Track­ing big cats on sa­fari through the ‘Tiger State’

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel & Life - Story and pho­tos by Mark Jo­han­son Mark Jo­han­son is a free­lance writer.

You can go to Africa for chee­tahs or li­ons, but for Ben­gal tigers, your best bet is the wildlife re­serves at the heart of the In­dia’s so-called Tiger State of Mad­hya Pradesh.

BHOPAL, In­dia – I’m swad­dled in a mess of blan­kets to fight the pre-dawn chill as I bump down the dusty dirt roads of In­dia’s Kanha Na­tional Park in an ope­nair sa­fari jeep.

My guide, Prab­hat Verma of PureQuest Ad­ven­tures, is brim­ming with op­ti­mism. But it’s my third trip past the park’s green gates, and I’ve yet to lock eyes with the crea­ture I flew half­way around the world to meet.

You can go to Africa for chee­tahs or li­ons, but for Ben­gal tigers, your best bet is the wildlife re­serves at the heart of the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent in the so-called Tiger State of Mad­hya Pradesh. Some­where up ahead are nearly 100 of these re­gal cats, which prowl 360 square miles of pris­tine In­dian wilder­ness. Even so, there are no guar­an­tees I’ll see one.

Strad­dling the Maikal Hills of the Sat­pura Range, Kanha is a vast land­scape of sal tree forests and wide-open sa­van­nas that’s a fourhour drive from the near­est air­port in the diminu­tive re­gional cap­i­tal of Raipur.

On morn­ing and af­ter­noon sa­faris the day be­fore, we fol­lowed fresh tiger tracks in the park’s talc-soft dirt to dead ends. The spot­ter in my sa­fari jeep flicked his binoc­u­lars left and right, though his ears were do­ing the real work. He heeded the warn­ing calls of lan­gur mon­keys (who scan the perime­ter from tree­tops) and spot­ted deer (who smell tigers from a mile away) — all to no avail.

We’ve seen some dis­crete pea­cocks am­bling through the woods, a pair of jack­als rac­ing down a meadow and a rare baras­ingha swamp deer hid­ing in the brush. We’ve pho­tographed a menagerie of col­or­ful king­fish­ers and watched ter­mites build sand-cas­tle-like mounds out of the burnt-or­ange earth. I know deep down this ought to make me happy, that all an­i­mals should carry equal clout. But the tiger is such a rare beast; it would be cruel not to get at least one glance at its striped or­ange robe.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Wildlife Fund, only about 3,890 tigers are left in the wild. In­dia is home to 70 per­cent of them, and its role in en­sur­ing the big cat’s sur­vival can’t be un­der­stated. Tiger num­bers in In­dia are be­lieved to have dropped from about 40,000 at the be­gin­ning of the 19th cen­tury to just 1,800 in the early 1970s, when In­dia launched the con­ser­va­tion pro­gram Project Tiger.

Kanha was one of the orig­i­nal nine re­serves set up un­der that pro­gram (there are now 50), and I’ve come here to wit­ness a rare good news story in global con­ser­va­tion. Pre­lim­i­nary re­sults of In­dia’s lat­est tiger cen­sus sug­gest that the na­tion’s tiger pop­u­la­tion will rise from 2,226 in 2014 to more than 3,000 in 2019.

A fresh round of deer calls sends us rac­ing to a forested ridge like the pa­parazzi we are with cam­eras at the ready. I take a big gulp of the crisp morn­ing air, which has the tang of a fresh cut le­mon, and wait in si­lence for some­thing — any­thing — to hap­pen.

A few rest­less min­utes go by. Just as I’m start­ing to feel de­flated, the ti­gress ap­pears atop the ridge, flaunt­ing a kind of self-as­sur­ance that only apex preda­tors pos­sess. Her mus­cles tighten with each step as she sur­veys the land, her coat shin­ing un­der the low spot­light of the morn­ing sun. She is, by all ac­counts, In­dian roy­alty.

In the ex­cite­ment of the mo­ment I’ve some­how missed the larger tiger — her mate — hid­ing in the brush. She walks over to him, bran­dishes her 2-inch ca­nines and lies down for the briefest of mo­ments be­fore they re­treat into the dark­ness of the for­est. The whole scene lasts all of five min­utes, but it’s so cine­matic, it feels as if I’ve watched an en­tire na­ture spe­cial in the flesh.

Back at the Kanha Earth Lodge, a well-cam­ou­flaged sa­fari camp in the park’s buf­fer zone, we toast to a suc­cess­ful day with a po­tent toddy made by the lo­cal Baiga tribe from the flow­ers of the sa­cred mahua tree. It tastes sour, but our spir­its our high. We’ve prowled the lands that in­spired Rud­yard Ki­pling’s “The Jun­gle Book,” and we’ve faced our very own Shere Khan.

We feel priv­i­leged, even if we know we’re hardly alone. Mad­hya Pradesh his­tor­i­cally has had far fewer tourists than the more pop­u­lar In­dian states of Ra­jasthan or Ker­ala, but vis­i­tor num­bers dou­bled in 2017 fol­low­ing the live-ac­tion re­make of “The Jun­gle Book.” With Net­flix pick­ing up the sto­ry­line in its 2018 fea­ture “Mowgli,” the buzz around In­dia’s lan­guid heart­land con­tin­ues un­abated.

Elec­tric with the thrill of a first tiger sight­ing, we set off on a four-hour drive to Band­hav­garh Na­tional Park, an­other tiger-rich re­serve with forested hills. Band­hav­garh was, un­til 1968, the hunt­ing grounds of a former In­dian prince, who plucked the last white tiger from the wild here in the 1950s. While these ge­netic aber­ra­tions may be gone, their stan­dard or­ange-and-black brethren are thriv­ing. I keep my binoc­u­lars peeled for sight­ings of them — as well as leop­ards, sloth bears and the rest of the “Jun­gle Book” crew. I’m treated in­stead to birds, mon­keys and deer.

Back at my ho­tel, the suit­ably named King’s Lodge, mem­bers of the lo­cal Gond tribe dance by an evening bon­fire. They gy­rate to songs about na­ture, an­i­mals and work­ing the land — all to a mildly hyp­notic beat.

Mad­hya Pradesh has the largest tribal pop­u­la­tion of any In­dian state, ac­cord­ing to the 2011 cen­sus. These agrar­ian com­mu­ni­ties play an in­te­gral role in pro­tect­ing the tiger, even though they were his­tor­i­cally left out of the process (and in some cases, forcibly re­moved from park­lands). Thanks to changes in gov­ern­ment pol­icy, they’re now em­ployed as spot­ters and guides and have an in­cen­tive to keep the tigers alive.

On my fi­nal af­ter­noon sa­fari through Band­hav­garh, the sun­set is a glo­ri­ous af­fair of golden light and crisp air. I feel lucky to have spent a few days far from the crowds in this na­tion of 1.3 bil­lion. I’m even con­tent that I may not find an­other tiger — that is, un­til the tiger finds me.

A lo­cal nat­u­ral­ist says the crea­ture loung­ing in the brush in front of us is a 4-year-old male who must soon fight his dad for this patch of the park or leave for greener pas­tures. His fate strikes me as harsh, but also sur­pris­ingly nor­mal, which, for tigers these days, is kind of a big deal.

A ti­gress walks along a ridge­line in Kanha Na­tional Park in In­dia. Pre­lim­i­nary re­sults of In­dia’s lat­est tiger cen­sus sug­gest its tiger pop­u­la­tion will rise to more than 3,000 in 2019.

Gray lan­gurs have a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship with deer in the parks of Mad­hya Pradesh, warn­ing each other of ap­proach­ing tigers.

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