Tigers, poachers and cheats of Sariska

One day while speaking to my father on phone, I realized that his voice had become weaker. When a person’s voice loses strength, means that the person himself is losing strength and mainly his will. I was reminded of my experience with Raj Kapoor (actor, producer, director), during a documentary that I worked on. Mr. Raj Kapoor’s voice went feeble during production of just one year. In a few years he succumbed to ill health.

So thanks to doing ‘sound recording’ for the documentary on Raj Kapoor, I decided to make a trip to Jaipur to see my father in Oct 2004.

I decided to make it a double purpose trip. Main purpose obviously was to see my father and my brother’s family, spending good time with them all. Second one was a bonus, as I made up my mind to visit both the well-known Indian wild life sanctuaries, ‘Sariska’ and ‘Ranthambhore’. After two days stay at home in Jaipur, I told my father that I would like to visit some other places close by. He agreed and I decided to start my trips from next day. It also would have been difficult for me to sit at home all day, for the next seven days. I took traveling tips from my brother Tarun, to start with Sariska National Park.

Next day in the darkness of morning I stepped out, without wasting time on formality of breakfast. I thought it would be much better to grab local dishes in a roadside dhaba. I reached the bus stop and got my ticket for Sariska. The buses going to Alwar pass from Sariska. Sariska is a very small – almost unnoticeable village bus-stop. After a fairly static long journey, my destination came. I got off with my back-pack. First important thing for me to do was to do some stretches on the quiet highway. After a few ‘touching the toes’ and ‘side stretches’, few locals pointed me to the sanctuary office. It was a much-needed short walk after sitting 4-5 hrs in an ordinary Rajasthan roadways bus (I had decided to take an economy tour). I was alone, adventurous and open to opportunities or mishaps of any kind, equally. I needed to queue up for a seat in any vehicle going inside the sanctuary.

I thought it is okay, if I have to wait for some (long) time for getting my chance. Worse still, even if I don’t get a chance to go in at all – was also going to be fine with me. I was that relaxed.

I walked up to the very basic looking booking window. I realized people inside the office were quite helpful. The booking clerk told me that visitors need to share a Maruti Gypsy jeep, which seats 3-4 tourists and one seat costs 500/-. But he also said that seats in all the Gypsys had already been booked. Thus I will have to take a Gypsy all by myself. And that was going to be very expensive for me. There it goes, I thought. I asked him, ‘in that case should I go back to Jaipur now?’ He was not ready for this bold direct inquiry. After a little hesitation, he said there is a couple, and they are only two in that car. You could look for them and ask them if they don’t mind you joining them. You could share the cost with them. ‘Fair enough’, I thought. After getting description of their looks, I started looking for them. I spotted them in a distance. But enroute there were a whole lot of monkeys running around. Of all animals monkeys have an upper hand on me. I am really frightened of them. They are so swift, strong, unpredictable and unruly. But here I had to be courageous. I relaxed my body language and went through the army of monkeys with our God Hanumanji’s prayer in my heart.

The woman was a foreigner and the guy was Indian, both were elderly, like me. They promptly agreed to my request (joining them) cum offer (share the cost). The guy sat with me at the back and the woman was in front, next to the driver. I got myself some bottled water at the gate and our open- top Gypsy entered the Sariska gate. Our smiling driver was also a guide for the tourists. I had my old faithful Contaflex 35mm film camera in ready my hand. I got alert to shoot any tiny movement that could be a tiger or even tiger’s quivering tail in the bush.

With majestic tigers in my mind, first thing our driver showed us was a small falcon, perched on a tree. It flew off well before I could ask it to pose for me. We took a detour and were told there were crocodiles in some puddle of water, but crocs weren’t available. We came back to main route and saw a few wild boars and many antelopes on both sides of the road. I had started shooting pictures of every animal, because I wasn’t very hopeful of ‘sighting’ a tiger. Without further delay I asked the driver about our chances of spotting a tiger. He told us that tigers have not been seen for many weeks now. But it is not uncommon, he said. But yes, evening trip has better chances to see them. He said something about evenings being tiger’s hunting time. My heart sank as we had entered the forest in first half of the day. We saw more of antelopes, deer and more wild boars. We saw many peacocks, but without their majestic tails. Driver said the feathers fall off in rains and it takes a few months for them to grow back. I had never heard such an atrocious statement before. After about hour and a half, the lady with us got restless and suddenly asked the driver to begin return journey. I wanted to use the full time but also did not mind returning. It was going to take about 45 min to reach back. So it was fine. I came back with some more similar pictures and of course NO tiger or even its tail…

The return journey to Jaipur became a bit adventurous, as frequency of the buses had dropped badly. I managed to get one seat in the last bus. By that time after it had become pretty dark and wild animals had started howling. I realized this was turning into an adventure now. I reached home quite little late at night.

I rested for a day, spending time with my father and with my bother’s family. And took off for another well know wild life sanctuary at Ranthambhore. Here I countered some corrupt officials involved in allotting seats to tourists. But soon I was on my way. There was no ‘sighting’, as they call it for almost entire trip. And somehow a saving grace dropped by; and the driver announced there was a tiger around the bend. We turned right and there it was! He was relaxing on the other side of a water body. It was not really close. Everyone watched the calm animal quietly and clicked profusely. Since my ancient camera has no zoom lens, I was just happy watching the grand soul in the wild. The Jaipur trip got over and I came back home to Mumbai and forgot all about the single tiger between two huge wild life sanctuaries…

About 3 months later a result of Indian ‘tiger census’ was published in all the newspapers. It seems government had been trying to get data on tiger population for quite some time. Sometime around in 2007-08, I read a news-item that for the past six months Sariska sanctuary has had no tigers at all! Statistically there were supposed to be 18 tigers; but all are missing. And that meant that they have been done away with by the poachers? Ranthambhore too has lost half of its nearly 40 tigers. There was massive national furor due to this news item. There was a shakeup in top forest jobs. Many heads rolled. But not surprisingly, nothing was achieved, as usual. Does anyone think that getting new tigers into Sariska and start their breeding is going to be an easy task? Sariska has been put 15-20 years behind for our wild life mainly for the tiger! Our government has been spending millions for years, on tiger conservation, but due to poachers in collaboration with sanctuary staff, gain has been dismal.

Suddenly the activities of Sariska’s helpful the staff of played back. They had smiled a lot at me and everyone else. I realized all that ‘smiling’ was an eye wash! They all knew that there was no tiger inside. They put up an act in unison and fooled everyone. The Sariska staff cheated tourists of their money, effort and time. I felt totally let down. Initially I had thought that it was bad luck for me that I did not get to see a tiger. But it has been worse luck for the tigers themselves! I was furious. My mind became so violent from inside that I wanted to feed entire staff of wild life sanctuaries to the tigers, if I could, ever!

During that period, newspapers printed all the blames and counter blames of tiger census, I read the following in a spiritual column of a newspaper-

‘How did the deer get such high alertness? How did it get such a beautiful way of hopping and an effortless way of running at a dazzling speed? It is due to the Tiger!’ Alas, are the deer too going to lose their pretty hop and dazzling speed?

PS: As mentioned at the start I visited my father in Oct 2004, because I was alarmed by weakness in his voice. Well, just 4 months later in Feb 2005, he expired.

(2007-08)

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