Tales From the Bush — An afternoon Along the Orai

Bivash Pandav
Badai Tharu along the Orai
Bivash Pandav

The Orai River originates in the Churia hills (known as the Shivaliks in India) and enters the Terai of lowland Nepal near Bardia National Park. It then flows for a distance of nearly 30 km along Bardia before meeting the Karnali River near Kothiaghat. After this confluence, the Karnali flows for another three kilometres or so before entering India, where it becomes known as the Girwa – probably one of the most beautiful rivers in India. The Girwa has abundant fish, otters to feed on these fish, some of the finest specimens of gharial, a healthy population of Gangetic dolphin and big flocks of water birds. And then there are tigers, rhinos and elephants, as well as a multitude of wild ungulates.

The Orai witnessed horrific violence during the peak of the decade-long insurgency that literally paralyzed Nepal from the mid 1990s until 2005. It began when a jeep carrying a Major of the then Royal Nepalese Army and a few soldiers was blown up by a land mine placed along the right bank of the Orai. Following this incident, the army exacted revenge by picking up suspects and killing them in cold blood. The Orai turned into a river of blood as the battles between the Nepalese army and the Maoists escalated.

While this violence was in progress, Orai witnessed bloodshed of another kind. On a cold December afternoon in 2003, Badai Tharu of Khata village went to cut some grass from the banks of the Orai, to repair his thatched house. After working a while, Badai decided to take a short break. As he stood up, a tiger pounced on him with a loud roar. Badai fell flat on the ground, with the tiger’s paw firmly on his forehead. Being tall and strong, he kept shouting at the top of his voice and tried to push the tiger away with his right arm and legs. Hearing his cries, other grass cutters gathered; seeing this huge crowd bearing down, the tiger left Badai and disappeared into the thickets. It was all over within a few seconds. Badai survived the onslaught but the damage was done – he lost his left eye. Badai suffered from his injuries for months in the hospitals of Nepalganj and Kathmandu before returning to his village.

Exactly five years after this attack, I was walking with Badai along the Orai, very close to its confluence with the Karnali. Dressed in a pair of shorts, t-shirt, a pair of dark goggles and a base ball cap, Badai narrated his story. Before we climbed up the river bank to reach the site where Badai was attacked by the tiger, we had to pass through a beautiful stretch of sand along the Orai. Suddenly, Badai got very excited and started showing me the tracks of a rhino and calf, fresh tiger pugmarks and elephant foot prints. There was no trace of fear on Badai’s face, just radiant joy.

While this was puzzling enough, I was even more surprised to learn that Badai was the elected Vice President of the Khata Community Forest Coordination Committee. In this capacity he is actively engaged in protecting this crucial chunk of forest that is the only connecting link between Bardia National Park in Nepal and Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India. With the deep scar inflicted by the tiger on his face, Badai preaches tiger and rhino conservation in the surrounding villages and actively mobilizes and involves the youth of his village in community-based anti-poaching operations.

I spent the entire afternoon with Badai, talking about tigers and rhinos and his conservation activities. We walked further along the Orai and spotted many more tiger pugmarks and rhino tracks. In the nearly two decades that I have spent in the jungles of the Indian subcontinent, I have rarely come across a more brave and remarkable gentleman. As long as there are people like Badai, wildlife will continue to survive. With a promise to return to Khata very soon, I bid farewell to Badai with a heartfelt salute, and continued my journey in the lowlands of Nepal.

Author’s note:

A narrow corridor connects Bardia National Park in Nepal with the Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India. Katerniaghat is part of the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. Dudhwa TR in India consists of three parts; Dudhwa NP, Kishanpur WLS and Katerniaghat WLS. None of these three protected areas that together comprise Dudhwa TR is connected with each other in India. Kishanpur WLS is surrounded by the forests of Pilibhit, which, in turn, is connected to Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in Nepal. Shuklaphanta, through its northern extension and the Churia hills, is contiguous with Bardia NP. Dudhwa NP is connected to the Churia hills through Basanta and Laljhadi corridors (both in Nepal). This Churia hill extends all the way up to Bardia NP. A narrow corridor along the southern part of Bardia, Khata corridor, connects Bardia with Katernighat WLS. It is this crucial but narrow Khata corridor that is being protected by people like Badai Tharu. The attached map will give you an idea about the connectivity.

See map of the landscape.

In 2004 when Dr. AJT Johnsingh (of NTCA) carried out a survey of the Indian Terai, the situation at Katerniaghat was pretty dismal. In fact, when I visited Katerniaghat in 2005 with Dr. Johnsingh, he told me that Katerniaghat had no future. In 2006, Mr. Ramesh Pandey was posted as manager of Katerniaghat and he completely turned things around. He motivated his field staff, and caught poachers. The tigers made a quick come back. Today Katerniaghat has more than 20 tigers and is home to five rhinos. Animals actually moved in to Katerniaghat through the Khata corridor. During my tenure with WWF-Nepal, I camera-trapped tigers and rhinos using this corridor to reach Katerniaghat. India owes a lot to people like Badai Tharu whose efforts have kept corridors like Khata very much alive and functional.

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Dr. Bivash Pandav works at the Department of Endangered Species Management, Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun. He has been studying tigers and their prey in the Indian Terai since 2003.