I am now convinced that the most beautiful wild animal in the world is the tiger. It has a mammoth head that is at once majestic and scary, and when it yawns those teeth fill me with terror. A pussy cat it is not! I’ve seen exquisite documentaries about its endangered status (Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey about a tiger in Ranthambhore National Park in India), but nothing can compare to seeing the huge beast in its own habitat. I didn’t get close enough to pet them, nor did I drive alongside them on the road as some lucky people have, but I saw them through Gullvi’s binoculars and was so excited that I almost didn’t grab my camera for a posterity shot.
My photos are not great—not even good—but you can get an idea of how camouflaged the animals are and difficult to see, and how much white is on their body. I no longer think of tigers as orange and black. They have well-defined markings and the white stands out. Here are a few shots from a great distance. The mother tiger had just awakened and come through the underbrush, grunting fiercely like an old man with bronchial problems. The spotted deer and the wild boar ran like hell when they heard the sound. Birds were signaling danger even before she emerged with her two grown cubs to the top of a hill overlooking the river. I have the feeling that if there hadn’t been so many vehicles parked down below she would have negotiated the bank and come down for a drink (water, that is). Bummer. But after two other game rides, during which we only saw the tail end of one tiger, after waiting two hours in intense suspense, we were ecstatic.
Going on safari in a tiger reserve is totally different from my experiences in Kenya and Tanzania. African safari drivers take off onto the plains and bush land whenever they wish, often going off road as we did last year in the Serengeti to track a mother cheetah and her cubs. They are in vans with sunroofs that open up. Here in India we are in open jeeps and must line up at specified times (6:30 AM for a morning ride and 2:30 PM for what is called an evening ride). The rides last about three hours and the government officials are extremely strict about how many jeeps are allowed, the number of people, including a guide and driver, in each vehicle, and the route taken. The driver is assigned a particular route, so there is not a jam up at any particular place. Everyone must pay at least 2200 rupees (about $48.00) for each ride. And there are only four gates of entry and exit.
We spent a great deal of time sitting in the jeep, watching the underbrush, waiting, and whispering. The tension mounted as various signs of the other animals’ nervousness heightened—wild running through the bushes, loud gutteral warning signs, birds chattering. Sometimes the driver of another vehicle would pass on information about a possible sighting and we’d race to the spot over bone-crushing roads and around tight curves only to find that we’d missed the animals. In the morning, if a tiger were sighted going into underbrush, a trained elephant was brought up and either tourists or government officials climbed up and rode on its back as it moved stealthily through the underbrush (hard to think of a huge elephant as stealthy) in its effort to locate the beast.
Badhavgarh tiger reserve is located in Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh.It covers 600 sq. kms of forests with a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Along with the tiger, you can see leopard (don’t hold your breath!), sloth bear, ratel, striped hyena, jungle cat, langur, jackal, fox, wild boar, spotted deer, sambhar deer and nilgal, to name a few. But don’t kid yourself…it’s the tiger that brings people to this park. And there are not many tigers left (I’ve heard numbers ranging from 20 to 40). Many a disappointed tourist can go for days without seeing one. We were lucky, indeed.
India and Nepal are working on building corridors from one park to the next so that the tigers can move easily from one to the other and crossbreed, something that is genetically desirable. Each guide speaks of the tigers lovingly and seems to know where they hang out in a particular part of the park, how many cubs they have, and what their habits are. It’s really a scream. “Oh, she was restless today and decided to walk to the stream before taking her afternoon nap. She’s in the bush now. I can tell because the birds are squawking…” that sort of thing. Don’t ask them how they know…they just know. And they get attached to each family. Look at the plaque erected for one of the oldest and most beloved tigers, who died in 2000.
Tigers are allowed to roam around the villages if they get past the barbed wire in certain areas (and they do) and if a drunk villager happens to confront one and get killed (as happened recently), that is his fault, not the tiger’s. Tiger is king, the locals’ livelihood, and a respected member of the community. Even Gullvi and I were admonished not to go out of our cottage after midnight for fear of meeting up with a marauding tiger. Gave me pause even at 9 PM, when we sat around a blazing campfire near the main hall and searched the underbrush for a pair of curious eyes. No, there were none…only in my imagination.
We stayed on at Wild Haven for a couple of dreamy days after completing three game rides, and enjoyed nature walks and exploring some small villages nearby. It was hard to say goodbye to the staff, which had been most generous and welcoming to us. Tourism is way down in the area due to the world economic climate, and we hope with all our heart that this beautiful place survives. Take a closer look at its website: http://www.wildhavenresorts.com
One humorous episode that occurred as we waited for our train from Katni to Delhi is shown below. I have seen this happen more than once, but never have I seen men jumping onto the track to prod a poor calf, who is being pursued by a train. I only got the calf, for I was so anxious for the safety of the “rescuers” that I completely forgot to record it. The train actually slowed down, blowing its whistle shrilly, and scaring the poor animal until it was frantic, running backwards and forwards. I don’t know how he got onto the tracks, and I don’t know how he got off. But he did.
I’m still in a daze, but managed to drag myself (thanks to my opera buddy, Phyllis Bitow) into the Metropolitan Opera to see a superb production of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride starring Placido Domingo. This was the first time I had seen him in person and it was a great thrill.
The events recorded in this blog took place from February 9 to 14. Hang in there, my friends. I’m off to California for ten days, but will return with the climax of my Indian journey, plus a few other tidbits I think you’ll find interesting.