Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tiger kill

We started our day today with a 7:00 AM ride on elephant back to a clearing where a tiger was devouring the sambar deer he’d killed during the night. He was the area’s alpha male, a huge cat, knawing away, ignoring the three elephants that circled him from 30 feet away. The park charged $15 per person for a few minutes with him; we were there to photograph the tourists. We returned two hours later: by then he was full-bellied and ready for a nap, occasionally hissing at one of the elephants. He was done with the show.

We got the word that a mother tiger had killed a cow outside the national park. It was near a small village, so the parks department opted to bury the kill to prevent the female and her three nearly-grown cubs from hanging around and eating it. They sent in four elephants. The mahouts were instructed to drive the cats away from the village.

The tigers were on the move as we raced back and forth in a car trying to find them. Villagers worked their fields, kids walked around and played, people rode bicycles and motorcycles along the dirt roads. It was chilling to see them engaged in the dailiness of life, oblivious to the danger.

Then we glimpsed a tiger loping through a field, chased by the elephants. A minute later, we heard a blood curdling scream. The female was so stressed that when she encountered a man he attacked. He died about an hour later. Soon after, we heard a dog screaming—she'd gotten it, too.

The cat wandered into a hotel compound and went to sleep. Her cubs stayed in the village, hunkered down in a thick stand of bamboo.

Today near Todoba Tiger Reserve, about five hours from here, another tiger killed someone. And yesterday a tiger was shot in a rice field in Uttar Pradesh.

Trying to save tigers in an overpopulated country is not easy, and both humans and tigers suffer.

Someone who was born here in Bandhavgarh and who now works as a guide told us over a beer at the end of the day that despite government claims that there are 65 tigers in the park, there are really only about 45. And in Ranthambore, another famous tiger reserve, they have lost six or seven tigers in the last two months.

Tomorrow we’ll attend and photograph the funeral. The man who died was a poor villager in his late 20s, a man who lived in a bamboo hut with his wife and two small children. Donations from the local tourism lodges will pay for the firewood for his funeral pyre, which will be lit in the middle of an open field.

To bed. I’m exhausted and numb.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Am in Bandavgarh, staying on the periphery of the famous tiger park. We head in each morning as predawn light pales the sky, driving in an open safari jeep. At that hour, the park is shrouded in mist, a veneer of frost dusting the straw grassland in wintry white. We look like mummies, wrapped in down clothing. It's not the steamy, sun-baked world one would imagine when picturing India. But the temperature climbs with the rising sun, hitting 65 or 70 F. (18 to 21 C.) by midday. We strip down layer by layer until the chill returns with the setting sun.

Much of the forest is a deciduous mix of silk cotton, teak, sal, and ebony, woven together by mammoth strangler figs and tall thickets of bamboo. We see sambar deer tall as a horse. Small and large herds of spotted deer. Two peacocks fly across the road trailing impossibly long, magnificent plumage. As we approach, big blond langurs bound away on springy legs, the gymnasts of the forest, and a pair of bushy-tailed jackals head for the undergrowth.

Estimates vary, but up to 60 tigers roam this area, slipping in and out of the chain link fence that surrounds the 1500 square kilometer park. Cattle graze within sight on the other side. Hunting them is child’s play for a tiger—and killing them invokes the wrath of the villagers.

We meet a park guard. News comes across his walkie talkie in staticky bursts: three near-adult cubs are in the area. We sit and wait, but don’t see them.

We drive through the park, dust rising in clouds behind us. We see enormous tiger prints, fresh ones, and follow them. And there she is: a female watches us briefly, then slips into the forest, reappearing further on. In side view we can see how huge she is, and how utterly magnificent. Wow.


But the next day--we watch three tigers up close for half an hour--20 to 50 feet away!