Jungle Book - Local People
PUBLISHED: 00:16 21 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:31 20 February 2013
When one Kent couple swapped their home in the Weald for a tiny bungalow in India, it was not only to start a totally different life but also to help save tigers...
I blame my father. It was his tales of life in 1920s India that led to my husband and I swapping a home in the middle of the Weald for a tiny bungalow sizzling under an Indian sun.
Howling jackals at night, mating frogs splitting the air with their bizarre calls and the roar of tigers were to become as familiar to us as dogs barking or sheep bleating.
Thanks to my father, Sevenoaks-born Hugh Brewerton, who had spent several years in Assam, I was brought up on his tales of jungle life.
His precious photo album with its worn cloth cover shows a world of a dying Raj. Shots of tiger hunts predominate. Indians clutching umbrellas as well as their masters' rifles sit atop huge elephants. Next to the picture is one of carefully draped tiger skins which would probably end up in Tunbridge Wells' villas when their owner retired to England.
Another shot shows a Sloth bear bagged as a prestigious trophy by my proud-looking father at a time when conservation was in its infancy.
It was not until nearly 20 years after my fathers death in 1979 that we first went to India on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday and enjoyed nerve-tingling sightings of tigers in the Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh reserves.
Back home we were restless, the tigers had us by the throat and Ifelt the pull of Assam.
We found one of the Brahmaputra Tea Company factories where my father had worked as a civil engineer and his thatched roof bungalow. We also wandered around the now-empty Goriajan Club, near Negheriting, where planters and other ex-pats congregated from miles around.
One could almost hear them ordering chota pegs and playing the latest 78 records sent from home.
My father used to play polo at the club on what was once described as the best polo field outside Calcutta. During one chukka, his pony bolted, hit a tree and broke my fathers nose!Before returning to England we dropped into one of our favourite safari camps, hoping to jump into a Jeep and catch a sight of our beloved tigers. Our wish was granted and Roger left with a new job camp manager with a staff of 22!
When we returned lock, stock and container truck to Pench Jungle Camp half a mile from the Pench Tiger Reserve, we had two aims: to start a new, totally different life and, in our small way, try to help save tigers whose numbers were and still are declining rapidly towards extinction.
The beginning was not hopeful. Park officials told us proudly there were50 tigers in the reserve. The figurewas nearer 10 and that was optimistic.
To mark the post-monsoon re-opening of the reserve, the forest department hosted a puja or religious ceremony. Offerings were given to the gods and after being cordially asked to take part we were urged to be the eyes and ears of the forest and report any flouting of the rules or other problems which could adversely affect the animals, in particular the reservesstar attractions: tigress Kancutti who, a few weeks before, had given birth to an amazing four cubs.
The Famous Five were to star in a BBC wildlife series Tiger: Spy in the Jungle. We played host to the crew, award-winning cameraman MichaelW Richards, and gadget guru Geoff Bell, who was responsible for cameras that masqueraded as boulders, trees and even one which was bolted to the tusk of the huge bull elephant Mohan.
Despite both of us working seven days a week we relished our new life, particularly redesigning the whole camp from the tents to the menus. But with a large all-male staff we were forbidden to do anything for ourselves. They would fear that they had not done their job properly if we did as much as carry camera equipment to the Jeeps, make a bed or, heaven forbid, cook a meal.
We revelled in either driving Jeeps or riding elephants through the beautiful park as we tracked animals, among them deer, gaur, mongoose and langur monkeys, leopards and tigers.But the idyll of living permanently in a new country began to show cracks. We were determined absorb everything Indian, but the gulf between our idea of tiger conservation differed greatly fromthe forest and wildlife departments.
Gradually we feared that those responsible for the park, and more importantly the safety of the animals, were working from a different agenda.
Park rules no more than 20 Jeeps on any one drive, no smoking, food or alcohol, no litter, no alighting from vehicles or overcrowding of vehicles were being flouted but worse, ignored by officials. They seemed only interested in increasing visitor numbers, the majority of them in private cars unsuitable for the terrain.
When two men were reported for illegally taking a short cut on motor bikes through the entire reserve, what action was taken? The local guide (each vehicle has to carry one to enforce the rules) was banned from working for a month. Given the pittance they earn, it is hardly surprising that across India people turn a blind eye to poaching. A dead tiger can fetch up to 25,000. Smuggled to China, every single part is used in Chinese medicine.
One day things came to a head when a family of about 30 complete with mountains of food, litter, bottles of whisky and cigarettes, held a party. A park official was called but instead of being shown the gates, the family was still there for the afternoon game drive several hours later.
As months passed, nothing improved. Official inertia had set in and despite support from like-minded people we were just pushing water uphill. A return to the UK was inevitable.
But before we left we had one important task. Our staff, who were like family to us, confessed they had never seen a tiger. We hitched them onto elephants and will never forget their faces when they saw Kancutti and all her cubs.We just hope and pray that the five are part of the pitiful total of 1,500 tigers in India if the government's latest figures are to be believed.