Saturday, April 29, 2006

Spotting tigers in India

Wild trials

 

(The Irish Times Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Arminta Wallace couldn't believe her eyes when she spotted her first tiger. As she reports from India, it's a privilege that is becoming rarer and rarer

 

'There she is!" I swing the binoculars around, sweeping the expanse of grassy golden meadow from right to left. Nothing. "No," says a calm voice in my ear. It's our driver, a naturalist and tiger fanatic called Adityaraj Dev. "Look with your eyes first. See where the trees are? Do you see the black tree in the shape of a V?" I do. "So look through the V. She's sitting beyond it, in a patch of shade. Just where that bank starts to rise." I scan the area once more. Nothing. There's a sharp intake of breath to my left, followed by cries of triumph from behind. Everyone else in the jeep has seen this tiger, damn it. Where? Baffled, I blink, lift the binoculars and start again. The tree, the bank, the patches of dappled light and shade. It all looks utterly deserted.

 

 

 

And then it happens. Suddenly one of the clumps of grass isn't a clump of grass any more. It's a fully-grown Bengal tiger, just sitting there, casual as you like, the beautiful head in clear profile. The moment is beyond magical: my first sighting of a tiger in the wild. Once I see her, of course, I can't understand why I couldn't see her before. She is enormous, perhaps two metres (seven feet) long and 150 kilos (330 pounds), or thereabouts, of solid muscle. When she unfurls herself and sets off up the leafy bank with that unmistakeable rolling tiger gait, I forget to breathe. There'll be other tiger sightings over the next few days, but nothing to compare with this one.

 

Back at the Royal Tiger Resort, Dev's partner, Margie Watts-Carter, is waiting. Solemnly, she shakes hands with us as we clamber out of the jeep, one after another. "Did you cry?" she asks. Lots of people cry when they spot their first tiger, apparently, even hardened cynics like us. If Dev is a tiger fanatic, there are no words to describe Watts-Carter's obsession with the animals she calls "the gods of the forest". Born in India, she left to work in England, but the tigers drew her back. Now she and Dev run this cluster of modest bungalows minutes from Kanha National Park, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, one of the best places to see tigers in the wild.

 

Kanha is a long, long way from just about everywhere. To get here we flew from London to Bombay, then took an hour-long internal flight to the city of Nagpur, followed by eight hours in a minibus on a road that was mostly tarmac but, every now and again, slid into sandy nothingness.

 

Driving in India is not for the faint-hearted. Even as a passenger you often have to close your eyes and hope for the best as another huge lorry, festooned with garlands of tinsel that glitter evilly in the sun, hurtles past you with centimetres to spare. On the other hand, it's hard to resist peering out of the window as India, in all its extraordinary glory, rolls past. Roadside markets, stalls piled high with oranges and bananas. Hindu temples, flags fluttering in the breeze. Children playing cricket on every available scrap of waste ground. Statues of a smiling Gandhi. A wooden sign, painted in cheerful colours and hanging at a rakish angle: Decent Wine Bar.

 

After all that chaotic energy, the order and peacefulness of the Royal Tiger Resort give it an almost monastic atmosphere. The rooms are simply but thoughtfully furnished, with all the comforts you'd expect - hot and cold water, air conditioning, ceiling fans, acres of storage space, a desk, armchairs - plus a number of details as delightful as they are practical. Candles in atmospheric terracotta dishes to deter bugs and fill in the occasional gaps when the electricity goes off. Mosquito screens on the large double windows, making it possible to leave the windows open at night and let the sounds of the forest, as well as the welcome evening breeze, filter through: leaves falling from the trees with a rustle, a dog barking and, one night, the sound of something large blundering about and breathing heavily in the dark. "Probably a deer," says Dev. "Although we do get leopards coming into the compound quite often." We gape at him, and he grins. "But I don't think so. Leopards are pretty quiet."

 

Each day begins at 4.45am with a discreet but firm knock at the door from a resort employee, bearing a tray of coffee and biscuits and smiling his apologies for the ungodliness of the hour. There is, however, no time for small talk: we must be ready to go by 5.30am, armed with binoculars, camera, suncream and hat. At the park gates there is a pause while formalities are completed and a department of forestry guide hops into the front seat. Nobody is allowed to enter Kanha National Park unaccompanied, nor get out of the jeep and wander about, except in designated areas.

 

Kanha was declared a national park in 1953, six years after India achieved independence; since it was designated one of the country's main tiger reserves, under the aegis of Project Tiger, a programme begun by Indira Gandhi in 1973, careful management has helped make Kanha one of the world's finest wildlife reserves.

 

The shimmering beauty of its landscape is, of course, another plus. Tourists may visit only about 30 per cent of Kanha's 940sq km (360sq miles), but as we bump and rattle over the park's dusty tracks an apparently endless variety of landscapes unfolds before us. Silvery creeks wind through silent valleys; long grass gleams in the wide meadows, creamy in the dawn light. Dawn and dusk are when both tourists and animals are abroad. Our eagle-eyed guide points at the side of the road, and Dev backs up to inspect a set of minute indentations in the dust. Footprints? Yes, he says. "Pug marks. Sloth bear." We stare hopefully into the forest, but sloth bears are nocturnal, elusive and shy. In eight years of working at Kanha, Dev has yet to see one.

 

As we bound along, however, we notch up a healthy number of sightings. At least, some of us do. "Hah!" someone exclaims, pointing to a shadow in the deep shade of the forest. "Wild boar!" By the time we draw alongside, the shadow has vanished.

 

But the spotters are indefatigable; fur and feathers are identified with intimidating precision. "Barasingha stag, is it?" my companions trill. "Oh, sorry, no. Sambar." "Up there, look! Racket-tailed drongo!" Surely, I say crossly, there's no such bird as a racket-tailed drongo. But there is. What's more, its ability to mimic other birds is almost as impressive as the long, trailing tail feathers that give it its name. It can do impersonations of about 40 species, including, we are told, a passable one of a barasingha, or swamp deer.

 

At first I can spot little except the monkeys. You'd have to be blind and deaf to miss a troop of langurs as they blunder through the trees - especially when, as happens every now and again, one of them miscalculates the strength of a branch, or its own body weight, and comes crashing to the forest floor in an ungainly tangle. But I'm mesmerised by the heady scent of the flowering sal trees, the taste of dust in the mouth, the eerie, echoing calls of the peacocks. I could spend an hour studying the intricate trunks of a banyan tree or listening to the mysterious music of the forest. There's so much to take in - and you're supposed to watch for animals as well, for goodness' sake?

 

Surprisingly soon, though, I'm ticking off species with the best of them. Pond heron! Indian roller! Jungle fowl! Mong . . . mongoose? Okay, perhaps a greyish-black streak in the undergrowth doesn't cut it. There's more to the wildlife at Kanha than just tigers. The park is home to 300 species of bird, 117 species of butterfly, 15 kinds of mammal and more than 100 varieties of tree. For a wildlife dunce like yours truly, exposure to this cornucopia of evolutionary excellence is a heady business. A pond proves to be full of turtles, popping to the surface for air. What looks like an oak leaf settling on a bush is in fact a butterfly. Deer, when startled - by what? Tiger? Leopard? - spill through the trees like a living river. We become blase about the bright splash of turquoise that is a white-throated kingfisher, the deeper blue of an Indian roller.

 

Tigers, of course, are in a league of their own. Mobile phones don't work at Kanha, and walkie-talkies are prohibited; even so, word of a tiger sighting spreads like wildfire from one jeep to another. The most experienced guides know where tigers are likely to be, of course, so it's not entirely a matter of chance. At this time of year they're relatively easy to spot, because the grasses and tangled undergrowth of the forest are gradually dying off in the run-in to the monsoon season, which begins in July. Like all cats, tigers enjoy a bit of basking in the sun after a good meal, and they often use park roads to patrol their territory - they can cover up to 32 kilometres (20 miles) in a single night - so a tiger can turn up almost anywhere.

 

When we see a group of jeeps parked at the side of the track, we know the hunt is on and pull in alongside. It's a dramatic but strangely subdued affair. Everyone goes still. We learn to listen for the alarm calls of the monkey "watchers" high in the treetops. The language of the forest is startlingly complex, monkey and deer working together in a chorus of warning; there are different calls for "tiger" and "leopard", different tones for "the tiger is still" and "the tiger is on the move". It is incredibly moving, this feeling that we are, even marginally, involved in the life-and-death drama of predator and prey.

 

The trouble is that if it's easy for tourists to find tigers, it's also easy for poachers. On our first evening at the Royal Tiger Resort, Dev gives us an introductory talk. It's a sobering experience. At the turn of the 18th century there were 40,000 tigers in India; by 1969 the number had dwindled to 1,500. The ensuing panic saw the establishment of Project Tiger by the Indian government. These figures are endlessly disputed, of course, because nobody can quite agree on how tiger numbers should be calculated; the current system, of tracking pug marks, is controversial and possibly inaccurate, but electronic tagging is expensive and intrusive. Nevertheless the trend is stark, and, says Dev, the future for tigers is bleak.

 

Ironically, tigers are prolific breeders, with mothers producing two or three cubs at a time. The cubs, however, are often killed by predatory males before they reach maturity, at the age of two. If they do make it to adulthood, their problems are just beginning. A male tiger needs between 60sq km and 100sq km (23sq miles and 38sq miles) of territory, which it defends to the death; and with pressure on the forest habitat increasing all the time, there just isn't enough space to accommodate a dramatic increase in tiger numbers. As Dev points out, to get tiger numbers in India up to 20,000 you'd need to have half of this enormous country under forest.

 

And that's not likely to happen. By 2013, he says, it is calculated that India's population will overtake China's - by when the proportion of agricultural land in the subcontinent will be down to 40 per cent. Beneath the beautiful sal forests of Kanha lie deposits of about 13 listed minerals, including coal, mica, bauxite and even gold, which might well, at some point in an increasingly industrialised future, present an irresistible temptation to cash-strapped local government.

 

Another, more immediate complication in the fight for tiger conservation is the plight of local people. Not only have they not benefited from the increase in ecotourism, which is bringing more than 50,000 visitors a year - mostly Indian citizens - to Kanha, but their situation has, according to Watts-Carter, deteriorated considerably. Worst off, she says, are members of the local tribe called the Baiga, many of whom had to give up their homes when the park was established and villagers who lived within its borders were resettled elsewhere. In a country where the gap between rich and poor is increasing dramatically in the face of an economic boom, these people are at the bottom of the pile, and their hunter-gatherer instincts make them unsuited to city life or even regular salaried employment.

 

This summer, when both park and resort close for the monsoon season, Watts-Carter will be helping local villagers to organise extensive bamboo planting, which she hopes will, in a reasonably short space of time, give them at least a small income. In the longer term, she hopes to set up some cottage or craft-type industries at which, she says, the Baiga could excel. "They're really good at bee-keeping, for example," she says. "With modern techniques this could be a thriving concern. Tourists would almost certainly buy honey, and it might even be exported. We need the support of the villagers for Kanha to survive."

 

There is, too, an ongoing concern about the impact that tourism - even responsible ecotourism - may have on the ecosystem. Those who oppose any further development maintain that tourism in Kanha encourages the migration of tigers to remoter areas of the park. Those who support it insist that while a few animals may be keen to avoid human contact, most are unaffected by it. "Tiger behaviour is related to habitat, prey and water supply, and not to the presence of humans," says Dev. "Tourism won't save the cat from disappearing, but it will help keep tiger conservation on the political agenda in India."

 

Project Tiger can point to some successes, especially in its early years. The tiger population at Kanha and other national parks has kept reasonably steady over the past 25 years. One factor, however, seems to be outside everybody's control. Poaching is on the increase - as, incredibly, is the demand for tiger bones, whiskers, claws, eyes and genitalia, which are all used in Chinese medicine, despite having no medicinal powers.

 

The forestry department now funds armed patrols at Kanha, but the poachers are resourceful and ruthless. Coercing villagers who can barely make a living to kill a tiger by offering thousands of dollars per animal - a fortune by Indian standards - is a favoured modus operandi. So is poisoning a water hole known to be used by tigers, which kills not only tigers but also many other animals. Only a shift in cultural thinking can win this battle, says Watts-Carter - and so far the silence from the Chinese government and major international political and religious figures, with the honourable exception of the dalai lama, has been deafening.

 

In three days at Kanha we were to see no fewer than four of these extraordinary animals. The last sighting, on the morning we were due to leave, was no less special than the first. After an idyllic picnic breakfast of samosas and spicy scrambled eggs on the park's 1,000m-high (3,300ft-high) plateau, we rounded a corner and saw another massive tiger, wandering across an expanse of meadow. The simplicity of it, the scale of it, has to be lived to be fully understood. I realised that until I saw one in the wild I had always, at some level, thought of the tiger as a mythical creature. Sadly, if our planet doesn't get its conservation act together, it may well, a generation from now, be exactly that.

 

HOW TO GET THERE

 

Arminta Wallace travelled as a guest of the London-based India specialist Cox & Kings (00-44-20-78735000, www.coxandkings.co.uk), which offers a five-night Wildlife Weekend from about 2,200 per person, including two nights at the Leela Kempinski Hotel, in Bombay, with breakfast, and three nights at the Royal Tiger Reserve, with full board and game drives, transfers and direct flights with Jet Airways from London Heathrow to Bombay.ANIMAL RESCUES

 

Depending on who you believe, between 100 and 130 tigers live in Kanha National Park. The Indian Centre for Environment Education gives the 2003 figure as 128, but the information it provides on the park's top five animal species makes for pretty grim reading. Tiger - conservation status: threatened. Leopard - conservation status: threatened. Indian wild dog - conservation status: threatened. Sloth bear - conservation status: threatened.

 

One bright spot has been Kanha's vital contribution to the survival of the barasingha, or swamp deer; from a low of 66 animals in 1970, the numbers have now rebounded to about 350. This is good news not only for Kanha, as its population of hard-ground barasingha is the last remaining on the planet, but also for hungry tigers: barasingha, as well as sambal and chital deer, form the mainstay of the big cat's diet.

 

If the tiger is to be saved, however, concerted international action is needed. One organisation that is involved in hands-on work at Kanha and other tiger reserves is Global Tiger Patrol. for further information, or to see how you can help, visit www.globaltigerpatrol.co.uk

 

 

For the cats,

 

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue

an Educational Sanctuary home

to more than 100 big cats

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