The jungle look
Two new safari options in India offer superior tiger sightings
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