Imagine walking on a cold winter morning in the dense jungle where the mist is so low and thick that you can’t see beyond few feet. Imagine this is a national park where wild things are, including the tigers and leopards. Imagine doing this alone with nothing but a baton in your hand. Sounds like a perfect set up for a gory movie? Only this is reality, for many of the forest dwellers living in the jungles of India.
One afternoon in Kanha National Park, we were in search of that elusive king of the jungle, not the lion but the tiger. But it was an afternoon of no luck and wild goose chases. Sitting bored in the safari vehicle I sparked a conversation with the forest guard in our vehicle, Omkar Singh. He was a 40-year-old pleasant man with eyes that seemed to have known much action. After all he hails from one of the 18 villages that are still inside the National Park.
Since the formation of the Kanha National Park in 1955, of the 45 villages inside the protected area, many have been relocated to outside the park boundaries but some villages are still deep inside the core zone, co-existing in the wild along with the other inhabitants of the jungle. For them, dangerous walks like these are part and parcel of everyday life. And for those who take up a job with the forest dept. as patrolling guards, these dangerous walks are required to eke out a living.
It was one such forest guard who had a fateful encounter with a tigress circa 2006. The tigress was with cubs and the man was looking for the camp elephants that are left loose every morning. The morning mist was thick and he came too close without noticing the tigress’ presence, she charged at him. He shooed her away with his useless baton, she left but she came back again. He shooed her away once more. The third time she didn’t back down and he didn’t survive. All the while, the poor man was relaying the information on his radio transceiver to the office but before help could arrive, the tigress tore his head apart.
A chill ran down my spine as Omkar Singh narrated this story. His eyes were apathetic and he wore an expression that seemed to have accepted this fate as normal. He went on to tell me, when tourists visit they joke around, saying where’s the tiger? They don’t seem to appreciate or acknowledge its power, not of the tiger and not of the jungle. He said, it is easy to think the forest is beautiful and harmless sitting inside the safety of the vehicle but take 10 steps inside the forest, off the trail and you will see how scary it really is. I could easily relate to this thinking of my several hiking excursions into the jungle on foot. But of course, there were no predators and I wasn’t alone and yet it was scary. Walking in the same jungle where a Tiger walks is no mean feat, yet these people do that every single day.
The villages in the core, buffer zones and the immediate surroundings of the park often report cases of Tiger hunting their cattle. With little means to support their livelihood, the villagers are in favor of killing the tiger when it attacks. When one’s livelihood is at stake, how will they bother about conservation? Although the government provides compensation for such cattle kills, we all know how well the good schemes on paper are implemented in reality.
When I went to Bandhavgarh from Kanha, I was in for an even bigger shock. I had heard of these villages inside the core zone in Kanha but hadn’t seen any. In Bandhavgarh, during my safari in the Taala Zone, we passed by a village! The village was enclosed in a rickety fence not more than 6 feet high. And I saw fresh tiger pug marks just outside the fencing and apparently a tiger can jump over 12 feet high! I can only imagine the sleepless nights in a village like this. To make matters worse, there’s a highway between the two core zones and the tigers keep crossing this road it seems. True enough, the same day we spotted fresh pugmarks again on the road signaling a tiger had crossed over. Just few years ago, guests didn’t even have to enter the park it seems. Sightings were so regular just on the road. It left me in a melancholic mood, thinking how we have destroyed all our precious forests and now we are inching towards a dangerous situation of shrinking habitats and an impossible coexistence between the man and the animal.
On my last night in Madhya Pradesh in Bandhavgarh, I was discussing tigers around the campfire with the naturalists at the wild Treehouse hideaway that shares its boundary with the core Taala Zone. Ajit, a senior naturalist there asked us to calm down to listen, the alarm calls of deer were ringing in the forest suggesting the presence of a Tiger in the vicinity. He then tells me he’s encountered Tigers many times even within the property. Treehouse Hideaway intends to give the traveller a wild experience and it sure does! They often listen to the roars of the tiger. Ajit saw his first tiger when he was 16, in the jungles of Terai on a hunting expedition and he isn’t baffled by tiger encounters, even when he’s on foot. Shivraj, the very young naturalist recollects his fond memories of running into the jungle with torches in the night whenever they hear the alarm calls!
What a strange world I had stumbled into! There were people who were living with the tigers because they didn’t have a choice and few made the choice to live with them. On our way back to Kings Lodge, the headlight of our vehicle shined into the eyes of a pack of jackals raiding a village. We stopped while they quickly disappeared. I could hear the faint alarm calls of the deer again, the moon was shining bright and high and I was sad to leave the jungles of Madhya Pradesh. But somewhere deep inside, I was happy that I didn’t have to live with the tigers.