Friday, September 11, 2009

Red Peril

Above, below: The Indian Wild Dog, or Dhole

Below: A scarred male marks territory

Above: Hunt of Sambar, interrupted (unintentionally) by our arrival

Below: Dhole dragging killed Chital fawn away

Below: Dhole pup swimming, Pandarpaoni meadow

My regular driver in Tadoba (Bandu) can't quite understand my obsession with the Dhole.

He finds it odd that I can sit for an hour or more staring at Dholes instead of rushing around the reserve trying to get a tiger "sighting."

To me, and many others too, this animal is a stellar attraction in the jungles, as magnetic as the tiger or leopard. I am, after all, as much of a dog person as a cat person. And the Dhole or Indian Wild Dog is one of the most fascinating members of the canid family.

I've been very lucky: these beautiful little dogs have honoured me with quite a lot of their time, on my visits to Tadoba-Andhari, Pench and Nagarhole. Sometimes they've sat in the grass just 40 feet away from our vehicle, playing and rolling in the grass like village pups, casting a glance at us from time to time but not particularly bothered by our presence. Sometimes they've marked territory. Once we drove some distance behind three Dhole bitches as they bounded along a path.

I can't agree with Kipling's unflattering depiction of them in the Second Jungle Book, in which they feature as villains. Here's how he describes their peculiar hunting screams: "...a hideous kind of shriek that the jackal gives when he is hunting behind a tiger, or when there is a big killing afoot. If you can imagine a mixture of hate, triumph, fear and despair, with a kind of leer running through it, you will get some notion of the pheeal that rose and sank and wavered and quavered far away across the Waingunga..."

It is a strange sound actually, like a whistle. Last year I watched a pack of fourteen Dholes hunting (in Tadoba) and the air was full of these high-pitched shrieks. It took me a few minutes to realize who was making the sounds - they are so un-doglike!

That hunt was an unforgettable event in my life, a miracle of co-ordination and teamwork. We were right inside it, surrounded by it! I have this memory of the panicking Chital herd running like lightning, handsome stags and does and fawns, and Dholes streaking all around us with their bushy tails flying: both predator and prey at the absolute height of their power and skill. Because their lives, quite literally, depended upon their performance in this deadly arena. When a young Chital was finally brought down, I could only feel relieved that after all their effort, the dogs would not go hungry. A kill is not a pretty sight, but there is nothing "cruel" about wild predators hunting. It is simply the way they eat and make it to the next day. It's a rare privilege to get such a glimpse into the real life of the jungle.

These dogs have an electrifying effect on herbivores. Everything runs when Dholes appear on the scene, even huge boar and sambar many times their size. A hunting dhole pack seems to inspire more fear than the big cats even. Having witnessed the focused ferocity of such a pack, I'm not surprised by the herbivores' reaction. I've seen these pretty little dogs clear the huge Pandarpaoni meadow in Tadoba in just a few seconds. I was once told of a pack that even "treed" a tiger.

Unlike many big cats, these animals don't seem uneasy in the presence of humans, at least that has been my experience. They give you a measuring look, as if trying to figure out whether you are likely to bother them or not, but they don't look nervous or scared. I would almost imagine that they are curious about us, and not unfriendly, but I don't want to jump to such conclusions. It is well known that we humans view domestic dogs through a cloud of delusion, and this may extend to wild canids as well.

If you've never seen a Dhole, my advice is to head to Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve and spend a few days there.

If you're lucky, Kipling's "Red Killer" will cross your path.

Note: Due to technological incompetence, I am unable to upload my photos in a way that retains their true colours. Dholes in real life and in my original images are much redder than they look here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Preparing for our IT education programme: Kirti's first field trip

We recently did a post about the IT education and spoken English classes we are planning to introduce for tribal and other village kids living in/near/off tiger reserves.

The computer literacy programme is the brainchild of SF volunteer Kirti Chavan, who is an IT professional himself and formerly worked at NIIT. Our appeal for used computers was circulated by members of our Facebook group "Tigers of the Satpudas" (scroll down for the link), and we have been donated a laptop by Gautam Berry and two desktops by Bhaskar Shetty.

We will possibly tie up with a well-known education non-profit to launch this programme, but more on that later. Kirti has just returned from his first trip to Pench, where he visited two villages to profile the students-to-be.

Here's his account of the trip:

I am not very good at organizing things for myself specially when it comes to travel, but when I planned my trip to Pench Tiger Reserve, I somehow got everything organized in time. I got my days planned out and I even got confirmed train tickets. But there was a high level of uncertainty in my mind. I did not know how I was going to meet the local tribals and how I would get the information I needed for profiling prospective learners, and how to explain that IT training and the English language would benefit them. I had started to think this visit would not really give me any clear picture about how we would implement IT training in these remote forest locations.

But in the end all went really well, thanks to SF Vice-President Giri Venkatesan, Anoop Awasthi and other local field officers. We first went to Ghoti village in Pench - Maharashtra. About twenty school children greeted us in English...quite a delight to hear the children say "Good morning sir," and "thank you" when asked to sit down. There were ten adults from the village who had come to find out what we had to offer and discuss their plans and ideas for employment. All this reflected on one thing for sure, some people do want to move ahead in life and want better for their children, but they still have limited access to resources and information.

We met Vinod Ramdas Chaple, a young lad from Ghoti village who scored 71% in his 12th standard exam two years back but did not go to college, as he was told that college education would mean lots of money. So he didn't bother even inquiring in nearby colleges for any grants or schemes that could work in his favour. So now he has been at home doing nothing for the past two years. We encouraged him to go back to college and check for some schemes that he can utilize. I just hope this boy still has faith in himself and that two years of doing nothing hasn't eaten up his ambitions.

But I still think there are many more Vinods out there who could get proper guidance and support from us and can do good in life.

After meeting the ambitious, curious, enthusiastic villagers of Ghoti we went on to meet the even brighter, more ambitious and upping-their-village-standard people of Sawra. At Sawra the children were very enthusiastic and ready for an on-the-spot English and reading test. I must say most of them performed better than I had thought they would. I should add that there were three other children who travelled 20 kms just to come to the study centre and get a little extra group study time - something that is unthinkable when it comes to city children, who would probably go to the neighbouring building to their friend's house with a collection of their favourite DVDs in the name of group study.

Another very impressive piece of progress that's worth mentioning is about the lantana furniture making (see our earlier post here, Lantana: the new bamboo). The very idea that you can make money out of a destructive weed that would otherwise destroy the forest is superbly well-executed, and like Giri says it has a knock on effect. I saw a few young lads from a neighbouring village who came to check the lantana work because they had heard a lot about its progress and demand from the cities.

And what better way to end this great trip than to see an authentic tribal dance performed by men from Sawra. Satpuda Foundation is encouraging the villagers to perform for tourists, as this is not only getting the villagers some extra income but also spreading awareness about this almost unknown tribal culture.

There's a child prodigy that I would like to mention here, a little girl and her sister, I forget their names but not their singing. They were truly gifted. The elder girl had been sent to Delhi - first time ever some one from that village ever went to Delhi - and she won competitions and accolades. And the younger one was even more gifted! I wonder why she is not on one of the many children's talent shows on TV.

Kirti Chavan

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Of “Naxals and Tiger Infested Forests”:

A couple of days ago TOI reported on its front page that Andhra CM’s copter went missing in the “naxal & tiger-infested” Nallamalla forests. This same sentiment has been blatantly echoed across most media without even a thought about its veracity.

Firstly, I do not need to be a wildlife expert to understand that humans and wildlife cannot exist together….especially when it’s the gun-toting and ruthless kind of humans. So one simply cannot say ‘naxal & tiger infested’ in the same breath. In 2004, I had visited Srisailem, the pilgrimage site and we had passed through the some parts of the dense but dry forests of this region. NSTR (Nagarjunsagar Srisailem Tiger Reserve) is spread over 3568sqkms region in the Nallamalla hills and in 2004 it was totally out of bounds for the tourists then as it is now. The reason being, that the forests were infested with Naxals at their peak of subversive activity. Nobody talked about the condition of the wildlife then. By 2006, the confrontation between the Naxals and the Greyhounds were in full-swing and the tigers and rest of the wildlife had retreated far inside the forest. Now, most of the Naxalite groups have moved away from this region to other neighboring region due to this operation. Now this region, I should say, is ‘infested’ with villagers and their cattle.

Secondly, if the forests were really ‘infested’ with tigers as the media announced, then we really shouldn’t be worried about the declining tiger population in the largest reserve of the country. This reserve considered the last bastion for the tigers have only 60 tigers as per the census of May 2009. The census as we all know is done by the archaic and unscientific method of pug mark counting. Our experiences in other national parks and tiger reserves have shown that the actual numbers can be much much less that what this method usually throws up. So, in an area which is as large as 3568sqkms, a tiger population of less than 60 tigers is considered ‘being infested’.

This is the reality of the story told by media which now-a-days is based purely on sensationalism. This coupled with corrupt politicians can only bring anarchy in the future. The truth, it seems is getting more and more difficult to find.