“Just as dusk begins giving way to the night, I bolt myself inside the rest house. I have my dinner there and stay locked till daybreak. If someone arrives at the main gate at night, he opens the gate himself, I don’t go out. Tigers and leopards regularly enter the compound and there is just one solar light near the kitchen that works. Everything else is engulfed in darkness. Just a few days ago, two tigers came inside the campus and roared for a good two hours while I was holed inside this godforsaken bungalow all alone, waiting for dawn,” says Lalchandji, the chowkidaar at the Mala forest rest house in Uttar Pradesh’s little-known Pilibhit tiger reserve, as he rakes up the dying embers of the small fire we had lit to shield ourselves from the cold.
His caution isn’t without reason. There is a palpable fear among forest staff and locals all across this tiger reserve that has witnessed, perhaps, the worst spate of tiger attacks in India in recent history. More than 20 people have been killed by the striped cats over the past few months, more than one-third of the fatalities being in a 5 km radius of the Mala bungalow. The conflict is primarily fuelled by the unique geography of this tiger reserve. Pilibhit is a thin horse-shoe-shaped strip of Terai forest bound by tall sugarcane fields on all sides except for the slender forest corridors connecting it to the Shivalik forests of Uttarakhand to its west, Shuklaphanta national park (in Nepal) to its north and Dudhwa tiger reserve to its east. The tall sugarcane provides good cover to the big cats as well as their prey, and, consequently, tigers regularly move about in these fields. Villagers must enter as well to tend to their fields and so the stage for tragedy is set. The forest department asks residents to avoid moving about in and around the forest after dark, and to move in large groups if they must.
Lalchandji, however, has no such safety net to fall back on. The ageing veteran stands guard all alone at the bungalow — except for occasional short visits during the day by fellow staff members — because, as he nonchalantly puts it, “Who else will take care of it if not me?” He isn’t a chowkidaar by designation, though. “I am an ardali [orderly]. I got regularised after working nearly three decades on daily wage. I got posted as an ad-hoc chowkidaar here 15 years ago when the last guy died. They have forgotten me here since,” he says with a shrug.
He would have made his peace with this life, but for the the “damn tigers and leopards”. “They won’t leave me in peace even during the day, sometimes. Just a few months ago, three large tigers walked into this fallow field in broad daylight,” he says, pointing towards a small field, barely 15 feet behind me, that was seasonally used to raise nursery crops. “There I was taking a nice bath in the sun when suddenly there were a few peacock calls. The next thing I know, three full grown tigers suddenly walk out of the forest, casually jump over the barbed wire fence and lie down in this field.” His tone betrays a rare hint of excitement. “I was so flustered I couldn’t even get my clothes on! I ran half-naked into the kitchen and bolted the doors. And don’t even get me started on that rascal leopard who climbed up the roof of my quarter!” he scoffs. I try not to laugh at this amusing tirade, but it’s a difficult task: he speaks of them like a grumpy old man expressing his annoyance at street urchins. “They make my life miserable,” he complains, before lapsing into silence. “But, at least, they give me company on lonely days,” he says.
Just as he is finishing his story, his phone rings. He squints his eyes, takes out his ancient phone, and then presses the reject button. “Ye ek aur narak bana rakha hai jeevan ko is saale phone ne.” (This damn phone is another object that is making my life hell), he groans. “People from home keep calling, asking me to come for festivals and functions. I have just had three holidays in the last one year. I even spent Diwali alone here. In the silence of the night, I could hear the faint sounds of celebration from Mala village,” he says, his voice plaintive. “This damn phone rang just then, a call from home. I rejected the call…stupid mobile phones,” he mutters.
I ask him why he doesn’t press for leaves. After all, his home is only about 6 km away and his health has steadily declined over the past two years. “Didn’t I tell you already? Who will take care of this place then?” he says and lapses into silence. “But it is going to be over soon. I will be retiring in two months’ time. Then, I will rest for as long as I want. I have some land, maybe I will start farming again,” he says, as a flock of oriental pied hornbills settle on a fig tree for the night.
The glowing red embers of the fire have begun dying. We retire for the night. The next morning, I find him restlessly pacing around the fire he has lit close to the kitchen. I greet him and he lets out a broad smile. “You are sleeping easy here. A leopard walked right past your head in the night!” he says, showing me fresh pugmarks next to the bungalow’s verandah. “Stupid leopard,” he chuckles.
Raza Kazmi is a Jharkhand-based conservationist and a keen student of India’s wildlife history.