Monday, 10 April 2017

The Tsavo Tale: Aruna's Story Of A Walk With Rangers And An Encounter With Poachers.


                                                  Only Elephants Should Wear Ivory

We see a different Africa, a luxurious one, ensconced in tents in five star resorts, devouring international cuisine and going on safaris in top of the line safari vans. And then, one day, I met Aruna Varsani, who had taken on the challenge of venturing into a different part of Africa, the one we had only heard about, felt sad about and seen pictures of…I was shaken  to the core when I heard Aruna’s Tsavo story and looked at her detailed pictures.
I began by asking Aruna the motivation behind undertaking such a unique adventure. She candidly revealed that she wanted to come out of her comfort zone (very similar to the one I am currently wallowing in) and that she wanted to volunteer to do her bit towards elephants who are poached for ivory. She wanted to interact with the people on ground, the ones who risked their very lives to protect elephants.
Her biggest challenge?
 To survive a twelve day trek, with a bare minimum of resources available, be it food or water.

                                                            The Bus To Tsavo

On a cold August morning, leaving behind her husband and young children, Aruna boarded the bus in Nairobi, joining a group of complete strangers, to spend a period of twelve whole days and nights in the wilderness of Tsavo, that humongous national park, once so lovingly nurtured by David Sheldrik.
A seven hour drive, with a brief lunch halt at the very old Sikh temple at Makindu, found the group in Tsavo by 9:30 at night. An open camping ground awaited them. They had to unload the bus themselves and pitch their own tents.  Aruna was feeling completely lost as she had no clue about how to set up the tent. This was her first camping experience. Two rangers accompanied the team, helping them light a bonfire and keeping a look out for wild animals, even as the team readied for the night.
Luckily for Aruna, her tent partner knew how to set  up a tent. So Aruna handed over materials as and when needed and hunted for stones to hammer the tent pegs in, working in the inky, impenetrable darkness that descends over Tsavo, the minute the sun sets.

                                                                The First Camp

Soup from a packet of soup powder was made over the bonfire and then devoured with bread that had been bought in Nairobi, early that morning. Given how elaborate even everyday Indian meals are, Aruna could barely swallow this makeshift meal. Then it was time for the briefing for the next day.

                                                  Briefing Around The Camp Fire

Back into the tent, sleep eluded Aruna. Every sound is magnified in the jungle and, as the night wore on, newer sounds added to the threat level. Finally after tossing and turning for hours, Aruna joined the rangers who were still sitting around the fire and requested them to heat some water for her to sip, in order to ward off the chill of the night.
Come morning, they only had water to brush their teeth. A shower was a luxury they could not afford that first morning! Clothes had to be in earthen colours, in order to provide a good camouflage in the jungle. Perfume in any form was strictly forbidden and after a morning briefing about the day’s twenty kilometre march and a meagre breakfast of black tea and bread, the group was ready to set off through the thorny Acacia trees that thickly dotted the landscape.Talking was out of question, and they could tap a person’s hand to attract his or her attention. There were two reasons for this. One was to avoid attracting wild animals and the other was to avoid alerting poachers to the fact that a patrol was close by.

                                                     And The Walk With Rangers Begins...

As they forged ahead, spiders, ticks and snakes entangled in the branches were what they had to watch out for. The intense heat, a sleepless night and a frugal lunch of rice and fruits meant Aruna was exhausted, even though the walk through Tsavo had barely begun…
After facing the challenge of pitching the tent again for the next night, Aruna had to be content with wiping herself down with wet wipes and a fresh set of clothes, as only a mug of water was allotted to each camper.

                                                              A Typical Camp

The next day, the landscape changed to tall grasslands, interspersed with trees. They saw wild buffalo grazing nearby and had to maintain absolute silence as they were in danger of being charged at. They also came across zebras, giraffes, deer and ostriches, reminding Aruna that she was very much in Africa, without the comfort of a safari vehicle.
The third day meant an entry into dangerous terrain. They came across dry bones of elephants who had been killed for ivory and also saw bones of dikdiks (a type of small deer), killed by poachers for meat. The reality did not hit Aruna then… A little later the group was hit by a powerful stench. They stumbled upon the half rotten, maggot infested carcass of a huge elephant, with its face smashed in, to remove the portion of the tusks that is embedded deep inside. It was obvious the animal had been killed by a poisoned arrow, as poisoned flesh smells worse than that of an animal killed by other means. Also, the flesh remains untouched by scavengers like hyenas and jackals.
The ground still bore evidence of the gigantic beast’s desperate struggle to survive after it had been hit by the arrows. Aruna’s heart almost stopped at this heart wrenching sight. After searching for some evidence which would point towards poachers, the rangers paid respect to the elephant by laying a small branch across it. Aruna, being a believer in the elephant god, Ganesh, knelt on the ground and bowed her head low, saying a heartfelt sorry for the cruelty that a member of the human race had inflicted upon the innocent animal.

                                                       That First Carcass:The Agony...
                                                         
A few more kilometres ahead, they came across a six month old skeleton of yet another elephant. The rangers told them an interesting story. After an elephant has been reduced to a mere skeleton, other elephants come and arrange bones in their original shape, no matter how many times they are scattered around by other animals.
Finally the day dawned when the campers were allowed a bucket of water for a shower in the jungle! A banner was strung around a few sticks which had been  fixed into the ground, in a half moon shape and flat stones were placed on the ground for the person to stand on. A buddy system was used to issue warnings, in case other people approached the area. When Aruna’s turn came, she rubbed shampoo into her long hair. Soon she heard the buzzing of bees, attracted by the floral fragrance! Suddenly the no perfume rule made sense! Aruna frantically poured all her water on her hair and yelled for her friend to hand over her bucket as well. Finally all the shampoo was washed off and a simple bath had turned into an adventure! Never mind that she had to trudge back to camp to refill the bucket for her friend…

                                                          Sunrise In The Tsavo

Another sunrise, another day, and coming across more carcasses and bones depressed Aruna and started bogging her down.  They hardly spotted any living animals as animals are smart enough to avoid areas with more bones, directly proportional to poacher activity in a particular area. The landscape changed yet again to knee level grass, where they had to watch out for snakes. Here, Aruna found a coin, this time a Euro, as is the norm for her on every single trip she has taken! She termed it her lucky Euro, as she finally saw a few more living animals that day, which helped to lift her sagging spirits.

                                                               Aruna's Lucky Euro!

That night, her bathroom was the breadth of a thick tree trunk, with a towel held by her tent partner from the other side. Stars twinkled down on her from a dark sky. By now, Aruna was more in tune with the jungle and said she enjoyed the refreshing bath more than any she had had in her Jaguar fitted bathroom at home. A basic meal of rice and pasta followed, (with a side of a green chilly to add some spice!) along with an exchange of ideas and experiences and a warning that now they would enter an area thickly infested with poachers.

                                                                    A Frugal Meal

They next ventured into an area of mostly dead trees, bleached white by the sun. These trees had low branches with grass growing in between. Poachers had placed cleverly camouflaged snares here, to entrap small animals, which the team helped to remove. Later in the day, they also came across snares for elephants, hanging from branches, halfway up the trees.  It becomes very easy for poachers to kill trapped elephants.

                                            And she's removed a snare! Aruna:1, Poachers:0
                                                       
That day Aruna interviewed Rangers, asking them about the difficulties they face. Many of them do not have footwear suitable for long marches across the terrain, very few of them are armed and they go days without meeting their families. And yet they remain loyal to their work and their country.
                                                      Rangers: Against All Odds...

A snack break on a rough road led to a quick encounter with a snake. The guide signalled for everyone to halt and let the snake go its way. Though panic stricken, Aruna learnt that everything in the jungle does not harm you and it’s nice to live and let live.
A little while later, they came across some miners, digging channels beneath the ground for semi precious stones, an activity that is not strictly legal. The men came out of the tunnels with handfuls of stones in the most gorgeous colours. The team leader identified the stones as a type of ruby and green, yellow and red agates. When asked why they were indulging in this activity, the men, with chapped hands and broken nails as they have no tools to dig with, replied that this was their only means of sustenance. They further added that these stones, found deep in the jungles of Tsavo, eventually make their way into the gem stone factories of Jaipur and Udaipur, in Rajasthan, India!

                                                   Uncut Agates Dug Out With Bare Hands

The following day brought another illegal activity to the fore: Logging: the cutting down of trees for firewood. The father and his young son (whose school had burned down and never been rebuilt) were counselled by the team as to how they were harming the environment by felling trees. The team burnt the stash of firewood accumulated by the duo and also pulled down their dwelling, in a strong bid to discourage them from remaining in the area and causing further harm. It was also a day when they had walked a sum total of thirty two kilometres, resulting in blisters on Aruna’s feet, which required first aid and had to be popped with a hastily sterilized needle.
The next day they had to traverse such difficult terrain that they were given an ancient German truck. Branches entered the truck as it forced its way through the jungle and had to be chopped off, before they could proceed further. Leaves, dust, spiders, liberally showered the group inside the truck and the floor became invisible by the time they were through. The truck took them up a cliff, which was to be their camping spot and which also gave them a bird’s eye view of the jungle. Tents were put up, even as the sun set over Tsavo, giving them a glimpse of yet another beautiful vista. That night, for the  first time, the group heard lions roaring really close by, giving Aruna yet another sleepless night, as the only protection they had was a flimsy tent! It was also a scorpion ridden area, so the tent had to be tightly zipped up at all times…

                                       Hacking Branches Through The Truck To Make Way!

The group came down the cliff the next morning and walked a few kilometres, but then were told to retreat, as there was firing between poachers and forest officials. They had lunch on the cliff top, even as they kept an eye on the chopper circling overhead, while awaiting news regarding the poachers. Then they heard that an elephant carcass had been found nearby, with just one of the tusks removed.  The group was taken to the freshly killed elephant but were then rushed back to the cliff top, as the area was rife with danger.

                                                                      More Agony

The rangers then set a trap near the carcass. They hid themselves in a tree, along with a few experienced people from Aruna’s group. At dusk, the poacher returned to the scene of the crime. He was caught red handed trying to remove the second tusk and was then handed over to the police at Voi, the nearest town.
The entire group was later taken back to the carcass and the rangers had to remove the remaining tusk. They were equipped with just an axe and did not even have gloves or masks. They were literally risking their lives and Aruna felt deeply disturbed at this injustice. After the task was over, they had no soap or disinfectant but just used plain water to wash off splattered blood.  This scenario had a deep impact on Aruna’s mind and gave her an insight into the ground reality at Tsavo. 

                                                    The Tusk That Was Left Behind...

That night, no lions were heard and the group opted to sleep under an open sky, scorpions notwithstanding! They were rewarded by a brilliant meteorite shower, as if the heavens themselves were thanking the little band of volunteers for their perseverance against poachers and for risking their lives in the bush.
Finally the Walk came to an end. The person who had entered Tsavo at one end, was not the same person who exited at the other end.  A toughened Aruna emerged out into civilization after twelve long days…As we wound up our discussion, Aruna shared an interesting anecdote.
Midway through the trip, though the Internet was intermittent, Aruna began posting pictures on Facebook.  At that time her husband was attending a very close family friend’s wedding. People began walking up to him right in the middle of the festivities and asked him outright what kind of a husband he was to send his wife on such a dangerous trip! They even advised him to recall Aruna, mid way through the trip! He sweetly messaged her to take care and to complete the trip safely… Kudos to him!
When her sister came to know that the group had been caught in the cross fire and had had to retreat, she was furious and gave Aruna an earful for endangering her life. Then Aruna stopped posting pictures and snippets of information, until she was safely back in Nairobi.
The Indian community, that Aruna belongs to, gifts an ivory bangle to the newly wed daughter. After hearing about the plight of elephants in Tsavo, a good friend of hers from the same community remarked that she hoped Aruna’s experiences would help end this ancient practice. As Aruna rightly points out,” You cannot take a life in order to bless a girl beginning her new life!”
Before Aruna set off on this unique ‘Walk With Rangers’, she came up with an interesting fund raising idea.  She posted the advertisement banner on FaceBook and asked people to comment below, mentioning in one line how and when they had first met Aruna.  She would personally donate a hundred Kenyan shillings (One US dollar) for each comment.
Aruna collected Fifteen Thousand Kenyan Shillings, which she used to buy shoes for the rangers who walk the long walk through Tsavo, not once in a lifetime like her, but for every single day of their working lives… Aruna, through her Tsavo walk, touched not just lives but also hearts and believes she has made a bit of a positive difference in the lives of the mighty Tuskers and the indefatigable Rangers.


 Picture Credits: Aruna Varsani.

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