Monday, September 26, 2011

Green Corbett

This is my second trip to Corbett National Park in four months. I nearly repeated the drill. I had my new flatmate Jan Peters as my co-traveller, is a birdwatcher, nature scientist and an expert driver on nearly non-existent roads carefully maintained by the government of Uttar Pradesh.

The drive inside the forest was very interesting, soothing and rejuvenating as lungs are not used to so much oxygen per breath devoid of any carbon content.

The forests are lush green dominated by Sal tree. Lantana bushes and elephant grasses covered the landscape like a thick, green blanket. It was thus virtually impossible to sight a tiger unless it decides to take a stroll on the forest road in our presence. That did not happen. So this time there was not even a ‘perceived’ sighting.

But the forest was far more alive this time compared to the last visit in late April. There were fresh scratch marks on the bark of trees; the tiger community was fairly active, on a prowl with fresh pugmarks to be seen at every nook and corner. There were at least three occasions when I could sense tiger in close proximity of 50 meters; langoors were dangling hysterically on the high branches looking down, of course they were seeing a tiger, or a leopard, while thick Lantana bushes ensured that we did not.

We were basically moving in and around the Jharna range of the Corbett National Park. Rest of the park remains closed from May 15 to November 15 to allow some privacy to tigers during their extended mating season. It is easier to sight a tiger during this off-season as they are mostly on the move in search of food and sex.

We did fair bit of birding, as well. I am not an avid birder. My friend Anshuman tried to initiate this hobby in me ten years ago, with little success. I did use to go with him to birding trips. The reason for it was not love of birds. It was primarily to participate in scrumptious breakfast that followed a birding walk. Jan’s joy at sighting Indian variants of birds, that were new to him, is infectious. I am convinced to revive birding as a hobby. I plan to take it beyond palatable motives. So for a change, this time, on Jan’s insistence, our objective was to sight great hornbills and elephants, and not just tigers and leopards. We can always blame bad luck for not sighting any of the above exotic denizens of the wild, but the forest guide accompanying us did nothing unusual to help us see our objectives. Though Jan was happy sighting an Asian Barred Owlet and a Spotted Owlet, I could not escape the feeling that this guide made us ullu.

For this reason, I am going to devote a paragraph castigating the forest guides. They mug up names of the birds and trees, some memorise French and German names of various flora and fauna too, quote erroneous figures to unsuspecting tourists, act an agents of the Forest Department to paint a rosy picture about the health of the forest and its inhabitants. I was told that there are 200 tigers in Corbett National Park and there are 200 rangers to guard them. I know both the figures are erroneous.

It is never the less an interesting statistics: one ranger per tiger is a handsome ratio. Figures may be wrong but it is true that tiger is the most protected animal in the country. Despite this, it continues to remains top in the list of endangered species for the last thirty years. The trade in tiger parts is the one biggest threat to its existence—primarily to keep Chinese men virile—is flourishing.

Sorry for transgressing, but this needs to be mentioned. In India the concept of protection—whether people or animals—is so area specific. We do not protect denizens of an area but the area itself. Like we have protected tiger reserves not tigers. In case a tiger gets poached or killed for manmade reasons, the local wildlife department takes lot of trouble to clarify that it happened outside the national park or in somebody else’s area of protection. The idea is obviously to shun responsibility.

Like earlier this month when the Delhi High Court blasts happened, the first confirmed piece of information given by Delhi Police’s special commissioner Dharmendra Kumar was that the blast happened “outside the protected area.” But the real lives were lost outside the “protected” area. The count of dead has risen to 15. Are these killings justified just because it happened outside the protected area? That makes the life of those killed any less worthy?

It is high time for a long time now that government starts protecting the denizens and not fortified areas where some important and influential people live and work.
It is not that the government is unaware about it. It is simply not serious about it. It is selectively serious about protecting very select people. A good example is the Special Protection Group (SPG) (also to an extent Black Cats of National Security Guard mandated to provide Z Plus {} level security to certain threatened current and former senior government functionaries) is the best equipped force in India with the objective of protecting current and former prime ministers and the family of Sonia Gandhi, so also future prime ministers. They actually protect these very important persons and not just guard their houses. Can this same philosophy be not extended to people at large, in the case of wildlife department to tigers and others endangered animals?

It is not so as difficult as it seems. It is plausible. A change in attitude is required. If only our security mechanism becomes a little more proactive than reactive. Their reactions are also so stereotypical. The security agencies come into action only after a bloody blast is happened.

I remain sceptic about the future of tigers in India as much as the security of common citizens outside small enclaves dubbed as protected areas. I want to be proved wrong.

The glistening green cover over Corbett is recharged my capacity to deal with dark smog cover over Delhi.