Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tiger Shine On !

Project Tiger, and all other efforts to save the tiger meant as much to me as saving any other endangered species. I have always treated this as something important that needed doing, but never really appreciated why saving the tiger was something special and almost fundamental to our survival. I have heard many naturalists say, “we have inherited the world from our parents AND have borrowed it from our children”. I can understand what is behind that sentiment, but I never really related saving the tiger with this statement in a straight correlation.

However, all that changed last weekend after my trip to Jim Corbett National Park. I had gone to the park along with my Marketing team which is a team of nine wonderful and crazy folks. We had been planning a getaway for quite some time to celebrate a a very tough and successful year gone by and also to enjoy in each others company outside of the office environment. As a leader of this team, the trip for me, was an opportunity to appreciate every one's effort and also to improve team bonding. To achieve these objectives, any "touristy"place outside Delhi would have sufficed. Thankfully, Corbett was chosen as the destination after some sort of a democratic process without too much thinking about the specificity of what Corbett offered.

We started from Delhi, early Saturday morning and after an uneventful drive arrived at Corbett after about 6 hours . Our stay was arranged at at the wonderful and quaint Jim’s Jungle Retreat. The retreat is really close to the forest (on the east side) and it was really exciting to be so close – so much so that one could actually hear tiger calls from the cottages in the retreat. (these are panic calls made by animals when they make eye contact with the tiger) . The sense of the tiger being so close was exciting as well as scary at the same time. One expected the retreat to be typical with all the trappings that modern day resorts offer in India, nothing more, nothing less. But, we were completely taken aback by what we got. If there is something called Eco Tourism- then I believe that Jim’s is the gold standard for it.

As soon as we walked in we could see that the place was different. I have never seen so much greenery in a resort before. It was so densely green that we felt that we are in the Jungle itself. Over an area of 13 acres, they have only 12 cottages, almost an acre per cottage! Since all of us in the team are marketing folks we immediately started discussing that they could get in at least 50 cottages in the same space and how much higher ROI they would have and so on. The rooms were comfortable and the resort has all the creature comforts that one can need... swish rooms, AC, pool, massage, great food, sports and so on. However, what set this place apart for us was 3 special people that we met here. Jassi, Majid and Mr Imran Khan. You would expect the General Manager of a resort like this to have a degree in hospitality or experience mainly in the hospitality business – not here! Mr Imran Khan who runs the place is an ex Forest Services employee who has a PhD in tiger conservation and worked with Valmik Thapar on his research. WOW! Jassi and Majid, his second in commands, are MBA’s who have worked in regular jobs in places like Delhi, but have left the draw of the plush life because they “love the jungle”. A strange trio to be running a resort you would think at first, but read on to understand that 3-stage seduction process that we were all going to undergo.
Since there are only 12 cottages in the resort and we had 5 of them, we were able to get a lot of interaction time with the three. Majid, in an impromptu hour-long lecture on the evening of our arrival, explained minute details about the forest and what the rules governing the life in the fores are. We got a very good basic understanding of the forest, the tiger and various other interesting facts about Nature in general and Corbett in specific. His passion and love for what he does was infectious – we were bitten! Seduction Stage 1.

Early next morning, Jassi took us for a 2 hour nature walk deep into the forest and showed us several birds, various types of animals, made us hear bird sounds, sounds of different animals, mating calls, panic calls, and exposed us to forest in a manner that none of us had ever experienced. On foot, right next to the animals, without the safety of a cage or a vehicle. We also saw tiger marks at various places, bones of dead animals with Jassi hypothesising the cause of death and other such details. We came back flush with excitement of the nature walk feeling totally blessed. We could feel the intoxication! Seduction Stage 2

At break fast the same day, we had an hour-long discussion with Mr Imran Khan, which was one of the highlights of the trip. For the first time I truly understood the importance of project tiger and its implications. Mr Khan explained a simple equation to us. Tiger = Forest = Water = Life. Basically, Tiger = Life. According to him, if the wild tiger bcomes extinct, then life as we know it today will not exist. This seemed like a preposterous statement, but he looked serious enough so we listened. Carefully.

Mr Khan explained that not for nothing is the Tiger known as the King of the Jungle. He plays the main role in the preservation of the forest itself by maintaining the fine balance between all the elements that are needed for a forest to survive. If the tiger gets wiped out from a jungle, the jungle dies and takes away everything that it has to offer. Take the example of the Sariska Forest Reserve; since there are no tigers left there now, the forest has started to die. Animals on whom the Tiger would otherwise keep a check like Neel Gai and Deer and other herbivores have multiplied in such huge numbers that the balance of the forest is totally gone. The herbivores are eating the jungle away, and, the vegetation is not able to grow back that rapidly to feed all the hungry stomachs. Sadly, there is no Tiger there anymore to save his jungle, to bring back that balance in the circle of life. The Sariska Jungle is perilously close to destruction. Point made sir, Tiger = Forest!

The second and third part of the equation, i.e. forest = water and water = life is easily understood and it did not require much explaining. The individual parts of the equation are easy to understand but putting them together made the big picture Tiger = Life crystal clear to all of us and we suddenly understood that saving the tiger is far more important than just saving the tiger. It is actually a measure of the impact of all our conservation efforts. The Tiger count in our forests is like a Ecology Sensex of sorts. At the turn of the century India had approx 40,000/- tigers, around independence we had approx 5,000 and today we have about 1,500 tigers in the wild. Arguably this could also be a numeric indicator of the deterioration of our environment itself- a measure that can quantify the extent to which we have raped nature. Tiger conservation has a significance much larger than anything else that I have heard in a long long time. It is possible that all this was common knowledge and you may feel, “what’s the big deal, I already knew this”, but all of us who spent that morning with Mr Khan came out of the conversation feeling like tourists transformed to naturalists.
This was the final stage of seduction; we were filled with the magic and completely inebriated. Over and out. Mission Completed. Stage 3.

Now, I do not know if these 3 amazing gentlemen had planned these 3 stages of our seduction with nature or it happened naturally (Pardon the pun). Whatever the case, we could not care less. The intoxication was heady and we loved it.

Yes, we did an Elephant Safari deep into the forest that evening and after a 2 hour search we saw not one but 2 tigers from as close as twenty feet and had our chills and thrills. But, when the tiger sighting happened, for us it was much more than a badge of having seen the tiger. It was much more than a box that we as tourists needed to tick. It was much more than having seen the mandatory “lovers point” or “monkey point”. For us sighting the Tiger was the culmination of a 2-day seduction journey that ended in a orgasm of sorts symbolised by seeing the tiger in wild .

What about the team bonding objective ? The objective was more than achieved, not just because we were all together having fun for 3 days, but also, because we had been through this journey feeling similar emotions and similar realisations at the same time. A shared emotional roller coaster is sometimes a great glue to bond the human soul. This is what happened to us and we all came back saying in unison, “Tiger Shine on” !