India: Going on a tiger hunt

By Diana Plater

On a cold Indian morning, Diana Plater looks for big cats

The Bengal tiger is endangered. Photo / Getty Images
The Bengal tiger is endangered. Photo / Getty Images

Earthenware cups of steaming tea and hot samosas are welcome this freezing winter morning at Bandhavgarh National Park in central India. We're at centrepoint, as it's known, where jeeps regroup after following tigers.

I'm waiting in our jeep with Deepak Talan, a conservationist and writer who is passionate about his country's animals.

We're not going to shoot tigers, as the maharajas did in years gone by, but the trip has some of the circus-like flavour of the hunting processions that once involved up to 2000 people.

After our pre-breakfast snack, the jeeps take off together in a whirl of dust.

The 437 square kilometre national park northeast of Jabalpur is one of several wildlife sanctuaries in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the former hunting preserve of the Maharaja of Rewa.

A convoy of jeeps meets at the main gate, where we are assigned a forest department guide and a route. We're wrapped in rugs from our resort beds and the guides wear woollen scarves.

Elephant safaris track the big cats and radio in to central point when one is spotted. The guides point out other wildlife, including leopards and sometimes a fox or jackal. The guides look out for signs that a tiger is around, including pug marks, droppings and animal calls.

We are finally rewarded for our early start as Deepak takes us to a spot where we can see a tigress sunbaking in the early morning light, totally nonchalant about our presence and more interested in her meal of deer.

In the afternoon, we are back at the same place in the hope the tigress will still be there. We have taken a back road to try to nab the best spot.

The peacocks are making alarm calls, and the smell of her kill drifts across as we sit quietly.

"Maharajas used to sit and wait for nine hours," whispers Deepak, a cross between a Rudyard Kipling character and Hawkeye from M*A*S*H*.

Gradually more jeeps have been given the word and turn up. After two hours, there's a stirring. Tourists in one jeep are jumping up and down and pointing. Immediately every other jeep zooms to their viewing spot. Two tigers languidly stroll off.

On another safari we pass beneath a now-deserted 14th-century clifftop fort and visit an 11m statue known as Shesh Shaya, where a spring seeps out from under Lord Vishnu's feet.

The park of mixed forests, stretches of bamboo and grasslands is beautiful whatever time of day, and strangely peaceful.

Deepak, who is writing a book about tigers, is incredibly mobile, despite being confined to a wheelchair. His biggest concern is the diminishing number of tigers in the wild, due to habitat loss and poaching.

They are poisoned or electrocuted, speared and cut up, with parts, including the claws, bones and teeth, sold to the Chinese medicine trade, and skins sought-after internationally.

The Bandhavgarh National Park is said to have the highest density of tigers in India - around 46 to 52 of the big cats - and is known for its royal Bengal tigers.

The animals can still be dangerous. A local woman was killed in 2007 gathering wood and two French tourists were saved after being attacked in a jeep.

The reserve needs money for guides, bikes, jeeps and motorcycles, torches, sweaters and mosquito nets. It is being fenced to stop tigers getting out.

We ask Deepak why so much should be spent on tigers when poverty is all around.

"Some people say India is a poor country and saving a tiger is a luxury. [But] you cannot sacrifice the beauty of India for the sake of modern things ... We should have something beautiful, which is our heritage."

ON THE WILD SIDE

Tigers have disappeared from 40 per cent of their range in the past 10 years in India. Three of the eight sub-species of tiger have already become extinct and the other populations are at high risk. There could be as few as 1500 wild tigers left in the country.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines has daily flights to Singapore from Auckland, and from there connects to India.

Getting around: Peregrine Adventures has a 12-day Tigers and Taj tour. The tour starts and finishes in Delhi. Dates and prices to be advised.

- AAP

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