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A forest fire that must die down

It’s bad enough that one has to be reminded of the pathetic state of our green lungs each time one walks past the main entry point of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, at Borivali. Litter, garbage, disregard of the surroundings and several other forgettable sights and sounds (emanating from the homosapien variety) greet one inside this last escape for the nature lover and flora-fauna buff. Trash drives, initiatives and surveys by city-based watchdogs like the Bombay Natural History Society and others stem the rot temporarily but one has to return in a few month’s time to see the green cover turn into shades of blue, white and yellow (plastic, that is).

Greener pastures, one must look for, was our mantra and so naturally, when yours truly embarked on a weekend trip to the much-touted Pench National Park, the anticipation was sky-high. Now, Pench, unlike any other wildlife sanctuary or national park in India spreads across two states — Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.


Leisure time: A tiger cools himself in a pond at Kanha Tiger Reserve in MP

By the time we set foot on terra firma, on the side that came under Pench’s Maharashtra section, there was a tiny bit in the head that began to imagine that we were heading straight into the pages of the Kipling classic, the Jungle Book. At this point, one must digress. The area where the Mumbai-born Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling spent his childhood has been the subject of a long-standing debate between parks including Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh. Experts have tried somewhat, to put the issue to rest, stating the entire corridor (now split between such parks and its extended areas) could have been the setting for this literary classic.

Back to the dirt road. The state-run accommodation we checked into resembled tribal huts. This site, which was close to the gates that lead us to the park, was neat, tidy with local touches to the structure and design. It was noontime, and we were famished after the arduous drive from Nagpur railway station. The tigers had to wait. That's when encountered the first bump. Hoping to be served with authentic regional cuisine, we had to survive on the Tandoori-meets-Indian Chinese nightmare that plagues most restaurant/dhaba menus on a road trip gone wrong. Willing to oversee this for the larger picture, namely the wildlife-spotting, we set out on our first safari. The forest guards (or was it guard?) wasn’t thrilled to be on afternoon duty. With barely any imposing boundary wall, let alone armed forest personnel and state-of-the-art control equipment, we entered the national park.

It became increasingly clear, after having spent over two hours with our efficient guide, that all was not well. Lack of funds and manpower, basic equipment and zero protection from poachers meant Pench stood no chance of putting up a fight. We could've been armed tiger-skin-stealing smugglers from the Orient, and nobody would’ve been able to sniff out our intentions. Such was the porous shield of security that we witnessed, within and outside of this national park — one of the many regions in India meant to be the protected ‘home’ for the Indian Tiger. Sigh.

There was no tiger in sight. Instead, the Indian Gaur (bison), chausingha, jackal, several species of bird including the peacock made friendly appearances as we negotiated our way through the Savannah-like landscape. On our way out in fading light, the scene hadn’t changed. It was after dark, yet the boundaries were far from secured. Next morning, we decided to scour the Madhya Pradesh section of the park. After all, of the 785 sq. kms that the national park constituted; 90% lay in MP.

It was a different scenario altogether. High gates, strict checking, sturdy jeeps, smartly attired forest officials and guards, even a souvenir shop! We rubbed our sleep-deprived eyes in disbelief. Suddenly, the biting cold didn’t matter. Clearly, the state took its wildlife seriously. As our jeep went further into the forest, with the Pench River crisscrossing our views in several frames, we were able to spot more wildlife activity as well — almost as if our friends from the jungle had moved states.

We didn’t spot the tiger; a male’s claw marks on a salai tree were our lone memorabilia. Nevertheless, it was a wild, wild morning filled with good sightings and reassurances. However, it left an unsavoury taste in the mouth: the manner in which we protect and package the wildlife in our state deserves a total overhaul. Before all is lost.

The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY

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