Greetings with any person here usually begin with a hearty “Ram ram kaka”. A chair or a charpai is immediately offered, followed by extremely sweet tea decoction, and it is considered rude not to accept the tea. On a day when one is not working, conversations can be endless. Gonds and Kolams inhabit the Kagaznagar forest landscape in Telangana, which connects three major protected areas namely Tadoba, Indravati and Kawal. The landscape is an interesting mosaic of low elevation hills slowly merging into farms and villages. Two rivers, Pranahita and Wardha, are fed by small streams and water channels in the forest. They are the main water source for the villagers to feed their crops. I usually hear clangs of glass bottles when I walk through these farms. Low gusts of wind keep this music on, not to entertain a passer-by like me but to keep wild animals out. To me, the sound of these glass bottles, are a constant reminder that these local communities share space with wildlife. This space is often the stage for encounters that adversely affect both wildlife and local communities. Sometimes the wild pig eats away the farmer’s crop and sometimes the farmer traps a pig in his snare.
On one cold winter morning, I was sipping that extremely sweet tea with a Gond village headman. He was telling me all the ways they have tried to outwit wild pigs to protect their crops. Although the damage was significant, he still found it funny that nothing worked. He told me that wild pigs are intelligent animals and they can adapt to just about anything. From my conversations with other farmers in the area, I understand that they hate wild pigs for the menace they cause but also respect them for their risk-taking attitude! As the conversation went on, the headman spoke about other animals too. He told me how wildlife populations have come down due to various pressures such as hunting and deforestation. He told me one final thing before I got up to leave – “We believe it is good luck if we find the pugmarks of a tiger in our farms”. I asked him why. He said, “We don’t really know, we were told by our elders that the presence of tigers in our surroundings is a good omen”. This belief is further validated when one finds pointed wooden posts near Gond settlements which represent the tiger spirit called “Waghoba”. Numerous forest deities are found in the forest as well. The place of worship always has clay toys of animals such as horses, bullocks, and large carnivores like tigers and leopards.
On another day, our team got a call from a villager reporting a tiger sighting. We rushed to the spot immediately and spoke to the person who had seen the tiger. He pointed us in the direction in which the tiger went. We searched the area thoroughly for any signs for about an hour without any luck. Considering the sighting to be a false one, just when we were about to leave, one of my field assistants shouted – “Pugmarks here!” As I walked towards him, I realised that I had walked through a patch of the forest followed by a village road to finally stand in the middle of a cotton field looking at the pugmarks of a tiger. The cotton fields at the time of harvest provide excellent cover for tigers to move from one forest patch to another.
I wonder what that Gond headman would say about this. Is his belief somewhere embedded in scientific reason? Does the presence of ‘Waghoba’ scare wild pigs away from farms? Or perhaps keep a check on their numbers by killing and eating them? I cannot be sure. My scientifically trained mind seems to reason it out this way. For all I know, the stripes are here to stay, moving, feeding, and reproducing in a human-modified area. In a cotton field.