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Two days in Philibhit

Posted on 08 August 2007

WWF-India set up the Tiger Conservation Project in January 1997 with a grant of 1.8 million Swiss Francs. This project was designed to run alongside the government’s Project Tiger which was set up in 1973 to assist the plight of the tiger.
Day 1 - 5th November 2005 : The Tiger

WWF India set up the Tiger Conservation Project (TCP) in January 1997 with a grant of 1.8 million Swiss Francs. This project was designed to run alongside the government’s Project Tiger which was set up in 1973 in order to assist the plight of the Tiger. The sole aim of this project was to try to bring back the tiger from the brink of extinction. WWF decided the best way to utilize their funds was to select only those Protected Areas (PA’s) that satisfied certain conditions and to focus the project specifically on these PA’s. These conditions were that the PA’s had to have; A reasonable number of Tigers; a favourable political climate and law and order situation; a favourable response from the authorities, including commitment of state government for the long term and a proper assessment of critical needs and support required as perceived by the PA managers. With everything ready to go the scene was set for tiger conservation to start in India.

The first region I visited was one of the focuses of WWF’s Tiger conservation Project, the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL). This region is a high priority region for the WWF and is also the focus of WWF’s Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS).

The TAL region is found between the river Bhagmati in the east and the river Yamuna in the west, along the Shivalik Hills in India and the Churia Hills in Nepal. This area stretches over 1500km and lies in both India and Nepal. There are a total of 14 protected areas in the TAL.

The first place I visited in the Terai Arc was the town of Pilibhit, home to the WWF field office. It was here that I met up with Dr Harish Guleria who is the Coordinator of the Terai Arc Landscape Project and plays a big part in the Tiger Conservation Project.

It was in the Forests of Pilibhit, on my first day with Harish, that I saw my first wild Tiger. Harish was driving me around the forests as an introduction to the area. We were driving through the forest in the WWF Mahindra Jeep when we turned a corner and there she was, in the distance, a huge great silhouette.

When I first saw her I thought it couldn’t possibly be a tiger as the shadow was too big. We drove a bit closer and she turned to the side and we had a perfect portrait view of her. I saw her very clearly before she slowly wondered off into the bush. We stayed in the car at the exact spot that we saw her and waited, hoping that the tigress would venture back onto the road. The suspense in the car was incredible. I cannot remember the last time I felt so excited. It was probably back when I was 7 and it was Christmas eve. It was the kind of excitement where you can’t keep still, you are just shaking madly with a huge grin on your face that wont go away. However, on this occasion, sadly the tiger did not show her face again.

The great American conservationist, Aldo Leopold always talked about the feeling you get when you enter the territory of a magical but highly elusive creature ( in his case the mountain lion or Cougar). He talked about that animal having a spirit that you can feel, and even if you never see it, the fact that you know it is out there somewhere, fills you with excitement. He called this spiritual force the Numenon of the animal. I had never fully experienced this magical force until today. As soon as I entered the gate of the forest, where I knew there was a small chance I could see a tiger, the numenon of the tiger became so thick and strong that it was intoxicating. I was nervous and excited all at the same time. I would be looking around and staring as hard as I could into the deep undergrowth, just trying to catch a glimpse of this legendary creature.

Having seeing the tigress, the numenon of the creature did not subside, in fact, it just became stronger. After seeing my first wild tiger, I knew for certain that there really were tigers in this landscape and I had proof.

From then on I was looking around even more intently and getting even more excited. There are days when I forget why I became a Zoologist, but after today, I remember.

Day 2 - 6th November 2005 : The Motorcycle Diaries

I woke up this morning at 8.00 am in order to have a big breakfast, because today I knew I would need it. I was going to go by motorcycle around all the local villages in the Pilbhit area that are supported by WWF. It was around 10am when we were finally ready to leave. I took a small backpack with me that had my wallet, camera and a jacket for when it got cool in the evening. My driver who was going to be my guide and translator for the day was a man called Naresh. He was quite a young looking guy with short black hair and deep brown eyes that are so characteristic of the Indian people. Our vehicle for the day was a vintage looking, 175cc Rasboot.

I hopped on the back and we sped off through the bustling market place of Pilibhit. As we drove we weaved dramatically through cyclists with hug loads on the back of their tiny bikes, Buffalo drawn wooden carts crammed full of children, people running back and forth, goats, dogs, horses, pigs and cows. There were cows absolutely everywhere (as cows are sacred in India they are allowed to freely roam around and breed as much as they like, resulting in there being just as many cows as people). There were also huge great lorries and tractors with trailers on the back, both of which would be carrying huge amounts of Sugar cane in the back, so much that it was overflowing over the edges of the trailer and you wondered how the hell it all stays on. The streets were bumpy and had huge great pot holes everywhere.

Eventually we were out of Pilibhit and out on the open road. The countryside outside of Pilibhit was beautiful. It was very flat and consisted almost entirely of sugar cane plantations, rice paddy fields and thick forest. These plantations varied in size from small 20ft x 20ft plots to huge great seas of sugar cane stretching as far as the eye could see. There were lots of people in these fields, cutting and harvesting the crop, burning the stalks, bundling the crop together and stacking them into grass domes; there were women carrying massive stacks of sugar cane on their heads while wearing amazing saris of bright colours and designs which made them look so elegant, even while they were carrying out huge amounts of manual labour. There were lots of children playing in the hay and having fun. At the end of each plot there was a mud or straw hut where people were busy processing the rice or cooking their lunch or sieving the rice and throwing it up into the air to separate the rice from the stalks (the rice is heavier and falls while the stalks are blown away). Everyone in the countryside seemed very busy and very happy in their beautiful, serene environment.

Throughout the course of the day we visited many villages, all of which had a group of WWF committee members elected to represent their villages. Naresh, my guide and translator for the day, was also the field project officer who knew all the committee members, and introduced me to them at each village we visited.

There are many ways in which WWF help out the people of these villages. The reason why they help these people is firstly, to increase awareness of the WWF and the efforts they are going to, in order to conserve the environment, and to increase awareness of the plight of the tiger and to encourage sympathy for the tiger and, secondly, to reduce the impact that the villagers are having on the environment. These two goals ultimately help to conserve the ecological and socio-economic integrity of these areas.

They do this in several different ways. The most obvious of these strategies is one where, if a villager would like to build a building or start a small business, the WWF will provide 50% of the funds that the villager will need, which he will be required to pay off after a certain period of time. Once the building is complete the villager and new owner is given a WWF Plaque to put up outside. In almost every village I visited there were WWF plaques. Almost every other building had one. WWF has helped fund barber shops, sweet shops, bike repair shops, rice delivery shops, grocery shops as well as many other businesses, almost everything you could think of.

The first village I visited was called Selha. In this little village I met a man who had received half the funding for his chicken farm from WWF. Before that he had virtually no money and no livelihood. After getting the funding from WWF he is now a very successful chicken farmer and has been able to pay off his debt from WWF and has made three times the cost of the chicken farm in just a couple of years.

Another one of the ways of which WWF helps out in the villages is by providing the villagers with LPG gas connections and thereby making it cheaper to refill the tanks. This allows the villages to have a constant reliable source of fuel for cooking and light and significantly reduces the impact on the local environment by reducing the amount of wood (previously used for fuel) extracted from the surrounding forests by the villagers.

Theoretically, no fuel is allowed to be taken out of a protected area (in this case the PA refers to the surrounding forests) but the forest department has allowed concessions to be made that allows villagers, living in villages that border a forest, to extract enough fuel-wood for their personal consumption and for the farmer of these villages to allow their cattle to graze in the forests. This rule is enforced, but there are still people that abuse the privilege and take out far more wood than they need in order to sell it.

The WWFs introduction of LPG gas into these villages has gone along way towards reducing this impact on the forest.

In all the villages that Naresh and I visited, the people were very kind and incredibly welcoming. We were unable to walk 50yards down the road without another villager coming out and welcoming us and then inviting us back to their home where they gave us a cup of chai and sweets. I must have had 50 cups of chai by the end of the day. In each instance we sat down and talked. I asked them about what they do, what they felt about WWF and the help they were getting, whether it was beneficial to them. I met all their family members and I spoke to all of them. In return they asked me about where I was from and where was it, why I was there, and whether I liked it in India and each time I told them how much I was loving it.

After spending the day traveling around eight of the local villages, and after meeting lots of very friendly people and after drinking more tea than I have ever drunk before, Naresh and I said goodbye, got on our trusty motorbike and sped off back to Philibhit as behind us the sun melted away into the Himalayas.

I was sad to leave after such a good day, but, unknown to me at the time, I was going to return many more times to the villages and spend alot more time there.

It was dark and very cold and I was very tired by the time we made it back to my hotel after a motorbike ride that seemed to go on forever, but I was very happy. I had only been out in the field for two days and I had already experienced so much. I still had another 23 days to experience the Terai Arc landscape which I was really looking forward to.