Having become disillusioned with the tiger watching experience, I stopped visiting India. The photo tour in December 2014 was my first return in six years and beforehand I was certainly apprehensive. What would it be like? Would tiger watching be relaxed and enjoyable or had nothing changed and it would still be a battle? Had the situation improved? To my surprise, I was pleasantly surprised.
India Revisited, India Rejuvenated
I grew up with images of Kipling’s Jungle Book dancing through my mind, so for as long as I can remember India and its wildlife has been woven into the fabric of my psyche. I experienced the magical ambience of an Indian forest for the first time in 1993: the early morning mists, shafts of light through the trees, the glorious palette of golds, ochres, oranges and greens and the intense charged excitement when alarm calls of monkeys and deer broke the silence, triggering forest inhabitants into high alert. This is when I saw my first wild tiger.
I subsequently enjoyed many trips to India, relishing its unique atmosphere and broad diversity of wildlife and I was fortunate to have numerous magical encounters with tigers, some perhaps my most memorable wildlife experiences. But over the years, as parks became more crowded and over-regulated the quality diminished and it became tarnished beyond acceptability. The experience was no longer valid or enjoyable and I turned my back on it, knowing I would miss it terribly.
I’ve just returned after a six-year gap – persuaded to run a tour again, with the promise of more sensible regulations and visits to lesser-known parks that were less likely to suffer overcrowding.
The epitome of this is Satpura. It is a magical place, separated from humanity by a large reservoir, with mixed deciduous forest covering hilly terrain. A combination of boat rides, elephant rides and drives allows the park to be enjoyed at a sedate pace with plenty of time to take in its many treasures. There are sloth bears, dhole, gaur and leopards – all of which we saw on this trip – but you have to be very, very lucky to see a tiger. Yet on our second afternoon in the park, very late in the day as the gloom of dusk gathered, a huge male showed himself briefly. He was not comfortable at being watched and quickly disappeared.
Better known are Pench and Tadoba-Andhari, which both have a reliable reputation for tigers, as well as a breadth of other wildlife. They are sufficiently different from one another, and Satpura, to make visiting all three worthwhile. On this trip our stay in Pench was too brief to really do it justice and while we failed to see a tiger or leopard, there were sightings of plenty of other mammals and birds. I left feeling the park warranted a longer visit.
Tadoba-Andhari proved to be a revelation. Not only was it different and extremely picturesque, the park rules made it possible to get away from others and enjoy a degree of peace and tranquility. And we enjoyed fantastic tiger sightings on several occasions, including a mother with adolescent cubs and one huge male. In addition there were excellent encounters with sloth bears and dhole and around the more expansive lake and meadow areas it was possible to sit and wait and watch birds and what ever else happened by.
To compliment these parks in central India, we began the tour in Kaziranga in Assam – a park I had visited many times previously. It’s marshy wetlands, waterways and damp forests are in complete contrast, as is the wildlife. Here India’s leviathans dominate the agenda – one-horned rhinos, elephants and water buffalos. On an early morning elephant ride we saw all three and often at close quarters and on later game drives came across herds of elephants with infants crossing from one forest patch to another. Time spent on watchtowers overlooking jheels (lakes) allowed us to absorb a greater diversity. From one of these I counted over 40 visible rhinos and we watched family groups of otters frolicking in the margins.
India is the world’s second most populated nation, yet is still home to elephants, rhinos, bears, lions, leopards and of course tigers. Despite the continuing problems and issues, it should be congratulated for that. Of course there is still seemingly ridiculous bureaucracy and other frustrations, India will always be India, but the country and its people are as engaging and vibrant as ever.
With each day as the tour progressed, my memories of the sights, sounds and smells of the forest returned and I felt myself reconnecting with all that had once been so familiar. It felt good. And by the end of the trip, I was kicking myself for staying away for so long. There is no doubt India retains its beauty, its charm and its allure and I left feeling comfortable and confident that, at least for a little while longer, tigers and India’s other fantastic fauna would be burning bright in its forests. I now can’t wait to return.