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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

When a Forest Sleeps: A look at the unsung men of our wildlife story

They know the forest like no one else. They are the first point of contact when you visit India’s reserves and national parks. Yet, they remain forever in the shadows. We look at the unknown and unsung men of our wildlife story — the guards, the chowkidaars, the mahouts, the trackers and others who rise from the dust and return to them. First up, the story of Umer Mia and others of his ilk.

Written by Prosenjit Das Gupta |
Updated: January 21, 2018 12:05:20 am
Umer was a small man: small in stature, small in the forest department hierarchy. A daily-wage tracker, he put his life at stake every day, patrolling the roads, tracks and nullahs in the Betla beat of the Palamau National Park, with just a slim bamboo stick. (Watercolour by Subrata Dhar)

Umer Mia did it with due propriety. He took out a small square piece of cloth from the bag that he had on his shoulder, smoothened it out on the sandy bed of the nullah next to the Sugua-Simar waterhole. Then, he poured out some water from my water bottle, washed his face, hands and feet and knelt down on the cloth to offer evening prayers to his god. The sky was growing increasingly rosy as the sun dipped to the west and as I looked around at the towering trees around the waterhole, I thought to myself that few could have found a better place to re-dedicate oneself to the divine.

Umer was a small man: small in stature, small in the forest department hierarchy. A daily-wage tracker, he put his life at stake every day, patrolling the roads, tracks and nullahs in the Betla beat of the Palamau National Park, with just a slim bamboo stick (more psychological strength than actual protection) to monitor tiger tracks, elephant movements, etc. Stooped over his glass tracing plate, he would, carefully, trace out the tiger pugmark he had found next to a water hole, and stand up with a sense of satisfaction — yes, the tigers were still moving around in Betla. This was in the late 1970s, before other people, bigger in size than Umer and higher in position, gave the glass tracer a bad name as a tool for tiger census.

Umer knew his tigers and tigresses; they were, firstly, not a dime a dozen; secondly, they usually kept out of each other’s territory, and, thirdly, often had some peculiarity in their pugmark that would help distinguish them. Over tea in Bilas’s stall in the evening, Umer would, in his soft, sibilant south Bihari Hindi, recount some experience or the other, like dodging the big muckna elephant near Hathbajwa tower by climbing the hillock opposite, or striking his stick against a bamboo clump to divert a tiger that was walking down towards the Bauliya nullah hideout where Umer was keeping watch. He would say all this matter-of-factly, without any embellishment, as if he had been just buying vegetables in a bazaar.

All these memories came back with a rush, when I revisited Betla in 2013 after about 28 years; only to learn, to my great sorrow, that Umer was no more, killed some years ago by an elephant lurking in the bamboo clumps opposite the Baighapani waterhole. He had been getting on in years, and in all likelihood neither his eyesight not his hearing was up to the mark. Otherwise, I told myself, he would surely have heard the rustle and crack of the bamboo as the elephant shifted its position. So, unknown and unsung, Umer gave himself up to the dust of Betla from which he had sprung.

But there were others too, like Sonu Pissoo, Baiga in Kanha and Akhilesh Chand in Bandhavgarh, in the mid 1970s and early 1980s — also daily-waged fire-watchers or trackers — who were responsible for setting up buffalo bait for tigers (permissible in national parks up to 1989) so that visitors may have a ring-side view of a tiger at a kill. While the tie-up place was usually in a clearing on a nullah bed, they had hardly any idea — other than from the alarm calls of chital or of jungle fowl — if there was any tiger nearby. There was one occasion that I distinctly recall, when we came across a tigress walking casually towards the tie-up place in Chorbahra nullah in Bandhavgarh. We were on elephant back, but, as soon as she saw us, she turned back along the track and disappeared behind a bamboo grove.

We withdrew about 50 m in the other direction to avoid getting in her way. A few minutes later, Akhilesh turned up dragging the “padda” behind him along with another game tracker, oblivious of the fact that our elephant was standing about 30 m away behind some trees and the tigress was on the other side. Blithely, he tied the “padda”, gave it some grass and walked back along the track. Not even 10 minutes had passed before the tigress reappeared from the other side, stalked the bait and killed it with a swift rush. For Sonu Pissoo and Akhilesh, it was work like any other — no matter that at times the paltry daily payments of Rs 18-20 (this was 1974-’75) were more than a month in arrears. That was what the forester or ranger sahib had asked them to do, and they were to do it.

Nirmal Doimari at Nameri was not particularly impressive as a person. He was of middle height, thin and lightly built; a forest guard in the Assam Forest Department. He had not received his pay for two months, but was quite sanguine that he would get it: these things took time to sort out. He had just about finished his morning meal of a little rice and fried vegetables when I turned up at his quarters at about 8 am, having walked more than a kilometre from the Potasali tented camp and crossed the Jia Bhorelli river in a leaky wooden boat. If anyone knew about the whereabouts of the white-winged wood duck in Nameri National Park, it was Doimari. He rinsed his mouth, put on his boots and was ready to go, it was as easy as that. Nameri can be difficult going with tall elephant-grass criss-crossed with shallow nullahs, often with big round depressions in the soft ground left by the feet of wild elephants.

How Doimari kept to the direction in the middle of that tall grass only he knows; but somehow we managed to come to a “pung”, or a spring bubbling out of the ground, that was a sort of a landmark. We had, by now, come to a narrow, winding nullah and had to move carefully as the Deo-hanh, as the Assamese call the white-winged wood duck, is a wary bird that mostly keeps to the tall grass by the side of shallow streams. Doimari crept ahead. I followed him with my camera poised. He beckoned me closer but motioned for me to bend down lower. There, from between the branches of a tree, about 20 m away was the Deo-hanh, a male with two females. Only one click — just one — then as the duck looked over the grass straight at me, another desperate click, before the ducks rose with a cackle and flew away. Doimari was happy that he had not let me down, and I was happy to have seen the WWWD.

On a subsequent visit, Doimari and I went out on elephant back to check out some small “beels” (as lakes are called in Assam) for the deo-hanh. We had gone very softly, as elephants are wont to do, despite their size. We had gone about two kilometres or so, when we heard some human voices. Of all the sounds, a human voice possibly carries the farthest in a forest. Doimari slipped down from the elephant, signalled to me to sit low and hold fast. Before I knew it, he had gestured to the mahout to make the elephant trumpet and rush forward. In a trice, there was a big commotion as a gang of four or five poachers scattered in all directions, upsetting the pot of tea they were making, leaving their sandals, gamochha, and some wire snares and couple of daos behind. We added to the chaos by shouting loudly, as if calling for more men. To Doimari, it was all in the day’s work: a simple person just doing his job for the department. He made it look so easy.

But Mohammad Istiaq was of different stuff. He was a regular employee of the forest department, as a mahout at Dhikala in Corbett National Park in mid-1980s, eligible for government pension on retirement at 58. The number of tourists at Dhikala in those days could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and who cared about a mahout in any case. He was mostly unseen, or seen as another nondescript mahout among five or six others. But, to me, he was special: he was fearless; he could manoeuvre his elephant like a motorbike through the forest (only Nair at Bandhavgarh riding his beloved Gautam could have equalled, or at a pinch, bested him) and he knew his jungle-folk. There…there, the macaque on the rohini tree on the bank of the Ramganga river giving the alarm call — Istiaq would turn around his mount without a word, and softly tread down the Sambar Road where a tiger would be crossing a pool in the river, water dripping from its belly. There were other times — in fact several times — when cutting through the tall grass and sheesham thickets on the Dhikala chaurs, we would come across a singleton tusker that took in its mind to come and pay court to Rambha, the female elephant we were riding.

Again a swift turnabout — but no scrambling — Istiaq would take Rambha into a channel of the Ramganga so that the tall grass and sheesham trees would give us cover. He would then walk the elephant gently upstream for 50 or 60 m through the water so her scent was carried away, before goading her to climb the opposite bank and get away. The wild elephant, tiger, the sambar and even the tourist was in Istiaq’s charge, and he did not fail them ever.

The same Istiaq was crippled with arthritis by the time I went back to Dhikala in 1999. He could hardly stand, let alone ride an elephant. He had no medical insurance. We spoke for a while and I left him with some money for treatment. When I returned in 2006, Istiaq was no more.

There were — and still are — so many of the “unknown and unsung” in our national parks. When you are having your morning cup of tea before taking a jeep “safari”, some of them would have left for the day’s job, often four or five kilometres away, walking along jungle roads, possibly seeing the steaming dung heaps of an elephant or the pugmarks of a tiger that has gone by a mere half hour ago. He will pause for a bit, ears alert for a crackle of branches as an elephant shifts weight from one leg to the other, or wait for the cackle of jungle fowl. If the forest holds its silence, he will walk on to the waterhole that has to be cleaned or bushes by the side of the road that have to be trimmed. If he is back when you are having your evening cup of tea, perhaps, you could treat him to a cup, too. He will tell you a little about his unsung work that makes our national parks tick. It is unlikely that you will come away disappointed.

The writer, an author, has been fascinated by Indian forests since 1968.

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