Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mich. woman relates experiences at Indian tiger reserve

By Jim Totten

Sara Mascola has stared at a menacing 300-pound female Bengal tiger perched on a ledge above her, only 25 feet away, and lived to tell about it

"That was the most nervous I've been around tigers," said the 22-year-old Oceola Township woman, who recently returned from an internship at a tiger reserve in India.

In her encounter with the cub, Mascola was traveling in an open Jeep and told the driver to speed away. She said it wasn't so dangerous because when tigers see a vehicle with people, they don't see humans as food but only as part of the vehicle.

Mascola paid her own way to spend three months as an intern at Bandhavgarh National Park, a tiger reserve in India. Besides tigers, she also saw leopards and sloth bears. Mascola returned from her unpaid internship in April and is hoping to join the Peace Corps.

Her two tiger tips for people on foot are never bend over — it gives you a bigger-looking back and makes one look like prey — and never run away. She said tigers typically chase their prey, bounce on its back and bite the neck. Of course, Mascola admitted following such advice when facing a 600-pound full-grown tiger would be tough.

"I told people not to run away, but I knew I would right away," she said.

In her encounter with the angry cub, the scariest part was this cub, along with her 400-pound brother and their mother, killed and gnawed on a woman from the same small Indian village that Mascola lived in during her three-month internship.

The tiger and her cubs also would frequently roam into the village area at night, which is not unusual, considering they’re nocturnal animals.

Such tales would make even the calmest mother uneasy, but Sharon Mascola knows her daughter. She said the hardest part was not having regular communication with her daughter, whom she usually spoke with two or three times a week while she was attending Clemson University.

Sharon Mascola said her daughter could only communicate by e-mail, and she only had access when she went into the city. There was no e-mail at the lodge in the village next to the park.

"A couple of times, it would be two to three weeks when I wouldn’t hear from her," she said. "It was nerve-wracking, but I also calmed myself by saying, if there was bad news, someone would call me."

Besides the lack of communication, Sharon Mascola doesn’t worry too much about her daughter, whom she called very "self-motivated."

"She is somebody who is not afraid to do something," Sharon Mascola said. "She pushes herself, she challenges herself."

"She knows if you want to do something bad enough, there is a way."

Sharon Mascola, a single mother with three children in college, said her daughter’s paid her own way when she’s gone traveling or done special programs at college.

She said her daughter, who paid $3,000 in airfare and lodging for India, has worked in day care since she was 14 and saves her money.

The traveling bug bit Sara Mascola in high school. Ever since, she has always looked for ways to combine travel with her education. She traveled to Europe with friends after graduating from Howell High School in 2003 and spent a summer semester at sea, studying and working. She lived, worked and studied international relations on an old cruise ship that stopped at ports in Iceland, France and Russia.

"It’s a vice," Mascola said about her passion for traveling. She squeezed in a trip to Nepal after her recent trip to India.

Her idea for visiting the tiger reserve came during a two-week trip to India as part of a class on biodiversity, national parks and conservation in that country. She learned from the owner of the lodge that the park accepts foreign interns to work and applied.

"I was a little nervous, but I think I was more excited than anything else," Mascola said about traveling to India on her own.

"I love to travel," she said.

She was the only foreign woman working and living in the lodge and park area. She said the people treated her very well.

Mascola said the woman getting killed by the tiger highlighted the tension between conservationists and people trying to make a living in what she called one of India’s most impoverished areas. When the conservation initiative began in India in the 1970s, she said, the government had to move entire villages out of what became the park.

She said the core park area has limited fencing — to keep out cattle — which allows the wildlife to move freely. She said villagers are allowed to live and work in a buffer zone around the park, but they’re not supposed to go into the core area to collect firewood. The woman killed had ventured into the core park to collect firewood.

"It’s not the tiger’s fault; it’s her fault," Mascola said.

She said the woman’s family would have received compensation from the park if she had been killed in the buffer zone, but the family received no park money because the victim had ventured into the core park. However, she said international conservation groups donated money to the woman’s family.

Mascola said it’s crucial for conservation groups to have the support of local people. She said the only way for people to make money is working in the tourist industry connected to the park, which draws numerous foreigners.

The park requires visitors to hire a local guide and driver when visiting the area.

She said the educational experience and the chance to see tigers almost daily were well worth going without a hot shower.

"I actually enjoyed not having a shower," she said. Instead, she used a bucket of water to clean herself. "I had a great shower when I got home."

Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Jim Totten at (517) 548-7088 or at article?AID=/20070529/NEWS01/705290318/1002

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