Into the Wild

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There are an estimated 3,900 tigers left in the wild. Thanks to conservation efforts, this is up from 3,200 in 2010 (Image © Shutterstock)

Tiger tracking in Nagarhole National Park

By John Arifin

The past 13 years have taken me on several journeys through many parts of India. These opportunities to experience the rich biodiversity of Nature on the subcontinent has led me to return again and again, begging for more.

My first encounter with the most sought-after species of wildlife in India – the tragically endangered royal Bengal tiger – was in Nagarhole National Park in the Western Ghats, home to the Kabini River Lodge. One late afternoon, the late John Wakefield – who was also fondly known as “Papa John” – radioed the safari jeeps while on his daily leisure drive, having spotted the stealthy “king of the jungle”. Without hesitation, our driver and guide changed direction, and – with a touch of speed – put foot to get to where the tiger was sighted. The jeep trundled through the jungle, rattling over mounds and ditches, jostling us about like skittles in a can. We hovered over our seats, gripping the railing in front of us with white knuckles. We kept our eyes shut, and our heads bowed low, dust blowing with little mercy at our faces. We arrived, relieved, at the location, meeting two more jeeps that had similarly scrambled for a good position to spot the big cat.

There are 22 vehicles per safari session twice a day — one at 6:20am and the other at 3:30pm (Image courtesy John Arifin)

Papa John was still on location, a mute observer, pointing in the direction of the tiger, which had soundlessly waded into the water. Realising that this was likely to be a fleeting moment, I slowly elevated myself above the jeep, telephoto lens in hand, watching the cat, half-submerged in a man-made waterhole, move through my viewfinder. It proved to be well-timed and well worth it, as I only managed to take a few shots before the tiger disappeared into the forest, shrouded by the cover of fading evening light.

A few years after this initial sighting at Nagarhole National Park, I had the opportunity to see other tigers in Kanha and the Bandhavgarh National Parks in the state of Madhya Pradesh in Central India, as well as in the magnificent Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan. Some of the tigers I saw in the past were from a very close distance, while others only presented a quick glimpse of their black and orange stripes skulking through thick bushes.   

The royal Bengal tiger has an average lifespan of between 10 to 15 years. Recent decades have witnessed a steady decline in the population of this ultimate big cat, which once roamed in large numbers throughout India. According to the 2016 World Wildlife Fund’s global tiger census, an estimated 3,900 tigers remain in the wild. Even though the numbers have improved in recent years – up from 3,200 in 2010 – a lot of work is still needed to protect tigers, which are threatened with extinction.

I decided to return to Kabini River Lodge 13 years after the original sighting with Papa John. It was during this visit that I found out that the iconic guide had passed away in 2010 at the age of 95. He is sorely missed by many.

Most of the local and international visitors to Kabini come to the lodge with the sole objective of seeing a tiger. Other types of accommodations have sprung up since I first visited the area. The number of visitors has increased at least threefold, judging from the crowd I encountered at the new dining area at Kabini Lodge. With the increase in tiger tourism, the jeeps have increased to 22 vehicles per safari session with two trip timings available per day – one at 6:20am and the other at 3:30pm.

Other major changes I observed included the zoning of the safari area, which has been divided into two areas (A and B) to avoid overcrowding. The time spent in the jungle has also been shortened to minimise disturbance of the animals. No radios or walkie-talkies are allowed anymore. Tiger sighting can also be done from the water; some guests opt to take a boat ride through the park’s backwaters.

On the first day, guests from the surrounding resorts gathered at our dining area and we were assigned to our respective jeeps. We had the pleasure of having a young man named Revana as our guide. Despite his youth, he was an experienced and shrewd tracker. From the distant honk of a sambar, to the loud cough of a grey langur, and the shrill call of a peacock, he picked up on each animal sound, detecting any nervousness in these calls that could signify that a tiger or leopard was on the prowl nearby. While there were a few false alarms, his skill held true.

We saw a shadow lurking behind some bushes. A large tree trunk was just in front of us, blocking our view. With another vehicle behind us, our driver could not manoeuvre to reposition our vehicle. With some quick thinking, my wife, Anna, stretched out her hand with her camera and blindly fired a few shots in the general direction of the movement. On the camera’s LCD, a leopard with its prey in its mouth was captured in crystal clear focus.

Seeing a leopard was probably the next best thing to seeing a tiger. Awestruck by our stroke of luck, we drove on
to follow a lead on a possible tiger sighting. After a short drive, Revana motioned for a pause.  
“Tiger, tiger, tiger,” he whispered urgently. Reversing the jeep with impressive agility, his neck outstretched, he moved us into position for a better view. The overall mood of the passengers in the jeep changed, and we grew silent. Lo and behold, there was a tigress, a truly majestic creature, ambling proudly towards us, coursing along the water’s edge, where a herd of chital (spotted deer) were, unsuspectingly, lapping up their afternoon drink.

A tigress casts a chilling look at the safari jeep through the trees. Nagarhole National Park was once maintained as the hunting ground for the Mysore royal family (Image courtesy John Arifin)

The scent of fear filled the air. I aimed my lens at the tigress and could also see the chital nervously backing away from her. Unperturbed and undaunted, without much of an agenda, she dipped her feline body into the water, and waded in our direction. Emerging, dripping, back onto the jungle path, her drenched coat accentuated her lean, muscular body, rippling in alternating shades of black and ochre. Not paying the least bit of attention to us, she casually crossed our path in direct view, and then disappeared into the jungle.

The spell was broken with audible exhales breaking into nervous laughter, followed by whooping high fives. We could not believe our luck that on our first day in the reserve, we had managed to see two cats in the same afternoon. Chatting to Chandra, a guest from Bangalore, he told me that he had visited Kabini eight times. This was
the first time he had seen a tiger.

We stayed on at the lodge for six more safari rides, alternating between the morning and afternoon. Other than the big cats, there is an impressive number of species to see: chital, sambar, wild dogs, wild boar, elephants, gaurs (Indian bison), giant squirrels, and grey langurs. We also saw around 30 species of birds, such as the crested hawk eagle, the Oriental honey buzzard and the osprey. Although there were multiple alarm calls during the several safari trips, we didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of another tiger.

On the night before I left Kabini, we visited Papa John’s former residence, which now stands to commemorate him. There is also a bar named after him, called the “John Wakefield Bar”. Papa John’s lifetime mission has benefitted the local villagers and the tourism industry in the way of sustainability. He has left a legacy – a hard act to follow. The high standard of service he maintained  instilled a pride in their work amongst his fomer team – both in ensuring the welfare of wild animals, and in upholding excellent service in wildlife tourism.

Even though the popularity of tiger tourism has grown rapidly in the past decade, the current condition of the jungle has not changed, and that was a joy to see. The creation of waterholes and the sustainable maintenance of the jungle habitat has also served to prevent forest fires, which has in turn led to a larger population of herbivores – keeping the tiger population at a healthy number.

WHEN

Between October and April is the best time to visit the park. Avoid the peak season in December and January

WHERE

Nagarhole National Park is about 220 kilometres southwest of Bangalore in Karnataka State

HOW

There are numerous direct flights to Bangalore from major cities in Asia. Hire a taxi from the airport for the five-hour trip to the park

WHAT TO SEE

Aside from tigers and leopards, Nagarhole’s highlights include elephants, Indian bison, sloth bears, crocodiles, and various deer species. On the way to the park, stop off at Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary for spotted open-billed storks, Eurasian spoonbills, river terns, spot-billed pelicans, pied kingfishers and marsh crocodiles

For more stories and photographs, check out Asian Geographic Issue 122.

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