Thursday, December 8, 2011

India's Tiger Tales

Female tiger paw print
Our Indian tiger safari proved to be one terrifically unforgettable experience. There were times I felt like I was participating in a police stakeout, bored but alert, sitting on the edge of my seat looking around in all directions for the tiger that would almost certainly not appear.

There were other times I imagined we had been transported into the scene in Jurassic Park where they've managed to find the T.Rex only to be unable to outrun the giant beast. As we rode around Bandhavgarh National Park in our small, lightweight Gypsy with its less than powerful engine, I became utterly convinced that if that sneaky tiger did show up, she would jump out of of the grass, into the Jeep, and before I'd realized what had happened, I would be screaming for the return of my mangled arm. While our quiet tiger-tracking engine was perfect for the job of finding a tiger, it certainly was not perfect for outrunning a tiger.

And then there were the best times, when the dirt roads through the park were transformed into a rally racing course, complete with hairpin turns and billows of dust, with our trusty guide and driver, Papu, slamming his way over rocks and make-shift bridges. It was during these enthralling moments that I felt that I had missed my calling as a National Geographic explorer. To sit in a courtroom waiting for my umpteenth case to be called when I could be spotting one of nature's most beautiful animals...what was I thinking?

Finding a tiger requires patience I am not really known for possessing. We spent about seventeen hours over the course of three days driving around the park to see two different female tigers. Our guides relied on finding tiger paw prints (punjab) and listening to the warning calls of monkeys, deer, and even peacocks. Once they heard the warning calls, we would speed off in their direction. Papu knew when and where to stop, turn off his engine, and wait for the next warning call or for tiger stripes to emerge. More often than not, the tiger would never appear and we would be left feeling just a little empty. As if the first five numbers of your lottery ticket matched the winning series, only to have the sixth number called out be different. It was so close you could taste it, but victory was quickly snatched from your fingertips.

Our first tiger sighting was all rear!
We really were the lucky ones, though! There were many visitors who left without ever seeing a tiger. Our first view was at the end of our first drive. We were sitting in an open field, rather bored and wondering if Papu was any good at all. Luckily, he heard something that we didn't and with amazing speed, he did a three point turn and headed towards the monkey's call. Though we didn't know it at the time, as he was hauling ass up the trail, he spotted fresh tiger punjab and increased his speed. As the Gypsy rounded the corner, we saw her! She was walking away from us when she heard our rapid approach. She calmly turned her head to learn the source of the ruckus, found us to be quite uninteresting, and headed into the jungle. Our total sighting lasted maybe thirty seconds.

Our second and last tiger sighting was the following evening. We entered the park a little after two in the afternoon and after many views of beautiful birds, spotted deer, and Langur monkeys, we finally heard the warning calls we had learned to covet. Papu was clearly more experienced than many of the other guys, evidenced by the fact that the others often looked to him for help. One such youngster was having a hard time figuring out from where the tigress would emerge, so Papu said "well, where is the monkey looking?!"

These Langur monkeys were just sitting on the side of the road and hanging out, not being in any way helpful in our tiger search.

Jason spotted this adorable family while we were waiting for a male tiger, whose prints we'd found, to emerge. Though he never did, I was content to photograph these cuties.
Spotted Deer have an amazing relationship with the Langur Monkey. The monkeys will sit in the trees and throw down fruit for the deer. In turn, the deer use their superior hearing to let the monkeys know there are no predators, allowing the monkeys to come down from the trees.
Peacocks are surprisingly loud when they are warning you about an approaching tiger.
When she did make her way out of the brush, I think that my heart may actually have skipped a beat. Jason says that my camera sounded like machine gun fire, but luckily, like the previous feline, this tiger didn't seem too concerned about our presence.

After she made her way back into the trees, the real tracking began. Because these guys know the individual tigers, they made educated guesses as to where we could next see the tigress. So off we went again, this time standing, holding onto the roll bar, letting the wind and adrenaline rush through our bodies. Two times we were able to do this, allowing us to view her for at least twenty minutes. Experiencing this with a camera in hand, hoping that at least one good photo would result from my efforts allowed me to really appreciate the difficulty of capturing fleeting moments. From the first warning call to the final view of the tigress's tail disappearing into the tall grass, those forty minutes will probably be our favorite moments of the entire trip.

The first stripes emerge!


She heads back into the jungle. At this point, I thought that was the last we'd see of her. Luckily, I was completely wrong.

And there she is again.


Quite the photogenic one, isn't she?


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