‘Have we reached Hazaribag bus station?’ I ask a man sitting next to me on the bus.
‘Not yet. It is still some distance away,’ he tells me. ‘Where do you want to go?’
‘I am planning to visit the National Park at Hazaribag but I need to meet the forest officer first to get permission.’
‘I will tell you where to get off. There is a building called Van Bhavan where you need to alight.’
I take this opportunity to ask him a few more questions. He seems friendly and eager to help. There are many things I want to see in this region of Jharkhand and I have no idea of their exact locations. The places seem to be so small and remote that they are not even marked on my map.
‘Do you know where I can find Satpahar Rock Art?’ I ask him. He has absolutely no clue. He hasn’t heard the word before. I bring out my notes and show him the details. I least expected him to read English but he surprises me by reading out the details. His reading is slow but clear.
‘What do you do?’ I ask him.
‘I am a teacher. I used to teach Economics, Hindi, English and Sanskrit. Now I am retired.’
I should have guessed it earlier. His large broad rimmed glasses is a clear giveaway.
‘Do you still teach?’
‘Not anymore. I get a pension of Rs. 17000 a month. But I can’ t keep still at home. I keep travelling place to place to perform rituals.’
The man wears a red tilak on his forehead. He appears to be a priest as well.
‘How did you become a priest from a teacher?’
He laughs. ‘My grandfather was a priest and so was my father. This is family business for me.’
When we arrive at Hazaribag, I first check into a room and then walk to Van Bhavan. I find the forest officer busy in his room but before I can enter I am stopped by a nobody at the door. He has been sitting listlessly and definitely bored on this Saturday but suddenly springs into action upon seeing.
‘What do you want?’ he asks.
‘I am here to meet the officer. I need permission to enter the National Park.’
He goes in and comes out in a couple of minutes. I am allowed to enter without any special favours to this nobody.
The Forest Officer, A.K. Mishra, is busy. His desk is stacked with files and papers. A rolled map of the park lies on the desk. There are lots of other stationery. In one corner is a cupboard filled with book on wildlife. A computer is at the other corner along with printer and a photocopier. A poster on Sloth Bear decorates one plain wall.
The officer is busy with an attendant signing papers. He acknowledges me with a glance. I sit patiently in the office waiting for my turn. After a few minutes, he is ready to talk to me. I tell him my purpose.
‘I have heard there you organize vehicles into the park. I believe there is a tour that starts at 5 pm.’
‘Firstly, it is not a National Park – it is a Wildlife Sanctuary. Secondly, we longer organize tours. The tours stopped 5 or 6 years ago.’
This is indeed a disappointment to me. I ask him for the reason.
‘We have the problem of Naxalites in this area. Government vehicles and property are generally targetted. Our tours vehicles were destroyed by them. Since then we have not purchased any. It is easier these days to hire private vehicles on contract than buy vehicles.’
Tea arrives. It is about noon. I am offered a cup as well. I like this officer. He is not distracted by things happening around him. He gives me his full attention and enquires about my travelling in general.
“If I hire a vehicle, how much will it cost?’
‘It may be about Rs. 600 plus fuel cost.’
‘Do you have tigers as well?’
‘No. We have cheetal, bear, ambar, wolf, porcupine, nilgai and barking dog. There are no tigers here anymore.’
‘Is poaching a problem here?’ I ask him. This is turning out to be like an interview but it is conversational in reality and the officer answers all my questions.
‘What is there to poach? Everything is already gone. Wildlife is not a priority here at all.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There are 11 sanctuaries here and I am looking after 7 of them. I am not doing justice to my work. For 25 years, there has been no appointment in this department. Staff strength has come down from 79 to 15. How can we manage?
‘When I arrived there was no management here. There was no basic data or maps of the sanctuaries. Now things are smoother but much is still left to be done. We are doing our best.’
Anil Kumar Mishra has a PhD and has specialized in wildlife. His love for animals and wildlife is very much apparent. He shows me the recent copy of NTCA magazine. It is the first issue as part of the recently launched campaign on Save Our Tigers. I read with interest the recent methods used to arrive at the current estimate of 1411 tigers left in the wild.
‘There are even newer techniques. Today they are using DNA tests. In one case, they thought there was one tiger but a test on the stools proved that they were from 5 different tigers,’ explains Mishra.
His co-worker then shows some Powerpoint slides on the computer. The slideshow documents the good field work they have done at Hazaribag. They have rescued many animals and birds. Often the rescued wildlife is cared for and later released into the wild. Even at 2 am they have been busy saving cobras in villages and releasing them into the wild. In one case, a man was found selling 3 young barred button quails in the market at Rs. 100 a piece. He was caught. The birds were treated for their injuries and them released into the wild. Their work on vultures, today an endangered family of birds, continues.
There is a hill nearby called Kanhari Hill. Mishra offers me his vehicle. The driver drives me to the hill where I enjoy a few minutes of the woodland. All of the area surrounding Hazaribag is woodland and forest cover. On this hill is an old rest house that belongs to the Forest Department. Rooms cost Rs. 60 a night. I was treated to a cup of tea.
‘This building has not been distempered for 7 years now,’ complains the caretaker.
‘What about water and electricity?’ I ask.
‘A water tanker comes up here. Only one room has a light that runs on solar power. Electric poles were laid many years ago but they were destroyed or stolen.’
I assume this to be the work of Naxalites. The tribals in these parts are fond of liquor and are easily beguiled into doing things in return. In many cases I have heard people complain that this region is worse off than before the Jharkhand was created.
I head back to town. After a quick wash, I take a walk through the streets. There is nothing else to do in town. I had hoped for a visit to the sanctuary but that is not to be. Bystanders are only too keen to give directions or information.
‘Don’t leave anything out in Jharkhand. See everything,’ says one man as he sips on his tea.
Nearby are two guys selling tobacco. Thin long strips of tobacco are laid out next to them. If a customer comes to buy, they will take out these strips and clip them into fine pieces with a sharp clipper. These are then packed into small plastic wrappers and handed out. They sell them at Rs. 200 a kilo but excellent ones may cost much more.