Promise and Perils at Panna Tiger Reserve

The jungle was once their home, now they subsist on its outer reaches looking in. For the villagers of Panna, life exists on a knife's edge of uncertainty.

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Deers frolic within the lush greens of Panna Tiger Reserve.

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This was the tree around which we used to gather, the whole village,” said Jagdeep, pointing at a big sal tree a little distance from the road. “There was the village school. And under that other tree was our hut.” The trees were all that remained to mark Jagdeep’s village, the place he had grown up in and lived until five years ago. He sounded wistful, but not agitated. The sun was about to set, and we were on Jagdeep’s motorcycle, a few kilometres inside the buffer zone of the Panna Tiger Reserve. Although smaller and less frequented than other National Parks in Madhya Pradesh, such as Kanha and Bandhavgarh, Panna has a core area of 576.13 square kilometres and a buffer area of 1598.80 square kilometres.

Established in 1981 and declared a tiger reserve in 1994, it also holds the dubious distinction of having gone from an average of 30 tigers in the 1990s to zero tigers in 2009. Since then, the reintroduction of tigers from other reserves, alongside careful tracking and laborious breeding, has had unprecedented success. According to a report by Panna’s park director and field director in July 2021, there are now 64 tigers in the park (including cubs). As part of the forest department’s attempts at reducing human presence, eight of Panna’s 13 villages have been shifted outside of park boundaries. Jagdeep’s village was one of them.

Promise And Perils At Panna Tiger Reserve

Sometimes, sloths wander close to the villages of forest dwellers, in search of food.

With the compensation money that they received when the government took over their land, Jagdeep and his family had bought a small plot in a village just outside Panna. They built a mud-walled house with two floors and plenty of open space. He, his mother, his wife and two-year-old son shared the three rooms downstairs, while a generous-sized room and open terrace on the first floor was designed to serve as a homestay. I was their first guest in year two of the pandemic, and as my official morning jeep safari hadn’t borne the fruit of a tiger-sighting, J had volunteered to take me on his version of a night safari.

*****

As I looked at the knot of trees and scrubland to which he pointed, an unbounded area probably not quite 20 square kilometres, I wondered what it would be like to have your home of thirty years melt back into the forest. But over the next two hours, I realised something. For Jagdeep, the forest was home.

Jagdeep’s remembered village was only the first stop. The official night safari takes tourists about 10 kilometres into the buffer area in a jeep. J drove his bike off of the main road for short stretches. We drove in the dark, with me holding up a powerful torch to light up the distant undergrowth. We saw a hare. It saw us, too, and was riveted to the spot. A little later, we saw a pair of eyes glowing in the dark, and even before my torchlight could reach it, J had recognized the animal by its eyes: a wild cat.

As we rode further into the forest, I realised that J knew his way around the trees and trenches and hillocks — much like a city boy might know the shops and lanes and houses of his old neighbourhood. But there were houses, too, in the jungle; people who knew J as their old neighbour. One woman, when J knocked at her door, confirmed his guess: there were two sloth bears coming around every night, foraging for food. We exited, in pursuit of a bear. There were fields along the road, with tall thorny hedges to keep animals out. Then, forest again. We crossed an old quarry, then circled around the sarkari schoolroom—because a boy cycling past told us he’d seen the bears near the school tap the day before. Then we rode to a big flat rock, in a big clearing that was neither field nor forest. As we drew up, there was a rustling sound. Behind J, I stiffened. Then a faint beam of light —a Nokia phone torch. Two teenagers were sitting on the rock, just chilling under the night sky. J knew them, too. So they were quizzed about nearby bears and big cats, and dispatched to check if the kill they remembered seeing nearby, two days ago, currently had any visitors. It didn’t.

 

Promise And Perils At Panna Tiger Reserve

Many villagers in Panna know their way around the forest so well that they are often employed as safari guides or security guards.

 

Eventually we arrived at the home of Harihar, a wiry Adivasi man in his late 40s. There was no electric light. We walked past the tied buffaloes, and a heap of paddy stalks, into a thatched open area. As my eyes grew used to the dark, I saw at least six children in the semi-darkness, some playing, one lying on a charpai. An older girl, on Harihar’s wife’s instructions, made rotis on the embers of a dying coal fire.

Harihar’s two-and-a-half acres grew enough grain for his family, and some mustard he took to the local mill to grind into oil for cooking and light— they clearly used it sparingly, seeing as there were no lamps lit. They also sold some of it, to buy clothes and shoes. Three of the six children went to school, the very school we had passed, but it had been closed for a year because of the pandemic.

Beyond Harihar’s thatched roof were fields dense with vegetation. Beyond their thorny edges, the Core Area began.

“After this field, it is the tiger’s territory,” said J.

Toh Harihar Bhaiya, aap border par hain,” I joked

“Border, border,” both men echoed me, clicking their tongues in agreement. Neither smiled.

Life at the edge of the jungle is serious business.

*****

“But the jungle has given me everything,” J told me the next night. His father died of rabies, still in his forties. A mad dog bit him and the family didn’t have the twelve or thirteen thousand rupees the seven-shot injection would have cost then. “We were six mouths for my mother to feed alone. She did everything in the world for us,” says J. “She would pick up twigs from the forest floor, and walk to sell them in Madla. For each bundle, she got `3. She would use it to buy a kilo of atta, and walk back home with it tied in a dupatta on her head. And we children, we would be scattered in the forest — someone eating ber, someone eating mahua, someone dreaming. When we saw her approach, we would run pell-mell into the house for food, yelling, ‘Mummy aa gayi.’”

“We didn’t have enough money to light our house, not even with diyas. There was a small canister of mitti ka tel kerosene, but it was reserved for emergencies—if someone had hurt themselves, or needed to desperately find something, we’d light a lamp. Otherwise, we only had light as long as the fire lasted. Then, darkness.” Listening to J, I realised that his old life was quite like Harihar’s family: only poorer. With great effort, J managed to pass Class XII. But the only jobs he could get were as a labourer, so he broke stones and hauled weights in Punjab and Mumbai. After a couple of years of this, he returned to Panna and became a forest guard. He was still a daily wage labourer, but now his job was patrolling the jungle. It was dangerous work, alone on foot with a walkie-talkie. But he was home. “I did that for 8-9 years,” he says.

It was the forest that raised J, and gave him a living wage. He funded his older sisters’ marriages, and educated the younger one. (Soon after I left Panna, J sent me pictures of her first day at work—as part of the park’s first batch of female guides!) Now he can no longer live in the jungle, but it lives in him. His eyes light up as he talks of the trees—which berry is a soporific, which leaf a poultice for wounds. The family now lives outside the bounds of the park, and has a bathroom with running water, but Amma, as I called J’s mother, sometimes still walks into the buffer zone at dawn. She wakes, she says, with the call of the peacock. The rooster crows too late for her, it seems. He’s for ordinary villagers. “What does he sing? Kukk-roo-koon. Doesn’t it sound like ‘Utth-Re-Gaon (Wake Up, Village!)’?’” Amma laughs gaily.

*****

Panna is a starkly beautiful deciduous forest. In March, when I was there, the simul trees bloom red, while ghostly kullu trees stretch their pale dancer-ly limbs towards the sky. Large langur joint families gossiped in the branches of the Saja trees. The deer frolicked by rocky pools. The reserve is bisected by the Ken river, its stunningly clear blue waters soon to be mingled with the murkier Betwa, under a multi-crore river interlinking project recently pushed through by the Centre’s Jal Shakti Ministry, despite its “submergence of 9,000 hectares, out of which 5,803 hectares comes under Panna Tiger Reserve”.

 

Promise And Perils At Panna Tiger Reserve

The population of tigers in the park is recovering post hitting rock bottom in 2009.

 

The forest and the river were joy enough. But on my third jeep safari, the tigress appeared. She didn’t make us search. She crossed the road deliberately in front of our jeep, and walked regally up the incline on our left. Then she vanished slowly into the undergrowth, re-emerging on the far side of the jheel, now a distant moving picture. “Her cubs are on that side,” said the guide knowingly.

Back at J’s home, I told him how exhilarated I was to have finally seen a tiger, after many visits to many forests. “Whatever one might say, the feeling is indescribable. The jungle seems to stand still for the Bagh,” I said. J nodded silently. “We Rajgonds worship him, you know? I mean, I personally don’t any longer…” he trailed off. “But you’ve seen my bike?” I didn’t know what J meant. But as we rode out to Khajuraho the next morning, I saw it: the big stripey tiger face sticker on the front of his bike. The Bagh protects you —if you protect him.

 

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India March-April, 2022.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

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  • Trisha Gupta is an independent writer and culture critic based in Delhi. She writes on books, cinema, art, photography and travel. She tweets as @chhotahazri.

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