CHAS­ING THE TIGER

On the trail of the elu­sive Ben­gal tiger in In­dia’s Mad­hya Pradesh, Ken­dall Hill finds the search for the big cat is its own re­ward.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - News - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JOHN LAU­RIE

On the trail of the elu­sive Ben­gal tiger in In­dia’s Mad­hya Pradesh, Ken­dall Hill finds the search for the big cat is its own re­ward.

T The flat­u­lent Mr Ra­jput is guid­ing me through the sub­lime thou­sand-year-old tem­ples of Kha­ju­raho on an oth­er­wise hushed sum­mer’s morn­ing in Mad­hya Pradesh. Mad­hya means cen­tre, he ex­plains; pradesh means re­gion. “Now you are most wel­come in the heart of In­dia!” he de­clares with a spicy break­fast belch.

From Aus­tralia it has taken three flights and two days to reach these mas­ter­pieces of In­dian art; Kha­ju­raho’s iso­la­tion has al­ways been its great­est pro­tec­tion against ma­raud­ing in­vaders. The tem­ples were over­grown and had been nigh on for­got­ten for cen­turies when the Bri­tish en­gi­neer TS Burt stum­bled across them in 1838.

In its hey­day this trea­sury of the Chan­della dy­nasty com­prised more than 80 tem­ples, built by suc­ces­sive rulers be­tween 900 and the mid-11th cen­tury and adorned with metic­u­lously ren­dered scenes of court life. To­day only about 20 sur­vive, and the finest are con­tained in the World Her­itage-listed west­ern group, in open park­lands be­side a crum­bling ma­haraja’s palace.

“A thou­sand years on, and you can still see the fa­cial ex­pres­sions per­fectly,” Mr Ra­jput says, us­ing a com­pact mir­ror and the sun’s re­flec­tion to spot­light a nymph’s sug­ges­tively raised eye­brow, carved into the golden sand­stone by gifted ar­ti­sans a mil­len­nium ago.

The most beau­ti­ful art­works adorn the Lak­sh­mana tem­ple, one of the ear­li­est of these stone won­ders. Mr Ra­jput claims it took 2,500 crafts­men about 20 years to chisel its dio­rama of or­gies, gods and or­di­nary lives.

It’s a telling in­sight into the hu­man char­ac­ter that these tem­ples are best known for their erotic carv­ings even though the sexy bits are only a frac­tion of the whole (less than 10 per cent). The carv­ings are more ac­cu­rately viewed as a snap­shot of im­pe­rial life circa AD1000, com­plete with gods, wars and scenes of daily life. In­clud­ing cop­u­la­tion. Demons ca­vort be­neath a bor­der of ele­phants, sol­diers en­gage in bat­tle and bes­tial­ity, and sin­u­ous cou­ples en­twine like randy gym­nasts in Kama Su­tra- style friezes.

Mad­hya Pradesh gets far fewer vis­i­tors than the pin-up In­dian states of Ker­ala or Ra­jasthan, but those who do ven­ture here are usu­ally drawn by two things: tem­ples and tigers. Iron­i­cally, the same cul­ture of ne­glect that kept Kha­ju­raho safe for cen­turies has been the great­est threat to the sur­vival of the state’s other trea­sure of world her­itage, the Ben­gal tiger.

PANNA

For a coun­try with 70 per cent of the world’s wild tiger pop­u­la­tion, In­dia has a dis­mal record of pro­tect­ing its top preda­tor. Hunted in ob­scene num­bers dur­ing the Raj by Bri­tish and princely rulers – and equally en­thu­si­as­ti­cally by post-in­de­pen­dence In­di­ans re­claim­ing their land rights – In­dia’s tiger pop­u­la­tion plunged be­low 2,000 by 1971, prompt­ing then-prime min­is­ter Indira Gandhi to es­tab­lish the Project Tiger con­ser­va­tion project in 1973.

Nine land parcels were quar­an­tined and put un­der guard across the sub­con­ti­nent, and ini­tially things im­proved. From a pop­u­la­tion of just 1,800 in 1972, the tiger tally ral­lied, roughly dou­bling in just over 10 years.

Then, in 2004, the en­tire fe­line pop­u­la­tion of Ra­jasthan’s Sariska Tiger Re­serve – es­ti­mated at the time to be 16 to 18 – dis­ap­peared, thought to have been slaugh­tered or sold by In­dian’s dead­li­est poacher, Sansar Chand. It was de­scribed as the worst wildlife cri­sis in post-in­de­pen­dence In­dia. But then Panna hap­pened.

One of six pro­tected re­serves in the self-styled “tiger state” of Mad­hya Pradesh, Panna was crowned In­dia’s best-main­tained na­tional park by the Min­istry of Tourism in 2007. Two years later, all of its tigers – es­ti­mated at 32 – had van­ished.

In 2009, Dr Raghu­nan­dan Chun­dawat, one of In­dia’s fore­most tiger ex­perts, turned whistle­blower to alert the world to Panna’s shock­ing loss.

Af­ter rais­ing the alarm and, in ef­fect, ex­pos­ing the ve­nal­ity and ne­glect of forestry of­fi­cials, the con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist – who had de­voted a life­time’s re­search to snow leop­ards and tigers – was ban­ished from Panna and ha­rassed by au­thor­i­ties. He has not worked there since, but con­ser­va­tion’s loss has been tourism’s gain. In 2010 he and his wife, Joanna Van Gruisen, opened a small re­sort, Sarai at To­ria, on the banks of the Ken River fac­ing the na­tional park.

Van Gruisen came to the sub­con­ti­nent as a doc­u­men­tary film­maker for the pi­o­neer­ing UK wildlife pro­gram Sur­vival (win­ner of four Em­mys and a BAFTA, no less). She and Chun­dawat met while stalk­ing snow leop­ards in the Hi­malayas in the 1980s and she has lived in In­dia ever since.

If you’ve come to Mad­hya Pradesh for the tigers, there’s no finer place to stay than Sarai, hosted by two pas­sion­ate con­ser­va­tion­ists who also hap­pen to be ter­rific cooks.

Van Gruisen over­sees the con­ti­nen­tal dishes – her chilled pump­kin soup with co­conut and milk is a won­der­fully light elixir on a bak­ing-hot sum­mer’s day – while Chun­dawat and his long-time cook, Ba­hadur, con­jure lo­cal Malwa dishes us­ing Chun­dawat fam­ily recipes. All the fresh pro­duce comes from their gar­den and vil­lage mar­kets.

Set in the foothills of the Sat­pura Ranges, Sarai’s eight rammed-earth cot­tages are partly con­cealed by a sea of kans grass, its high, white-flow­er­ing heads wav­ing and whis­per­ing in the breeze.

From the out­side the cot­tages look like tra­di­tional vil­lage huts and give no hint of the com­forts in­doors – the eggshell-smooth floors, mez­za­nine space for>

chil­dren (in some rooms) and deep ve­ran­das with bush­land views from char­poy seats. Bath­rooms are so large they dou­ble as yoga pavil­ions – mats sup­plied, lo­cal in­struc­tor avail­able on re­quest.

It’s all very Out of In­dia, from dawn out­ings on the river with boat­man Raj to can­dlelit cock­tails around a firepit as our hosts en­ter­tain guests with tales of their ex­ploits film­ing BBC doc­u­men­taries, or the tra­vails of set­ting up Sarai (“This was Raghu’s re­tire­ment plan, but there hasn’t been much re­tir­ing,” says Van Gruisen). They may even sug­gest ideas for out­ings to the re­gion’s for­got­ten forts and palaces. The hill­top Ajaigarh Fort nearby has tem­ple carv­ings even older than those at Kha­ju­raho, says Van Gruisen, “and I’ve never seen any­one else when I’ve gone there with guests”.

They’re also, of course, very happy to talk tigers.

Thanks to rein­tro­duced an­i­mals and the vig­i­lance of rangers, the 540-square-kilo­me­tre Panna Na­tional Park now has a pop­u­la­tion of more than 20 adult tigers and as many as 14 cubs, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Wildlife In­sti­tute of In­dia sur­vey.

I’m hop­ing a lion can find me one of these tigers. Sarai guide Jaipal Singh (“singh” is San­skrit for lion) is my wildlife in­ter­preter on a game drive across the Panna plateaux. On an af­ter­noon sa­fari through its dry, crack­ling forests of teak, In­dian ebony and crim­son-leafed mahua we see dainty spot­ted deer and three kinds of an­te­lope – the nil­gai, the In­dian chinkara gazelle and the four-horned chous­ingha.

At a fresh­wa­ter spring that Mr Singh says is a favourite wa­ter­ing hole of T1, a tiger­ess translo­cated here from Kanha Na­tional Park, we ad­mire whitethroated king­fish­ers but see no big cats.

Some rangers wield­ing ra­dio-trans­mit­ter de­vices to track the an­i­mals tell us T1 is, in fact, down by the river with her two cubs, safely hid­den from hu­man eyes.

When the set­ting sun flares huge and golden on the hori­zon it’s time to leave. Given Panna’s calami­tous re­cent his­tory I didn’t re­ally ex­pect to find a tiger here. But that’s okay – we still have four days in two more parks to find one.

KANHA

Mys­te­ri­ous rain­drops fall on me from hot cloud­less skies as we drive be­tween Sing­i­nawa Jun­gle Lodge and Kanha Na­tional Park. I shout to nat­u­ral­ist

Rakesh Solanki in the driver’s seat, ask­ing him why my face is wet. “Ci­cada pee!” he shouts back.

Solanki has spent more than two decades work­ing in wildlife re­serves around the coun­try, from Kar­nataka in the south to Ra­jasthan in the west, but he likes Kanha the best, he says. “It’s the most beau­ti­ful.”

Of all In­dia’s 50 tiger re­serves, Kanha is also the only place where you can see the world’s rarest deer, the hard-ground baras­ingha.

They ap­pear oblig­ingly as soon as we en­ter the park – four males drink­ing by a lake, wear­ing shabby moult­ing coats but im­pres­sive antlers.

Sa­faris in Kanha feel like Sun­day drives in a grand coun­try es­tate, all leafy sal av­enues, mir­ror lakes and open grass­lands. Talc-soft dirt roads make it easy to read an­i­mal tracks. A mother and two cubs have passed this way re­cently. A sloth bear, too, Solanki says. I ask him how fresh the tracks are. “I think about five this morn­ing, be­cause there’s no dew on them.”

We park in the shade be­side a dirt road to lis­ten for alarm calls. “The tiger is some­where in this area,” he as­sures me. The air rings with ri­otous pea­cock calls, lan­gurs wreak­ing havoc in trees, the coo­ing of doves, frisky deer call­ing for mates, the cries of jun­gle owlets and brown-headed bar­bets, cuckoo-shrikes – a hun­dred con­ver­sa­tions go­ing on around us, and all of them about sex.

Kanha sprawls over al­most 1,000 square kilo­me­tres (2,000 in­clud­ing the sur­round­ing buf­fer zone) within which there are thought to be about 100 tigers. Our chances of see­ing one are 60 per cent, Rakesh says. “Last week I went on one drive and saw seven tigers!”>

We en­counter no tigers at Kanha.

But there’s plenty to keep me en­ter­tained. Sing­i­nawa Jun­gle Lodge is an es­tate of 12 cot­tages set in res­ur­rected for­est. Eighty per cent of the staff are lo­cal, and more than half from the Gond and Baiga tribal com­mu­ni­ties. Their art­works – fab­u­lous brass sculp­tures and richly de­tailed spir­i­tual paint­ings in vivid colours – dec­o­rate the guest ar­eas, but the best are dis­played in the Kanha Mu­seum of Life & Art, an on-site gallery es­tab­lished by the owner, Tu­lika Ke­dia, a noted New Delhi art dealer.

It’s a re­mark­able col­lec­tion. The art is naïve and yet so­phis­ti­cated in its ap­peal­ing use of colour and form. There’s an in­tri­cate sym­me­try to the works, and the sto­ries be­hind each are fas­ci­nat­ing.

Tigers fea­ture promi­nently. To the Baigas, tigers are “chota bhai”, mean­ing lit­tle brother. When one kills a Baiga the com­mu­nity priest or de­war is called on to per­form a rit­ual to pro­tect the vil­lagers and re­mind the tiger not to bother the de­ceased’s fam­ily. Run-ins be­tween hu­mans and tigers are not un­com­mon, I’m told. They’re of­ten found in the buf­fer zones be­tween na­tional park and vil­lages, in­clud­ing in the 45-hectare grounds of Sing­i­nawa.

Over din­ner of mul­li­gatawny and cop­per thalis of ex­cel­lent cur­ries, Solanki as­sures me tigers rarely at­tack hu­mans un­less they have a toothache or in­jured legs. “Be­cause hu­mans are easy prey. They don’t run very fast,” he clar­i­fies.

The last night at the lodge is a cul­tural ex­trav­a­ganza. Chef Nir­mal cooks a bar­be­cue in the jun­gle court­yard and more than a dozen vil­lagers ar­rive in fab­u­lous out­fits – pat­terned capes, elab­o­rate flo­ral head­dresses, hand­bells and rat­tles, and red-tur­banned drum­mers – to per­form for us.

The dancers shuf­fle in a cir­cle – kind of African, but with­out the butt magic – shak­ing their in­stru­ments while one duet sings and an­other drums. The songs are of na­ture and an­i­mals, love and ro­mance. They’re mildly hyp­notic, which per­haps ex­plains why John, the pho­tog­ra­pher, leaps up to join the danc­ing early on. In a flash, we all join the Baiga cir­cle.

In In­dia, you come for one thing and find your­self falling for some­thing com­pletely un­ex­pected. For­get tigers; it’s all about the tribal danc­ing.

BANDHAVGARH

In­dia has a knack for mak­ing road con­struc­tion look like nat­u­ral catas­tro­phe. Scenes of may­hem and an­ni­hi­la­tion punc­tu­ate the five- six- and seven-hour road­trips be­tween Mad­hya’s tiger hotspots.

Dust storms, quite pos­si­bly fu­elled by the road­works, blow up at the slight­est provo­ca­tion. Pink-toned earth rages in red-hot winds. Lo­cals swad­dle their heads in cloth, leav­ing just a slit for vi­sion, be­fore walk­ing, cycling, bik­ing and bul­lock cart­ing through the tor­rid plains. They look like ex­tras from Mad Max.

Bandhavgarh Na­tional Park is crowned by an 800-me­tre table­top moun­tain and the ru­ins of a 2,000-year-old fortress. The fort and a 10th-cen­tury re­clin­ing Vishnu are off-lim­its to vis­i­tors, but an­cient land­marks are not the big draw­cards in this area; Bandhavgarh has one of the high­est den­si­ties of Ben­gal tigers on the planet, so any­one in­tent on see­ing Pan­thera ti­gris braves the dust storms and comes here.

Some pay up to $US2,000 for a full-day pass that in­cludes a three-hour off-road ele­phant ride deep into tiger ter­ri­tory. Ma­houts use the ele­phants to rouse tigers into ac­tion for stun­ning eye­wit­ness pho­tos. The rest of us criss-cross the sa­van­nah in chauf­feured jeeps, heed­ing alarm calls and wait­ing be­side wa­ter­holes in the hope a parched preda­tor will make an ap­pear­ance.

My guide – of­fi­cially Ab­hi­manyu Singh, but known to all as Guci – knows well the frus­tra­tions of fruit­less hours spent stalk­ing in­vis­i­ble cats. He calls it tiger de­fi­ciency syn­drome. “When you haven’t seen a tiger for three or four days you start to see deer tigers, and rock tigers, and imag­ine them in all sit­u­a­tions,” he says.

Be­tween sa­faris we re­tire to Samode Sa­fari Lodge, a 12-villa ho­tel in a sim­ple vil­lage where the sea­sons are still de­fined by the har­vest of wheat in the win­ter and bar­ley in the sum­mer.

The ac­com­mo­da­tion has been built to re­sem­ble tra­di­tional huts, but in­side each cot­tage is 140 square me­tres of five-star fin­ishes, from four-posters to ex­u­ber­ant Gond mu­rals in bath­rooms. Air-con­di­tioned lounges fea­ture leather ot­tomans, come-hither couches and a chan­de­lier fit for Ver­sailles. Rear ter­races have cush­ioned char­poys, ceil­ing fans and sa­van­nah views.

Din­ners are staged at dif­fer­ent venues ev­ery day, al­ways lit by dozens of oil lamps (the re­sort has 450 in all, and em­ploys two full-time staff just for lanterns and can­dles). One evening it’s the lower ter­race of the main lodge be­neath a spread­ing ja­mun tree. There are red-clothed ta­bles, Gond paint­ings through­out and>

a bar stocked with lo­cal wines and spir­its. Din­ner is a South In­dian thali, a tin plate crowded with bot­tom­less bowls of cur­ries, pick­les and raita, with breads and rice. An­other night, din­ner is laid out by the pool, an im­pos­si­bly ro­man­tic set­ting that’s wasted on the pho­tog­ra­pher and me.

The dawn air is honey-scented with sal blos­soms as we set off on our fi­nal game drive with Guci. Re­cent bush­fires have re­duced Zone 3 of Bandhavgarh to an apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sion, like a scene from The Road. All the eas­ier to see tigers.

At 9am we’re parked ex­pec­tantly by a wa­ter­hole when the alarm call comes – not from a deer or a mon­key – but from a pas­sen­ger atop a jeep on the op­po­site bank. “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”

It’s on. En­gines roar to life, ma­noeu­vring Tetris-like into the best view­ing spots on the tiered banks of the dam. Through binoc­u­lars I can see a large, mud-caked cat flopped in the shade of the far bank. Now we just have to sit and wait for him to stir.

By 9.15am I count 53 hu­mans packed onto jeeps with viewfind­ers trained on the tiger. The beast lifts its head to sur­vey the sideshow and causes a frenzy. Will he get up? “It’s gen­er­ally ac­cepted that, af­ter three yawns, the tiger will get up,” Guci coun­sels me.

When he does fi­nally stand, around 9.30, the crowd goes berserk, snap­ping fran­tic frames be­fore this as­ton­ish­ing mo­ment ends. But it doesn’t end. It goes on and on.

He saun­ters down to the wa­ter. Dips a paw in. Ex­tends his long pink tongue into the wet­ness and laps steadily, con­stantly, while im­mers­ing him­self up to the armpits. Plea­sure seems to flicker across his face on this 45-de­gree day.

Even­tu­ally he sub­merges his back legs, too. He arches his back so his heavy stom­ach, per­haps bulging with spot­ted deer, dips into the wa­ter.

Limb by limb he suc­cumbs to de­sire, lan­guorously low­er­ing his en­tire body un­til only his head is vis­i­ble.

His long pink tongue never stops lap­ping, his black ears never stop twitch­ing. The white dots on the back of them flash like a Morse code mes­sage.

A tiger’s coat is a beau­ti­ful thing. The pat­tern­ing re­minds me of a but­ter­fly – far too pretty for an apex preda­tor. But the gar­land of stripes around his neck seem fit­ting, like may­oral chains or a prize­fighter’s medals.

Af­ter much med­i­ta­tion and a long pe­riod of star­ing at his click­ing, whirring au­di­ence across the wa­ter, the tiger hoists his mas­sive bulk out of the wa­ter, wan­ders along the bank, stops briefly in the shade of a tree, raises his tail and sprays the trunk, then saun­ters over a ridge and out of sight.

“Show’s over!” Guci an­nounces. But what a per­for­mance it was. Those last 30 min­utes felt like the great­est show on Earth.

FRIEZE FRAME

Above, from left: tem­ples at Kha­ju­raho; boat­man Raj leads a dawn out­ing on the Ken River.

RE­MAINS OF THE DAY Above: Kha­ju­raho, in­clud­ing the crum­bling for­mer palace of a ma­haraja.

OUT OF IN­DIA Be­low: the road to Kanha; the Samode Sa­fari Lodge; Baiga tribeswomen. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: a lo­cal fish­er­man on the Ken River; Kha­ju­raho; white-spot­ted deer in Kanha Na­tional Park; lo­cal women on the steps of the Benis­agar Lake in Kha­ju­raho; an open-top sa­fari jeep.

EARN­ING STRIPES Top: a guide astride an ele­phant in Bandhavgarh Na­tional Park; Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: bath­room at Sarai at To­ria; lan­gurs in

Kanha Na­tional Park; Bandhavgarh Na­tional Park; or­ange and fen­nel salad at Sarai; chai time at Samode Sa­fari Lodge.

LUCKY DIP Be­low, from left: pool­side at Samode; but­ter chicken with pap­pad­ums and condi­ments at Sing­i­nawa Jun­gle Lodge. Op­po­site: the tiger takes a dip.

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