The winter of 2011 in Bandhavgarh was the best thing that happened to me. The first wild tiger, and to my luck it happened to be one of the most story worthy creatures anyone could ever meet. And everything changed from that point on, with me attempting to base most of my conscious decisions to be associated with wildlife. I have always wanted to give back to the forests, in any capacity possible. One such opportunity presented itself this year, in form of a volunteer-ship with the Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF) in Kanha for the Nature Education Camp. The urge to be in the midst of the lush green of the Sal & Kaas was too strong to hold at bay my initial hesitation of interacting with kids & the forest department officials.
The program is co-run by the Kanha Forest Department along with LWF, and comprised of a two-stage interaction with kids. The initial meet-up at the school level for the young ones involved a short presentation about Kanha as a forest & a song about do’s and don’ts about tigers; while the elder kids were made aware of the threats to the forest as well. The initial meet-up helped us create a platform where-in we could explain them the ecological link between tigers and humans & the necessity of conserving the feared striped beast. The children audiences enjoyed getting a free lecture and seeing photographs of the flora and fauna of the forest, and regaling in the tales we spun for them. The best feeling however used to be the point personally, was when I used to explain the importance of tigers to humans, and then point out since I was able to communicate this to atleast a hundred kids (humans) at one go, they could each reach out to at least five people, including their family, respectively. The nodding heads accompanied with a chorus of “haaaaaaan” was the greatest reassurance I have felt about the future of our forests.
The days out on the field, were nothing like I expected them to be. Yes, we did have the perks of driving through the forests most days of the week, but it wasn’t like the tourist rounds. The kids were way more inquisitive and curious than the tiger centric tourists, right from asking us identify to small meadow birds to where does the tiger hide when we didn’t spot one on the rounds. The contrast of seeing kids gasp at the sight of a Peacock or a Chital was a refreshing change of pace. Wildlife games like the Wildlife Bingo, the Environmental Snakes & Ladders, the Web of Life, the Prey & Predator amongst others, never failed to draw a smile from the children’s faces. A grin extending from one ear to the other, refusing to be wiped off since everyone was a winner. Over time even my inhibitions reduced & I learnt how to engage with the kids using humor and explaining complex topics by using normal day-to-day examples. The job although rewarding and emotionally satisfying, was equally demanding in terms of energy. Park drives are preceded by going and picking up the kids from the school, then spending all day with them; rising before and crashing after them. The whole process ran like a well-oiled machine under the ever watchful eyes of the Forest Department administration.
And days when the stress used to weigh us down, we had re-enforcements in form of the support staff consisting of a senior Forest guard, highly experienced forest drivers and other young folks who volunteered. During the length of my stay, I was spoilt silly by the affection in terms of food items brought to me all day, along with forced cups of ‘chai’ (much more of a coffee person actually). Not even for a moment for the entire duration of my stay, did I feel homesick thanks to these older siblings I had just met who always had a place for me at their table and in their hearts.
Conversations would inevitably break out regarding conservation and roles of people, especially the likes of tourists and photographers who could also contribute beyond the realm of pictures and posts on social media. The pressures on the Forest department, owing to the clamor for transparency on social media platforms are immense and unfortunately they face the brunt of half baked knowledge; much akin to the treatment doled out to a surgeon by the family members of a patient who died during operation.
One of the other initiatives I was happy to help with was the livelihood and tourism project being initiated for the Baiga villages, using their existing skill set.
Mornings by the Banjar in the familiar towering green canopy to the eerily haunting calls of a Brown Hawk Owl at night, these memories will stay with me and will come to the fore every time I try to think of a happy time. In the end, field jobs aren’t meant for getting unlimited chances of seeing tigers or declaring we know it all about conservation, but instead realizing that there is so much to do for the both the citizens and denizens of the forest. Every hour on the field is worth more than a year of social media activism.
My heart goes out to everybody involved right from Sanjay Shukla Sir (Field Director), Surendra Khare Sir (Additional Director, Mukki), Sunil Sinha Sir, Anjali Tirkey Ma’am (Deputy Director, Buffer), Kranti Jhariya Sir (Range Officer, Mukki), Jeetendra Awase Sir (Range Officer, Khatia), and the innumerable members of the Kanha Forest Department who had our back at every step of the way and always encouraged us to do more. Another huge round of gratitude I owe to Manish Sarway, Hemant Thakur, Dinesh Meravi, Laxmi Meravi, Deeksha Thakur, Neeta, Madhuri, the pillars of the NEC. And lastly but most importantly Saily for being such a wonderful ground comrade, Vidya for being a great guide on field & Bhavna for just being her, and just the most chirpy of presences to have when the going gets tough. Thank you LWF for the opportunity.