India: Eye of the tiger
Posted on Sun, Jan. 06, 2008
BY JOHN FLINN
In a flash the news was all over the jungle: A tiger was afoot.
The langur monkeys spotted it from their treetop sentry posts, and their coughing, guttural alarm was relayed on the ground by the large, elk-like deer called sambars. Their tiger warning — a throaty bleating — was in turn passed on by the yelp of the spotted deer known as chitals.
Throughout the forest creatures froze in place, eyes widened, ears perked, nostrils flared. In our open jeep, chatter stopped and binoculars and long-lens cameras rose into place.
At first, nothing. Then, just barely visible, a great, muscular wraith creeping through the tangled undergrowth. Its stripes rendered it nearly undetectable; it made no sound.
”If you can hear it walking,” whispered our guide and spotter, Jagat Narayan, “it’s not a tiger.”
We stood motionless, holding our breath, fingers poised on shutters, collectively willing it to step into the open. And then, to the dismay of those of us in the jeep and the profound relief of every other sentient being in this corner of Bandhavgarh National Park, the tiger turned and vanished as phantom-like as it arrived.
It used to be much easier to see a wild Bengal tiger in India. At the turn of the 20th century, when Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book, between 40,000 and 50,000 of them roamed the countryside, so many that maharajas hunted them from custom-built Rolls-Royces. One man alone, the Maharaja of Surguja, claimed to have killed 1,150.
India banned tiger hunting in 1970, but since then poachers have been slaughtering what tigers the maharajas left behind, snaring or poisoning or even electrocuting them to supply the newly affluent Chinese with the tiger fur, tiger bones, tiger whiskers, tiger hearts, tiger eyeballs, tiger gall bladders and tiger penises used in traditional medicine.
Today no one is sure how many wild tigers remain in India, but most estimates put the total at only 3,000 to 3,500. Some believe it’s closer to 1,500. Whatever the count, most experts believe India has about half the world’s wild tiger population.
But seven of the country’s 28 tiger reserves barely sustain a breeding population, and in one, the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, a three-hour drive from Delhi, no one has seen a tiger since 2004. Wildlife experts believe poachers killed the preserve’s entire population.
If I ever wanted to see a tiger in the wild, I realized, I’d better not put it off.
I turned to an old friend, Brian Weirum, a trekking leader and waiter at Insalata’s in Marin County who has devoted much of his life to saving the tigers of India and Nepal. I got a measure of his passion one morning in India when a game warden, a devout Hindu with a long white beard, wished him blessings. The man gestured to the sky and said, “God.”
”God and tiger are the same,” replied Weirum. “To look into the face of the tiger is to look into the face of God.”
From his home in Woodacre, Weirum, 64, runs the Fund for the Tiger, a nonprofit organization that over the last 12 years has raised $278,000 to fund anti-poaching operations, tiger monitoring programs and other tiger protection initiatives in India and Nepal.
One of his major fundraisers is the 15-day ”Save the Tiger” benefit trip he leads to the two countries each spring in conjunction with Mountain Travel Sobek. Earlier this year I tagged along on the India segment of the trip.
In Delhi, we met Belinda Wright, a gutsy and indefatigable defender of the tiger, a whirlwind of a woman who brings to mind the phrase ”a force of nature.” Much of the money Weirum raises helps fund her work.
A former National Geographic photographer, Wright, 54, founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India and regularly risks her life by going undercover to try to break up the Asian trade in smuggled tiger parts. I listened as she filled Weirum in on more than a dozen projects and initiatives she has going simultaneously. Wright gives the impression that there isn’t much time left.
The tiger, she told me, “is slipping through India’s fingers.”
”The biggest problem right now? Corruption. It’s throughout the society, just everywhere,” Wright said. “I just have to look for pockets of honesty. I’ve found some courageous game officials, but they often get sacked.”
The following evening we boarded the Kalinga Utal Express, an overnight train that took us 400 miles south to Bandhavgarh National Park. East of Bhopal in the state of Madhya Pradesh, it is in the region that inspired The Jungle Book.
The former hunting reserve of the Maharaja of Rewa, Bandhavgarh is said to have the highest concentration of tigers in India, about 40 in the 40-square-mile ”core area” and the surrounding 170-square-mile buffer zone.
The reserve has two other distinctions: It is the source of the near-legendary white tiger, of Siegfried and Roy fame. All of the world’s white tigers are descended from a single cub found here in 1951, named Mohan. The unusual color is the result not of albinism but of inbreeding.
Bandhavgarh was also home to the most celebrated wild tiger of them all — Sita, the majestic tigress featured on the cover of National Geographic, in the book The Year of the Tiger and in several BBC documentaries.
Named for a beloved Hindu goddess said to be the perfect mother, Sita was the matriarch of Bandhavgarh, a fertile and productive female largely responsible for the reserve’s healthy tiger population. In her 17 years she produced six litters with a total of 18 cubs, and a high percentage of the tigers in the park today are her progeny.
One day in 1999, less than a year after appearing on the National Geographic cover, Sita simply vanished. The poacher who killed her made somewhere between $250 and $1,000.
SUDDEN TRAFFIC JAM
Our group of 11 stepped off the train in the pre-dawn darkness, checked into the Tiger Den, a tidy, hacienda-style lodge just outside the park, dropped our duffels in our rooms and immediately piled into jeeps to go look for tigers.
Wildlife viewing is always a gamble, and there was no guarantee we’d actually lay eyes on the rare and secretive beast we’d journeyed halfway around the world to see. Weirum did his best to manage expectations, but there were clearly going to be some unhappy campers in the group if we went home empty-handed. As it turned out, this was not a problem at Bandhavgarh.
I quickly learned to stick close to Narayan, a remarkably knowledgeable and perceptive naturalist. By watching him, I began to recognize the tiger-warning calls of the various jungle creatures, and to learn to triangulate them to determine a tiger’s general location and direction of movement.
I also tried to ride in the jeep with Darrel Roddenberry, a retired Marine Corps Special Operations sharpshooter with an almost freakish ability to glimpse well-camouflaged tigers, and to direct my eyes to them.
We saw tigers on each of our three days in the reserve, some only fleetingly or half-hidden in the tall grass, some out in the open and startlingly close.
Two of the sightings stand out.
One afternoon we were driving through the park when Narayan suddenly told the driver to hit the brakes. Even without binoculars we could see a young male tiger sauntering through the bamboo on the side of the road. As we waited for it to step out into the open, another jeep pulled up, then another and another and another.
The tiger approached the road, and the arriving jeeps screeched and lurched wildly, trying to maneuver for the best view. None of the drivers or guides wanted to be the one whose clients didn’t get a good look.
The tiger wanted to cross the road, but couldn’t find a path through the traffic jam. As drivers shouted at each other to back up, the tiger finally went around the jeeps and sprinted away, clearly eager to escape the madness.
If that scene bordered on the ridiculous, the other was a moment of awe and wonder that will stay with me the rest of my life.
One morning word went around Bandhavgarh that a tiger had been spotted with a kill, far off the road, and the wardens were summoning their elephants to take us there.
We waited in a meadow called Chakhadhara, and when it was our turn a smallish Asian elephant was led over to our jeep. I scrambled up onto the howdah, the platform on its back, with another trip participant.
Lurching and swaying atop the kindly beast, we set off into the jungle. The driver, called a mahout, steered by tapping the elephant on its head with his bare feet. He motioned for us to be silent. The only sounds were the creaking of the leather harness and the crunching of leaves underfoot as the elephant plodded through a tangled forest of sal trees, stepping over logs and pushing through leafy branches that thwapped us in the face.
Then, among some rocks, we saw the kill — a crimson, dismembered chital that looked like a child’s toy with the stuffing pulled out. The elephant halted, and there, above the kill, on a ledge at eye level with us, only 15 feet away, was the tiger.
Sated from his meal, he reclined on his side, panting, head up, blinking drowsily at us. I got the feeling we were interrupting his siesta.
As we stared, mouths agape, the tiger turned his head slowly and deliberately and made eye contact with each of us. It is said that tigers don’t recognize the strange-looking cargo on the backs of elephants as humans, but whatever he thought of us, he knew we were there.
The grandson of Sita, the tiger was about 27 months old and known as the Chakhadhara male. He was just learning to hunt for himself, and looked to be quite successful — he was certainly well fed.
The elephant shifted its feet nervously; I gathered we were a bit closer than it preferred. The tiger could have been upon us easily in a single leap.
Yawning luxuriously, the Chakhadhara male showed off white incisors the size of ice picks.
He watched us watching him, more with bemusement than malice, displaying his grandmother’s regal bearing. There were no other elephants around; we had been granted a rare private audience with royalty.
The mahout turned the elephant so we each got a good look. Then, after only three minutes, it was time to head back. As we crunched back through the jungle I swiveled around for one last glimpse. The Chakhadhara male still held us in his steady gaze.
From that moment my life was cleanly divided into two parts: Before I saw the tiger, and after.
For The Tiger
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