Tiger, Tiger burning bright

Tiger, Tiger burning bright

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.

1.    Habitat destruction:

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.

Corbett Park – Tourism, Incredible India

The India Tourism byline is – Incredible India. 
I agree. I encountered it. Here is what happened.
I decided to go to Corbett Tiger Reserve – being one of my favourite places on earth. I am a lifelong wildlife enthusiast and photographer and ensure that I spend at least a few days every quarter in the wilds. There are sea people, mountain people and among the Arabs – desert people. I am a forest person. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to spend time by myself, without any connection to the outside world, in the middle of a forest. 
Having done this all my life, I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about the sounds and signs of the jungle and know how to read them so that I keep myself safe from danger while enjoying the beauty of unspoilt nature. In the world that I grew up in, all I needed to do was to take a small haversack and catch a bus and a few hours later I would be in the forests of the Aravalli hills, in the farm house of my dear friend and mentor, Venkat Rama Reddy sahib, located on the bank of the Kadam River in Adilabad district (Map link). But today I have to go to an official wildlife sanctuary and so am forced to come into contact with those denizens of the forest who are not listed in the list of wildlife that you are likely to encounter there. Therefore you are unprepared when you do encounter them. I thought I should do the kind thing and prepare you so that you are not caught unawares and pay the price of shattered dreams.
 I started by taking the law abiding citizen route and tried to make a booking on the internet on the Corbett Tiger Reserve website which promises a lot. I had been to Dhikala and Bijrani Ranges in 2006 and so I decided to go to a different range and chose Sona Nadi Range. That range has three Forest Guest Houses. I had four days and decided to spend two in one guest house and two in another so that we would be able to see two different parts of the park. And that is where my story began:
I entered all the data that the form asks for and selected two days for Haldupudao guest house but the system would take only one day or three days. I wanted two. Then I thought I would be clever and book the two days, one by one. So I chose one day and completed the booking and made the payment with my credit card. Then I went in again to choose another day but the system wouldn’t accept the booking claiming that I have visited the park less than one month ago. Since I last visited the park nine years ago, I was astonished. But to no avail. The system knew best and repeatedly rejected my booking for another day. So eventually in frustration I decided to cancel the booking I had already made as I didn’t want to go from Hyderabad to Corbett for one day’s stay. But the system refused to accept the cancellation. Imagine my further astonishment when this happened. 
However, there were two numbers that I could call in case of difficulty, so I did. But I forgot, though being Indian I should have known better, that in Indian Government (Forest Department and Wildlife Sancturies are Government of India, believe me) if they say you can call, that is precisely what they mean. You can call. As many times as you like. There is on restriction on that. However, they didn’t say that anyone would answer your call, did they? So how can you blame them if they don’t? And that is what happened to me. I called and called and no answer. As they say, perseverance pays – though not always what you wish. So after the tenth call a lady answered in Hindi. I speak Hindi fluently so no problems there.
I explained my problem to her and asked if she could help. 
Corbett Lady: Aap internet par booking keejiye. Hum kuch nahi kar saktay.
(You can book on the internet. We can’t do anything)
Me: Madam main nay internet par hi booking kee hai. Wahan booking nahi ho rahi hai. Isi liye aap ko call kiya kyon ki aap ka number website par diya hai.
(Madam, I tried doing that and it is not working. That is why I called you because your number is given on the website)
Corbett Lady: Hum kuch nahin kar saktay. Aap internet par booking keejiye.
(You can book on the internet. We can’t do anything)
Me: (after going this route a couple of times more) Achcha Madam aap hamari booking cancel kar deejiye aur payment reverse kar deejiye.
(Okay Madam, please cancel my booking and reverse the payment.)
Corbett Lady: Aap internet par booking keejiye. Hum kuch nahi kar saktay.
(You can book on the internet. We can’t do anything)
Me: Madam booking cancel karnay ko kah raha hoon. Aap cancel karengi tho mujhe paisa wapas milega. Warna mera paisa nahin mil sakta. Please cancel keejiye.
(Madam, I am asking you to please cancel the booking and return my money. Unless you cancel the booking the credit card payment can’t be reversed and I can’t get my money back. Please cancel the booking, I request you.)
Corbett Lady: Nahin karengay.
Me. Madam, mera paisa hai. Meri booking hai. Aap ko sirf cancel karnay ko kaha. Kyon nahin karengay?
Corbett Lady: Nahin karengay.
(I won’t do it.)
And she hung up.
Now I am the persistent sort and definitely dislike my money being stolen, no matter who does it. I pay my taxes diligently and see no reason to subsidize the government any more. So I used my connections and got a friend to help and had them make the booking for the other days in Ramnagar where the Corbett Park Head Quarters are located. But thanks to some more communication issues, all four days got booked in Haldupudao guest house.
I didn’t have the energy to make any more changes and so left it like that. Corbett is beautiful and if I had to stay in one guest house for four days, so be it.  At Ramnagar we took our Gypsy safari vehicle and proceeded to Haldupudao. We arrived at the Vatanvasa gate and when I gave my booking (called permit) to the guard, I realized that the permit was printed in English while the Forest Guards at the gate didn’t have a word of it. So I had to translate for them. I could have said whatever I wanted of course and they had no means of knowing if I spoke the truth but I did speak the truth and translated properly wondering what the point of a permit in English was, when it was to be read by people who don’t speak the language at all.
It takes roughly three hours to get to Haldupudao but since most of that journey is through the forest, crossing rivers on wooden bridges and driving over gravel river beds with a foot or more of water, it was thoroughly enjoyable. The Maruti Gypsy is the vehicle of choice for Indian jungle roads. It has front wheel drive, and FWD if you need it and does everything except climb trees. Our driver has to be one of the most service oriented guys I have ever met. He is employed by a local tour operator and so is uninfected with Sarkaari Jaraseem (Official Germs). He is a very skilled driver and a cook rolled into one, speaks Hindi like a runaway express train and is full of great wisdom like what he said about our current times:
Ghoday ko na milay ghaas par Gadhe khayen Chawanprash
We arrived in Haldupudao and as we drove in I was delighted to see the guest house, an old stone bungalow (built in 1849) with its typical wide veranda in front and chimneys promising a fire place in the house. There is nothing more enjoyable than a log fire in the sitting room on a cold winter night and nothing more painful than its absence. But to my surprise we didn’t go to the guest house but to what was the Outhouse (a plaque still states that) upon which had been built two rooms with bathrooms. The problem was that there were twenty high stairs to get to them. I had a bad knee and my doctor strictly forbade climbing stairs. Nowhere in the booking process did it say anything about stairs. So what was I to do? 
(That’s a picture of me struggling up the stairs)


I tried speaking to the care taker about this:
Me: Hum us guest house mein nahin reh saktay hain?
(Can’t we stay in that (old) guest house)
CT: Nahin Saab
(No Sir)
Me: Kyon?
CT: Wo sirf Wan Adhikarion kay liye hai
(That is only for Forest Authorities)
Me: Tho kya koi aanay wala hai in char dinon mein?
(Is any of them booked to come here during the next four days)
CT: Nahin Saab
(No Sir)
Me: Tho phir hum kyon nahin reh saktay hain?
(Then why can’t we stay there?)
CT: Kyon ki aap Wan Adhikaari nahin ho.
(Because you are not a Forest Authority)
That was plain enough even for my stupid head. That’s how our bureaucracy, strangely called Civil Service (which is neither civil nor a service) works. Gathers unto itself all that it has been given in trust.

So I abandoned that line and tried to appeal to his better self. But I should have first checked to see if it was with him. I discovered later that it was still in his village with his family. I am not reporting that conversation because it is simply too tedious. The long and short of it was that I had no option but to ignore my doctor and climbed up and down the stairs for four days, praying that I didn’t end up suffering for it.
The night was fantastic as all nights in the forest are. There is a cook in Haldupudao who will cook what you bring. The cook believes that he can cook and he has the freedom to believe whatever he likes as this is a free country. However, if it hadn’t been for the culinary skills of our driver, we would have been captive victims of his cooking and lucky to escape with our lives. As it was, the cook became our guest and ate better than he would have fed anyone. He was a man with spiritual inclination and so every night after dinner he would be in his cups and we would be his captive audience, listening to his caterwauling from the lower floor as we tried to sleep upstairs. Mercifully his stamina didn’t keep up with his spirits and he shortly fell asleep and left us to do the same.
The rooms we occupied didn’t have heating or a fireplace to light a fire in and so on the first night I froze to death. My feet lost contact with me and I tried to imagine how I would manage without feet the next day. Truly it is said that necessity is the mother of invention and so the cold forced me to invent the hot water bottle. I took two plastic water bottles, filled them with boiling water and inserted them under my blanket praying they wouldn’t burst. They didn’t and I slept well the next two days. By the morning, 5.00 a.m. however they get cold and so getting up and washing in cold water which appeared to come straight from a glacier was decidedly painful.
The highlight of the first night was that at about 4.00 a.m. I heard the alarm call of a Barking Deer from right inside our camp. He was calling so insistently that I was sure there was a leopard outside the door. So I quietly got out of bed and opened my door and came out on the landing to be greeted with the sight of a female leopard that had come calling. She sat on her haunches like a dog and looked up at me and I looked down at her. Then she got up and walked away, evidently not liking what she saw. Rejection is painful, even by a female leopard.
Next morning, we started out early as that is the best time to see predators – tigers and leopards. It was very misty and bitterly cold and an open Gypsy is not the best place to be in at that time. But off we went, wrapped in garment after garment, trying to prove the efficacy of layering to keep the cold out. We drove down one road and watched the sun rise over the river. Absolutely beautiful sight. Then we drove back a ways and tried to go on another road because we had not seen anything on the road we went on first. To our surprise but not delight we found that road closed. Our driver took us to another road and we drove up that for a bit and encountered another road block. So in effect, three out of four roads were blocked.

We returned for breakfast and I asked the Forest Department Official who stays in Haldupudao about the roads. He said that repairs were being done to bridges and so the roads were closed. I asked him why in that case, this was not mentioned on the website or why this location was not closed for bookings until the roads were useable. He shrugged. Such an expressive gesture, the shrug. Done well, it can mean anything at all. And what’s more it leaves you to decide what you want it to mean. I decided that I wanted it to mean end of conversation and reminded myself of my own quote – I will not allow what’s not in my control to prevent me from doing what is in my control. It was in my control to enjoy myself. It was not in my control to teach the Forest Department the fundamentals of customer service. So I was going to leave what was not in my control and do what was in my control and enjoy myself notwithstanding.
We drove up and down that one road for four days. We saw trees, termite mounds that were the epitome of industry and could be inspirations of architects. 
We saw more trees and a very ambitious Kingfisher out of touch with reality who had caught a fish bigger than his head and so couldn’t swallow it. 
We saw even more trees and otters catching fish and then peeping at us over boulders in the river, their curiosity getting the better of them but so beautifully camouflaged that it was almost impossible to see them.
We saw Chital grazing and late one evening and suddenly a Chital hind started stamping her foot and sounding her alarm and gazing intently at a thicket in which was a predator, which didn’t show himself to us. 

We saw a Sambar stag in repose and several Barking Deer, always alarmed at life.  But we saw no tigers in Corbett Tiger Reserve. Nor did we see any elephants though we saw tiger pug marks and elephant dung to our heart’s content. I believe this was because we couldn’t really explore the area that was given to us because roads were closed but nobody bothered to inform us. 

Nobody can guarantee any sightings, especially of tigers and leopards which are nocturnal animals and shy to boot but if there are enough opportunities to roam the forest, then the chances of sighting increase dramatically. That is what wildlife tourism is supposed to do – increase your chances of seeing the animals. And that is what we were denied because roads were closed.

In short I am convinced that Corbett is a lovely place but the people in charge are decidedly strange. Their idea of customer service is the same as how they pronounce the word CUSTOMER – KASHT MAR. Ya’ani – Kasht say mar.
Incredible India indeed.
So what’s the solution?
Quite simple really. Let the Forest Department deal with the forest. And leave tourism to those who know how to treat people. Outsource tourism to a private company and let them pay a royalty to the Forest Department. 

But will this happen? Incredible India once again.