Manglu Baiga: Kanha's Legendary Moving Spirit

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 34 No. 1, January 2014

October 13, 1946 - October 14, 2009
By Bittu Sahgal

It was my first trip to the Kanha Tiger Reserve in the early 1970s, and the late Bhagwan Rekwar said to me even before I entered the forest: “You are going to spend a week with Manglu Baiga, one of the best wildlife people in the world." How absolutely right he was.

A tracker employed by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, Manglu was a wizened, all-knowing, genial human being whose love for the forest was not merely infectious, but palpable. Sitting on the steps of the Kanha Forest Rest House with him before dawn, I heard him say almost in passing, “Tiger aaya raat ko (the tiger came last night)." That said, he exhorted me to leave the tea I was sipping and walked with me to the waiting elephant. I got on, he did not. Instead, he walked ahead of the elephant for a while, tracking the tiger in the dim light of dawn. Once in a while I could swear he seemed to be sniffing for tiger scent!

Of course, we saw the tiger. It took roughly 30 minutes of slow searching, but then, there it was, a beautiful female, sitting in the heart of a bamboo grove. Without asking the elephant to kneel, Manglu clambered up to join me and we spent quality time observing one of the world's most endangered felines. “Chalo, bachhe ke paas," he whispered to the mahout, who nudged the elephant away from the supine tigress to search through two dry nullahs before coming upon the young one, sitting smack in the middle of a dry and very rocky stream bed, strewn with fallen sal leaves. We spent two indolent hours with the tigers that day and I learned first-hand that Manglu knew Kanha and tigers like his own breath.

In the intervening years, many people agreed that had Manglu known how to read and write he would probably have been awarded a doctorate on tiger behaviour, which is what he ended up helping people who came to Kanha to study tigers achieve, by freely sharing his incredible jungle craft with them. Manglu was my friend, but he was many people's friend. Almost everyone he met left feeling personally enriched. He possessed such incredible wisdom, born of generations of tribal cultures handed down and then married to a steely resolve to protect wild nature. Even today old timers speak in awe of the ease with which he could perform autopsies on wild animals with uncanny accuracy, and without a stitch of formal veterinary training!

His acquaintance with wild plants and herbs and their medicinal uses was equally renowned. For him the forest was a pharmacy and once when we came upon a large tiger dropping, he smelled it and said “Dawa khaya (it ate medicine)." Rekwar explained to me that tigers instinctively know which plants helped to de-worm their gut. Happy to speak about the forest and the tiger, it took some coaxing to get Manglu to open up about himself. He ascribed his almost magical tracking skills to lessons learned as a child brought up by an extended family that lived in and off the jungle, but I never learned who he looked up to, or who specifically taught him all he knew.

Manglu was born in Kanha, home of the hardground barasingha deer, and died there after spending a lifetime protecting this wilderness haven.
Manglu was born in Kanha, home of the hardground barasingha deer, and died there after spending a lifetime protecting this wilderness haven. Photo: Joseph Vattakaven.

People often said he was fearless. This, he confessed to me while sitting under a monsoon Kanha sky in the dark one year, was untrue: “I am afraid of the tiger, but I never make him angry." That said, he was almost killed by a leopard in Chatarpur in 1998. But he returned to patrolling duties the moment he was well enough.

Interestingly, while the ‘pugmark method of identifying animals is justifiably discredited today, I know from first-hand experience that Manglu could sometimes tell precisely which tiger had passed from cuts in the animal's pad, or a missing nail. He told me so himself one afternoon as we sat on the bank of the famous Shravan Taal at the edge of the Kanha meadow listening to barasingha rutting calls.

Hemu S. Panwar, one of Kanha's finest Field Directors, knew Manglu particularly well. Panwar went on to become the Director of Project Tiger at the Centre. Of all the hundreds of officials that Manglu influenced in the long decades he spent walking the dappled glades of Kanha, he was closest to Panwar. Naturally, when we wanted to present Manglu Baiga with a Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award way back in 2004, Panwar was the first person we consulted. He and Manglu shared a bond that transcended words and Hemu had to choke back his tears as he ratified our choice saying:

“These are our real wildlife heroes. Such people are not just rare, they are irreplaceable. It is not only their knowledge but their belief in the living forest that gets communicated to newcomers when they join our sanctuaries and national parks."

Another person who knew Manglu well and who benefited greatly from his knowledge when he was the Field Director of the Kanha Tiger Reserve was Dr. Rajesh Gopal, currently the head of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Dr. Gopal once opined that:

“Manglu Baiga is a living legend in Kanha. The instinctive knowledge of such simple people outshines scientific learning. In 1996, Manglu came quietly to me and took me to a spot in the Kanha meadow near the museum where he pointed out a python in the process of swallowing a small chital. To this day, I will never quite know how he always managed to ‘know what was going on in the forest, but he did."

Manglu was mentor and friend to several naturalists and conservationists down the ages. Belinda Wright, WPSI, and her mother Anne Wright for instance shared a long and very warm relationship with him. So did Navneet Maheshwari, an old Kanha hand who looked on Manglu as one of Kanha's legendary moving spirits.

More than three decades after I first met Manglu Baiga I travelled to Kanha hoping to convince him to accept our award and be with us in Mumbai in 2004. He agreed without a murmur. I was delighted for I imagined it might take some convincing to get him to visit the big, bad city. Of course, his instant response had little to do with any honour being bestowed on him. “Achha. Samundar dekhega!" “Okay. I will get to see the sea," he said.

(First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII No. 6, December 2013.)

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