Traversing through the four-lane highways from Nagpur feels quite unusual. Especially if you belong to the kuchha roads of India, or have travelled the beleaguered roads long enough to remember the coordinates of the potholes on what was once pukka. When I travelled through this exact same road as a kid, I felt the road. It was just a busy single-lane strip of tar meant for to-and-fro traffic, and we lumbered across craters that are probably the reason why slipped discs are so common in India, until we reached a ghat that bent gracefully, offering us verdant views of Central India’s ancient Satpuda Ranges. A few more miles ahead lies Pench Tiger Reserve, a lesser-known stronghold of tigers and countless other life-forms of India.
|On the way to Pench National Park|
Lovingly called Pench or Mowgli’s Land, this tiger reserve lies in the hills and valleys of the central Indian highlands, surrounded by a sea of agricultural fields and human settlements, save a narrow channel up north that carves around its own path to join the much larger Kanha Tiger Reserve like an umbilical cord. My journey to this land as a child was solely to see wild animals, and we reaped the rewards of enduring a painstaking tour through the old road only in Pench. I distinctly remember sitting on top of an elephant, probably over four-decades old, thumping on the forest floor through dense thickets to a spot where a family of tigers sat for an afternoon siesta after a wholesome meal. And I remember a vulture that took off from a bare Teak tree as our fuel-guzzling Sumo approached. And I also remember the pains the earnest Forest Guards and Nature Guides took to show us what we were here for. It was my first ever visit to a National Park and a Tiger Reserve along with my family.
|On a nature trail with the Nature Guides of Pench|
More than ten years later, I had the opportunity to spend a week in the lap of Pench, where I met, talked, and walked with a wonderful group of people keenly and deeply interested in the biodiversity and conservation of their forests. I was a part of The Corbett Foundation’s team, and during our sojourn in Pench, we interacted, shared information, and learned a legion of things from the Nature Guides of the Tiger Reserve.
|A Jungle Babbler hunting for crickets|
We were stationed at a really old rest house at Karmajhiri Gate, the same place I had visited as a kid, and we trod on one of the finest kuchha roads in the black of the night and light of the morning star, seeing Chital, signs of tigers, and owls wearily watching us move.
|A path through the Teak forests of Pench|
Having spent a year roaming Kanha’s wilderness, I was deeply curious to explore the Teak (Tectona grandis) forests of Pench – those broad-leaved, translucent, half-eaten trees emerging from a bed of the most lush green grass that I have ever seen. This forest and its inhabitants reminded me of the forests of the Sahyadri, particularly the dry-deciduous regions of escarpments, and the golden-green light that bathed the ground from noon to evening was reminiscent of spring time in the Carolinian forests of Canada.
|Light filtering through the Teak forests of Pench|
I believe I share a bond of some sort with Teak trees that is different from my bond with Sal trees. While I look at Sal trees and the forests they dominate as mighty and a little intimidating, although in a sort of a way that awakens awe and praise, Teak trees with their small stature feel homely, for I have seen them almost throughout my life, and they remind me of the little time I’ve spent in westward forests.
|A Common Rose puddling along the banks of Pench River|
This training-session was to serve as a refresher course to Nature Guides, and emerged as a great learning experience for me. We talked a lot about insects and spiders, and snakes and frogs, trees and mammals, and the forests and all its inhabitants and their roles. And we walked through the old Teak plantations of Pench, through tall grass following tiger pugmarks, and stalked butterflies on our knees on riverbeds.
|Pench River, after which the Pench National Park and Tiger Reserve is named|
Nature Guides are the torchbearers of conservation and are a vital link between people and nature. Nature has entrusted them with knowledge, as an accolade for their years of experience, both cultural as well as natural. The job of Nature Guides is to inform people about the biodiversity of a place, entertain them with all sorts of information – from a little spider to a mighty tiger, and at the same time ensure that they cause minimum disturbance while passing through forests. They bear the burden of a researcher and a manager, and they bear the brunt of economic and social requirements of their families.
|Pench is said to have the highest density of Chital deer than any Tiger Reserve|
Most of the Nature Guides from India come from local communities living around Protected Areas. And although it is a great opportunity for employment and also ensures their participation in wildlife conservation by creating public awareness, their lives are very different from what they share with tourists who have rarely ever visited forests before during their brief safari rides. And what they live with and experience near a forested area can be startlingly contrary to what they speak about.
|A mother Sloth Bear with her two cubs|
Living with animals such as the tigers, leopards, bears and the deer raiding your cattle and your crop for years evokes a feeling that is very different from that of awe and wonder. Nature Guides, who may be facing damages from wild animals, have to often suppress this feeling to evoke feelings of excitement and thrill amongst tourists to spot the tigers and deer. And that job, I think, is the most difficult, for it is in deep conflict with their emotions. I however think that this also shows a strong connection and commitment towards nature and its conservation, for if the measure of resentment towards wildlife was higher amongst these people, we wouldn’t have had such a strong and dedicated team of Nature Guides with us. And this fills me with hope.
|Two mother Northern Plains Langurs with their infants|
If you would like to visit Pench Tiger Reserve, here are two links you can go through:
Pench National Park (Madhya Pradesh): www.penchnationalpark.com
Pench Tiger Reserve facebook page: www.facebook.com/penchtrmp?ref=ts&fref=ts
If you would like to know more about the work of The Corbett Foundation, visit www.corbettfoundation.org and www.facebook.com/thecorbettfoundation
Edited by Janhavi Rajan