Indian Tiger Safari | Country & Town House
Country & Town House magazine | November 2011
Safaris don't get more exciting than catching your first glimpse of the legendary Bengal tiger, says Laura Ivill
At 5am an unsettling disturbance wakes me in the darkness. It is the morning of my first game drive, but the noise isn’t the arrival of my steaming coffee and homemade biscuits, but a much more heartpounding racket – the heavy skittering of what can only be large langur monkeys playing fitfully on the wooden roof of my jungle bungalow.
These gentle giants of the forests of Madyha Pradesh, Central India, are found everywhere I have travelled so far – lumbering through the trees in roadside villages, and grooming their weeks-old young near the Pench National Park, which is also home to the headline act of this safari adventure, the Bengal tiger.
In 1894, Rudyard Kipling famously wrote about Mowgli’s struggle against his nemesis, the Bengal tiger Shere Khan; the story was set right here in this dry, deciduous teak forest – still remote from the rest of the world today, but now protected as a 758 sq/km national park and home to around 33 adult tigers. In The Jungle Book, Mowgli killed and skinned the huge beast; nowadays, poachers still manage to steal tigers from the wild, despite there being only around 3,200 in the world that roam free. Roughly half of those are in India, which is why Indians and Westerners now come with naturalists for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these majestic beasts in their natural habitat. I am visiting two parks; but in just four days, will I see a tiger?
As this is luxury travel, it is only me and one fellow guest from the Baghvan safari lodge, Deborah, in the Tata today, with Yousef, our Indian naturalist guide tracking the tigers from the driving seat, and a local ranger alongside him.
Yousef suddenly hits the break, switches off the engine and we stop with a judder. He points to a tiger’s paw prints – ‘pug marks’ – crossing the road, a distinct and fresh trail in the soft earth. ‘It’s a male,’ he says, as we lean over the side of the 4x4 to study the size and depth of the prints. However, there is no sound of a deer’s alarm call alerting the rest of the herd to a tiger’s presence. We know there is a female in this part of the park with five cubs in tow. Yousef hatches a plan. He decides to take us to a jungle clearing where there might be a chance to see our quarry from the back of an elephant.
The mahouts, who work in the park, can take their elephants ‘off-road’, and can make extra rupees by showing visitors a tiger that has gone to ground in the heat of the day. Today we are in luck – the six-year-old tigress and mother of the five youngsters has been spotted in the undergrowth.
Deborah and I are invited, in haste, aboard one of four elephants, ridden by a slightly built mahout. We climb up the ladder and find a comfortable seat in the green-painted wooden howdah. The great animal strides off into the bush, dry lantana branches barring its way, yet easily brushed aside by the elephant’s thick, grey hide.
We know this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. With one hand on the creaking howdah, the other holding my camera, I dare not speak as we move deeper into the bush. The mahout’s hushed voice encourages the elephant ever onwards and he taps the top of its wrinkly head with an ankus (metal hammer and spike tool). Then he halts and points ahead, indicating that the white flecks hidden under long, bare twigs belong to the whiskery face of the female we have come to admire.
Feasting indulgently on the fresh kill of a large Sambar deer, she is, indeed, magnificent – a soft, sleek, powerful beast, with a coat of rich amber and those white markings on her big cat’s face that give her away. The moment is all too brief. And she knows we are there, which is why she has hidden her five cubs at a distance to feed them when all is quiet.
To have come this far and to see not only this female but another the following day in just a short visit to Central India is a true privilege – and a remarkable achievement by Scott Dunn, the bespoke tour company, as the complex travel arrangements never missed a beat. I’m glad to know that my visit will contribute to the future survival of tigers in India (through the Travel Operators for Tigers campaign), so that, hopefully, not only this six-year-old will survive for many more years, but her five cubs may have that chance, too.