Visiting Pench Tiger Reserve with Conservation Wildlands
Originally posted 19 October 2014
The wind whispers differently depending on the structure through which it passes. For instance, the bamboo (not a tree by the way, but a kind of grass) becomes playful. If you have ever seen a bamboo forest dancing in the wind from above, you know what I mean. They are downright lighthearted. Their song is a whisper in a dream, or one under a blanket-fort at a slumber party. "Shhhhhh………," they say. "Just be happy."
Ironwoods, on the other hand, are much more stately. They sing differently when the wind comes through. They are your grandmother's lullaby as you fall asleep. They are the floral equivalent of the noble owl. They tell secrets passed down through generations, from one elder to another to another. They come onto this planet with purpose and leave it with grace. They are kind. "Whooooooooo………," they reassure. "You're little. Isn't that nice?"
I have been in Bombay for almost a year now. If I could consult my 25 year old self and tell her that one day she'd be living in one of the world's most crowded cities, she would burst out laughing at such a preposterous idea. "I don't do cities," she'd say haughtily. And yet, here we are.
But this story is not about a city. It's about a forest.
The Duronto Express leaves Bombay's famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as Vitoria Terminus, you can see it in Slumdog Millionaire) nightly around 8 o'clock. Its last stop, reached in about twelve hours, is a city called Nagpur. Just a couple of hours further away is a forest, within which lies the Pench Tiger Reserve.
This is the forest that inspired Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.
Pooja Choksi, a capoeira friend of mine (her capoeira name is Natureza, which means what it sounds like), works with a trust called Conservation Wildlands. Recently, she helmed a successful crowdsourced fundraising campaign to build not one, but two libraries in the villages of Pench where she works.
Pooja is an environmental educator, in addition to wearing other hats (as is often the case in the field of conservation). She made a very smart point to me recently.
"So many people think conservation is about protection," she said. "But these days, it's not about living in a jungle fending off poachers. It's about finding sustainable livelihood choices for the humans who live in proximity to the affected area. It's about sensitization."
She asked if I could come to Pench to help document the preparation and inauguration of the libraries, as well as the reading assessments and education programs she facilitates for schoolchildren who live in the buffer zone forests (to which I quickly agreed).
Pench Tiger Reserve stretches over two states in central India: Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The forest is home to an impressive array of carnivores: tigers, of course, though leopards, striped hyenas, civets, jungle cats and wild dogs also make their homes here. The herbivores (as should be in a properly balanced ecosystem) are even more plentiful: Chital (spotted deer), sambar (largest deer in India), gaur (buffalo), nilgai (a very large and elusive specie of antelope), muntjac (barking deer), chowsingha (four-horned antelope), and langur (leaf-eating monkey). Rounding out the community are the omnivores: sloth bears, wild pigs, and rhesus macaques, to name a few.
And these are just the mammals.
Pench was recognized in 1977 as a sanctuary for the dwindling Bengal tiger population. 450 square kilometers were set aside to allow the ecosystem to flourish. The core forest of Pench -- that is, the primary, most untouched region -- is off-limits to humans. The last tribes living in the core were relocated to the buffer zone in the early 90s. I asked Pooja how they felt about being made to leave. She said that recurring confrontations with tigers -- specifically when they resulted in cattle loss -- were enough of a catalyst for most people to want to go.
Pench is home to something like 55 tigers. The Tiger Reserve's management recently recovered more land to add to Pench, which will hopefully bolster the tiger population in the years to come -- though it's buffer forest, so it will need time to grow into the primary forest that best suits wildlife. One of the biggest threats to the survival of the felines (and all endangered animals, really) is the constant loss of habitat. And what we've learned is that you cannot preserve habitat without involving the community who lives within it.
So this is what Conservation Wildlands does: it builds and delivers environmental curriculum to children; it explores alternative livelihoods for adults (everything from handicraft making to honey cultivating is being discussed); it brings precious information from the field to your proverbial table so you can learn about how they are helping to save the Bengal tiger. You can read about Pooja and the work of Conservation Wildlands here.
Inside one of the village schools
An old proverb goes something like this: "Without the forest, there is no tiger. Without the tiger, there is no forest."
It just may happen that we will let them slip through our fingers: tigers and trees. If this happens, and our children will not marvel at the sight of tigers or the sweet melody of the wind passing though the ironwoods, how will we explain ourselves?
These are beautiful photographs Cigana! Good job Pooja!!!
Well written Monica! This article demonstrates a truly well rounded approach to safeguarding our natural world. Education is always such an important aspect of any attempt to have long term success. I am moved by your use of proverbs from the region.
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