In search of… the Bengal tiger

| July 8, 2016

Aficionados of the African safari are in for a considerable shock if they undertake its Indian equivalent: gone are the wide-open plains littered with herds of wildebeest, zebras, and many varieties of deer, the lines of elephants dutifully following the matriarch in search of food and water, and lions posing photogenically under the nearest Mopane tree.

Kanha National Park Instead, visitors are greeted by forests, meadowlands, rocky outcrops, and dusty trails winding their way between them: the animals need to be sought out rather than merely observed in their profusion. It might be possible, from the viewing of wildlife documentaries on television, to suffer from the delusion that one needs to do little more than turn up to see the major predators of the animal kingdom. Sadly this is not the case, and it takes time and effort to achieve sightings of the rarer species. Shere Khan does not simply sit on a forest track waving an airy paw and shouting “Yoo hoo chaps, I’m over here” – instead he skulks and prowls on the edge of, or within, the forest, and through the long grass of the meadowlands.

Bengal tiger in Kanha NP

A second complicating factor is that tigers are more nocturnal than diurnal, thus limiting the scope for sightings to shortly after dawn and before dusk. In addition, the higher the temperature the less likelihood of the creature being on the move (and they do move, ranging far and wide across their territory). As part of our expedition to the Subcontinent, the Memsahib and I planned to visit three different game parks in order to give ourselves a decent chance of a tiger sighting, namely Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Tadoba. On the basis of our experiences, I have constructed a brief guide on how to find a tiger: 1. When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, cosmic forces may combine to arrange for your path to intersect with that of the tiger in open space. 2. The tiger may appear in the distance or through trees whilst going about its business. 3. Alarm calls from other creatures (deer and monkeys) can enable a naturalist to track the movement and direction of a predator. 4. Naturalists can work out, on the basis of known recent sightings, where a tiger might reappear (e.g. en route to a watering hole). 5. Tracks left by the creature can indicate where it is headed (and when it passed by). 6. Wait by a location which tigers have to visit (such as a watering hole). 7. Drive frantically around non-stop. 8. Wait for ages at a location where a tiger entered the jungle 7-hours previous in case it comes back. In summary, luck offers the best chance (1 & 2), followed by interpretation of natural data (3 to 6) and finally guaranteeing a lack of sightings (7 & 8). Our first day at Bandhavgarh did not involve much in the way of wildlife viewing, given that it coincided with Holi, the Indian festival of colour: authorities had closed the park for fear that the local wildlife may find itself redecorated with the coloured powder that typifies the celebrations. We did, however, go for a pre-breakfast stroll at our camp Mahua Kothi, keeping an eye out for birds, and were by mid-morning resting up in preparation for lunch and an afternoon outing to the buffer zone (an area which is not within the park boundary, but at the same time not entirely outside it, and which does contain wildlife), when we were summoned to a celebration of Holi. Mahua Kothi camp This involved being clad in a white kurta (I had the large, which was too tight above waist level, and could have accommodated three people below it) and joining in with a small exercise in getting mucky by having turquoise and Barbie-pink (which are not really my colours) powders smeared all over. The Memsahib threw herself into this with gay abandon, whereas I stood diffidently to one side pretending to be a tree trunk. Sadly this strategy failed and I was compelled to join the jollifications. This was eventually followed by an extended clean-up session before we set off in search of the animals. In the course of our expeditions over the next 48 hours or so, we racked up a fair number of animal sightings – the ubiquitous spotted deer (chital), wild boars, sambar, blue bulls (nilgais), Asiatic jackals, swamp deer (barasingha) and many langur monkeys. The latter are fairly widespread and can be seen grooming, suckling, swinging around in the trees or just sitting (in almost human poses) musing on philosophical matters. The troupe is split into two parts: the women, children and an alpha male; and the other males, who generally behave in a boisterous manner and mount occasional attempts to oust the dominant male. langur monkeys The park is also fairly well stocked with birdlife: amongst those I can remember are crested serpent eagles, black and lesser adjutant storks, black and Egyptian vultures, shikras, parakeets, normal and racket-tailed drongos, colourful (a wonderful iridescent blue in flight) Indian rollers, lapwings, white-breasted kingfishers (which also feature bright blue and reddish brown) and bee-eaters. I remain amazed at the ability of naturalists to spot and identify these small birds approaching from about a hundred yards away! Indian-birds Did we spot a tiger? Not telling… We then moved on to our second park, Kanha, a larger area, fairly densely covered in many parts by sal trees and bamboo, and supposedly the inspiration for Kipling’s The Jungle Book. About 30 minutes into our first morning drive, we became aware of a considerable kerfuffle, and vehicles all heading for a single track. This turned out to be the result of a leopard sighting. Whilst the vehicles jostled in a manner more reminiscent of New Delhi in rush hour for the best view (the front rank of the grid was about six vehicles wide, which is pretty impressive on a single track) with their occupants standing up and in some cases standing on seats for those all-important photos, the leopard sauntered down the track without a care in the world, occasionally looking back to check on the pursuit and turning to offer a profile shot before ambling off into the undergrowth. Leopard in Kanha NP Over the next four wildlife drives, we saw many of the same animals as in Bandhavgarh, but added gaurs, which resemble an ox on steroids – it is apparently imprudent to annoy them! We also saw the dry-land version of the swamp deer for which Kanha is noted – couldn’t they just have given it another name, since it doesn’t deal in swamps? Did we see a tiger? Not telling… but whilst on the search we did undergo the method described in number 8 above – it is probably marginally more exciting than watching paint dry, but not by much… Finally we moved on to Tadoba, a small park in comparison, with forests of teak and bamboo and of arid appearance when compared to the other two: its size limits the number of trails in the forest, although it also has an inter-village bus route running through the middle. Our first morning drive yielded almost immediate results, when we spotted an Indian wild dog, or dhole. It is totally unlike its African namesake, being small and vulpine, and even more endangered, given that only 2,500 remain in the wild. This was a good start, and we soon followed up by spotting a savanna nightjar, a strange bird that lies on the ground pretending (pretty successfully) to be a rock, or leaf litter. Indian wild dog and savannah nightjar Again we spotted the usual suspects and ranged across the landscape in pursuit of our targets – and on our final wildlife drive, with half an hour left, we came across the previously unseen sloth bear (Baloo). This was the bear traditionally used as the dancing bear (a practice which was ended in 2009), but it is now endangered through poaching – its gall bladder is seen as a potency aid or a cure for fever in Chinese medicine. I have to say that for a creature with the word sloth in its name, it can’t half shift – as it proved when crossing our path. Sloth bear in Bandhavgarth This was our final park, and… did we see a tiger? Not telling… We found these three parks extremely enjoyable (once we got over the idea of dragging our ageing corpses from the arms of Morpheus at 5am!) and enjoyed many good sightings – we also got far more birdlife that we have done on other safaris. But the big question remains – did we see a tiger? The answer is……YES, within the first hour of the first day in Bandhavgarh national park. There we had two sightings, unfortunately not of the close range variety, but certainly clearly visible – maybe 200-300 yards away. And that just about completes our collection of sightings of the world’s major wildlife (apart from polar bears, and I’m not planning to head to the Arctic any time soon!). Mike and Chris Simm travelled on a tailor-made itinerary to India, similar to the Cox & Kings Wildlife of India itinerary. For your own bespoke holiday to India, please call our experts on 020 7873 5000, or see more on our India holidays page. Images by Chris Simm and Shutterstock. 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