a book, he would have, reclining on a massive tree branch overhanging a pathway. As the light faded and night set in, he was on his favorite perch, only his tail hanging over the side, announcing his location. He had climbed the tree earlier in the evening to give the Langur sentinels and their friends, the Axis (Cheetal) deer to sound their alarm calls and eventually tire of it when they couldn’t see him any longer in the gathering darkness. The sun goes down rapidly in the tropics and Yala National Park, where he lives is in the far south of Sri Lanka. He is a leopard (Panthera Pardus kotiya). A big male, full grown and at the peak of his powers. The Sri Lankan Leopard is a subspecies native to Sri Lanka that was first described in 1956 by the Sri Lankan zoologist Deraniyagala. In 2008, the Sri Lankan Leopard was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

But he didn’t know all this. All he knew is that he was the top predator in the forest and, so he could roam where he wished and take whatever suited his fancy, at will. There are no larger predators in Sri Lanka unlike India and Africa where leopards live in fear of tigers and lions. In Yala and other national parks of Sri Lanka, the leopard is king, and this shows in their behavior. Yala is the only place where I have seen leopards stalking along a road in broad daylight. And wonder of wonders, I saw a full grown young male lying under a bush, with several jeeps full of tourists ogling at him from just a few feet away. He made no sign of leaving nor did he show even the slightest nervousness. The only cat which does that in India is the tiger and in Africa, the lion. Though the African leopard (Panthera Pardus Pardus) is a larger animal, it is very secretive and almost totally nocturnal. He is far too fearful of lions and rightly so. So also, the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), is wary of the tiger which would kill it if it could.

Sri Lankan leopards grow bigger than their Indian cousins because of their top predator status and because there is abundant game in Yala. Not only are there huge herds of Axis deer (Cheetal) but feral water buffalo and wild boar. In addition, it appears that villagers are permitted to graze their buffalos in Yala and I saw a great many of them as well, quite at peace with those that appeared to be wild. I think this is a very bad idea as invariably this invites man-animal conflict and the loser is always the animal. In this case, the already endangered leopard.

To return to our story he made his kill as the buffalo, a fully grown but young female was returning to her herd. As she passed under his tree, he landed on her back and bit into the back of her neck, severing her spine. The buffalo bellowed in pain and fear, took a few lurching steps forward trying to dislodge him from her back but in vain. By then the massive jaws with their powerful bite did their work and the canines sank through skin and gristle and severed the spine. The buffalo collapsed in its tracks and the leopard, lithely leaped off and immediately grabbed her throat in the classic killing stance of the leopard, cutting off air and possibly severing the carotids. In this case, this was not necessary as the buffalo’s spine had been severed and so it was going nowhere. It is interesting to speculate on the killing technique which is like that of the tiger when it tackles Gaur; the massive wild ox of India. Tigers also leap on to the backs of Gaur, preferring younger bulls or cows and bite into the back of the neck to sever the spine. That way they incapacitate an animal that is otherwise more than able to kill the tiger, being far heavier and having a pair of lethal horns.

After killing his prey, the leopard fed on it until he was full and then dragged it behind a large Lantana bush to hide it from Jackals. There are no vultures in Sri Lanka. Neither are there any Hyena or Wolves. So, Jackals are the only ones likely to try to steal a bit of meat from the kills. Other leopards are a threat but in this case, he was so massive and powerful that he didn’t really expect another of his species to take any chances with him. Leaving the kill behind the bush, he climbed an old Banyan (Ficus Religiosa) nearby and stretched out on his favorite branch to sleep off his meal. Early the next morning, just as the sun was starting to show on the horizon and the Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl with its splash of bright yellow on its comb, started calling, to be answered by the Peafowl roosting on the topmost branch of a dead tree with its feet in the flood waters of the river, he walked down the trunk and leaped down the last few feet to return to his kill to take some more mouthfuls of the, by now, reeking meat.

As he was tugging at an especially tasty bit, we drove up on the jungle road going past his cache. I saw the leg of the buffalo move which meant that the killer was on his kill. We stopped and waited but there was no sign of him. Then my friend Ifham Raji, a wonderful professional photographer from Colombo, who very kindly accompanied us and gave me lessons in the field, decided to call. He can imitate the call of a female leopard calling its young. Until that moment, we didn’t know what would come out. All we knew was that there was a leopard kill and we had come to see if we could get a look at the one who made the kill, if possible.

As soon as Ifham called, a guttural, woof; he came out from behind the bush in one short rush. He stood there looking for his mother whose voice he had heard. Then he walked towards our jeep and about twenty meters from us, he turned to his right and walked a few steps and lay down. Then he rolled over, as if he was playing, his tail high in the air. He sat up and looked at us directly. Then he decided he didn’t like being fooled and walked away. That was the last we saw of him and though he must have returned to the kill later, we never saw him again. The sight of his massive head and shoulders, his fluid majestic walk, his stand looking at us in total confidence and then his playful rolls on the ground as he would have done as a cub, playing with his mother and siblings, etched into my memory. Was he remembering his own childhood? Did the call remind him of his childhood? Who knows?

All I know is that I got some amazing photos and lived through an experience that can have no parallel. This is the gift of the wild places, which one can only experience. Indeed, I can write about them and you can read what I write and see the pictures. But I can’t for the life of me, express the excitement of the moment when for me time stood still; I stopped breathing until I had to gasp for breath as if rising out of the depth of the sea to the surface and forgot all about Aperture and ISO while taking my photos. But as a person learning photography, I can tell you that I would rather spoil a thousand photographs, than lose the excitement of the moment when you first see a big cat. The leopard is my favorite but don’t tell the tigers that. They are elusive enough when I try to find them.

Simple pleasures – Lifelong memories

Simple pleasures – Lifelong memories

Uncle Rama at his desk – River Kadam in full flow

Time, late 60’s to middle 70’s. I used to spend all my school vacations and later, whatever time I had free from college with Uncle Rama in Sethpalli. Sethpalli is a small village about two kilometers from the bank of the Kadam River, with agricultural fields between the village and the river. Uncle Rama’s farmhouse was on the bank of the river itself, with his farmland behind and to the sides of it. The farmhouse consisted of a long veranda with a waist high wall, that ran the length of the front of the house, facing the river. The veranda had one door leading into the house, which opened into the central of three rooms. The middle room which you entered from the veranda was a passage cum dining room with one bedroom on either side. Both bedrooms had windows opening into the veranda as well as to the side of the house. The dining room had no windows, just the door leading into it from the veranda and another leading out into a veranda at the back of the house. As you entered this back veranda from the dining room, to your left was the kitchen, the domain of Kishtaiah the cook and opposite it, on the other end of the veranda, the bathroom. That literally meant what it was called, a room to have a bath in. It had a stone floor sloping gently to a drain in one corner. Water came in two buckets, one cold and one hot and you mixed it to the temperature you wanted.

If you sat on the veranda, which was the living room of the house, you looked out over a waist high wall which was also a seating arrangement, out to the river. Between you and the river were three massive tamarind trees, easily over fifty years old, perhaps more. They grew within touching distance of each other so that their branches held hands high in the air. The result was the densest shade you could imagine. There is something about the shade of tamarind trees that is cooler than the shade of any other tree. Maybe it is my imagination but I recall the countless afternoons that I spent lying on a charpoy in that shade, gazing up at the canopy of tiny compound leaves, marveling at the multiple shapes and shades of green. A few yards beyond the trees, the land sloped steeply into the bed of the Kadam River. The channel itself meandered from one bank of the river bed to the other depending on where it had been flowing most vigorously in the monsoon. In the summer, the channel was a trickle which you­­­­ could cross literally by jumping over its narrowest part. But in the monsoon the Kadam flowed strong and deep from one bank to the other. I never measured the actual width of the river at the farm but I think it was probably about half a kilometer in width.

My almost invariable daily routine was to take off into the forest after breakfast, with Shivaiyya as my companion and return only after dark. Shivaiyya was one of the people who worked on Uncle Rama’s farm and like most of them had no fixed duties. He was there to do whatever needed to be done which during my visits was simply to be with me. He was older and far wiser and his job was to see that I didn’t do anything stupid while we were in the forest. He was a great friend and we shared our food and an occasional beedi, especially on a very cold night when we would sit up at a Sambar rolling spot, waiting for Sambar to come down from the hills. Naturally this would be only towards early morning after any Sambar had been and gone, because a beedi is the surest way to warn off any animal.

I would either not eat lunch at all or take a roti or two in a small metal tiffin box with some mango or lime pickle to eat for lunch, which Shivaiyya and I would share. But most often we just drank water from the deep pools in the river, left over from the flow that dries up in the summer. If you spread your handkerchief on the surface of the water and suck through the cloth, you manage to get some clean water to drink. This method will not save you from chemical pollution, but mercifully those were the days before we destroyed our rivers. Then we would sleep in the heaviest shade that we could find, which was not easy in the summer because the forest (and teak plantations) are deciduous and have hardly any leaves. But if you went to a bend in the river which still retained some moisture, you would get some trees with leaves and welcome shade. Sleeping in a forest with tigers and leopards was not without its hazards, but the tiger is not as opportunistic as the African Lion and so you are quite safe in these forests. I am living proof that tigers don’t eat junk food and recall with great pleasure the many times that I have slept the deepest, most peaceful and comfortable sleep of my life in a sandy stream bed or in the shade of a forest giant.

Shivaiyya and Kishtaiah (40 years after this story in 2010)

One morning we took off on our walk, Shivaiyya and I, with me carrying a 7.62 rifle and Shivaiyya carrying the .22. The forest in this area – around the Kadam River – is semi deciduous with teak, katha, mahua, ber, and some bamboo. The teak, katha and mahua shed their leaves in summer so the forest floor is carpeted with dry leaves, which makes for some noisy walking; not the best thing if you want to shoot any game. The ber and bamboo thickets retain their leaves, but are too thorny and thick to walk in. So, we stick to the pathways. The forest is interspersed with open glades carpeted with grass. These are the potential places to see something to shoot, especially small game. 

As we walked, I spotted a large male peacock with a magnificent tail, sitting on a dead tree stump and yelling his guts out as they are wont to do. I exchanged my rifle with the .22 as shooting a peacock with a 7.62 would mean getting two stumps of legs as the residue. I crept up very slowly while Shivaiyya simply sat down on his haunches in the pathway and disappeared, waiting for me to complete my stalk. This is where the dry leaf fall comes to the aid of the quarry and is a bane in the life of the hunter. As I was almost in range, I stepped on a dead branch hiding under the leaves and it broke with the sound of a pistol shot. The peacock took off like a rocket into the air and was gone. I cursed my own clumsiness and stood up from my crouch only to see a small sounder of wild boar run across the clearing. Unfortunately, though they were in range, I had the wrong weapon in my hand; I simply stood by and watched them run. Some days are just not yours.

We proceeded on our way, this time with me carrying the heavier rifle until we came to a place where the path passed around the foot of a small and very rocky hillock. I wanted to tarry a bit and maybe climb it to look around, but Shivaiyya, very uncharacteristically, hurried me along. After we were well clear of the hillock, more than 2 kilometers away, he said to me, ‘Dora, you didn’t see it but there was a tigress on the hillock sitting before a cave. She has three cubs there and I saw the kill she brought for them last night. She was looking at us and I didn’t want to precipitate anything so I hurried you along.’ Much as I would have liked to see the tigress myself, I realized that effectively, he had saved our lives as well as the life of the tigress. Had I tried to climb that hill, she would have attacked and one of us would have died. Tragic, if it had been the tigress.

We stopped to rest on the bank of the Dotti Vaagu, a tributary of the Kadam, at a place where there was a good deal of shade. Below where we sat was a water hole in a bend in the river, always a very productive place to watch wildlife in the summer. Companionship is a wonderful thing and in my view the sign of a good companion is the quality of the silence when you are together. Shivaiyya was a very good companion. A man of few words except in the nights when he’d had his spiritual experience for the day. Then he would make up for all the silences of the day and would talk non-stop. But during the day we would walk and rest in silence, speaking only when it was necessary. This gave me a lot of time with my thoughts. We sat high up on the bank with our body outline broken by the bamboo clump behind us and dozed. I can’t describe the sense of peace and calmness that permeates you as you sit in a forest without any deadlines, phones, or email; simply being. Mobile phones and email didn’t even exist in those days and what are the deadlines for a schoolboy in his summer holiday? The heat or cold ceases to have any meaning after a while as your body gets accustomed to the outside atmosphere. Then sleep descends on you and you doze. This is not the sleep of those who are dead to the world. It is the sleep of those whose eyes may be shut but their ears are listening and their mind senses what is going on. You are still aware of what is going on around you even though you are apparently asleep. This ability is very useful because it enables you to rest in short breaks and keeps your energy high for the ongoing journey.

 As I sit there, I can distinguish the regular sounds from those which are new and announce that we have company. This time it is a Chital hind, the scout who signals to her herd that all is clear. Not a very good scout if you ask me, because she didn’t see us. And had our intentions been less noble, she wouldn’t be signaling anyone else thereafter. As it was, I had no desire to shoot anything and was content to watch the Chital come to drink. There is perhaps nothing more cute and lovable than a Chital fawn. And there were several in this small herd. A good sign that the prey population was healthy, which meant that the predators would do well. A good prey population is a sign both that the predators have enough to eat and that they are therefore unlikely to stray into the villages to take the unwary goat or cow and thereby fall into conflict with their human neighbors from which there is only one exit – death for the animal. Whenever there is conflict between humans and animals, the animals always pay the price. That is what has gone very wrong with the whole issue of tiger conservation in India. It is habitat destruction which is the number one killer of tigers. It leads to human – tiger conflict and a lot of dead tigers. I believe we have reached a point of no return in this case and advise people to go and view as many tigers as they can while they are still there. I don’t think it will take all that long for us to reach a stage where to see a tiger you will need to go to an animal prison, aka, zoo, because none will be left alive in the wild. There is nothing more invigorating than a forest full of animals and nothing more dead and tragic than one which has been sanitized and is free from all animals. Our forests in India are fast reaching the latter situation. I am glad I was there to witness when this was not the case and hopefully I will not be there to witness forests devoid of their lawful inhabitants.

On another occasion, it was the height of summer with temperatures in the high 40’s and the deciduous teak forests almost totally bare. There was almost no shade and the forest floor was littered with dry leaves, which made an infernal crackling when we walked on them. Uncle Rama took me to see another part of the forest and he decided that we would walk. He would always wear leather slippers with the sole made of a car tire. They were specially made for him and he found them very comfortable. I personally wouldn’t wear them for love or money because they were so hard and unyielding that walking in them for a few hundred meters was enough to take the skin off the foot. He would wear a pair of army issue camouflage trousers and a shirt with large patch pockets in which he would have spare shells for his weapon. He would carry his shotgun, I would carry the .22 rifle and Shivaiyya or some other gun bearer would carry a heavier rifle, either a 9mm Mauser or a 7.62.

Neelgai (Blue bull male)

That day the trek was to be fairly long – walking at approximately 3 miles per hour, we walked a total of 8 hours that day – so Uncle Rama had asked Kishtaiah the cook to pack something to eat. As we left, I saw Shivaiyya carrying a tiffin carrier – three steel compartments in a metal frame, which made me very happy imagining what Kishtaiah would have packed into it. He was a fantastic cook, trained by Uncle Rama and his masala fried meat was simply superb. Strangely, nobody remembered to carry any water. We walked for about 4 hours, but didn’t see a single animal. It was our aim to shoot either a young Blue Bull (Nilgai), India’s largest antelope and one of only two species which exist in the Sahyadris, the other being the endangered Four-horned antelope, a small goat sized creature, very fast on its legs. Nilgai typically lie down in any shade they can find in the hot hours and so if you walk softly you can come up to one and get within range before the animal gets spooked.

The day got hotter and hotter as we walked. One principle of walking in the heat is not to keep drinking water as it only makes you thirstier, so none of us asked for water. The forest itself was very dry with no sign of any water anywhere. Eventually, we found a small bamboo thicket, which retains its green leaves throughout summer and provides shade. We were all very tired and hot and dusty. Not sweaty, because the sweat dried on you instantly due to the dry heat. Both Uncle Rama and I sank thankfully onto the ground in the dappled shade of the bamboo. Uncle Rama called for the tiffin carrier and Shivaiyya brought it to us. When we opened the cover, to our great surprise and considerable consternation, we found that Kishtaiah had filled all three compartments with a most delicious and rich dessert made of fried bread, khova (made from boiling milk until it almost becomes solid), ghee (clarified butter), and of course lots of sugar. We call it Dabal ka Meetha (bread is called Dabal-roti; which literally means double-roti) in Hyderabad. All three of us were very hungry and the dessert was delicious and so we ate it all up. After we ate, we realized that it was a mixed blessing indeed. I said surprise and consternation earlier because while the idea of eating just dessert may seem like having heaven on earth, one of the outcomes of eating a lot of sugar and fat is that you get intensely thirsty. And now we discovered that we had no water.

The forest was a uniform grey with the trunks of the teak trees standing tall in a desolate landscape. The breeze when it blew was straight from the furnace and started up little dust devils that swirled away into nothing. The stronger ones picked up a dry leaf or two, waltzing it up and then leaving it in midair, to float gently down among others of its tribe away from its earlier company. The cicadas ensured that everyone was aware of their presence. Cicadas make their distinctive sound using sound makers called ‘Tymbals’ on the sides of their abdomen. The sound is loud up to 120 decibels and the volume of thousands singing together in chorus can be imagined. This is what Wikipedia has to say about the Cicada. There are also recordings of the sound on this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cicada
Having finished our high energy lunch, we decided to head for home so that the walk would distract us from the thirst. Although the walk was as interesting as these walks always are, especially in anticipation of seeing some animal or the other as we went along, the thirst built up steadily, reinforced by the intense heat. In the summer in India it is only when the sun sets that the heat lessens, even to the extent that nights in summer in the forest can be cold. But in the day the heat increases especially in the afternoon when the sun is past its zenith. The fact that the forest was devoid of shade was not helpful either in alleviating the hardship. Eventually, almost after an hour of walking we came upon a Gond villager heading home in his bullock cart. He had with him his supply of water which he carried in a dried gourd, the mouth of which was plugged with some grass. Like all Indian villagers, he was more than happy to oblige us when we requested him for a mouthful of water. The water was tepid, smelt of the earth and grass but tasted sweeter than nectar. Taste is proportionate to need. Truly nothing quenches thirst like water. Now refreshed thanks to the man’s generosity, we walked on.

As we approached the village, I witnessed one of the strangest incidents of my life. We were almost in sight of the Gond village from where we would cross the Kadam River to get to Uncle Rama’s farmhouse. We could hear the sounds of the village getting ready for the night – dogs barking as the cattle returned to their pen, some cows bellowing their irritation at being hurried by the herd boys, others calling to their calves which tend to get lost in the melee. A lady calling her missing youngsters who had obviously gone off to something more interesting than the errands assigned to them. The ‘whap’ of a stick hitting the reluctant behind of an ox that refuses to do the bidding of its master. As we walked I said to Uncle Rama, ’It’s strange we didn’t see anything today after all that walking. Just two days ago, right here I saw an antelope watching me as I was returning home.’ I gestured over my left shoulder and pointed – and behold, an antelope was standing watching us go by. In less time than it takes to say this, Uncle Rama brought the .22 rifle up to his shoulder in one fluid movement and pulled the trigger. So, we did have something to show as a result of our very long and hard walk. I felt a little sorry for the antelope of course but it is strange how curiosity kills deer and antelope more than anything else. They will stand and watch instead of running away and so hunters eat.