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The thrill of tracking Tigers

This article first appeared in the Aug/Sept edition of India Link International 2003

This is the time of year when people begin to plan their forthcoming holidays in India during the autumn and winter season, when once again the sun is not an enemy and the rains have hopefully come and departed, leaving a clean, washed and refreshed land awaiting its visitors.

This time last year we were doing the same thing and elected to do a research trip lasting a month, in my case, to discover the beauties and attractions of the various big wildlife parks. I decided to visit Ranthambhore, Bandavgarh, Kanha and Corbett. I have long ago visited others in the South but recently we concentrated on those in central India. Let me say quite simply that the time spent in these wild and wonderful places was so worthwhile and the memories gained, Graham, my husband and I will treasure for ever.

Tracking a tigress on elephant back

Tigress seen from the back of an elephantEach park has its own specific attractions in terms of topography and flora and fauna for one to see. All of them have that intrinsic beauty of a wild special place with peace and tranquillity. Ranthambhore must be very beautiful when the rains have been and the lakes are full, but sadly on our visit and indeed, just now it must be struggling to survive in the current drought and heat. This is an ongoing problem for the park authorities and all of us who care about the conservation of animals in that area. Bandavgarh was however looking beautiful. By mid November the elephant grass is in flower and looks quite superb, a sea of waving white and silvery plumes in a jungle savannah with a herd of chital deer grazing and the call of the peacock in the morning sunlight is sublime. It requires one to be on the lookout and alert to spot the signs of the big predators and then the urgency is there… the driver and naturalist become very excited, the anticipation mounts and with supreme good fortune perhaps one sees tiger, or leopard, or bear. For us tracking a tigress on elephant back was an ultimate thrill. We had ten sightings of tiger and two of leopard in our last trip in three parks, plus plenty of encounters with all the other denizens of the Indian jungle.

My advice is however, go to see everything. Be it a tiny owl sitting in a tree winking at you in the sunshine, or a Sambar stag stately in his caution, or a herd of wild pig quietly drinking at a water hole, enjoy and marvel at them all. Wild elephant at Corbett and Nagarhole are magnificent, but even being on elephant back for a three hour ride is wonderful. A sort of stately ship on land just firmly ploughing through the undergrowth and wading across wide shallow pools where the mahawat knows it is safe to walk, is a perfect way to see, and be seen. Believe me, if you do not see tiger, be sure he will have seen you and may even play games with you. In Corbett there was no doubt by the evidence of the fresh pug marks that a tiger was tracking us as we were reciprocating. The frustration was that he succeeded where we did not!

Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary

India has the highest number of migratory bird species of any country in the world. Go to Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary, it is one of the world's great sanctuaries situated near Bharatpur, which is just inside the border of Rajasthan. The best viewing times are very early in the morning and late afternoon. No motorised transport is allowed inside the park so one either walks, or more sensibly hires bicycles or is carried in a cycle rickshaw. Our rickshaw wallah was so knowledgeable and fun to be with and I wrote of him in my book India: The Peacock's Call. The bird sanctuary can be comfortably included in an itinerary along with the sublime Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and a visit to Deeg, which is very close to the sanctuary. Deeg is a little visited palace of the Maharajahs of Bharatpur but so interesting because of the vision of its architect. All this is in my book. I would recommend travelling by train to Agra and picking up a driver and car. Alternatively, one can fly to Agra from Delhi.

Kanha

Kanha is considered to be the king of the parks and one can understand why, it is huge and very well maintained. We were very fortunate and also saw a tigress from elephant back there and my photograph encapsulates that moment which was amazing for us all. Kanha requires some dedication to get to as it is truly in the heart of India and thus so interesting. Sadly Madhya Pradesh has still to work very hard to upgrade the roads. The easiest way to reach Kanha is to travel by train to Jabalpur from Mumbai, Kolkatta or Delhi, and be met by a driver and car for the three hour onward journey.

Aline washing TaraIt is worth it and we had some of our happiest experiences with Tara, the world famous elephant who belongs to Mark Shand, the author who is famous for the book Travels on my Elephant. Tara now lives permanently at Kipling Camp where we stayed, and thus we were able to share in her daily bathing ritual in the Banjari River close to camp. Again, this was one of the great thrills of my life and fortunately my photography was successful. Tara is a huge animal, but to see her wallowing in the river and behaving like a toddler in the bath and refusing to come out when the mahawat beckoned was so good. The gentle afternoon sunlight shone on the great animal as she plunged and sprayed herself, as we sat nearby on a boulder and then, when persuaded to come out on to the sandy bank, we were 'allowed' to scrub her and pat her in the shallow water. She loved my rings and with the gentleness and delicacy of a small person kept feeling them with the tips of her trunk which act like an index finger and thumb for her whilst lying on her side in the water. I loved her and stroked her ears and gently scrubbed her trunk with a brush, her eyelashes are about two inches long… and then her ladyship ambled out ponderously on to a boulder and stood on three feet, using her trunk to wield a twig with which she sort of achieved a pedicure, but really it looked like a pachyderm manicure, just requiring nail varnish! After her bath when she was fully dry from the sun's rays she was saddled up with the howdah and we returned to camp on her back, a truly beautiful experience. Happy elephant happy travellers!

All these lovely experiences are there for you also to enjoy, but it is a sobering thought that an increasingly urban existence is led by vast populations the world over and thus we have to educate the average man and woman that 'the wild' is of vital importance to us all - the majority of people have lost touch with 'the wild' in the entire developed world. Solutions considered by conservationists a decade or two ago will not necessarily work today because of the 10s of millions increase in population. That we all know applies to India. In my lifetime the same landmass now is home to 600 million more people than when I was born in Uttar Pradesh.

There are 500 national parks and wild places in India, but in the long run unless there is a more integrated conservation policy these will be substantially subsumed by population pressure. It requires us all to be proactive and help exert pressure on expedient politicians to ensure these wonderful wild places are conserved and enhanced, so that the tiger, emblematic of India, a glorious animal, is allowed to live in the wild and thrive, admittedly not in the numbers it once did.

Gandhiji's tenets for living

Now apparently it is not fashionable to recall Gandhiji's tenets for living, but I am a child of independence and he will always continue to inspire me with his ideals. He said 'The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated'. He also said 'All creatures have an equal right to live on this earth'.

Please go and see all this wonder for yourselves, enjoy the very Heart of India, and when you are back and standing at a bus stop, or waiting to catch a train, in the grey pouring rain of a winter's morning, be cheerful, remember you have been and seen some of the world's most wonderful animals - Gandhiji also said if we all do a little then we shall achieve a lot. Let us all play our part in conserving the tiger and his habitat in India. Enjoy yourselves and take care.