Over the past more than ten years I have wandered around almost every tiger sanctuary in India from Kaziranga and Manas in Assam to Idukki in Kerala. I lived in the middle of the Anamallais for seven years. In my childhood and youth in the 1960’s and 70’s, I spent every summer and winter holiday with my dear friend and mentor Uncle Rama (Venkatrama Reddy) in his house on the bank of the Kadam River in the middle of what is today called, Kaval Tiger Reserve. I would spend every single day and many nights in the forest, walking or in a bullock cart. No tiger. I spent ten days in Badhavgarh living in the house of a good friend, alone, in Tala village which is in the buffer zone. I went on safari drives every morning and evening. No tiger. I spent days in Pench, even slept in a dry nala on the boundary of the forest, one hot afternoon. No tiger. I have spent days being jolted around in Gypsy vehicles in sanctuary after sanctuary, my backbone witness to the wear and tear on the suspension of the vehicle and still live to tell the tale. Yet all I saw of the elusive tiger was one glimpse as it leapt across a road in Corbett and a decent sighting in Tadoba. At the end of all this wandering, I concluded that I was jinxed as far as tigers are concerned. But since I love the forest and all those who live in it, I continued to escape to the nearest forest that I could find at every opportunity; tiger or no tiger.
Then I went to Ranthambore. My very first visit. My most gracious host, Sonu Khan and his driver Sajid, ‘promised’ me that I would see a tiger. Having heard such promises from many others over the years, I hardly paid attention to it. I wanted to be in a forest and Ranthambore was not only a forest but one of the most beautiful ones that I have ever been in. Massive banyan trees, flowing streams, lakes, high rocky hills, mysterious pavilions, Muslim graves and even an abandoned masjid near one of the streams. The main river that flows through the forest especially the part that comes down from the Ranthambore fort has ‘inexplicable’ date palms all along it. Inexplicable because though Rajasthan has date palms, this is a different variety, not indigenous to Rajasthan. Excellent perches for kingfishers, owls, parrots and parakeets, as I discovered.
Ranthambore fort is very impressive to say the least. We were sitting in our Gypsy waiting for the driver to submit the entry pass at the gate house and I looked up at the battlements of the fort in awe at the amazing architectural challenge they would have posed to build. With my interest in military history, my first thought when I saw the battlements rising high into the heavens was, if I were to besiege this fort, how would I do it? I concluded that this fort is impregnable and can’t be conquered keeping in mind the armies and armaments of the time i.e. the 16th century.
Later, my dear friend who shares my interest in history and wildlife, Jehangir Ghadiali solved the mystery of the date palms for me. He told me that apparently Ranthambore was besieged for a month by the Moghul Emperor Akbar and then submitted to the Mughals in 1568. Moghul soldiers ate dates and the seeds they discarded sprouted all along the streams that they would have camped on. ‘Mughal soldiers’, is a general term referring the army they fought in. As it was, most of Akbar’s army consisted of Rajputs. It is easy to condemn them as being anti-national but one must realize that the concept of India as one nation is only from 1947. For all our history, we were individual countries that existed in the landmass of the subcontinent, much like European countries exist to this day in the landmass called Europe. Rajput kings fought other Rajput kings and were being patriotic to their tribe and country and not anti-national. The Moghuls capitalized on this and with their superior technology and generalship, they commanded Rajput armies that won the day. Rajputs rose to become generals in Moghul armies and fought loyally for the Moghul Emperor who they considered their liege lord. One of the most famous of Akbar’s generals was Raja Mansingh who was one of this Navratans (9 Jewels – Nobles held in the highest esteem). Today all this sounds strange and that is why history has many lessons to teach us.
Rai Surjan Hada was apparently demoralized by Akbar’s victories in Chittorgarh and Thanesar and when the Moghul cannons were brought to bear and bombardment started, he decided to capitulate. It was cannons that gave Mughals the edge over their opponents. Babur had cannons when he fought Ibrahim Lodhi thanks to which war elephants which were the ultimate weapon of Indian armies were rendered a liability. War elephants would run amok with terror at the sound of cannon and turn and charge through their own troops, creating havoc. Another thing that gave the Mughal armies the edge was light cavalry using the famous double curved Mongol bow. That gave them mobility and range which effectively nullified the advantage of massive infantry which was the hallmark of Indian armies. European armies of the time had infantry in thousands, but Indian kings could field hundreds of thousands. All this force came to naught when faced with highly mobile cavalry shooting from powerful bows and cannons which though not too accurate at long range, could create total mayhem in massed troops, especially when loaded with scatter shot.
Indian wisdom decided that losing lives unnecessarily would serve no purpose and so Rai Surjan Hada opened the gates to the Moghuls. In my view, Ranthambore fort can withstand a far longer siege and even Akbar would have been hard pressed to keep the siege going for a long period given the issues of supply lines and the semi-arid country that Ranthambore is in. Though the area has forest, which in those days it would have been more, but there is not much in it for an army to eat. That they were eating dates is a sign because dates are dry rations. They would have hunted in the forest but to feed an army needs a lot of meat and animals move away when they are hunted. Not easy, laying siege. This also explains the masjid and pavilions in the middle of the forest.
It is with these thoughts that we entered the forest. We drove through semi-deciduous forest with a variety of bird life. We entered the forest through a beautiful gateway that is today framed by the aerial roots of a banyan tree. In the days of Ranthambore’s glory it would have had soldiers posted on top of it and the gate itself shut, except to those who were authorized to enter. We drove through it and along the track that borders Padam Talao on one end of which is the beautiful Jogi Mahal. That makes Jogi Mahal a part of the Ranthambore fort complex because to get to it you must pass through gates on either end. Imagine that you are a guest of Rai Surjan Hada of Ranthambore in happier times before Akbar came on the scene and are sitting on the deck of Jogi Mahal watching the sunset (I hope I have my directions correct), drinking sherbet and eating savory snacks followed by Rajasthani sweets. The survival of Jogi Mahal through the siege of Ranthambore is evidence that beauty is protection in itself.
There were several waders and other birds in the shallows of Padam Talao. A pair of Indian Thick-knees, simply standing in one place. The Stone Curlew or Thick-knee is active in the dark and feeds at dawn or dusk. During the day it stands still in shade. In this case they were standing at the edge of the lake, in the hope perhaps of getting the odd worm. They had for company a pair of Black-winged Stilts, a most attractive wader whose delicate long legs give it their name; a pair of Brahminy ducks (Ruddy Shelduck) and a solitary Darter drying its wings. A more peaceful scene can’t be imagined.
As I contemplated all this, it occurred to me that all is right with the world. Until I woke up and reminded myself that the reality is far from this. We are at a stage where we humans have wiped out 85% of wildlife and are facing the specter of extinction. It is true that my tiger jinx was broken in Ranthambore and in three days I saw twelve tigers. It is true that when I watch Blue Planet or Planet Earth, with Sir David Attenborough commenting on the glory of nature and the profusion of wildlife, I am carried away with the sheer beauty of what I see. But it is good to remember that the reality is far from this. Very far. Yes, I saw twelve tigers in Ranthambore, but tigers are so seriously endangered as to be close to becoming extinct in the wild in India. Our population pressure, total ignorance and apathy towards forests and wildlife, greed to make money at any costs and a political class that is innocent of any ethics, responsibility or knowledge, means that forests and wildlife continue to get short shrift. Every mining concession, highway or railway line tends to get precedence over the forest that it will either seriously endanger or completely destroy. It is no secret that tiger reserves which get a higher level of protection from reserve forests, were systematically de-tigered so that the status of the forest could be officially downgraded to reserve forest, in order to start mining for marble.
The solution is to educate people. Ordinary people like you and me, about the importance of forests and wildlife and how our own survival is intrinsically linked with it. Self-interest may not be the most noble emotion, but I believe that unless people understand the importance of forests and wildlife, they will not do anything to protect it. As it is, people at best consider forests to be a source of entertainment and tigers and other wildlife to be performing artists which must put in an appearance for people to get value for money. Forest Department officials succumb to this pressure and I know of instances where, using tame elephants, tigers are driven to the road from where they are resting in the heat of the day, so that tourists can take photos.
The challenge is to educate those who will be affected by global changes. What is their level of awareness? Simply ask anyone the meaning of “Big Data”, “Artificial Intelligence”, “Peak Oil”, “Climate Change”, “Global Warming” and you have the answer. Most people simply don’t even know what these things are, much less how they will be personally affected by them. The powers that be, the billionaires who rule the world, manufacture weapons of mass destruction and sell them to those willing to use them on their own populations, while stridently calling for peace; benefit from wars, forest depletion, polluting industries, global poverty and oppression. Looking to them to bring about change is like asking the tiger to eat grass. That is the challenge.
How do we show the oligarchs that eliminating poverty is not for the benefit of the poor but so that a bigger market can be created for what the oligarchs sell? How do you convince those who work in weapons factories that living off the blood of others is immoral? Educating the public seems to be the obvious answer but the challenge is to find a way to do it fast enough to energize people to stand up and make a difference.
He had killed a sambhar stag the previous night. Sambhar are plagued by horseflies and their defence against them is to roll in the mud which when it dries off, makes a very effective shield against the biting insects. This part of the forest, in Ranthambore, has a river flowing over a very rocky bed. Flowing is what it does in the monsoon but for most of the year, it trickles and eventually all that are left are isolated pools, in particularly shady spots.
Ranthambore topography strikes you for three reasons; and high rocky hills, large number of Banyan trees (Ficus Bengalensis), and a sprinkling of temples, and domed pavilions just sitting in the middle of nowhere. This creates a unique ecosystem unlike in any other national park that I have seen, where thanks to the high rocky hills, animals can simply go away from vehicle tracks if they want to get away from people. People, the less said about whom, the better. More on this later.
To return to our story, the stag came to the depression in the riverbed which was on its way to drying out totally but was still wet enough to have enough mud to make a very nice mud bath. The pool had not dried out as it was shaded by two massive banyan trees whose aerial roots had descended to the earth and created their own columns until it was almost impossible to decide which the original trunk of the tree was. The result was thick shade in which you were a few degrees cooler even in the hottest part of the day. Sunlight never struck the water directly and though the overall dryness of the atmosphere would eventually evaporate the water and dry out the pool, that was still some months away.
The stag walked down the hillside very carefully, all senses alert. His excellent eyesight was somewhat impaired as darkness had fallen and though starlight was enough for him to see clearly in the open, when he entered the shade of the banyans, he was seriously handicapped. What kept him going was habit. He had done this all his life and grown from a small fawn to the size of a horse with a massive neck that supported a rack of horns. He was confident. Tonight, was just another night. The horseflies had been particularly irritating all day. To roll in the mud in daylight was simply too dangerous. So, he had waited until it was dark and then cautiously, very cautiously, he came down the hillside. One step at a time, all senses alert, listening, interpreting the sounds and then deciding to take another step. Sometimes he would freeze with one forefoot in the air, totally still like a statue carved in rock, while he listened and smelt the breeze rising up to him from the river at the foot of the hill. Only when he was sure that there was no danger, would he take another step down the hillside.
He knew Kumbha. They were the same age, 8 years old. As he had grown, many a time, he had seen Kumbha’s mother and her two cubs, lying in the water of the river in the summer. Tigers are the only cats that love water and spend a lot of time in it especially during the heat of the day in Rajasthan’s very hot summers. At that time, he was himself a fawn, skittish and given to dashing off at the smallest sound. That is what kept him alive and he grew big and strong. Sambhar live in family groups and fawns learn to survive from their mothers. His mother had been a good teacher. He remembered that where he was headed was Kumbha’s territory which he regularly marked by spraying urine on trees as well as rubbing his face on low hanging branches so that the facial glands left their excretion as a mark of his territorial boundary. This was for the benefit of other tigers, to attract breeding tigresses and to keep other males away. But these chemical messages were smelt and respected by everyone in the forest. Some his prey, some passersby, some competitors. Deer, leopards, tigers, hyenas and humans who could recognize the signs. The stag reached the bottom and entered the shade of the banyans, headed to the mud bath beneath them.
The shade hid from him his greatest fear, Kumbha. Kumbha was not close to him at the time. He knew that it would be far easier to kill the stag when it was down and rolling in the mud than when it was still on high alert, approaching the mud bath. He was lying some distance away in the riverbed, completely hidden by the rocks, his own dappled, striped camouflage making him invisible. His stillness was such that even if the stag looked at him directly, he would not see him unless the wind changed direction and he smelt the tiger scent. Tigers have a kill rate of about one in seven and so Kumbha was no stranger to things going wrong at the last minute thanks to an errant eddy of air, leading to the deer scenting him and escaping in an explosive burst of speed, adrenalin coursing through his veins. Live deer, hungry tiger.
Kumbha hadn’t eaten for four days. He was keen, light on his feet and very hungry. Spells of starvation followed by gorging on meat until he can eat no more, is the routine of the tiger and all carnivores. Kumbha was in his element, his cat eyes enabling him to see clearly in the dark. He watched intently, but occasionally he would look away for a second or two. It is my guess that this is because the intense look can be sensed by the one, we are looking at. We can see this even with people, who will turn around and look at you if you stare at them. Animals with senses that are far keener than ours can sense anyone looking at them much more easily. So Kumbha looked away from time to time, to allow the sambhar to approach within striking distance.
All this took far longer than it will take you to read this, but for the players, the stakes are the highest; life and death. Eventually the sambar reached the mud, looked around for a final time and stepped in, knelt and rolled over once. Kumbha took that opportunity to race ahead a few steps, moving over dry leaves and twigs without cracking a single one and then went to earth again. The sambar scrambled up, looked around again to ensure that he was safe and then went down again to roll on the other side. Kumbha was within range and charged with an earth-shattering roar that is designed to paralyze prey for the instant that the tiger needs to seize it. The sambar struggled up, but Kumbha’s shoulder hit him and then the tiger closed his jaws on his throat, at a bite force of 1000 psi, keeping well clear of his lashing hoofs and the horn rack on his head. One strike by either can disembowel the tiger or injure him permanently so that he eventually dies of starvation.
Once that sambhar was still, Kumbha started eating, starting from the rear soft underbelly of the animal, going for the stomach contents. This is where carnivores get their quota of trace elements and other things that their own pure protein and fat, keto, diet can’t give them. While he ate, he would insert his head inside the thorax of the carcass to reach the heart and lungs and emerge completely covered in blood. Not nice to watch but if you are a tiger, you don’t give a hoot for public opinion. Tigers can eat as much as one hundred pounds of meat at one sitting, and then starve for days after. Kumbha ate his fill. The sambhar was big and there was plenty more to eat. Daylight was approaching, and he had to hide his kill from scavengers, so he dragged it out of the river and across the road that ran alongside, up a slight slope on the other side deep into a thicket where it was completely hidden. Then he returned to the river to drink. Having drank his fill, he returned to lie by the kill to sleep off his dinner and guard the kill simply by his presence. As the sun climbed in the sky and the heat intensified, Kumbha arose and walked to a damp spot on the side of the road and lay down in it, the cool mud feeling good on his belly. Later he would go further to the river to drink some more and lie in the water until the evening. For the present, he was asleep by the road, shaded by the banyans, and that is where we met him.
We were in Ranthambore almost at the end of our morning drive when we saw nine men, young and middle aged, standing on a culvert in various stages of undress. This was in the middle of the forest and I was astonished to say the least. I asked our guide and he said that there was a Solesar Mahdev mandir (temple) in the forest and these people had probably spent the night there and were returning to their village outside the national park. On the way they had decided to bathe in the river, evidence of which in the form of soap suds, soap packets strewn carelessly and their own state, bore witness. As we passed them, the Forest Guard who was our guide called out to them to get out of the forest immediately.
We drove perhaps less than a kilometer from there, on our way out of the forest, when we saw Kumbha lying by the roadside. We stopped in awe because a tiger in the forest is an awe-inspiring sight. It seems to light up the darkness and has a majesty that I find impossible to describe. An animal that can be five hundred pounds in weight with a head that seems to fill your vision to the exclusion of everything else, looking at you directly and unflinchingly with the yellowest eyes that you can imagine. His striped coat dappled in the sunlight filtering through the leaves, stained dark with blood around his face from the kill that he had been eating. Lying with the relaxed grace that only a cat can muster. Yet I know that to go from there to 60 mph in a flash if he decides to charge, is something that he can do without raising a sweat. We stopped a respectful distance from him and took our photographs. He raised an eyebrow to keep us in sight but didn’t move from his totally supine position. He knew that we didn’t represent danger, but he kept an eye on us.
As we were photographing him suddenly it was as if he had stepped on an electric wire. He suddenly sat up and looked intently beyond us. I knew what he was sensing, though the temple devotees were not visible yet. Then he got up and walked up the slope to his kill and we lost sight of him. We remained where we were because we were concerned about the men. They came along, talking loudly among themselves, totally unaware that they were under surveillance. I have heard many people who know the jungle say that a tiger could be six feet away, but you wouldn’t know it. That day I saw how true this is. As the men came up to us, we told them about Kumbha. Their fright was amusing to put it politely. We then told them to walk on the other side of our vehicle so that the vehicle would be between them and the tiger until we were sure that any potential danger was past.
Human intervention in our national parks is a very serious problem in all parks. In some of them we have highways and train tracks running through the park paid for with the lives of animals crossing them. In others there are villages or temples which result in both pollution with paper and plastic as well as human-animal conflict which always has the same result. The animal is declared the villain and the punishment is death. In other cases, villages along national park boundaries constantly encroach on forest land by ring-barking trees so that in a few months they dry and fall and the area they covered becomes a part of the village fields. These fields are also protected by illegal electric fencing which electrocutes any animal trying to cross it. Many villagers lay out sticks of dynamite encased in rotting meat to attract wild boar which explode as soon as the boar bites into the meat. If the boar is lucky, his head is blown off and the people who set out the bomb, feast. If not, his jaw is blown away and he runs off into the forest to die an agonizing death, many hours or even days later. Sometimes, it is not a boar but a tiger, leopard or hyena that takes this bait with the same results. As I said earlier, human-animal conflict always has the same result.
The solution is a combination of relocation of human activity from inside the park to an alternate location, education of the public about the need for conservation of forests and wildlife, not merely for their entertainment but as a critical need for our own survival and law enforcement to ensure that forests and wildlife remain protected. In India we have reached a highly critical stage already and it is debatable if we have already gone over the edge as far as wildlife, especially tigers, are concerned. Be that as it may, what we must do is to focus on inculcating a sense of shared responsibility in all those who benefit from the forests, so that they learn to respect this great asset we have before it is gone forever.
To close with Kumbha’s story, what could have happened? Kumbha had eaten and in any case, humans are not tiger prey. So most probably nothing would have happened, and nobody would have been the wiser. But what is equally likely is that one of these people could have thrown a stone into the bushes and then who knows what would have happened?
Because there is a limit, even to the patience of a tiger.
He came with a lizard in his beak. A choice tidbit, most appreciated. But only if you’re a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis). The female lays up to four white eggs in a tree hole blocked off during incubation with a cement made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. There is only one narrow aperture, barely wide enough for the male to transfer food to the mother and chicks. These birds usually live in pairs or small flocks consisting of up to five birds (2 adults and 2-3 juveniles). They are omnivores observed consuming berries, fruits, insects and small lizards. It feeds mostly on figs, although occasionally it eats small rodents, reptiles and insects.
We, my friend Ifham Raji and I were parked in our open Toyota Hilux safari vehicle, our cameras mounted on sand bags placed on the roof of the cab and focused on the hole in the tree which was the Hornbill nest. We could see the beak of the female from time to time as she threw out the waste from her nest, ensuring that it remained clean.
It was early morning and the forest was filled with birdsong. A Shama (White-rumped shama – Copsychus malabaricus) alighted on a twig facing me, scarcely five feet away and gave me a personal recital of his song. I wanted to photograph him but decided only to let my memory do the job for fear of scaring him away with my movement. The Shama has a black head, a brown waistcoat and a black tailcoat with two long tail feathers. On the back is emblazoned his white shield on which he hasn’t inscribed his coat of arms yet. The white shield on the back is very striking. But above all this, what impressed me was his attitude. Confidence, curiosity, friendliness. He came, he saw, he sang and he conquered my heart.
Meanwhile the male Hornbill came with his delicacy but looked extremely suspicious and skittish. I wondered whether we were the cause of his alarm or anything else, until I saw two other Hornbills, fully grown juveniles, that flew in as if they’d been lying in wait for him. One, which I think was the male, dive-bombed him to try to make him drop his catch. That was fairly easily taken care of by the simple action of swallowing it. When this tactic didn’t work after trying it several times, the male gave up and went off into the forest. The female decided that the best way was to appeal to whatever nobility existed in the heart of her father and simply begged. She did that so pathetically and effectively that he eventually coughed up something for her. I say “father” because that’s who he was. These two were his fully grown millennial chicks from a previous brood, who know what human millennials worked out only in this generation. That it’s easier to live off your parents than to work for your own living. Hornbill youngsters do that for a year or more after they are fully fledged until the parents finally kick them out altogether. The interaction was fabulous to watch.
This is my greatest pleasure in bird photography; watching interaction as birds afford you an opportunity that mammals and reptiles don’t. Birds go about their lives as if you don’t exist and allow you a glimpse into their lives that’s a privilege which pays the patient who value their time. You may be surprised to see the use of the phrase, “value their time”, in a context different from the usual. We imagine that our frenetic lifestyle is worthwhile and that the best use of time is to cram as much into it as possible with no thought about what we get as a result. I believe that the best use of time is to consider the result in whatever we propose to do with it and then spend the time only if the result warrants it. Time is not money. Time is far more valuable than money. Money can be earned, lost but replaced. Time is free, can be lost but never replaced. That’s why I’m very careful with my time and consider sitting for six hours watching a Hornbill father take care of his mate, while avoiding the raids of his children, one of the most beneficial uses of my time. That’s how long it took us to get some decent photographs.
So now there was the father, finally having got rid of his pesky brood, ready to feed his mate. But with what, I wondered. Because he had swallowed the lizard to save it from being eaten. Sounds oxymoronic but there it was. So I watched. He looked all around. Called a few times to assure his mate that he still loved her. His raucous call that can be music only to a female Hornbill’s ears. He flew from perch to perch all around the nest-hole to assure himself from every angle that the coast was clear. Then he landed on the vertical trunk of the tree, on the lip of the nest-hole. Then I loed and beheld, to my amazement, the lizard emerged. And after it, a large green beetle, a large black beetle, a large grey caterpillar, and one after another a series of black berries (not the phone, real ones). Not having been a Hornbill ever, in my career, nor privy to his loading sequence, I can’t say if everything came out as it was ingested. But the lizard was last in, first out. Then he was off.
The second trip was a repeat of the first. We wait and wait. The Shama takes pity on us and returns to sing us another song. Then the juveniles return to check out if dad is back with food. The male chick is chased out of another part of the forest by a highly aggressive and territorial Golden Oriole. The GO is one sixth or less in size but has ten times his courage. So throwing all dignity to the wind, the Hornbill chick makes haste with the GO in hot pursuit. All he had to do was to stand and say, “Okay, do your worst.” And the Oriole would have come face to face with his limitations. But this is a world of deception, even for birds and noise counts more than action.
I sensed something behind us. I had been listening to some movement in the forest with an occasional branch breaking and dry leaves gently rustling. Could be jungle fowl or monkeys. But as I turned around, I saw the biggest cow elephant that I’ve ever seen in this part of the world. Sri Lankan elephants are the biggest of Asian elephants and this one was proof. She came out of the forest like a shadow, in total silence. She turned and looked at us in the safari jeep, barely 20 meters from her. Then she turned and walked away with elephantine dignity that only elephants can muster. No aggression, no posturing. Someone who knows herself and her own power and has no need to demonstrate it to anyone. Someone who is content even to let those intruding into her space, to do so without protest, as long as they are respectful. Big question in my mind was what she was doing alone. Where was her family? We saw her twice more, both times alone. I wonder what that story is.
Meanwhile the Hornbill returned, this time, regurgitating a series of red berries, one after another and passing them to his mate through the hole in the wall. It was amazing to see the precise nature of the sequence where he would bring out one at a time, run it up his long beak, and very delicately drop it into the nest. I didn’t see him actually feeding his mate nor did I see her take the fruit from his beak. But it all went into the nest-hole.
A Barking Deer cautiously made his way out of the forest on my right and hurriedly crossed the open patch of the road and entered the undergrowth on my left. My dilemma was whether to photograph him and risk disturbing the Hornbill. But he solved my dilemma by taking off again on his never ending quest to keep his spouse happy. Never saw anyone work so hard at this. Reminded me of the picture I see every morning in my mirror.
The jungle is full of surprises and wonders for the one who takes the time to look. As we were driving in search of the leopard, the king of Wilpattu and indeed Sri Lanka, we saw a small bird on its nest, incubating its eggs. It was so confident of its camouflage that it didn’t budge as I photographed it.
A Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl came out of the forest, followed by his hens. His blood-red comb with the yellow blaze in the center distinguishes him from the Indian Red Jungle Fowl who he resembles. He crowed to announce to the world that he was walking the earth and then busied himself scratching in the dirt.
As we were watching a leopard sitting drowsily through a gap in the bushes, a very busy Red-vented Bulbul landed on a twig near me with a piece of grass folded like a bow tie in his beak. It is nesting season and Bulbuls are busy building their nests. They are among the most vocal of birds and having this grass in its beak, didn’t stop it from saying,’Excuse me, what on earth are you doing, simply sitting and watching that silly leopard, being drowsy? Don’t you have other things to do?’ Having got no response, he decided that he didn’t have time to waste with me and flew off.
Yeah! I know. Where’s the scene of all this action? Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka. A world heritage site and the oldest national park in the country. Flat land, very sandy, with very large trees and lots of lakes. Villu is Tamil for lake and Pattu means ten. There are more than forty in the park but ten large ones, thus the name. The huge trees are great perches for leopards and create a lovely shady micro-climate. The forest when we were there was simply flooded with purple flowers on the tertiary branches of a plant that I don’t know the name of. If someone who reads this article can tell me the name I will be most grateful.
This plant is everywhere. It is a large bushy plant with these wonderful flowers growing directly on the tertiary branches instead of on their own individual stalks. They have a very subtle, sweet aroma and the forest looks absolutely fantastic because of them.
The Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (much better name than Forest Department, because it speaks of their focus), has built bungalows (rather grand name for cottages) on the banks of some lakes. The location makes up for the lack of maintenance and resultant challenges is staying in them. The one we stayed in had no door handles or latches. So at night I had to push an extremely heavy bed against the door to keep out any potentially unwelcome visitors. The same was the case with the bathroom with the added joy that the floor tiles squelched and squirted water, every time you stepped on them. But the joy of a cold shower at the end of a hot, humid day compensated for the squelchy floor tiles. The bungalows have solar power but no fans or plug points. So no charging of phones. There is no signal anyway so the death of the phone goes unmourned. But the impending demise of camera batteries is another matter. At any rate this adds to the excitement of trying to conserve battery power and shooting wisely.
Also no fans means that hot humid days are exquisite torture. But all you need to do, to forget the discomfort is to look out from the veranda at the lake before you. Brown grass in the foreground, getting greener as it nears the water. Lush green grass closer to the water, then reeds and then the inviting blue of the lake itself. Do not yield to the invitation to jump in. Jump into the squelchy shower instead because in Wilpattu and Yala, every puddle has its resident croc. Not the shoes but the real ones. Ranging in size from cute and cuddly to enormous maneaters, which probably never ate a man and so would be doubly anxious to try one out. You’ll also see lots of birds on the Villus (lakes, remember?).
On our Villu, in one afternoon, I saw a pair of Wooly-necked storks walking purposefully looking at the ground. An Adjutant Stork (a very ugly bird) walking with whatever dignity it could muster while being harassed and chased away by a pair of Red-wattled Lapwings, screeching their alarm call, Did-you-do-it, Did-you-do-it? The Adjutant hadn’t but his reputation of eating eggs and chicks is enough to pronounce him guilty in the eyes of the Lapwings and they didn’t want him in the vicinity. Then there was a pair of Malabar Giant Hornbills crossing the lake, their characteristic flight, their signature.
There were perhaps thirty or forty butterflies congregating on a patch of moisture. They attracted the attention of a Green Bee Eater, which decided that he was not bound by his name and had no objection to eating butterflies also. After the fourth swooping flight and the fourth butterfly which became history, they got the message and dispersed. But not before a fifth one was picked through the air.
GBE’s are such graceful flyers and such attractive birds. What strikes me yet again is how alive the forest is. As we were sitting in the jeep waiting for the Hornbill to turn up, I could hear an absolute orchestra of bird song. I could identify five or six but there were at least another dozen that I didn’t recognize. Yet all this is not noise or cacophony just like the infinite variety of color has nothing that’s mismatched.
After we got the last shot, we headed back for our bungalow. As we came to yet another lake, this one covered in white lotus flowers, I spotted a pair of Eurasian Thick-knees (Eurasian Stone Curlew) doing what they do best; just being. I recalled having spotted them many times in several countries but always simply being; doing nothing. What’s their purpose in life, I asked myself. They do nothing. Not even search for food; at least whenever I was watching. Ifham tells me, “I know a lot of people in the cities who run around all day but do nothing. These birds are doing it better because they’re doing it without expending any energy.” And he’s right, isn’t he?
There was an Egret which was flirting with a baby crocodile. Until the little croc lunged forward. The Egret did some inspired gymnastics and got away otherwise the little croc would have had a bird brain for dinner.
The sun had set. We finished our dinner. I’m sitting with my cup of tea after which I intend to go to bed. A Cheetal (Axis deer) sounds an alarm, the Langur sentinel takes up the call, then a Sambar bells his call. Now I can be sure that the leopard is on the prowl. Leopards are the apex predator in Sri Lanka and so the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera Pardus Kotiya) is the largest of its species. He behaves the way a tiger behaves in the Indian forest and so if you want to see leopards, Sri Lanka is the place. Since they have no enemies, they walk around during the day and are very relaxed when you spot them either dozing on a tree branch or on the ground, in the shade of a tree. You’d never see that in India or Africa where leopards must always be on the lookout for tigers and lions, who will kill them as soon as look at them. But in Sri Lanka they have nothing to fear and so are much easier to spot.
I hope the leopard will come around the bungalow in the night and I get to hear his sawing grunts. The night is alive with its own sounds. Nightjars announcing that they’re on duty. The Brown Fish Owl calling his mate. Two Spotted Owlets discussing hunting strategy. Langurs murmuring after hearing the far sentinel announcing that the leopard’s on the move.
Life goes on. The struggle continues. Some win. Some lose. For some, it is only fun. He also serves who only bears witness.
Let me introduce you to the tiger. He is not an animal. He is not a spectacle. He does not exist for your pleasure or like all politicians, for photo ops. He is not living in your land, you are encroaching on his. The tiger (gender neutral term as it refers to the species, and not to the male alone) is a meter. It is a meter that tells the tale of the health of the forest. Which translates to the health of the earth. Yes, the same earth which we call ‘Mother’. The same earth of which there is only one and none other. The same earth on which we live, believe it or not, along with other species which are, again believe it or not, equally critical to the health and survival of the earth. Sorry. I apologize. Not equally critical but simply critical. And that is because they are, all of them, included in the list of those that are not destructive and toxic to the earth. If I made a comparative list of species comparing those that are consciously toxic to the health of the earth and those that are not, it would be a very simple matter. On one side – NOT TOXIC – I could list every living being of every imaginable kind. And on the other side, in solitary splendid disgrace, I would write – MANKIND. It looks like while introducing the tiger, I also introduced myself. Any resemblance to you is purely coincidental.
The tiger is a meter because it sits on top of the pyramid that constitutes the forest. At the bottom is the leaf mulch, molds and decomposing matter which produces the lifegiving nitrogen that powers all plant and tree growth. Trees produce oxygen. I wish they produced Wi-Fi also so that they wouldn’t be cut down so fast. Trees provide cover to the earth and those who live on it. They prevent soil washing off in torrential rain. Trees are the world of insects, reptiles and birds. Trees are the foundation of their lives. They live on trees, eat off them, protect them, and are protected and given refuge by trees. And when they die, they provide the manure that trees live off. Trees also regulate temperature and rain.
In a healthy forest, there are healthy trees, which provide ground cover for herbivores, browsers and grazers, whose dung and eventually their bodies support tree growth. Herbivores breed profusely and frequently so their populations can decimate their own food supply. Some have large litters, others breed at least once a year, sometimes twice. Their young mature in months, not years. Herbivore population is therefore regulated by carnivores, leopards, wolves, hyenas and others with the apex predator, the tiger at the peak of the pyramid. They kill and eat the old, sick and weak and so ensure the overall health and breeding vigor of herbivores.
Carnivore population is self-regulated by longer gestation periods, one or two cubs which are mother dependent for up to two years and so the mother can’t breed until her cubs are weaned. Cubs learn to hunt from their mothers and if the mother dies while they are still too young and have not learnt to hunt, they will perish. More carnivore mothers, especially the cats, leopards and tigers, have trouble rearing more than two cubs, sometimes even more than one. The others, even if they are born, perish. When carnivore populations grow, it indicates that herbivore populations are proliferating, which means that there is enough for them to eat which in turn indicates a healthy forest. It is a beautiful cycle. When carnivore population are artificially reduced by trapping and poaching and when herbivore populations are threatened by competition for grazing land from village cattle and the threat of disease that they bring into the forest, it means a threat to this whole cycle which in turn can mean a threat to the environment, which in its final stage, leads to death of forests, creation of deserts, reduction of rainfall, drying up of rivers and the death of humans. I hate to use self-interest as the argument in favor of protecting the environment but in a society where selfishness has been granted primary virtue status, what else can I do?
The tiger therefore is not an object of interest or a curiosity, but the single, most powerful indicator of our own future. I understand that our government in its own wisdom has decided to build a zoo in Corbett National Park, our primary tiger reserve to enable those who lack patience and don’t care about the environment or forests or about anyone or anything that lives in them but still want to see a tiger. Typically, this means that the tiger, for no fault of his own, will be sentenced not just to life imprisonment, but to endless torture while it lives, so that the idle curiosity of gawkers can be satisfied. Is this something that you would like to support?
Why do I call it life imprisonment and endless torture? See for yourself. Once a tiger is caught and put into a cage (don’t worry, being stuck on a tiny man-made island surrounded by a water filled moat is still a cage), it can never return to the wild. It would have lost all its fear of humans and developed an abiding hatred for them and so would be too dangerous to release in any forest. The fact that it wasn’t dangerous to begin with and became dangerous because of what we did to it, is neither here nor there. Endless torture because the tiger is a free roaming animal with a range of up to thirty square miles. It is territorial and doesn’t like others encroaching on its territory. It is a solitary creature which likes to be left alone. It doesn’t bother you if you don’t bother it. I am living proof of this. Since I was fifteen, I have slept more times than I can recall, in dry stream beds and under massive trees in cool shade in prime tiger country and I am here, writing this article in defence of my friends (tigers) who decided not to eat junk food (me). On at least one occasion, I walked past a cave, half-way up a small rocky hillock in the Sahyadri Hills in Kadam forest (now the Kaval Tiger Reserve), in which a tigress had her infant cubs. She merely sat at the mouth of the cave and watched, as Shivaiyya, my Gond partner and I, walked past. I say, ‘on at least one occasion’, because that is the one I know about. Who knows how many other times I would have walked past a tiger or a tiger walked past me when I was asleep and left me alone?
Imagine this creature, used to square miles, confined in square feet and then harassed day and night by screaming, bleating and laughing humans, calling out to it while taking selfies. I sincerely hope that you can see how torturous it would be. To top it all, the poor tiger committed no crime to deserve this. Its crime is that it exists. Add to this, that the tiger, so confined is out of both the gene pool in the forest and unable to impact the life cycle that needs it, all because you wish to satisfy idle curiosity and you have added insult to injury, causing damage not just to one animal but to the future of the forest itself and all those that live in it.
What is the solution?
Educate people. Start with school children. Tell them the story of the tiger. Teach them woodcraft so that they can go into forests with knowledge, concern and commitment to life and enjoy the whole forest, not only search for tigers. I believe that the future of our planet lies in educating our youngsters so that they can appreciate nature without the need to change it and recast it in their own image. They must be taught to respect plants, animals, birds and insects, not only those which are ‘beautiful’ by our standards, but which are incredibly beautiful in their form and function as a sign of their Creator.
If you can’t or won’t do this, then please print out this picture, enlarge it and erect cutouts of this in all villages and cities of India, so that gawkers can gawk at the tiger from the comfort of their beds. Leave real, live tigers alone to live in peace and do what they were created to do; protect the earth and sustain life. Not torture and destroy it.
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.