Edited by: Swati Subhedar
When we were crossing Panna, a quick trip to the Panna Tiger Reserve was on our wish list. Visiting Panna diamond mines and digging out stories was always on the agenda, but we couldn't stop ourselves from visiting the reserve in a hope of a chance encounter with the beast – a first for both of us.
We made elaborate plans the previous night. Since we were living in Panna and it would have taken us 1.5 hours on our bikes to reach the tiger reserve, we decided to leave at 5 am.
It was an ambitious target to achieve anyway and in spite of the two loudly buzzing alarm clocks, we woke up at 7. We left in a rush. We travelled for 10 kms and it started raining so we had to stop. By the time we reached the reserve, it was 10. Needless to say, all the morning safaris had left and the next one was at 3:30 in the afternoon.
In a bid to make up for the lost opportunity, we decided to visit some of the villages close to the reserve and meet some villagers. But before that, we stopped at a canteen for a quick breakfast of jalebi-poha.
There are many villages close to the reserve and women living in these villages face different kind of issues. The one issue that was common across all villages was problems related to menstruation.
Since these villages are close to the jungle, there is a constant threat of wild animals. Their pets and cattle are under constant threat. The situation is so grave that they have to take extra precaution to keep their kids safe.
We rushed back to the reserve because we didn't want to miss the last safari. I spotted the safari jeep while parking my bike and the hopes to bump into a tiger went a few notches up.
We met the most adorable animals as soon as we entered the reserve. A herd of 5-6 elephants welcomed us, but the one that managed to grab our attention was little Bapu – a calf – the most cheerful and mischievous of the lot. He was fooling around with other big mammals and was splashing water from a small pool. It was so endearing that I kept looking at him for 10 minutes. His mahaut (caretaker), Bal Kumar, told us that they named him Bapu because he was born on October 2.
It was even more endearing to see him drink his mother's milk. His mother – Anarkali – has her breakfast only after Bapu finished his. "This is what happens every day. Anarkali does not eat anything till Bapu finishes his breakfast and drinks his milk," said Kumar, the caretaker. While we were talking to him, Bapu ran to another elephant and started playing with her.
"She is Vatsala -- Bapu's second mother. She is the oldest elephant in the reserve. She came here in 1993 when we were kids. She is 100 now. Because she is so old, she can't see properly. She has to take help of other smaller elephants while walking. Whenever Anarkali is not around, Vatsala looks after Bapu, which is why we call her Bapu's second mother. She is the pride of our tiger reserve. These elephants are like my family members. I don't miss my family when I am around them," he said.
We captured these beautiful images in our camera and left for our safari. We spotted many deer and cheetal. We were moving ahead in a hope that we would get to see a tiger. Just then another safari crossed us. There were foreigners in the jeep and a female was driving the jeep, which was quite impressive. She advised us to go towards the Cane River. "Go there. A tiger was spotted with its cubs just a while back," she said and zoomed past.
We started driving in that direction. Suddenly a leopard crossed us. The driver halted the jeep so it got scared and hid behind a bush from where it was looking at us and then it disappeared. All this happened so fast that our minds went numb and we forgot to take its picture.
Soon, it was 5 and it was time for us to leave. Still no luck with the tiger. Dejected, we decided to stop by a waterfall on our way back. The sun was about to set and the view was mesmerising. We were busy clicking pictures, just then the guide screamed, "There! Tiger!". We finally saw a tiger drinking water with its cubs. Mission accomplished!
We had to meet a few women after exiting the safari who were to demonstrate us ways to conserve wildlife. By the time our safari ended, 8-10 women were waiting for us. "Our endeavour is to prevent rampant exploitation of forests. People come and cut tress. They smoke in the forests which leads to smokes and fire. Through various games we try to make people understand that safety of wild animals is our responsibility," said Bhavna Devi.
Mumbai-based organisation, 'Lost Wilderness Foundation', works across Madhya Pradesh and trains villagers to spread awareness about wildlife conservation.
"People here smoke bidis and they are careless about it. I stop my husband from smoking bidi when he is in forest area. I lost my two goats in forest fire. Since then, I have asked my husband not to smoke," said Saguni Devi.
These women are illiterate and yet they are so aware. It made me realise that you don't have to have fancy degrees if you want to protect your environment. You just have to be aware and sensitive.