Along the river of terns

Along the river of terns

You can't really write about the true beauty of Bhadra Tiger Reserve; all you can do is just fail trying. But it's the words that fail, not you. As a traveller though, there is an additional burden of shame. Because, out here you have to look at paradise in the face, see it for what it is, and how it was lost, and almost not regained. And all of it happened, just because of the greed and the folly of humans.

Nature lovers can never forget December 31, 2005. On that day the Supreme Court halted the mining operation of the Kudremukh Iron Ore Mining Company Limited (KIOCL), which had ravaged some of the pristine areas of the Western Ghats. The court struck at the very root of a massive government-owned, export-oriented, profit-making corporation.  

Today, as the boat cuts through the massive expanse of the Bhadra backwaters, with just the blue of the waves and the white of the heaving foam rushing beneath you, it's difficult to imagine that 10 years ago, upstream of this same river, the water was red due the tailings discharged from the Kudremukh mines, the iron ore of which was such a poor grade that 65% of it was waste. There's a mountain of debt we owe to those who fought against and stopped this; so that Bhadra wasn't lost, so that the water could live again, and could tell a new story.

Symbiotic relationships

You get on to the safari boat at six, when the sun is still in slumber. Flocks of egrets and cormorants skim over the waves, diving in and darting out of the rippling sheets of water, as the session of morning fishing begins in earnest. There is the impressive osprey, bold and mighty, a picture of grace and power, perched on the long-dead trees that stick out of the water, eyes wide and piercing, locked on to the tiniest hint of prey that only it can see.

In the lifting darkness, the boat rounds a bend on the bank of the river, and suddenly the water ahead is trembling with a streak of crimson as the sun rises from behind the forest that cloak the surrounding hills. Even though the winter is mild here, there is a nip in the air, and mist rises from the water like a ghost waking to life, lit up by the first shots of gold from the distant sun.  

However, it is only when the morning trickles on that the greatest story can be seen - and that story is of the river tern. An arrow of a bird, it is often a white bullet in the air, capped with a streak of red and black, and such a joy to see against the backdrop of olive and brown. In winter, they are mostly in singles and pairs. But, from March to June, the skies and the islands on the river will be choked with them as they dig in here for their annual breeding ritual. This beautiful bird is symbiotic with Bhadra and the life that it now teems with.

But even as are you're on the river, you cannot forget the forest that cradles it. The teak and the rosewood stand tall on the banks, their crowns tinged with the hint of scarlet that comes with winter. It is a joy to soak in the same forest as we go for a walk in the evening along the village paths that line the edge of the tiger reserve, pausing ever so often to watch Malabar pied hornbills emerge from the canopy of trees and sail out over the expanse of sky that sinks into the valley beyond.

In the dark folds of a wild cinchona tree we think we see something shift the shadows; as we stop and peer, two big eyes stare back at us - it's a brown fish owl looking back at us with unmasked curiosity. Later, on the drive through the forest, the jeep comes to a halt at the bend; there is snap of bamboo and a creaking of wood, and a giant tusker steps out, pausing in our path and sniffing the air for any scent of concern, while we watch frozen in awe, dwarfed by its close-up immensity. White-socked gaur, massive and imposing, with muscles that shine violet and ripple with every stride, are a sight to see, yet pretty common in the reserve.  

In the evening we gather for the sunset. Standing at the bank and hearing the water gently lapping at our feet, we watch the sky fade into black, even as the lights of the Lakkavalli Dam begin to come on. You can't help but remember that this is where Kenneth Anderson had shot the Lakkavalli man-eater. Tonight, as if to mock the distant faintness of the stars that dust the sky, the lights on the dam seem to burn a little proudly, perhaps unaware that the same man-eater had become so much of a pest it that was only after Anderson had shot it, could the stalled construction of this very dam resume again!

The paths of humans and those of tigers have always crossed in this land, and it is not surprising that the big cats, like so much else in the natural world, have come off very much the worse for it. Tigers, which had once roamed unfettered across great swathes of the Western Ghats, have made a comeback here, after all the years when they were battered and beaten. The machines have fallen silent, the men and the cattle are going away, leaving the forest behind to heal.

The path ahead

Bhadra is the first tiger reserve in the country to complete a successful village relocation programme. The original relocation plan was introduced in 1974 and was implemented completely by 2002 when the 26 villages in the sanctuary were successfully relocated to M C Halli, about 50 km away.

This land has suffered long and suffered hard. Any atonement of humans today is dwarfed by the pillage of the past; but sins, howsoever grave, must open a door to redemption, though immeasurably small and delayed it may be.

Today, this land is learning to forget its past, and this is the forest where humans are making way for the tiger and the river tern. And even the biggest cynic cannot deny that it is undoubtedly a story of the greatest hope and optimism.  So this is how hope still floats, on the waters of the Bhadra.  

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