On a tiger trail in India
I’m sitting on the deck outside my tent, which perches high above the Banjaar River in central India. Across the river lies Kanha National Park, which at 1,945 square kilometres is one of India’s largest. White egrets pick their way across the bank searching for fish. A male langur cries from within the jungle to establish territoriality. I smile happily. I have spent countless summers trekking and tenting within national parks in four continents. I love the herbal scents in the air; the swaying rustle of leaves; the gurgle of the river. Most of all, I love the spiffy luxury of my tent, so far removed from digging a hole in the ground and using broad teak leaves as toilet paper.
There are 48 recognised tribes in Madhya Pradesh, including Gonds, Bhils, Bastars, Baigas and Ojhas. They live in pockets all over the state, making beautiful sculptures and foraging for medicinal plants. Banjaar Tola’s spaces are enlivened by whimsical metal sculptures created by the local Bastar tribal people. The brass door handles, hanging hooks and water tumblers have tribal faces etched on them. Bottles containing saffron and turmeric conditioner and body wash have metal cork-like closures displaying women with geometric faces and coiled hair. In the middle of my bedroom sits a sculpture of a woman with a telescope turned to the sky. As well she might, because the night sky is glorious, revealing a cross section of the Milky Way and a whole array of constellations. I pick at the lemony salad with home-grown lettuce, bite into coriander-and-yogurt infused kebabs and sigh in satisfaction. I haven’t been on my first drive into the jungle. In fact, I’ve barely arrived.
The human vision of wildlife is romantic and often forgets how inaccessible wildlife is, and should be. Reaching a national park in any continent requires hours of travel by pretty much every mode of transport. So it is with Kanha National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The word “madhya” literally means centre in Hindi.
Getting to Kanha involves flying to Mumbai; then to Nagpur; and then driving five hours into the jungle (if you have time, Bhopal is a beautiful city to visit on the same trip). This long journey forces Type A travellers such as myself into resigned acceptance of a slower rhythm; something of a stupor really. By the time I arrive at Banjaar Tola, I am ready for anything, or rather, nothing.
Wildlife tourism reached a luxury tipping point in India nearly 10 years ago when high-end global players such as the Aman group and Africa’s &Beyond entered the country. In 2006, &Beyond partnered with the Taj group of hotels to establish Taj Safaris, a joint venture with jungle lodges in four national parks in Central India: Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna. The lodges are designed by &Beyond and operated by Taj. The service is warm. The beds are firm. The rangers are superbly trained, the staff attentive but not obsequious. The architecture is rustic and in keeping with the forest – choosing wild flowers rather than manicured lawns. The food is Indian but plated well with grilled meats, dals, birianis and curries, all served with your choice of drinks. Rooms are decorated with local tribal objects but are rustic in sensibility. There is no television, no internet, and barely any phone reception. And really, it’s rather silly to sit in a jungle and poke someone on Facebook. The library has both television and a computer with an internet connection.
Of the four, Bandhavgarh National Park is touted to have a high density of tigers, which translates into “guaranteed” tiger sightings. I choose Kanha and later, Pench – inspired by a BBC documentary, Spy in the Wild, on the tigers of Pench. Narrated by David Attenborough, the superb film uses hidden cameras shaped like tree trunks, that are carried by elephants and placed right beside the tigers, offering unparalleled access into the daily, mating and maternal life of this magnificent animal: Panthera tigris tigris.
Kanha has about 95 tigers in its whole area, but the 300 square kilometres that are open for tourism house barely 10. The 10 four-wheel drives that enter the forest at dawn are chasing these tigers. Of course, we don’t say that. Tiger sightings are rare and cannot be created or conjured up, even by luxury tour operators. Of India’s 27 tiger preserves, I have visited about 15 over the last dozen years. I have seen the tiger in the wild only once: in Ranthambore. I have been to Kanha before and spent days without a tiger sighting. So I don’t dare hope for anything. Still, there is no getting away from the elephant in this particular room: we have all come to Kanha to see the tiger.
The forest in Kanha is dense and moist. Dew drips from the tall sal trees. Sunlight filters through. Mist rises from the grasslands, which are coloured white, pink and purple. Sheet spiders create their webs horizontally like sheets at the bottom of trees, waiting in funnel-like homes to catch the unsuspecting insect that falls down. Brilliant yellow orioles fly across trees, glinting like the sun.
As we drive in, we see Kanha’s biggest success story: the barasingha or swamp deer. In 1970, their count dropped to a precipitous 66 animals because of infection, habitat loss and over-killing by tigers. Park officials cordoned off grasslands and researched the population decline. Of the 25 species of grass available at Kanha, the swamp deer picks at only seven types. Thirty years of conservation later, the count stands at a respectable 450. “The swamp deer and not the tiger is the true hero of this park because you can see the barasingha only in Kanha and it came back from near extinction,” says my naturalist, Dipu from Kerala.
We don’t see a tiger during my time in Kanha. We do see jackals, jungle fowl and other animals; and really, they ought to be enough. But I can’t help feeling disappointed as I drive to Pench, three hours away. Baghvan Lodge in Pench has wooden huts that are raised a little off the ground. The indoor and outdoor showers are nice, but I preferred the old-fashioned bathtub with brass fittings at Banjaar Tola. The best part of Baghvan’s rooms is the machan, a tree house that comes with every room. In the afternoon, I take my laptop there and read, type and doze. All around are trees filled with birds whose cries and screams remind me of home.
Tigers have been part of India’s ecosystem and lore for centuries. Tiger images are seen on Bronze Age seals. The pharaohs and Romans are said to have imported Indian tigers for gladiatorial sport. Indian maharajas hunted the tigers nearly to extinction. In 1972, then prime minister Indira Gandhi started Project Tiger to protect and preserve the Bengal tiger. The project is viewed as a success. The latest tiger census shows a count of about 1,500 tigers across 27 tiger preserves in India. Today, tourists come to India’s parks mainly to see this top predator that cannot be seen in any other continent. Three subspecies – Javan, Caspian, and Balinese – are already extinct; and only a few hundred of the Siberian and Sumatran sub-species exist. Hence the pressure on the Bengal tiger – to save it and to sight it.
Planning early is essential because getting into the park involves getting permission from the forest department. I take a few days to send in my identification card and as a result, am not able to go into Pench on the first morning’s drive. The bookings are full. That happens to be the day of a glorious tiger sighting: a tigress and her three cubs. Wolfgang, a German, regales me with photos of the tigress walking, sitting and even pooping. I show him the photos of birds that I took on a walk. I know that sounds lame but the birds were gorgeous.
I spend two days in Pench, following the typical safari lodge routine: forest drives in the morning and the evening with time in the afternoon to nap, read, swim, or in my case, exercise using the “jungle gym” left in the room: a yoga mat, weights and skipping rope, mostly to prepare for the evening’s labours: dinner. With me at the camp are Belgians, Germans, Americans and British tourists. They compare vegetation across continents: the Indian jungle scores in the dense foliage area.
Why does man seek the jungle? Most of us go for a change from city life, to see the tiger if possible and return refreshed. Being amid ancient trees is invigorating. Pench contains sal, teak, banyan, frankincense, Indian gooseberry, wood apple and mahua trees, all of which come together to form sacred groves that rejuvenate passers-by. The sounds of a jungle are distinct in what they do not offer: no wailing ambulances or annoying horns; no shouting and cursing drivers; no shrieking brakes. Instead, it’s the flutter of dragonflies, the chatter of parakeets and the barking call of the deer. You see creatures big and small and each of them links you back to your genetic ancestry in a way that textbooks never can. If you are lucky, as I wasn’t even on Day 3, you will see a tiger.
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Updated: March 12, 2015 04:00 AM