The tiger may prove to be elusive in the sprawling Dudhwa National Park, but the sheer thrill of encountering the wild in the thick jungles can be quite heady
A mosaic of grasslands, marshes, lakes and sal (shorea rob usta) forests constitute the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve.' said the brochures that I had picked up from the Uttar Pradesh Tourism office at Lucknow.
The year before we had visited Corbett National Park (then it was still part of UP) and upon hearing this, the tourist officer warned us. "do not expect the glamour of Corbert". Carved out of the vast tract of forest extending along the Terai region spread over the India-Nepal border in Uttar Pradesh. Dudhwa National Park is home to a large number of animals. including the tiger, elephant and the rhino.
The Rohilkhand Express from Lucknow deposited us at Mailani railway station sometime in the afternoon. From the station, we hired a jeep and proceeded to the national park. We had already booked our accommodation at the Dudhwa forest rest house, inside the jungles. There were a few more rest houses scattered within the forest, a couple located in very picturesque surroundings, but Dudhwa was the only place that did not require us to carry either bedding or rations. From Mailani, the road winded through lightly wooded countryside and crossed Palia town. Only 10 km from the gate of the national park. Palia is a fairly self-contained town, with a bank, post office, hospital, petrol pump and railway station. We stopped at the marketplace, had some snacks and bought a few savouries for the duration of our stay. One can also buy basic provisions here, if necessary. It was late in the evening when we reached the rest house.
Nights in a forest are always very interesting. We cannot see through the dark hut only hear the insects and the night birds. We were no naturalists and could not identify the calls, but definitely longed to hear the distinct call of a tiger. Expectations of meeting the large cat had drawn us to Dudhwa, Our fantasies of Dudhwa were built around the tales of Tara, the tigress cub hand- reared by wildlifer Billy Arjan Singh. It was this man who not only reared and released Tara into the wild, but also fought hard with bureaucratic red tape to get the region its protected status. Before the status was granted to it, the region was known as the North Kheri Forest Division. In 1965, the place was declared a sanctuary and, in 1977, it was given the status of a national park. Today, the national park also covers the former Kishanpur Sanctuary (30 km from Dudhwa). The northern border of the park merges with the India-Nepal border and the southern limit is marked by the Suheli River.
Next day, we started early. A short jeep ride took us to a point from where we launched on our jumbo ride. The big elephant ploughed through grasslands and murky waters to reach the rhino zone. Sometimes, we followed the dirt track weaving in and out of the grassy pastures, sometimes we rode right into the heavy thickets. How the mahout and the elephant sensed their way through the apparently uncharted territory was a complete mystery to us. According to wildlife experts, nearly the entire Terai belt was home to the Indian one-horned rhino but the animals were mostly wiped out with the loss of habitat. Sometime in the late l970s, the one-horned rhino from Assam was introduced here, and it seems to have adapted well to the surroundings. After a long search, we were lucky to see a rhino family out for its morning browse.
But our hunt for the tiger did not seem so lucky. In the late afternoon, we took a jeep ride into the forest. The tales of tigers roaming the fringes of the forest and surprising a lonely villager, or of tigresses taking shelter in the sugarcane fields surrounding the forest to give birth to cubs, fed our longing for seeing the animal. But the large cats appeared to be more secretive than their cousins at Corbett and our adventure was in vain. The tellt ale pugmarks of a tiger on the dusty track near a watch- tower raised our hopes, but waiting at the watchtower proved futile. With the curfew hour limiting our stay inside the forest, we were forced to turn back, but the guide assured us the animal was sure to return this way. Our tiger luck also seemed to have clouded our chances of seeing another famous denizen of Dudhwa, the Barasingha, or the Swamp Deer.
We scouted the marshes around the grasslands, but to no avail. But our disappointment was more than assuaged by the pristine beauty of the forest. Herds of spotted deer could be seen grazing in the meadows. With few people visiting Dudhwa, we had nearly the whole of the forest to ourselves, something that cannot be said of the other well-known tiger reserves of the country. Our guide also acquainted us with the birdlife in Dudhwa. Cranes, storks and fishing eagles seemed to be common here. In winter, the reservoirs in Dudhwa play host to a number of migratory birds, too. The Jhadi Tal lake in the Kishanpur sanctuary area is famous for its birds. The Banke Tal is also preferred by bird watchers. The elephants have returned to their home in Nepal across the border, we were told.
On the last day of our trip, we paid a visit to Tiger Haven, the sprawling household of Billy Arjan Singh. The famous tiger-man was away but we were shown around the place very courteously. For those looking for an added bonus, take the train journey from Dudhwa to either Gauri Phanta or Chandan Chauki. The railway lines run right through the park and offer a closer look at the wild beauty of the jungles.