National Geographic : 2002 Jan
away land from a national park. Our hopes lie with the judiciary." THE FUTURE of Bhadra Tiger Reserve, less than 30 miles to the northeast, seems more assured than Kudre mukh's, though I wouldn't have said so on my first visit there with Ullas five years ago. Bhadra is undeniably beautiful, almost 200 square miles of dense forest bounded on one side by a blue reservoir, on another by green-clad mountains. Four kinds of bamboo-ideal fodder for elephants and the huge wild cattle called gaur-flourish along its streambeds, including a giant variety whose 90-foot culms sway and creak like the timbers of a sailing ship whenever stirred by the slightest breeze. But back in 1997 everything here seemed out of control. The forest was blue with smoke from fires, and without vehicles the understaffed forest department was power less to put them out. Commercial bamboo cutters were carting away cover essential for wildlife. Timber was disappearing too. Poach ers appeared to have a more or less free hand. And there were 16 small villages scattered through the park, their inhabitants sowing rice in natural wetlands while lobbying for electric ity, running water, and all-weather roads amenities that could spell disaster for the fragile forest. Given that bleak picture, the vehemence of Ullas's belief in Bhadra's potential had startled me. "With proper protection," he assured me, "and if we can find new homes outside the park for the villagers, Bhadra can outpace any forest in India. Even Nagarahole will have to take a backseat." That was a considerable claim at the time. A brief visit to Nagarahole offered insight into the ecological wealth that once characterized the Ghats-and much of India. When Ullas and I drove into the park one eve ning after dark, our lights captured two sloth bears, their heads buried in a termite mound. As we slowed to a stop, one scuttled into the forest. The other, too intent on lapping up suc culent insects to notice us at first, eventually yanked its dust-covered head out of the mound, woofed resentfully, and hustled off. A mile or so farther down the road Ullas slowed again at the sound of elephants crashing into the interior. The whole forest seemed to sway in the dark, and Ullas stepped on the gas. I was awakened three times that night, first by the calls of panicked spotted deer that had likely sighted a leopard, then by the low spacing call of a distant tiger, finally by ele phants trumpeting like half a dozen deranged brass players tuning up. Shortly after dawn the following morning we watched two dozen gaur drift soundlessly across a jungle track and Safe Haven Nilgiri tahr were once so trusting that British hunters killed them with bayonets. Today they remain a favorite of poachers. The larg est surviving herd has found sanctuary in Eravikulam National Park, where a kid snuggles sleepily against its mother.