I arrive at Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary in Chhattisgarh around 1 pm. But have I come to the right place? Have I come to a mela (fair)? There are vehicles and more vehicles, may be two hundred plus! There are people and more people. A peek into the restaurant puts me off. It has a long queue of people waiting to eat. All eyes are on the kitchen door – every bowl that comes out, many feel, it is for me.
I am in shock. What is happening? Why? I have been travelling for various activities in the State for last 5 days and planned one day in this wilderness. In work, more so in field, I forget day, date, holiday and all that.
I meet the Director. He is not happy with all the crowd and pressure but not stressed. What can I do if there is no accommodation or food for hoards of people? The place cannot take more than a score of vehicles and say around 200 people is now swarmed with 10 times pressure!! It turns out, it is a long weekend because of festival holidays and people from nearby towns have descended to Barnawapara for some quality time. Quality time?
I have been to Barnawapara several times. First, it was almost two decades ago in 1997. What to say of tourists even wildlifers were not aware of the Sanctuary. The Range Officer, in-charge of the Sanctuary, used to visit once in a while. During last 5-6 years, Forest Department has been focused on this wilderness with intense management inputs. Larger positive change has been due to shifting of half a dozen villages from the Sanctuary which resulted in contiguous area being available to wild animals and lesser competition from man and livestock. I myself see sea change with common sighting of cheetal and Bison. In one visit, some time back, I even see three sloth bear in different locations during one evening. I have not seen so much of sloth bear during my whole life!
There has been some confusion in the beginning but ultimately they arranged for me to stay at the forest rest house, exclusive place far from the tourist complex and disturbance.
In the late afternoon, a guide accompanies me for a visit to forest. I am taken aback by the situation. There is not an inch of forest free from tourists – All along, there is a vehicle behind and in-front of my vehicle. There is nothing more than dust. In two hours of going around, I see just one cheetal! One only, not a herd! This animal clearly appeared confused. Maybe slow-witted and is unable to decide on a hiding place.
When the Sun is down, I decide, let us wait at one place and let all the hulla-gulla be over and when it is quieter some animals may come out. We park at tri-junction to keep an eye on the roads and see if some animals emerge but nothing because there is one or the other vehicle noisily passing. I soon notice another vehicle has stopped 50 metres behind us. It waits behind us for half an hour. They probably think that we have some trick and they will share the booty we earn after all this wait. When we start, this vehicle follows us. There is nothing but disappointment.
On my return, I stop for a while at the Director’s residence. He offers me consolation, cup of tea and hope. It cheers me up. The deal is, on the morning round, a forest official will accompany me with a bunch of keys – keys for entering the wonderland i.e. the core of the Sanctuary, which is restricted entry with barriers all around.
At dot 6.00 am we leave the complex. There are vehicles and vehicles filled to brim with colourful lots. We take one of the roads to forest. We drive slow, taking a chance for some sighting. Vehicle after vehicle overtake us! It’s rat race. After about three km of this madness, we reach a barrier. The official opens the lock, let the vehicle in and lock the barrier back.
Oh! It’s different world. There is no vehicle or human beings. It is melody of bird songs, smell of the earth and soothing sight of greenness. Here and there we see cheetal herds grazing and in no rush. We see few sambars also.
We go around a wetland on the way. There are some water birds. I notice a crested serpent eagle perched on a pole. I look at the tell tale signs on the sandy banks. It is clear, lot of action happens around. There were foot prints of cheetal, nilgai, wild boar, peacock and what not. I am keen on large carnivore. And there I find it. Very clear foot prints of a leopard – a trail of them. Seeing foot print of a carnivore sends a chill down the spine.
Sun is just about out. Chill in the air is lessening. Little mist is rising from the ground. The dust track is not trampled as rare vehicle passes here – grass is growing all over it.
I ask the driver to stop. There is good mix forest on both sides of the road. Sun light is filtering through the foliage. It lightens up the rising mist in shafts creating unique aura. I am entirely mesmerised by the sight. Am I in paradise?
I notice that this is particular to the location. Combination of n number of factors – the time, angle of the Sun rays, light intensity, mist, foliage pattern, gap created by dust track…
I ask the accompanying party to remain quiet. I fill myself with the sight, inch by inch, spec by spec, leaf by leaf, beam by beam…
I feel I am in thin air. Nectar is dripping. A pleasant fragrance has filled the atmosphere. It’s all surrealistic. My whole self is not me.
I brood, ‘What is paradise? Who has seen the paradise? What is the essence of paradise?’ My heart tells me ‘I am in paradise. I can feel this. I can breathe this.’
And there before my eyes I see
Such beauty that could never be
Revealed in places fixed below
As set before me all aglow
Such wonders ever outward flow
- Valerie Dohren
My whole self is elated. I am floating in a different world. This is one of the rare moments of life. I envy my luck. I thank god for showing a bit of it very clearly.
I think, my day, my month, my year, my decade… has been made.