Country Matters: Virgin jungle falls prey to desert

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FOR CULTURE shock, read vulture shock: a sudden move from dark, dank Gloucestershire to the brilliant blaze of the North Indian winter throws quite a strain on mind and body alike.

Six hours by train and another three by road out of Delhi, caked in dust and shaken all shapes, we at last bounced along a sandy track to our destination, close to the border with Nepal. Here, on the fringe of the jungle, the big cat specialist Billy Arjan Singh went to ground nearly 40 years ago, and for all that time he has fought a lone battle to protect the leopards and tigers that survive in the forest.

Dark had fallen by the time we arrived, and we had scarcely settled down to a cup of tea when the warning cry went up: 'Hathiya]' Elephants had invaded the sugar cane. Within seconds a small army of retainers set forth to hustle the marauders out.

Hastily re-boarding the Jeep, we drove out to a strategic point between the field of cane and the river that borders the forest. As we sat in the dark, Billy explained in whispers that a herd of 30 wild elephants had recently come over from Nepal and taken up residence in the Dudhwa National Park, which borders his land.

Above our heads Orion gleamed diamond-bright among an ocean of brilliant stars. Behind us a full moon was rising over the jungle. From deep in the forest a sambar deer gave an abrupt alarm call, like a single blast on an old-fashioned pneumatic car-horn, which signified that it had seen a tiger.

Out on the flat farmland, silence reigned. Then, close in front of us, heavy thuds and scrunchings started up in the 10ft-tall cane. Scarcely had someone hissed, 'They're there]', when an eruption of noise burst out in the distance. Some of the beaters began to howl like wolves; others set up a jackal chorus and broke into raucous yells of Hoo], Wha] and Hai] Flaming torches sped about in the night. A thunderflash split the darkness, its boom echoing away into the trees.

Still nothing moved close at hand. Then, at last, a heavyweight rustling grew into a series of crashes as an avalanche of elephant tore its way out of the cane. There in the beam of our spotlight were two great grey shapes, lumbering shiftily away across the open field. The larger, a fine tusker, sported a mouthful of cane-stalks sprouting sideways from his cheeks like giant whiskers. Early next morning, jogging out along the track, I saw from the 15-inch footprints superimposed on our tyre-marks that the raiders had returned later. I also found the pug-marks of a tigress, which had come out on to the farmland during the night. That made me concentrate a bit - for I knew that on this very path Billy's tracker Lallu had been stalked and killed by a man-eater.

Another glorious day was dawning. Mist hung over the fields, and dew heavy as rain dripped from the huge round leaves of the teak trees - but already the sun was up and striking hot.

A colony of langur monkeys sat still as gourds, far aloft in the bare branches of a silk-cotton tree. Secure in their height, they ignored me; but all other creatures took off the instant I appeared, and I saw that, in country stalked by big cats, prey species need lightning reactions to survive.

Jungle fowl and peacocks, surprised in the open by my silent approach, took wing with amazing alacrity. Chital, or spotted deer, instantly hit top gear as they headed for cover. Rhesus monkeys cascaded down trees like coconuts and were doing 20mph the moment they hit the ground.

For anyone with an interest in wildlife, all this was magic. The birds alone would have made the trip worthwhile: nearly 500 species frequent that area, and all seem bigger, noisier and more flamboyant than any European equivalent. Even the vultures, swarming and struggling over animal carcasses like monstrous

maggots, exercise a horrible fascination.

Yet a few days are enough to show that things are by no means as idyllic as they seem, and that India's environmental difficulties are on a scale that make our own seem insignificant. With the human population climbing relentlessly towards a billion, space is simply running out - and nowhere is the problem more apparent than around the Dudhwa National Park.

Dudhwa is one of the reserves dedicated to wildlife under Project Tiger, the major initiative launched with international support in 1973 to save India's national animal and emblem from extinction. Opinions on the success of the enterprise vary wildly: the official view is that the number of tigers in the country has doubled, from a low point of 1,800 to 4,000 or more, but individual experts - Billy among them - believe that the true figure is barely half that.

The one certain truth is that men and tigers are in desperate competition for living space. The Dudhwa park extends to 237 square miles, or over 150,000 acres - huge by British standards, tiny by Indian - and the contrast between conditions inside and out is stark. Inside, a grand hardwood forest offers sanctuary to elephants, rhinos, tigers, leopards, smaller cats, crocodiles and many prey species. No commercial exploitation of timber is allowed, tourist activity is tightly controlled, and disturbance is kept to a minimum.

Outside, scarcely a tree remains: every possible inch of land is cultivated, mostly with primitive implements pulled by buffaloes, and farmers spend the nights in rickety grass shacks set among the fields, guarding their crops against deer and wild pigs.

Here, in the 1980s, tigers created a reign of terror. Driven out of their ancestral haunts in Nepal by deforestation, they spilled over into the national park and out into the farmland, where they killed more than 120 people. A dozen, branded as man-eaters, were killed or caught, and Billy himself shot eight, always with the greatest reluctance.

Small wonder that Indian peasants hate wildlife. They see no beauty in the tiger, which to them is a mortal enemy, threatening their own lives and their livestock, while the prey species threaten their crops. Anti-animal guerrilla warfare is therefore continuous: deer are poached, and tigers poisoned. The government's compensation for losses is derisory - pounds 6 for a calf, pounds 25 for a buffalo, pounds 250 for a human life - and a combination of corruption and bureaucracy usually forestalls the payment of even these pitiful amounts.

Already some areas of the park have been devastated by silt, swept down flooded rivers during the monsoon from the denuded foothills of the Himalayas. Every day people from surrounding villages enter the forest illegally to cut firewood, either for their own use or for sale. As the population rises, and newcomers fetch up on the edge of the jungle in their frantic search for land, pressure mounts inexorably.

If you stand in the pristine jungle and listen to the beat of life all around - the calls of birds, monkeys and deer, the hum of insects - it is hard to believe that the fate of the tiger is hanging in the balance. But if you come out on to the farmland and see how humans have devastated the environment, it is all too easy to believe that ecological catastrophe is round the corner.