else to start an article about tigers other than William Blake’s ominous verse? The eighteenth century poet at once captures the mystique, and yes, the dread, of these noble animals probably better than any other writer.
Where else to start but on a search for the great animal itself in one of the most famous tiger reserves in the world — Bandhavgarh National Park in northern India.
As we approach the park at midnight a dark shape lumbers across the path of our taxi, 50 metres distant. What was it? A tiger? A chinkara? A jackal? It was about the size of a small donkey, its shoulders lurching. What could it be? We couldn’t care less. It disappeared as rapidly as it had appeared.
It was an exhausting six-hour journey over dusty, broken roads to get here and all we wanted was bed. Tomorrow at 5am we look for the noble animals in their natural environment — hunting deer or just loafing by a lake, perhaps?
There were around 100,000 tigers at the start of the 20th century, mainly in south-eastern and eastern Asia. But the news is not good. Fewer than 4,000 tigers are estimated to live in the wild in 2013. And six tiger sub-species have been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In India, the government established Project Tiger to help save tigers from becoming extinct. There are 19 national parks in the country under the aegis of this programme. Other parks have specialities such as the Gir National Parks that uniquely protects Asiatic lions in India. And in Assam, the Kaziranga Sanctuary provides shelter for the threatened rhinoceros.
At 4.45am we crawl out of our beds and don warm jackets and gloves. It might be northern India approaching the rainy season, but at this hour it is very cold. Early morning and late evening are the best time to see animals in the wild, as this is their favourite time to forage for food. At most other times they are sheltering from the sun.
We had booked our place in a jeep safari to seek out the tigers. We are assured that sightings by this method are plentiful. They are even more plentiful if you opt for a tour on elephant-back, like a raj in a howdah — that elaborate box that sits on an elephant’s back garlanded with exotic flowers and tapestries. No matter, our chosen transport is the jeep and at the word of our guide Jeevan, we are off.
Bandhavgarh is in northern India in the province of Madhya Pradesh. It covers 440 square kilometres. It is home to about 50 tigers and was set up in 1968, says Jeevan. The extremely rare white tiger was once resident but has vanished. And the daddy of them all, the Royal Bengal Tiger, can also be seen here. And though the tigers live in a protected national park they are still vulnerable to predation. The famous female Sita was killed in the 1990s, unbelievably, by poachers. Other animals have been electrocuted and harmed by people from the villages that adjoin Bandhavgarh.
The park is crisscrossed with dozens of tracks which cut right through the tigers’ habitat among the sal trees and bamboo. We drive slowly up and down the tracks our eyes peeled for a sighting. Five jeeps had set off together all connected by walkie talkie should one jeep spot a tiger. Along the trail the camp has sent out several elephants and mahouts who hope to drive out the tigers from the undergrowth.
After about an hour of fruitless searching a frantic message comes through the walkie talkie. A female tiger with two cubs has been spotted down by the lake by a tourist in one of the other jeeps. With a screech of brakes and an about-turn straight out of Indiana Jones we hare down the track in a cloud of dust. We arrive in thirty seconds but there is no sign of our quarry. Instead there is a freshly slaughtered deer.
The utter majesty of these yellow and black-striped felines triggers a fear in our lizard brain that has no parallel except perhaps in sharks. By comparison with other jungle inhabitants, the elephant is loveable, the lion a mere pussycat. Jeevan is very informative about the park as we search for the tigers. Other animals in the park include chausingha (antelope), wild boar, chital (spotted deer), nilgai (antelope), chinkara and jackal. Dozens of species of birds throng the park including kingfishers and egrets.
We motor up and down more tracks as the morning wears on. Still no sign of our tiger. After three hours we stop by a camp where we can get pancakes and coffee. The other jeeps have all stopped here too as the drivers and guides share information. After the break we’re off again. The feeling is that the best place to see the tigers is on the west-side of the lake, that is the opposite side to our base. We drive there with about five minutes between the jeeps. A cluster of jeeps is very likely to disturb the tigers where you might get away with one jeep in low gear, says Jeevan. We stop, look and listen. No one speaks. In the distance across the lake a woodpecker thuk, thuk, thuks. Nothing. At this stage we are beginning to wonder if we are going to see tigers at all. There is still time, says Jeevan.
We are beginning to realise that nature doesn’t stop what it’s doing just because a couple of tourists are in town. Wild animals, especially the tiger, are masters of camouflage. What you see are their signs. Principally, faeces, analysis of which park wardens use to elicit much information as to the tigers’ habits including diet and movement. Other signs are their kills: the dead deer from earlier.
We are about to leave when the walkie talkie bursts into life. Jeevan is very excited. There has been a positive sighting of the female and two cubs. We arrive at a bend in the road leading into the deep jungle in two minutes flat. Too late? No. The guide points out the female about thirty metres from the road in a thicket. Where? Near the white rock. Come again? To the left of the white rock and the right of the mossy tree. And sure enough there is the tiger, or at least her flank and her tail. Not moving. You can definitely make out a few stripes and then for ten seconds a cub nuzzles in under her body. And that is that. The tigers in all their magnificence. We have travelled six thousand miles for ten seconds? We don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Yes, nature is magnificent, but it is elusive.
There is a saying about the Bandhavgarh park that goes: “In any other park, you are lucky if you see a tiger. In Bandhavgarh, you are unlucky if you don’t see (at least) one.” Thems the breaks.
On quitting Bandhavgarh we go over the list of the animals again that Jeevan told us about. We tick them off one by one. That animal that lurched across the road in front of us two nights earlier not only may have been a tiger, it was a tiger.
The most convenient airport is at Khajuraho which is 230km from Bandhavgarh. Buses, car hire, or even taxis (€60 per person) can bring you to Bandhavgarh park. Regular flights connect to Delhi.
Delhi can be reached from Cork with a stopover in London or Amsterdam and Doha. Aer Lingus/ Qatar Airlines — €760; www.expedia.ie
Fota Wildlife Park in Cork recently acquired two Sumatran tigers. They have included tigers as part of their development plan for the 27 acres of additional land they have adjacent to the park, says Sean McKeown, director of Fota Wildlife Park. Fota’s tigers are two-year-old male Denar, which it received from Warsaw Zoo, Poland, and two-year-old female Dourga from Le Parc des Félins in Nesles, France.
Southeast Asia has more endangered species than anywhere else in the world. Fota is hoping that the introduction of Dourga and Denar can help the species to survive and not suffer the fate of the Bali tiger which became extinct in the 1940s.