Today I traveled from Corbett Tiger Reserve to Rajaji National Park. It was great to finally have an opportunity to spend time with Christy Williams, who oversees wild elephants and rhinos throughout Asia for the World Wildlife Fund. A more knowledgeable and committed person you will not find.
I was fortunate to start working with Christy a decade ago, when we provided financial support for some of his elephant research. Over the past decade Christy’s work has resulted in priceless data about the movement, feeding behavior and breeding activity of the elephants that reside in both Corbett and Rajaji National Parks.
The first thing I noticed as we entered the park, aside from the absence of tourists, was a concrete wall that ran parallel to the road inside the park. There is a serious human-elephant conflict problem in this area. From the proximity of the large city that bumps up to the park’s boundary, conflict would be expected. The wall has succeeded in preventing the elephants from leaving the park as long as it stretches, but the wall ends at the riverbed. Christy explained that the elephants learned almost immediately to walk down the wall to the river bottom where the wall ends and simply exit the park at that point.
Unfortunately, the conflict that is taking place outside the park is due to the human activity inside the park. Local tribal families live inside the park. The Forest Department has tried to move the families, even offering them free land as an incentive. So far only a few families have taken the government up on the offer.
As a result, the trees and grass inside the park are being decimated. Trees are virtually stripped of branches and leaves to provide fodder for the many head of cattle owned by the tribal families. Additionally, the cattle themselves overgraze the grasses, resulting in a need for the elephants to exit the park to find food. As a result of the overgrazing, weeds have invaded, replacing the grass land with vegetation that is not suitable for elephants.
Christy is determined to protect this jewel of a national park and the animals indigenous to the area. Each challenge has a solution and Christy discussed the many solutions that are available to the Forest Department. Spending time with such a motivated, highly dedicated human brings me hope for the future of wild elephants in India.
As soon as we arrived at the guest house, tea was served and then we headed out on a trek. It was fabulous. I saw firsthand the damage to the vegetation and the department’s efforts to insure that the animals had ample access to water. Although I did not see elephants, evidence of their presence was all around, from fresh footprints by the watering holes to twisted tree branches, a sign that elephants had been tugging on them for food.
As the sunlight faded, a Sambar deer vocalized. Over a short period of time other warning calls sounded many times. These calls seemed to make a full circle around us. Easily recognized as the warning that a tiger had been detected, the Sambar deer informs the entire forest when a tiger is on the prowl.
Nighttime fell on some very content people who savored every moment of being in this wild habitat.