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!