Friday, October 18, 2013

Meeting Melghat: A volunteer's account Part 1

A stream gushed through the teak dominated forest that surrounded the camp, running on its stony bed till it formed a waterfall so loud, it could drown a person’s thoughts out. As I lay listening to this watery soundtrack - occasionally broken by the Forest guard’s snores, some over enthusiastic crickets, and a large rat hunting for a snack - I wondered about the wild inhabitants of this stunning Maharashtrian forest, lurking about in the dark, unaware of the strange human who had tried his luck at spotting some of them.

Waterfall, as seen from the watchtower at '0 point'

The stream greeted me when I first arrived at Bori Ghogara, a camp which sits on the border of Melghat Tiger Reserve. The trusty Mahindra Marshall which drove me here could not risk the crossing. So I, with my bags of vegetables, clothes and camera gear, crossed on foot with as much grace as a blindfolded tightrope walker.

Meeting of the Ghats - Hills as far as the eye can see

After introductions with the camp’s staff, I wandered back outside to get a proper look at the ruggedly hilly central Indian landscape I was in. The first thing any visitor to Melghat in the Monsoons will notice is the thick blanket of green that drapes them. The grass bordering the trails, the broad leaves of trees, the moss in the hollows of trunks, even the walls of the camp come in every imaginable shade of green. In the coming months, as summer approaches, this tropical dry deciduous forest will shed most of its green and turn golden brown, bearing very little resemblance to the scene I was witnessing.

Gunjan, out patrolling in his camouflaged outfit on a rainy day 

Over the next eight days, I assisted the Forest guard and his troops on their daily patrols in the forest, documenting what I saw, and observing the excellent tracking and identification skills on display by the mostly tribal staff. The rain, which was unrelenting, made our progress slow. Yet we walked, past rising streams and down slippery slopes, with stomachs stuffed with so much food (a heavy breakfast cum lunch to get us through the day) that the simple act of bending to examine a hoof or paw-print turned into a clumsy affair. 

Paw-prints of a mother leopard and her cub

The creatures of Melghat rarely, if ever, showed themselves. But a leopard and her cub, a lone sloth bear, wild pigs, and an occasional munjtac would all leave their fresh and unmistakable impressions in the soft, wet mud of the forest floor. During the patrols, I remember the feeling of being acutely aware that I was not alone, for even if the animals could not be seen, I knew they were in the vicinity, perfectly hidden behind a veil of green that the forest provided.

Continued in Part 2

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