For my Master’s dissertation, way back in ancient times in 1992, I spent six wonderful months in the Bori WLS (now the Satpura Tiger Reserve) in Madhya Pradesh studying the Indian giant squirrel (aka the Malabar Giant squirrel).
My study involved watching and following individual squirrels to understand their foraging and range use and how they tracked resources, mainly seeds. The dawn to dusk watching also meant we had no rest and spent the whole day out in the field even in the hot summer months when temperatures were well above 40 degrees. On days when we were not following the squirrels, we would be laying endless grids in the squirrels’ home ranges as they moved, mapping and measuring every tree (manually with tapes/ropes as this was way before the days of GPS) and also monitoring the phenology of all the trees in their ranges.
Chet Ram, a Korku from the nearby Gond/Korku village was to accompany me in the forest and help me with my field work. Very cheerful in the beginning, he became increasingly horrified at the amount of work we had and the long hours in the field. He noted that other researchers who were studying birds had it easy. Their work was over by 9-10 am on most days with 500 m long bird transects. He pointed out to me that not only did we have to leave the earliest – in darkness, we also returned the last. He used to lament that he was stuck with this foolish girl who insisted they had to chase squirrels the whole day. Fortunately, the squirrels would rest for long periods in summer and so Chet Ram also got long periods of half-sleep. He would often be sleeping a little distance away, and I would have to call him as the focal squirrel decided to move on. On some days, when I was watching the focal squirrels that lived close to the village and forest camp, I would tell Chet Ram to go off home as there was nothing much to worry about.
There were no elephants in Bori to worry about, but Bori was notorious for many sloth bear attacks which had left many people disfigured or maimed. Sloth bears do not go around attacking people but they have poor eyesight and hearing and a sudden encounter leads to such accidents. Their main food is termites, many varieties of fruits, and honey. Whenever, we used to go deeper into the forest, Chet Ram would be always worried about the bears. He would tell me that we would have to climb up a tree if we came face to face with a bear. He also warned me that he would either run or climb up a tree and that I would have to fend for myself. Not being particularly agile or experienced at tree climbing, I found the thought of myself shimmying up a tree highly unlikely. I was not even sure I would find the right one in the heat of the moment. Like most city kids, I could possibly have done some gingerly, cursory climbing up on some large low branches of mango trees or suchlike trees in some city garden or park, but surely not the kind of quick on-the-uptake skilled tree climbing needed for avoiding a disgruntled sloth bear.
Chet Ram was really worried that I had no plan. His constant focus on the perils of bear encounters ensured that I ended up being in mortal fear of encountering them on foot which persists to this day. He and Hari Ram (who I must admit I had a secret crush on) would also reel off some statistics on the number of people that get maimed annually during the time of the Mahua flower collection season in Bori. Mahua (Madhuca indica) is a very important tree species in central India, its flowers are collected and fermented to make a heady liquor by tribal people. Both Hari Ram and Chet Ram would recount gory stories of various people attacked by bears in sudden encounters. Annually, around 12 people or so. They would point out one of the forest guards whose face was badly disfigured due to a sudden encounter with a bear. One of the main reasons this happened was because villagers living in the area would go collecting the Mahua flowers very early, almost in the dark before dawn. This was the time when bears would also be active visiting the same trees as they were also partial to the fallen flowers of Mahua.
So, I hit upon a plan to reassure Chet Ram and myself. I started carrying a deodorant spray into the forest and told him that if we met one, I would simply spray the thing into the bear’s eyes and I would be able to run away. He was fully sceptical and smirked at the weird ideas of a city person. I was sceptical myself, as I then started worrying that being a bit accident-prone, in the heat of the moment, I was more likely to aim it the wrong way and end up spraying my own eyes instead of the bear’s.
Fortunately, (or sadly), I never did encounter a bear in the forest while on foot. But we did see one (my first ever sighting of a sloth bear) on an exciting night drive where I also saw my first hyaena. These were the days much before restrictions on night drives in national parks. I was a lowly Master’s student but whenever the senior researchers from the WII came with their field vehicles or the Range Officer of the park, Mr. Chacko came visiting, we were fortunate enough to get to go on some night drives. I remember seeing nine jungle cats on one such night drive. We never did see a tiger in Bori on those drives, though once Chet Ram and I had an exciting time when we came across tiger pugmarks and we tracked the individual for 2 km along a perennial stream towards a hill till its tracks vanished.
As a city girl, I also encountered cicada rain for the first time – one day while walking in the forest with Chet Ram, the sound of the cicadas was deafening and I was complaining to Chet Ram that I had never seen them properly up close. It was a sunny day and I was suddenly hit by some fine spray and I was surprised as it was not raining, I asked Chet Ram what was happening and to my wonder, he said the cicadas were doing it. This was the cicada rain which I had not known about before.
All of the memories are not wonderful – soon after we reached, the Babri masjid demolition happened and I remember being heartsick with dread listening to the radio and hearing from outside visitors about the riots and mayhem all over the country. I remember one day actually sitting by the nala while following the squirrel in tears thinking about what was happening to this country.
Dr. Johnsingh and Dr. Goyal came visiting once during our time in the field in March. We had a busy few days being out in the field day going all over Bori, discussing our work. On their visit, I learnt something from Dr. Johnsingh that had nothing to do with research/ecology. Their visit coincided with Holi which is celebrated in a big way there. As I and the other researchers were busy with field work every day, Chet Ram, Hari Ram and a couple of others would cook all our meals. In those days, none of us were used to cooking much, that too in a different sort of kitchen. We had taken the fact that they cooked for us for granted. We had not really considered giving our assistants a holiday. On the day of Holi, we had all taken a break from field work and all of us had played Holi with the villagers (except Dr. Goyal who hated being smeared with colours and remained holed up in his room and refused to come out). Dr. Johnsingh participated with full enthusiasm. In the evening, when we went to the kitchen for dinner, we were surprised to see Dr. Johnsingh cooking. He told us he had given the assistants a holiday as it was their festival and they needed a break too from their usual work. I was really touched by his thoughtfulness and all of us felt a bit ashamed about not having thought of this ourselves. A few minutes later, Hari Ram and the others appeared, very sheepish and apologetic and quite a bit drunk on Mahua telling us that Dr. Johnsingh had insisted they leave and go have a drink/enjoy themselves on their holiday and that he would do the cooking. It was a lovely meal that we all had together that evening washed down with lots of Mahua, though I don’t recall what we ate now.
The handsome wild dogs, much-maligned and misunderstood, one of my favorite creatures in the Indian jungles were a dime a dozen. I had many memorable sightings during those six months, some were just glimpses on the drives, but the best one was watching a hunt where they brought down a sambar doe near the nala where I used to watch squirrels. I also witnessed a couple of hunts by a pack of ‘feral’ dogs again killing sambar. Some of these dogs were probably ‘owned’ by people from the nearby village and used on hunting trips but they were allowed to range freely.
I also had the weirdest leopard sighting in Bori – one evening, after I had returned to camp, it was dusk – that beautiful twilight hour (known as godhuli in Bengali) when the village cattle were straggling back in towards the forest camp/village. There was a fence that marked the boundary of Satpura National Park. I got a cup of tea from the kitchen and was walking slowly to the fence looking around. Suddenly, right in front of me was a leopard, sitting on its haunches, watching me. We were separated by the fence but it was a distance of 5-10 m. I kept staring at it and so did it, unblinking, unmoving. In the gathering darkness, I could not even make it out very clearly. I was new to the forest in those days and a raw young Master’s student and I got a bit unnerved. It was eerie watching the leopard watching me at such close quarters. I took a few steps back. I turned away and wanted to call out to Hari Ram and the others as I wanted them to see. Also to reassure myself that there really was a leopard. The kitchen was some distance away. I called out Hari Ram’s name once. And when I turned back, it was gone in that split second. That was my first sighting of a leopard and the one that was most memorable. I also regret getting scared and calling out and not watching that leopard for longer. But to this day, I am not sure and keep wondering was that leopard really there or was it just my imagination, and could it have just been a dog?