To see a tiger in the wild: it was unquestionably the highlight of my three months in India, but it was no easy task.
Unlike lions in East African wildlife parks, there is no guarantee that one or two days spent at an Indian national park will produce a tiger sighting. It took me eight days and 13 separate game-watching drives, in two different parks, to see my tiger, but it was worth every minute and every rupee that I spent on the quest.
There are not many tigers left in India, perhaps 4,000, although many conservationists say that their numbers may be less than 3,000, due to recently increased poaching. This is still an increase over the situation in 1973, when Project Tiger was started. At the time, the population was down to 1,800 animals.
India’s tigers are scattered across the country, and though some national parks have plenty of tigers (the Sunderbans has an estimated population of 270, and Kanha has 102), it’s notoriously difficult to catch a glimpse of these solitary, nocturnal animals. Only a few parks offer a realistic chance of seeing tigers, either because park officials track the tigers daily, or because some tigers have become habituated to tourists in 4-wheel drives.
Accepted wisdom seems to be that three parks provide the best chance of seeing tigers: Corbett (in the Himalayan foothills of northern Uttar Pradesh), Kanha (in Madhya Pradesh state) and Ranthambhore (in Rajasthan). I did not meet a single tourist who had seen wild tigers in India outside these three parks.
I went first to Kanha, a long and crowded bus ride (or a comfortable but relatively expensive jeep ride), from the city of Jabalpur. Kanha is said to be the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s classic Jungle Book stories, although I couldn’t tell this from reading the book.
Whatever the case, it is a beautiful park and the showpiece of Project Tiger. It was here that George Schaller conducted his ground-breaking field study of tigers in the 1960s, and here that the current director of the Indian Wildlife Service and former field director of Project Tiger, Rajesh Ghopal, studied tigers and published a series of important papers during the 1970s and 1980s.
Kanha is a big park: the core area is 940 square kilometres, and the buffer zone around it is another 1000 square kilometres. It contains a lot of animals: nearly 20,000 chital, or spotted deer, the spitting image of Bambi; 2000 sambar, a larger type of deer; 700 gaur, or Indian bison; and 600 barasingha, or swamp deer, who sport enormous antlers and are found only within Kanha National Park, which was originally established to preserve them.
The landscape is varied: dense hardwood sal forest, patches of bamboo forest higher up on the hillsides, and large tracts of open grassland that make wildlife viewing here so pleasurable, as the wide-open spaces make it easy to spot lots of animals. The grasslands, however, are not natural occurrences: they mark the former sites of villages that were moved out of the park some 20 years ago. Because of its elevation, between 450 and 900 metres above sea level, it can get quite chilly at night in the winter months, and every morning that I was there, in early February, there were patches of frost on the ground.
As in most Indian wildlife parks, there are early-morning and late-afternoon safaris in open-backed jeeps, timed to coincide with the periods of maximum animal movement. Since you have a choice of drivers, it’s important to get a really keen one: I had an excellent 11-year-veteran named Bafati who was an expert ornithologist, a good tiger-spotter and had an irrepressible enthusiasm about all birds and animals.
He was a stark contrast to some of the guides we had. Their names come up on a rota system, giving us no freedom of choice in who our guide was to be, and perhaps half of them were bored, apathetic time-serving government employees (members of one of the most numerous species in India!) whose presence added nothing to our safaris.
The cost of the wildlife safaris is quite low. For four people in one jeep, including park entrance fees, camera fees and jeep costs, a morning drive and an afternoon drive together costs about 350 rupees (about US$10), considerably less than, for instance, a day’s excursion to a wildlife park in East Africa.
The morning safaris were chilly affairs, setting off pre-dawn and bundled in several layers of clothing, climbing the track leading toward the former site of Kanha village. We would head along side tracks, stopping at crossroads to look for tiger paw prints, or "pug marks" as the park wardens call them, and to listen for the telltale high-pitched chime-like alarm call made by chital when they see a tiger. Tigers like to walk on dirt roads, so pug marks are plentiful, along with tiger droppings,which driver and guide closely scrutinize for freshness and size.
These were moments of high excitement: were tigers near at hand? Were we hot on their trail? Or were these traces hours old?
Aside from tigers and leopards, few animals stirred in the early morning chill, aside from some brilliantly-coloured peacocks and peahens: I never got over my surprise at how well they could fly, as I had always, erroneously, thought them flightless.
One morning we spotted two wild dogs on the road, and later followed circling vultures to their kill, a nearly-devoured chital. If we were unsuccessful looking for tigers on our own, as we were every morning, we would head through the meadows near Kanha, passing herds of chital and troops of langur monkeys finally stirring themselves. At the visitor’s centre we would browse through the excellent displays while waiting to hear from the tiger trackers.
Mounted on elephants, a team of trackers would head out every morning to look for tigers. If they found a tiger, they would radio the visitor’s centre and each jeep-load of tourists would go out, in order of arrival at the centre, to get an elephant-back ride to where the tiger was. This is the most foolproof method of seeing a tiger, and I met numerous people who had seen a tiger this way, but I was plagued by bad luck on this front.
On the first morning, our driver didn’t explain why we were loafing around the visitor’s centre, and we eventually asked him to head off driving again in search of tigers. As it turned out a tiger was seen that morning, and we were second in the queue behind a BBC film crew but when we left, we lost our place in line.
On the second, third and fifth mornings no tigers were spotted. On the fourth day a tiger was seen, but by the time our turn came for our elephant ride, the tiger had wandered off. Driving back to Khatia village, the accommodation centre for the park, we rued our bad luck.