From Bhilwari to Devali, Devali to Tonk, and Tonk to Sawai Madhopur, the majority of the day consisted of bouncing from one bus to another. It was a bumpy yet scenic eight hours. A jeep picked us up from the bus stop. It turned onto a brush-surrounded dirt path, leading us down a road of darkness. We stopped in front of a one-room office. The place was crawling with critters of all kinds. This was the Tiger Watch office. An extremely tall, mustachioed man introduced himself as Dharmendra Khandal. He was our point of contact for the site-visit we were doing for AID. I was pleasantly surprised to find how young he was, maybe mid-30s. In the NGO sector, seasoned leaders are usually middle-aged. Our evening ended at the Mogya Hostel, where we would spend the next 2 days.
The Mogya are a tribal people that typically reside in the buffer zones of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and nearby parks. Over many generations they've perfected a sixth sense - the ability to track, wait, and hunt. Boar, deer, jackal, hyena, and of most concern to us, tiger. Through photo identification and matching of stripe patterns, Dharmandraji discovered a startling fact in 2004: 18 tigers were missing in Ranthambore. These deaths were later proved to be the work of Mogya poachers who worked in gangs. Tens of thousands of rupees reward for the skins and bones were split amongst the gangmembers, the leader getting two shares since he fired the bullet. This is where Tiger Watch's anti-poaching efforts come in.
Some groups work on catching poachers. Others work on rehabilitating them. Tiger Watch does both. The Mogya hostel is a place for sons of poachers and ex-poachers. Here, they stay, eat, play, and go to a nearby school. Education is the key to options, the next generation's exit ticket from poaching. In the morning, Nikhil bonded with the boys through cricket. After 4 sixes, he won their respect.
The majority of our day was spent at Tiger Watch's office, where we saw a movie called Curbing the Crisis. It was about catching gang leaders, men like Devi Singh who surrendered in front of the camera. He was amongst the leaders responsible for 18 tiger lives. Two of his sons, Sunil and Jai Singh, live at the hostel.
Sunil on the far right, waving
For lunch Dharmandraji took us to his home. There, we met his wife, Divya, who currently runs the income-generation portion of rehabilitation for the Mogya. She opened a box packed with embroidered hankerchiefs, handbags, pillow covers, purses, cell phone cases, and other fabric goods made by the tribals. This was another livelihood source for the ex-hunters, along with working as nature-guides or trekkers.
At the end of the day, we sat on the hostel's dark terrace with the young boys. Dharmandraji recounted tales of Mewadi history and delved into a detailed account of how a tiger kills. The boys listened with rapt attention. Earlier, he pointed out that anti-poaching was not his primary interest. I'd rather be identifying spiders, said this PhD of botany. In his spare time, he enjoys rescuing snakes and going on wildlife expeditions. Along with species identification, I mentally added storytelling to his list of skills.
Our final day started early. We drove to the outskirts of Sawai Madhopur to meet an informer. Let's call him "G". "G" was one of the many informers who were Dharmendraji's ticket into the tight-lipped Mogya community. Who poached, which gang killed what, which traders bought skins..."G" had the inside scoop. Many ex-poachers worked as informers now, even though there was the fear of being exposed. "G" and his friend "B" took us to a remote location where they talked of the newest killing weapon - poison. Already used methods included foot traps, meat-covered bombs that exploded upon chewing, and homemade guns with lead bullets. "B" seemed to know quite a bit, so Dharmendraji handed him a hundred rupee bill on our way back. For travel expenses, he said. The informers' greatest motivation was money. Yet their homes were stacked branches amidst dense deciduous forest.
These people live in National Park land. We want to relocate them. In fact, the government is giving Rs 10 lakh per member to each family willing to move. That's a lot of money, but while certain families jump at the prospect, others remain steadfast in their resolve to keep their "home". As we exited the village a jackal ran in front of our jeep. It was fast, but limping. One of its forelegs was a stump, the result of a successful foot trap.
Our trip ended with a Safari of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Through we didn't see any tigers I cherished the rich biodiversity the place had to offer. Dozens of peacocks, baby langoors clinging to mothers' bosoms, large sawar dear and smaller spotted deer, and scores of twittering birds. The landscape was vast, and the air sweetly sticky. It was a great 3 hours.
Our ticket to Delhi was for the night of March 19. 1 am, actually. As I blankly stared at the ticket in the evening, it hit me. 1 am, March 19 was last night. We had missed our train. After quick goodbyes, we picked up our bags and headed to the train station. It was too late to purchase Sleeper class tickets for tonight's trains. So we booked in the General class instead.
Nothing beats pushing your way into a packed compartment teeming with cockroaches, crying infants, and even louder chaiwalas. We managed to sit in the area reserved for luggage, an upper berth of sorts and not as crowded. The overnight journey in a crammed metallic seat made it difficult to catch much sleep. As the train grew close to Delhi's Nizammudin station a woman began to sing. Her voice was coarse yet seasoned. I figured she was a beggar soliciting money. I tried to ignore her, but couldn't. The voice was powerful, the song incredibly sad. I couldn't understand the words, nor could I see her. Would she be crippled? Beggars usually have some pity factor going for them. I vowed not to give her money. She approached our berth and I caught a glimpse of her. Draped in a pink shawl. Not beautiful, but not plan either. A strong face. She asked for money. I handed her a few coins.