The Pashan Garh lodge, outside Panna National Park.Anthony Dennis goes in search of the increasingly elusive and endangered Bengal tiger.
Inside my open-topped Indian-built Tata jeep, bouncing wildly across the dusty, bumpy subcontinental wilderness like some motorised trampoline, my companionable fellow passenger, a wealthy South African woman, is sitting arms-folded in the back seat, scowling like a constipated Indian sloth bear. Such is the allure of an encounter with one of the rarest, most beguiling of creatures that she’s travelled to India with the express objective of viewing as many Bengal tigers, on a safari such as this one, as possible in a single week.
Here, after a day of the Indian equivalent of bush-bashing, in north-central India at Panna National Park, in Madhya Pradesh, the country’s most forested and tiger-rich state, we’ve spotted countless langur monkeys, mongooses, peafowl, wild boars and every kind of native Indian deer and cattle, including sambar, chital and gaur, the world’s largest bovine.
We’ve traversed the undulating terrain of the park dissected by deep gorges and high plateaus. We’ve paused and listened to the alarmed hoots and cackles of peafowl and langurs, meant to indicate the presence of a tiger. We’ve stopped and gazed across majestic valleys overlooking a river containing freshwater crocodiles. We’ve scoured thick forests for a flash of that unmistakable rust-coloured fur coat daubed with jet-black stripes.
Yet the nearest we’ve come to a tiger are paw prints in the milk-chocolate-coloured dirt of the tracks along which we have been motoring. Of course, there’s a perfectly reasonable, though sorry, explanation, as to why the South African woman has been denied her prey. A few years ago, Panna National Park’s entire tiger population was eliminated by poachers in cahoots, scandalously, with rangers employed to police such intruders, doubtless seeking to sell the animals’ body parts on the lucrative Asian herbal medicine market.
The park has since had to be slowly and carefully repopulated with more than a dozen tigers introduced from elsewhere in Madhya Pradesh, namely from other parks that can scarcely spare them. Perhaps, I ponder, as the sun begins to dissolve over Panna National Park with starkly silhouetted trees full of clumps of langurs nesting in safety for the evening, it’s just as well we didn’t disturb any of the sensitive newcomers, some of which, our guide informs us, have encouragingly given birth to cubs recently.
When William Blake wrote his poem The Tyger (“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright/In the forests of the night”) more than two centuries ago, the trophy-obsessed hunting parties of the British Raj would have begun to dramatically reduce tiger numbers. By the 20th century, the number of tigers in the wild had declined to 100,000. Today, the population is so low the pathetic numbers are almost too painful to recite: fewer than 4000 – worldwide – exist, with more than half of them in India, a country with a human headcount of more than 1.2 billion.
Perhaps the international box-office success of the Ang Lee-directed film Life of Pi, which features a computer-generated Bengal tiger as one of its stars, may go some way towards raising awareness further of the plight of the animal. In India, though, the tiger is rarely far from the headlines. In an extraordinary edict in 2012, the nation’s Supreme Court, after an audacious case filed by an Indian wildlife activist, Ajay Dube, imposed a temporary ban on tiger tourism in all the national parks, fining six states for failing to declare buffer zones around tiger reserve forests. Dube had complained to the court that hotels, resorts and shops had been allowed to proliferate too close to the habitat of tigers and had not only traumatised them but also undermined conservation efforts.
Tourism in the tiger reserve was allowed to resume towards the end of 2012 but under stricter guidelines. If nothing else, it was a wake-up call for authorities and operators not to take their tigers, and the demonstrable tourism benefits they generate, for granted. Unquestionably, tiger tourism does intrude too close in parts of India’s national parks. But it does provide a vital source of income to otherwise penniless communities that without it could easily be tempted to turn from protectors to poachers.
Taj, the esteemed Indian-owned hotel group, partnered with South Africa’s respected andBeyond group some years ago to establish a network of exclusive tiger lodges across Madhya Pradesh, built at commendably respectful distances from national parks. I’m staying at Pashan Garh, deep in the wooded Vindhya Hills just outside Panna National Park, about 50 kilometres from Khajuraho, famed for its World Heritage-listed Hindu temples and erotic sculptures.
Tigers aside, there’s no shortage of wildlife to be savoured in India, even at Pashan Garh itself, with langur monkeys scuttling in the brush beside the path as I walk to my spacious stone cottage. My luxury accommodation, which successfully combines traditional design with contemporary styling, is inspired by the dry-packed stone houses scattered across north-central India – though, in what is one of the poorest parts of the country, I’m sure they’re not equipped, like my cottage, with airconditioning, twin showers and twin washbasins and every mod con except television and internet.
At Pashan Garh, guests are entitled to two jungle drives each day with an expert guide and spotter, and while at the lodges are afforded exceptional service. On each occasion guests return to Pashan Garh after a safari, they are greeted by a line-up of nearly the entire staff of the lodge ready with heartfelt salutations, a tray of refreshing cool juices and damp hand towels on platters.
The compensation for not having sighted a tiger at Panna is Pashan Garh itself. It’s a gorgeous, rustic and wonderfully restful place. I regret nothing but remain sanguine of a sighting. After a few days I transfer with my driver via the appalling, potholed roads of Madhya Pradesh to the distant Bandhavgarh National Park, which supports one of India’s biggest population of tigers, for a few nights at Mahua Kothi, another of the luxury lodges operated by Taj and its partner andBeyond, and styled on kutiyas, traditional jungle village mud huts.
Unlike Africa, where the chances of sighting rare wildlife seem greater, a visit to India to track tigers is akin to being a participant in nature’s equivalent of a detective novel, jammed full of red herrings, but then again, it often feels as if you’re a bit player in an epic tragedy. Bandhavgarh is my last chance to spot a tiger in India and yet another day of bush-bashing passes without sighting one. My sturdy optimism is finally being tested.
At dawn the next day, I head off one last time to search for tigers. On the way to the entrance to the park, a soot-coloured Indian jackal crosses the rutted road and disappears into the brush. After a few hours there is excitement among the guides as news crackles over the two-way radio of a confirmed tiger sighting. We take to our Tatas and, in a cloud of dust, race to the scene, where, along a wire fence, a long line of open-top four-wheel-drives are parked, their entranced passengers watching a distant unfazed tiger.
Half an hour or so later, still elated by the sighting, we breakfast with a park warden, with whom our guide is friendly, at his jungle-green observation hut near where we spotted the tiger. The bonnet of our Tata is used as a table for the various utensils, including a vacuum flask filled with steaming coffee, but breakfast is suddenly curtailed. There’s news over the two-way radio of another sighting. The warden, who seems nearly as excited as we are, jumps in our vehicle.
The same tiger we spotted earlier at a relatively long distance has travelled in a wide arc around us. By the time we arrive at its location it’s passing stealthily, as tigers inevitably do, through the forest. Its distinctive coat is providing flashes of brilliant burnished orange in-between the dull sepia of the trees and long grass, which intermittently obscure it on its progress.
Eventually, the tiger emerges from the forest and, unperturbed by its assembled human appreciation society watching from the safety of their jeeps, crosses the dirt track, just a few metres away from my vehicle. I watch as its several hundred kilograms of bulk vanish into the tall grasses, as tall as man, of an open patch of land flanking the forests. There, my guide says, it will probably remain and sleep for the rest of the day, and it’s time for me to return to Mahua Kothi for some repose, too.
It’s my last night in Madhya Pradesh, and an elaborate outdoor dinner is organised for house guests under a massive mahua tree illuminated with kerosene lamps dangled from branches.
Indian regional delicacies are served and downed with lashings of Kingfisher beer, with the added accompaniment of squawking and screeching from unseen wildlife in the tar-black forest beyond our camp. Among us there’s a suitably celebratory air since all of us, including the once-scowling South African woman, have tiger stories to share and possibly embellish. In India, when tracking the Bengal tiger, patience, and a sense of privilege, not entitlement, is indeed a virtue.
Anthony Dennis was a guest of Travel Corporation India, The Unique Tourism Collection, Taj Hotels and Resorts, and Singapore Airlines.
Getting there Singapore Airlines has a fare to Delhi from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1190 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 7hr), then non-stop to Delhi (5hr 45min). Phone 13 10 11, see singaporeair杭州夜网m. From Delhi take a domestic flight with Jet Airways to Khajuraho, usually via Varanasi; see jetairways杭州夜网m. Australians require a visa to visit India for a stay of up to six months; see vfs-in-au杭州夜网.
Staying there The Australian-based Unique Tourism Collection, on behalf of Travel Corporation India (TCI), can organise packages for travel to and in India, including airfares, accommodation, guides and drivers; see uniquetourism杭州夜网m and tcindia杭州夜网m. A “Full Jungle Plan” at the featured Taj tiger lodges, including two safaris a day, park fees and all meals and beverages, costs from 73,400 rupees ($1270) for a double occupancy or from 55,000 rupees for a single occupancy. In Delhi, stay at either the Taj Palace or the Taj Mahal hotel. See tajhotels杭州夜网m.
Getting around Road transfers with a driver are available between the Taj lodges and Khajuraho. Self-driving is not recommended due to the poor state of the roads in Madhya Pradesh. An expensive alternative, which can be arranged through TCI, is to charter a light aircraft between Khajuraho and an airstrip near Bandhavgarh (and vice versa). A four-seater twin-engine Piper Seneca charter flight starts from $US3250 ($3085) and a two-seater turboprop starts from $US1850, one way.
Estimated number of tigers in the wild worldwide 3062 to 3948.
Estimated number in captivity 40,000.
Nation with biggest tiger population India.
Estimated number of tigers in India Between 1571 and 1875.
Number of Indian states with tiger populations 17.
Number of Indian states with more than 100 tigers Seven.
Estimated number of tigers killed by poachers in India 923 between 1994 and 2010.
Source: Wildlife Protection Society of India
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.