I never win freebies that are advertised tantalizingly with magazine subscriptions. But, as they say, there is always a first time. So, when I won a trip to the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, we (me and hubby) decided to hit the tiger trail, even though we knew summer months could be very uncomfortable in those areas.
We reached Umariya, the district headquarters, early one morning in May. After a refreshing cup of tea at a roadside , we managed to squeeze into an overcrowded jeep that was going towards the Bandhavgarh. We got talking to the co-passengers and the discussion started veering towards the political situation in ‘bada shaher’ (Delhi). Instinctively, I knew I had to find out a more engaging topic if I wanted to survive the bumpy 32-km drive. I steered the conversation towards tigers and their plight in the country. Suddenly politics took the backseat and our co-passengers filled us with details about the park and tiger stories. Unknowingly, we got sucked into a race with destiny: Would we be lucky enough to see at least one tiger? As my mind swung like a pendulum between expectation and probability, the jeep screeched to a halt before our hotel.
Set among the Vindhya Hills, covering 437 square kilometres, the Bandhavgarh National Park is home to a wide variety of habitats. Sal trees cover the forest interspersed with stretches of bamboo and grassland. Within the park is the ancient Bandhavgarh fort. The Maharaja of Rewa occupied the fort until it was designated as a National Park in 1968. In addition to tigers, there are chousingha (small four horned) antelope, chinkara (Indian) gazelle, nilgai (blue bull) antelope, wild boar, jackal, muntjak (barking) deer, sambar deer, chital (spotted) deer, jungle cat, striped hyena, porcupine, ratel, rheses macaque, black-faced langur monkey and more.
After a quick shower and breakfast at the hotel, we decided to explore the tala. In no time it became clear that the economy of the area is dependent on tigers. Everything begins and ends with the tiger. While the hotel was called Tiger Den, shops and businesses were also prefixed with ‘Tiger’. And, to top it all, hotel served Tiger biscuits with tea for breakfast! This inter-dependence proves that the man-animal conflict, which is raging in many parts of India, can be effectively controlled if people are made a part of conservation programmes.
We reached the park gates in a Maruti gypsy at 5.30 am. Everyone wanted to get in first. The park guides, drawn from local Forest Development Committees, tried to assure us that there was no need to hurry. We were told that mahouts start tracking tigers from 5 am. They carry walkie-talkies and whenever a tiger is spotted, information is passed on to others. And then visitors are taken to the area for ‘tiger show’. “What are our chances?” I asked the guide for the umpteenth time. “Good chance,” he said. The next half-an-hour was probably the worst span of the trip. We kept a diligent watch on the forests around us and prayed. We saw deer, monkeys and birds, but the big cat eluded us. I remembered our friends who had jubilantly described us their tiger-sighting exploits at Kanha.
Suddenly, our guide announced: “Madam, the trackers have sighted one.” I looked around and saw two elephants walking around a particular spot hidden by tall grasses. “Two tigers are sitting there,” the guide said. Ten minutes later we were on elephants as it moved towards the subjects.
“Woh dekhiye,” cried the mahout.
We looked around but couldn’t see anything at the first go. Suddenly, I spotted two tigers camouflaged behind the dry bushes. Cameras clicked furiously. As one of the big cats yawned and looked lazily at us, the other, a tigress, simply dozed off. “These two were born in this park and they have seen tourists from day one. That’s why they have no fear,” the mahout commented matter-of-factly.
For the next half-an-hour we criss-crossed the jungle. By the time we reached tiger camp II, news had already spread that another full-grown male tiger has been spotted on the other side of the ridge. We got on to another elephant, all ready for our second sighting of the day. Our mahout urged the elephant to move forward so that we could see the tiger. But our three-year-old elephant just wouldn’t budge! After much coaxing and cajoling, she decided to listen to her master, but not before showing her anger. She ripped branches, wobbled a little and moved ahead. As we moved towards the ridge there was absolutely silence. The King walked in. He was full-grown male. He looked straight at us for two minutes, as if inspecting each of his subjects. Then all of a sudden, he started walking towards a cave in the same composed elegant way, leaving us gasping for more. Happy, but not satiated, we drove around the forests for some more time, discussing our luck and exchanging notes. As the sun kissed the horizon, it was time to get out of the jungle and leave the animals in peace. A notice board caught my eye. It had a ‘smiling’ tiger’s painted on it and said:
“You may not have seen me, but I have seen you. Visit me again!” These lines would have been a poor joke if we had failed to spot the Big Cats. But then, on that day, I could afford to smile.