I check out of my hotel by 8.30 am. We are to drive to the small town of Osian, via Pali and Jodhpur. The first section of road out from Kumbhalgarh is winding, the landscape semi-arid, gentling sloping and with small hills. Half way along the road that gives descent to the valley below we pass an overturned tour car. It has been abandoned, and there is neither sign of driver nor passengers. Rising from the valley floor are many prominent rocky outcrops which are largely devoid of vegetation, just harsh bare stone. The road to Pali is wide but only the middle section is sealed. Inevitably my tail bone calls for respite, several jutting luggage handles denying me comfort. We stop for a chai at a decrepit roadside stall. The chai is so cheap I wonder how they can make it for that. Sadly, it is worth the price. It has an unpleasantness to the taste, maybe it’s the water. There is no wash room at this stop so I make my way through miserly-leaved thorn scrub, eventually finding a space between the long and menacing guard thorns of each head-high plant, and distant enough from the roadside stall so that I am no more conspicuous to view than several goats browsing close at hand; I and the goats just blurs to the vision of anyone that cares to watch, too distant to recognise should they wish to photograph the event. Preoccupied with the multitude of thorns I do not notice the narrow path several metres away. A man bicycles past, sounding a little bell so as not to frighten the goats by his otherwise silent approach. He either does not notice my squat form, or does not care.
We drive through, or more correctly push through, the streets of Pali, this a regional administrative centre located on the banks of the River Bandi and about 72 kilometres south of the city of Jodhpur. Pali is located in Marwar but in the 11th Century was ruled by the Guhilas clan of Mewar. It is also said to be the birthplace of Maharana Pratap, a claim that is in apparent conflict with the claim of the Kumbhalgarh fortress to that honour. It is an argument I will avoid entering into. Nor will I even raise the subject of such an apparent historical discrepancy, for I have worked hard at mending Indo-Australian relations and at this stage, so close to the end of my road trip, I do not want to be the agent of its possible renewed demise.
At the driver’s suggestion I stop at Jodhpur to view fabrics that I have no intention of buying. Nice as they are. In Jodhpur I also take lunch, this being in a wonderful hole-in-the-wall eatery by the side of the city centre’s main road. My choice of meal is a vegetable thali washed down with a salted lassi, my first and last one, but worth the experience though admittedly an acquired taste. The proprietor looks keenly on as I consume the meal and quench my thirst, bringing more ‘naan’ bread so that I may soak up and relish the remains of the thali’s rich and spicy sauce. I assume I have been elevated to novelty status again, for I am aware of hovering eyes and I note the otherwise total absence of Westerners amongst the patrons. Outside trucks and buses dominate the traffic. I am not in the ‘happening’ part of town.
My final destination for the day is a camel camp at Osian, a town of about 13,000 people but once a larger city. Situated about 65 kilometres north of Jodhpur my tour itinerary lists it as an oasis on the edge of the Thar Desert. I am to stay in a tent surrounded by tribal camel drivers and their herds. I expect to see loads of camel dung and frothy camel saliva, and lots of weathered old men not owning an honest tooth between them, all haggling and arguing over the mating potential of some prized bull camel. Somewhere in the distance women would be making intriguing song warblings with their throats and hordes of doe-eyed unscrubbed children will gather, wretched hands outstretched, begging lollies and loose change. There will be flies and mosquitoes, probably scorpions at night, and I’ll be roughing it on dusty and mite ridden carpets scattered about the desert sand. Through it all will be the pervading sweet fragrance of livestock. I’m girding myself against the prospects of loads of grit in my hair, and bits of animal bodies floating around in a stewing pot offered for breakfast, lunch and evening supper. My lungs will continue to battle whatever is still breeding in their depths, I expect the shower facility will consist of a bent ladle and an old well worn rusty bucket, and the ablutions block will be anywhere no one is looking. And I’ll probably have to dig and backfill the sanitary hole myself. That’s alright, I’ve survived far worse, and it’s only for one night.
That proved to be the myth. The reality was 5-star accommodation in an opulent encampment that looked more like a maharaja’s hunting theme park, complete with rendered protective battlements, swimming pool, liquor bar and spatially appointed tents, if they can be called that, each fully equipped with en suites and bedding meant for princes and their consorts. We motored in through the entrance gate, a be-turbaned Rajasthani guard sporting a resplendent handlebar moustache jumped stiffly to attention and saluted, and off we drove to the reception point, there to be confronted by a bevy of keen attendants against whom I fought for the possession of my suitcase. I was quickly advised by the owner as to appropriate and expected rates of tipping, all high, I paid a lot of money for a preordained meal of no choice, meagre proportions and unassuming taste, listened to passing locomotives every half hour on the main Jodhpur to Jaiselmer rail line, and was told I couldn’t jump the compound fence and go off exploring in the surrounding desert. I didn’t even get to find out what little burrowing mammal was responsible for the hundreds of holes that pock-marked the dunes, and as for camels, my sole interaction with these consisted of an hour long ride up and down an adjacent sand hill, the animal swaying happily from side to side, but me holding precariously onto a saddle pommel of inadequate architecture, and fearing my pelvis and lower spine would not function sufficiently well to ever get me back to a hospital in Sydney. And just to be picky it wasn’t even a camel, it was a dromedary!
Looking back, well, what can I say?
Lots really, for hung on the walls of this establishment were old photos of fine suited and respectable men shouldering an assortment of rifles and posing with the corpses of wildlife they had slaughtered, mainly big cats. I recall someone exclaiming their surprise that I should find offence by such things, historically relevant to the gloried days of Indian nobility and the British Raj as the photographs were supposed to be. I could see the person’s point. It’s just that I didn’t agree with it, and I certainly didn’t like it. And I didn’t need to be reminded of the atrocities whilst I was eating a meal with the photographs hanging close to hand. To make the counter context it was like hanging photographs up on a restaurant wall of Nazi storm troopers posing alongside the bodies of Russian partisan fighters they had just shot, except to bring it home more poignantly, the bodies are those of your family. The 1968 film ‘Planet of the Apes’ captures my argument poignantly, projecting a stark image of smiling apes, suitably attired in hunting apparel, posing proudly over the heaped bodies of dead humans they had just purged from a field; in the movie ‘Homo sapiens’ of all ages and gender being relegated to nothing more illustrious than noisome pests that raided the apes’ crops. Get my point.
But just to labour it a little further, can you imagine invading Poland, the curtain raiser to World War II, and later when dragged to account before the world court of justice, using the excuse that it was just a bit of recreational pleasure, just good clean Aryan sport, and you’d simply done nothing worse than bring home someone else’s artworks as trophies and mementos of an innocent day out with your mates shooting subhuman races.
In 1900 C.E.M. Russell, late and one time Senior Deputy Conservator of Forests in Mysore, published a book, courtesy of W. Thacker and Company of London, of particular utility to those keen to spend their free time killing animals. The book was titled ‘Bullet and Shot in the Indian Forest, Plain and Hill: with hints to beginners in Indian shooting’. In this Russell proclaimed “sport, as distinguished from butchery, needs neither apology nor excuse, as the former is moderate and a humane exercise of an inherent instinct worthy of a cultivated gentleman, the latter the revolting outcome of the undisciplined nature of the savage”. Russell believed in a code of hunting etiquette, and saw Indian hunters as being without any sense of sportsmanship or moral restraint in their hunting methods, and by their methods they participated in the extreme torture of animals and lacked any discrimination of an animal’s sex when hunting and killing. In Russell’s eyes many Indian hunters, especially tribal peoples and poachers, were nothing more than savages who broke every rule of civilized hunting behaviour practised by British hunters, who were true sportsmen. Though the British hunters relied heavily upon Indian ‘shikaris’ to track, fetch and carry, there were notions of racial difference in how Russell viewed British and Indian hunters. Equally, Russell viewed excessive shooting of ‘game’ as a lack of restraint that did not allow the sportsman to hold the title of a “gentle and tender hearted” man.
British hunting was at first based on a perverse notion of masculinity but in the 20th Century there were changing definitions of masculinity and the ruthless killing of animals came to be frowned upon. However, killing a tiger was seen as an honourable thing since it could be viewed as an act that, in killing a dangerous animal, protected villagers and women. But the hunting of particular tigers, and sometimes leopards, was not linked to any idea of sport and decency because individual animals were sometimes man-eaters, and also had caused the depredation of village livestock. The 20th Century ‘gamesman’ Jim Corbett came to only hunt man-eating tigers and was one of the first to try and explain why tigers chose to kill and eat humans, to put it into an ecological and behavioural context. A strong sense of personal ethics often restrained hunters from unnecessary killings. J.E. Carrington Turner, the Divisional Forest Officer at the hill station of Naini Tal, when being told that a tiger lurking near Mahableshwar was not a man-eater, replied “in that case I can see no reason for killing him. The animal is following the natural pattern of his life, hunting his prey in the forest, and so reducing the damage done to your crops by deer and wild pig. Such an animal must surely be regarded as a protector of your livelihood”: quoted from J.E. Carrington Turner’s, ‘Man-Eaters and Memories’, published by Robert Hale Limited, London, 1957. However, this did not stop some British and Indian nobility pursuing animals in motor cars.
Photographing the hunt, as well as the Indians who participated in the hunt, became a kind of voyeurism; photographing the victims of the hunt, pornography. And that was what I was confronted with, in those old photos stuck up there on the walls of this parody of a hunting lodge.
In India regal hunts flourished during the 20th Century, but were clearly imperial and ceremonial in nature. One royal hunt hosted by the Maharaja of Bikaner included the then Prince of Wales (for there have been a couple more since), Sir Philip Grey Egerton (there have been several so-named), and Lord Louis Mountbatten, fated to be the last British Viceroy of India and later falling prey to an Irish Republican Army assassination. The hunting episode is recounted by Bernard C. Ellison, formerly “Curator of the Bombay Natural History Society and Naturalist to the Shoot”, in his book ‘His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales’ Sport in India’. It reads like a school boy’s romp, the participants doing nothing more harmful than potting away at big game in Nepal, Bhopal, Mysore, and Gwalior, and small game shooting at Udaipur, Bikaner, Bharatpur and elsewhere. Ellison’s book is replete with grisly photographs, a small instructive selection of their captions being “the trophies of the shoots”, “the Prince’s first tiger kill”, “HRH firing at a rhinoceros”, “a fine leopard”, “specimens of Bhopal game”, “three tigers which he shot in Gwalior”, and “the Prince’s first boar, Jodhpur, Nov. 30, 1921”. It gains candor, several of my special favourites being “two fine tiger heads by Messrs. Van Ingen of Mysore, who mounted some of the trophies secured in the shoots”, “the Prince of Wales out pig-sticking”, “H.R.H. takes a hand with his knife in decapitating a rhinoceros”, and “an unborn rhineroceros calf”. These are on a par with the photographs of decapitated Chinese heads and bayoneted pregnant women that Japanese soldiers sent home as makeshift postcards after they raped and massacred the inhabitants of Nanking. Tell me I’m getting unduly emotive here.
Then I read an old archived edition of Melbourne’s ‘The Argus’ dated 3rd December 1940, in an article titled ‘Kings’ Cousin Lives Hard Life in His Majesty’s Destroyers’ in which Lord Mountbatten’s wife is described as a “golden girl” and a “keen sportswoman who enjoys even tiger-hunting”. And I’m supposed to feel sorry for her when her husband gets blown up by a zealous Irish freedom fighter! Not that I support the assassin’s actions, rather, he should have been a practising student of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent protest.
I need a chai, …..obscene descriptive expletives deleted. And in the absence of a chai I took solace in the lines from the story of ‘Nala and Damayamti’, taken from the 14th Century ‘Kumarapalapratibodha’ of the Jain leader Somaprabhasuri; “The creature who kills a living being because he is under the influence of anger, pride, deceitfulness or greed, attains the most terrible suffering in his next birth”. I could only hope, for I could see no obstacle to squeezing ‘killing for sport’ within a definition of ‘pride’ and ‘greed’.
Fortunately tigers still survive in India, Asiatic lions barely, and Asiatic cheetahs not at all. Few people realise lions ever lived in India, or that they still do. Distinct from their African cousins, Asiatic lions once roamed throughout most of the Indian subcontinent, their distribution extending through the Near and Middle East, and north into Greece and the Balkans. In the fables of the ‘Panchatantra’ and the ‘Hitopadesa’, classic Indian works of practical wisdom, the lion, though guileless, looms large and powerful. The Indian lion sits proud atop the Asoka column found at Sarnath and its image illuminates the Indian national flag, yet now the species is restricted to the Gir forest in the state of Gujarat of Western India, there clinging tenuously to the subcontinent. Lions require large territories and in the Gir Sanctuary they are over-populated, such that animals are available for translocation to other areas. Currently the Gir lion population is subject to ever increasing pressure from human populations.
To better protect India’s lion population from the threat of extinction the ‘Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project’ aims to increase the representation of the species by establishing viable prides in an additional number of secure reserves. The project will involve an expenditure of millions of dollars by the Indian central government. The Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh is the most likely candidate as the first reintroduction site, though other reserves, such as the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary have been mooted as strong candidates. The plan is to move one or two free-ranging prides from Gir. Tribal peoples occupying core areas within the sanctuary have been moved in preparation for the introduction of lions, and have been relocated to land allocated outside the sanctuary. The economic impact of relocation has been adverse.
However, the state government of Gujarat is reluctant to release lions for the project because these are seen as state property and the state wishes to retain a tourist monopoly on the species. As an alternative the Gujarat state government has proposed a new Asiatic lion park in the Bhanagar Amreli Forest, this being a reserved conservation area on the east side of the Gir National Park. With the forecast inclusion of the Jesal sanctuary this forest will be about 1,600 km2 in area, larger than the Gir sanctuary which currently has a total area of 1,412 km2 ; 258 km2 of which is core area with fully protected national park status.
In a census carried out in 2010 the population of Asiatic lions at Gir was determined as 411, an increase of 52 lions over that of 2005. So far the breeding program there has resulted in more than 180 lions bred in captivity. The Gir population is thought derived from 13 individuals and consequently may be highly inbred. But this low base figure, quoted from 1910, is controversial as it may have been purposely lowered to discourage hunting. The real figure from that time may have been closer to 100 animals. Past lion reintroduction efforts include that of the Maharaja of Gwalior in 1904 who imported African lion cubs, but efforts in forests near Sheopur failed because the lions hunted livestock and some turned to man-eating. These were eventually tracked and shot.
The fate of cheetahs in India is a different story. Hunted by British and Indian royalty, it is the only animal known in recorded history to become extinct in India due to unnatural causes: though many other species are now approaching the same fate. Until the 20th Century Asiatic cheetahs were relatively common and roamed from Arabia to Afghanistan and in India as far south as Tamil Nadu. Readily tamed, they were known as the ‘hunting leopard’ and were kept by Indian nobles to hunt antelope and related species such as deer. Tragically, the last 3 known free ranging Indian cheetahs were shot by the Maharaja of Surguja in 1947, in Madhya Pradesh. The maharaja is also credited with shooting 1,360 tigers.
Asiatic cheetahs are listed as critically endangered and now only occur in Iran, where 100 animals are estimated to survive in the wild. Unlike the ‘Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project’, which is based on the remnant, though overcrowded, population at Gir the reintroduction of Asiatic cheetahs is more problematic. For the planned reintroduction will have to be artificial using animals obtained from elsewhere. Iran is presently unwilling to provide stock and conservationists, with good reason, are concerned about reducing the wild population of Iranian cheetahs. Indian scientists have proposed cloning cheetahs using animals provided by Iran, but this has been met with refusal from the Iranian government, as Iran wants Asiatic lions in exchange – to which India is unwilling. Cheetahs also occur in Africa, with some proponents for their use in reintroduction, for example obtaining animals from Namibia, claiming there is no significant genetic difference between the Asiatic and African populations as these are said only to have diverged 5,000 years ago. This is a controversial claim.
An inherent part of any reintroduction program to India is the need to restore the species’ former grassland and scrub forest habitats. Though their natural prey of Blackbuck, Indian Gazelle and Spotted or Chital deer remain, the grasslands on which cheetahs depended have been tilled and ploughed by invading villagers, or reduced owing to use by domestic cattle. A few habitat remnants survive in wildlife sanctuaries. Three regions short-listed by the Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Trust of India, for possible cheetah reintroduction, are the Nauradehi Sanctuary and the Palpur-Kuno Sanctuary, both in Madhya Pradesh, and the Shahgarh Landscape near Jaiselmer in Rajasthan. The 5,500 km2 Nauradehi Sanctuary is estimated capable of supporting 50 cheetahs, the smaller Palpur-Kuno Sanctuary possibly 30 animals, and the 4,000 km2 Shahgarh Landscape potentially a population of 40. However, the reintroduction of cheetahs from Africa has been stayed by the Supreme Court of India in favour first of the reintroduction of Asiatic lions to additional reserves. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, has sought a reappraisal of the Supreme Court’s reason for its decision.
With the onset of night I am coaxed by the proprietor from the luxury of my tent to a performance of traditional Rajasthani music in the camp courtyard. It turns out the audience is a select few. I count no more than 6 other quests, most of who suddenly depart and are not seen again that night. Five men play music. And every now and then an accompanying female dancer in a black skirt and leggings of matching colour moves to the centre of the courtyard and rotates her body in intricate arabesque-like motions. As she does this two of the younger musicians repeatedly move from guest to guest, few that we were, ‘working’ each victim in expectation of payment additional to that already extracted.
I’d had enough.