ARUN PADAKI writes: Experiencing the wild from close quarters is thrilling and one that I would cherish forever. At times this could send chills down the spine too. Sometime back I had this opportunity.
It all started on an early Monday morning from the cramped suburb bus stand of Mysore. Eager to reach the forest very early, I took a bus to Gundlupet and hitched on a bike ride to join other volunteers in the Bandipur National Park as part of the team to assist in the Habitat Census, the habitat that supports Panthera Tigris.
As we awaited the Forest Department jeeps at the Range Office to proceed to our camps, the driver announced that one of jeeps had broken down. Many of us got packed in a single jeep and within minutes we moved to another camp on the National Highway connecting Wayanad.
As we feasted on the hot rice flavoured with few tomatoes and more chillies, a briefing on the tasks ahead of us followed a demonstration of the same. As we all gathered in the shade at the camp waiting for to be dispatched to various camps deep inside the jungle, we made new friends, some veterans to the forest, some just eager, like me to see the real jungle.
As we waited and waited from afternoon to late evening, the warm and dry day lead to a cool evening. Done with two rounds of black tea we badly needed the third one to keep us warm as the nightfall turned the forest cold. With the camps allocated, it was time for another cramped ride, this time inside the forest and a bumpy one too. A short journey it was to Camp Kolachi, where we were to live for the next week, following a strict regimen.
Our team consisted of two volunteers, three watchers and a guard. Of the three watchers, Nagaraja was one, a kuruba from Bandipur well acclamatised with the forest and its denizens. He seldom spoke. The other watcher was Nagalinga, agile, strong and always fetched the wood for the kitchen. The senior most, of course the guard, was Puttaswamy, in his fifties, knew the forest like the back of his palm.
The other watcher was Huchaiah, experienced with over 15 years of service, swift mover, could talk about the forest for hours, an excellent cook and a loud talker as well. He always slung the vintage rifle across the shoulders and carried the walkie-talkie too.
Alighting at Kolachi wishing others and unloading our ration for one week, we walked into the make shift shed that had come up few years back to house the staff to fight the poachers and now serving as a camp to the department. Light wind, shivering cold and adequately lit by the moon, the forest looked simply superb.
With instructions not venture out of the camp alone while dark, we settled in the camp that had an open kitchen in a corner and a store room. The kitchen corner was the most loved spot as we badly needed warmth. For supper, Huchaiah’s menu looked impressive that included hot ragi mudde and soppina saaru. With our pullover, denims and socks on, we hit the sack immediately as a strenuous series of exercises lay ahead of us starting early next morning.
Our task commenced with a study of the plant life, herbivore life and the tree canopy cover of the park within the area allocated to us. Though it sounded very boring to identify the grasses, plants, picking pellets of the herbivores and guessing the canopy cover, the ideas was to assess the state of affairs of the wealth of plant/grass life that supported the herbivores, and a healthy herbivore strength that supports the carnivores, while the canopy cover and the plant life study revealed the regeneration of the vegetation.
We had to do this at numerous locations, and believe me, it was a tiring exercise. We had loafs of bread and jam, presumably from a bakery from the nearby Gundlupet and can full of water to keep going. As we wound up this exercise, we just waited for our next meal from Huchaiah.
Post lunch, we were to walk around the dry streams to look out for traces any carnivores, and the carnivores themselves if lucky. The carnivore tracing drew no positives, as the closest we could get to see were the foot prints of tigers, leopards and wild dogs. And loads of elephant dung too.
Our endeavour on that afternoon came to an abrupt halt, as Huchaiah received a message from the Range Office that officers from Bangalore are on their way to Camp Kolachi. At the camp, it was a general tête-à-tête with them about what we do to eek out our living in the cities, followed by lemon tea.
Soon it was nightfall, biting cold, hot supper, sleeping sack with the deep sleep occasionally getting interrupted with the croacking walkie-talkie.
Greeted by the chill morning breeze as we woke up at 5 AM, we headed directly to the kitchen corner. Sufficiently warm, all of us set out on our trail of herbivores. Drawing negative again, we were disappointed to having not seen a single animal satisfactorily.
Looking at the disappointed faces, confident that he was, Huchaiah said we will get to see some in our next trail. With renewed enthusiasm writ large, led by Nagalinga and Huchaiah we set out with Puttaswamy Guard, as he was called, following us behind. Nagaraja this time stayed back to manage the kitchen.
We walked for about an hour towards Thallallikere, a pond that drew water from numerous streams within the forest. Our route was one of the dried waterways, which even some three weeks before had water flowing gently.
As Nagalinga removed the thorns in our path with his small sickle, we marched in the direction of Thallallikere to position ourselves at a safe place to watch animals that walk up to quench their thirst. With a thick layer of sand under our feet, and almost walking into the third hour, we wanted to get to the pond as quickly as we could.
The next moment, as Nagalinga raised his arms to clear the thorny bush ahead of us, his raised arm posture was in the direct vision of a charging elephant cow which we completely missed due to the curvy stream. Making a loud noise, she charged towards us from a distance less than ten meters.
A mammoth charging at, thick layer of sand underneath the feet, not knowing where to run, with no clue of how to out smart the hardy animal, I could only think of running as fast as I could in one of the two directions available, either to the right or the left of the cow. Yelling at my cousin, the other volunteer to follow me, we ran to the left, the direction we had come walking on the stream.
It was the fastest I ran on sand and soon realized that she had not followed us, but went after Huchaiah and Nagalinga. As luck would have it, Puttaswamy Guard ran behind us. Else really can’t imagine where we would have run that afternoon.
He quickly suggested we move up the stream as it is not easy for the elephants to climb heights of 10 feet quickly. Sitting atop the bund, with trees and bushes covering our view of the forest, unmindful of the multiple tick bites, we were unsure of what lied ahead of us.
Could there be another attack?
Were there few more elephants behind the cow?
What if the herd had a calf and felt threatened? And of course, will we ever get to see our homes?
How unlucky we were to have walked for hours and get cornered?
Living the longest quarter hour of my life, thinking about my profession as a banker back at Bangalore, voices of Huchaiah and Nagalinga from a distance brought us relief. As they walked towards us with loud noises to drive away the herd, as it was a herd indeed, we descended the bund and regrouped.
When we met, Huchaiah narrated how lucky the day was, as he got away by a whisker. At one point in time, the cow staring at him down the trunk and exhaling on his face, it was thick bush that saved him.
With one slipper lost in the battle to save himself, the mightily hopeful saviour, the vintage rifle, was trampled by the cow rendering it useless.
The walkie-talkie was a shade lucky as it escaped with a scratch from the pounding feet. Quick on his feet, Nagalinga was a few meters away from the dangers that hounded Huchaiah. Holding on to the single slipper, he summoned us to continue and walk to Thallallikere.
With every drop of water in the body having evaporated after the charge, with folded teak leaves serving as containers, every drop from the pond brought back life. The water did taste divine. The pond and its surroundings were captivating tempting us to stay on for a few more moments. Dry season driving animals to the water hole made us decide to move away. A decision that was more than welcome.
The walk back to the camp was a good two hours away. Walking back through the bushes and thorns, we heaved a huge sigh of relief when Camp Kolachi was in our horizons. After a while, with lime juice washing down, with a smile, Huchaiah asks if we are satisfied with the wildlife of his forest. And he did ask the right question.
With the right quantity of adrenaline now pumping into and breathing properly, pondering over what we went through a couple of hours ago, it was amazing to witness the commitment and courage of our hosts. Having got away from being a victim of an elephant attack, up on his feet, unshaken and taking things in his stride, Huchaiah’s commitment was beyond imagination. He was a hero.
And there are many more.
My experience apart, their conviction was a strong pillar to all the conservation efforts. Their very routine, though draining on them physically and mentally is handled with lot of vigour, enthusiasm and no qualms, every single day, with minimum or at times non-existent paraphernalia needed for their profession.
There are so many perils attached to their routine, as they can be mauled by animals, targeted by poachers besides the snakes and insects. Then there are the night beats when poachers’ presence is sensed inside the park. Living away from their families and lives fraught with dangers, they are an uncared lot.
Tigers have vanished from Sariska and now are on the verge at Ranthambore. Sandalwood trees have disappeared from our own forests. The existing decent tiger population and good forests of Karnataka needs protection. By addressing elementary issues like good and timely salary, health care, schooling, recruitments and equipments for their job and more importantly the feeling of having cared for restored, will secure our forests, its inhabitants and the woods further.
Life is the same back in cities. Sitting back, in a far away land, as I re-live those moments in the deep deciduous forests of Bandipur, Huchaiah’s commitment makes me salute him. Huchaiah…wasn’t he mad about his job.