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Four Days with the Brigadier

Posted on 08 August 2007

We were going to Dudhwa with Brigadier Ranjit Talwar, Head of the WWF Tiger Conservation Project, to meet with various different forestry commission officials. In the four days I spent with him I learnt a huge amount, not only about WWF's work, but about other things ranging from detailed discussions on India’s fascinating history, to accurate ways of reading animal pugmarks.
Day 1 - 7th November 2005

I woke up at Philibhit hotel and packed my things. At about 10.30 Preem, Harish’s driver, came to pick me up and drove me to the Philibhit WWF office where I waited until we were all ready to leave. We were going to Dudhwa to spend four days traveling around the different areas and meeting with various different forestry commission officials. We drove to Palia where we met with Brigadier Ranjit Talwar, who had driven up from the WWF office in Delhi the same morning.

Brigadier Ranjit is head of the WWF Tiger Conservation Project and is a very intelligent man who is not only aware of what problems are facing the Tiger conservation project, but also the best ways of combating these problems. In the 4 days that I spent with him I learnt a huge amount, not only about the work that WWF does, but about other things ranging from detailed discussions on India’s fascinating history, to the accurate ways of reading animal Pugmarks.

Harish and I met him at a petrol station in Palia, and from there we drove with him to Dudhwa. Upon arriving in Dudhwa we were shown to the place where we were staying. I was going to be sleeping in a very nice looking wooden hut with a thatched roof that had a nice double bed and a bathroom and a porch.

From there we went, in the Brigadiers car, on a drive into the forest along route 3. The forest was amazing in Dudhwa. It was a forest that had been left completely untouched for many years and had completely overgrown. Driving through it with huge great trees towering over you and thick undergrowth all around you, you could not help but feel like you were driving through a place from the land before time. What’s more, this was tiger country and the Numenon of the tiger, while driving through this forest, was stronger than ever.

We drove the car down to an old looking wooden bridge crossing a river. We parked the car just before the bridge and crossed into some thick grassland. On the way across the river the Brigadier pointed out to me a Tiger scat (Tiger faeces) on the bridge. It was really hairy. This is because, when a tiger eats its prey, it eats every part of it including its skin and fur, but because the hair is indigestible it passes out in the fasces. As a result, it is possible to easily identify what the prey was. In this case, the dark brown, scruffy looking hair in the faeces, identified that a Sambar was the tigers last meal.

Across the bridge, in the grassland, we came to another clear sign that a tiger had been in this area. In the mud was a very clear tiger pug mark (tiger footprint). In Dudhwa, tiger pugmarks were often very easy to come by, and you would only have to drive a few hundred yards before coming across a set. These are very important for the staff of the park, for monitoring tiger populations, as these pugmarks will tell you the age, sex, size, direction of travel, and health of the tiger, but, most importantly, it will tell you the number of tigers there are. Every year in the park a tiger census is carried out, based almost solely on the evidence provided by tiger pugmarks. The pugmarks are traced and impressions are taken of them using plaster of paris, in order to keep a record of the tigers.

Day 2 – 8th November 2005

Dudhwa Tiger reserve was founded in 1972 under the newly launched Wildlife Protection Act. The foundation of Dudhwa only occurred due to the tireless efforts of one man, “Billy” Arjan Singh.

At about 11am, after breakfast, the Brigadier, Harish, Sumit, and I drove to see Billy Arjan Singh at his first farm, just outside of Palia. We drove up to the front of the house and Billy was sitting on his verandah in his chair. We all sat down around him, and the Brigadier started speaking to him. For some reason I was expecting Billy to look younger. By this time I had already read his book, Watching India’s Wildlife, and in this book were lots of photos of him looking young and healthy.

Although he looked older now than he had, it did not mean that he had lost any of the flare for conservation that has made him so famous in India. While I sat and listened, he spoke passionately about how important it was to save the tiger, now more than ever. He sounded almost desperate, and I could not blame him. He arrived in Dudhwa in a time where most of the land was covered in dense forest and there were many of every different type of animal, and although the Tigers were being hunted at that time, nobody ever dreamt that their numbers would decrease to the level that they are today. He has lived at Tiger Haven, just outside of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve since 1959, and in that time he has seen the land around him being destroyed to make way for farm land and the wildlife decimated under a Government that did not care, or at least, did not do anything to stop it. He has been left with the one safe haven that he himself created. He seemed worried that when he has gone, Dudhwa will also disappear. Billy has been working closely with the WWF and has been helping WWF India with intelligence and cattle compensation schemes. He has also helped implement WWF funding for the dredging of the rivers running through Dudhwa to prevent siltation that occurs during the monsoon season and causes the destruction of a large number of sal trees and other vegetation that is beneficial to the wildlife.

Listening to him speak and seeing how passionate he was about India’s wildlife was very inspiring and it made me want to try to do more myself to help conserve wildlife. I felt very privileged to have met him.

The intelligence scheme is where WWF allocates funds to reward people that come forward with information that may lead to the possible apprehension of poachers. In this way, WWF India hopes to set up intelligence networks that will act as a deterrent to would-be poacher.

The Cattle compensation scheme is where WWF allocates funds to compensate farmers that have had livestock eaten by a tiger. WWF makes it a policy to pay the farmer within 24 hours of the farmer reporting it and within 72 hours of the death of the animal. They offer this compensation in an effort to try to prevent retaliatory killings of Tigers by the farmers. WWF also provides compensation (ex-gratia payments) to the family of any person that has been killed by a tiger. This, again, is done to prevent retaliatory killings.

After visiting “Billy” Arjan Singh, we drove to a stretch of river that runs very close along side a railway. It was here that the Government paid to have stone spurs built going out into the river in order to prevent the river eroding its banks so much that it encroaches in onto the railway line. We were looking at this to check its feasibility as a solution to a similar problem with erosion in a river at Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary. We then drove to KWS and looked at the river there. We later found out (upon returning with a forestry commission official and an architect) that it would be feasible, but only for a huge amount of money. While at KWS a guide took me round and gave me a lesson in pugmarks by showing me the pugmarks of sloth bear, crocodile and a tigress that had taken a huge leap across a small stream with her cub.

After leaving KWS we drove back to the Dudhwa guesthouse and I spent the rest of the afternoon reading “The Four Noble Truths” by HH the Dali Lama and watching monkeys happily playing in the grass and elephants with their drivers walking back and forth. It was certainly a very peaceful place to be.

Day 3 – 9th November 2005

In the morning we went for a drive into the forest down route 1. We drove for a short amount of time and then we got out of the car and walked down the dirt road. We turned a corner and there standing right in front of us was an elephant and its driver. The Brigadier, Harish and I climbed up onto the elephants back and our elephant, who’s name was Bushba kali, the second part of which means Bud (like a flower bud), waddled off into the jungle.

This was my first time riding on an elephant. I love elephants more than any other animal on the planet. I think they are absolutely amazing creatures and I was really excited about getting to ride one. Our elephant took us off deep into the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve Rhino Enclosure. This Rhino enclosure was specifically built to enclose the newly reintroduced rhino population.

The last wild Indian one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) in the Dudhwa area was killed in 1878, and there were no rhinos in the area until it was decided, in early 1984, to re-introduce a population back into Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. Originally 6 rhinos were introduced between the 11th and 21st March 1984. However, by 31 July 1984 after a series of events, only 3 Rhinos remained ( 1 female and 2 male). It was decided in 1985 to introduce four more adult female Rhinos to provide a strong breeding nucleus of 7 Rhinos (5 female and 2 male). Today there is a total rhino population of 21 in Dudhwa, all of which live in the 27 square kilometer rhino enclosure.

Although the population is at a healthy number now, there are concerns about the level of inbreeding that may be happening, which could prove genetically undesirable for the Dudhwa rhino population.

During our elephant ride I was able to see 4 rhinos including a female and her calf, which was very exciting.

After the elephant ride we headed back to Dudhwa, where I packed up all my things and we drove off to Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary. We left at 11.15am and finally got there at 3.30pm. Once we arrived we met a man called Ramesh Kumar who was the Forestry Division official in charge. He took us straight onto a boat and we drove up and down the river Gilva. First we drove upstream and saw many common freshwater crocodiles as well as the Indian Magar Crocodile, which were basking in the afternoon sun on sandbanks in the middle of the river. The Magar crocodiles were very easy to spot between the common crocodiles,as they have very long, thin noses that have lots of very sharp teeth showing, and the male Magar crocodiles have big round bulbs on the end of their noses.

We then continued down river and through many different tributaries coming off the main river. Towards the end of our trip we came out into the main channel, and the sun was just starting to turn red and go down, when suddenly I noticed something splash out of the water right next to the boat. I asked Ramesh what is was, and he suddenly told the boat driver to cut the engine, and we floated for a little while, until there, right infront of us, a Ganges river dolphin jumped out of the water. After that it became easier to spot them and they would pop up every five minutes. At one point there were three of them all around the boat. It became hard to know where to look.

It was an amazing thing to see. The setting was amazing, with the sun going down on the river and everyone was in complete silence so all you could hear were the birds and crickets calling in the distance. Eventually the time between the appearances of the Dolphins became greater and greater, until eventually, after about 20 minutes of observation they disappeared. We drove back slowly to the shore with the sun setting at our backs and talking about what we had just seen.

Day 4 – 10th November 2005

I woke up in the morning having spent the night in a very pretty and very large guesthouse right in the middle of the jungle. It was a very colonial looking building with big stone pillars and very high ceilings. It was built in 1887 by the British and was used for a hunting lodge. On each floor (of 2) it had a large living room with a big open fire and off the living room were two large double rooms with their own bathrooms. It was very nice and it made you feel like an olden day explorer staying there.

After breakfast, we went down to the river bank and got a boat across the river. Awaiting us on the other side of the river were two buffalo drawn wooden carts. We all hopped on and were drawn out into Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary. It was a very beautiful park that looked well managed with huge areas of grasslands interspersed with areas of forest and wetlands. In the past KWS has had alot of problems with poaching and overgrazing due to the fact that it is so close to the Nepal border. WWF took KWS into the Tiger Conservation Project with the aim of strengthening the management of the park and support, in terms of equipment (including jeeps, motorbikes, radio sets, a powerboat, solar panels and winter jackets), training and incentives for the field staff (especially with regard to anti-poaching). According to what was said over the two days we were there, a huge improvement in the park has been seen since WWF started providing support.

The closeness that WWF India shares with the forestry division in all the parks I visited seems to be the most fundamental aspect of the success of their projects. Brigadier Ranjit and Harish were very careful to speak to all the workers, no matter what their rank, to see if they were happy with the equipment that they had been given and to see if any vehicles had broken down or had any problems, or if the Radio sets were working efficiently and making work easier, and to see if the winter jackets supplied by WWF were comfortable and if they were warm enough.

That was what impressed me most. Wherever I went, and no matter which WWF person I was with, people were happy to see them. Villagers and the WWF people would have long conversations together, not necessarily about official business, but just asking about the family, or how the farm is doing or anything. The point is, all the people in the villages and all the forestry department workers in the parks know that they have someone backing them up and supporting them, and not just anyone, but a powerful and influential NGO.

After a very enjoyable buffalo drawn cart ride, we went back to the guest house and had a cup of chai, before heading back on the road to Philibhit. Once we arrived back we spent the night in another guesthouse in the middle of Philibhit forest which was also very pretty.

In the morning Brigadier Ranjit drove back to Delhi and Harish and I headed back to the WWF office in Philibhit.

It had been an incredible four days in which I was able to experience things and see things that I never would have been able to if Brig. Ranjit and Harish had not been there. Over the course of those four days I learnt a huge amount from both of them, including, most importantly, all the things that WWF do in these places that you don’t get to hear about on the television commercials. I felt very lucky to have been able to have that chance. And I will always remember these four days as being a once in a lifetime experience.