Saturday, January 10, 2009

Return to Chambal

This article is not long overdue. It is not an obligation to any reader. It is a simple self-satisfaction article that I wanted to write. It maybe extremely disoriented in parts, it maybe very odd in others, fact remains that it still is what I wanted to put up.
I re-visited the Chambal this year. It's been the second visit in the same year. And might I say that I did not expect even 5% of what happened. Right from the time we boarded the train at Mumbai Central, to the time we got off at Sawai Madhopur. Going on field, beginning the expedition, and the 19days after that. All totally unexpected.
The Gharial Expedition was conducted again from 17th to 26th December 2008. For which, we left from Mumbai on the 14th. Suyash, Arjun, Mittal, Anupriya and myself, were going together. Little did ANY of us know that the time we'd spend in the next 22 days would bring us closer than we'd ever imagined. The train journey saw us getting along brilliantly. It was like a near perfect blend. Just one thing was missing. We reached Sawai Madhopur on the 15th , met the man that is the inspiration behind at least 3 of us. And on reaching the Tiger Watch office at Maa Farm, we found that one missing thing. Ruchik. The member who completed the team. There we were. Standing in a line. The Gharial Expedition Dec.08 Team. Proud people from various Indian cities. With one goal. One aim. And loads of enthusiasm.
We spent the first two days at office. Orientation, and homework. Before setting off on the expedition, we'd need to know a lot of things, and do a lot of things. With Doc as our mentor, there wasn't a chance of leaving something out. I truthfully do not wish to write about Doc in this article, because I do not have words to describe him and even if i did, it's a very personal opinion, not to be put online. Anyway, so the first two days were spent in and around Maa Farm and a visit to the Mogiya Boys' Hostel and the first two nights were spent in tents outside the office! :) The first evening, we were joined by Raghav from Delhi who would be accompanying us for the first 5days of the expedition.
The next day, after some scary screw ups by me, we reached Pali (a village where the River Parbati meets our dear Chambal). We were on an island which we fondly named Pratincole Island as there was a flock of Pratincoles on it. And then, we boarded the boat. All of us in bright orange life jackets, with binoculars around our necks, and cameras, note books and pens ready to start jotting down notes. Birds, birds, birds, birds... and then finally one Mugger! (distinctly referring to the Crocodile species and not the people who loot other people). A few kilometers down the river, and someone claims to be seeing a Mugger in the water. With binocs firmly in place, we scan the said spot, and conclude that it is something very odd, floating in the water, belly upwards. And in a moment it strikes! I involuntarily open my mouth and say "It's dead!"
Every one falls silent and stares just at that one spot. The boat approaches. Closer and closer... And it's definitely some Crocodilian. Either a Mugger or a Gharial. Reality got in real slowly. We got right next to the animal and from the belly scales, the only feeling i had was that of tears welling up. Gharial. It was so definitely going to be a Gharial. We used an oar to very lightly push it towards the bank and with a lot of difficulty, trying not to injure or break any part of it's already rotting n stinking body, managed to get a little on the bank. And well, yes. It was a Gharial. The first Gharial of the Gharial Expedition, Dec.2008. And it's dead. I cannot even begin to describe the atmosphere then. Urgency filled the air. We called the Forest Dept. , and WWF folks and the FD was going to send a Ranger there ASAP. We took photos, speculated, roughly measured it, and then after some asking around, left.
Proceeding towards Rameshwaram, we got off on reaching, had lunch, and then Doc, Chourey Saab, GSR left. We then unloaded our luggage from the Jeep, and made stacks inside the Forest Chowki at Rameshwaram. We spent the next 9 days on field, camping in the same villages we had visited and camped in during the previous expedition. Rameshwaram, to Shankarpura was our first day of walking. And it was worse than anyone expected. We had charted out an approximate 10kms as the distance between the 2 villages. But we jst freaking kept walking! The last 5 kms was through the ravines in pitch darkness. No torches allowed for the fear that the dacoits would get the better of us, and hence, we ended up crashing through thorns, ditches, sand, stones, cutting ourselves, spraining each ankle at least thrice, falling, slipping, and STILL standing up to go each time. This was my team. Determined. To prove itself against ALL adversities. With the porters shit scared, and then a tiny squabble between them n us, after getting things back on track, two hours later, we were at a house... when we looked around, we realized, we were at the village! And then the shouting that we did, was something none of us can forget. For the next 4 days, our legs were protesting, but we'd have none of it.. We'd just keep going! And the spirit was beyond brilliant. Each one determined to get through alive till the end. And we then reached our camping spot, checked our legs. I was bleeding, cut and bruised, coz as "team leader" i took it upon myself to go up front, and so everything that came, went through me. The brave twosome of Suyash and Ruchik kept the rear end. A tough job! Did it extremely well. Mittal, Anupriya and Arjun, with falling, more falling/sprains and stomach cramps respectively showed courage just fighting everything off to make it there. Raghav was simply superb! No complaints! He was the one checking whether the rest were ok. :) Little Superman.

And well, by the end of the expedition, which also, came all of a sudden, we had some smashing data! Gharials, Muggers, Skimmers, Ospreys, water pumps, ferry boats, Fishermen! All counted! And all mapped! Our encounter with the apparent dacoits, and in the words of the porters (who were terrified to the bone!), "badmaash aadmi" ; made us cancel our next 2 days of the expedition. And then Doc had to come pick us up te next day. Bidding goodbye to the Chambal over a sunset, was probably the worst thing Ive had to do in terms of letting something go.. Didnt want to. But the Team's safety came first. So, well, that ended the expedition. And Ive probably not cried like I did that day, ever!
The feeling of leaving "home" came over and haunted me thoroughly! So with a lot of difficulty and consoling I finally realized, its ok, I will come back again! This expedition has me proud coz basically, I take away the credit of having chosen a great team. A mad team :) A wonderful bunch of grinning idiots. :) Ha! Now in the words of Doc, we're the "Gharial ke bachhe" :) So the Team G shines. And most importantly, the kind of info we got, was very good. In comparison to what a non-professional bunch of students could do, we did very well. And in spite of all my screw ups, I still stood tall for myself. Did not lose respect for myself.
We spent our time back in Sawai Madhopur, giving 2 presentations, one to a camp visiting Ranthambhore, and the other at Khem Villas. We were in the newspapers, and the Dead Gharial report was making waves. Unfortunately, not in the Forest Dept. though. Coz we saw no monitoring in the river happening even after we reported the dead Gharial. 10 days and no monitoring. Sad. Things need to improve drastically. People, not just the locals, but EVERY one, needs to be made aware of who and what the Gharial is, and why it is important for our survival! Because, sadly, unless you provide man with an incentive to safe himself, and behave selfishly, man does nothing! No one will save the Gharial because they love the animal, or the Chambal, but they'll do it to safe mankind. And its too late to change this attitude in adults, but kids. Now they can just start to mould their thinking from a young age if you feed it into their minds slow and steady and shockingly. They are what your future team will be. Awarness is a huge deal here. People think they know about the Tiger crisis. But even that, is just a portion of what reality is. Then compare the Gharial. Poor things not even famous enough yet! And it needs as much support as it can get, from dedicated individuals. Not those looking to make name or fame out of this 'game'. I know beggars cant be choosers and we have to accept whatever we get as "help". But thats exactly why we are NOT beggars. We're a team. And with or without the bureaucrats, we will still do this. For as long as we have our one Miracle Man with us, (Doc), nothing is too far to achieve!
So cheers Team G! We're on.. We need our Chambal and it needs us!