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India's Dudhwa National Park: not quite forsaken

Efforts by a few conservationists in the park along India's 1,700km border with Nepal have kept the country's wilderness alive.

A really wild experience usually involves a wild journey there. Along India's 1,700km border with Nepal, vast swathes of forest at the foothills of the Himalayas shelter some of the last substantial areas of biodiversity in the continent. The Terai grasslands run through here and Nepal all the way to Bhutan. Yet even in these remote corners of the world, the extensive Indian railway network sends an ancient metre gauge train, barely occupied, curling around the rising hills to just within range of my destination. Dudhwa National Park, a forgotten and not quite forsaken treasure trove of nature sits on this border, a front line in the fight on wildlife poaching and trafficking.

Lt Kunwar "Billy" Arjan Singh, one of India's most respected and controversial conservationists, calls Dudhwa home and was responsible for its creation which saved the last population of western swamp deer in India. I had been trying to get in touch with him ever since I had read his biography. But his remote location and his deteriorating health made this nearly impossible. I decided to chance a visit to his jungle farmhouse during a two-month train journey I was making across India to see wildlife and wildlife experts.

While riding a train may not constitute most people's ideas of something wild, I somehow managed to be ensconced with a greasy, jewel-fingered politician, his subservient yes-man and an elderly policeman toting an automatic rifle, while the rest of the train ran practically empty. Politicians on the fringes, in remote villages, have a god-cult status among their followers, and this man was no exception. When I mentioned my plan to visit the park, he scoffed. What were the animals good for? Had I ever been on a helicopter? He had, and the memory of the event seemed to swell his sense of his own importance. Join the party my son, he said. How much money will these animals bring you?

Not much, I supposed, but I was content with that. This seemed to perplex him, but I was not in the mood to listen or debate. Several hours later, I was finally on a bus into the park itself. The usual suspects, rhesus and stump-tailed macaques, patrolled the gate on the edge of the motorway that let traffic through the park. They were extremely interested in the sugarcane that had fallen from lorries onto the motorway. I assumed that if they could eat it, I could too. I picked a large stick of sugarcane which immediately attracted the attention of the nearest macaque. Macaques are pretty stocky monkeys and any adult definitely poses a serious threat. But I was fresh from a month of work with primates and apes in Africa and felt pretty confident about my chances. A large stick of sugarcane is exactly that - a large stick. I confronted the monkey that was concerned about my acquisition and waved the stick around. He took off, running, along with a few of his friends, all leaving behind their sugarcane. Sugarcane never tasted so rewarding.

Settled into the forest lodge, I decided to try my luck finding Billy's house. The biography mentioned that the local park officials and Billy were not on good terms so instead of asking them, I stumbled upon the location while searching maps online and figured a rough idea of how to get there from the lodge. I casually walked to the gate and informed the guard that I was going to take a walk down the road to look at birds. It aroused about as much interest as if I had told him I was walking down the road to relieve myself.

Several troops of monkeys and a canal later, I had arrived at what I was fairly sure was the turn leading to the farmhouse. To be certain, I walked further until I came within sight of another bridge that I expected to be there. As I walked down the narrow dirt road, I became acutely conscious of how silent it had become. I had been swallowed up by sugarcane towering over my head on all sides and nothing but the dirt lane to follow. A few minutes later I stopped dead in my tracks. My eyes had been focused on the ground ahead of me reading the signs of life in the dirt. Here was a clear one: a pugmark, a tiger pugmark, just one, printed in the dirt road. I had assumed Billy's farmhouse was named "Tiger Haven" as a cute moniker for his house. This was the place where Billy raised and released a tiger, as well as a couple of leopards and a fishing cat. Apparently it was just as much a haven for other tigers. The track was old, perhaps over a week, depending on how much of the road was used. I picked up a rock and feeling silly about how much use it would be should I come face to face with a wild tiger, I pocketed it.

A dozen heart-pounding minutes later I came upon a mustard field and a farmer in the distance tending to some crops. I waved him over and started walking across the field to meet him. As it turned out, the fields all belonged to Billy and apparently were for the wildlife. More food for prey results in more food for predators. I casually slipped a comment about the pugmark earlier up on the road. The farmer's eyes shone with excitement. That's nothing, he said, there are at least 20 fresh marks from this morning, just five minutes ahead. With what I hoped was a smile, I prepared to walk the additional three kilometres the farmer told me I had left. Having worked with tigers in captivity and borne the brunt of quite a few claws and teeth, I am well aware of the damage one can inflict in a short period of time. Peacock and wild boar burst out of the fields to periodically test my increasingly frayed nerves.

Soon enough the farmhouse came into view and I anxiously walked over to meet whoever was stirring. By now it was just after noon and I worried people may have fallen into the traditional Indian afternoon siesta. I needn't have worried, Col John Wakefield, affectionately known as Papa, was up and around. Papa directed me to the screened veranda where Billy sat, gazing out at his fields. Incidentally, Papa is a resident at one of the most famous wildlife parks in my own state of Karnataka and a legend in those circles.

Perhaps the legend of Billy had built him up in my eyes. Now, though he seemed physically humbled by age, in his early 90s, his spirit was still defiant yet cynical. He urged me to leave India for Africa, where I had been most recently. "Wildlife in India has no hope," he said. I had heard this all before, but I still refuse to believe it. A couple of professional wildlife filmmakers, a rare breed of people in Asia, were also visiting from my hometown of Bangalore.

The farmhouse rests on the bank of a small but fast river, separating the jungle from civilisation. It was strange to see sights first-hand that I have only seen described in books. To really see the jungle I would have to use that most gentle of giants, the elephant, to blend in. Elephants in captivity never seem like they would blend in well anywhere. But put a herd of several dozen adults together in a patch of jungle and they will disappear like a coin down a well. Their soft, padded feet make little or no noise compared to the clunking of man-made boots over soil and mud. I was accompanied by a guide, whom it was insisted at the lodge that I hire and a mahout, who was in charge of steering.

Our mahout's beautiful elephant was a little over 20 and was confidently striding through the trees before long. Along the way, the jungle was silent, the forest empty. There were no alarm calls from frightened deer or even the barking of monkeys in the trees that have spotted danger. The towering trees let only small streams of light under the canopy and the hushed atmosphere gave the impression of a cathedral. As we came upon grassland, a distinct shape sat on the road ahead of us, watching. His tail flicked over as we stared in wonder.

The mahout gave a quiet order and the elephant ran forward. The tiger stood up calmly and vanished into the grass. When we came up upon where he had been a few seconds later, all that remained were enormously large tracks of a healthy tiger. As the shock of the sight settled in, the elephant rounded a corner to come directly upon an Asiatic one-horned rhinoceros and her young calf. Their armour plating glistened in the evening sun with the slick mud that cooled their large bodies. They stayed and watched us for half an hour as we watched while they grazed contentedly along with our elephant.

My guide seemed to have been moved by our luck on this day, yelling the news of our sighting to everyone we passed on the journey back to the lodge. I hope there may come a day when that sort of excitement is weary from repetition and not as enthusiastic as you could expect from someone who has the chance to see wild things every day. For more information on Dudhwa, visit www.up-tourism.com

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