The jun­gle look

Two new sa­fari op­tions in In­dia of­fer su­pe­rior tiger sight­ings

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - STAN­LEY STE­WART

In Tadoba Re­serve, near a wide lake, Haren­dra, my guide, stops in mid-sen­tence. He turns his head, and lis­tens. The wind whis­pers in the long grass. And then, in the sal trees across the mead­ows, a lan­gur monkey calls, the tell­tale cough­ing bark that is their alarm call.

“Tiger,” Haren­dra says, in a half whis­per. The lan­gur’s call is taken up by an­other, and then an­other. In a mo­ment it is a cho­rus. We are stand­ing in the jeep, binoc­u­lars at the ready, peer­ing in­tently to­wards the green sward along the edge of the lake. A herd of spot­ted deer lift their heads in uni­son. I re­alise I am hold­ing my breath. For a mo­ment the world seems to have stood still.

The tiger does not sim­ply ar­rive; rather, she ma­te­ri­alises. One mo­ment there is noth­ing, and the next a tiger is pad­ding slowly through the long grass, so mag­nif­i­cent in that first in­stant that she seems un­real. She moves with aris­to­cratic grace, de­lib­er­ate, dig­ni­fied, and si­lent, her head high, her back arched, her feet placed so pre­cisely.

Abreast of the jeep, she stops again and raises her nos­trils, scent­ing the air. The deer have scat­tered, the lan­gur mon­keys have re­treated fur­ther into the for­est. She turns her enor­mous head and gazes at us. We are as still as you can only be when you are look­ing at a fully grown maneater. I can see the del­i­cate pat­tern of stripes that halo her face. I see the white spots on her ears as they twitch and the mus­cles rip­pling in her shoul­ders. Her whole body seems to be con­cen­trat­ing on us.

Over the past decade, wildlife tourism in In­dia, chiefly fo­cused on the tiger, has grown by up to 25 per cent a year. And re­cent fig­ures for tiger num­bers — the pop­u­la­tion has in­creased by 30 per cent in the past four years — seem to un­der­line the way in which the sur­vival of the an­i­mal is as much linked to the eco­nomic value gen­er­ated by tourism as to bet­ter man­age­ment of their habi­tat.

But in some parks the in­crease in vis­i­tor num­bers has led to a cheap­en­ing of the ex­pe­ri­ence. In the most fa­mous and popular of In­dia’s na­ture re­serves — such as Cor­bett, Band­hav­garh and Ran­tham­bore — there are times when the chaos of the In­dian street seems to in­vade the seclu­sion of the parks as a scrum of jeeps and cam­era-wield­ing vis­i­tors de­scends.

Which is what has brought me to ex­plore two emer- ging tiger des­ti­na­tions in In­dia, both ac­ces­si­ble from Mumbai, which prom­ise track­ing with­out pa­parazzi. The first is Tadoba in Ma­ha­rash­tra. Five years ago, no one but a hand­ful of rangers seemed to have heard of the place. But the build­ing of new lodges, a sud­den spurt in the tiger pop­u­la­tion, and the ha­bit­u­a­tion of the an­i­mals to hu­man pres­ence have meant that Tadoba is emerg­ing as one of the best “new” des­ti­na­tions for track­ing.

The other is Pench, which is rather more familiar ground. Strad­dling the bor­der of the states of Ma­ha­rash­tra and Mad­hya Pradesh, Pench was the fa­mous set­ting for Rud­yard Ki­pling’s The Jun­gle Book and the BBC’s 2008 wildlife doc­u­men­tary se­ries, Tiger: Spy in the Jun­gle. At Turia Gate, 42 lodges send jeeps into the park each morn­ing. But a new camp has opened at Pench, an hour’s drive away, at Jam­tara Gate, ad­ja­cent to great swaths of the park lit­tle trou­bled by vis­i­tors from other lodges.

At the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, when In­dian ma­hara­jahs and Bri­tish of­fi­cials were still busy gun­ning down tigers for sport, there were thought to be about 45,000 in In­dia. By the time tiger hunt­ing was banned in 1970, there were about 2000. Cur­rent es­ti­mates hover just above 1700.

With hunt­ing no longer an is­sue, the two pres­sures on tigers are shrink­ing habi­tat and poach­ing.

The re­serves — and there are al­most 50 tiger re­serves in In­dia — are meant to deal with the pro­tec­tion of habi­tat but their un­der­paid and ill-equipped park rangers must mostly deal with poach­ing, largely fu­elled by the Chi­nese tra­di­tional medicine trade. For the Chi­nese a tiger is a com­plete phar­macy. There is noth­ing, ap­par­ently, its bits can­not cure.

But the mys­tique of the tiger is not con­fined to Chi­nese med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers. In early West­ern mythol­ogy, the an­i­mal be­longed to the bes­tiaries of the imag­i­na­tion, the fe­line coun­ter­part of the uni­corn, the grif­fin and the dragon. As late as the Re­nais­sance it was be­lieved that all tigers were fe­male and that they pro­cre­ated by cop­u­lat­ing with the wind. For Wil­liam Blake they were a metaphor for the prim­i­tive forces lost to civilised so­ci­eties.

But no one should be fooled by the lan­guorous cat stretch­ing in a pool of sun­light or drink­ing charm­ingly at a for­est pool. Tigers are na­ture’s most ef­fi­cient killers. Their paws are the size of din­ner plates, and their claws longer than your mid­dle fin­ger; they have been known to re­move a hu­man face with a sin­gle swipe. A big male is the length of a com­pact car.

A short flight from Mumbai and a four-hour drive from Nag­pur bring me to the bor­ders of Tadoba, 65sq km of sprawl­ing wilder­ness that’s the largest na­tional park in Ma­ha­rash­tra state and home to about 60 tigers. The ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions here, such as Svasara Jun­gle Lodge, are com­fort­able with­out be­ing su­per-smart while the park has emerged as one of the best places in In­dia for sight­ings of the big cat.

Our tiger sight­ing by the lake was a thrill. Hap­pily she de­cided against tourists for break­fast and moved away deeper into the forests. You would be very un­lucky at Tadoba or Pench not to see a tiger but you should re­mem­ber th­ese parks are not just about the big cat.

There are 250 species of birds and mostly on game drives you will need to con­tent your­self with the prospect of see­ing about 40 other kinds of mam­mals and 15 se­ri­ous rep­tile va­ri­eties, from the In­dian co­bra to the colos­sal marsh crocodile.

I see wild boar, in the grey pre-dawn, trot­ting across the track in front of us. I spot a large samba deer, antlers sil­hou­et­ted among branches, his ears turn­ing through 180 de­grees as he as­sesses the morn­ing. On the shores of Tadoba Lake, where our tiger would later ap­pear, there’s a marsh crocodile in the shad­ows, his long ridged back emerg­ing from the shal­lows. Lan­gur mon­keys set­tle onto rocks for morn­ing gos­sip, pick­ing at one an­other’s fleas while young­sters scam­per up and down trunks. But it is In­dia’s birds that are the prize draw. As brightly feath­ered as can-can dancers, they are jaw-drop­pingly glam­orous.

Of the two parks — eas­ily com­bined on the same itin­er­ary — Pench is my favourite, its land­scapes pret­tier and more var­ied. Large tracts are dom­i­nated by teak trees with lit­tle un­der­growth, al­low­ing long vis­tas be­tween the slen­der trunks. And Pench also of­fers a wel­come ac­com­mo­da­tion up­grade in the form of the newly opened Jam­tara Wilder­ness Camp. Fur­nished in a style that mixes colo­nial charm with ori­en­tal lan­guor, Jam­tara’s 12 spa­cious tents are se­ri­ous sa­fari chic with bath­rooms that wouldn’t look out of place in stylish five-star digs. As well as an el­e­gant open-sided sit­ting area — a place of deep leather chairs, piled books, and evening cock­tails — and a de­light­ful in­fin­ity pool, the fire pit be­neath the canopy of a sprawl­ing banyan tree soon be­comes the fo­cus for gath­er­ing guests. With its prime lo­ca­tion on the qui­eter side of Pench, Jam­tara is, in fact, the per­fect tiger lodge. • svararesorts.com • jam­tarawilder­ness.com • in­cred­i­blein­dia.org

Tourists pho­to­graph a Ben­gal tiger; Jam­tara Wilder­ness Camp, above right; a spot­ted deer at Pench, be­low

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