Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


February 1998
Burning Bright: Four Days in a Tiger Sanctuary in India

By Davy Davidson


Davy Davidson was only in the Nagarjuna Sagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve for four days but the experience transported her to another century and changed her life.

Last September my business took me to the city of Hyderabad in south-central India. Before traveling there I discovered that the world's largest tiger reserve was 150 kilometers south of city, although if it hadn't been for the perseverance of Shalini Rai, the manager of customer service at my business hotel, I would have never made the trip. Unlike other wildlife sanctuaries, this one is not set up for tourists, and Shalini spent hours convincing the officer in charge that it was important for me--a "wildlife enthusiast from the States"--to receive permission. She sent me off assuring me I would be cared for, and she was right.

At 6 a.m. I climbed into the back seat of a white Ambassador car and was driven through Hyderabad--dodging people, animals and all sorts of vehicles, each vying for a piece of the road in a jostling haphazard mass of humanity. The most modern transportation looked built in the 1940s or 1950s, and since few cars have catalytic converters, air pollution is a serious problem. As we left the city behind, unusual red rock formations became the dominant features along the bumpy road and the earth was rocky with grassy patches, as the rainy season was just coming to an end. A pair of black-face lemurs greeted us at the border of the 3,568 square kilometer reserve.

In the Forest

After three hours we arrived in Mannanur where the first station of the forest rangers is located. I was ushered to a modest home (elegant by most villager's standards) where I waited for the assistant field director. A jeep pulled up and the very handsome Abdhul Waheed emerged and warmly greeted me. He and I, along with several assistants, set off to explore his region of the forest. Abdhul spoke knowledgeably and reverently about the forest and some of the more exotic animals who roam the territory: the predators--the tiger, panther, wolf, jackal, and fox, the striped hyena, wild dog, and jungle cat; the less fearsome mammals--the spotted deer, sambar, mouse deer, black buck, langur, and bonnet monkey; the reptiles--the crocodile, monitor lizard, star tortoise, python, cobra, rat snake, and Russell's viper; and the birds--the peacock, parakeet, partridge, crested hawk-eagle, white-back vulture, orioles and water birds.

Abdhul led me down a dirt road where we saw a deer and a parakeet. He offered fruits to eat and leaves to crush and smell and explained that groves of bamboo seed together, flower once in 30 years and die together. We came across some Chenchu tribespeople who live in the preserve as hunters and gatherers, and a young man demonstrated his considerable skill with a hand-made bamboo bow and arrow by hitting a narrow tree. Later that day I was driven by jeep deeper into the forest reserve to the town of Srisailam, where I was introduced to Thulsi Rao, who took over his post three years ago. His assignment was to lead the effort to save the tigers and their habitat, although he discovered that his predecessor had been hacked to death by local rebels who didn't like a government bureaucrat dictating changes in their lifestyle.

People as Partners

Thulsi and his colleagues have made remarkable progress with his eco-development program. Early on, Thulsi recognized that in order to save the tigers and the forest, the local people had to be made partners. The question was how, when the local people's survival had meant using resources from the forest for thousands of years. Their growing population can no longer sustain the ancient way of life, although the majority of rural people live as they have for centuries: thatched-roof huts, woven bamboo walls, dirt floors, no running water, no electricity and little contact with the modern world. Their cattle, however, destroy too much undergrowth in the forest, and collecting wood for fuel takes too much nourishment from the soil. There are few skilled people to make goods for money or trade and birth control is a very new concept.    Fortunately Thulsi has enough charm and wisdom to reach people's hearts and minds. He has converted once-violent rebels to skilled educators, and they go to villages and start a show with a trusted local singing and dancing to attract a crowd. Once everyone is comfortable with the strangers, Thulsi and his assistants begin educating about the value of the land and animals. He shows them that the survival of their children depends on changes in their lifestyle. Thulsi has organized a non-governmental organization called Ashram that coordinates the efforts of dozens of groups to yield greater results through cooperation.

During my stay, I went to the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary at Rollapadu. The bustard is similar to an ostrich in shape but not as tall, and due to human encroachment is nearly extinct, with only about 100 living in the state of Andra Pradesh. It was, therefore, a thrill to see one strutting around his grassy plain. While I was enjoying the hot dry breeze on the porch of the ranger's cottage, the local village's chief came by to complain of bustards eating his people's crops. Over an hour passed as the men negotiated a settlement: the battle between perceived conflicting interests of people and animals played out again.

Making the Connection

On reflection, it is hard to see the bigger picture--that humans and animals can share their space--when immediate human survival is in question. The men I met (most women don't leave their homes) were very kind and they escorted me to beautiful places, took me to Hindu ceremonies and sacred waterfalls, introduced me to their families, carried hot water for my baths and delivered vegan food. At first we stood politely at a distance, since I don't speak Telegu and and they were shy about using their English. Moreover, a white woman traveling by herself was surely something out of the ordinary. However, after four days together of telling stories and snapping photos we became friends. I had gone to the reserve hoping to catch a glimpse of a tiger. Although I didn't see one, I did see the pawprints of a male and a female tiger that were less than 24 hours old. At night, I witnessed the magical sight of the eyes of a herd of sambar glowing like strings of Christmas lights in the lamplight. I delighted in seeing parrots swoop and screech. But it was the warmth and hope carried by the people saving life in this exquisite part of the world that I will remember forever.

Davy Davidson is a media communication consultant and long-time animal activist. She lives in Manhattan.


All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.