One of our big challenges in wildlife conservation is to stop poaching and habitat degradation which leads to animal human conflict which always has only one ending, destruction of the animal. The backbone of the conservation team in a Reserve Forest or a National Park is the Forest Guard. This individual lives inside the forest, many in the Core Areas in highly substandard conditions, is paid a pittance and is expected to be self-motivated enough to walk miles of boundary tracks to ensure that no illegal activity is happening. He is unarmed, except with a stick and walks as he has no vehicle. In many places where he is required to go there are no roads for him to use any vehicle, even if he had one. He lives away from his family who he sees perhaps once a week.
I am given to understand that the average age of the Forest Guard is 50 years and that young people are unwilling to take this job because of its hardship and deprivation. All these forests are starved of funds, thanks to our bureaucracy and many a time, even sanctioned funds are not released by State Governments. Be that as it may and no matter how unglamorous the job of the Forest Guard is, it is the most critical link in the chain that protects our wildlife and forests. It is critical that State Governments take note of the plight of these people and enhance their salaries and living conditions and do what it takes to ensure that they can do their jobs comfortably and effectively.
I firmly believe that the key to wildlife and forest conservation is the wholehearted support of local people. That can’t happen when they don’t know the forest, don’t know how to conduct themselves respectfully and safely in it and so live in fear of forests and wildlife instead of loving and enjoying them. That is also why we see the completely despicable and deplorable behavior of people when they do go to spend a few days in our National Parks. Go to any of our major parks and you will see people drunk, smoking and throwing cigarette butts and matches, eating junk food and throwing plastic wrappers anywhere, blaring radios and music from all kinds of devices, shouting and behaving in ways that can leave one in no doubt that the humans didn’t descend from monkeys. If they had, they would behave like monkeys, with respect and sensitivity to others who share the forest with them. Darwin would have changed his mind if he had visited Dhikala in Corbett National Park. But how do you get local people involved and interested in forests and wildlife conservation?
What I believe will help hugely in more ways than one is to involve our High School and College youth in wildlife conservation. It is only when the young generations learn to appreciate nature that they will do what needs to be done to protect and preserve it. I spent my entire school and college time in the 1960’s and 70’s, in the forests of the Sahyadri Hill Range in what is today called the Kawal Tiger Reserve. I would go off to the farm of Mr. Venkat Rama Reddy on the bank of the Kadam River and spend my entire summer and winter holidays with him. No electricity, no telephone, no running water. Wake and sleep with the sun.
I walked uncounted miles of animal tracks with my friend Shivaiyya, Uncle Rama’s Gond tracker, fished, bathed and swam in the Kadam and Dotti Vagu Rivers and sat at innumerable waterholes, watching animals and birds come to drink water in the summer where water is very scarce. As most of these rivers dry up in the summer, you can walk long distances on the river bed, where though the soft sand underfoot makes the going a little strenuous it saves you from the thorn bushes on the bank. If you walk up in the Kadam streambed and turn right to go up the Dotti Vaagu, you would come to some deep pools in a very shaded spot.
The water there does not dry out for a long time even in the summer. It is amazing how, as I write this today more than 45 years later, I can literally see in my mind the river, the pools, the bamboo fronds that cover that part of the forest, the light, and shade. I can still smell the forest on a sweltering hot afternoon and then the fresh smell of the earth in the morning, still wet with dewfall in the night. Memory is a powerful thing indeed. We didn’t have cameras then, but we lived these beautiful times and the memory will stay with me for as long as I live. After that, who cares?
I recall vividly as if it were yesterday, one time when I was sitting in a blind that had been cut into the middle of an acacia thorn bush, about 30 feet up the bank of the Dotti Vaagu. Very cramped space, a log to sit on and a small space opened in the front of the bush to stick the barrel of the gun through to give me a clear shot, if some animal came to drink water. The bush itself was about 50 yards up the slope that borders the water hole. On this very hot summer day, this is the only source of water for miles around, left over dregs of Dotti Vaagu. When you sit silently, you become a part of the surroundings. Your ears initially buzz with the residual sound of the bustle you have left behind. But after a while, they fall silent and then you begin to hear the sounds of the forest. The buzzing of the cicadas, the incessant call of the Brain-fever bird, the distant barking of dogs from the village.
Then as your ears get more attuned to the sounds, you start hearing the subtler ones; the rustle of the leaves as a rat snake makes his way from one shaded spot to another, the cooing of the turtle doves, bark of the Chital sentry when she sees something alarming. You hear the breeze in the dry leaves on the forest floor as they play chase with each other. The teak trees having shed most of their leaves, the dominant color is brown. There is very little shade, except under the acacia thorns like the one I am sitting in. There is some bamboo, but most of it is young and does not provide shade. There are no elephants in this forest, but the Bison (Gaur) browse on what they can reach of the bamboo and so do the Chital, Sambar, and Nilgai.
As I keep sitting very still, even controlling my breathing, knowing that above all else it is movement that attracts attention and becomes visible, I suddenly see a pair of jackals materialize in front of me. The bitch is more cautious and is lagging behind. The dog is ahead. Both sense that something is perhaps not as it should be. However, the wind is blowing steadily in my face and so I know they can’t smell me. The bitch even looks directly at me; perhaps she knows, maybe she can sense the rise and fall of my chest as I breathe or maybe it is an old memory she is trying to place. The moment passes and she follows her mate into the open. First, they drink, then they sit in the water on the edge and cool off in the intense heat of the day, then they start playing, chasing each other around like little puppies, secure in the knowledge that they are alone. It is a very rare moment for me, to be observing animals doing what they do when they are not afraid.
Even if I had a video camera, it could never capture the entire atmosphere; the excitement, the challenge of sitting silent and still like a tree stump, my outline broken by the bush I am sitting inside. The memory of those jackals is still so vivid in my mind that even today, 45 years later, I can see them playing in and around the water. Nothing lives that long in the wild. That pair of jackals is long gone. But I will remember them and that day, all my life.
After a while I realize that the jackals are a mixed blessing. Their presence will allay the fears of other animals heading to the water, as it is an indication that all is well. But at the same time, it will keep the smaller game, the Chinkara, the Chowsinga, and the Black-naped Hare away from the water hole. I want to make them leave but without alarming them so much that they warn everyone else of my presence. I gently clear my throat. It is as if an electric shock goes through their bodies. One minute they are carefree playmates. The next instant they go rigid for a split second and then like a flash, they are gone, each in a different direction to confuse the pursuer. I settle once again into the ritual of watching life happen. This enforced immobility and silence, the attendant boredom, initially; then the flow of thoughts in the mind, while trying to keep aware of the surroundings, is an incredibly powerful exercise for introspection. And waiting for and watching animals on a watering hole is the best way to do it.
I have not seen any initiative in our schools and colleges to encourage youth to spend time in the forests, not zipping around in Gypsies but actually camping and walking. They have no idea of the joy of waking up and watching the dawn breaking at the edge of a lake, waiting for the flights of duck and in season, geese to start coming over the horizon. I recall the incredibly beautiful magic of these flights, in V-formation come from one side before the rising sun, ‘disappear’ into it and then reappear on the other side as if they came out of the sun itself. As you watch the flights, you can hear fish plop in the water in the early morning feeding frenzy. They have no idea of the joy of listening to Cheetal alarm calls, asking a question and Sambhar answering it. That is when you understand the meaning of the term, ‘Silence speaks louder than words’. Because if a Sambhar doesn’t confirm the Cheetal’s sighting, I for one, would put it down to the Cheetal’s natural skittish nature of taking alarm at every shadow. I think this is the key to conservation, get the youth involved.
The problem is that today parents and teachers don’t know the joy of spending time in a forest, so they can’t teach others. Also, since they never learnt how to live in a forest, they are afraid and don’t enjoy it. It is a vicious spiral. The love of the forest must be inculcated early in childhood through controlled experiences which are monitored to ensure safety and are essentially immersion learning classes in life skills. If we do it right, then I believe that we will create a generation that truly loves the wild places and will invest time, energy and resources to ensure that they remain unspoilt for future generations. This will also bring about a better understanding of matters critical to survival like Global Warming, which currently seems to be suffering from the problem of having been defined in a way that makes it almost impossible for the average city dweller who thinks that his eggs and milk come from the supermarket, to comprehend, much less relate to in a personal way.
I suggest that the government starts a program like the NCC (National Cadet Core) which we have in most schools and colleges. A National Forest Core (NFC) can be formed which can be run by the Forest Department (Wildlife Conservation Wing) which can hold jungle camps, seminars, photography lessons and contests and wildlife tracking and spotting activities in school holidays. All these can be self-financed, paid for by the children as they are excellent educational and leadership development activities. In these camps in addition to learning about nature, flora and fauna, they can be taught orienteering, survival skills, camping, tracking and photography. These camps must be held inside forests and Forest Guards must be involved in them. They can talk to the children, tell them stories of their encounters with wildlife and teach them the basics of being safe in a forest. They can take small groups of children and their teachers on nature walks where they can experience the forest. Walk to a lake and sit quietly on the bank, just inside the tree line and sketch the scenery. As they sit there, they can watch animals and birds that come to the lake and observe their behavior and try to identify them. What can be done on such outings is endless and beyond the scope of this article. I just want to give you a taste so that you will be motivated to take action.
What is more important is that children will learn to appreciate and love nature and the natural world and understand how much quality it adds to life and how much we need it. They will meet tribal people (Adivasis) and learn about their lives, stay with them, understand their problems and learn to empathize with them. They will learn the importance of the many cycles of life and death that take place in the forest, where everything that dies, gives life to something else. They will be detoxified and experience what it means to breathe fresh air where it is made; in forests. They will remember the sight of the night sky above them and see the millions of stars that they can never see in their cities. They will learn to enjoy silence, punctuated by sounds, each of them evidence of life and activity. They will take away with them, memories which will last them their lifetimes and remind them of what they owe the earth.
The Forest Department can give children who participate in these programs, Honorary Forest Guard badges and a National Park Membership card which will entitle them to concessional fees when they visit any National Park in the country. They can hold competitions, quizzes and practical challenge competitions and give prizes. The first prize could be a badge making that child, Honorary Wildlife Warden. Children who have been to several camps could be recruited to participate in the Annual Wildlife Census that happens in all parks. They will be energetic, enthusiastic and incorruptible and not likely to write numbers of tigers and leopards in census forms, while imbibing tea in the village.
What better way to spend the holidays camping out in forests, walking the earth and learning about those who we share the earth with?
Uncle Rama at his desk – River Kadam in full flow
Time, late 60’s to middle 70’s. I used to spend all my school vacations and later, whatever time I had free from college with Uncle Rama in Sethpalli. Sethpalli is a small village about two kilometers from the bank of the Kadam River, with agricultural fields between the village and the river. Uncle Rama’s farmhouse was on the bank of the river itself, with his farmland behind and to the sides of it. The farmhouse consisted of a long veranda with a waist high wall, that ran the length of the front of the house, facing the river. The veranda had one door leading into the house, which opened into the central of three rooms. The middle room which you entered from the veranda was a passage cum dining room with one bedroom on either side. Both bedrooms had windows opening into the veranda as well as to the side of the house. The dining room had no windows, just the door leading into it from the veranda and another leading out into a veranda at the back of the house. As you entered this back veranda from the dining room, to your left was the kitchen, the domain of Kishtaiah the cook and opposite it, on the other end of the veranda, the bathroom. That literally meant what it was called, a room to have a bath in. It had a stone floor sloping gently to a drain in one corner. Water came in two buckets, one cold and one hot and you mixed it to the temperature you wanted.
If you sat on the veranda, which was the living room of the house, you looked out over a waist high wall which was also a seating arrangement, out to the river. Between you and the river were three massive tamarind trees, easily over fifty years old, perhaps more. They grew within touching distance of each other so that their branches held hands high in the air. The result was the densest shade you could imagine. There is something about the shade of tamarind trees that is cooler than the shade of any other tree. Maybe it is my imagination but I recall the countless afternoons that I spent lying on a charpoy in that shade, gazing up at the canopy of tiny compound leaves, marveling at the multiple shapes and shades of green. A few yards beyond the trees, the land sloped steeply into the bed of the Kadam River. The channel itself meandered from one bank of the river bed to the other depending on where it had been flowing most vigorously in the monsoon. In the summer, the channel was a trickle which you could cross literally by jumping over its narrowest part. But in the monsoon the Kadam flowed strong and deep from one bank to the other. I never measured the actual width of the river at the farm but I think it was probably about half a kilometer in width.
My almost invariable daily routine was to take off into the forest after breakfast, with Shivaiyya as my companion and return only after dark. Shivaiyya was one of the people who worked on Uncle Rama’s farm and like most of them had no fixed duties. He was there to do whatever needed to be done which during my visits was simply to be with me. He was older and far wiser and his job was to see that I didn’t do anything stupid while we were in the forest. He was a great friend and we shared our food and an occasional beedi, especially on a very cold night when we would sit up at a Sambar rolling spot, waiting for Sambar to come down from the hills. Naturally this would be only towards early morning after any Sambar had been and gone, because a beedi is the surest way to warn off any animal.
I would either not eat lunch at all or take a roti or two in a small metal tiffin box with some mango or lime pickle to eat for lunch, which Shivaiyya and I would share. But most often we just drank water from the deep pools in the river, left over from the flow that dries up in the summer. If you spread your handkerchief on the surface of the water and suck through the cloth, you manage to get some clean water to drink. This method will not save you from chemical pollution, but mercifully those were the days before we destroyed our rivers. Then we would sleep in the heaviest shade that we could find, which was not easy in the summer because the forest (and teak plantations) are deciduous and have hardly any leaves. But if you went to a bend in the river which still retained some moisture, you would get some trees with leaves and welcome shade. Sleeping in a forest with tigers and leopards was not without its hazards, but the tiger is not as opportunistic as the African Lion and so you are quite safe in these forests. I am living proof that tigers don’t eat junk food and recall with great pleasure the many times that I have slept the deepest, most peaceful and comfortable sleep of my life in a sandy stream bed or in the shade of a forest giant.
Shivaiyya and Kishtaiah (40 years after this story in 2010)
One morning we took off on our walk, Shivaiyya and I, with me carrying a 7.62 rifle and Shivaiyya carrying the .22. The forest in this area – around the Kadam River – is semi deciduous with teak, katha, mahua, ber, and some bamboo. The teak, katha and mahua shed their leaves in summer so the forest floor is carpeted with dry leaves, which makes for some noisy walking; not the best thing if you want to shoot any game. The ber and bamboo thickets retain their leaves, but are too thorny and thick to walk in. So, we stick to the pathways. The forest is interspersed with open glades carpeted with grass. These are the potential places to see something to shoot, especially small game.
As we walked, I spotted a large male peacock with a magnificent tail, sitting on a dead tree stump and yelling his guts out as they are wont to do. I exchanged my rifle with the .22 as shooting a peacock with a 7.62 would mean getting two stumps of legs as the residue. I crept up very slowly while Shivaiyya simply sat down on his haunches in the pathway and disappeared, waiting for me to complete my stalk. This is where the dry leaf fall comes to the aid of the quarry and is a bane in the life of the hunter. As I was almost in range, I stepped on a dead branch hiding under the leaves and it broke with the sound of a pistol shot. The peacock took off like a rocket into the air and was gone. I cursed my own clumsiness and stood up from my crouch only to see a small sounder of wild boar run across the clearing. Unfortunately, though they were in range, I had the wrong weapon in my hand; I simply stood by and watched them run. Some days are just not yours.
We proceeded on our way, this time with me carrying the heavier rifle until we came to a place where the path passed around the foot of a small and very rocky hillock. I wanted to tarry a bit and maybe climb it to look around, but Shivaiyya, very uncharacteristically, hurried me along. After we were well clear of the hillock, more than 2 kilometers away, he said to me, ‘Dora, you didn’t see it but there was a tigress on the hillock sitting before a cave. She has three cubs there and I saw the kill she brought for them last night. She was looking at us and I didn’t want to precipitate anything so I hurried you along.’ Much as I would have liked to see the tigress myself, I realized that effectively, he had saved our lives as well as the life of the tigress. Had I tried to climb that hill, she would have attacked and one of us would have died. Tragic, if it had been the tigress.
We stopped to rest on the bank of the Dotti Vaagu, a tributary of the Kadam, at a place where there was a good deal of shade. Below where we sat was a water hole in a bend in the river, always a very productive place to watch wildlife in the summer. Companionship is a wonderful thing and in my view the sign of a good companion is the quality of the silence when you are together. Shivaiyya was a very good companion. A man of few words except in the nights when he’d had his spiritual experience for the day. Then he would make up for all the silences of the day and would talk non-stop. But during the day we would walk and rest in silence, speaking only when it was necessary. This gave me a lot of time with my thoughts. We sat high up on the bank with our body outline broken by the bamboo clump behind us and dozed. I can’t describe the sense of peace and calmness that permeates you as you sit in a forest without any deadlines, phones, or email; simply being. Mobile phones and email didn’t even exist in those days and what are the deadlines for a schoolboy in his summer holiday? The heat or cold ceases to have any meaning after a while as your body gets accustomed to the outside atmosphere. Then sleep descends on you and you doze. This is not the sleep of those who are dead to the world. It is the sleep of those whose eyes may be shut but their ears are listening and their mind senses what is going on. You are still aware of what is going on around you even though you are apparently asleep. This ability is very useful because it enables you to rest in short breaks and keeps your energy high for the ongoing journey.
As I sit there, I can distinguish the regular sounds from those which are new and announce that we have company. This time it is a Chital hind, the scout who signals to her herd that all is clear. Not a very good scout if you ask me, because she didn’t see us. And had our intentions been less noble, she wouldn’t be signaling anyone else thereafter. As it was, I had no desire to shoot anything and was content to watch the Chital come to drink. There is perhaps nothing more cute and lovable than a Chital fawn. And there were several in this small herd. A good sign that the prey population was healthy, which meant that the predators would do well. A good prey population is a sign both that the predators have enough to eat and that they are therefore unlikely to stray into the villages to take the unwary goat or cow and thereby fall into conflict with their human neighbors from which there is only one exit – death for the animal. Whenever there is conflict between humans and animals, the animals always pay the price. That is what has gone very wrong with the whole issue of tiger conservation in India. It is habitat destruction which is the number one killer of tigers. It leads to human – tiger conflict and a lot of dead tigers. I believe we have reached a point of no return in this case and advise people to go and view as many tigers as they can while they are still there. I don’t think it will take all that long for us to reach a stage where to see a tiger you will need to go to an animal prison, aka, zoo, because none will be left alive in the wild. There is nothing more invigorating than a forest full of animals and nothing more dead and tragic than one which has been sanitized and is free from all animals. Our forests in India are fast reaching the latter situation. I am glad I was there to witness when this was not the case and hopefully I will not be there to witness forests devoid of their lawful inhabitants.
On another occasion, it was the height of summer with temperatures in the high 40’s and the deciduous teak forests almost totally bare. There was almost no shade and the forest floor was littered with dry leaves, which made an infernal crackling when we walked on them. Uncle Rama took me to see another part of the forest and he decided that we would walk. He would always wear leather slippers with the sole made of a car tire. They were specially made for him and he found them very comfortable. I personally wouldn’t wear them for love or money because they were so hard and unyielding that walking in them for a few hundred meters was enough to take the skin off the foot. He would wear a pair of army issue camouflage trousers and a shirt with large patch pockets in which he would have spare shells for his weapon. He would carry his shotgun, I would carry the .22 rifle and Shivaiyya or some other gun bearer would carry a heavier rifle, either a 9mm Mauser or a 7.62.
Neelgai (Blue bull male)
That day the trek was to be fairly long – walking at approximately 3 miles per hour, we walked a total of 8 hours that day – so Uncle Rama had asked Kishtaiah the cook to pack something to eat. As we left, I saw Shivaiyya carrying a tiffin carrier – three steel compartments in a metal frame, which made me very happy imagining what Kishtaiah would have packed into it. He was a fantastic cook, trained by Uncle Rama and his masala fried meat was simply superb. Strangely, nobody remembered to carry any water. We walked for about 4 hours, but didn’t see a single animal. It was our aim to shoot either a young Blue Bull (Nilgai), India’s largest antelope and one of only two species which exist in the Sahyadris, the other being the endangered Four-horned antelope, a small goat sized creature, very fast on its legs. Nilgai typically lie down in any shade they can find in the hot hours and so if you walk softly you can come up to one and get within range before the animal gets spooked.
The day got hotter and hotter as we walked. One principle of walking in the heat is not to keep drinking water as it only makes you thirstier, so none of us asked for water. The forest itself was very dry with no sign of any water anywhere. Eventually, we found a small bamboo thicket, which retains its green leaves throughout summer and provides shade. We were all very tired and hot and dusty. Not sweaty, because the sweat dried on you instantly due to the dry heat. Both Uncle Rama and I sank thankfully onto the ground in the dappled shade of the bamboo. Uncle Rama called for the tiffin carrier and Shivaiyya brought it to us. When we opened the cover, to our great surprise and considerable consternation, we found that Kishtaiah had filled all three compartments with a most delicious and rich dessert made of fried bread, khova (made from boiling milk until it almost becomes solid), ghee (clarified butter), and of course lots of sugar. We call it Dabal ka Meetha (bread is called Dabal-roti; which literally means double-roti) in Hyderabad. All three of us were very hungry and the dessert was delicious and so we ate it all up. After we ate, we realized that it was a mixed blessing indeed. I said surprise and consternation earlier because while the idea of eating just dessert may seem like having heaven on earth, one of the outcomes of eating a lot of sugar and fat is that you get intensely thirsty. And now we discovered that we had no water.
The forest was a uniform grey with the trunks of the teak trees standing tall in a desolate landscape. The breeze when it blew was straight from the furnace and started up little dust devils that swirled away into nothing. The stronger ones picked up a dry leaf or two, waltzing it up and then leaving it in midair, to float gently down among others of its tribe away from its earlier company. The cicadas ensured that everyone was aware of their presence. Cicadas make their distinctive sound using sound makers called ‘Tymbals’ on the sides of their abdomen. The sound is loud up to 120 decibels and the volume of thousands singing together in chorus can be imagined. This is what Wikipedia has to say about the Cicada. There are also recordings of the sound on this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cicada
Having finished our high energy lunch, we decided to head for home so that the walk would distract us from the thirst. Although the walk was as interesting as these walks always are, especially in anticipation of seeing some animal or the other as we went along, the thirst built up steadily, reinforced by the intense heat. In the summer in India it is only when the sun sets that the heat lessens, even to the extent that nights in summer in the forest can be cold. But in the day the heat increases especially in the afternoon when the sun is past its zenith. The fact that the forest was devoid of shade was not helpful either in alleviating the hardship. Eventually, almost after an hour of walking we came upon a Gond villager heading home in his bullock cart. He had with him his supply of water which he carried in a dried gourd, the mouth of which was plugged with some grass. Like all Indian villagers, he was more than happy to oblige us when we requested him for a mouthful of water. The water was tepid, smelt of the earth and grass but tasted sweeter than nectar. Taste is proportionate to need. Truly nothing quenches thirst like water. Now refreshed thanks to the man’s generosity, we walked on.
As we approached the village, I witnessed one of the strangest incidents of my life. We were almost in sight of the Gond village from where we would cross the Kadam River to get to Uncle Rama’s farmhouse. We could hear the sounds of the village getting ready for the night – dogs barking as the cattle returned to their pen, some cows bellowing their irritation at being hurried by the herd boys, others calling to their calves which tend to get lost in the melee. A lady calling her missing youngsters who had obviously gone off to something more interesting than the errands assigned to them. The ‘whap’ of a stick hitting the reluctant behind of an ox that refuses to do the bidding of its master. As we walked I said to Uncle Rama, ’It’s strange we didn’t see anything today after all that walking. Just two days ago, right here I saw an antelope watching me as I was returning home.’ I gestured over my left shoulder and pointed – and behold, an antelope was standing watching us go by. In less time than it takes to say this, Uncle Rama brought the .22 rifle up to his shoulder in one fluid movement and pulled the trigger. So, we did have something to show as a result of our very long and hard walk. I felt a little sorry for the antelope of course but it is strange how curiosity kills deer and antelope more than anything else. They will stand and watch instead of running away and so hunters eat.
He was the king of the forest (or so he thought about himself). He stood over five feet tall at the shoulder, weighed over one thousand pounds, with a massive neck supporting a rack of magnificent antlers rising high above that. The antlers were very impressive to look at and very useful in battle when he had to defend his harem against uppity youngsters, trying their strength against him. They could however be a fatal liability in thick bush as they could get caught in it and become the cause of his demise, if had to make a quick dash to save himself from his only predator, the tiger. So, he had learnt to stay in relatively open areas of rocky slopes, dotted with trees and some bush. He knew how to stand or sit with his outline broken so that to the casual observer he became a part of the landscape, his body color merging with the earth and his antlers simply dead branches. Especially when he was aware of being watched but not yet alarmed to make a dash for it, he knew how to be so still that even a second look wouldn’t reveal him to the observer. What he had no control over was his ears. They had to keep moving to scan for sounds, which may spell danger from a direction he was not looking at. And they were what gave away his location to the observer who had patience. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambar_deer
On this day, he had had good browsing all night and then just before dawn he had gone to his favorite rolling spot; a wide pool full of slush. His kind rolled in it until they were covered in liquid mud which later dried to form a coat impermeable to flies and biting insects which were the bane of his life. A good roll ensured that he would be able to rest up during the day peacefully. Sambar are active at and after dusk into the night and so spend most of the day, resting in shady spots. The only danger with rolling was that tigers also knew about this luxury of Sambars. So, rolling spots were a favorite ambush spot for the tiger. For the tiger, a Sambar rolling in the mud is almost a sure meal because it is impossible for the Sambar to rise from a prone position on his back and side and run before the tiger closes on him. So, Sambar are extremely cautious when they go to roll and spend far more time casing the joint, than in actually rolling. The roll is really a quick one, very like a horse rolling in the dust (for the same reason) and then he is up, all senses in high alert, trying to see if he can do another roll or must run for it.
For an animal this big, Sambar are extremely agile and gallop up and down steep rocky slopes as if they were flying. Having ridden horses, cross country I can vouch for it that there is no horse or horseman in the world which can chase a Sambar either up or down a slope without breaking a leg of the horse and killing himself. But Sambar do it all the time. As a matter of fact, their favorite escape tactic is to race downhill at full gallop, which even tigers can’t match them at. All this of course if they are alert to danger and get as much of a head start as possible. Awareness is their best defence and their best guarantee of survival. This stag had reached his prime because he had mastered the art of being alert. There were deep claw marks on his withers to show the only encounter with a tiger; a young male whose ambition exceeded his ability. But still his claws drew lines in the Sambar stag’s hide that healed but remained as a reminder to him of the importance of being on his guard all the time.
Today he had been sitting in the shade of a large, gnarled Babool tree halfway up the slope of the range of hills that rise from the waters of the Kadam Dam. After his browsing in the night, he had had a long and cool drink from the waters of the lake and climbed up the slope to his favorite spot under this tree. It was high enough to give him a vantage point. Before him was open land, very rocky and interspersed with stunted Seetaphal (Custard Apple), Lantana, Ber and young Babool. Behind him the hillside rose steeply and was covered with scree which meant that anyone coming down that slope would almost certainly send a few small stones rolling down, enough to alert him to possible danger. It was still fairly early in the day but it promised to be another hot one. Summers here tended to be extremely hot with temperatures in the forties. The sky was clear and blue which would take a steely hue as the sun racked up the temperature but for now, the breeze blowing his way over the water of the dam was still cool. All seemed right with the world but he was not happy. Something within him told him that today was not a day like all others. There was an ominous feeling inside him which he couldn’t describe but which his kind had learnt to trust. A feeling of impending danger which he couldn’t find evidence for but which he knew could save his life. He was uneasy but not yet alarmed enough to leave his cool spot in the shade and make a break for it.
I was nineteen years old and spending my summer vacation with Uncle Rama in Sethpally, a little village in Adilabad District of Telangana. Sethpally is close to the bank of the Kadam River which flows into the lake created by the Kadam Dam, from which rise the mountains of the Sahyadri Range. Rocky and sparsely covered with semideciduous forest and thorn bush but famous for Sambar. As it is open forest, the stags tend to grow a large head of antlers, a prime consideration for trophy hunters. The biggest stags are to be found further north in Madhya Pradesh, but the Sambar of this part of the world were nothing to be sneezed at either.
I used to spend all my vacations with Uncle Rama on his farmhouse which was on the bank of the Kadam wandering in the forest all day or if I was home, sleeping off the hottest part of the day in the thick shade of the three huge tamarind trees that grew between the farmhouse and the river. There is no air-conditioning to beat the coolness of the shade of a tamarind tree and no soothing sleep inducing music to beat the sound of the breeze rustling its leaves. The forest is never totally silent, though between midday and late afternoon, which is the hottest part of the day, is perhaps the quietest. Still you would hear the occasional barking of a dog from the Gond village on the other side of the river, or the cooing of Ring Necked doves roosting in the thick foliage of the tamarind trees I was sleeping under. Occasionally the alarm call of the Red Wattled Lapwing would sound its question, ‘Did-you-do-it?’ over and over until presumably it discovered who had done it. All this over the background of the ceaseless buzz of the Cicadas and the call of the Common Hawk Cuckoo (Brain Fever Bird), starting low and rising to a crescendo and ending only to rise again. Here is a recording of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPqi5BcfETMBut all these sounds are part of the atmosphere of the forest and not only don’t disturb your sleep but soothe you into it. Today, over forty years later, I still remember the peace and tranquility of that sleep.
Last evening Uncle Rama decided that we should go on a game drive. Now these are things that I’d only known to have happened in British India with the Maharajas and their cronies the White Sahibs. To actually be one of the guns in a game drive is something that I had never imagined in my wildest dream. My excitement knew no bounds. I could hardly sleep that night. The next day there was a council of war, as it were. The head of the Lambada Tanda (Tanda is what a Lambada village is called) came to see Uncle Rama to decide on the number of men we would need for the drive. Plans were made for camping as we would be away for three days in all. These were the days when hunting was permitted and so all permissions were obtained and the local DFO (District Forest Officer) was one of the invitees. My single thought, however, was to get a big Sambar stag to my credit.
The place we planned to go to was some miles away from the farm, a part of the Sahyadri Mountain Range (Western Ghats) that bordered the Kadam River dam. These hills are thickly forested and very steep, coming down to the water’s edge on one side and rolling away, one into another on the other; ideal Sambar country. Also, ideal tiger and leopard country. The Sambar in this area is a large animal with the stags sporting a very respectable set of antlers, but not the gigantic racks of the Sambar of Madhya Pradesh. These are forest Sambar and an overly large head of horns would be a distinct disadvantage. Having said that, it is only in comparison that their antlers are smaller. By themselves they are very impressive indeed.
In addition to the species I mentioned, in these hills that we were going to beat, are wild boar, sloth bears, bison, and peacocks. No Chital or Nilgai as they prefer more open area. Also, many Grey Jungle Fowl with their familiar crowing in the mornings and at dusk. So, there was much expectation about all the different animals that we were likely to see. We had emphatic instructions from Uncle Rama that we were not to shoot a tiger, bear, bison, or leopard under any circumstances. Everything else was fair game. And the main quarry of course was a good Sambar stag. Shoot or not, the very thought that we would possibly see a tiger or leopard at close quarters was something to make the heart race in anticipation and not a little fear. As it happened, we did not see any of the ‘prohibited’ species.
But let me tell the tale in sequence for it is one in which I discovered something about myself. Something that I remember with happiness and pride to this day.
We started just before day break the next morning, having spent the greater part of the night in preparation. Guns to be cleaned, ammo to be sorted out and kept in order so that it was easily accessible. Food for the day plus cooking pots, condiments, some vegetables, rice, dal, sugar, tea, and milk powder for the next three days. Camping stuff; sleeping bags, small tents, and all the rest. And of course, knives. However, one major caveat – the word ‘knife’ was not to be spoken aloud in any language. Uncle Rama believed that if one said the word ‘knife’ (in any language – as we all habitually spoke at least 3 languages) it would bring us bad luck and we would not see any game. So, we made very sure never to say ‘knife’. Uncle Rama had a beauty, a medium sized switch blade knife with a tungsten steel blade, sharp as a razor. I was its keeper as I was also the official ‘Halaal’ guy, whose job it was to make sure that at least one of the animals shot was killed in the Muslim, zabiha way, so that I and Uncle Rama’s other Muslim friends would not go hungry.
By the time we reached Kadam River Dam, it was getting light. We parked the jeeps by the canal and started off in a single file up the forest track. The Lambadas were already at the site and we had many willing hands for the stuff we were carrying. Each of us only carried his personal weapon. Uncle Rama was a great stickler for safety and made sure that there was no cartridge up the spout of any gun and that all safety catches were on. Silence was essential as we didn’t want to disturb the game and it was prohibited to shoot anything on the way to the camp. We walked on as daylight grew stronger, harbinger of the heat of the day that was to come.
As we climbed the hills, I looked all around me hoping to see signs of the game that we had come to hunt. But apart from occasional droppings, there was not a sign that anything lived in these hills. The path wound serpentiously along through dry teak plantation forests, with the huge dry teak leaves crackling loudly if you stepped on them. This was almost impossible to avoid and it made me even more anxious that we were scaring all the animals away by our loud approach. Finally, at about 8:30 am we came to a clearing, a large expanse of open ground, very rocky and sloping down to the river on one side. All the trees in sight were dry and leafless so there was almost no shade and the sheet of rocks promised a very hot stay. However, we were not planning to stay in the tents that were pitched immediately and in any case, I was too excited to worry about anything other than the coming hunt.
After a hurried breakfast, and fortified by extremely sweet, milky tea, we set off to establish the shooting line.
In any game drive, the positioning of the guns is critical to success. It is essential to do the positioning as unobtrusively as possible so as not to alarm any game that may be in the area and which would clear off if alarmed. Uncle Rama did it himself, making sure not only that each person was positioned strategically to cover a given expanse of ground, but that each person’s ‘territory’ overlapped the boundary of his neighbor but was still at a safe distance from him. This way, the two guns would have a fair chance of spotting an animal between them, but would not accidentally shoot each other.
As I mentioned earlier, this is hilly country with steep climbs and deep valleys and ravines. Positioning all the guns means to walk the entire line and in the growing heat of the day, it’s no picnic. The ‘Brain-fever’ bird and the always present cicadas were the only accompaniment as we were all sworn to silence on the pain of death. Once all were in place, and Uncle Rama was also back in his own station at the end of the line, he gave the signal and the beat started.
It is almost impossible to describe the excitement of waiting. First there is silence. There is no sign that anything is happening at all. Then slowly as some time passes, you start hearing the beaters. These are men who walk along towards you in a widely spaced line, simply talking to each other loudly, throwing stones into any likely looking thicket to raise any animal which may be hiding in it and occasionally shouting, especially if they wanted to alert the guns to anything special. The idea is to get the animals to move but not to scare them too much, otherwise they would come to the guns too fast leading to missed shots of worse still, wounded animals. The excitement is palpable and is the essence of the experience of being a ‘gun’ in a beat.
My own station was in the middle of a thick Ber (Ziziphus mauritiana) bush, very thorny and very uncomfortable even though some space had been cleared for me to stand in the center. Directly in front, facing a slope going down into the valley before me, a small section of the bush had been cut out so that I would have a clear field of fire. Yet to anyone looking at the bush from outside, I would be invisible. In this position, I stood, silently ignoring the flies and the dribbling rivulets of sweat going down my neck. It is important to remember that it is movement that attracts attention and makes one visible. If you are still and your body outline is broken up by the surroundings then you can be almost invisible even to anyone looking directly at you. But the moment you even blink an eye, you will become visible. I knew this very well and so stood very still listening to the sounds of the beaters.
His instincts were right. His uneasiness justified. He stood up and scented the air and could faintly smell man. The breeze was blowing to him from the lake below so he could scent them. He could also hear them talking to one another. He remembered an earlier instance a few years ago when he was not yet in his prime, when he was in such a situation. As he tried to flee from the men on that occasion, he almost came in the way of a tiger but strangely the tiger was more alarmed than he was and didn’t show the slightest interest in him. Then he heard loud bangs behind him and to one side, and he ran for his life. He had no idea what was happening but he was glad that he came out of that unscathed. Today once again, it seemed that it was something similar. Something that didn’t bode well for him if he didn’t get away. He was still not in a panic. But he was definitely fearful and extremely cautious. His senses were all at peak alert, trying to sense the slightest movement before him or scent on the breeze as he purposefully climbed up the hillside to get to the path he knew would take him down the other side to safety.
And then it happened! I saw some movement directly opposite me, coming up the slope. First, I saw the tips of his antlers, then the head and neck and then the full deep chested body of a full-grown Sambar stag, alarmed but not scared, looking over his shoulder occasionally as he climbed the hill, coming directly at me. I can never describe the majesty of his progress. He looked like the king he was, fearing nothing except the tiger and of course man. He knew that danger was behind him and knew how to get away. The wind was blowing up from the lake from him in my direction, so he had no idea how close he was to me. He was huge and as he came up the hill, he grew bigger in my eyes. In such a situation when you are either facing grave danger or high excitement, you live in the moment. Adrenalin is coursing through your veins and heightens all sensation. You see in vivid color, you smell all the variety of smells coming your way on the breeze and you feel the heart pounding in your breast and hear your blood racing in your ears.
I could smell him, the rank smell of cattle. He had been rolling in mud and his coat was caked in it. But what I noticed was the deep raking marks of tiger claws on his withers. This was a stag who’d had a close brush with death. I wondered how he got away. But he had and here he was, facing death again but without the slightest idea about it. He had a big head of antlers, the ideal trophy for me right in the beginning of the drive. What phenomenal good fortune for me, I thought.
My gun was already at port and to gently bring it to my shoulder and my cheek to the stock was a matter of an instant and I was looking at the throat of the Sambar through the open sights. I took in the slack of the trigger and knew that if I just squeezed my grip one degree, this stag would become a trophy in my house. And that is when I discovered something about my own nature. I discovered that it was impossible for me to kill something as beautiful and majestic as this. I just stood there and looked, drinking in the sight of this fabulous animal coming up the slope, carrying his antlers as proudly as any king with his crown. When he came right to the top, I whistled. The change in his stance was magical. One instant he was looking backward concerned about the sounds of the beaters. Next instant, electrified, all his adrenaline pumping into his bloodstream, he honked in alarm and was gone in a flash.
That was effectively the end of the drive for me as I was no longer in a mood to hunt. I just sat and enjoyed the scenery and re-lived the experience of my Sambar again and again. To this day, I can see him walking up that slope, coming to the gun held by a boy who would not shoot. When we all collected after the drive to look at what the bag was, the beaters asked me about the Sambar which they had seen. Nobody was amused or impressed with my story of why I could not bring myself to shoot the animal. Uncle Rama kept silent in all the ribbing that I was getting. When the others had gone off, he came to me and said, “Yawar-baba, I am proud of you. What you did is true sportsmanship.” Such were my teachers. The lesson to follow my heart, notwithstanding unpopularity, is something that I have never forgotten all my life.
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.