The Rebirth Of Rajaji

Thursday 30th March 2017

The national park had a close brush with death but it chose to live. Now, it holds a promising future.
It was summer of 1985, May 12 to be exact, our entire family was in Mussourie 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 Mohund, we saw herd of elephants on the left flank from an elevated hill road. It was already past 5 pm and we stopped at the Mohund Forest Chowki, and that is when a fanciful thought struck me.
Making a necessary telephone call to the forest authorities in Dehradun from range office (there were no cell-phones those days), I veered my car to the left — and entered Rajaji National Park for a night halt 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 a common man being the core area of the national park. Nowadays, thanks to the stringent tourism policy in Indian forests, it’s easier to gain entry in Rashtrapati Bhavan than in Dhaulkhand! 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 to spend a night in the forest without electricity and other facilities. (I also spent enchanting two days at Dhaulkhand during the last Holi, but more about that in a future article).
The sun had already set as we entered the forest rest house of Dhaulkhand and the ladies became busy cooking our dinner on the firewood with the local ration picked up at Mohund. The muted chirping of the birds indicated that darkness had engulfed the forest. We took a jungle round and came across a beautiful male leopard on the stretch between Dhaulkhand and Beribarha as also a few cheetal and sambhar herds. After the round we had dinner which was ready by then. We slept early, to wake up next morning at the break of dawn.
A morning 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 sambhar 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 earlier evening and 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 25 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 and had hardly walked 50 m 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 out of the grass — no more than 10 m 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 retracting my steps. Disturbing a tiger on its kill is to surely invite death.
Having reentered the car, I regained my composure and started assessing. The tiger’s strange behaviour got me thinking. Gathering courage, I gave out a coughing sound. The tiger still did not move. We all made a lot of noise…yet it remained unresponsive. It did not even move from the point it was lying. Keeping ourselves safe, we tried every method to attract its attention. We decided to take another close look and making sounds with every step, we started moving closer to the point where the tiger was lying. This time, having reached within quite close, in a flash, excitement gave way to pangs of sadness. Instinctively, I knew what had happened. 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 locals 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?
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 earlier left the scene.
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 newsreport. 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 inquiry and on not locating the carcass, I was called to show the location. Fortunately, I succeeded and came across the carcass of tigress and he concluded that it had, indeed, been poisoned. I stood vindicated.
Thereafter, I developed a cordial relation with Verma, 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 its tigers, victims of human’s 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 families living inside Rajaji Park to Pathri and other blocks near Hardwar brought the winds of change to the beleaguered park. The forests of Rajaji, I am proud to report, are springing back to its original glory. The tiger, too, has returned and their sightings are getting common in Dhaulkhand, near the Chilla ranges. During my last visit to Rajaji, I came across a beautiful huge male tiger near the now renovated Khara forest bungalow.
The recovery of a patient whom I had given up for dead… but kept our fight on.
Rajaji has better potential than even Corbett. It is said that Rajaji was the most favoured hunting ground pf the Raj and Britishers. They could kill over 5 tigers in a night in Dhaulkhand stretch of the park.
The true achievement will come when we are able to restore the forest corridor which has been ursurped by the so called 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 Navin M Raheja, is a wildlife enthusiast and a passionate photographer. In the past 35 years, he has made several contributions in the field of conservation at various levels. A former member of Project Tiger’s Steering Committee, under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, he worked persistently to ensure that the big cats survive in India. He is also Chairman, Wildlife Conservation Society of India. One with a holistic vision, Raheja believes that development and protection of environment can happen simultaneously.
Raheja is a popular producer of films and documentaries based on varied subjects pertaining to today's Wildlife & Environmental Conservation. Raheja Productions, the division of Raheja, has produced more than 140 documentaries and films on wildlife and environment, which have been aired on National Geographic Channel, DD National and worldwide, ABP News etc. Over 37 first hand wildlife encounter stories have been published in various newspapers and magazines.
“I started going to Forests at a very young age where you could walk, cycle or even go on
a scooter Tiger Reserves, National Parks into Corbett/Rajaji National Park etc.
Have been visiting almost all the Tiger Reserves in India almost on a weekly/fortnightly  basis. This kept me in close interaction with wild animals, understanding the intricate relationship with and between the various species at the planet.
This also helped me to contribute into Tiger rehabilitation experiments and also dealing with man eaters as well as rogue elephants. Hope you will enjoy reading stories and watching wildlife films.” - Navin M Raheja
(For already published stories/articles and films on wildlife which have been aired on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel, DD International and ABP News, please log on to www.raheja.com/wildlife.asp or www.rahejaproductions.com)

 

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