Finding Bengal tigers in India
Carrying memories of The Jungle Book with him, Dale R Morris ventures into tiger country in India’s Ranthambore National Park. Photography by Dale R Morris.
“Look for the bare necessities. The simple bare necessities.”
I was just a child when I first sang along with Baloo and Mowgli in the 1967 Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book; a wonderful movie (and even better novel), set in the forests of India and full of memorable songs and colourful characters.
I loved King Louie, the jazz-playing orangutan, and Bagheera, the benevolent panther. But it was Shere Khan, the tiger that hated humans but loved to eat, who enthralled me most.
To this day, I still view tigers with a mixed bag of emotions. They’re at once terrifying, awesome, mysterious and dangerous, yet beautiful and alluring. I have always wanted to see one in the wild.
Despite their fierce reputation, tigers are, in fact, vulnerable, fragile and vanishing at an alarming rate due to poaching and habitat loss. Around 100 years ago, 100,000 of these magnificent cats roamed across 13 different countries, from Russia to Thailand and Bhutan. Now there are fewer than 4,000, and the majority of those live in India.
So here I am in the back of a rickshaw taxi in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, on my way to Ranthambore National Park, gritting my teeth and praying that my driver is not the psychotic lunatic he appears to be. Thankfully, India is a land of small miracles
It’s a miracle the cows, goats and camels that sleep in the middle of the road don’t get hit by careening traffic. Even more so that overloaded trucks avoid hitting lemming-like pedestrians who fail to look left or right before they step blithely off curbs and into the maelstrom. It’s a miracle that the chicken crosses the road… and makes it to the other side without becoming a spatchcock. Put simply, India is hectic.
As we pull in through the gates of the luxurious five-star Sujan Sher Bagh hotel, the chaotic hustle and bustle of urban India is instantly replaced by jungle-like greenery and sweet, peaceful serenity. “We could have sent a car to the airport for you,” the turban-clad receptionist tells me, eyeing the dirty little three-wheeled taxi with an air of disdain. But where would the fun have been in that?
After settling into my opulent tented accommodation (think glamping, for royalty), I meet up with my guide, Bablu Kahn, a man with a Salvador Dali moustache and an affable demeanour. “Quickly now, if we leave right away we might have a chance to find a tiger before the park closes,” he says to my delight.
On the lookout
If you’ve ever participated in the Dakar Rally, or perhaps been a passenger during a NASCAR race, you will have a good idea what it’s like to be inside an Indian safari jeep.
I am vaguely aware of the magnificent scenery around me: the towering stone fort that looms over Ranthambore, the glistening lakes and the woodland forests. But mostly I am just hanging on for dear life, eyes closed in terror, while monkeys, deer and peacocks scatter in all directions. Our driver had been informed of a tiger sighting earlier that day, and is keen to get us to the location before the park closes, no matter the cost to my coccyx and spine. As the jeep skids to a standstill, I am prompted to open my eyes. And there she is.
A magnificent striped tiger, lounging next to a waterhole surrounded by giant fig trees full of noisy birds and monkeys. The latter scream and bark at the tigress below, dropping sticks and pieces of scat in a display of consternation and disapproval. But she pays them no heed.
Just as I pull out my camera, Bablu informs me we must leave. “The gate times are very strict,” he tells me. And with that, the Dakar begins anew.
Into the wild
The following days are more sublime, especially since I instruct Bablu to tell our driver to stop being Michael Schumacher. “We Indians do everything in a hurry,” he laughs. “But I have convinced him to be more like Bob Marley for the duration of our trip.”
The park is a mosaic of lakes and woodland hills, dotted with ancient crumbling ruins that were once the guardhouses, temples and hunting lodges of the great Indian kings (also known as maharajahs). An enormous stone fort, more than a millenium old,
stands atop a plateau of red stone cliffs.
I take a day to walk around this vast sprawling structure, where pilgrims of the deity Ganesh come to pray and make offerings of flowers, incense and fruit, much of which ends up in the tummies of the naughty langur monkeys that call this place home.
In the park, my days are filled with sedate and splendid drives where we see dozens of different tigers. We even find one resting atop an ancient dome-roofed ruin; an irony, seeing as these buildings were once where nobility commenced their tiger hunts.
I also meet the real Baloo (a shaggy-haired sloth bear) and I catch a glimpse of Bagheera the leopard. But the tigers – with their piercing yellow eyes, handsome striped coats and fearsome eminence – are definitely the stars of Ranthambore.
Ranthambore National Park is one of more than 50 designated tiger reserves in India, established to save the Bengal tiger from extinction. By 2006, fewer than 1,411 tigers roamed India, their dwindling numbers a direct result of poaching, deforestation and conflict with livestock owners. Scientists estimate 4,000 tigers now live in India. Up to 80 per cent of those can be found in the reserves, which the Indian government plans to establish more of in the future.