Dudhwa National Park – The Largest And Thickest Forest Reserve in India

Dudhwa National Park – The Largest And Thickest Forest Reserve in India

As the morning sun shines over the 50 feet tall Sal trees, the dragonflies stretch out their beautiful wings by the gentle warmth of the golden sun. Sitting calmly on the dew-drenched leaves, the flies bask in the fresh warmth to recharge themselves for the day’s flight. Somewhere in the distance, you can hear a koyal welcoming the morning with it’s natural musical code. Very little of the sun’s rays are able to cut through the thickness of the jungle. But what reaches the ground definitely explodes into an amazing and majestic display of light and shadow on the canvas of dry leaves. An occasional rustle sends the shivers down the spine that you have never experienced before. This is the Dudhwa National Park in Terai, Uttar Pradesh and is considered as one of the precious wildlife reserves in India.

Location of Dudhwa National Park
Around 420km by road from Delhi and 260km from Lucknow, Dudhwa National Park is spread over 490sq km along with a buffer area of over 100sq km. Besides massive grassland and swamps, the Park boasts of one of the finest qualities of Sal (Shorea robusta) forests in India. Some of these trees are more than 150 years old and over 70 feet tall. But when the area was first notified as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1965, and later as a National Park in 1977, it faced intense opposition from foresters, game lovers and local inhabitants.

Converted Into National Park
Nobody wanted to lose this precious piece of land that was a life-support system for the locals. It was Billy Arjun Singh who stepped in to see Dudhwa through its fate. Committed to the point of being obsessive, this man stood firmly in favour of the jungle and convinced the erstwhile Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to notify the forest as a National Park.

This was a turning point in the history of Dudhwa National Park. Till then, the forest was a safe haven for both poachers and timber smugglers. Soon strict measures were taken to save the forest. In 1976, the park boasted of a population of 50 tigers, 41 elephants and 76 bears apart from five species of deer, more than 400 species of birds, a few crocodiles, and some other species of mammals and reptiles. Officials claim that today the tiger population in Dudhwa has touched 70. However, the local NGOs believe that the number of tigers in Dudhwa doesnt cross 20.

Main Wildlife Attractions
The Park is a stronghold of the barasingha, or the swamp deer, which can be seen in herds of more than a 100. India is the only country where this species of deer is found. According to a crude estimate, only 4,000 odd barasinghas have survived on the planet today, out of which more than 2,000 are found in Dudhwa.

Smaller than the sambar, the barasinghas have 12 antlers that can collectively measure more than 100cm in height. A full-grown stag can weigh as much as 180kg and measure 135cm at shoulder height. The coat is slightly woolly, dark brown to pale yellow, adapted perfectly to camouflage the herd in the tall elephant grasses of the region.

With the onset of winter, there is plenty of food to eat and warm sun for the deer to bask in. It is the right time for the females to conceive and for the males to form harems. This is the season when the swamps of Dudhwa echo with the frequent wallowing of rutting stags. There is hardly a serious conflict between the adult males. Mock fights entail stiff postures and shrill calls rather than the actual locking of the horns. But the most intriguing behaviour of the rutting male swamp deer is to decorate its antlers with grass probably a ritual before going in for a mass courting.

Time For The New Borns
The onset of spring brings back harmony. The females have conceived and now the herd should be prepared to welcome the newborn fawns. There is no point wearing domineering antlers now. With winter gone, its time to shed the woolly coats. During this point of time in the year, one can hardly see any fights amongst the males. Suddenly everyone in the herd is busy grazing, preparing themselves for the harsh summer ahead.

Tiger Population
Another major attraction of the Park is its tiger population. Once Dudhwa was severely affected by man-eating tigers. Although today one hardly hears of man-eating tigers in Dudhwa, the structure of the Park could have facilitated the attacks. This is probably the only Park that doesn’t have adequate buffer area to support the main Park. This leads to conflict between human beings and animals that do not respect each others territories.

In the late 70s, Dudhwa became a wildlife hotspot that was famous the world over. The reason indiscriminate killings by a tiger. On March 2, 1978, the first ever case of man-eating in the history of the National Park was registered. Soon after, three more men were killed. Suddenly, shock and fear gripped the entire area. The entire city lodged a protest with the forest officials, demanding the man-eater be killed.

The Increasing Incidence Of Man- Eating
One after another, reports of more killings began to make the headlines of newspapers, but soon, the tale of the man-eating tiger acquired a new twist. The forest officials and the public had by now started believing that Tara, a tigress born in a zoo in London, brought up in Billy Arjun Singhs farmhouse, Tiger Haven and rehabilitated in Dudhwa, was behind the killings. Billy, the man who was instrumental in getting the Park notified was conducting experiments on the big cats.

After rearing leopard and tiger cubs to adulthood, he had tried to rehabilitate them in the jungle. These experiments invited both criticism and appreciation from wildlife lovers all over the world.

The forest officials and the locals had a strong feeling that Billys experiments had failed and the tigress he introduced in the wild had not acquired the skill, agility or technique to hunt, which is very important for any tiger to survive. Tara was born and brought up in the company of men, and the forest officials believed that she was not afraid of human beings. They were convinced that since she did not know how to hunt alert and agile wild animals, she had taken to man-eating. Even today, the controversy rages on.

However, after a total 24 cases of man-eating, the killer tigress was done to death by the forest officials (Billy himself was one of the hunters) on November 11, 1979. It was once again a season of arguments and counter arguments. While one lobby tried to project the killed tigress as Tara, Billy presented evidence to deny the same. Nonetheless, whosoever she was, this man-eating tigress of Dudhwa National Park is very much alive in the memories of the elders and the staff of Dudhwa.

Tigers Are Not Born Man-Eaters
It is not so that Dudhwa National Park has only negative experiments to its credit; it has a few success stories as well. Billy and Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav, who was the Director of the Park, even conducted experiments to reform man-eating tigers. Both Billy and Yadav are passionate conservationists. Both of them are of the opinion that tigers are not born man-eaters, they are forced into man-eating only when human beings encroach upon their habitat and interfere with their lifestyle. Guided by their instincts in such a situation, tigers are forced to attack and eat man. Detailed and minute observations of the site of killings over a period of time turned this conjecture into a belief.

Reform Brought In Wildlife Rules
Eventually, the Billy-Yadav team came across a man-eater that had killed and eaten four people. This tiger, that later came to be known as the long-toed tiger, had taken to man-eating by chance. The first prey of this tiger was a grass-cutter who had intruded into its territory rather inadvertently. Outraged by such behaviour, the tiger killed the man and took to man-eating.

This incident helped further strengthen Billy and Yadavs belief. The long-toed tiger was neither weak nor old. Both Billy and Yadav decided to reform him, for they did not accept that the tiger was killing humans as a substitute for its natural prey. They decided to get the tiger back to his natural prey. For this it was necessary to transfer him to an area of low human interference and high natural prey availability.

In its new home, the long-toed tiger was offered regular baits, 32 in all. The quantity of food offered to the tiger was reduced with each passing day. And the result was that the long-toed tiger was forced to hunt to compensate for the decreased quantity of readily available food. In forty days, the long-toed tiger was fully cured and he returned to his natural prey and started hunting. What Billy and Yadav did was that they simply reformed wildlife rules. Until then it was believed that once the tiger took to man-eating, it was very difficult to reform it. The only way out was to shoot it.

Although wildlife conservationists the world over welcomed the experiment, Billy and Yadav soon realised that the same formula could not be used for every man-eater. Sometime later in August, 1978, Yadav was forced to shoot a tiger that had claimed 16 human lives in the district of Lakhimpur-kheri. Another man-eating tigress was shot by Yadav in November the same year. Yadav wanted to reform this tigress that was rearing two cubs on the one hand, and, had eaten six people, on the other. One should try and understand the dilemma that a conservationist-hunter faces in such a situation: the life and security of ones fellow human beings versus the will to conserve and save another fellow species who, by accident, turns criminal. Yadav ended up shooting the tigress Gola, the mother of two cubs.

Other Incidence Of Man – Eating
Around this time, Dudhwa witnessed many incidences of man-eating. Sometimes two or three tigers together would spread havoc. On December 6, 1978, the hunter Mahindera Singh shot the man-eating tigress of Gola-Barocha. 70km from Dudhwa National Park, another tigress was killed after she killed six people. On February 24, 1979 the jungles of Dudhwa saw the death of another man-eater.

When dead the tiger that measured almost three metres was brought to the head-office at Lakhimpur-kheri, thousands of people flock to see the animal. Another tiger was killed in April 1980 in the forest of the Bajarghat section in the Terai. The man-eating tiger of Bhira that had killed ten people was shot dead on April 12, 1982.

One after another, many man-eaters showed up at Dudhwa National Park and disappeared. The forest officials, along with their honorary warden Billy Arjun Singh tried to save and reform some of them. But unchecked intrusion by people for fodder prompted the tigers to attack and kill. Moreover, lack of simple resources like tranquillisers and adequate skills, made trapping and relocating the animals back in the heart of the jungle, impossible for the forest officials. The Project Reform Tiger suffered a serious setback due to these incidents. Billy Arjun Singh still lives in his farmhouse, Tiger Haven. The man is so dedicated to the well being of wildlife that he has kept a portion of his farm reserved for wild deer to graze on.

Today Dudhwa National Park is more or less silent, although occasionally one can hear of stray incidents of man-mauling by tigers on the peripheries. But these instances cannot be branded as cases of man-eating. Today Dudhwa is very much like any other National Park in the country. For both the wild animals and the local inhabitants.