On first learning about the project and then speaking to one of the programme coordinators, Bhavna, what attracted me most was the community involvement aspect of conservation that the programme implemented. Coming from a purely science background myself, where the focus has always been on the conservation of the species, habitat or ecosystem, very rarely are communities involved or even considered in the plans. Furthermore, I was interested in learning about conservation efforts from a ground level perspective as most of my understanding was from a textbook or case study. I spoke to Bhavna on a Wednesday afternoon and by the same evening; I had booked my tickets for the following Monday at 6.30 am. Being someone who never makes decisions this quickly and rarely made such commitments with people I had never met before, trepidation and self doubt quickly set in.
I first met Bhavna and the other volunteer; Sakshi, on the train and spent most of the journey interrogating Bhavna about further details of the programme and sleeping. After a 16 hour train journey from Mumbai to Jabalpur and then a four hour drive, we reached our first pit stop in the town of Tala. On first arriving in Tala, what struck me immediately was the warmth with which everyone greeted and welcomed Bhavna . Coming from Mumbai, I couldn’t believe people could be this genuinely friendly and worried about our welfare. From hearing stories about how the locals refused to engage so freely during the initial years of the project to seeing the attitude change by being genuinely happy to see her, offering a quick cup of chai and always being ready to take us anywhere or provide anything we required was like stepping into an unheard utopia of camaraderie.
On hearing the stories about how angry, frustrated somewhat hostile these same people were a few years ago, it really hit home and importance of listening to, accepting communities and ensuring that they knew their lives mattered as well.
We stayed in Tala for two days during which we had the chance to visit the Tala zone of the reserve (the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve is segregated into three zones : Tala, Magdhi and Khitauli) in order to attend the Kabir Pant Festival, the only day on which followers are allowed into the reserve on foot. The stunning vistas from the steep mountain roads were a pleasant shock to the system; a sight I had never before had the chance to see. I was already mentally planning to not make this my one and only trip to the lush forests of Madhya Pradesh.
We then shifted to the nearby village of Parasi, ten minutes away from the Magdhi zone entrance, to begin the programme that involved taking children for safaris into the core forest in order to explain their ecological and commercial connectivity to the forest and the tiger. While living conditions are varied based on the availabilities in a village, this time we stayed in a Forest Department ‘chowki’
A typical day usually involved a 4.45am start and getting ready by 5.30am in order to wait for the kids to be picked up to be taken for the morning safari by 6am. Leaving the park at 11am, we would return to the school building, provide lunch and a short presentation explaining the anthropogenic risks to tigers and the small steps the villagers could take to reduce conflict. The morning lot were then dropped back to their homes and the afternoon lot were picked up, fed lunch and shown the presentation again before leaving for the afternoon safari. Once we left the park in the evening, the children would be dropped back to their homes while we settled in front of our campfire while dinner was being prepared and shared our experiences of the day.
During discussion, it was surprising to hear that though they were locals and most of them would probably live in the nearby villages for their entire lives, not a single child had ever had the opportunity to enter the park and see the core forest for themselves. In a situation where other, more privileged children would complain about not having seen a tiger on every safari they have been on, usually being able to afford multiple trips, these children were fascinated by every animal they saw, be it the spotted deer or wild boar, and especially if it was a peacock.
Having worked with children before, I was surprised at the stark difference between the attitudes of the tribal kids compared to city children. Though initially shy and influenced by their parents’ and elders’ opinions about tigers, it was a joy to hear at the end of a safari how they were very much committed to saving the forest. A particular incident that struck me the most was on an afternoon safari on the second day. Before we entered the reserve, we usually asked the children questions about the purpose of their visit in order to try and engage them and introduce the topic about conserving the forest and the tiger. On asking whether they felt that tigers were a threat to their livelihood and whether they would be ok with killing one, all of them nodded in agreement and a boy of roughly 11 or 12, with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, exclaimed that he would kill tigers if given the opportunity.
While daunted to have to deal with an opinion like that, Sakshi and I strived to continue with the safari as planned. As the day progressed, we took turns in explaining how the jungle was interlinked with their livelihoods and how the tiger, being the apex predator, was part of an important food chain that helped keep the forest healthy as well. We were even lucky enough to have had a brilliant tiger sighting at the end of the day; a stunning male by the name of Bamera’s son lounging across the road as we drove back to the gates.
As we were leaving the reserve, the same little boy exclaimed that he did not want to leave and asked us to leave him behind so that he could make friends with the tiger. Statements like this honestly made the 4.00am starts, the freezing cold, basic living conditions, upset stomachs and long days completely worth it.
While staying at Parasi, it felt like we were not guests but family members whom the entire village had come together to take care of. Mr. Pushpendra Dwivedi, the Field Co- ordinator for Last Wilderness Foundation was like a lovingly fussing mother, making sure each and every cog of the entire operation was working smoothly. Our canter driver; Mr. Dayaramji, was a fountain of knowledge about tiger ecology and a brilliant tracker. Mr. Jagdishji, a locally employed cook, was an extremely hardworking person with a kind soul. And last but not least, Mr. Guptaji, the local tea seller, kept us going with copious amounts of chai during the day. Not to leave out Bhavna herself, from the moment I met her, she was warm and full of infectious giddy energy. Easy to talk to and completely confident in our abilities, it was encouraging to have someone like her by my side as I delved into a project I had no experience in.
However, as friendly as most of the villagers were, we did get to see a different side of the people’s attitude. One of the evenings, a gentleman joined me, Sakshi, Jagdishji and Dayaramji around our campfire. He began to complain about various things and through the conversation we learnt that he was the nephew of a local man who had lost a cow to a tigress a few days ago. While both me and Sakshi are fluent in Hindi, the dialect is slightly different in Parasi and at first we struggled to understand everything he was trying to say, but what was clear was that he was angry and frustrated and very clearly stated “…you guys come here and ‘save the tiger’ and ‘save the jungle’ but what about us? While the issue of human/wildlife conflict had been an abstract one up until now, it definitely became a reality as we tried to placate the situation as best we could until Bhavna and Pushpendraji returned from a work-related visit to a nearby village. Though the next morning the gentleman returned and apologised for his behaviour, the conversation with him proved to be a stark reminder that our work was far from done.
But his was a singular event in an otherwise very pleasant experience with the locals. While living conditions were quite basic, we were moved by the warmth with which our every need was taken care of. Campfires were ready when we got back, within minutes little cups of chai were handed to us and meals were simple yet full of the taste of ‘home’. Sitting in the moonlight with our dinner being cooked over a campfire, accompanied by the friendliest of strays that would sneak into the compound for nuzzles, sharing our snacks and exchanging anecdotes from our safaris was my favourite part of the day. Last, but by no means the least, I have to mention the tigers themselves. I can only lament my skills as a writer in being unable to verbalise the feelings the sight of a tiger invoked in me. This trip was the first time I had ever been on a safari in India, or anywhere in the world for that matter, and to say I was excited was a gross understatement. My first safari was unsuccessful but as unbelievable as it sounds, more than seeing a tiger, it was the chase that excited me more. The tracking of pugmarks on the ground, the quick bursts of the Chital (spotted deer) alarm call through the forest and Dayaramji’s keen knowledge of each and every individual tiger’s territory limits, hunting habits and most likely sighting spots amalgamated into an adrenaline fuelled rush through the forest; speeding along as we heard a call in a far away spot corresponding to favoured watering hole to stretched moments of complete silence trying to listen for any growling or closer calls. There was a constant dialogue between all the drivers and trackers we passed as we drove around, each helping the others to locate a tiger at some point. We were luckier in the afternoon safari on the first day, where, after an unsuccessful two and a half hours, dejected and driving back to the gates, what were we to see but a handsome male melted across our path like a renaissance lady. This was Bamera’s son.
It is truly impossible to describe a tiger as anything but regal, however overused the term is. The gracefully slow yet completely self assured movements of this animal speak to the soul in a way no piece of prose or picture ever could. A simple turn of the head or sweep of the tail is seared in the brain as a most simplistically beautiful movement. Having read countless of similar descriptions and articles, I had become desensitised to the issue. Tigers had become nothing more than a poster child for conservation marketing and Indian tourism. But now, after my meeting with Bamera’s son, I was in love. True, unadulterated cosmic love. Through the haze of apathy and cynicism, I had been reminded again of why I had chosen the field of biology as a career and at the end of the day, whom it was all for.
Volunteering with the Last Wilderness Foundation in Bandhavgarh has been, at the risk of sounding clichéd, a rewarding and life changing experience. To actually be able to actively see the attitudes towards tiger conservation changing before our eyes was eye-opening and inspiring. During university lectures and seminars, I was unconvinced about major conservation projects as the moment the issue of human settlements interfering with conservation efforts arose, it was always side-stepped as an issue that could not be solved or was not of much importance, which then simply created an impression of the project as a Sisyphean task. After Bandhavgarh, I was amazed to learn about the progress and efficiency of the programme and now truly understood the importance of involving communities into any and all conservation strategies, especially in a country as populous as India. I now have hope that these children will grow up with a different attitude towards conservation and play an integral role in safeguarding their own backyards.
I will always cherish the memories and friends I have made from this trip. Moreover, the knowledge I have gained about conservation, Indian flora and fauna and tiger ecology has proven to be an invaluable introduction as I embark on a career in the biological field.
To anyone interested in conservation, wildlife, communities, science education and working with children, I highly encourage you to apply and get involved. You don’t have to be an expert and there are no skills or age limitations. Field conditions are basic, the days are long, the weather is brutal, and the work is varied and hard, but I guarantee that by the end, just like us, you won’t want to leave at all. And in the immortal words of Bhavna, five minutes after I met her, “If you like chai and are an unashamed foodie, we’ll get along just fine”.