A tryst with wild places

A police officer rates roaming the forests as his greatest non-professional reward with rare glimpses of wildlife

January 29, 2023 12:07 am | Updated 12:07 am IST

For an enthusiast, forests and wild places give great pleasure and joy.

For an enthusiast, forests and wild places give great pleasure and joy. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

At the best of times, policing is stressful, but it also comes with many rewards, both professional and non-professional. The professional rewards are the satisfaction of preventing or solving a heinous crime, impartially defusing a complex law-and-order problem, and helping people in distress. The non-professional rewards include sojourns in interesting places, insights into different cultures and ready access to difficult locations. Over the years, roaming the wild has been my greatest non-professional reward as a police officer and also a great stress buster from professional trials and tribulations.

Born and having spent my early days in Kodagu, in the heart of the Western Ghats, I had forests and wildlife as part of my everyday landscape. The fascination for forests was also nurtured in no small measure by my grandfather, a retired forester, with his thrilling tales of the wild.

So when I landed in the Uttar Pradesh cadre of the IPS in 1987, I was greatly enthused by the happy visions of frequent visits to the Corbett National Park. But alas, the dream took a long time to materialise! My first posting as a callow probationer was to Varanasi. As I slowly embraced the timeless rhythm and vibes of the ancient city, I did not see too many opportunities for visits to forests. Then the annual inspection of the Inspector-General happened. Some IGs have an uncanny knack of inspecting police stations with special attractions! The police station chosen this time was Chakia, a remote outpost, which fell on the periphery of the Chandraprabha sanctuary. As a rookie, I was detailed to observe and learn the craft of inspecting police stations from the senior colleague. Well, I could not complain, since the inspection mostly comprised a ride in the park and lunch in the forest rest house. But the Chandraprabha of the 1980s was a poor habitat, with hardly any wildlife sightings and subject to almost unfettered human interference. The Asiatic lions introduced there earlier had all perished. But it was comforting to know that a patch of forest existed in close proximity to Varanasi city.

My next posting as a regular Additional Superintendent of Police was to Saharanpur, in western Uttar Pradesh. I was given a “Circle” adjoining the Rajaji National Park. In fact, one of the police stations, Mirzapur fell in the buffer zone of the park. My peregrinations in this area, especially on night patrol, almost became legion! But this last stretch of western Rajaji park was much degraded with rampant illegal felling of the Khair trees and wildlife poaching. A police crackdown did marginally improve matters, but wildlife sightings were few and far between and consisted mostly of herds of Chital, an occasional elephant and rumours of a leopard! My next two postings to Agra and Moradabad, which were devoid of forests in the true sense, sometimes made me homesick!

Tribal heartland

But Sonebhadra, in the extreme southeast of Uttar Pradesh, which happened some time in 1992, opened up fresh possibilities! Sharing boundaries with Bihar and Madhya Pradesh then, Sonebhadra district was the Adivasi heartland. The district had been carved out of Mirzapur, the fabled tiger hunting ground of British shikaris of yore. Percy Wyndham, an avowed shikari and contemporary of Jim Corbett, had apparently served as the District Collector of Mirzapur for 14 years! As the story went, he used to disappear into inaccessible forest areas of the district whenever transfer orders were issued! But Sonebhadra of the 1990s was a badly fragmented landscape with remnants of small vestiges of primeval Sal forests interspersed with degraded waste lands and spanking new industrial townships. The erstwhile tigers had all sadly disappeared, but an occasional Leopard was still present around remote villages preying upon livestock. Two years of travelling through the length and breadth of the district failed to yield any major wildlife sightings except for the occasional herds of Chinkara and blackbuck around the Churk and Kaimoor park. But on two memorable occasions, I could sight the rare Indian wolf, once on the road to Manchi and another time on the Chopan-Pipri road.

And then in 1996, the stars finally conspired together and I was posted to Nainital — Corbett country at last! As if that was not enough, on my very first visit to Dhikala, the wife and little boy in tow, we sighted a magnificent male tiger lying in ambush on the banks of the Ramganga!

In the meantime, Uttar Pradesh was divided and Uttarakhand came into existence and the Himalayan State became my new cadre and the floodgates opened! The possibilities extended from the alpine forests to the Terai landscape! Rajaji was veritably, the backyard! I cunningly befriended many park wardens and it became the key to unlock the wonderlands inside, including stays in such offbeat forest rest houses such as Kanda and Jaulasal. Forest walks with friends from the Wildlife Institute of India added a special flavour. And then, there was an unforgettable interaction with the venerable George Schaller, arguably the greatest wildlife scientist ever!

Over the years, forests and wild places have given me great pleasure and joy. In a diverse country, they have reminded me of home, which I seldom got to visit. I also learnt a simple conservation lesson that given sufficient protection and freedom from alien and invasive flora, original habitats regenerate in a remarkably short time. So I decided that something needs to be returned to nature in gratitude at the end of my career in the National Security Guard. The main NSG garrison is in Manesar in the Aravallis. It is a nice habitat with resident leopards cohabiting with human commandos! The Manesar campus is the only place in India where I have seen the hedgehog, a unique little creature. However, the landscape in Manesar is overrun by the invasive Prosopis juliflora. Now, a long-term biodiversity project is under way to rewild the sprawling campus with local Aravalli species. As I prepare to bid adieu to my profession in a year, nature seems to have conspired again to give me a farewell in an ancient landscape where the Asiatic lion once roamed free.

(The author is the Director-General of the National Security Guard)


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