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THE QUIET, SERIOUS TIGER SPECIALIST WE HAD MET FOR THE first time that afternoon motioned for the Nepalese driver to stop the Jeep. Mel Sunquist was taking us along to check on the whereabouts of his tigers, the first ever to be fitted with radiotelemetry collars. It felt great to be on the prowl this hot spring night in April 1975—just like the tigers, even more so because researchers are required to be out of the park by sundown. Engaging in this illegal activity only added to our excitement. My fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I quietly stepped out of the Jeep and onto the dirt road that cuts through Royal Chitwan National Park.
We were elated to escape the crowded, dusty bazaars of Kathmandu to tag along with a tigerwallah like Mel. Soon we would all be posted as ecologists in some of the wildest and most remote places in Asia. And after two months of relentless language training— conjugating Nepali verbs and learning the local names for tiger (baagh), elephant (haathi), and sloth bear (bhalu)—it was high time to see a baagh for real. Standing silently in the receding heat of evening, we listened to the strange percussion of large-tailed nightjars and the distant alarm barks of spotted deer. I felt a million miles from home. Only a few months back, we had been faceless undergrads in the United States. Now, dressed in army surplus pants and t-shirts, we were a platoon of budding young American field biologists stationed in the heart of Tigerland.
Mel switched on the receiver, raised an antenna over his head, and began slowly rotating it in a wide arc, a ballet movement used by hundreds of field biologists before him to locate their study animals, except that Mel was homing in on the largest terrestrial carnivore on earth. We felt no small amount of fear but tried our best to appear nonchalant. Mel's Nepalese coinvestigator, Kirti Man Tamang, was in the hospital back in Kathmandu, after being pulled out of a tree and mauled by a tigress only a few weeks earlier. Believing the conventional wisdom that tigers were reluctant tree climbers, Kirti had wedged himself into the crotch of a tree, waiting for the right moment to fire a tranquilizing dart. The tigress, evidently seeing Kirti as a threat to her three young cubs, defied conventional wisdom and scaled the tree. The thought of Kirti lying helpless on the ground, his legs badly shredded and an angry tigress standing over him, made me think twice about wandering far from the Jeep.
The tiger Mel sought was barely within range, so he tried the frequency of another. "I think we have a tigress very close by." His voice was animated, or at least as animated as his Minnesota origins would allow. Within seconds of his warning, a fierce struggle between the tigress and a large deer had us all scrambling back into the Jeep. The tigress in question had been right next to us, hidden from view by a wall of Chitwan's elephant grass, lying in ambush for, as we would later learn, a sambar, or Indian forest deer. Only the tigress's snarl and the beeps seeping from Mel's headphones signaled our proximity to this secretive predator.
Back at the Smithsonian research camp, over glasses of warm Coke spiked with local rum, we chattered away about our first adventure with the king of the Terai Jungle. But the night wasn't over. We shifted to a small clearing near the banks of the Rapti River, where we had pitched our tents. Nepali language instructors, all of whom were well-educated, charming Kathmandu dwellers, as new to life in the lowland jungles as we were, were paired up as tent mates with American volunteers. My favorite teacher was Narayan Kazi Shrestha, a bright, fun-loving man who eventually bestowed upon me the gift of fluency in another language and the self-confidence that comes with it.
But on this night, my tent mate was Surya Sharma, a studious, high-caste Brahmin in his early twenties and the son of a famous Nepalese judge. As we were drifting off to sleep, the sound of loud chewing and lip smacking stirred us awake. Surya peered through the insect netting. He reached over and clutched my arm. "Rhinos!" he whispered fearfully, using the English rather than the Nepali word (gaida), not wanting to gamble our lives on my Nepali vocabulary. We had been warned earlier that rhinos routinely trample and kill several tourists each year. I peeked through the fly mesh. Surya's grip tightened. I saw an enormous greater one-horned female rhinoceros accompanied by a calf. Eventually, they wandered off, but the interlopers left a lasting impression on both of us. For me, it was the first face-to-face experience with a creature I would eventually devote years of my life to conserving. For Surya, it was the abrupt end of tenure as a Peace Corps language teacher. When our program was over, he went straight to law school.
After our training period, I headed for the Royal Karnali-Bardia Wildlife Reserve, located 180 miles to the west of Chitwan. I had been handed an introductory letter to the Bardia park warden that detailed my mission, a single sentence hastily typed by Nepal's senior ecologist, Dr. Hemanta Mishra:
You are to census the tiger population in Bardia and to conduct other wildlife inventories as appropriate. [Translation: Get out of my hair and see if you can do something useful out there.]
Today, Bardia is easily accessed by an excellent all-weather road, but in 1975 it was Nepal's version of the outback—a posting there was considered a kind of banishment. Bardia is one of the most spectacular wildlife reserves anywhere, about the size of Shenandoah National Park in the United States. It's bounded to the west by the Karnali River, the wildest river flowing out of the Himalayas, which is filled with crocodiles and Gangetic dolphins, where wild tigers and their prey populate floodplain islands covered with forests of native rosewood and acacia. Bardia had never been properly surveyed for its wildlife, and it seemed like a destination that would fulfill both my earliest childhood fantasies of the exotic and my recent undergraduate training as a wildlife biologist.
The standard joke among former volunteers is that in those days the Peace Corps parachuted you into the bush with little more than a Swiss army knife and a copy of JFK'sProfiles in Courage. But being dropped from an airplane into Bardia wasn't an option. With the monsoon fast approaching, the nearby grass airstrips were no longer serviceable. Our only alternative was a four-wheel-drive Jeep. Together with Will Weber, my Peace Corps director, and Cliff Rice, a fellow volunteer slated to become my western neighbor as the ecologist of the Royal Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, and a driver, we headed south from Kathmandu. There was no road across lowland Nepal then, so we would have to cross the border into India at Bhairawa and continue westward on the Indian side of the frontier. But we soon found our route blocked by a massive landslide, a natural disaster common in the Himalayas especially during the monsoon. Impatient westerners become unglued by landslides because delays are often measured in days rather than hours. The Nepalese cope with such inconvenience by drawing on their own brand of happy-go-lucky fatalism, simply remarking, "Ke garne?" or "What to do?" accompanied by a smile and a wave of the hand.
When we reached the landslide, travelers had been waiting for almost two days for the road to reopen, and a carnival-like atmosphere had developed. We came upon another westerner sitting forlornly in a tea stall that was catering to the temporarily detained. It was Dietrich Schaaf, a Ph.D. student from Michigan State who had been in Suklaphanta for a year studying swamp deer, a highly endangered variety of the world's thirty-seven species of deer. Encountering a few more westerners did little to cheer him up. He also seemed displeased to see Cliff, who held a master's degree and could claim a strong background in ungulate biology and behavior. In truth, Cliff was the only one among us who was academically prepared to take on his assignment. Unfortunately, what Cliff really wanted to do was study swamp deer, but Dietrich had already staked out that species as his alone—this was my first and far from last experience of territoriality among biologists.
Eventually, the last boulder was pushed down the mountainside into the Trisuli River, and we threaded our way through the rubble. We raced the onset of the monsoon across Uttar Pradesh, driving as fast as we could while swerving around imperturbable cows, horse-drawn buggies, ox carts, and countless people on bicycles. I vividly recall the image of slender young men and women of some untouchable caste, gracefully balancing tall stacks of bricks on their heads as they walked single file from a primitive outdoor kiln to a clump of mud huts. In 1975, carrying bricks in such a manner was a lifetime occupation for Gandhi's children. For the first time, I questioned whether my assignment was a frivolous venture in a region overwhelmed by crushing poverty.
Once we crossed back into Nepal below the town of Nepalganj, we met with the conservator of forests, who traced our route west to Bardia. There was only a dirt track, he said, and the rains had started already. I tuned out the rest of his warnings, pretending not to comprehend what I didn't want to hear. Several hours later, after winching ourselves out of several streams, we gave up and headed back to Nepalganj and the conservator's office. I would have to wait for a Forest Department elephant to carry me and my belongings to Bardia.
After Will and Cliff left for Suklaphanta, I walked over to a large building that turned out to be a U.S. Agency for International Development guesthouse. It was empty except for the caretaker, an ex-Gurkha soldier. I asked if I could stay there. He couldn't let me without a letter, he replied. Anything you wanted in Nepal, down to the smallest request, required an official letter, a chitti. And when you handed the chitti to a government officer, even if it boasted enough stamps of authenticity to guarantee your passage to Nirvana, he would hold it away from his face in feigned puzzlement, as if your request were preposterous or written in Cyrillic or Chinese, rather than in Devanagri, the script shared by Nepali and Hindi.
Should I obtain a chitti, the ex-Gurkha said that the cost for a room at the guesthouse would be about $50 per night, almost half my monthly stipend. Now what? I thanked him and turned to leave when he asked in an innocent voice, "Do you know geometry?" He went and fetched a hardbound primer, a relic from the British Army education program. If I would teach him all about isosceles and right triangles and other such objects, he would let me stay for free while I waited for my elephant. I silently thanked Mrs. Luella Beebe, my tenth grade geometry teacher, for sparing me a night of camping out with cobras and banded kraits in a patch of scrub jungle at the edge of town.
Two days later, my elephant arrived, an old female, accompanied by her two sullen drivers. It takes several days to travel the fifty miles to Bardia, and this was a slow elephant. We had to set off immediately. I strapped my small shipping trunks on top of the elephant's saddle and took a seat between them. No sooner had we gotten under way than the rains began again, and the elephant had trouble moving quickly through the mud that masqueraded as the seasonal dirt track between Nepalganj and Bardia. Fortunately, when we reached a forest development project camp on the second day, a Danish and Nepalese forester team kindly offered to take us in while we waited for the deluge to end.
I had come prepared for such circumstances; in my backpack was a copy of Huckleberry Finn, and I was rereading the section where Huck and Jim were floating down the Mississippi, escaping from "civilized" society and slavery. I tried to picture my elephant ride as a Mark Twain journey in a land of adventure. But unlike Huck and Jim, I had a close destination and a research program to initiate. The thought of being stuck on this side of the Babai River, looking across at the Bardia Reserve until the end of the monsoon, made me nervous. What was the alternative—return to Kathmandu and wait until the rains stopped in September? Whatever happened to me over the next two years, I told myself, I could treat each new challenge as a source of worry and defeat or as a new adventure. No matter what life in Nepal's jungles held for me, I vowed that I would always choose the latter.
After the rains stopped, I soon had a chance to test my new resolve. We saddled up our haathi and headed west. Within a few hours, we reached the banks of the Babai, and, to my dismay, the river was a deep brown torrent. Across the surging water beckoned the rosewood and acacia forests of Bardia. The drivers were determined to cross without delay. The mahout, sitting behind the elephant's head, urged her down the riverbank. She stalled at the water's edge, perhaps gauging the speed of the current or the stupidity of the humans sitting on her back. The mahout would have none of it. Whacking her with his stick across her broad forehead and muttering curses, he drove her forward. Within seconds, the elephant was up to her knees and elbows, then shoulders, and before I could tell the driver that we might want to reconsider our plan of attack, we were swept away.
For a brief moment, only the tip of the elephant's trunk and my head were above water. Elephants are surprisingly buoyant, however, and powerful swimmers, and the drivers, who held on to the saddle ropes, soon had us back on the riverbank. I immediately opened my steamer trunks to assess the damage. Fortunately, I had been advised to pack all of my clothes, books, and camera gear in plastic bags or within waterproof biscuit tins and Tupperware, and everything but the shorts I was wearing had stayed dry.
I looked up the riverbank and noticed a small open-sided thatch hut, where a group of men were playing cards and drinking tea. I asked in Nepali if they had seen what happened. "You tried to cross in the wrong place," they laughed. "Just wait a few hours. The Babai River is not like the mighty Karnali. It only drains the low mountains behind us. So when the sun shines, the river level will drop, and you will cross the Babai in this place in front of where we sit. Aram garnos." (Another national expression, which roughly means "chill out.")
Over tea, the villagers' questions unfurled in a sequence I would soon grow accustomed to: "Are you American? How old are you? Are you married? What is your salary? How much land do you farm? How many cattle and buffalo do you own?" The villagers had no problem with my bachelorhood, even at the advanced age of twenty-two. But they were dumbfounded that I didn't grow my own rice back home, and that my parents kept no water buffalo or goats in their Miami condominium.
Eight hours after our misadventure, we made it across the river without further incident and arrived at reserve headquarters, a cluster of two whitewashed brick buildings and several thatch-roofed huts. I was met by Krishna Man Shrestha, the newly appointed park warden. The drivers removed my steamer trunks and, before I could even wave goodbye, turned the elephant back toward Nepalganj. I handed the warden my official two-page letter of introduction from Dr. Mishra, thankfully kept dry in its Zip-Loc bag. The warden put on his reading glasses and began glancing back and forth from the letter to my face. He never altered his expression—a distinct frown made more severe by scars from a childhood battle with smallpox. I told him in respectful Nepali that I was assigned to be the new survey biologist for the reserve and looked forward to working with him over the next two years.
Decades of service in the government bureaucracy had honed Krishna Man's skill at establishing hierarchy. The pecking order was about to be applied, even to an extraterrestrial like me. He pointed at a tiny two-room thatched hut on stilts and declared that I could share it with an army sergeant who was temporarily stationed in Bardia. What was I going to do for food, and how would I eat? Had I brought any rations with me? I hadn't thought that far ahead. And I was quite hungry, having consumed nothing all day except the tea and biscuits offered by the Nepalese villagers who witnessed our failed attempt to cross the river. The warden told me that I could share meals with him for a few days, but then I would need to find a cook and figure things out on my own. The nearest bazaar was on the Indian border, more than ten miles away.
Excerpted from Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations by Eric Dinerstein. Copyright © 2005 Eric Dinerstein. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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