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.
One of the greatest needs today is for us, human beings, to get back in touch with nature. It is not our evil intent but our indifference, ignorance and disconnect that is the root cause behind global warming, environmental destruction, wildlife extinction, pollution of rivers and oceans and the consequent backlash to our own existence. If not altruism, then at least selfishness and the instinct for self-preservation should galvanize us to stop doing the things which will invariably and inexorably result in our own extinction. If we were to ask the animals, birds and insects; if we were to ask the fish in the ocean; they would all unanimously say that they are waiting for that day of extinction of the one species which had the greatest knowledge, gifts, material wealth and power, but which it used not to help others or even itself but to commit suicide while destroying the only home it will ever have. I sometimes imagine archeologists digging up the mounds of earth covering our cities with their great libraries, universities and laboratories and wonder how people who knew so much ignored that knowledge and did their best to destroy themselves, successfully.
That is why I believe that it is essential for us to get back in touch with nature, with the wild places on the earth; precious few that we have left; and with nature in every little way that is still with us in our own dwelling places. We need to learn the value of silence, of listening, of breathing fresh air and savoring the aromas it wafts to us and recognize them as the signatures of those who share this planet with us. I use the word, ‘Share’, very consciously because it is that attitude which must result from our encounter with nature. Sharing is the understanding that the other is co-owner with me. That I don’t own it and the other doesn’t enjoy it at my pleasure. Sharing is the true essence of citizenship; not of some nation state created by drawing lines on a map but of the earth, which we share with everyone else on it. To experience sharing is to experience respect for our fellow beings, human or otherwise.
Sadly, we have learnt to live as conquerors, despoilers, looters and exploiters of the earth. That is why we call climbing to the top of a great mountain, ‘conquering’ that mountain. If you could hear, you’d hear the mountain laugh its guts out at the audacity of mankind which pretends to conquer something that existed aeons before humans came into being and will continue aeons after the last of them has walked the plank. We carry this same attitude with respect to the rest of our fellow citizens, who we kill for commercial gain, for sport, or simply to sight our weapons; who we hook on a line and call their desperate death struggles – a good fight.
Ah@! Enough of that. Enough of lamenting. Let us see what we can do about it. How can we inculcate a love for nature, respect for it, appreciation of it, awareness of our own role; not as some conqueror; but as a small but important cog in the wheel of life. It is this love which leads me to the forest. It is this love that I want to transfer from my heart into yours.
To love the forest, you must learn to become a part of it. To feel, sense, listen, see and breathe like the wild things do. Buzzing around in 4X4 vehicles chasing animals, disturbing their peace, talking loudly, throwing out plastic litter, hanging out of the widows or over the sides taking pictures; all this despicable behavior must stop. To love the forest, you must walk in it. You must sit by a stream or waterhole, your outline broken by a bush and sit so still that even your breathing becomes invisible. Then the magic happens.
It was 1970. I was 15 years old, sitting in a blind that had been cut into the middle of a wild Ber thorn bush on the bank of a nameless tributary of Dotti Vaagu which in its turn is a tributary of River Kadam. 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 from the monsoon when this little trickle flowed bank to bank. It is summer, temperatures in the high 40’s Celsius. In this part of the Sahyadri Range, it is so dry that you don’t sweat. Or rather, the sweat dries so fast that you only see its white encrusted salt deposits in the armpits of your shirt when you take it off.
The breeze, when it blows, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the stillness is stifling, but on the other, when the breeze blows, it is like the blowback from a furnace. Well, not quite that bad but almost. However, what is wonderful and the reason I am waiting for it, is the smells it brings. If you spend enough time in the forest and have a good teacher to teach you to recognize sights, smells and sounds, it is like reading a book. You sniff the air and it tells you its own story.
There are many smells in the forest and they vary depending on the time of day and the time of year, the season. In the early morning in summer, it smells like first rain; the smell of dew from the previous night. Despite the heat of the day, night temperature drops 10 degrees or more and so there is often heavy dew fall. That nourishes whatever vegetation escaped being dried off by the sun and is the source of water for the hundreds even thousands of insect, reptile and even some mammal species in the forest. This moisture in the summer smells like first rain. Incidentally, in Hyderabad, our perfumers (Attar) had developed an Atar (perfume) called Gil, which means moist earth, based on the smell of first rain.
Depending on where you are, the breeze can bring to you the smell of the territory markings of a tiger, which urinates on specific trees, rocks and outcrops to warn off potential competitors. The strong smell of bovine urine can mean that there is or has been a Gaur (bison) herd in the vicinity. And depending on the forest, there is the smell of elephant. That is one smell you learn to recognize very early or you reach the point of no return. It is important to remember that animals can smell much more keenly than we can and so wearing after shave, perfume or even bathing with a perfumed soap can ensure that you never see a butterfly all day because animals smelt you a mile away and took another route. Same goes for tobacco, cigarettes, bidis and whatnot. I would bathe after my return from the forest in the night and go back the next morning without bathing. Sweat is natural and doesn’t drive animals away.
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 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 leaves as a rat snake makes his way from one shaded spot to another, the cooing of 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.
Teak trees having shed most of their leaves, the dominant color is brown. There is very little shade, except under the Ber and Acacia thorn bushes 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 Gaur (bison) browse on what they can reach of the bamboo and so do Chital, Sambar, and Nilgai.
As I sit 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, more than 40 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 their presence will keep the smaller game, Chinkara, Chowsinga, and 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.
There is a welcome awareness about the need to protect tigers in the wild and the wild places they live. Welcome even more because it comes now at a time when the tiger population in India (numbers are even more elusive and ephemeral than the tiger) has fallen from 100,000 in 1900’s to less than 3000 today.
Frankly, one needs to ask the question whether tigers in India can realistically be protected in the wild or whether one should look to a rescue plan rather than a protection plan.
Be that as it may I want to state here the major issues which have led to this situation and addressing and solving which is absolutely critical to protecting tigers. You will see that almost all of them have to do with people more than tigers. The two major issues are habitat destruction and the market for dead tigers.
a. Our tiger reserves (except in one or two cases) are surrounded by villages. They cook on wood fires and the forest provides the wood. Our forest protection laws prevent them from cutting live trees, so they ring bark trees and cut them when they dry. Or they partially cut the tree and wait for the next wind to drop it and then they have their firewood. Human ingenuity, fueled by hunger and real need does wonders.
Deforestation in Tala village in Bandhavgarh
b. Villagers have small fields in which they do marginal agriculture and grow food grains and vegetables for themselves as well as to make a small income. If they can cut a few forest trees in the adjacent forest and expand their land holding, it means free land and the wood from the cut trees as a bonus. It is amazing how many crimes become invisible when some of this largesse is wisely spread around.
c. The fields and their produce is precious. It needs protection. In the old days before electricity came to the villages, the villagers used to build high platforms in the fields and sit up all night periodically beating tin cans to drive away any straying grazers or wild boar. After electrification, things became easier as was perhaps intended but not in this way. Villagers now simply hook a naked wire to the electric pole or their irrigation pump connection and string it at ankle height along the boundary of their land. Anything that comes into contact with it, fries. That way they can have a peaceful night’s sleep and perhaps a high protein meal the next day.
d. Villagers are poor, have cattle to graze but no money to pay for the fodder. They can’t grow their own fodder and stall feed their cattle as they need their small fields to grow food grains. So they take their cattle into the forest to graze. Cattle eat the grass that otherwise prey species herbivores would have eaten. Cattle are cows, buffaloes and in many cases goats. This means that they feed on grass as well as leaves. Their dung of cows and buffaloes is carried out by the grazer as they dry it and use it as fuel, so it doesn’t add to the organic matter on the forest floor. The urine and dung of goats is highly toxic to plant growth. Cattle also carry foot and mouth disease (what politicians have is foot in mouth) and rinderpest which is highly infectious and lethal especially on Gaur. Cattle grazing in tiger land is like waving an ice cream cone under my nose – hard to resist a bite. Then the tiger is labelled ‘cattle lifter’ (instead of ‘cattle acceptor’) and pays for his hunger with his life.
Tiger territory marking with claw marks on trees and spraying urine
e. Then there is the territory problem. Tigers are solitary territorial creatures who will fight to the death to defend their territories. If there is over crowding of sanctuaries, tiger populations decline. Given the huge tract of land an individual tiger needs, we simply don’t have the kind of area to support increasing tiger populations. So relocation, captive breeding and new sanctuaries are all options that must be explored. Young tigers seeking to establish their own territories will travel. This exposes them to temptation (cattle killing) and to poachers. Animals adapt to changing situations but the tiger has far more difficulty than its much smaller cousin, the leopard. And the day will never come when traveling tigers will thumb rides on trucks on the highway.
2. Market for dead tigers: The market for tiger bone powder, skin (not so much today) and body parts. Tiger bone powder is more expensive than gold, precious stones or any illegal narcotic drug. It is easy to conceal and transport and easy to sell for those who have the contacts. Killing a tiger is easy. Poisoning is the most usual way. Then the rest follows. http://bit.ly/1PsPk3g National Geographic Tiger Temple, Thailand investigation. This is the natural result of the market for tiger products. For them the tiger is like a sheep in a farm. Or a chicken. You don’t object when it is slaughtered and its body chopped up and sold. So why do you object if it is a tiger? A farm is a farm. What is on the farm is not the issue. It exists for profit. There is a market. So the trade will continue. That is the logic. Try beating that logic. The tiger in the wild is even better because it cost the seller nothing to raise and it still fetches the same money. The trade is not in skins any more. It is in meat, bone and body parts. Which means that hiding it is even easier.
Sariska blue bull which was nosing around a packet of Lays potato chips. See the eczema on his neck
1. All people have to be removed from tiger sanctuaries. All villages must be relocated. Much more difficult option is temples inside sanctuaries as there is in Sariska. But without relocating, the temple traffic and all its attendant evils can’t be controlled. The amount of plastic and garbage in Sariska all along the route to the temple and at the temple itself is incredible. I saw a Neelgai bull trying to get into an empty Lays potato chips packet. I am sure he managed and then swallowed it and eventually died of obstruction of his intestine. Who cares?
2. Then we have to kill the trade. That is what funds poaching and makes it lucrative. As I said, tiger bone powder is more valuable than any precious metal, illegal drug or precious stone. As long as that market remains, there is a price on the head of every tiger.
3. A time is coming soon when tigers will only be left in zoos. That is why captive breeding programs are important. And then reintroduction into the wild.
4. We need a combination of habitat conservation with very tough laws that are actually implemented, very tough policing with shoot to kill orders on poachers, liberal compensation paid instantly for every domestic animal that is PROVEN to have been killed by a tiger, education about conservation in every school and college and connection with forests built into the education of all our children.
5. I don’t mean going to sanctuaries and zipping around in Gypsies – which if I had my way, I would totally stop – but actually walking in the bush, camping at night, sleeping under the sky, reading sign, photography and sketching, learning jungle lore. That is what builds a connection. Not the TIGER SHOW that happens in our sanctuaries – which is so embarrassing and idiotic that it is not funny at all. Twenty Gypsy vehicles, with people dropping out of the sides and a tigress walking nonchalantly past threading her way through all the chattering monkeys. Ugh!! If I were a tiger, I would commit suicide.
Tadoba Tiger Show, Ugh!!
6. It will be conservationists, hopefully supported by a live media which has a chance of making an impact on tiger conservation. With habitat destruction and the trade in tiger parts, it is a losing battle. Local people must see how protecting tigers will put food on their table and money in their pockets. Only then will they be allies.
7. All of the above can be tackled but the pressure of population and vote banks is the biggest threat. Politicians always want to appease their voters. They have to. You can’t blame them. That is their bread, butter and lots of jam. They need to be educated that the survival of the tiger is vital because with them will survive the forests and show them how that will still get them elected. Don’t ask me how. But that is critical. Until we can show a direct link, they will not support the tiger against their vote bank. Sadly, tigers don’t vote. People do.
I hope that by the time our politicians can be educated, there will still be tigers left to save. Indian forests without the tiger will be like a body without a soul. Dead.