Reign of the Tiger: Discovering India's Wildlife
by SUSAN KOSTRZEWA
Dusk descends on the Indian dadar. As the giant fire orb sinks into the sal forest, and the animals rustle from their shady slumber deep in the jungle, a group of men sit in a Jeep beneath a spreading banyan tree, eagerly scanning the darkening world around them.
In the distance, a spotted deer yelps anxiously. Then, the plaintive cry of the peacock. The monkeys scurry nervously between the branches, their games forgotten.
A tigress is on the move. And the frantic alarm calls of the forest herald her every pace.
On the trail of the majestic tiger, our 15-day journey through India encompassed the best of the country’s cultural and natural worlds, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the lush, rural villages of Kipling’s Madhya Pradesh. Exploring the wilds of Ranthambhor, Bandhavagarh and Kanha National Parks, we immersed ourselves in the Indian jungle, where mischievous langur monkeys form alliances in the canopy, proud peacocks dance in exotic finery, and tigers take cool refuge in ruins crumbling with time.
Like maharajas we rode high atop a gaily decorated elephant in Jaipur, dreamed deeply in a centuries-old haveli in Bharatpur, crept silently toward a leopard illuminated by a canopy of stars in Ranthambhor. Yet even kings are humbled in the presence of India’s most mysterious — and endangered — monarch: the Bengal tiger.
Once a prestigious hunting trophy of local maharajahs and visiting European dignitaries, the tiger was still widespread in Asia a century ago, with a population of 40,000. Trigger-happy sportsmen the world over flocked to India in hopes of bagging the mighty beast, and many of them were successful. England’s King George V and party killed 39 in nearby Nepal in just 11 days.
These are modest numbers compared to the thousands felled by several 19th-century maharajahs, many following an ancient belief that determined it auspicious for a ruler to tally at least 109 tiger kills. The Maharaja of Surguja must have been especially “lucky,” hunting 1,150 tigers in his lifetime.
Also decimated by extensive poaching, deforestation and conversion of forest to agricultural and industrial land, the tiger population plummeted below 2,000 by 1970. A worldwide symbol of vigor and sacredness since ancient times, the tiger was nearly wiped out.
Escape from Extinction
Enter Project Tiger, inaugurated in 1973 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who set aside nine areas of untouched forest around the country for the remaining tigers. Displaced farming communities were resettled and compensated, and armed rangers enlisted to deter poachers. Today, there are nineteen Project Tiger sites, though a continued demand for tiger parts (used in traditional Chinese medicine) continues to undermine the earnest effort. It is still estimated that one Indian tiger is poached per day.
Despite the harrowing statistics, we were determined to experience the world of the tiger, if not the tiger itself. Many are never even afforded a glimpse of the elusive beast, so we knew it was a matter of luck. Our first destination was Rajasthan’s Ranthambhor National Park, a 156-square-mile park of dry, deciduous forest located 100 miles northwest of Jaipur.
Surrounded by lush fields dotted with dramatic, dilapidated ruins, Ranthambhor was a peaceful change from the chaos of India’s cities, offering an authentic glimpse of how the country’s agrarian population lives. Hemmed by towering crags and fed by several rivers (and three major lakes), the area supports several small farming villages skirting the park perimeters, as well as a thriving wildlife population.
Driving to our camp on narrow dirt lanes trodden by young goatherds tending their flocks and pretty Rajput girls balancing pots of water on their heads, we felt worlds away from the push and pull of modern life. Our camp, Tiger Moon Resort, was situated near the park and simply designed with stone-walled, tile-roofed huts and an open-air dining hall. A bulletin in the hall listed recent close encounters with every type of character: jackals, sloth bears — and, just two days previous, tigers!
Our drives at Ranthambhor were fruitful and scenic, though several areas of the park were closed due to the simultaneous visit by President Bill Clinton in March 2000. Riding in open-topped Jeeps (called “Gypsies”), we spotted locals like the hearty Sambur deer and the neon-green parakeet. Towering above us on a crag of solid rock, the 10th-century fort once used as a hunting lodge for maharajas lent an ancient feel to the forest. Watching an enormous, crimson-fringed sun setting behind the weathered walls of the fort is a spectacle I’ll never forget.
Trail of the Tiger
Even more memorable was our tiger sighting on the last drive at Ranthambhor. Early that day, our guides had noticed a chital (spotted deer) kill lying in a dense ravine, and knew the tiger would return for its meal at some point during the day (or night). As darkness advanced upon us and we headed out of the park, we saw a few Jeeps parked ahead. Peering into the ravine, we saw movement, and then, with stately pace, a sturdy tigress came into view. The sighting lasted just seconds — a flash of vibrant stripes and gleaming eyes — but we were thrilled to encounter our first tiger.
Our time at Bandhavgarh National Park was even more auspicious. Traveling on a highway often consisting of cavernous potholes interspersed with scattered strips of concrete, our drive from Khajuraho to Bandhavgarh took us deep into Madhya Pradesh state, the heart of India. The comfort of our TATA car and good humor of our driver made the jouncing ride more enjoyable, and the friendly waves of villagers doused in colored water (for the Hindu Holi festival) on the route made us feel welcome. When we arrived at our camp, Tiger Trails Resort, we felt even more ensconced in the wild than at Ranthambhor.
Typified by rugged hills, sal- tree-dotted valleys and grassland, Bandhavgarh has the highest density of tigers in India. Its 169 square miles of land also supports animals such as the barking deer, the leopard, the nilgai (blue cow) and the rare hornbill. Like Ranthambhor, its dramatic history is symbolized by its massive fort, which dates back to the 1st century BC. Escape caves, built into the hills for escapes under siege, now support a bat population quite pleased with their dark and dank interiors. Our guide took us into one of these caves, where its tiny inhabitants scattered around our heads in riotous flight.
Bandhavgarh is also home to a famous cast of tigers immortalized in the many documentary films shot at the park. Distinct personalities like Charger, the 17-year-old patriarch whose family-man ways inspire him to visit his extended clan around the park for two weeks a year, and Sultan, the once languorous mama’s boy, give Bandhavgarh a fun flavor. Guides here are clearly serious about tigers, and enamored of them too — an infectious attitude for anyone who visits.
Two intense sightings at Bandhavgarh proved that its reputation was no myth. An enormous male half the size of our Jeep crossed our path twice in one morning, his ice-blue eyes coolly sizing us up as he dismissed us with a flick of the tail. Getting “upclose and personal” with a wild cat that measures 10 feet from tooth to tail is as invigorating as it is frightening. A humbled silence fell over everyone as the tiger nonchalantly made his way past us into the trees. Later, his throaty roars in the jungle made it clear we were on his turf and had better act accordingly.
Accommodations at Tiger Trails are rustic but comfortable. The cool stone interiors of the huts offer welcome relief from the sometimes sweltering heat of mid-day, and at night, kerosene lanterns illuminate the porches, giving it a distinctively adventurous feel. The open-air dining hall faces out toward the jungle, and at night, the busy sounds of the wild intermingle with the ancient sound of village Hindi, conveying the powerful magic of India.
Our journey into the jungle culminated at Kanha, a region immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his Jungle Books (1894–95) and thought by many to be the definitive tiger reserve in India. Established as a flagship Project Tiger area in 1973, Kanha is the largest (nearly 772 square miles) and seemingly best-run of the parks we visited.
Into the Jungle
Our camp, Wild Chalet, was located on the sandy banks of the Banjar river. Here, fireflies flitted over the moonlit river, and mid-day hours between drives were spent lazing away in hammocks. An afternoon dip downriver proved refreshing, as we followed the example of a herd of contented buffalo, who watched us with interest as they basked downstream.
The physical beauty of Kanha adds to its mystique. Trails wind through dense bamboo forests and vast grassy meadows, home to the exotic Barasinga (swamp deer), which were saved here over the last 30 years from human-inflicted extinction. The grasslands are also favorite hunting grounds for tigers, one of whom became known for her morning constitutional around the perimeter of the valley — perhaps her way of checking out the “specials” du jour.
Kanha afforded the most diverse and frequent wildlife viewing of our trip. Here, we encountered wild boars, jackals, blackbucks and countless exotic birds, and the largest numbers of wild cats, such as three leopards who crossed our path late one day, and two spectacular tiger sightings that impressed even the guides.
One morning, we watched on elephant-back as an elegant tigress calmly shaded herself beneath a tree. Because elephants and tigers have a mutual respect — neither benefits from tangling with the other — it is on elephant-back that enthusiasts can view tigers in the closest and most unobtrusive proximity. We watched in awe as the tigress gazed frankly at us for a moment, and then closed her eyes, peaceful as a house cat snoozing on a windowsill.
This sighting was a mere teaser compared to the incredible luck we experienced on our last day, when another tigress literally strolled in front of our Jeep no more than 10 feet away and then promptly plopped herself in front of us for a 45-minute rest. Seeing a wild tiger so close that we could observe her markings, her breathing, even the size of her monstrous teeth, was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. When she finally sauntered back into the jungle (once again igniting the forest with the alarm calls of her potential prey), we felt that we had just witnessed a private miracle.
A symbol of beauty, strength and sanctity in India since the times when Hindu deities are said to have trod the fertile subcontinental soil, the tiger holds an undisputed place in history. For the future, the role the stately monarch will play depends on the vassals who serve him, and who have the awesome potential of either strengthening — or silencing — his reign forever.
For more information on this tour, contact Sunshine Tourism Services Pvt. Ltd.; Tel: 011-91-11-327-7823; Fax: 011-91-11-327-7875; E-mail: email@example.com; Website: www.sunshineindia.com
For comprehensive information on traveling in India, contact the Government of India Tourist Office at www.tourindia.com
Featuring nonstop flights from New York to Bombay, Delhi and Madras, and daily flights from Los Angeles, Air India offers airfare starting at $1,300 round-trip (depending on route). Passengers can customize their own menus when booking the tickets. For more information, contact: Air India, 800-223-7776; Website: www.airindia.com
For more information on India’s tiger conservation, go to the 5 Tigers (Tiger Information Center) Website at www. 5tigers.org/, or the Tiger Trust Website at http://www.fontayne. com/tigertrust/.Volunteer tiger conservation programs are listed at www.ecovolunteer.org/pro/india_tiger/
Tourists traveling to remote areas of India should check inoculation requirements and recommendations. Malaria prevention (including Lariam tablets and mosquito spray) is essential. For details about malaria prevention and required inoculations, go to the Center for Disease Control Website at: www.cdc.gov
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see our Activity Index under “India — Wildlife Viewing.”