Treasures of an unknown forest

The hills of Ghweri in Uttarakhand are alive with stories of wildlife spottings, deadly encounters with man-eaters and natural treasures

A view of River Kosi

Seventy years ago, as the sun began to set after a sultry afternoon in May, the legendary Jim Corbett was walking back to his camp, when he turned a bend and then stopped to look carefully at a large rock overhanging the stretch of road about 30 yards in front of him. He froze, going absolutely still. Darkness was falling. There was still a mile to go before he could reach his camp, but he had to be very careful because he was on the trail of the man-eating tiger of the village of Mohan. And, as had often happened to him in the past, something beyond what his ears could hear and eyes could see told him that he was in extreme danger. And that the danger was on the top of the rock in front of him. He waited, then took a few steps, froze again, and waited some more. And it was like this that he walked — crab-like, rifle cocked, and in absolute silence — for what seemed like hours, before the road rose up the hill to come level with the rock, only to see that the man-eater had indeed been there lying up in wait for him, and now, with its game seen through, it growled in anger and jumped off the rock into the ravine below, sending a muntjac barking away and a sambar belling loudly in alarm.

A land unknown

This scene from the story of The Man-eater of Mohan plays out in my mind’s eye as we head back to our own camp, a winter dusk gathering quietly around us. Our camp is at Tanhau, and it’s less of a camp and more of a slice of paradise that comes in the shape of a lovely homestay in Ghweri — one of many such places perched high up in the Kumaon hills, part of an unspeakably lovely land known to the wider world as the greater Corbett landscape.

A plum-headed parakeet
A plum-headed parakeet

Upon the spur of the hill ahead is the hut where Jim Corbett had stayed that first night when he had come to the village of Mohan. It’s a little more than a ruin today. Through its windows, River Kosi shimmers faintly, snaking its way through a valley of green. Skies blush pink as the sun sets. A bell tolls in a faraway temple. Shepherds’ voices float up from the hillsides below, returning home. And then a kakar (barking deer) calls sharply down in the valley. There is no man-eater around — that we know. But it could very well be a tiger or a leopard. We watch and wait. But what lingers is only the silence and the wind flapping in the branches.Sensing the presence of tigers but not actually seeing them is actually one of the joys of being in Ghweri. It comes from being able to walk and feel the jungle as you do so — possible only in a buffer forest like this that doesn’t fall within the notified area of a tiger reserve. Umar, who is a general handyman at our camp, tells us of the time when the homestay was coming up and he, along with the watchman, would be the only ones to stay here overnight. One night, they are awakened by the low moaning of a large animal and the grunting of something heavy in the bushes beyond the two-foot wall that demarcates the property. The noise is spasmodic, but they just cannot summon enough courage to look outside. Finally, the tension gets the better of them and they crack open the door and spray a torch beam, only to get the shock of their lives when it falls on a clearing by the wicket-gate, hardly 20 yards away, where there is a tiger, its fangs buried deep in the neck of a cow. They snap the door shut and latch up, but for a good hour, the moaning continues, until the silence returns — the tiger finally melting into the night with its dinner.

Tigers still come. Once a fortnight, a tree is clawed, a pug is marked on the road that runs along the edge of the boundary wall down to the school below. A special school indeed, where a tiger comes visiting in the night, long after the normal lessons are over. Stories like this take on a different immediacy in that environment, something we remember that night as we walk back to our room, climbing up the last of the steps just in time to see a small shape crouched in the darkness scuttling away at our approach — a white-naped hare! It’s how the forest becomes a different creature at nightfall, having an allure that comes only from not being able to see it whole. We think of this, lying in bed, fading into sleep, while a mountain scops owl clucks softly in the pines below.

Such is Ghweri — little-known, wondrous and fragile. Like our story of trying to photograph the white-tailed rubythroat. Each day, we wait for hours sitting at the edge of the road where a thin stream of water flows down from the hillside above. The villagers do their washing here and the moist soil is a good habitat for this shy bird. We finally photograph it on the last day. But we see signs of human progress — a new tank to store the water; a blessing, surely, for villagers high up on this hill. But for the rubythroat, it means no more run-off and drier soils — its little fountain of life now dammed and put to the service of man. In our hearts, we hope it’ll adapt, or that it finds a slope on another hill, where the water is unchained and falls freely to the valley below.

We finally leave Ghweri. With the hope that when we return, our little bird would have found its stream. And that the occasional tiger would still be there in these orphaned forests, still paying a fortnightly visit to that little school down the road.

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Treasures of an unknown forest

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