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Feature: Eye on the Tiger

Scott Goetz

An auspicious headline ran on the front page of the Times of India on my first morning in the country. Three new Bengal tiger cubs had been spotted in Ranthambhore National Park, bringing the total number of tigers in the reserve to 36. The discovery was welcome news considering that the park’s tiger population had plummeted from 46 in 2003 to only 26 the following year. Before I left for India, the travel outfitter who arranged my trip had warned me not to expect to see a tiger; at best, she said, I would have a one-in-three-game-drives chance of a sighting. But the propitious report in the morning paper offered hope that the long journey to the subcontinent would not be in vain.

After two days of recovering from the journey—and a four-hour drive over bumpy back roads and through dusty desert villages in the northwestern state of Rajasthan—I arrived at the gates of Ranthambhore. The 155-square-mile park lies within the Aravalli Range, one of the oldest mountain chains in the world, and is part of a contiguous series of protected wildlife areas. The parkland’s steep sandstone cliffs and rugged peaks form a natural rampart that for centuries protected Rajput warriors from invading tribes. The mountains also serve to concentrate wildlife in Ranthambhore’s valleys and plateaus.

Ranthambhore is home to large numbers of lemur monkeys, sambar deer, marsh crocodiles, and other exotic species. However, rampant poaching and, before the 1970s, legal hunting of tigers has decimated the once-thriving Bengal population. From the mid-18th century through the mid-20th century, Ranthambhore served as the shikargarh, or private hunting reserve, of the Singh maharajas of Rajasthan, whose former fort still presides over the park from its perch atop the cliffs. During this era of the great hunt, Indian royal families believed it to be good luck to kill 108 tigers in a lifetime. Their superstition, however, did not preclude them from slaying many more.

 

By the time I set out on my third game drive at Ranthambhore, I had grown accustomed to the monkeys trampling around Rajput ruins and the deer grazing near marsh lakes. But the only signs of tigers had been a few paw prints in the park’s dirt roads. Then we heard a gunshot. Shankar, our guide from the Aman-i-Khás wilderness resort outside Ranthambhore, informed us that the park’s wardens were tracking a large male in an attempt to relocate him. Better to see a tiger under anesthesia than not at all, I figured, as we sped toward the sound.

The shot had missed its mark, and we arrived to find trackers walking in a semicircle through the bush. When they discovered the cat hidden near our vehicle, they ordered us to leave, for safety purposes, before we had a chance to glimpse the animal. I had struck out again, or so it appeared until, while we were driving toward the park’s exit, a monster-sized cat, gloriously regal in her orange and black coat, strutted out of the tall grass. Behind her bounced three young cubs.

The tigress appeared nervous, worried about the roaming male. If he found the cubs, he would kill them in an act of dominance. While she scouted the area, her cubs frolicked around a fallen tree, as if posing for our cameras. But I could not take my eyes off of their mother. I had seen hundreds of lions and leopards in the wild and expected tigers to be about the same size as their African cousins. This Hummer of the feline family, however, made lions seem like house cats.

Despite their splendor and size, tigers have long lagged behind lions on the priority lists of safari-goers. The African cat’s popularity owes partly to its abundance; tourists have a greater chance of spotting a lion than they do a tiger. Perhaps equally significant, however, is that lions are the stars of an extravagant, entertaining, and sophisticated show.

Nothing in the world compares to the experience of an African safari. Dozens of game lodges in South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, and other sub-Saharan countries pamper guests in first-rate facilities—often in implausibly remote locations—that contrast sharply with the raw beauty of the bush. After sleeping in a $4,500-per-night suite, one might find himself the next morning witnessing a life-and-death struggle between a lion and a Cape buffalo while sitting in the comfort of an open-top Land Rover manned by expert trackers and guides.

Recently, however, wilderness lodges such as Aman-i-Khás have begun creating an equivalent to the African-safari experience in India. The most prominent push is coming from one of Africa’s largest safari firms, Conservation Corporation of Africa, which plans to have five new Indian game lodges by the end of this year. By bringing its show to the subcontinent, CC Africa hopes to lure safari-goers to the land of the tiger and, quite possibly, postpone the cat’s extinction.

CC Africa opened its inaugural Indian lodge, Mahua Kothi, near Bandhavgarh National Park last November. But the Johannesburg firm was not the first company to build a high-end safari camp in India. Oberoi Hotels & Resorts, a Delhi-based chain, opened the Vanyavilas tent resort near Ranthambhore in 2001. In 2003, Singapore chain Amanresorts followed Oberoi’s lead with Aman-i-Khás, a sleek tent resort modeled after the camping grounds of maharajas.

At Aman-i-Khás, the guest experience bears a close resemblance to those of African safari camps. Butlers wake you up before dawn for morning game drives, which are followed by decadent brunches. After the evening safaris, you return to your suite to find that your butler has drawn a bubble bath and surrounded the tub with candles. Later, you gather with other guests around a large campfire for cocktails before dinner, which is served in a tent and accompanied by native performers.

The entertainment—which at Aman-i-Khás may consist of Rajasthani folk music performed by opium-eating Sufi mystics—is one of the features that distinguish the Indian safari experience from that of Africa. Other differences are less amusing. Africa has far more species—and in greater numbers—than India, so spotting big game is virtually assured on a sub-Saharan safari. Moreover, most lodges in Africa have control over the rules and protocol within their concessions. Indian parks, on the other hand, are managed by the government and burdened by outdated policies.

Rules at Ranthambhore hold that only two game drives are allowed per day, with schedules set by park officials who can and do change them with little notice. Vehicles must be driven by park rangers, who have varied naturalist knowledge and guest-relation skills. The routes they follow, which are divided into seven tracks, are predetermined and cannot be changed—even if a significant sighting is taking place on a nearby track.

Since opening, Aman-i-Khás has worked with Ranthambhore authorities to gain more freedom of access to the park. Guests now can ride in the resort’s custom-built, open-topped vehicles, and Aman-i-Khás has hired naturalists who have an average of 15 years’ experience in the park. Still, as the saying goes, "The British created bureaucracy, but the Indians perfected it." So to skirt some of the red tape, CC Africa, which operates some 40 camps throughout its home continent, aligned with India’s largest hotel chain, Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, as it prepared to enter the country.

Mahua Kothi is the first in a series of lodges the partners plan to open in the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttaranchal. Named after a tree that plays a role in local festivals and rituals, Mahua Kothi borders Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, approximately 350 miles south of Ranthambhore. More than a century ago, Rudyard Kipling selected what is now Bandhavgarh and the nearby Kanha National Park as the setting for the adventures of Mowgli and Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. At the time, the region belonged to the Maharaja of Rewa.

Like the Rajasthani Singhs at Ranthambhore, the maharajas of Rewa used their jungles as private hunting reserves. Bandhavgarh, however, proved more bountiful than its counterpart to the north. In 1936, Maharaja Gulab Singh of Rewa claimed a world record by killing his 501st tiger. Perched in a machan (a wooden platform high in the trees), Singh would sit and read a book while as many as 5,000 villagers, known as beaters, advanced through the forest beating tom-toms to scare the tigers toward him. When a cat appeared, a tethered rhesus monkey would sound an alarm, and the maharaja would look up from his book and shoot the beast.

Ironically, Maharaja Singh’s determination to protect his tigers so that only he could kill them helped ensure their survival. Bandhavgarh is now more densely populated with the cats than is any other park in India, and it is said to be the best place in the world to spot the Bengal tiger. The Rewa forests also hold the distinction of producing Mohun, the white tiger cub, captured by Maharaja Martand Singh in 1951, from which all white tigers of the world descended.

Tigers came under protection in India in 1973, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched Project Tiger, a conservation plan that set aside nine reserves for the animals. The government prohibited cattle grazing and foresting in the protected areas, and it relocated entire villages. Censuses showed that tiger populations increased from approximately 1,800 to 4,000 during the initiative’s first 11 years, but after Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, investigations revealed that forest officials had inflated the numbers to ensure continual funding.

Today, the Indian Government claims to spend $75 million per year on the tiger reserves. Still, most of the parks have only skeleton staffs, who are underpaid and ill-equipped to prevent illegal hunting. Poachers slaughter on average one tiger per day to meet the demand for the animal’s bone, which is an ingredient in a number of Chinese medicines.

Government officials now estimate the country’s tiger population to be about 4,000. CC Africa intends to help sustain those numbers. The company has had success protecting wildlife in Africa by employing local villagers and demonstrating to them how they can profit from preservation. In India, the firm is working with Bandhavgarh authorities to build fences to shield local villages from predators—especially tigers—that kill cattle, and it is introducing a version of its WildChild program, which teaches community youths about the preservation of native species. "Through successful and sustainable ecotourism, live tigers will have more value to them than dead tigers," says CC Africa’s marketing director, Nicky Fitzgerald, whose husband, Steve, serves as the company’s CEO. "This does not happen overnight. First a lodge needs to be built, filled, and run profitably so that meaningful opportunities are made available to the neighboring communities. Only when this happens do we believe we can then influence the way in which the community views the conservation of biodiversity in India’s beautiful wilderness areas."

CC Africa’s preservation plans may help explain why the company partnered with a hotel chain that is well-versed in local customs—and local bureaucracy. Still, "There is no quick fix, no magic wand," says Fitzgerald, "just a hard grind toward tangible results."

Like the partnership between Taj and CC Africa, the site for the companies’ first lodge combines elements of India and Africa. Set between the Vindhya and Satpura Ranges, Bandhavgarh features tropical forests and woodlands, steep rocky hills, and flat grasslands that resemble those of the South African bush. Sal trees dominate the forest, creating a thick cover that limits undergrowth. Twenty-two species of mammals have been documented in the 41-square-mile park, including langurs, spotted deer, sloth bears, jackals, foxes, and leopards. Tigers, however, are the main attraction.

"I know, I know. You want to see a tiger," says Kartkeya Singh Chauhan, a jubilant CC Africa naturalist serving as my guide. Before the sun has peeked over the horizon, we jump into a nine-seat Tata (similar to a Land Rover) and drive through a tiny town where cows sleep in the road and villagers carry baskets of vegetables on their heads. "Last night, the park ranger called," says Chauhan, an Indian who sports a proper Englishman’s derby. "A tiger made a kill up in the fort yesterday, and the fort just opened to the public without the need of a permit. I think we should hike up there."

The idea of tracking a tiger on foot is both exhilarating and terrifying. My fears are not quelled when I mention my desire to see a sloth bear. "You know, the sloth bear doesn’t move as slowly as a sloth," says Chauhan, as he tugs at his mustache. "They can outrun a human and kill you. But I will show you a sloth bear, I promise."

The Tata shifts into low gear as we ascend the mountain to the footpath. Bandhavgarh Fort, which dates to the first century, looms above us on a virtually unassailable plateau at an elevation of 2,625 feet. Halfway up the mountain, we park in front of a 36-foot-long statue of Vishnu, the Hindu god of protection, reclining on a seven-hooded snake. Created in the 10th century, the statue lies in a pool fed by an artesian spring. Chauhan says that in the summer you can see tigers resting on top of Vishnu, cooling off in the water that cascades over him.

During an hour-long trek, we hike through dense vegetation while scanning the jungle for tigers. When we arrive at the fort’s gate, with its giant spikes that kept out the elephants of raiding Mogul warriors, we discover tiger scat and paw prints. Vishnu appears again once we enter the fort, this time as 10th-century rock images depicting his incarnations as a half-man/half-lion, a giant boar, a fish, and a tortoise.

We search the area for the kill—and for the killer—but Chauhan concludes that the tiger has consumed its prey and moved on. Our guide does, however, deliver on his promise: As we leave the park, he points to an image of a sloth bear painted on a large map at the entrance.

Before CC Africa and Taj opened Mahua Kothi, few visitors to Bandhavgarh explored the park’s ruins. Most people received only a brief and frenzied glimpse of the park as participants in what is known as the "tiger show."

The show consists of tour operators stacking people into tiny jeeps, racing to the center of Bandhavgarh to grab tokens for elephant rides, and then driving around maniacally in an attempt to locate trackers who have found a tiger. Jeeps speed past each other to be first in the sometimes 20-vehicle-long line of operators waiting so their guests can mount the elephant for the allotted four-minute-long viewings.

At Bandhavgarh, a park-hired guide must lead the game drives, but the operator supplies the driver. For guests of Mahua Kothi, CC Africa has enlisted Chauhan and other naturalists—who are more knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna than are the park’s guides—to do the driving.

The day after our hike to the fort, we set out with Chauhan in the Tata. While other drivers speed around from elephant tracker to elephant tracker—who are having no luck locating tigers—Chauhan slowly searches for other game, spotting for us a rare jungle cat and a hard-to-find shrew. Eventually, we pull up to the center station, and Chauhan sets off to collect our tokens.

"They found a tiger a half hour ago," he says on his return. The Jeeps speed off, but we take our time, finishing our coffee and continuing on our game drive. An hour later, we arrive at the site to find six vehicles in line. "If we had come straight here from the station," says Chauhan, "there would have been three times as many."

We wait about 15 minutes, and then it is my turn to climb a ladder for my four-minute ride. Once atop the elephant, I am transported. Suddenly, I am Mowgli lumbering through the woods on my pet pachyderm. Then I spot him. Shere Khan, the tiger, 20 feet away, lifts his sleepy head and locks a golden eye onto mine.

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