Often describing Corbett Tiger Reserve of Uttarakhand, my friends state emphatically why they still prefer to search for the elusive big cat there than in the ‘sure-shot’ national parks of Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh and Tadoba. I tend to agree with the argument. It essentially boils down to the premise that an intense, pulse-pounding search in a forest — be it for a tiger or any other wildlife — is its own reward. In other words, what comes easily in front of a camera (such as a tiger in the Tala zone of Bandhavgarh in the month of April) may carry less weight for a true wildlifer than, say, its fleeting glimpse in an undergrowth on Corbett’s Kamarpatta Road after spending hours looking for it.
The idea is not to belittle the tiger-friendly reserves; they fully deserve their world-class reputation. What I am trying to put my finger on to is the nature of the land itself. Decades of roaming in the wild regions of India have convinced me that each forest, like a human being, has a distinct personality. Some are approachable easily, others are coy as a young bride and a few others will test all your patience and observation skills before laying bare their hidden treasures.
Dudhwa Tiger Reserve of Uttar Pradesh falls in the last category. It’s a place brimming with secrets, which it does not reveal easily. I will put it this way: Dudhwa is a place which welcomes explorers and places hurdles in the path of mere pleasure-seekers. For precisely this reason, it is very special to me. Its awesome grasslands and immense stretches of sal forest, perhaps the finest in the Terai arc, speak more melodiously with their silence than any song. The suddenness of Dudhwa! Things here can and often happen without a clue. Hours and hours of tracking pugmarks and alarm calls on the jungle roads could well lead to a blind alley. And then, rather abruptly, his highness will appear in front of your gypsy while you are least expecting him to. But please be quick with your DSLRs; he won’t give you as much time as his striped brother in Ranthambore. Trust me, that one sudden encounter with the tiger of Dudhwa will burn brightly in your mind for many, many years. It will be something which I am sure you would be impatient to share with your friends by the campfire on a star-lit night.
Somehow Dudhwa remains with you long after you have exited its physical boundary. It happens with me every time. But today I would like to share a chapter of Dudhwa’s past with my young readers; it’s something which they are not likely to be aware of. Till about the mid-80s, Dudhwa was known all over as the place full of man-eating tigers. Yes, you heard me right.
As per the forest records, over 170 people were killed by man-eaters in and around Dudhwa during a time span stretching from the early 70s to mid-80s.
There are a number of interesting theories explaining the sudden emergence of man-eating tigers in Dudhwa. Of these, the most credible seems to be the one offered by Mr Roopak Dey, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Uttar Pradesh. According to him, the late 60s saw the Nepal government clearing large tracts of forest land, which formed the Northern boundary with Dudhwa.The massive deforestation on the Nepal side led to the exodus of its tigers southward, that is to the Dudhwa National Park. It led straightway to fight for territory between the resident tigers of Dudhwa and the newcomers from Nepal. The defeated tigers were pushed further south; forced to leave the forest cover, they found shelter in the sprawling sugarcane fields surrounding the national park. Here they came in direct conflict with the farmers, resulting in a large number of human casualties.
The forest department, as also the legendary Billy Arjan Singh, had a tough battle on their hands. They eventually got rid of the man-eating tigers and thanks to them Dudhwa today is a safe place to venture out with friends and families.
Speaking of Bily Arjan Singh, I had the opportunity of meeting him a couple of times at his famous Tiger Haven house situated on the boundary of the reserve. It’s a fact that Dudhwa owes its existence to Billy. His detractors, on the other hand, point with glee at the controversial Tara experiment and how it ‘polluted’ the tiger genes in the region. Till his dying day almost seven years ago, I am told, Billy remained unfazed by the criticism.
The rhinos of Dudhwa are another reason to visit this charming place. In the early 80s, the government initiated a unique project of reintroducing one-horned rhinos in Dudhwa, the argument being that till about 120 years ago these animals roamed free in the region. A 25 square kilometer enclosure at the Salukapur range of the tiger reserve initially held seven rhinos, some brought from Assam’s Kaziranga and others from Chitwan in Nepal. As of now, their number has increased to 30, and for many visitors, they happen to be the prime attraction of Dudhwa.
The swamp deer is another speciality of Dudhwa, as also the hispid hare and that rarest of the rare bird which eludes most photographers even after years of looking for it with their cameras in a ready position: the Bengal Florican. Coming from the bustard family, the Bengal Florican is many times more threatened than the extremely threatened Great Indian Bustard. I saw it only once about a decade ago — emerging majestically from the grassland, it gave its classical swooping dance in the air before vanishing into the ground; all of this happening in a few seconds. Needless to say, I failed to capture the Florican with my camera. Dudhwa is all this and much more. Like any piece of real beauty, it’s more than the sum of its parts.
(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).