Friday, June 12, 2009

The Snapping Rope

There are certain things that make you think deeply of your contribution to your field. When that field is wildlife conservation, it makes sense to review your role from time to time. I used to think that an individual's role in conserving wildlife always has to be fixed at one thing. Over the years I've realized, that that isn't true. You have to do whatever you can do, and whenever you can. You have to jump at every chance and not let it slip. Whether it comes in the form of being able to raise funds for a capable NGO or whether it is being able to go out there on field and actually studying a species and its habitat.
I read a couple of well written articles on the Internet today. All of them, had something or the other, to do with wildlife conservation. With so many people concerned about so many different aspects of wildlife and its conservation, why have we still not progressed enough? There are so many answers to that. But political will, as the Teacher says, remains a giant topic. As I see things presently, our endangered and critically endangered species hang at one end of a rope whose other end is held by the human race. We are so many, and yet our end is the weakest is being able to SUSTAIN that rope of ecological balance.
We're putting so much pressure on it, and pulling so hard at it, that out of sheer stupidity and ignorance, that one sensitive end with all our precious species on it is snapping. We are holding on alright. But as usual, we care about nothing but ourselves. The few of us who do bother about the other end of the rope, are just simply not enough. We need more people to be concerned about what WE are doing to OUR own Planet Earth and its wonderful wildlife. And then we need this whole gang to balance out what we ourselves converted into an unbalanced, dangerous place to be living on. Before that rope snaps, and we lose everything that we should have been protecting and respecting, WE need to do something about it. Whether it is the problem of political will, or funds, or anything else. We need to address those problems, find solutions, and implement them correctly.
if we've created a problem, then we bloody well better solve it! Anyway, just as usual, this was just something that I was thinking about. I don't feel like writing about it in great detail as of now. All I wanted to write about, was my imagination of the balance, as a rope. And then imagining it to be snapping at one end, which is a very depressing thought!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The 3 part solution

While I was living my best Summer yet, there are certain little things that happened, or were said, that sparked an idea of an article in my brain. One such moment was when we were at Doc’s house and 3 friends of Divya’s were also there for dinner. One of them, asked very sincerely and innocently, “How do you have the balls to go against what you parents have thought out for you and choose a profession which neither pays, nor sustains you?”

As I see it, these are 3 different aspects : a)Going against what our parents have thought out for us; b)Having the balls and c)Non-paying, non-sustaining profession.

Addressing each one is not a complex procedure. Firstly, as from what I understood of his question, all parents apparently chalk out a plan for their kid/s regarding what they want the kid to grow up and be. I have no clue whether my parents had such a “thought” for me but I know that they always wanted me to do what I would like doing, and they wanted me, as do all parents, to be successful. They however, did think I’d choose a “normal” and conventional field. So when I chose my field, no big surprise, it didn’t go down very well at all. Still hasn’t. What I think parents need to understand is, that no matter how many plans you make for you children, in the end, it is, and will always be, the child’s choice that matters. In some cases, either one of the parents had always dreamed of being, for example, a doctor. So if, for any reason, that parent did not get to live his/her dream, it is often “handed down” to the kid and the kid is expected to secure some ridiculously brilliant marks and do very well academically and become a doctor, and live his/her parent’s dream. In every way, this is wrong! Just because you didn’t get to do what you wanted to, does not mean you put your child through the same! My parents were never happy with the choice I made. For the first 5 years they called it a phase, and when I finished my 12th, someone had to give in. Them or me. And it’s pretty obvious by now, that I’m not the one who did. They had to accept the fact that the wilderness and wildlife is what keeps me happy, and that’s what I want to ALWAYS spend my time doing. Today, they’re proud, because I made a decision, I made my own choice, and stuck to my guts, and I’ve achieved more than what either of us had imagined for me! That’s what comes from sticking to your guts. And today, they know and I know, that whatever happens to me in the future, whether bad or good, will be the consequence of MY decision. I will never be able to blame them for what situation I am in. If I accept all responsibility for myself, it makes things much easier.

So – I didn’t go against them for the heck of it. Actually, I didn’t go against them or their wishes. I just stuck to what I wanted for myself.

Secondly, as far as having the balls is concerned, that really is no big deal. Since I was a kid, the rebellion spirit has always been in me so for me to stand up and say I will do this and only this, was no great thing. I never saw that as having guts. I saw it as knowing yourself, and knowing what you want to do in life. Which, I guess, everyone should know at some point in their lives. It takes courage to go against the world. But this is different. It’s not like everyone was conspiring to make me a dentist (they were at one point hell bent on me doing medicine though). So I didn’t have to fight off a group of villains! All I had to do was stand up. For- a)myself, b)what I believed in, c)and for the field that I chose. So I did. I chose to do a degree as worthless as a BSc because it did two things. 1)- it gave me the time to do my own thing out in the field because I could afford to bunk college extensively (initially only because later I found out, I could bunk WITH permission, so I could legally take off whenever I wanted to). 2)- I didn’t need to study a lot. Just some basic stuff which I already knew, and some more additional stuff that was supposed to qualify as knowledge! So I got an easy deal. Only time I had to go mad, was during submission time, when I’d go mad rushing to finish journals, and exam time, because I would not study the whole year, and would cram my brain with text the day before the exams. So I figured, I could do that, and hence, the BSc thing seemed worth it to me. What the heck did I know my course structure would frustrate the daylights out of me and I would think of dropping out? But then, I started this. So I will finish it. One more year of this torture should be cool coz I don’t have to go to college too often anyway. Just need to get permits, and take off to do some project somewhere in some jungle.

So – it’s not guts. It is simply knowing- that this is what you want, and it is what YOU picked for yourself, and that you will never be able to blame anyone but yourself for the choice you made. Once that’s all set in your mind, and you are able to accept all consequences, it is all cool.

Thirdly, non-paying, non-sustaining profession. Honestly, if you use your brain wisely, I think, wildlife is a very rich field. Rich in terms of the amount of satisfaction you get, non-monetary. Job satisfaction. There is money here. You just have to know how to make it. And it depends on me whether I am able to learn how to make it or not. Agreed, it is much much tougher than most other fields because it takes you decades of effort to earn you your first salary. But once that’s done, it’s brighter because you now know the “tricks of the trade”. As for sustaining oneself, there are endless examples of people who work for wildlife conservation full time. All these people are alive and well, getting their 3 meals a day, and they’ve learned how to make their money. Whether it is Bittu Sahgal of Sanctuary Asia who has learned in his own way, or whether it is the Forest Department, or Govardhan Singh Rathore who has adopted several self-sustaining methods. All these chaps know their requirements, they know what they got to do to get there, and these are just 3 examples. The first 3 I could think of. And yeah, there may not be the kind of cash that an IT pro might get, but how many IT pros get to wake up one morning, smell fresh rainforest air, and say, “ok, Im going to go for a walk along the river and monitor King Cobras today.” I live, breathe, love, talk wildlife. That is only because I chose to. All comes down to just one thing. The choice you make.

You can choose whether you want a mansion, 5 servants, 7 dogs with a servant each, an Audi, a BMW, a Merc, a Ferrari, blah blah blah… OR you want a life in which you make your own calls, you have NO boss, because thankfully, you dictate terms to yourself, and you get to live in places that most people only dream of or see on TV or hear of.
Other people’s dreams also are too polluted to let them dream of rainforests or Chambal .. but you- you get to live there.

That’s the life. And for me, that IS life.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Home -Run

Having come back from one of the best summers Ive had till date, I'm suddenly at a loss for words. While on my way back here, and while I was in Ranthambhore, I'd thought of so many things I will write about once Im back.. but now, even though I can actually remember 10% of those topics, I have absolutely no will to write.. This whole withdrawal is a very terrible phase to be in. Especially, when the few people that can get you out of it, are very far away, and not around you. It's so weird because even friends (some of them) can't help in this case. Sometimes, people from the concerned field, who are close friends, are the only hope to get out of withdrawal. And that's exactly what this is about. Those weird wildlifers, are nowhere around.

I spent this summer in Ranthambhore, Rajasthan. And every single breathing moment of it, was worth the choice of going there. The moment of meeting friends again, and knowing that the next week is going to be full of fun was a brilliant feeling. A Gharial Expedition Team reunion! The Tiger Watch office, home to so many of us, the several "hang-outs" tagged as favourite spots in Maa Farm, and the anytime anywhere paths that lead into the wild patch in front of office.. Everyone was in their element.

The first 2 days, of preparing for the Conservation Leadership Course by Tiger Watch were quite enjoyable. Then came the running around. A massive sudden influx of participants happened, and right from distributing their rooms in Shani Vilas to making sure the rooms were all perfect, the air conditioning was working fine, the food, water, the course schedule... all of that, was absolute fun. Then the presentations, the frequency of crossing the road to go either into Maa Farm or into Shani Vilas was increasing by the hour. Divya kick started the course, and Rina gave it her over-rehearsed introduction very convincingly, and then, the Tiger Man himself stepped on stage, his pugmarks being followed by every individual's gaze, silence, all around, and Fateh Singh Rathore then spoke. This man is miraculous no matter how many times you hear him speak, because everytime, he's just as captivating as the last time.

The next 5 days, were, with all due respect, the craziest days. What with the park rides, the lectures, the presentations, slide shows, films, QUESTIONS!!![hint : if u dont know why this word is in capital letters, and you were there for the course, you need a new brain!] , and the fun.. it made the course one helluvan activity! The faculty was an interesting bunch of people. Right from the silent observer Jay to the ever so energetic Madhu Ma'm , and from Fatji to the man who IS the undoubted, unmatched KING of Ranthambhore - Doc. The course was more of an informal combined learning session where participants learned not only from the faculty, but also from each other! People like Hans, who have spectacular experiences, people like Ginseng and Bensen, who had come from Meghalaya with wonderful accounts of the wilderness in the North-east. It was a period of gaining knowledge and getting to know the intricate details of things that we either only hear about, or see on TV. Knowing about Anti-poaching operations hands on, from the man who leads them, is quite a blow out!

The visits to Ranthambhore National Park, on the 21st and 24th were periods of intense searching, for the striped royalty that softly walks the paths in the forest, the Tiger. The visit to National Chambal Sanctuary, on the 23rd, was my highlight, having got to spend my 20th birthday with the eyes and snout of a Gharial in the Goddess of all Rivers- the Chambal! :) I would have loved it if that Gharial had decided to surface a little.. but ah well, with all due respect to its "wild" nature and status, I'm happy she was THERE. :)

That night, the dinner that we had at the Pali farmhouse, was undoubtedly, the BEST dinner I've ever had. Scrumptious food!! All of Rajasthan in one meal!! The course, as soon as it begun, was over even sooner! All of a sudden, it was the 25th of May. And we were dropping participants to the station to board their respective trains. Suddenly, all that time spent with people from different places, different backgrounds, fields, was over! And it was bye-bye time. Luckily for the "volunteer gang" there was still that one nutcase called Hans Dalal with us. By then, we'd all become the mad core group. And then, on the 25th, everything suddenly changed.

During the ending and certificate ceremony, I got a piece of paper passed to me by someone who's name I shall not mention for her own safety. :) She had written - "Park in the afternoon?" All I had to do was look sideways and nod vigorously and my answer was pretty clear!! Smiles exchanged, no.of people confirmed, and gypsies booked! Zone 5 and Zone 4 is what we had. And since Zone 5 had been having all the Tiger sightings, everyone was rooting for Zone 5! So when Divya asked, who wants to go to Zone 5- ALL hands went up! :D [that honestly was hillarious] We got our cameras, binocs, what not, and some 5-6 of us reached the gate to find the Zone 5 gypsy packed n full! So we launched ourselves in the Zone 4 gypsy. All set. And my oh my what happened next was THEEEEEE point of NOT relying on "recorded sightings"!

Zone 5 people (as we now call them) , we were hoping, get to see what they're all so excited about. And meanwhile, our cool gypsy (hahahah.. had to do this!), was going through a brilliant patch of forest and I simply love that part of Ranthambhore. Zone 4!! No Tiger was ok.. but that patch is beautiful! And we looked left, and saw the sky in sepia tone. Literally, ALL brown. Sand storm. Huge sand storm was headed our way. And within 5 minutes, we were BANG in the middle of it. Dust coming from literally everywhere!!! I was frantically trying to keep the camera away from it, and honestly dont know or care about what anyone else in the gypsy was upto!

12-13minutes into that mad rush of dust and all of a sudden, we were out of it! Ok now here the background is important. There is an article further down in this blog, about Ranthambhore National Park, which has photos of a Tigress and her cubs. She is the Berda female, and those are her cubs. This Berda female, who was with me when I turned 19 last year at the exact same place, died in April 2009. I am obviously still not over that. But being in Ranthambhore, on Zone 4, brought back all those 45 minutes of memories. And we were headed exactly there! Berda. I wanted to see the cubs. We checked the first cave, zinch. Approached 2nd cave, and the driver n I say simultaneously- Tigers in cave!

The mood changes, and everyone is up n about, not literally obviously. Scampering and moving here and there to catch a glimpse of the striped beauty. And that's it! My two Berda babies! Sleeping away to glory. nose to nose. The female on the left and male on the right. They didnt even budge when we reached and we were the only gypsy there. After about 3-4minutes, the male woke up, yawned, licked his paw, went off to sleep again. The female woke up, did the same thing. Again the male woke up, and then he moved his head sideways and looked at us. The female got up, stretched, actually nudges the male, who also got up and then he climbed down from the cave, and came down, VERY close to us. [Im not mentioning the distance for obvious reasons]. And then, when he reached down, he went up to a tree, put his front paws on it and stretched! then turned around, and plonked down. Just sat! Cute kitty pose. Within seconds, the female was up, who by then, had been sitting at the edge of the cave watching us and the male cub. She climbed down too. And came to the male, they acknowledged each others' presence by rubbing their heads against each others'. And then the female decided to play Sherlock Holmes!

But before her investigations could begin, the male decided we were too close for comfort and snarled at us and once we backed off respectfully, he went n sat down again. The female cub then came up very very close, and there was fallen tree that was blocking her line of sight, so the curious cat that she is, she ducked under the log and looked to see if we're still there. She was so close we could see her eyes ever so clearly!! Those eyes!!! Oh my god!! I can keep looking into them endlessly! These cubs, both of them, have the most enigmatic eyes. So expressive!! Will never forget that stare. And just as luck would have it, my camera, decided that the battery wasnt charged enough to continue taking photos. So all the photos that I could have got from literally 6feet away, I didnt get. What I did get, is the damn experience!! Of BEING there, with those two precious cats, and watch them.. and feel so privileged to be there and witness their behaviour! Chuck the camera I told myself. Just see what you're getting to see!

In a matter of 24 minutes, it was over. 2 more gypsies had come. And we were going away. And my lens cap had gone missing! Everything had happened just like it always does in the wild - unexpectedly! You can NEVER know what it going to happen where. The wilderness decides what it wants you to see and what it wants to hide from you. You are totally at the mercy of Mother Nature when you pay her a visit. And that is what I love about my field. That there are other people, who respect and love the wilderness for these very reasons! This bunch of "mad wilders" are people who simply in love. In love with the wilds of India. In love with the unique wildlife of Rajasthan whether it be Ranthambhore, or Chambal, or Desert National park.. It is ALL part of one of the best wilderness displays that we have today.

Oh yes, and coming back to the Zone 5 people - they saw nothing!! :D Kudos to the chance takers! And while all this was happening, our anti-poaching star, Doc and Ruchik and Digvijay and Lakkhan the driver were somewhere 300kms away raiding a house in some village and discovering 7 illegal guns, a barn owl and a dove. Talk about under cover operations!
And in a flash of an eyelid, days kept running past us. 25th was over like that. 26th onwards, we were just the core group left .. back to the usual. A Nilgai had been killed in the "backyard" of Maa farm.. so we'd go check that out once a while.. and on one such visit, our man Ruchik called me and said in a hushed voice "there's a python here!" .. without bothering about what he meant by "here" , Suyash and I took off. Camera in hand, floaters hanging on to feet, we were rushing there! Once located, we saw the python had caught a crow pheasant and was constricting it. Lens cap off, and camera rolling..

Another snake experience was in Jhoomar Bawri when we were all in the jeep and Doc suddenly breaked coz a snake was crossing the road. Arjun and I jumped out. Doc said Saw-scaled Viper. And he kept the lights on the snake while I tried getting it on a stick. And whoa!! Russell's Viper!! [Sorry Doc... but we're pretty sure that's what it was!! Blotches present and no arrow shaped head marking] And then Doc made us feel like nitwits by saying, he's only once seen a Russell's Viper in Ranthambhore!! Well anyway, a bike was coming and we had to get in the jeep... by which time the snake had obviously gone off into the darkness..!

The list is endless. The list of experiences with Doc and these sudden sightings is honestly, endless. Right from the night "safari" on the morning of my birthday, to look for what I believe was a Leopard, but turned out to be 11 Hares and a Fox... But oh man... Have u EVER seen 15 people in one gypsy?? Now THAT is an experience! Have u ever hung on to dear life with a crazy person driving?? Have u ever felt like ur holding on to the car rod with ur hands and the rest of you is flying behind? Yeah well, that's how it all felt! Happy birthday to me indeed!! :D i LOVED that ride.. for its sheer adventure and the spirit of the people who were also, hanging on for dear life at various ends of the gypsy! :) Thats what it takes to be a hard core wildlifer! [Anyone taking that seriously, please re-consider being a wildlifer]!!

And so on the 27th, after a wonderful boat ride in Chambal in the company of a WII scientist, B.C.Choudhury, our Gharial team learned a lot from him and our hopes got all refreshed and spirits re-lighted..And again, all to soon, we approached the 3rd of June. It was the morning of our departure. Just like that, we were gone too. And somewhere, in the back of my head, I know that one fine day, soon enough, I will be back there to annoy the life out of Doc, and to add more such experiences to my already 20 year old life.

Some glimpses.. of the wilderness we saw.. arranged in a general order of relevance.

All in all... Summer of 2009.. a HISTORICAL summer!!