Life in an Assam tea garden - like an exciting wildlife safari! (Letter from Tinsukia)

August 11th, 2008 - 11:56 am ICT by IANS  

By Azera Rahman
Tinsukia (Assam), Aug 11 (IANS) Have you seen a leopard? No, not those caged in the zoos, but in their wild habitat. If you are a resident of a tea estate here, then you must be prepared to pull up your vehicle every now and then to let these majestic creatures cross the road and meander into the wild. Renowned the world over for its fine quality tea, Assam is dotted with tea gardens. And for a person living in the metro, the tea garden life here is a world totally apart.

The Mahakali Tea Estate, nestling close to Tinsukia town in upper Assam and at a distance of more than 500 km from the state’s principal two Guwahati, is one such paradise.

Away from a city’s hustle and bustle and far removed from the honking cars and the screeches on the busy roads, life at the estate is pretty laid back. With its quaint bungalows that house the estate’s executives amid lush tea bushes - it’s like living cradled in nature’s lap.

No wonder the union tourism ministry has kick-started many an initiative to promote tea-tourism that will have tourists visiting tea gardens, the factories where their morning cuppa comes from, stay in the bungalows and enjoy a few days of the quiet life.

While enjoying a green and balmy life is one thing, sitting up to the growls of the big cat is quite another.

To reach the Mahakali Tea Estate, one has to take a 1.5 km ride through the tropical semi-evergreen Borajan Forest Reserve. The reserve is well known as the home of the endangered Hoolock gibbons, some 6,400 of which are left in the world, according to experts.

While it may be routine for people living on the estate, for an outsider, taking the bumpy ride through the woods, with birds, wolves and monkeys creating a cacophony around is much like a wildlife safari.

And if one visits the estate during the monsoon, when certain portions tend to get flooded, it is not unusual to stop dead in your tracks to let a leopard leap across the path just a foot or two away.

Ziaur Rahman, the resident doctor of the tea garden, while narrating one such episode told IANS: “It was about seven in the evening when I was driving through the forest road to go to the town when my wife suddenly spotted a leopard a few feet away from our car.

“While I stopped immediately, the leopard, not looking the least bit alarmed, crossed the road at its own pace and disappeared into the forest,” Rahman added.

Incidents such as these, are however, not unusual for the estate community.

Bharati Jacob, who plucks tea leaves in the garden, said last winter her goat was dragged out of its shed by a leopard and eaten in the nearby woods.

“We have to be extra careful during the monsoon because then the forest tends to get flooded and the animals come closer to the human habitation and attack domestic animals,” Jacob added.

Adhiraj Barman, who works in the factory of the tea estate, said the bright side to the story is that the animal doesn’t attack human beings.

“The other day my colleague and myself were returning home on our bikes in the evening when we spotted a leopard with its cubs. They quietly made an exit into the forest.

“No matter how many times you see them, that sense of fear mingled with thrill is always the same,” Barman maintained.

Besides the big cats, the tea estate often has wild elephants stopping by, especially in winter.

“It’s not uncommon to have wild elephants from the nearby forest visiting the paddy fields in winter, and more often than not, wreaking havoc,” Barman said.

“They also love corn and sugarcane and quite often enter people’s backyards in search of these,” he added.

While most of these animals are chased away with the beating of drums and the lighting of fires, the doors are thrown open for some other animals - like a pony that was found abandoned in the garden and adopted by the management.

And, a flying squirrel (remember the animation film “Madagascar”?) now has a new home in an official’s bungalow.

Rescuing the poor little nocturnal animal from the hands of a labourer of the tea garden, a tea estate official brought it back home. Now, it happily glides all over the drawing room!

As Ashwini Mehta, who hails from Delhi and was on a short vacation at the tea garden, aptly put it: “Life in a tea garden, especially one like this, is sure like an exciting safari!”

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