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Spectrum » Travel

Posted at: Feb 11, 2018, 12:54 AM; last updated: Feb 11, 2018, 12:54 AM (IST)

In the wild world of Kanha

The presence of an adequate number of tigers and other animals is evidence of the self-sustaining environment at this national park

Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

So what’s the big deal about tigers?” We’ve been asked that question very often. It’s generally followed up by a justifying statement: “Shouldn’t our first priority be to feed our people and save our environment?”

Yes, indeed, those should be our prime objectives. And that is why we should save the tiger. We learnt this apparent contradiction many years ago in the beautiful forests of Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha. The jungle impacted on us as soon as we entered it. It was cooler and damper than outside: a micro-climate created by leaves that circulate moisture drawn from the soil. It felt fresher: the carbon dioxide that we breathed out was inhaled by plants and exhaled as oxygen. Before us a blue forest pond spread, starred with lotuses and hosting a pair of migratory ducks. Rainwater had been captured by the forest and a welcoming environment had been created for these foreign visitors. These feathered ambassadors testify to the health of Kanha’s environment: they don’t have to winter in Kanha.

In Kanha’s pearl glow light of early dawn, a spotted deer stag stood on the road. He did not even bother to look at our jeep. Clearly, he regarded us and our vehicle as just another non-threatening creature of the forest. Even those usually timid creatures, birds, seemed unafraid. A yellow wagtail did its little bobbing two-step, a peacock trailed the heavy extravagance of its tail before taking off in a slow, flopping, flight. A crested serpent eagle raised its crown and looked at us disdainfully and a scarlet minivet was a flame flickering across the forest. A jackal crossed the road, and then sauntered along the verge as if we didn’t exist. A wild dog ran into the forest, spotted us, then returned to see if he had missed anything. A pair of sambar, grazing at the side of the road, watched us through a screen of branches, alert but unafraid.

And then, we joined a line of forest vehicles queuing up behind a uniformed official with a clipboard in his hand and an elephant in attendance. A tiger had been located and we would be taken in to see it on elephant back. Our pulses began to race. When our turn came, we scrambled up a ladder and sat on the howdah. Slowly, we swayed into the forest, brushing aside branches and bamboo fronds. And stopped. There, below us, was a superb tiger. Time stood still as our cameras buzzed. The tiger turned and looked up at us. And then, it was over.

It’s difficult to describe the emotions that surged over us that very first time we saw this magnificent predator. In the years that followed we have seen many of the other great cats living free. Each of them has left a different impact. But tigers are unique. They have a presence, an undeniable charisma that sets them apart, a magnetic lure that made the hunters of the British Empire yearn to have their skins spread on their floors and their heads mounted on their walls. This is just an emotional resonance: a primitive, genetic, red-flag warning us to be wary of this striped phantom of the forests. Beyond this visceral reaction, however, there lie deeper, more logical, reasons.

The tiger straddles the top of a food chain. It can survive only if it has enough forest cover to range in, and an adequacy of prey species. These prey species, in turn, need extensive self-renewing grasslands to graze in. By preserving such grasslands and forests, rain run-off is slowed, so is the  erosion of soil. Water sinks into the earth recharging the aquifers: those absorbent layers of rock and soil able to hold and transmit water. Burgeoning aquifers lead to a growth of natural springs, streams and ponds, the veins and arteries of an ecosystem that reach far, far, beyond the boundaries of the forest. They spread the essential biological nutrients needed to sustain an entire web of life. The presence of an adequate stock of tigers is evidence of a self-sustaining environment as well as its protector. The fearsome reputation of tigers deters those who would destroy our life-sustaining forests. And that, really, is a very big deal.

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