Wild Tigers: Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve
June 7, 2010 2 Comments
Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, India – We were on foot exploring the ruins of an ancient fort on a high plateau in Bandhavgarh. No sooner did we reach the summit than we heard the alarm call of the monkeys. Evidently there was a tiger on top of the mountain with us. I turned to Vivek, our guide, “I thought you said the tigers didn’t come up to the fort?” “Well, not often,” he said, as if this were only a slight miscalculation. “Do you want to track it?” he asked. I surveyed our group and made a quick assessment of our tiger-fighting capabilities. With me were Vivek, my wife Susan and an eighty-year-old man assigned to us by the park. My Nikon appeared to be our only weapon. “Let’s not,” I replied.
We stayed close to the buildings. As we walked along a path near the temple taking photographs we were suddenly hit by an awful stench. There was no question what it was: a kill. The smell of rotting flesh was unmistakable. The tiger was close. I thought to myself, “Can it get any worse?” Which, of course, it immediately did. Ten feet in front of us, just off the edge of the path, was tiger scat. Vivek walked up and touched it with the toe of his boot. It was very fresh. He turned around and announced, “We must go back.” That was the most sensible thing he had said all day and we marched smartly back to the center of the ruins.
It’s one thing to see a tiger from atop an elephant or from the relative safety of a Land Rover, quite another to come face to face with one on the ground.
Where Have All The Tigers Gone?
Although it is impossible to say exactly how many tigers are left in the wild, official estimates vary from five thousand to seven thousand five hundred. This sounds like a lot, but even if true (and many experts believe the actual number is much lower), it is a crisis. At the turn of the century, it is estimated the total population was over fifty thousand. Of the original eight sub-species, three are already extinct: the Javan, Bali and Caspian. The five remaining sub-species – Bengal, Amur (or Siberian), Indochinese, Sumatran and South China are all endangered, the last four critically. It is doubtful the Amur, Indochinese or Sumatran will survive. The South China tiger is almost certainly doomed. We may soon be down to one.
Loss of habitat is the main problem. Exploding human populations are closing in on the last tracts of wilderness in South Asia. For firewood people cut down the forests, for food they kill the wildlife. For the tiger, the result is disastrous. It’s no longer a ‘jungle out there.’ Even in the reserves, which are theoretically protected, the tigers are not safe. Poachers kill the great cat because there is a black market for tiger bone, thought to have near-magical powers in traditional Chinese medicine.
All of these factors conspire against the world’s largest cat, Panthera tigris. Although wildlife organizations and local authorities try to protect the tiger and its environment, it is a complex problem and there are no simple solutions. My wife Susan and I concluded that if we ever wanted to see a tiger in the wild, time was of the essence.
My Kingdom For A Tiger
Trying to find one of the rarer sub-species would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Sightings are few and far between and typically last only a few seconds, flashes of orange and black that vanish as quickly as they appear. Short of staging a major expedition, the only practical choice is the Bengal. The Bengal, or Indian tiger, has the largest population of the surviving sub-species, estimated to be between two thousand five hundred and three thousand seven hundred and fifty. Unfortunately, they do not all live in one place. Like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing, the Land of the Tiger has been reduced to jagged fragments scattered across India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Although the overall picture is discouraging, it is not all bad news. There are still a few places where the chances of seeing a wild tiger up-close are very good. One is Bandhavgarh.
Located in central India, Bandhavgarh was once the private hunting grounds of the Maharaja of Rewa. In 1968 the Raja bequeathed the estate to the government to establish a national park, a refuge for the beleaguered cat. Where once it was hunted, it is now protected. And it is one of the great success stories of wildlife conservation. Totaling over four hundred square miles, the park is home to about fifty tigers, one of the highest densities anywhere in India. It is reputed to be one of the best places in the world to see tigers in the wild. We flew to Bombay and connected to Delhi. The next day we flew to Kahjaraho. From there it was a six-hour drive to Bandhavgarh. The road varied from bad to non-existent, which made for a bumpy ride, but we finally arrived just after dark.
Bandhavgarh Jungle Lodge is located just outside the park near the main gate. Each of the fourteen rooms is a small building with a bedroom and a basic bathroom with a shower. There is electricity and hot water twenty-four hours a day. The little cottages surround a small, open-air courtyard that serves as the dining area. The food is excellent. Every night the cook prepares Indian dishes like curried mutton with rice, potatoes and onions, and there is always an endless supply of puri, or fried bread. While the rooms and facilities are efficient, Bandhavgarh is spartan compared to the standard game lodges found in Africa. It is comfortable, but rustic.
Have Elephant Will Travel
The central part of India is called the Madhya Pradesh, quite literally the ‘middle province.’ It was the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book,’ and it is indeed a magical place. Complete with ravines and cliffs, marshes and rivers, the picturesque forest is home to a wide variety ofbirds and animals, most famously the Lord of the Jungle.
Bandhavgarh National Park itself is open only from six-thirty to nine-thirty in the morning and from two-thirty to five-thirty in the afternoon. Game drives are scheduled for these times. The early morning hours are cool, especially when bouncing around the park in an open jeep, and a sweater or light jacket is essential before eight 0′ clock. By noon the temperature is in the mid-seventies. On our drive the first morning we saw wild boar, jackals, black-faced monkeys and the brightly-colored Kingfisher. Half an hour into the drive we heard the distinctive alarm call of the barking deer. Both deer and monkeys have special calls to signal ‘Tiger!’ The alarm warns everyone in the vicinity to keep a sharp lookout because in the jungle hide-and-seek is a game of life-and-death. A tiger can attack with frightening speed, but only over a short distance. First it must get close. The hunt is ninety-nine percent stealth and hours are spent stalking the unsuspecting target in preparation for the final ambush. It ends in an explosive, violent crescendo – the kill- only if the tiger can get within striking distance without being detected. An alarm call is the last thing a tiger wants to hear.
Because visitors cannot leave the vehicles and the vehicles cannot leave the road, it was not possible to go and look for the tiger that was apparently nearby. But they have a system at Bandhavgarh. There are three elephants with mahouts (drivers) who work for the park. While everyone drives around in jeeps, the mahouts take the elephants and search for tigers in the jungle. To track the mighty cat they listen for alarm calls and look for pugmarks (as paw prints are called). If and when they find one, they stomp back out to the road and contact the jeeps. Visitors then converge at the meeting spot to take short rides on the elephants to see the tiger up-close. Very smart. Although they do not find a tiger every day, they did every day we were there.
About nine o’ clock, just before the end of our first game drive, word came they had found a tiger. We drove to the meeting spot where four jeeps had congregated. Standing next to the elephants for the first time Susan had second thoughts about this mode of transportation, but Vivek convinced her it was ‘absolutely, positively safe.’ In retrospect, that is not exactly how I would describe it.
We got on the elephant by climbing on the roof of a Land Rover and then being helped up onto the platform that sits atop the elephant. Four to a pachyderm, two on each side. The mahout sat on the elephant’s head. He steered our giant off-road vehicle with his feet When he tapped his right foot, the elephant went right, left was left. Off we went, crashing through the trees like a bulldozer. Three hundred yards into jungle we spotted the tiger drinking from a stream. We stomped around it for fifteen minutes, as close as thirty feet. The tiger made it clear nothing closer would be tolerated. If we stepped over this invisible line it turned and snarled at us. The elephant understood this perfectly and immediately stopped. As we followed the tiger through the forest it seemed annoyed but not afraid. The elephant couldn’t have cared less. They appeared to have an agreement not to start anything and to keep a safe distance apart, a policy we approved of completely.
The tiger was magnificent. It walked slowly, carefully putting down one giant paw after another, moving silently through the forest It was all business. Its muscles rippled across its massive shoulders with each step, it had the cold stare of a hardened killer.
Now and then it glanced our way, hoping perhaps one of us had fallen off. There was no chance it would be Susan. You could not have pried her off that elephant with the jaws-of-life. She clung not only to the elephant, but to everyone else on it. Her position was clear: if she went, we all went. And her fears were not totally unfounded. Vivek’s assurances notwithstanding, there were a few anxious moments. When the elephant stepped up or down an embankment, the platform tilted alarmingly, threatening not just to throw all the passengers ten feet to the ground, but ten feet to the ground right in front of a three hundred pound tiger. Vivek and I, of course, pretended not to be concerned. It is possible Vivek was not.
It Takes A Forest
After our morning tiger encounter we returned to the lodge. Before lunch we went for a walk just outside the gate and discussed the current state of affairs at Bandhavgarh. Although he acted as our guide, Vivek is in fact the naturalist at the Jungle Lodge and holds a master’s degree in botany. He is all too familiar with the difficulties faced by the park.
The most serious problem is the most obvious: there is no ‘buffer zone’ around Bandhavgarh to protect it. The park is like a tiny island cut off from the rest of the world by a no-man’s-land of scrub and brush. There are few trees still standing outside the park boundary – most have been cut down for firewood. And one problem leads to another. Because the surrounding area has been cleared, cattle graze right up to the edge of the reserve. “The effect of the cattle is devastating,” Vivek explained “They trample the ground to the point where it’s as hard as a rock. Seeds that fall can’t penetrate the ground. Trees can’t grow here now.” To emphasize his point he dug his heel into the hard dirt kicking up a small cloud of dust. “It’s a vicious circle,” he continued, “As the forest shrinks back from the perimeter, the cattle penetrate deeper and deeper into the park and people cut down more trees. If we don’t put a stop to it, the forest will eventually disappear.”
“People think all we have to do is protect the tigers and the problem is solved,” he said, “but it’s not that simple. You can’t protect the tigers, you have to protect the forest And that’s a much more difficult task.” Vivek understated the problem. Guarding a forest the size of Bandhavgarh twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week is not difficult, it is impossible. The park is in serious jeopardy as more and more people close in on it from all sides. Like a tiny square of cloth cut from a larger tapestry, the frayed edges of the forest are slowly coming unraveled.
A Fort with a View
Bandhavgarh National Park takes its name from an ancient fort located on top of a plateau in the middle of the forest. Legend has it that Lord Rama gave the fort to his brother Laksmana, hence the name Bandhavgarh – bandhav-brother, garh-fort. Legend aside, the fort can be dated with certainty to 300AD. Captured and recaptured countless times by the Bharhivas, Kalchuri Rajputs and Baghel rulers, it was finally abandoned io the seventeenth century when it was no longer strategic. Today, it is like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie – ruins overgrown by vines and trees, stone carvings and crumbling battlements jutting out from the tangled foliage, the secrets of the past prisoners of the Indian jungle.
We decided to explore the fort on our second day. After our game drive io the morning we were dropped off at the foot of the mountain. We did not have to leave the park at nine thirty because normal hours do not apply to the fort. In fact, the hours are reversed. Since no one can get back into the park to pick you up until two thirty in the afternoon, a visit to the fort is an all day affair. The only rule is that you must stay on the plateau. Visitors are not allowed on foot in the rest of the park because of the tigers. For their part, the tigers are not supposed to go up to the fort. At least one tiger is unaware of this arrangement.
It takes an hour to walk up to the summit The path winds its way up the escarpment and it is a pleasant hike. Near the top there is pair of huge wooden doors, fifteen feet high and covered with giant metal fittings, set into a giant wall that blocks the path. At one time it was the main gate. The huge doors do not open. Cut out of the door on the left is a smaller door for visitors to go through. This is where our eighty-year-old guide came in – there is a padlock on the small door and he had the key. Why an ancient fort in the middle of a jungle is locked up is not exactly clear, but it is very effective. The gate is situated up against a cliff and there is no way around it. Short of scaling the side of the escarpment or climbing over the wall- neither of which appeared realistic – the little door is the only way into the fort.
The gate wall is ten feet thick and there are ramparts along the top. To the right through the doorway is a large stone room It was completely dark. Vivek said, “Lean in and look up, but don’t step inside.” I poked my head into the void and pointed my flashlight upwards. Twenty feet above me the ceiling was covered with thousands of bats. The reason Vivek told me not to step into the room is because the floor is covered in bat dung. No one is sure how deep it is. No one wants to be the first to find out.
The ‘fort,’ as it is called, is not one large structure, but a number of small buildings on top of the mountain. Having made our way through the gate, we were still outside and we followed the path up to the top. At the edge of a cliff just past the gate there is a large flat stone called the King’s Chair. We stopped there to rest and the view was extraordinary. We could see for twenty miles in every direction. The escarpment provides not only a great vantage point to look out over the reserve, but the perfect nesting place for many birds. White-backed vultures circled below and Peregrine falcons dived past us at breath-taking speed.
Located in the center of the plateau is an ancient Hindu temple. Surrounded by stone columns, it is in remarkably good shape considering how old it is. Even more remarkable is the holy man who lives in it. According to Vivek he has lived there alone for the last forty years. He certainly looked it. Old and haggard, he was dressed in rags and never spoke a word.
It was while waking near the temple that we almost came across the tiger. Fortunately we avoided an actual confrontation and retreated to the area on the opposite side of the temple where there is a large reservoir. I wanted to get a photograph of the temple from across the water, but the reservoir was surrounded by tall grass and there was no path down to the edge. When I started to walk into the shoulder-high grass, Vivek stopped me. “That is not a good idea,” he said. When I pointed out the tiger was on the other side of the plateau, he said, “The tiger is not the problem, snakes are the problem. Cobra, krait, Russell’s viper. They hide no tall grass. They are all venomous.” I decided the photograph was not critical.
At two o’ clock we headed back down to the bottom of the escarpment where we were picked up by jeeps. They had good news: not only had the mahouts found another tiger, they had found a tigress with three cubs. We immediately roared off to the north end of the park. Susan had no intention of getting back on an elephant, so Vivek and I got on one and headed into the forest. As advertised, there were four tigers. The word ‘cubs,’ however, was misleading. The three so-called ‘cubs’ were almost two years old and weighed two to three hundred pounds each.
Our mahout was very happy to have found this group, and was determined to get the tigers to come out from under the bushes where they were hiding from the afternoon sun. To do this he ordered the elephant to walk directly toward them. When we got with in twenty feet, the tigers got up and walked over to the next bush. At first this seemed like a clever way to get the tigers to come out where we could see them, but they quickly decided it was a game. Once out of the way of the elephant, they hid under the next bush until it went past and then tried to sneak up behind it and swat at its tail, which swooshed back and forth as it walked. When the elephant realized a tiger was sneaking up on it, it whirled around to face it – to the degree that an elephant can whirl- at which point the tiger ran back under the bushes. This is not nearly as funny as it sounds when you are on top of the elephant.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
India is home to a number of famous tiger reserves – Bandhavgarh, Nagarhole, Indrawati, Ranthambore, Kanha – all of which are spectacular. Sadly, they are not representative of the bigger picture. The tiger is in serious trouble everywhere, and India is no exception. Having ruled the Asian continent for the last 2 million years, the tiger has earned its stripes but met its match. In a period of only one hundred years we have driven it to the brink of extinction. Too dangerous to coexist with people, the tiger must be deeded its own territory if it is to survive. If we claim every square inch of the planet for ourselves, we will end up the only ones on it. There must be an’ out-of-bounds’ area even for us. A straightforward solution, but given the facts, a difficult one to put into practice. The United Nations estimates the world population will reach six billion by the year 2000. If the population continues to increase at its current rate, soon there will be no place left for the Lord of the Jungle. Anyone who wishes to see the great cat in the wild had better hurry. Time is running out in the Land of the Tiger.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune Travel Magazine, October 1999.