August 25, 2017

WALKING WITH THE TIGERS

Words: Sudha Menon

“The first time I saw a tiger in the wild, it moved my core. Just that sight of the being, magnificent and free, changed how I looked at my life”

IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT THE YOUNG ARE WILD IN THEIR WAYS BUT HERE IS A YOUNG MAN, HANS DALAL, WHO IS LIVING IN THE WILD. LITERALLY. AND, HE IS PROUD OF IT

Remember meeting Hans Dalal sometime at the end of 2013, landing up at his home in Mumbai’s swish Peddar road and having a long chat with him about his life and the things that drive him. It was a hot Mumbai afternoon but he was happy to make me a cup of tea which I sipped happily, marvelling at the twinkle in this young man’s champagne eyes as he talked about the one thing that made him believe in miracles: his first sighting of a tiger while on a trip to the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh, back in 2007. “I had always been fascinated by the mountains, the Himalayas where my uncle took me to see the magnificence of nature, but this was different. The first time I saw a tiger in the wild, it moved my core.

It changed my life forever. Just that sight of the being, magnificent and free, even if the sighting lasted just a few seconds, changed how I looked at my life.” Not that his life till then was the life that other young boys have, growing up. Hans was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that had him struggling with speech, bodily movements, the ability to balance and the ability to walk. He eventually learnt to walk at the age of six, under the tutelage of a very stern physiotherapist. The result was that he was treated by society much like it treats everyone who does not tick all the boxes for being “normal”. In school, he was unable to participate in a number of activities, including sports.

He was not allowed on school trips and was often perceived as being incapable of doing the things that other boys his age did. But none of this dampened his great love for life. He remembers he had lots of friends in the apartment block where he lived and had to be dragged home by his mother every evening so that he could do his school work, which did not interest him at all. Growing up listening to his father’s vast and eclectic collection of music – African, Native American, Indian classical and Jazz, helped him develop a fine ear for music and a fascination for playing the piano which his mother encouraged.

However, he soon realised that his poor motor development would never allow him to excel in playing the piano. By then he was intrigued by the idea of making music himself and went off to do a course in sound engineering at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. It was a great adventure, he recalled that day, in Mumbai. It was for the first time that he was travelling alone, outside of the country and it surprised and delighted him that he was treated like any other person; nobody pitied him, sneered at him or gave him special attention because he was differently-abled and that was a great liberator. “Even today, when I walk on the road or am at a restaurant in India, people look at me walk and talk and think I am a drunk. Mothers pull their daughters out of the way thinking I am a drunken slob. Or, if they realise I have a problem, they shower me with pity. Why can’t we just accept people as they are?”

Back home in Mumbai, the young man and his friend set up a sound engineering studio and did a few assignments with local bands, a few Bollywood music directors and some heavyweights but he realised, soon enough, that without a mentor or Godfather in Bollywood, he was never going to get the big breaks or projects. It was when he was grappling with the realities of his life as an entrepreneur that he also picked up his earlier passion for going off into the wild to rejuvenate himself. It was on one of those trips, on a jungle tour of the National Park at Kanha, that he got his first sighting of the tiger. “It was love at first sight.

I knew that moment that I had changed forever and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in close proximity to these magnificent animals. It would be different from the urban jungle in which I lived, but I was determined to do it, no matter what.” That conversation took place four years ago. Last year, Hans Dalal, moved bag and baggage to live his dream life, in a little cottage on the fringes of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. His life has none of the trappings of urban luxuries that he was used to in the early years but he says he has never been happier. Far from the hustle and bustle of his city life, the endless running to meet countless deadlines and the constant honking of a thousand vehicles,

Hans is happy to spend hours in the 2-acre plot of land on which he and the love of his life, his wife Avantika, have planted 1400 plants, bushes, fruit trees and flowers. “We were brought together by our love of the tiger and by the call of the wild. It was her dream to live in an English style cottage, so here we are, living in this stone cottage that we got built from scratch and we are waiting to see our own forest come up around this house.” Already, the couple’s efforts are paying off because just last month a pair of owls made one of the trees in the garden their home and there are owl chicks already in the nest and so are dozens of other birds who flit around adding colour and music to the couple’s life.

Avantika, an organic farming enthusiast, is growing an organic herb and vegetable garden in the backyard and some of the birds make that their meal but “that is a small price to pay because we love having them over for company,” says Hans. Much before he moved there with his wife, Hans had a love affair with the jungles that took him across almost all of the wildlife parks in the country, a journey that began in 2007, after the first time he came face to face with the tiger. When he got back home, he found himself restless and unable to focus on his work in the recording studio. In fact, he begin to dislike the fact that he only emerged from the dark, window-less, sound-proof confines of his studio after the sun had set. He wanted to be in the outdoors and he began to figure out ways to make this happen.

One day, on a hunch, he reached out to his favourite uncle to tell him about his dream of spending time in the wild. Quick to catch the enthusiasm and passion in his nephew’s voice, the kind-hearted uncle promptly dispatched him to do a course in tiger and wild life conservation with the NGO,Tiger Watch, in Ranthambore.

It was there that he first came to know the reason why tigers were a dwindling species in India and other parts of the world. It was there also that he came to know about man-animal conflict in the wild and the reason why poachers actually poach on wildlife. At Ranthambore he also came across the Moghiya tribals who live in the jungles and used to poach on tigers before the government banned the practice.

He saw them struggle because the government’s call to ban the killing of tigers had rendered them without a livelihood and in search of food or means to run their family. The musician in him quickly picked up the tribe’s inherent talent for music and their vibrant, upbeat folk music tradition. In no time at all, with help from his network of friends from the music industry, the sound engineer in him worked to create a documentary, With A Little Help, and also cut an album of folk music of the Moghiyas. One thousand DVD copies of the album were handed over to Tiger Watch so that they could sell them to raise money for their rehabilitation project for the poachers.

Hans fixing a camera trap to track the movements of tigers in the wild

In the last few years this young man has adopted the world of animals as his own, spending months on end travelling to national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, setting down roots there, exploring the jungles, observing the ways of the animals and their co-existence with the tribals who have lived there for generations. Along the way he travelled abroad to learn the art of wildlife photography and now makes a livelihood as a naturalist, leading nature enthusiasts through the jungles.

Over the years he has worked with several NGOs who are involved in the conservation of the country’s dwindling population of tigers and it is perhaps his deep understanding of the gravity of the situation that led him and his wife to set up their own NGO, PROWL, Preservation of Wild Landscapes, that works in various aspects of the conservation effort including educating poachers, tribal villagers and forest officials about the importance of protecting our wildlife.

Along with his wife, the poachers to give up that part of their life in order to learn new, sustainable ways of making a living. They now teach villagers around the forest reserve all about the importance of sustainable lifestyles such as composting and using organic farming methods. Ever so often, Hans is called in by the forest officials to help them track a man-eating tiger – the years he has spent observing their behaviour has made him an expert on the movement ofthe young man has spent days convincing tigers.

While the effort is always to tranquilise the tiger and move him into another part of the forest or send him to a zoo, Hans confesses it breaks his heart when the officials have to shoot one of the animals. “The man-animal conflict is almost entirely the result of our bungling and our constant encroaching into their world. It is sad that they pay for our mistakes with their life.”

On the trail of a tiger

His photography skills and the knowledge about their movement through the forests also makes him a tiger tracker who is much in demand with forest officials. At PROWL, the duo not only tracks the movement of tigers but also conducts workshops for forest officials that help them understand the nature of many of the issues that come up within the jungle and with the villagers who live on its fringes. Right now the duo are busy figuring out ways to make a sustainable livelihood for themselves because, as he says, “There is no money in conservation. Just passion.”

It is with this in mind that they are building a few cosy cottages on the land that they bought, so that nature enthusiasts can come and spend time observing the wildlife and being one with nature. “I don’t miss the city at all. I love the fact that I don’t have to hear the honking of a car for months together. Yes, I miss my family and friends but I go often enough to meet my mother and that makes up for the time I am away.

Spotted deer

I am in love with my current life.” What uplifts this extraordinary young man’s soul today is another kind of music, very different from the one he studied. Instead of the beats of techno, rock or indie music, his senses now soar to the sound of silence in the mountains, the low growl of a tiger, the flapping of wings of a dozen birds as they take flight, and the gentle whisper of a forest breeze.

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