IN THE LAND OF THE TIGER
In The Land Of The Tiger - Luxury Travel Magazine
In The Land Of The Tiger
|By: Madeleine Stratton, Issue 47 – Winter 11|
|MADELEINE STRATTON JOURNEYED TO THE JUNGLES OF INDIA IN SEARCH OF THE ONE OF WORLD’S BIGGEST AND MOST ENDANGERED CATS, THE BENGAL TIGER.|
|In March this year at the International Conference on Tiger Conservation in New Delhi, Indian Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh announced that India’s tiger population was on the rise. |
Despite the Bengal tiger having been (somewhat ironically) the national symbol of India for thousands of years, over millennia the country’s tiger population has been diminished by, in no particular order, the British and Indian upper-class for whom tiger hunting was sport in colonial times, illegal poaching rings seeking pelts and other parts to sell on the black market, and habitat destruction due to the need to accommodate India’s burgeoning human population.
It wasn’t until 1972 with the establishment of Project Tiger that any serious efforts were made by the Indian Government to halt the decline and avoid the extinction of these magnificent creatures. Project Tiger works within specially constituted Tiger Reserves, of which there are currently 39, to protect, maintain and boost the population. The program initially had some success, increasing the population from around 1,200 to 3,500 in the 1990s, but continued instances of illegal poaching reduced that number back down to 1,411 by 2008.
Compared to that figure, the news that 1,706 tigers now inhabit the reserves of India was celebrated by conservationists both in India and across the globe, the ten percent increase a small but significant victory in the fight to save the tiger from extinction. I was lucky enough to see not just one, but six wild tigers in India. Okay, so five of the six were cubs, but they still count, and they get bonus points for being cute.
I spent five days in India, staying at two of &Beyond’s four Indian safari lodges (operated in partnership with Taj Hotels and Resorts). Baghvan, five minutes from the entrance to Pench National Park, is a collection of 12 bungalow suites set on either side of a central kitchen, dining and living building. Each air-conditioned bungalow suite is made up of two separate buildings, a bedroom and a bathroom, linked by wooden platform. They each have a private outdoor shower and a machan, a covered rooftop platform, which, with its enormous comfy and cushioned mattress, can be used for both relaxing during the day or sleeping out under a mosquito net by night, although I was warned to be wary of cheeky langur monkeys, which have been known to take over the machans of unoccupied bungalows for their own monkey business.
There are two game drives a day in Pench, one early in the morning and one at dusk, operated by Taj Safaris for &Beyond and Taj Hotels and Resorts. My first drive was in the afternoon and began with a presentation from my assigned naturalist Veerjeej, outlining the park, the areas we would be travelling through and the wildlife we’d be likely to see, including the tiger. Led by Veerjeej and accompanied by two German lodge guests, we started off along route five. For those familiar with African safaris, the Indian reserves have a very different system, operating along allocated routes. Drivers are not permitted to stray from their allotted route for the day and there are no mobile phones or radios allowed inside the parks, so in order to communicate the whereabouts of various sightings, all the different drivers in the park communicate face to face over the sides of their jeeps as they pass each other.
We saw countless spotted deer, the occasional odd-looking blue bull, and those cheeky langur monkeys, who like to casually sit on the edge of the dirt track right up until the minute the jeep is upon them then leap and bound back into the trees (and as we passed and I turned to check I saw that they’d moved right back into their comfortable road-side positions). While Veerjeej had informed us the area was home to a dominant male tiger (my companions had seen him only the day before), a tigress with two cubs, and her two grown-up daughters (each with two and five cubs respectively), they remained hidden for the duration of that dusk drive. Nevertheless, we set out the next morning in the hopes of catching just a glimpse of one of Pench’s tigers.
Impatient to see them, I was advised we’d be trying our luck at the elephant camp that morning. The camp is inside the reserve and is home to elephants used by trackers to find tigers. The tracker riding the elephant spends the morning out on the safari trails, looking for tracks hopefully to the location of a resting tiger and the elephants are rewarded for their efforts upon return with enormous chapatti prepared at the camp. The naturalists take visitors to the camp to take a number to wait in line, so that if and when the trackers are successful, you can go back later in the morning and get directed to the location of the tigers.
That morning they located not just one tiger, but the tigress with her five cubs. When we arrived at the location, we were asked to wait inside the vehicle. Then, when it was our turn, we were invited to swap the jeep for an elephant. Climbing aboard, I perched precariously on the back of my elephant as it trundled off into the lantana. As the tigers are solitary, and prefer hidden shaded places to rest rather than out in the open, the elephants are the best way to get a close look, as they don’t disturb the tigers, and the tigers don’t tend to bother them either.
My elephant delicately picked its way up a rocky hill for a few minutes and then stopped not six metres away from a huge rock, on which two tiger cubs languished lazily. Camera at the ready, I focused on those two sleeping cats, who, just like the domestic ones back home, had stretched right out on the rock to maximise their warmth under the sun (one rolled onto its back, almost as if it wanted me to rub its belly).
A little to the left, a little lower, eyes refocusing on a patch of thick woven lantana and I saw that, had I reached out to the cub, I would’ve been lucky to return with my arm intact – the tigress, hidden under the branches, was watching her two young ones like a hawk. Looking a little harder, I could see her three other cubs also snoozing under the shade and protection of the lantana. Tigers seen, snaps taken, I had to head back as my turn was up. Riding high on the elation of having ticked the tiger off my list, we headed back to the lodge. I had one more drive that afternoon, and the tigers were nowhere to be found, eluding us once more.
The next afternoon I headed north to a second lodge, Banjaar Tola, on the edge of Kanha National Park. Banjaar Tola is a tented safari camp, and in contrast to Baghvan, set on the edge of an open plain and overlooking the Kanha forests and the Banjaar river. The 18 air-conditioned tents are divided into two rooms, again, one for sleeping and one the bathroom. The tents get very hot, so I was grateful for the constant humming of the air-con going in the background, the only disturbance to an otherwise perfectly peaceful lodging.
The game drives at Kanha were led by naturalist and driver known as DK, and as he drove through the lush sal forests of Kanha we saw many more spotted deer and sambar, male peacocks proudly displaying their regalia. We stopped every now and again to listen for the distress calls, a clear indicator that a tiger is prowling nearby. We heard something like a spotted deer distress call, but on closer inspection found it was just an early mating call.
Still on the lookout for tigers, DK told me that leopards also inhabit the area, best found in the very early or late hours of the day. Indian leopards are hard to spot because they usually don’t come out until after the parks have closed, and also, with the increased tiger population (tigers being the dominant species in the area) the leopards tend to stay away for fear of being chased off or even killed by the larger predators. Currently classified as a near-threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Indian leopard faces a similar fate to the tiger due to habitat loss and poaching, and currently there is no government plan in action to protect the species.
There are no game drives in Kanha National Park on Wednesday afternoons, in order to give the park staff the afternoon off, so instead the camp can organise other activities to keep you occupied – I went saree shopping in a local village, at which many of the property’s staff live. Aside from supporting the wildlife and reserves, both Baghvan and Banjaar Tola employ and train local people. And Taj Safaris is the only safari operator in India that trains its own naturalists, operating a permanent training school in Kahna. Each lodge also has systems in place to ensure sustainability and reduce carbon footprints by using renewable energy and water and waste management.
Aside from Project Tiger, other initiatives being undertaken in the reserves include relocation programs. In February this year &Beyond in conjunction with Indian authorities relocated 19 gaurs (bison) from Kanha to Bandhavgarh National Park to save the species from extinction in that area. Having seen a herd of these huge beasts at Kanha I imagine that was no mean feat.
Given how few Bengal tigers are left, the opportunity to see six of them in the wild was a rare experience I won’t be forget soon. Despite the success of Project Tiger across India, in 2005 one reserve, Sariska in the state Rajasthan, lost its entire tiger population to poaching, and while in 2005 several tigers were relocated from another reserve it served as a sobering reminder that the battle to save the magnificent Bengal tiger from extinction is not over yet.
|WHEN TO GO |
|I went in summer, which is a great time for viewing because of great visibility, but don’t go if you can’t handle the heat, as the temperatures reach high thirties and low forties, and while the forest canopy will offer some protection on drives, out in the open you may get burnt. Winters are also pleasant, but rug up on the drives as the vehicles are open to the elements. Both parks close for the monsoon season, Kanha National Park closes from July to mid-October, and Pench National Park closes from mid-June to September. |
|WHERE TO STAY|
|Pench National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India |
|Rates: start from INR20,000 (about A$421) per person per night sharing, fully inclusive. |
|BANJAAR TOLA |
|Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India |
|Rates: start from INR20,000 (about A$421) per person per night sharing, fully inclusive. |
For further information, visit
|GETTING THERE |
Thai Airways flies to Mumbai via Bangkok from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Economy class fares start from A$1,653 return and business class from A$4,003 return.
|The flight from Mumbai to Nagpur, a 1.5-hour flight with Jet Airways starts from A$653 return. |
|Bagvhan is a two-hour drive from Nagpur, Banjaar Tola is five and a half hours away. &Beyond can arrange transfers.|