Sshhsshhhhh!” Silence, as thick as the heat of the night settled in as we followed in single file. Runner soled shoes walked along silently ahead of and behind me. But I walked with my eyes peeled to the ground for my feet clad in sandals were vulnerable to the attentions of the. Sawscaled viper. “Hemotoxic venom... If it bites your feet, the pain would be so bad you’d want to hack your foot off... But worse than that is the hideous disfigurement and you will definitely lose more than a half your toes..”, Mithun had said, “so remember to follow in my footsteps... Literally”
Ten of us picked our way along the brambles, streams and loose rock, each foot competing with nineteen others to see which would fall the lightest. I was with a group of wildlife enthusiasts who dedicated a fair share of their days to rescue wild animals that stray into human habitation. Like scalps hanging from the belt of a brave, these lads would trade tales of rescues with a hint of pride mixed with the satisfaction that only saving lives can bring. We were out hunting by the light of a full moon… hunting for a glimpse of a predator.
I had spent a long hot May afternoon looking for signs of life in the Sariska Tiger Reserve and as expected, I didn’t see too much. It was just too hot for anything to be about. Which is why common sense begs the question… why would the forest department insist on safari jeeps entering the park before four and exiting before six even in the white heat of summer? Anyway, what’s the point in charging at windmills, and so I set off on a foot safari with the wildlife rescuers I met in a canteen in the forest department’s office. Mithun Sharma, one of the lieutenants of the group joined me in my car, regaling me with his adventures with pythons, crocodiles and hyenas, as we headed off for a rivulet about 25 kilometres away that they said was famous for muggers, marsh crocodiles. Suddenly, the quiet group grew even quieter as our leader, a wildlifer and an old acquaintance, Chinmaya Macmaseey, raised his hand and strained to catch a sound. And then he pointed in the direction of a large body of still water… and then we all heard it. It sounded like a cricket’s drumming mixed with a frog’s croak.. “remember this sound… it is the sound of new life… baby crocodiles!”, whispered Mithun with a smile.
The croaks seemed to have stirred something deep within. We stood there listening for a fair while, trying to figure out how many of them there might be and then, as if on a silent command, five flashlights came out in unison. Powerful beams chased the sound and little halos lit up the lake. On cue, like new stars on the night sky, bright orange dots twinkled back at us from the surface of the lake… crocs. Excited, we all shuffled forward for a better look and tried to gauge the size of the reptiles from the gap between the eyes. “Th at one’s about nine feet at least” said one. “Sub-adult, six feet long I think”, said another. “Th at’s a big one…not an inch less than 12 feet”, said Chinmaya, pointing his flashlight at a pair of eyes gliding towards us. We moved back a few respectful feet and the eyes slowed to a stop. A slow restrained collective sigh escaped from our lips. Our hearts too slowed down with our breaths and that’s when Chinmaya said “I smell something…” He sniffed around like a hound on a hunt and Mithun followed… My nostrils were still full of the smell of slow water, algae and fish. I could see little fish fry wriggling between the beams of light. I switched off the light and tried to focus my energies on the odours floating around me. My senses dulled by smoke-filled cities seemed to be letting me down.
And then the wind changed. Like a pungent spear, the smell of death flooded my being. I turned and followed the stench. Chinmaya and Mithun were walking ahead of me. Their noses and their lights led us to a large bush where bluebottle flies were swirling like revelers at a rave. There was a big hole under the bush. Mithun and Chinmaya jumped in. The stench was overpowering my senses. But I was curious and if it wouldn’t kill Chinmaya and Mithun, it wouldn’t kill me either, I reasoned. The others stayed back but I jumped in after the duo. The wind changed and we lost the aroma for a while and then it came right back, with greater force… The light bounced off something black and caught our eye. We moved in towards the object, three streams of light trying to wrest the size and shape of death from the darkness. And then we saw it…. A large blue bull carcass! “Must be the 12 footer’s kill”, said Mithun. But then he examined the nilgai’s legs and realized it didn’t have the tell-tale bitemarks. I saw the carcass’ flanks and saw the skin lying like a flap over the ribs. All the organs and flesh had been eaten from the back. Th is looked like a big cat’s kill and I said so. The others nodded. The city slicker had earned the respect of the wild ones. Mithun and Chinmaya examined the neck and mouth. “A leopard!” they both concurred. Almost on cue, the sawing call of a leopard rent through the quiet of the night.
We clambered out of the hole and continued our walk along the banks of the stream, flashlights tucked away and just the warm glow of a full moon guiding our path. “Th is place is wild!” I exclaimed. Mithun fished out his phone and flicked the screen with his fingers till he came upon the picture folder. Close ups of large crocodiles basking in the sun; magnificent specimens clambering out of the water; large gaping jaws glinting in the sun; water birds, egrets, wooly necked storks, pied kingfishers…. Th is place was full of birdlife and crocs. “If you come here at dawn, you’ll see them all”, said Mithun. “I go and do my puja at dawn in a temple nearby and then I often come and sit here… It is beautiful”. And so much of wildlife, all right here… “Is this place protected?” I asked. Mithun smiled a wry smile and shook his head. “The authorities seem to be in denial. Th is place has more crocodiles than either the sanctuary or the much more well known Siliserh lake. But until now, no one has acknowledged or recognized the wealth in this buffer forest. We are right behind Silserh’s Lake Palace, and ideally this should be a protected zone but if you come here in the morning you will see empty beer cans, bottles of alcohol and plastic bags strewn around the place. People take their bikes and ride them right up to the banks.” But don’t the crocs attack encroachers, I wondered aloud. “Our crocs are like cows. They are as timid as our leopards are aggressive… such is the nature of Sariska”, said Chinmay. “Usually they just slink away at the slightest disturbance.”
“We have given a proposal for a reptile park in this area” added Mithun. “A venom bank and a tourist interpretation centre would help us sustain the facility. Most importantly, it will help enrich the area as we have been rescued animals in this zone. Sound biodiversity and protection from human encroachment will ensure the wildlife stays here and doesn’t wander into neighbouring villages and towns. More importantly, it will allow wildlife to breed and grow, for most species here are red lined on the endangered species list. But the authorities are worried about the fact that if they acknowledge the wealth of this are they will have to invest resources in protecting the area. They will have to be responsible and accountable. Going by past records, everyone in Sariska understandably enough shies away from extra responsibilities”.
“There’s a new management in place and we are very hopeful..”, added Chinmay. For the sake of these crusaders, for the sake of the snakes and those bitten by them, for the sake of the crocodiles and leopards and hyenas and all the bright and beautiful things they hunt and eat, I hope this ‘new management’ sees the light and looks at this little eden as an opportunity to redeem themselves instead of running away from an opportunity to wash away the past and build a new tomorrow. Sariska and the forests around it are blessed with riches that are still being unearthed. Every few years, a new species, considered extinct locally or never seen before announces itself to the world from the shadows of this forest. Who knows what other jewels lie hidden in this precious habitat. Chinmay, Mithun, Sariska’s wild ones and the beleaguered forest department… we need you all to put your shoulders together for this one and keep our natural heritage from slipping through our eager fingers. So more power and synergy to you...