Sunday, July 09, 2006

Travel: Tiger tiger

Travel: Tiger tiger

 

 

By Daniel Davies

 

09 July 2006

In the sweltering Indian city of Mumbai, the first things you notice - after the heat - are the contrasts in a bustling city which is rapidly coming to terms with rampant consumerism and a booming economy.

 

Every square foot of wall is covered by advertising. But side by side live the poor, in sprawling slums visible from the plane as it lands.

 

Shacks and filth are the last thing you see before stepping onto the runway, where the humidity smothers you.

 

The short drive from the airport to the palatial Hotel Leela takes time on gridlocked streets, where black and yellow taxis compete for space with bicycles and red double-decker buses.

 

The Leela is part of a growing chain of luxury hotels around India for 'cash-rich, time-poor' travellers, who have much to see and so little time to see it.

 

This cool marble hotel, with its lush gardens, myriad bars and restaurants, is a good stopover before flying inland to Nagpur.

 

Our guide apologised for the six-hour drive that followed the flight, but I rather enjoyed it.

 

The pace of these roads is dictated by the ox and cart - and impromptu sit-down protests by women whose villages have lost electricity.

 

A stop for food or the toilet catches the eye of friendly onlookers, who gawp at wimpish Western ways.

 

Eventually the landscape turned mountainous and tree-covered as we approached the jungle of Kanha.

 

This vast forest inspired Kipling and was the setting for the kids' movie, Jungle Book.

 

Its tiger reserve, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, has been a national park since the 1950s.

 

You might not get the variety of big game here that roam the African savannahs, but Kanha still teems with birds, bison and butterflies.

 

It's one of the safest habitats in the subcontinent for Royal Bengal tigers, of whom there are about 130, according to the last census in 2003.

 

Although tourists are allowed into three ranges - Mukki, Kanha and Kisli - further reaches of the forest are closed to visitors.

 

Most stay at one of the resorts that organise daily trips into the forest to see tigers.

 

The well-run Royal Tiger Resort has comfortable air-conditioned rooms near the entrance to Mukki range.

 

Tiger spotting usually begins with a 5am wake-up. By 6am, queues of Suzuki 4x4s wait at the gates for guides to accompany them into the forest.

 

Walking around is strictly forbidden. If you stumble upon a bahlu - one of the elusive sloth bears - it's likely to rip your head off.

 

The best guides, intimately in tune with the forest, halt your car at the sound of a distant call or tell-tale sign of a paw print.

 

You may have difficulty distinguishing a tiger's paw marks from a tyre track, but your guide will recognise every cat you see by their unique stripes.

 

Despite its camouflage and stealth, the solitary tiger causes a huge commotion when it prowls through the trees.

 

Only one in 20 tiger's hunts are successful and the jungle seems in a conspiracy against them.

 

Shortly into our second drive, the treetops erupted as white langur monkeys scurried up to safety.

 

Deeper in the bush, on the other side of the road, a deer's bark let us know something lurked.

 

On the far side of a dry river bed, for a split second, the suggestion of a massive feline body slinked behind a tree and disappeared into the jungle with tail aloft.

 

Catching an eyeful of tiger on the road is rare.

 

Your first sighting is likely to be in one of the grassy meadows that dot Kanha like blotches on the jungle.

 

Out there, word of tigers in the open attracts Suzukis like villagers to our minibus.

 

A glimpsed cub causes dozens of people, hundreds of yards away, to grab binoculars.

 

While guides spot a shaded beast with apparent ease, you can be close to tears as you follow instructions to "focus on the green tree then look left a bit," vainly scanning the horizon without the hint of a whisker.

 

It isn't easy, especially when the combined influence of anti-malarial drugs and an April sun of up to 45C turns every termite mound into the illusion of a crouched monkey and every tree stump into a perched eagle.

 

The best time to come here is probably between November and February, when the rains have stopped and the searing heat of spring has yet to start.

 

To see a tiger close up, you may have to embark on a park tiger show, where you buy a ticket for a ride on an elephant with one of the mahouts, whose job it is to plod around the jungle and survey the beasts.

 

When a tiger is known to be stationary, tourists can hitch an elephant ride to come within feet of it - the cats seemingly unworried by elephants crashing through the bamboo.

 

Finding a leopard in a tree or a bear in daylight may be rarer, but the sight of a huge tiger dozing in the sun or resting by a pool is well worth dashing half-way around the world.

 

With so many tiger populations already extinct across Asia, Kanha's 100 or so could be in a precarious position, even in a haven with a good record in conservation.

 

Much depends on the tribe that once lived nomadically in this jungle, the Baiga.

 

They were not properly compensated when they lost land to create the tigers' protected habitats, although they were once the inspiration for Mowgli and still venerate the tiger.

 

Now their dances entertain tourists and they are employed by Kanha's resourceful entrepreneurs to make handicrafts.

 

It's an intriguing path to survival in an entrancing corner of the globe.

 

http://www.sundaylife.co.uk/features/story.jsp?story=698033

 

For the cats,

 

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue

an Educational Sanctuary home

to more than 100 big cats

12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625

813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

http://www.BigCatRescue.org MakeADifference@BigCatRescue.org

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