Saturday, August 17, 2013

Interview with Suniti Bhushan Datta (Wildlife Biologist)

Wildlife is something that has always fascinated me. In fact it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to claim that had I not gone into writing, I would probably have tried my luck at doing something related to wildlife. From a very early age, I was captivated by the wildlife documentaries shown on television and had a strong urge to lose myself in those dense jungles.

This fascination of mine is however being led by many others across the globe who work tirelessly to care for our forests. One of them is Suniti Bhushan Datta, a wildlife biologist and nature educator from Dehradun, India. Author of the book ‘Birding in the Doon Valley’, Dutta has been into the various facets of wildlife for about a decade now.

There had been several questions in my heart regarding our wildlife that I could never get real answers to. Suniti Dutta, through this interview, gives me and many others like me the perfect opportunity to have their questions answered as he sheds light on various aspects of wildlife that every citizen of this country should be aware of. Read on.

Excerpts from an interview

Q. I have always been fascinated with how a wildlife professional works. Please elaborate on the kind of job(s) you do in your field?

Suniti Dutta: I am basically a consultant wildlife biologist and nature educator. In the former capacity, I am sometimes hired by NGOs or the Forest Department to conduct population surveys or research on a particular species, population or certain aspect of wildlife or its habitat.

I have also, of late, started working with various schools, through certain organizations, as an outdoor/nature educator- basically introducing children to nature, letting them experience it firsthand, outside of the often misleading and sensationalist confines of Nat Geo, Discovery and Animal Planet. I have been doing nature education ad lib work for the better part of 10 years now, but I have only recently taken it up professionally and full time. I tend to enjoy doing it much more than research and find it more meaningful from a conservation point of view!

Fieldwork is the fun part of wildlife biologist’s work! The science that we do is only one part of it. Everything...the birds and other wildlife, walking through the forest, the fresh air, the silence in the night, the is just magical. Every day you learn something new; see a new sight, or a new creature, an animal behaving in a different way... It can never be boring.

Q. Looking at those wildlife documentaries, I have always considered the work of wildlife professional to be very exciting. Is it always like that?

SD: Yes, working with wildlife can be exciting, in terms of being able to encounter or observe animals that are usually not easy to approach, or even see in the wild. Though, for the most part it is usually mundane collection of data and analysis for research.

As I stated earlier, Nat Geo, Discovery, et al, does tend to sensationalize wildlife work more than it is, or is necessary.

The excitement also comes from obtaining the results of that research, being able to answer questions about the natural history, ecology or behaviour of a species, or about a habitat.

Whatever else it is, I can tell you that wildlife work is never ‘routine’!

Q. How did your interest in wildlife take birth? Did you always wish to get into this field?

SD: I have been interested in animals since a very young age, though I’ve never really worked out how that interest started exactly. My mother and eldest sister are both avid birdwatchers and my sister used to read to me from Gerald Durrell’s books, and I spent many of my school holidays in the then wildlife-rich tea estates of Assam and North Bengal, all of which were certainly factors that encouraged that interest. My family has always encouraged and supported my interest in wildlife and the outdoors.

While as a career choice, I wanted to do something related to the outdoors, I never specifically thought of working with wildlife until much later. As a child, all I was sure about was that I never wanted work within the confines of an office and/or behind a desk. I’m allergic to offices!

Q. Tell us what a person needs to do in order to become a wildlife professional? As in what is the approach he must have right from the beginning, the courses he must do etc.

SD: To become a wildlife professional, there are several avenues that are now open. If you want to pursue wildlife research, there are several post-grad courses in wildlife sciences that are offered. The two better ones are from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS)-Bengaluru and Wildlife Institute of India (WII)-Dehra Dun. The academic criterion for both these courses is a graduate degree in any life science with 55% aggregate. Although this has recently been waived, having an adequate good grounding in the basics of science is good for understanding biological systems.

With a graduate degree, you can also apply to work as a nature guide in a wildlife reserve, since there are many resorts and wildlife tourism camps that are constantly on the lookout for guides. Also, many NGOs related to environmental advocacy, research and activism also recruit interested persons.
In general, an inquisitive mind, and a love for and aptitude for living in the outdoors are essential. Many field sites are in remote locations, well away from the comforts of urban existence, which you should be prepared for.

Q. Please share your experience of studying at the Wildlife Institute of India. How different is it from other normal institutes; meaning is the environment there just like a normal college one? As a student, what did you do there?  

SD: I joined the Masters Degree (Wildlife Sciences) course at the Wildlife Institute of India in the XIth Batch (2007-09). This is an extensive and intensive course that prepares you for a career in the field of wildlife research and conservation. WII is an autonomous institute under the Ministry of Environment and Forests and hence, has unparalleled access to India’s forests, which is a big advantage. During the course, we were introduced to a diversity of habitats across the country, from the Himalayas to marine ecosystems.

The institute also holds Certificate and Diploma Courses in Wildlife Management for Forest Service personnel, which allows students to interact with officers directly working on conservation and wildlife management issues, allowing one to get a perspective of the ground realities. This also helps in networking as well as bridging the gap between researchers and managers.

I would say that the WII’s M.Sc course is very different from most other colleges in that it actively encourages you to pursue original research and thinking, rather than be spoon-fed by professors. During the last semester of the course students have to propose and conduct an original research project for 6 months that culminates in a dissertation, which has to be defended before one’s peers.

Q. As a young wildlife professional, what are your views on the current situation of wildlife in India? Additionally, what do you think we should do to improve it?

SD: Overall in India, wildlife is not doing as badly as people make it out to be, though I would caution that it is not doing very well either. India is in a state of flux and how wildlife fares in the next few decades is dependent on the attitude of the government and the people.

With current government policy of unsustainable development, there is little to stop the indiscriminate clearance of forests, except the voice of the people. Wildlife cannot vote and hence, it is very low down the ladder in terms of politicians’ priorities. It is ultimately we, the people of India, who must speak out in defense of the natural wealth of this country. As far as the government is concerned, the forests and the environment are yet another resource to be plundered to conform to the current destructive growth model.

Development in itself is not a bad thing. It has to take place. But, while many countries, especially in Europe, have adopted sustainable, green solutions for development, here in India, we are hell-bent on pursuing the most destructive course. Our government and politicians seem to have no foresight.

Q. I have currently been reading in the papers as to how the tiger is making a comeback in our wild. I have a sinking feeling that the numbers being put up are grossly inflated. Is it true or is the tiger situation in India really improving?

SD: Tigers need three essential factors for their survival- adequate protection from poachers, a good prey-base and minimal disturbance. If these three things are taken care of, tigers will thrive in a given forest area.
The tiger is one animal that is actually not doing so badly actually, at least in most places. With the high-profile campaigns to protect the tiger in the media and amongst the general public, there is an increased media spotlight and hence, pressure on tiger reserves to step-up patrolling and anti-poaching measures. As long as this initiative is sustained, tigers will survive.

The next step has to be to look beyond tiger reserves at wider landscapes, such as the Terai Arc Landscape along the base of the Himalayas or the Satpura-Maikal Landscape in Central India. Connecting populations, through viable forest corridors is crucial to maintaining the genetic viability and the long-term survival of tigers in India.

As for numbers, no wildlife census is entirely accurate. The secretive nature of most wildlife makes them difficult to count, even using advanced techniques. That is why the correct term is ‘population estimates’, and not ‘censuses’. The days in which state wildlife departments published ‘exact’ numbers, usually concocted, are long gone. Also, absolute numbers mean very little in terms of conservation application, and have been replaced by the more meaningful population density and habitat occupancy.

As such, the figures published in the NTCA-WII report are as accurate as possible.

Q. Since you are already conducted Elephant census, can you please tell us as to how the census of an animal is conducted in our country? I had once read Valmik Thapar claim a few years back that the way the tiger population is conducted in our country isn’t very proper. What are your views on that? Also in comparison to other countries where does our animal census method stand?

SD: Different animals and habitats require different methodologies.

With elephants, for example, there are several techniques that are used in combination, depending on the terrain characteristics and estimated density of the animal. These can be waterhole count, dung-density estimates along transects and block counts. Transects and waterhole counts are used for estimating prey and ungulate densities.

Carnivore populations are estimated using camera-traps, placed systematically in a particular area.

The tiger population estimation exercise in the country has come a long way from the days of the highly inaccurate pugmark census. The camera-trap method used today is as accurate perhaps, as it will ever get. Of course, the efficacy of any estimation method used, is dependent on how it is carried out.  In my opinion, the tiger and prey estimation exercise should be carried out by a competent independent agency, in conjunction with the state forest departments. Left to their own devices, the latter can inflate figures to suit their purposes. Also, the methods and analyses should be peer-reviewed, as is the practice by the scientific community worldwide.

The census techniques in use in India are the same that are used to estimate various wildlife populations around the world.

Q. The Alipore Zoo in Kolkata has recently launched the ‘Adopt an Animal’ scheme. This is already quite popular in zoos like Nandankanan and the Darjeeling Zoo. One thing I always wondered was is the scheme just another way for our stars to get some limelight when they ‘adopt’ an animal or does it have its benefits?

SD: Given the current state of Alipore Zoo, and most any other zoo in the country, the scheme is just eye-wash. It is just another way for stars to show how, ‘concerned’ they are. The animal, as long as it remains in the same pitiable conditions throughout the year, does not benefit at all.

Q. I have had the opportunity to visit many zoos across the country on different occasions but find only a few of them in acceptable conditions. What are your views on the condition of zoos in India? What according to you is a model zoo?

SD: The primary function of the modern zoo, a concept developed by Carl Hagenbeck in Hamburg in 1907, was to exhibit animals in as near replication of their natural surroundings as possible so as to educate the public about them. As conservation interest grew in the general public in the latter half of the 20th century, interpretative facilities were added to new zoos and management was improved. With Gerald Durrell’s Jersey Zoological Park, they also became captive breeding centres for endangered animals. The idea being that, if for multifarious reasons, an animal becomes extinct in the wild, there is a repository of the species in captivity that can be used to repopulate the habitat, once the reasons for its extinction have been removed.

Somehow, this renaissance has not taken place in India and by large, zoos in India continue to follow the Victorian concept of keeping animals in bare cages with minimal decoration. Interpretative facilities, where they exist, are inaccurate at best. Captive breeding (or conservation breeding as it is now known) is again haphazard and unscientific, where it exists. There has been no real move to change this system over the years and despite having a Central Zoo Authority and published guidelines, zoos continue to be neglected by an apathetic administration.

Q. While we are on the topic, I would also like to talk about enclosures for animals in our zoos. I find them quite inadequate in space. Do you feel that should be improved throughout the country?

SD: There are issues much graver than just the space. An example of this is the Delhi Zoo, where a Lion-tailed Macaque- a highly endangered rainforest primate- has been kept in a vast unsheltered paddock, with a single snag in the centre. No attempt has been made to provide this animal with anything remotely resembling its rainforest habitat. Never has an animal looked more miserable.

There are possibly two zoos in India worth mentioning, where at least some attempt has been made at improving the situation. The Nainital High-Altitude Zoo has large, open enclosures with natural vegetation, where the animals have some privacy and adequate separation from the public; they are well maintained and fed quality food. Attractive bilingual, interpretative signs are abundantly placed to educate the visitor about the animals in the enclosures.

Darjeeling Zoo is similar in its approach to displaying animals, and has of late been quite successful in breeding the endangered Red Panda.

Q. Would it be viable to completely abolish the concept of zoos and only keep the animals in the national parks i.e. in their natural surroundings?

SD: The less said about other zoos in the country the better. As they currently exist, zoos in the country should be demolished and rebuilt, or shut down permanently, because they serve no purpose other than to torment their captive inhabitants.

Q. Talking about national parks, I had the opportunity to visit one. While on the safari, I noticed how congregated it can become sometimes on one route with canters and jeeps all falling over each other to get that shot of a particular animal. I found it quite disturbing that an animal was being blatantly disturbed in its natural surroundings. Doesn’t that in a way kill the concept of a national park itself?

SD: National Parks and Sanctuaries were established to conserve certain habitats and their wildlife. That was their primary mission. Tourism was meant to be an incidental, secondary and highly regulated means of generating some revenue. However, in recent years tourism has overshadowed the original purpose of a protected area. Increased revenue means better promotion prospects for the officer in charge of a high profile park or sanctuary. There are also vested interests from locals and politicians who have stake in the business. All this eventually boils down to lax regulations and an unplanned, haphazard growth of resorts around a protected area that suck resources from it and contribute nothing, except garbage and litter.

The emphasis in India is not on quality tourism, but quantity: stuff as many people as you can into a canter/jeep, and show them a tiger. Most tour operators, guides and resorts subscribe to this model, because it generates quick revenue. They have no affinity towards the park, except for this. Many however, do bandy about the words, ‘eco-tourism’ and ‘eco-friendly’ without having the slightest idea of what these entail, because it looks good to a non-discerning tourist on a flashy website.

Corbett NP is a prime example of this. The resorts that line the Kosi River bordering the park have dance floors and bright lights, hardly the ambience for an ‘eco-friendly, wildlife’ experience. None of this would have happened without the complicity of the forest department, or if resort owners had the even the slightest interest in the welfare of this beautiful landscape.

Q. I also noticed that on a safari in a national park, people keep shouting and flashing their cameras at the animal, completely ignoring the laws of the jungle. I had wondered that wouldn’t it be prudent for forest officials to brief all the public before they enter the park on the basic rules they have to follow inside?

SD: There are exceptions, few and far between but, as I have said above, the forest department has little interest in regulating tourism for reasons mentioned. Guides too, have little motivation to do so either because this could lead to not getting a handsome tip.

Also, most protected areas are short-staffed and it is a strain to have to assign valuable manpower for tourism regulation, rather than protection and management duties. In most cases, the former takes precedence and ultimately conservation suffers.

Briefings certainly help of course but, unless these rules are enforced, nothing happens. We have traffic rules in India, but does that stop anyone from double-parking, overtaking from the wrong side and driving in the wrong lane?

In my opinion, tourism should be stopped in National Parks and Sanctuaries, and large open-air safari parks developed that are well stocked with tigers, lions and other showy wildlife, where tiger-centric tourists can be driven through to see these creatures at their heart’s content, for a small fee. It won’t make a difference to the general tourist whether he gets a ‘wildlife experience’ or not. He’s seen a tiger, the guide got his hefty tip, and the forest department its revenue, and wildlife remains undisturbed. Everyone is a winner.

Q. Correct me if I am wrong, but there seems to be hardly any interest among the larger part of the public in wildlife as a career? Does that stem from the fact that there is no genuine love for animals in our country?

SD: I don’t think it has anything to do with any less love for animals or wildlife, as such.

For one thing, there isn’t much publicity about wildlife as a career and the field is still rather limited in this country. In terms of a general shift away from conventional careers, we in India are still conservative about taking up something outside the box and parents are as much to blame for this as anyone. Doctor/engineer/businessman/software professional/civil servant/lawyer/accountant are still very much the careers to take up.

In recent years, I have seen an increasing number of young people, especially in the 30-35 years age-group, moving away from their ‘mainstream’ careers and taking up something different, especially in the outdoors, whether as adventure tourism operators or wildlife guides. It is a refreshing change and hopefully it will grow.

Q. Is there any way we can change the general sentiment related to animals in our country?

SD: Education. That is the key to everything, I think. The better people understand the natural world and the environment around them, the more they will appreciate and hopefully conserve it.

Q. On a lighter note, tell me about some of your career highlights. Any particular achievement that you are truly proud of?

SD: Given my academic track record, I was greatly surprised when I was selected to join the M.Sc programme at the Wildlife Institute of India! That and doing the course itself, was definitely a highlight. I guess I could be proud of that!

Having my first book, ‘Birding in the Doon Valley’ published, gives me a lot of satisfaction. It is a book that I have wanted to come out with for a very long time- since school days, actually- and to have it published and on the market, is a dream come true. It’s come a long way from random scribbles on the back of my Maths exercise books (the subject I day-dreamed through the most!) to its present form!

Q. What are your future plans now? How would you, as a wildlife professional, like to contribute towards improving the standards of our wildlife situation?

SD: I have always been curious about animals, and one of the reasons I wanted to become a wildlife researcher, so that I could gain skills to answer various questions I had about them.

However, some years ago, I read a quote attributed to Dr. George Schaller (without a doubt, the world’s most accomplished wildlife biologist), where he said that, “It is painfully clear that good science and good laws do not necessarily result in effective conservation. Aware of this, I have in recent years focused less on detailed science, something I enjoy most, and more on conservation. I have tried to become a combination of educator, diplomat, social anthropologist, and naturalist—an ecological missionary, balancing knowledge and action.

This made me think hard about where I was headed in terms of contribution to conservation. Research is one way to go but, all too often and especially in this country, research findings seldom get incorporated into conservation action on the ground. Publishing papers in high-impact journals brings personal satisfaction, but I couldn’t see it contributing much to conservation.

As stated earlier, I had been conducting nature and outdoor education programmes with various schools in Dehra Dun, whenever I was here from the field, but have recently decided to take this up full time. Growing up here, I was fortunate enough to have teachers who encouraged us to explore this beautiful valley and its diverse habitats. My appreciation and love for the outdoors was greatly honed by this experience. This valley is a fantastic outdoor laboratory to introduce children to nature, with mountains and forests and streams galore, all within easy access.

I feel that children today are losing touch with the natural world. Television channels like Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet are all right, but there is nothing to compare being in a natural environment and experiencing things for oneself.  Children are the future. The idea is to capture a child’s natural curiosity and sustain it.

Every child who appreciates and cares about wildlife and the environment today can potentially make the world a better place tomorrow.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sounds of Time

The 'Record Prince' store
Seventy year old Richard Phillips from Boston has his eyes lit as he looks at the priceless and diverse collection of record players lying in the shelf of the small shop in front of him.  Santana’s eponymous debut album from 1969, a bunch of albums by the Southern Rock legends Allman Brothers Band, records from the 70s by British progressive rock pioneers King Crimson; among others occupy the shelves of this small record store in Kolkata. Also lying near these are jazz must-haves like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, live albums by the Bill Evans Trio and Weather Report classics

“These are absolute gems; I have been looking for many of these in my country for quite some time. Imagine finding them here in this small nook!!  My wife is a big fan of the Allman Brothers. She would be absolutely delighted.” says Richard with the excitement of a 12 year old.

Located in the nostalgic neighbourhood of Free School Street in central Kolkata, Record Prince , popularly known here as ‘Chacha’s shop’, has been in existence since 1965 and is one of the very few shops still housing some of the most valued and precious record players there can be. This shop, as some claim here, is the Mecca of vinyl records in town and not to mention a few well-maintained gramophone players, some of which are even up for sale.

Anyone who might have possessed a record player once would know what a good quality one is, and shops like Record Prince do keep theirs well oiled. The owner of the shop, 67 year old Anis Ashraf, is a jolly man who hardly visits the store these days himself and lets his two sons handle it. He got most of these records from their previous owner Bakhtiar Jaan who used to run a nameless record store in these very lanes in the early 1950s. Ashraf who used to work as an employee in Bakhtiar’s store learnt all the nitty- gritty and other technical details of record players with perfection. For instance he can tell you in details as to how a 78rpm(revolutions per minute)- the standard speed of a record player-  is supposed to run smooth. He can also inform you about genres and artistes that lure people to these records; things which were poles apart from his upbringing.
“What’s special about these vinyl records is that even after years of endless and repeated use they never seem to lose their rich quality of sound. This can never be the case of cassettes or even these new age CDs.  Although I have lost a handful of my old records as they got broken, but I have got quite a few which are more than sixty years old.” says Anis assuredly while showing the worn-out diaries he still maintains that detail track names and artistes on a particular LP (Long Play, or long-playing microgroove record), year of publication and total length of the recording. These are details he says that customers absolutely relish. “It gives me immense pleasure when I provide the customers with the things they are looking for. There is no greater feeling when people from different parts of the globe say that they have heard about my shop from their friends," he adds with pride.

Some of the famous classics on the shelves of the store

Record Prince however is not just renowned for housing English classics; it caters to local tastes too by having some of the most treasured collectibles of Hindi songs of the yore. Records of everyone from Pandit Ravi Shankar to Rabindrasangeet renditions by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay decorate the shelves of the shop. 

Danish Ashraf at the store
However the real gems or his ‘special collections’ as ‘Chacha’ likes to call them are kept in a moldy hole in the wall, behind the shop. Arranged systematically in racks, the records are alphabetically arranged according to the artistes’ names. After a record-to-tape, or now record-to-CD, capture each one the records goes back to its original place of safety.  While Chacha claims he has sold off most of his collections, there still are close to around 5000 records at his store.

Of his two sons, 30 year old Danish Ashraf is the one who is mostly seen managing the store and learning the tricks of the trade from his father like a loyal son.  “I have no intentions of going anywhere else. I wish to continue doing this as long as I can and maybe expand it even further in the future. It is our family’s bread and butter and I can never let it go.”  says Danish confidently.

In the age of MP3 players, IPods and digital music, Record Prince has survived and lived to tell its tale.  “I guess I have in a way ensured this shop’s place as an important part of Kolkata’s nostalgia; howsoever small it might be.”  smiles Anis Ashraf before going off to greet a couple of eager customers. Though Anis today may have taken his self-imposed voluntary retirement from his shop, it seems that the magic of vinyl refuses to leave him.  

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Ranthambhore Adventure (Part-2)

(Second and final part of my adventures in Ranthambhore. Here I try and detail the account of the trips I made in the park and some other anecdotes from the city. It was an arduous task to compile the events in just one post, but I have given it my best shot. Hope you enjoy the journey.)

The early morning chill seemed to hit me like cold knives as we ventured towards our destination sitting in the auto. The sun was yet to come out as it was still around 4.15 am and we drove towards the Ranthambhore National Park gates covered in heavy jackets and caps. The streets of Sawai Madhopur were expectedly deathly silent and not a soul could be seen at that hour. The driver drove at full speed causing the chilly wind to invade the auto and make our teeth chatter like crazy. That was the thing about Rajasthan; it could be extremely hot in the summers and deadly cold in the winters. My friend Haokip meanwhile was busy trying to take a short nap in the auto; quite oblivious to the tension that I was feeling then.

The canter we were to board
We reached the park gates at around 4.45 am and thankfully got the tickets for the canter (an open bus) ride. It was a 20-seater vehicle; not ideal given that we would have another 18 people chattering like bees around us, but it had to do. The jeep ride was way too expensive and I was just happy at the chance to be getting inside the park.

The first trip was to begin at 6 am and end after three hours at 9. After a break, we were then to return for the second trip at 2 in the afternoon. For now though, I was only focused on this trip. Every arrangement had now been done. Now all we could do was wait.  I checked my watch; it was still 5 am. There was an entire hour to go before we could board our vehicle. I looked around for Haokip; he was busy sipping tea from a local tea –shop, looking around aimlessly at the skies. I smiled to myself knowing well that this was going to be one long hour indeed.

Trip 1

“The canter will leave in five minutes. Get ready all of you,” hollered the burly driver of the canter to all of us. It was precisely 5.55 am and the sun was slowly making its way from the clouds above to shine down on everything in the vicinity. Now I could clearly see the words ‘Ranthambhore National Park’ etched on a large semi-circular plate at the entry gates. Beyond it, I could see the dense forest and the amazingly beautiful mountains inviting me to explore their
captivating beauty. It was a glorious moment; standing outside the park I had seen only on television and having dreamt about visiting it many a times all these years. It all seemed so surreal. I hence wanted to drink in every moment of this. Everything seemed to be moving in slow-motion as I looked around; people were scuttling to take their seats in the respective vehicles, drivers and other officials were barking instructions to people around them and hawkers were still trying to sell hats and jackets to the visitors. I was jolted out of my reverie as Haokip pulled me by my sleeve and yelled, “Get in the canter ass****, we are getting late.”

The icy cold wind of the forest smothered my face and I breathed in the fresh morning air of the verdant greenery around me as the canter sped ahead on the rocky road of the jungle. There are few better feelings in life than the one I was feeling right then. It seemed I was in some other world enveloped by magnificent trees and mountains. The air was so invigorating and pure that I felt I had rinsed myself of all the sins in my life right then just by inhaling it. I closed my eyes for a minute and let the feeling sanitize me, wanting to make the most of the moment whilst I could. I knew I would get to relive this particular moment again the very next day when we would be back for another round at the park, but I somehow related this moment to the feeling of first love- you might experience love many times in your life and enjoy it too; but the first one will always be the most special one because you will never get another first love in your life!


We were an hour into our journey now and I had been closely observing every minute detail of the surroundings around me. Haokip like me was relishing the forest adventure. His handycam tightly gripped in his hand, he kept on capturing the picturesque locales that went by us. However the people in the canter were getting impatient as we hadn’t seen a tiger yet. The conversations centered only on getting a peek of the tiger and they ignored the fact that there was much more to savour from the forest than just the elusive big cat.  

As another half an hour went by and all we saw were a couple of alligators resting by a small pond and few gorgeous looking birds atop the trees; the people started getting restless. “When will we see the tiger?” asked a curious kid to his mother. A group of young boys started cracking loud jokes, completely ignoring the laws of the jungle to remain silent. It is imperative that whilst we are in the jungle, we should abide by its rules and not disturb the natural surroundings. We are in their territory and not the other way round. Very few people however abide by this. Unfortunately, neither the guide nor the driver asked them to maintain silence either.

One of the antelopes we had spotted
Meanwhile as the canter zoomed ahead, we noticed a couple of antelopes squatting at a small clearing. The vehicle stopped and we quietly gawked at the beautiful creatures merrily munching the fresh grass. There is something quite thrilling to watch animals in their natural habitat; it’s unlike any experience a zoo can ever provide.  

Soon thereafter, we were coming to a close on the trip and there was disappointment everywhere as a tiger had still not been sighted. All the talk was still centered on the tiger. A couple of other vehicles passed by and informed us that they had luckily sighted a tiger on a certain route just minutes ago. There was a collective loud groan from all of the people in our canter, including me. It seemed we were very near to the cat and had yet missed it. But there was not much to do about it now as I saw the canter taking us back to the entry gates. The first trip was over. Though people kept chattering on how unsuccessful the trip had been for them, I was quietly satisfied.     
  I had enjoyed it for the special moments it gave me.

Food and Relaxing

“I am not going in there man,” Haokip said in anguish as he looked in horror at the vegetarian restaurant I was taking him to. I had to drag and convince him at the same time that it was an economical deal. We were at a restaurant which was at walking distance from the park. Going to look for a non-vegetarian restaurant to the main city would involve a lot of travelling and would hence mean spending extra money and with it extra time as well. We had to save both and hence I convinced my friend to eat here.

It was almost like watching someone forcibly eat jail-food. Haokip looked in disgust at the plate of yellow daal and rice in front of him and chewed each morsel as if someone had died in his family. I did not have the time to ponder over his grumblings as I had to refill my own tummy and thus I greedily dug in at my spread of the same item and relished eating it as Haokip kept eyeing me angrily.


Haokip was evidently quite happy at the shop
I managed to cheer Haokip’s sour mood again by taking him shopping. It was the very same shop from where I had brought my tiger printed T-shirts a day earlier. Like me Haokip too was impressed by the man’s collection and soon he forgot his ordeal with the vegetarian food and got interested with the T-shirts. He brought himself a couple of them and looked quite happy with himself. I checked my watch; it was still around 12.30 pm and the trip to the park was to commence at 2. Going home and coming back again did not seem like a very smart thing to do in the heat that was now constantly rising. We were quite tired from getting up early and taking the rocky trip at the park.  I thus requested the shopkeeper to let us stay outside the shop which had a nice shed. He happily agreed and we finally got the chance to relax our tired bodies there. The atmosphere was pin-drop silent and it helped to relax my tired nerves. Haokip immediately got busy in his handycam as he surveyed the videos he had shot. He kept punctuating the silence by laughing every now and then for some unknown reasons as he looked at the videos. I got bored and felt heavy from the food I had just eaten. Putting my head down, I took a short nap.

Trip 2

The baarasingha I took a click of
The second trip to the forest was quite mundane and sedate as compared to the first one. It was 4 in the afternoon now and as the guide informed me, perhaps the animals too preferred to rest in the shed of the tress at this hour. We did not spot anything exciting as the canter moved along except for the occasional chital, baarasingha and neelgai and a menacing looking vulture atop a mountain rock. Then we also came across a group of langurs at a checking post and had fun feeding the chattering lot.

The real tiger tracks
The thrill came when our driver directed our attention to a tiger pug-mark.  We stopped there looking at the foot- imprint of the tiger on the dirt. It was breath-taking to feel that the tiger had been to exactly this spot just an hour ago. But it had left now and we had to move ahead.

Another hour went by and everyone in the canter seemed to be getting quite somber and quiet. Haokip seemed sleepy and had shut down his camera as there was nothing new to shoot except for the trees swishing by. I looked about at the trees and the grass, wondering what animal might be hiding there as we entered another bend of the road at the forest. I kept looking at the thick greenery when I thought I saw something move in the bushes. I kept piercing very hard at the spot for any sign of an animal. And then… A streak of yellow flashed by! I alerted the driver to stop the vehicle, telling him of what I had just seen. Everyone was alert and standing up now. My heart was thumping. I thought at the exciting possibility that might be in those bushes- could it be?

All of us were craning our neck at the same direction where I had pointed my finger at. Haokip was ready with his handycam. We waited with bated breath. And then all of a sudden an animal jumped from the bushes behind our vehicle, crossed the dirt path and got lost into the opposite thicket. It was a leopard! It happened so fast, in a matter of seconds, yet I spotted the animal very clearly. It was a young male leopard with beautiful black spots decorating its body. The cameras were out but we hardly got the chance to film the moment except for in our minds. A few seconds later however, we spotted the leopard again; at a small clearing in the bushes. It was snarling at something above a tree, perhaps a small animal or bird. We could look at it only partially, as it was mostly covered by trees and branches but it was enough for the people to go mad with their shutters. I savoured the moment and framed it in my mind’s eye and a couple of minutes later the leopard vanished into the dense bushes again. We waited for another ten minutes but this time it did not reappear. Nevertheless, it had done its job. Our hearts had been satisfied after a dull trip.

The sun was now setting behind the mountains and the canter sped towards the entry gates.

Exploring, food and a tired night

It was getting darker by the minute and me and Haokip were walking back towards the main city. Our legs were tired and we didn’t feel like walking but there wasn’t any public transport available in the park’s surrounding areas. I suddenly spotted an army jeep passing by; there were a lot of those given the fact that there was a local army headquarter nearby. Purely in jest, I signaled my arm asking for a lift. To my surprise the vehicle stopped and a guy dressed in the traditional army outfit peeked out from the driver’s window. He smiled at me and said, “Hop in”. It was the first time that I had stepped on to an army jeep and it felt quite cool to be sitting there chatting away with the officer and looking around the city as we moved ahead. He was a nice and friendly chap and I never felt like I was talking to an army official.

The city looked beautiful, decked with twinkling lights everywhere. The more I observed it, the more I fell in love with this small and simple town. The local people looked happy everywhere and the city exuded a happy-go-lucky atmosphere. Everything about the city was small- the shops, the houses, the hotels; but the heart was evidently quite big.


We strolled about the markets of Sawai Madhopur in search of a good restaurant. Haokip’s eyes lit up when he found a non-vegetarian hotel, but it was overcrowded with foreign tourists and hence did not have space for us. It was the same case with another four to five non-vegetarian restaurants that we looked at. Haokip’s mood was getting twitchy again; he hadn’t touched meat in two days and that was a big thing for him. However fate wasn’t on his side as even after about another half hour our search for a non-vegetarian eatery turned out to be futile.

As we moved about my eyes fell on the board of a restaurant named ‘Saraswati Bhojanalay’- an all-you-can-eat vegetarian restaurant. The prices were cheap and I directed Haokip’s attention towards it. He was blank for a moment and then shrugging his shoulders he went in. Smiling to myself, I followed him inside.


Haokip’s snores pierced the silence around me as I lay awake staring at the ceiling, lost in my own thoughts. I recollected my adventures from the day and concluded that it had been a satisfying outing up until now. However, the tiger still remained elusive and I wondered if I would be able to have a glimpse of the beast on the next morning’s trip. It would be our last chance to catch it as we had decided that we could not afford any more trips in the park; it was going out of budget. Tomorrow was our last day and we were to leave the morning next. My nerves had soothed down compared to my first night here but just the thought of getting to see the tiger got me excited again. I closed my eyes and pondered on what the tiger must be doing precisely at this hour. I imagined the great striped animal to be relaxing merrily in the bushes of the jungle as the crescent moon-light shone over its magnificent body. “Where are you Mr. Tiger?” I whispered to myself before dozing off.

Trip 3

I inhaled the fresh morning air of the forest as the canter zoomed ahead. The similar feeling of invigoration ran through my body and I closed my eyes with the intention of seeping in every second of the moment. I knew this was my last trip and I wanted to make every second count.

The trip however continued without any thrills and we did not notice any animals this time except for the occasional chirping birds. An hour had passed and the jungle was strangely silent today. I was getting severely disappointed and thought- Is this how my last trip is going to end?

And then I heard it! It brought me out of my gloomy thoughts. The alarm call of a deer! I was sure I had heard it and then my eyes met with that of the guide’s. Apparently he too had heard the call and asked the driver to stop instantly. We sat silently for a few minutes and then we heard it again. It was loud and clear this time; like a small bark. It was the obvious alarm call of a deer. The ones they make to alert their pride when they see danger approaching; especially when it is a tiger!

That moment of wait

My breathing became heavy. It was a scene straight out of the Discovery Channel documentaries I had watched. Another alarm call; this time more distinct. I pierced very hard in the dense thicket from where the sound was coming from. And then came another sound- the alarm call of the langur. “It is here,” the guide whispered. My heart started pounding like crazy. Everything was dead silent in the forest now except for the alarm calls made by the deer and langur in short pauses. It seemed like the entire forest was holding its breath along with us. Nothing moved, not even the leaves nor the air around us which I refused to breathe. I was completely spell-bound.

I suddenly saw some movement in the bushes a little away from me. And then came the moment of my lifetime. The tiger casually strode into the clearing in front of us, thumping its huge paws on the soft earth. Its magnificent body pushed the bushes around it and after coming to a rocky platform, it stood still and observed its surroundings. The robust body of the majestic beast gleamed in the sunlight and then it moved its head towards us. All of us were enchanted by its presence. For a second I felt it looked straight at me. The hair on my body stood at its end and my legs felt weak.  I had lost thought of everything around me and suddenly realized that everyone was going crazy capturing the tiger in their cameras. I however was capturing it in my mind’s eye; where it would remain for the rest of my life. The tiger then gently tilted its head to the left and lunged off into the deep bushes ahead.

All of this had happened in a matter of perhaps ten seconds but it seemed like an eternity had passed by. The people in the canter now finally let go of their breaths and immediately started discussing the moment amongst them. I looked at Haokip who was smiling at me. “I couldn’t completely catch it on the film man. It was too difficult,” he said to me guiltily. He was the one who really knew what seeing the tiger meant to me and was perhaps left feeling guilty that he couldn’t capture the moment we had come here for.  I was too overwhelmed at that moment, and seeing him standing there I just went and hugged him. I still do not know why I did it, but at that moment of catharsis, I needed to do something and embracing my friend felt the right thing to do. We were on this together and it was like our own small moment of victory; nothing else mattered to me now!

The trip had been successful after all.

Food and exploring..again

I managed to entertain myself after the lunch

In all the excitement we didn’t realize how hungry we were. Thus we ventured towards the market again in search of some good eatery. Yet again, I took Haokip to the same vegetarian restaurant I had taken him on the first day- 'Hotel Shyam'. I convinced him saying we have already spent a lot of money and thus shouldn’t waste it anymore. Haokip it seemed had lost the fight in him and merely said, “I hope I don’t die before we leave this place”.
At a lake in the Ranthambhore Fort

It was afternoon time and we were now strolling around the steps of the Ranthambhore Fort which was a historical fort built by some Rajput king. We got to know about it from some local cops at the restaurant. It was a nice and picturesque place to while away our time as we did not have much to do for the rest of the day. We spent almost the entire afternoon striding around and observing the historical place. As the sun prepared to set behind the horizon, we found the perfect setting near a serene and peaceful lake to view the stunning spectacle. It also gave us a chance to rest peacefully and reflect on our thoughts for the day.


Darkness had befallen again in Sawai Madhopur and both of us were walking back to the main city. I observed the small houses and felt sad that I won’t be seeing them again. Haokip on the other hand was drinking a can of beer and smoking a cigarette at the same time and looked in a jolly mood. All of a sudden he took me by neck and pointed my head at something. It was a five star hotel named- Tiger Den. I looked at him inquisitively, but before I could say anything he dragged me inside.

It was a really swanky restaurant that served non-vegetarian food as well. The crowd around us was quite opulent and as we sat at our table I felt queasy. I picked up the menu card and looking at the prices I gulped and wiped a bead of sweat from my face. I looked at Haokip and said, “Err. Buddy, listen to me...”

But before I could finish he silenced me with a wave of his hand. Throughout the trip I had given the instructions and he had followed me quietly but this was ‘his’ moment. It was reminiscent of the movies where the side hero tags along with the protagonist throughout the story and gets to mouth the best dialogue in the end. True to that he first removed his bandana and put his camera aside, and then moving his hand through his silky hair he coolly said, “Order anything you want man. The treat is on me”

The last goodbye

The puri -sabzi I had eaten at the station in the morning still had its taste in my mouth. It was 9 am and we were sitting in our compartment of the Jaipur bound train leaving from the Sawai Madhopur station. From there we would catch our train to back home.

Haokip already had his eyes closed and was swaying his head to the tunes of the music which came from the earphone plugged on to his ears. I was feeling heavy. I had thanked my ‘uncle’ at whose place we had stayed and even touched his feet as we left his home. He had treated us like family and I would never forget that.

Coming to the station was not a very good feeling. Though it had just been three days, I felt so attached to the place that it felt like home. I wanted to stay on and enjoy some more, but unfortunately that was not possible. The time had come to bid farewell to the small town which had given me a lifetime of memories.

The train blew its horn and jerked a little before slowly chugging ahead. I looked out the window at the thick grass and the mountains beyond. The tiger we had seen would perhaps be having its morning snack right now, I thought. Before I had come here all I wanted was to get to see the tiger, but now I also realized that the enchanting Ranthambhore was much more than just the striped beauty. The town it lay in had its own charm and many tales to recount in its small lanes. This little town from Rajasthan and its people had won my heart.

It started drizzling outside and the train now slowly gathered momentum. I took my hand outside the window and waved goodbye to the land of the tiger one last time.

Before I brought my hand inside, I quietly whispered to myself, “Aaujo”.**


* (Special thanks to my friend Rahul Jaiswal whose digital camera I had used to take the pictures of the trip. Without that, the  trip would not have come alive in this post.)

** Aaujo: Local Rajasthani word, literally meaning 'good-bye'. 

(To read the first part of this story click here.)