India's Bandhavgarh National Park is a beacon of hope for the endangered tiger, where visitors may still have an unforgettable close encounter with one of the world's most striking predators
Special to The Sun
Saturday, April 12, 2008
While rambling along one of the many well-worn tracks of Bandhavgarh National Park, our driver received word that a tiger had been spotted resting in the tall grass just a few hundred meters off the road. The warden was summoning his elephants to take us there so we quickly headed for the rendezvous point.
On arriving, we came across several other tourists who had also heard the news. With great anticipation, we jumped into the queue.
After several anxious minutes, an Asian elephant was led over to the side of our jeep and I pulled myself up on to a small seating platform that rested on its back. Along with the elephant driver, or "mahout," we set off into the jungle.
Lurching and swaying, the elephant plodded through the thicket of sal trees. Unusually quiet, the jungle was disturbed only be the creaking sound of our leather harness and the crunching of leaves beneath the elephant's feet.
Within minutes, we came upon a large meadow and passed through a sea of grass that, despite our lofty perch, still engulfed us. Suddenly the elephant stopped and there, on a small patch of flattened sedge growth, only metres away, was the tiger.
I stared in awe at this beautiful animal with a buttery gold coat that made her black stripes seem even more pronounced.
A large female in her prime, she paid us little attention at first. Having just awakened from her nap, she yawned and her white incisors stood out like ice picks.
The tiger then sat up and, turning towards me, her glowing amber eyes locked on to mine. It was my first eye-to-eye encounter with one of the rarest and most beautiful predators on Earth and would be something I'd never forget.
Suddenly, the elephant started shifting apprehensively. Sensing the animal's skittishness, the mahout backed the elephant away before turning him sideways to give us one last look at the tiger. All too quickly, it was time to leave.
I had come to Bandhavgarh a few days earlier to explore one of India's most prominent and popular parks. Known for its high density of tigers (perhaps the highest in all of India), the park attracts visitors from around the world.
Located about 600 kms south of Delhi, Bandhavgarh is set among the Vindhya Hills in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Its topography varies between steep ridges, open meadows and undulating hills forested with bamboo and sal trees.
Bandhavgarh is only about 400 square kilometres in size and, from much of the park, the ruins of an ancient fortress on a high ridge provide a stunning backdrop. The last occupier of the fort was the Maharaja of Rewa who managed the surrounding area as his own private hunting reserve before turning the land over to the state in 1968.
The park is also renowned as the source of the legendary white tiger (of Siegfried and Roy fame). In fact, all of the world's white tigers are descended from a single cub named Mohan that was found here in 1951.
In addition to tigers, the park is home to many other animals including sambar and spotted deer, chausingha (a four horned antelope), leopard, sloth, civet, jackal and wild boar. There are also more than 150 bird species found in the park.
But for many, the once in a lifetime opportunity to see a tiger is what brings them to this stunning place. I was no different and, after my experience of seeing a wild tiger from the back of an elephant, I was almost giddy with excitement.
After two separate trips to India and several safaris to some of the country's best known wildlife reserves, this was my first close encounter with a tiger, an animal that had intrigued me since childhood.
But while I was gleeful over what I had seen, my jubilation was partially tempered by the fact that I knew all too well that seeing a wild tiger in India was not nearly as easy as it once was. Given the great decline in tiger numbers, I also couldn't help but wonder if my children would ever have the same opportunity.
Back in 1894, when Rudyard Kipling wrote the Jungle Book, there were an estimated 50,000 Bengal tigers roaming the Indian countryside. Today, as few as 1,400 remain.
In response to growing concern about the animal's plight, India banned the hunting of tigers back in 1970 and, a few years later, it launched "Project Tiger," an initiative aimed at establishing a network of habitat reserves.
Yet, in spite of such laudable attempts, the country's tiger population has not rebounded. While habitat destruction has been a contributing factor, poaching in response to the illegal demand for tiger pelts and body parts in China and Southeast Asia has been a major cause.
While I've long been aware of the tiger's plight, it was during an earlier visit to India in 2004 that I became more personally involved. On that trip, my wife and I spent a week in the Ranthambore tiger reserve and, during our many trips into the park, we got only a fleeting glimpse of one solitary tiger.
Our guides were confounded by the reduced sightings and there were many rumours about possible poaching activity, although nothing had been proven. Shortly after we left though, a ring of poachers was arrested in a nearby village. It was later confirmed that, over the span of several months, they had killed almost half of Ranthambore's tigers.
This was a devastating blow to tiger conservation efforts, not only in Ranthambore, but across the country. Yet, on a positive note, the international publicity from this episode led Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to strike a major task force to help save the tiger.
This culminated in a recent announcement of a new 153 million dollar program to establish eight new tiger reserves. As part of the plan, about 250 villages will be relocated away from tiger habitat and each affected family will be compensated.
While all of this is encouraging, India's tiger population remains at an historic low.
For this reason, Bandhavgarh is now a focal point for conservation and recovery efforts and, with its robust population of tigers, it represents a beacon of hope that this great cat can and will survive.
On the final day of our visit, I was out for a morning drive in a remote corner of the park when our jeep suddenly came to a stop. Our driver had heard the shrieking alarm of a langur monkey high in the treetops beside a nearby meadow. Seconds later, the forest erupted with a frenzied series of calls.
I then saw movement through the trees and those unmistakeable shades of tan and black came into view as a tiger emerged at the edge of the clearing. He was a huge male and, at close to 300 kilograms, was one of the biggest tigers in the park. Looking at him, it was difficult to imagine a more magnificent animal!
The tiger briefly scanned the open terrain and then, to our surprise, headed directly for us. He walked with a confident swagger that you'd expect from the dominant cat in the area.
We watched as the tiger crossed the road just metres from our vehicle. He then stopped at the edge of a bamboo thicket and, glancing back at us, defiantly scowled before disappearing into the forest.
Mark Angelo is the Head of the BCIT Fish and Wildlife Program and a frequent contributor to The Vancouver Sun. He is the recipient of the Order of Canada, Order of BC and the United Nations Stewardship Award for his environmental and river-conservation efforts.
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