“You should visit Kanha just to see the forest. It’s different, with taller Sal trees, covering a huge area and a lot denser than Bandhavgarh”, is what the Project Co-ordinator, LWF, Bhavna Menon told me when I was contemplating whether to volunteer for Kanha or not. Of course, for me, going to Kanha did not need any convincing, but these words made me decide for sure that I was going to Kanha, even if it meant taking leave from my college for 10 days!
We reached Kanha on the 6th of January 2017, in the late afternoon. Bathed in a beautiful golden light of the evening sun, we saw the Mukki forest rest house, which was going to be our home for the next nine days. Immediately after reaching, we had a delicious cup of chai with the Assistant Director (AD), Khareji, and 2 forest guards, who would be helping us with the kids’ programme in the coming days. Soon after, I had the great realization that without our trusty chai, we would have been totally dysfunctional, as working with kids really tests your energy and creativity! Of course, having hardcore chai lovers with us like AD sir and Bhavna, meant that the forest staff sometimes brought us steaming cups of chai without us even asking for them!
After our chai, we went for an evening safari, which was our one and only official safari by ourselves, in a gypsy. There I got the first glimpse of the beautiful forest which was just as Bhavna had described, and more. The shafts of golden light that came through the tall Sal (Shorea robusta) trees, the calmness of the forest in spite of the chirping birds, the freshness of the air, all made me think “Ah! I could get used to this life!” and just as this thought crossed my mind, we saw a langur sitting on the broken branch of a tree, its tail hanging parallel to the tree trunk. The hair on his head was lit by the sunlight at the back in such a way that every individual hair looked golden, like it had a halo! It was sitting with a zen expression on his face, looking so used to this life, that it made me a tad bit jealous. The rest of our safari went by in this relaxed mood, taking in the feel of the forest. We finished our safari, very happy, and excited for the programme starting the next day!
Working with tribal kids is immensely fun! At first, many of the kids start out very shy, with just a shy good-morning, only after being prodded by their teacher to do so. Some are very interactive, greeting us immediately and giving us their 1000 watt smiles. There is an air of excitement as some of the kids are sitting in a bus for the first time ever, going into the core forest for the first time ever. We always had to do all the initial talking about the Kanha forest, buffer zone and core zone, the Forest Department etc. until the kids warmed up to us and started interacting.
After that, there were many things to be asked, learnt and shared on both the sides. Some of the kids had seen tigers; one had seen a sloth bear near their village! Wild boars were nothing special for the kids, but peacocks on the other hand, excited the kids out of their senses! When we saw a peacock, there would be shouts of excitement and laughter in our canter, and they did not stop unless we intervened and warned them that they would not see any other animals if they didn’t keep quiet! It amused us that they had never seen a bird as common as a peacock (for us safari-goers), in their life! For them, it was like seeing a creature of which they had heard only in their grandmother’s stories.
The students are excellent at identifying all kinds of plants and trees, and thus, we learnt a lot from them about the different medicinal uses of trees. However, the best thing by far about these kids was that, they enjoyed each and every aspect of the forest; its density, the tall trees, the streams, the birds, the pugmarks, the alarm calls. Just seeing the deer and peacocks excited them. They admired the beauty of all the animals they saw. In the end, even if we did not see a tiger, they would be extremely happy, and ready for the next fun stuff planned for them in these camps. After the safari, they were shown a movie about tigers, and there was a little interaction session for their questions and doubts after watching the movie. They are bright kids and asked good questions. These Q and A sessions with them were most interesting and thought provoking, for them as well as us! After that, they heartily ate the yummy lunch specially made for them and got ready for the games session. We played games like Bingo, Prey Predator, Environmental Ladder etc. with them, which had an underlying message to save their surroundings and also an aim of making them aware of the diversity of their surroundings. By the end of it the kids were really happy and also took back the thoughts and the wish to save their environment for their own needs.
Many kids had the new discovery that cheetah and leopard are two different types of cats. They were surprised to know that the streams in a forest flow for most of the year because of the presence of the forest, whereas the streams near their villages dried up relatively quickly. Some kids revealed to us a superstition about a white coloured cobra called the ‘doodh naag’, and the 180 types of venoms that it possessed and other superstitions revolving around snakes and owls, which had to be killed if found. Then as our discussions proceeded, they debated about the various aspects of these stories they were told and compared them with the facts and information that we had given them, they themselves came to the conclusion that all stories should not be believed and that they should be able to come to logical conclusions themselves. This was definitely a proud moment for us, as the kids were really beginning to think on their own, about their environment which mattered the most to them.
This is just a slice of what happened in the nine days with the various kids from various villages, but one thing is for sure, the fun and entertainment quotient was at the same high level throughout! I am so glad that I took leave from my college, for this is an experience, which should not be missed for anything.
The great thing about it is that, while being so much fun, it still gives you a sense of satisfaction that you have done something that the kids appreciate and will remember for the rest of their lives. One girl told me that she was never going to forget this experience and us, and asked me very sweetly, if I would forget her, which of course I’m never going to, after this little conversation! Many kids took our phone numbers, and promised to call us whenever they wanted any information about anything in the wild. Such was our beautiful experience with the most wonderful kids, in the vicinity of forests. What else can one want! Everyone should try to at least visit these small villages and talk to the kids, if not volunteer for such programmes. I, for one, had the one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life!