24
Jul
16

Living with the Tiger

When I am dead, my dearest,

Sing no sad songs for me;

Plant thou no roses at my head,

Nor shady cypress tree:

Be the green grass above me

With showers and dewdrops wet;

And if thou wilt, remember,

And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,

I shall not feel the rain;

I shall not hear the nightingale

Sing on, as if in pain:

And dreaming through the twilight

That doth not rise nor set,

Haply I may remember,

And haply may forget.

– Christina Rossetti

Sixteen years ago, deep within the forests of Binsar, on a bitterly cold night, I had finally finished making notes in my diary and was ready to call it a day.

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The other members of the team were already asleep. I got-up and quietly went around the old dak bungalow checking doors and windows.

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Came back and stoked the fire. Seeking warmth from the crackling fireplace and snuggled inside the sleeping bag, a face with large eyes peeped out at me.

“What?” I asked softly.

“Read something, please.” She said, “And not your reports!”

My bloody fault – I grumbled mentally, for invariably reading something or the other to the team members each night.

Arti made me read Christina Rossetti thrice before drifting off into slumber land.

*

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*

The Living with the Tiger was very much part of ‘those were the days’. But it is essential to give a brief background of this significant and ground breaking project and how it all started.

I knew Arti even before she volunteered to be part of the team. She was one of the few who knew about my fitoor for the wild and why I was constantly in the forests; she admired “my body of work” (as she pointed out the last time I met her), as-far-as theatre was concerned but knew that it was not a passion as most took for granted. She also aware of the fact that a major part of whatever I earned went to the family and the rest was always to keep the project going.

*

In 1995, India had almost two-thirds of the world’s tiger population and my visits to various parks/sanctuaries and innumerable meetings/discussions with locals/park officials/field staff/guards/mahouts et al, painted an alarming picture. It was obvious that things were no longer fine with Project Tiger and the tiger was slowly moving towards extinction and unless immediate, concrete and effective measures were not evolved and implemented, the tiger too would be wiped out!

In 1996, a Commonwealth Fellowship allowed me the widest experience of Young People’s Theatre in Australia, including indigenous, multi-cultural and multi-arts activities. Keeping my keen interest in wildlife and environment, the Fellowship also enabled me to undertake trips to some of Australia’s most enchanting wildlife parks, sanctuaries, deserts and rainforests. I was lucky to have had the rare distinction of visiting most of Australia and was able to initiate various Indo-Australian programmes of educational, environmental and theatrical value.

Living with the Tiger and other Intelligent Animals was the title of a proposed project by the Barking Gecko Theatre Company (BGTC) of Australia, in collaboration with The Playhouse, India and The Baroda Nature Lovers Association (BNLA).

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*

The project, intended to raise public consciousness, initiative and involvement world-wide through its research and production vis-à-vis the status of the Indian tiger and the immediate measures required locally and globally to restore this magnificent animal to its past glory, and the long term survival of man himself, on planet Earth.

It was proposed that the project develop using a process of partnering of key artists, particularly writers and designers along with a research and documentation team of Australian and Indian wildlife experts. In this way we hoped to maximise the creative and intellectual development of the people concerned, giving everybody an opportunity to collaborate as well as have individual responsibility. An Australian playwright was to undertake a residency in India with the research team and to work with an Indian partner in developing the script. We also wanted to generate the co-operation of people from different spheres and backgrounds.

To the best of our knowledge a project of this kind had never been proposed or initiated earlier and we hoped to create a ‘new awareness’ about environmental issues related to each species. The project was planned to culminate in a performance during 1999; an appropriate year, we thought, for examining a topic that speculated about past human impact on the environment with an eye on the new millennium. It was anticipated that the system of “partnering” artists and research would hopefully provide a genuine collaboration and a fantastic opportunity for the personal development of outstanding professionals from both the countries, and at the same time highlight in a unique manner the theme of human interaction with other intelligent animals. We had hoped to create, through this project, awareness about the plight of wildlife, particularly the tiger’s right to survive as a species.

*

This is what we had hoped for and started out with. Those involved, were also aware of the financial constraints and the brutal fact that we had a “theatre” tag around our necks!

The obstacles we had to face cannot be counted!

Government apathy and bureaucratic nonsense; cliquish attitudes of ‘protection/expert’ groups; a general absence of environmental/wildlife awareness; a coterie of ex-maharajas (in their new avatar or reincarnation), still continuing their reign; illiteracy and poverty; vested interested combined with the lack of enforcement of any code – were just a few of these impediments!

*

During 1996-1997, I posted over 750 information packets to people/organisations concerned with wildlife and environment, MoEF, CCF’s, Tiger Reserves and National Parks, Sanctuaries, multi-national companies and other industrial houses in India and abroad, theatre personalities, funding agencies, Foundations and many others. The information packet contained copies of a letter of introduction signed by the Heads of the organisations involved, details of the proposed project with dates and other statistics, letter of appeal for support – financial or otherwise, letters from Australian support groups, tiger stickers and our unspoken willingness to travel anywhere to discuss the project. We also travelled extensively surveying various Parks and Sanctuaries.

To give the entire mailing list is meaningless, but some of the recipients of the information packets were:

Global Tiger Patrol, England; Peter Jackson, Switzerland; The Tiger Trust, England; Wildlife Conservation Society, U.S.A.; Care for the Wild, England; Save the Tiger Fund, U.S.A.; Sanjana Kapoor; India Foundation for the Arts; Bina Kak; Dadi Pudumjee; Tiger-Direct, England; ACAP, England; Animal Welfare (UFAW), England; Malcolm Whitehead, Bahamas; CBSG; Mike Fouraker; Pricol Limited; Animal Welfare Board of India; Royal Geographical Society; IZDA; Earthwatch; Paola Manfredi; EIA; Tiger Action Fund for India; Valmik Thapar; Frito-Lay India; Tiger Direct; The David Shepherd Conservation Foundation; Bet’r Campaign; Torrent Exports; Telstra; General Motors; IPCL; Pepsi; Coke; Tatas; TVS; Videocon; Wipro; Zandu; Berger Paints; Birlas; Blow Plast; BPL; Britannia; Cadbury; WWF Tiger Conservation Project; Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust; Zoos Committing to Conservation, U.S.A.; Aga Khan Foundation; Centre for Environment Education; Indian Society of Naturalists; ANZ Grindlays Bank; Asian Paints; AT&T (I); ABS Industries; Alcatel South Asia Pacific; Air India; British Airways; Cathy Pacific; Colgate Palmolive; DCM Daewoo; Eveready; Dabur; WII; Lavkumar Khacher; Essar; Escorts, Eicher; JK Industries; Indian Express Newspapers; Times Group; Jet Airways; Jenson & Nicholson; Kinetic; Novino; Lakme; Johnson & Johnson; Liberty Shoes; Kodak India; Exide, Geoffrey Manners & Company; Garware; Hindustan Lever, Godrej; Living Media; LML; Mafatlal; Luxor; Mahindras; Maruti Udyog; Modi; Motorola; MRF; Nestle; Onida; Pidilite; Proctor & Gamble; Nirma; Parle; Reliance; Shriram; Singer; LAW-E; Corbett Foundation; Ranjitsinh Gaekwad; WPSI; Tiger Haven; WWF-India; BNHS; Indian Society for Wildlife Research; Honorary Wildlife Wardens………………………………… etc.

The only people who responded/acknowledged were – Global Tiger Patrol, Tiger Trust, The Whitley Award, IZDA, The David Shepherd Conservation Foundation, Earthwatch and Save the Tiger Fund. (These letters had the same theme of “interest and regret”. Tiger Trust even tried to sell a book!)

Then, there were letters from the then Director, Gir National Park and the then Chief Wildlife Wardens – Jaipur/Lucknow. These were letters of support!

 *

A ‘fact-finding’ Australian team from the BGTC visited India in late 1997. This mission highlighted the total lack of co-operation and callousness exhibited by the Indian authorities and many ‘experts’. By this time, I was nearly bankrupt and BNLA was not in a happy situation either. It was bitterly obvious that we had been totally incapable of securing any funding and the Australians could not afford to pay for the Indian side. We did not even have money to post letters!

By 1998, the Australians put the project on a ‘backbench’ and the Indo-Australian aspect was shelved. BNLA too, was no longer involved.

I, however, continued with the toned-down version of the Project that slowly evolved into its new form. This has been possible only with the active voluntary support of the young people who are/were part of The Playhouse.

The acute paucity of funds meant that we could no longer afford to cover all the parks/sanctuaries; nor could we undertake the numerous trips involved, as it meant taking time off from studies and other related work. So, we decided to concentrate on the Asiatic Lion Sanctuary, Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) and the Binsar Sanctuary.

Gir, because it was in Gujarat (in terms of accessibility); Corbett, because of my maternal grandfather’s association with Jim Corbett and my long association with the place plus visits under the Outward Bound Programmes for children and young people; and Binsar, because it, for some obscure reason came under (then) the Ramnagar HQ of CTR.

However, I finally decided on Corbett and Binsar and the project operated in its new avatar from 1998 – 2010. The latter part of it with no volunteers but with me as the Director of The Corbett Foundation……but, like I say, that is another story!

*

I grew up listening rapturously to my grandfather’s personal experiences and later reading his books.

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He spoke and wrote about the communities living within the reserves and declared protected areas (not those days); and how they required protection too. His books make this very clear. Of course, there were and will always be aberrations that need to be addressed kindly but firmly.

Article 4, from Draft Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1993) states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, economic, social and cultural characteristics, as well as their legal systems, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.”

All issues very messy now!

*

We wanted to bring about a positive change in the lives of the communities, in particular the mahout community within Corbett and the hamlets within Binsar; besides all our other work that involved tracking, mapping, data collection, looking out for poachers, illegal tree felling (the timber Mafia), the sand Mafia, illegal moss collection, cleaning, educating, providing medical care, clothing and the education of children, especially the girl child.

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That is what we did besides endeavouring to protect wildlife and environment. Over the years we had realised that if one did not involve the local people/villagers/staff in and around the protected areas, there could be no long-term conservation. The needs of the ‘lower level staff’ too, had to be addressed. Accordingly, an information network system was developed and we strived to visit these places (in a group), at least twice a year. Some volunteers frequently made individual visits. It took us a long time to gain the trust of the people, particularly the women – but it was worth the effort.

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We used personal finances to constantly renew contact with the local people, the park/sanctuary staff and the villagers to keep a record of what was (or not), happening. There was a concentrated effort by all of us to clean the place and talk to the tourists and the staff. Items of clothing, footwear and medicine for the mahouts/charakats/forest guards and their families are distributed regularly.

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It was important for me and eventually the team members to pass on the torch, as-it-were, to inspire future generations.

*

Over the years, I have had all kinds of people volunteering for work. A few insufferable ones but mostly there was a flow of some really hard-working and dedicated individuals who had to undergo tough training…….and I was meticulously strict. The forest is unforgiving, unpredictable and always unknown. Mistakes can lead to injuries if not death.

Some, like Arti always came back or kept in touch. Their reports and inputs were appreciated. I depended a lot on Arti’s journalistic eye and her reports have been the most exhaustive. Many-a-times, when I went off into the field for overnight stints, it was she who kept the group together. She happened to be the only one who was also involved in my other investigative work that took us to the upper regions of Himachal Pradesh and I can never forget her physical pain and the mettle to continue during one of the most arduous treks that took us across the Indrahar Pass (14,245 ft above mean sea level) in the Dhauladhar Range of the Himalayas – from Kangra to Chamba.

It said that, ‘No one is more cherished in this world than someone who lightens the burden of another’ and if you want to touch the past, touch a rock.  If you want to touch the present, touch a flower.  If you want to touch the future, touch a life’. 

Arti touched many a life.

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This is in the loving memory of a student, staunch friend and confidante, one of the best volunteers I have had and a wonderful woman!

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