Into The Wild

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 35 No. 6, June 2015
Photo: Kalyan Varma.

“My penchant for vanishing into the wilderness goes back a long way. I would have been about seven when I failed to alight from the school bus at St. Anns Convent (Jamnagar), causing the city police to swing into action (more so as my father was the Superintendent of the district). It was my mother (they do know their children) who eventually found me, well camouflaged behind the bougainvillea in the riotous backyard of our bungalow. Her tears of relief and pent up anger were met with an indignant, “But the peacock laid eggs, I am waiting for the chicks to come out." Was Math, I implied, more important than this momentous event?

Apparently it was, but we will take up that debate another time.

Thus began my journey into the wilds - as a reporter investigating illegal mining, the black market for shahtoosh, the poaching of tigers and so on. For one memorable (and explosive) story, I pretended to be a doe-eyed bride-to-be looking for ivory bangles to wear for her wedding, as tradition demanded. I travelled all over Gujarat - including the ancient city of Patan. To my horror, I found plenty, and thus exposed the easy, but illegal, sale of ivory over the counter. Another momentous trip in my early working years was to the Melghat Tiger Reserve. Along with my very first tiger sighting (wow!), I also received my first marriage proposal from a lovely Gond woman, who over a delicious repast - and some mahua - offered to pay my family the ‘bride price, for her son “who looks like Sunil Shetty".

As an editor of an in-flight magazine, I explored new vistas. While the rest of the gang bagged the so-called creamy junkets, such as trips to Macau and Mauritius, there were few takers for travelling into the hinterland, which fell on yours truly. I wasnt complaining as I charted new territory, meeting the Nocte tribals and the hoolock gibbons (whom they believed to be their ancestors) on the Arunachal-Myanmar border and visiting the Manas Tiger Reserve, which was on the slow road to recovery after being under siege by militants for over a decade. Manas was a revelation. So ravaged, and yet so utterly beautiful. I remember the burnt skeletons of forest chowkis, the fear in the eye of the sambar as it fled at our arrival, the lone tusker whose eyes seemed to tell a million tales. Most of all, I remember this band of brave men - foresters - who continued their vigil in remote locations with no electricity, no means of communication, and stood their ground even as their companions were killed, through the years of militancy. That was the start of my love affair with Manas. I recall sitting by the banks of the Beki river as Great Hornbills flew across, and thinking whatever be the odds, Manas must be saved.

I travelled to ‘real Kipling Country, the Pench Tiger Reserve, which was virtually unvisited then. Pench was magical. Crossing over from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh (the tiger reserve transcends both states), I was caught in a deluge that washed away the muddy ‘roads. As I waited in the jeep to be ‘rescued, I listened to the hoot of an owl, the occasional alarm call, watched a snake float past… and as lightning flashed, the jungle was alight with hundreds of eyes - a herd of chital. Beautiful.

It was not all smooth sailing though. The budgets were miniscule and the trips bound by tight deadlines. I cursed my colleagues basking in the luxurious hospitality of boutique spas, while I bumped along the non-existent roads of Bundelkhand, Jharkhand et al. A particularly frightening incident was arriving at Saranda at midnight to find that the rest house we were to stay in had been burnt down. Saranda is the finest sal forest in Asia, and was under the grip of left-wing extremism. The forests were also pillaged by mining. This is a prime iron ore belt and my heart twisted as I looked at the gaping wounds and the Koina river bleeding red, as it carried the iron ore residue through the verdant sal forest. I exulted when I spied a herd of elephants, then worried about their future. Did they have one at all, with their forest threatened by mining interests? This was over a decade ago, and my fears have unfortunately come true, as government after government has granted leases to various mining giants. Saranda, “a forest of seven hundred hills", and a living university for a generation of foresters, will soon cease to be.

As I evolved as a conservationist, the nature of my forays changed, taking on another dimension. The underpinned purpose now was to assess, understand and try and resolve problems and threats that afflicted forests and wildlife. I traversed the Corbett landscape, initially in a bid to assess the impact of unbridled tourism on wildlife, and then to work out how the forest outside of the tiger reserve could be best preserved for posterity. My time with the elephants there could fill a book. Another glorious forest is the Dachigam National Park, on the edge of Srinagar. On our agenda was to work out a strategy for the revival of the critically endangered hangul. Not only was I fortunate to see a courting couple of the deer, but also surprised a mamma black bear, piggybacking a cub!

I have been blessed to have seen the remotest, and in my eyes, the finest parts of India. There are simply too many memories to recount. I cannot pick a favourite, but there is something special I would like to leave you with: a night spent on a remote beach in Odisha experiencing the arribada, the mass nesting of the olive ridley turtles. It was incredible: Thousands and thousands of turtles, their domed bodies glistening in the pale moonlight as they advanced on the beach - sometimes bumping into each other, in their entranced frenzy to find suitable nesting sites. Using their flippers, they laboriously excavated holes to lay their eggs. Ever so often, they would pause as if to take a breather and gather strength before continuing on their arduous task. Once the funnel-like hole - almost as deep as a bathing bucket - was ready, they dropped the eggs, like shiny, slippery table tennis balls, filled the nest with sand, carefully thumping their bodies, rocking from side to side, and secured their precious cargo. With a multitude of turtles employed in the task, the air filled with an earthy drumming sound. Legend says, and science agrees, that female turtles come back, to the natal beach, where they were born, to create new life.

You know what was even more extraordinary than this spectacular event? The fact that I was right in the midst of it, amongst the turtles, occasionally, absently, bumped by one. A lifetime spent in the forest has taught me that wild animals are wary of humans (but obviously), and usually vanish at our approach. And here I was sitting with the turtles, who were supremely indifferent to my presence. What an honour!

So this is what journeys are all about: unexpected experiences, learning something new. My years of travelling the wilds have enriched me, taught me so much. Most importantly, it has renewed my bonds with the forest. Ive learnt that you can leave… but never walk away, from a forest.

Author, award-winning journalist and passionate conservationist, Prerna Bindra has been a member of the National Board for Wildlife and its core Standing Committee, as well as the State Board for Wildlife, Uttarakhand. She is founder-trustee of BAGH Foundation, and edits TigerLink.

join the conversation