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SEARCHING FOR INDIA'S ELUSIVE BENGAL TIGER
 
(2018 - Winter/Spring Issue)

Writer: DOMINICK A. MERLE



Each jungle has its own unique alarm system. A sudden chirping of birds could signal the presence of a winged predator. Frantic shuffling by small animals on the jungle floor often means a cobra or python is searching for its next meal.

Shortly after sunrise on the second day of our safari in Bandhavgarh National Park, we received a full five-alarm warning. A tiger was afoot. And it was very near.

Monkeys first spotted the beast from their treetop sentry posts. Their guttural grunts were relayed to the large elk-like deer called sambar, whose throaty bleatings were passed on to spotted deer known as chitals, who yelped the alarm to wolves, jackals, sloth bears and any other creature within earshot.

Within seconds, every creature joined this wailing chorus of fear, many of them frozen in place, eyes widened, ears perked, nostrils flared.

The four of us in our open jeep also added a few uncontrollable grunts as we gripped our cameras, our fingers in click mode.

“There!” I shouted, pointing to some ruffling in high grass a few yards away.

“No, sir,” said our guide, Arum. “If you can hear it walking, it’s not a tiger.”

INTO THE HEART OF INDIA

Bandhavgarh is located in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, often described as the “Heart of India.” It has the highest density of Bengal tigers in all of India, and chances of spotting one of these magnificent, but deadly, creatures in the wild are greater here than anywhere else in the world.

This is also the home of the rare white tiger, of Siegfried and Roy fame. The last one (named Mohan) was captured by a maharajah in 1951 and is now stuffed and on display in a palace in northeast Madhya Pradesh. The unusual colour is the result of inbreeding, not albinism.

And Sita, perhaps the most celebrated wild tiger of them all, featured on the cover of National Geographic and numerous documentaries, also was a Bandhavgarh native. She gave birth to about 25 tigers, most by her mate, Charger, so named because of his habit of charging headfirst into elephants. Many of their offspring roam the park today. Perhaps even the one we were looking for now. Or was it watching us?

Arum, our guide and scout, found some very fresh tiger prints, called pugmarks, in the dirt just up the trail. They looked as large as an elephant’s hoof. Since a large tiger can stand 1.5 metres tall and weigh upwards of 300 kilograms, some of us questioned whether we should be following the prints or heading in the opposite direction.

After about 35 metres, the huge paw marks ended abruptly; the creature was obviously headed back into the dense jungle. Now it could be anywhere.

At dinner the previous evening at the White Tiger Lodge, the four of us had discussed how beautiful—and dangerous—a tiger could be. The Australian lady pointed out how a tiger sprang from a bank onto a fishing boat in northern India, pulled out a fisherman, leaped back ashore and disappeared into the brush. No trace of the fisherman was ever found. I don’t know why I had to recall that conversation now while looking at the disappearing tiger prints.

We circled the reserve several times looking for more prints. Many other jeep safaris were doing the same after hearing the animal distress signals.

A SIGHTING?

While we found no further trace of the elusive tiger, there were several sights that truly amazed me along the way, all of which involved humans.

Around one turn we came across two bicyclists casually pedalling along. “They’re not afraid,” Arum said, explaining they were rangers on their day off. Shortly after, we saw two native women strolling. “They live near the jungle,” Arum said, “and have grown up with tigers.”

And finally, we came across an open-air tea stand. Indians do love their tea, even in tiger country.

Just before leaving the reserve, Arum stood atop the jeep and swept the area with binoculars. “Yes! Yes! Over there!” he shouted.

On a path in the distance, too far to make out even with binoculars, was an animal that Arum insisted was a tiger. Two of us agreed, two were skeptical. For all I know, it could have been a cow. Yet, maybe a little mystery is better—and safer—than an up-close encounter.

We did, in fact, see many other jungle creatures, including wild boar, antelope, deer of all shapes and sizes, and a cobra in strike position as our jeep passed. Bandhavgarh also is home to 250 species of birds.

Getting here from the Madhya Pradesh capital of Bhopal was an adventure in itself. It involved an overnight train ride from Bhopal to Jabalpur, followed by a bumpy six-hour drive to White Tiger Lodge. At times, the ride was smoother off the road than on, as the pavement often gave way to crater-like holes.

WORTHY EXPLORATIONS

Madhya Pradesh is quite a bit off the usual tourist trail but is banking on the possibility of sighting Bengal tigers in the wild to lure in more visitors. Prior to our safari we attended a travel show organized by the Madhya Pradesh government that highlighted its tourist attractions.

We visited two of them, Sanchi and Bhimbetka, each about a 90-minute drive from Bhopal. Sanchi contains a group of stupas, monasteries, temples and pillars dating from the third century BC to the 12th century AD. Great Stupa No. 1 is the oldest stone structure in India.

Bhimbetka contains over 600 rock shelters that date back to the early Stone Age. Paintings in more than 500 caves depict the lives of the cave dwellers, making this site an archaeological treasure, an invaluable chronicle in the history of humankind.

The capital city of Bhopal is worth a day’s exploration. The Old City is teeming with marketplaces, mosques and palaces, while new Bhopal features parks and gardens, broad avenues and modern office buildings. The pace is slower than most Indian cities, the air is cleaner and the residents are very warm and friendly.

So while we’re still not certain we saw a Bengal tiger in the wild, we did have to brake for an elephant strolling up the road on the drive to the airport—or risk what could have been a very nasty rear-ender.

India does have a way of holding your attention.

Travel Planner

Visas are required for all Canadians. You can apply online through indianvisaonline.gov.in/evisa/Registration. If you choose to make your application through the nearest consulate, please allow at least three weeks prior to your departure date. Pack lightly as regional carriers between Bombay or Delhi and Bhopal enforce strict weight rules for checked and carry-on luggage. Drink only bottled water and be sure caps have been sealed.

For further information on Madhya Pradesh and the tiger safaris, visit mptourism.com or incredibleindia.org.

 
 
 
 
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