It was summer of 1985, May 12 to be exact; our entire family was in <g data-gr-id="128">Mussourie</g> for a summer holiday. On May 16, we had a late start back home and after crossing Dehradun while we were about to be crossing <g data-gr-id="129">Mohund</g>, we saw a herd of elephants on the left flank from an elevated hill road. It was already past 5 pm as we stopped at the <g data-gr-id="130">Mohund</g> Forest Chowki to investigate elephant presence, and that is when I had my first introduction with Rajaji National Park.
Making a necessary telephone call to the forest authorities in Dehradun from the range office (there were no cell-phones those days), and getting a night halt permission I veered my car to the left to Kacha Jungle Track and entered Rajaji National Park for a stay at Dhaulkhand with my family.
Negotiating several dry river-beds and a rather long meandering forest stretch, we finally reached our destination. The heart of Rajaji Park, Dhaulkhand is now out of bounds for the common man, being the core area of the national park. Thanks to the stringent tourism policy in Indian forests, it’s easier to gain entry to Rashtrapati Bhavan than to FRHS of Uttrakhand! We were, of course, lucky, as entries were easy and there were hardly any such families like us who were mad for wildlife to the extent they would spend a night in the deserted forest rest houses without electricity and other facilities.
The sun had already set in as we entered the forest rest house of Dhaulkhand. The ladies got busy cooking our dinner on the wood fired chula, with the local ration picked up at Mohund. The “Chuk Chuk” of the night jar (jungle bird) indicated that darkness had engulfed the forest. Deciding to have a jungle round we came across a beautiful male leopard on the stretch between Dhaulkhand and Beribarha as also a few cheetal and sambhar herds. The dinner was laid out by the time we were back from our safari round so we slept early, to wake up next morning at the break of dawn.
A drive through the forest at sunrise is always enchanting, and it was more so in Dhaulkhand that particular summer. Within minutes, the whole jungle was busy in unison to lap up food and water — as if to prepare for a long day. Several herds of spotted dear hurtled in front of our car, occasional jungle fowl scanned the loose earth foraging for food and an occasional <g data-gr-id="122">sambhar</g> would break cover from the bushes to take a close look at our vehicle. The sunlight coming through the occasional thin tall Sal, Dhak, Rohini and Ber trees gave an almost magical appearance to the setting. A forest guard had given us a little description about fresh roads nearby the previous evening and also where there was maximum probability of finding wildlife.
While imbibing the indescribable beauty of the forest, we noticed a small group of vultures atop a tree. Maybe a kill was nearby, or even the killer! Could it be a tiger or a leopard, I wondered.
As any wildlife enthusiast will tell you, the very hint of a big cat’s presence in a jungle impacts the body, mind and spirit — all at once! For the next 5 minutes or so, all of us sat motionless in the car; straining our ears to catch any sound near the prey or an alarm call, a typical jungle phenomenon through which a tiger’s or a leopard’s presence is advertised in the forest.
We heard nothing, absolutely nothing. The vultures too did not make any noticeable movement.
Maybe the tiger was lying close to the kill, and the vultures were waiting patiently for him to move away, I told myself. Minutes dragged by, and still nothing happened. I then decided to do a little investigation. I moved out with cautious steps and had hardly walked 50 <g data-gr-id="134">mts</g> through the grass and bush patch in the direction the vultures pointed, when a sight stopped me in my tracks. It was a tiger which I saw lying in the grass, no more than 10 <g data-gr-id="135">mts</g> from me! I froze instantly, for any sudden movement on my part could make the tiger head straight for my jugular…but the tiger did not make any movement. Slowly and stealthily I started retracing my steps. Disturbing a tiger on its kill is to surely invite death.
Having re-entered the car, I regained my composure and started assessing the facts. The tiger’s strange behaviour got me thinking. Gathering courage, I gave a coughing sound. The tiger still did not move, nor was there any reaction from the vulture and crows on the tree branches. We all decided to make a lot of noise…yet it was unresponsive – no movement. Keeping ourselves safe, we tried every method to attract its attention. We decided to take a different contour from the location of tiger to have a careful closer look, and making sounds with every step, we started moving closer to the point where the tiger lay. Up close, all excitement died down in an instant as the tiger was still lying motionless. All along we had been watching a dead tiger! It was a beautiful tigress, in the prime of her youth. Not a single injury mark was visible on her body. I concluded that she had been poisoned and decided, then and there, to do something about it. To investigate, I visited the local Gujjar <g data-gr-id="127">badas</g> nearby. My knowledge of the ways of the forest told me that locals would often poison predators that threatened their cattle. Was it the same situation here as well? A young buffalo had been killed and half eaten by a tiger.
We returned to the rest house and debated whether we should inform the forest department with the entire family, including ladies and children being part of the investigation, or move out. We finally decided that the entire family would move back to Delhi and then we would take up the matter with the authorities and media. By afternoon, we packed up and went to take a last look at the carcass. It was strange that the vultures and jackals had almost cleared the carcass within hours, after we had left the scene earlier.
The same evening, I attended to my pressing engagements but I wrote a piece for two of the leading national dailies. As expected, all hell broke loose after my report about the dead tiger with the photographs was published on the front page, with the fact that it had possibly been poisoned.
Rajaji Park’s Warden, VK Verma, was quick to deny my news report. He claimed there was no carcass in the park and refuted the death due to rising man-animal conflicts, which I had mentioned in my article. Within days, after having conducted his own enquiry and on not locating the carcass, I was called to show him the location. Fortunately, I succeeded and came across the carcass of the tigress and it was concluded that the tigress had indeed, been poisoned. I stood vindicated.
Thereafter, I developed cordial relations with <g data-gr-id="96">Verma,</g> and found him to be a dedicated and involved forest officer.
The next few years were the hardest on Rajaji’s tigers. Most, if not all, vanished without a trace… I wondered, then, whether the beautiful park would be deprived of all its tigers, victims of human greed which was taking a toll on the wildlife in other parts of India as well. A series of developments made me realise that things were not as bad as they looked initially. The relocation of a large number of Gujjar families living inside Rajaji Park to Pathri and other blocks near Hardwar brought winds of change to the beleaguered park. The forests of Rajaji, I am proud to report, are springing back to its original glory. The tigers too, have returned and their sightings are getting common in <g data-gr-id="117">Mundal</g>, near the Chilla ranges. During my last visit to Rajaji, I came across a beautiful huge male tiger near the now renovated Mithavvali Khara forest bungalow.
On the other hand, <g data-gr-id="104">Dhankhand</g> Range is still waiting for a reintroduction of the Tiger as mindless urbanisation and construction of ganga <g data-gr-id="105">Chawd</g> has cut off the natural corridor of this beautiful forest.
I have had a meeting with Sh. Digvijay Singh <g data-gr-id="106">Kheti</g>. Let me share it with you. He is as keen to re-introduce Tigers here and acknowledges it to be a great destination for wildlifers, no less than Corbett Tiger Reserve.
The true achievement will come when we are able to restore the forest corridor which has been usurped by the <g data-gr-id="124">so called</g> development of homo sapiens in the form of mindless construction permissions, cutting up forest patch for Ashrams and agriculture and mindless jungle encroachment of Raiwala Ammunition Dump.
(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org).