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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Julian In India - Day 23

It's been 10 days almost since my last email and in that time lots of things have happened and lots of adventures have been had. I am moving through the southern belt of the great Narmada river of Central Indi, the famous holy waters that divide North India from South India. Infact we crossed the Narmada south to north yesterday late afternoon which is itself an interesting spectacle, especially from an unstable bridge, with a multitude of modes from transport upon it from old to modern, bullock carts to coaches, all honking their horns at everything and everyone for no reason at all. In the very middle island a game of cricket was being played and the shorelines, and with good moist soil, the river banks are tilled to the waterline as the waters reside with a range of crops. No land is spared.

On either side of the banks, lines of Ghats or shrines, to a multitude of Hindu gods, take pilgrims by a series of long horizontal steps into the holy river, there to offer their deceased relatives ashes into the waters, carry out 'pujas' or offerings to their Gods, and also to bath or even drink the waters for good luck, long life or greater prosperity. The reality is that doing the latter is most likely to strike you down with some ghastly disease, that will rob you of your hoped for prosperity, and send you very much sooner to your own maker, has yet to be officially recognised by the Public Health Department or realised by the worshippers!

Having moved along the thin 'chicken neck' of forest that is all that remains of the so called 'corridor' for Tigers to move between two of the best stocked Tiger parks in India, Pench and Kanha National parks, we found ourselves ousted from the glorious old hunting lodge of Subkhar, with its steep thatch roof, and punkkas, or moving ceiling curtains, that were operated by the famous 'punkkawallahs' of the Raj to cool the house's inhabitants, and instead ended up in a village with a simple Rest house, where we set down for the night.

Taking stock of Kanha was exciting, because looking at Satellite pictures it would appear that huge tracts of forests lie outside Protected Areas and could be ripe for some private public conservancy idea. The reality is sadly much more depressing, as over the next few days we explored a variety of areas that were 'forests' on the map but turned out to be severely overgrazed and in bad shape without evidence of wildlife, or were large tracts of teak plantations planted by the forest department.

One of the best looking tracts of over 500 square kilometres appeared at first to be very exciting and we walked within parts of it, and down to a boulder strewn river bed, spotting lots of signs and tracks of wildlife including 'panther' or leopard, sloth bear (that most people are more scared of than tigers) sambar, wild boar and spotted deer, the chief meals of the predators. On enquiring further about how we could get deeper into this forest, for by now I was excited about it - I was told it was full of Naxalites and we could not go any further. Naxalites are local 'insurgents' modelled somewhat on the Maoists of Nepal, and using some nasty tactics and corruption in huge tracts of India, to make these areas ungovernable. Very annoying as its a huge tract of virgin forest that would greatly enhance Kanha National Park with dispersal of its young tigers, as it borders the park.

Kanha itself was wonderful to see again, with its huge meadows and dark foreboding Sal forests full of forest sounds. We came across two packs of wild dogs, about 12 dogs in each pack, who look much like a good looking well fed mongrel dog, but with a gorgeous bushy tail and alert faces. They were completely unperturbed by us watching them for half an hour and sat on the road and played with each other. New measures to defray tourism numbers around the park seem to have worked wonders and it often felt like we had the place to ourselves.

The so called 'Tiger show' is a big No No - I hated it and really regretted doing it because it's such an unauthentic wildlife experience, the crowds of tourists being ferried backwards and forwards on two bored elephants, to a poor Tigress trying to get some sleep at 10 am in the morning. This made me feel just how lucky I was to be so far removed from the classic tourist trail. I still have hardly come across another Gora - or white skin until this time!

I did a TOFT presentation to most of the lodge community in Kanha, with the new swarthy Park Director, Mr RP Singh, his stern looking Deputy, and the ebullient and intelligent Range Officer for Mukki, together with some representatives from the Park Guides Association (who are getting so much better now), and some great ideas where put forward and agreed quickly including a 'Children in the Park' day at the end and beginning of the season, some new Guide training from the best Lodge naturalists, Community forestry and I hope an agreed lodge Community Relations officer. All moving in the right direction.

My Hindi is not great but its getting better slowly - beginning to string the odd sentence together - the problem is then understanding the answer! It is surprising though just how much English has crept into everyday speak in Hindi, know as Hindish, so one can get some idea of what is being said most of the time. Luckily my two companions speak very good English - but it does spoil my need to converse in Hindi.

I am now in Bandavgarh National park - staying at a VIP Guesthouse of the Governments (because I am so important of course) - its who you know that counts here. The only problem is that they still have absolutely no concept of time and so much deference going on, so you get breakfast at noon, and supper at midnight - or vica versa if the staff instructed to tell the other lower staff what to do get the message wrong - a sort of Chinese whispers - which means every communication is lost by the initial messenger and completely changed by the responding messenger!

The trail continues here and I have just had a good but rather depressing meeting with the Bandavgarh Park Director. His problem is that the park is being highly successful at breeding Tigers but they get pushed out on maturity outside the park into landscapes devoid of prey and instantly take to eating cattle and rapidly get either electrocuted or poisoned.

His solution. 'I need rapidly to fence the park and then the Tigers will at least die within the park fighting with each other - rather than outside with poison!'.

The trail continues......


Julian (FD Rest House Bandavgarh)

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