India: Eye-to-eye with the tigers

By Sarah Marshall

India's Tadoba Andhari National Park is one of the few bright spots in the fight to save tigers from extinction, writes Sarah Marshall.

A tiger in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. Photo / Supplied
A tiger in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. Photo / Supplied

Scanning a barcode of regimented bamboo stems, I wonder if anything in this forest has a pulse.

It's a quiet day and nothing is stirring. A zigzag of movement momentarily sets my heart racing, but it's no more than an optical illusion. I have, it turns out, been bamboozled.

According to a report published by WWF and Global Tiger Forum in April this year, the wild tiger population has increased for the first time in more than a century. Having not clocked even a tuft of orange fur in six game drives, I'm finding that hard to believe.

Experts are equally sceptical; in light of shrinking habitat, the numbers seem incredible.

Dispirited, we hurtle in tin-can Gypsy 4WDs through Maharashtra's Tadoba Andhari National Park, leaving a tunnel of hot dust in our wake.

Ahead, leaves swirl in a pinwheel of russet and gold, churning up agitated grunts and bellows from retreating sambar deer.

A storm is coming, which could explain our streak of unusually bad luck. The Bengal tigers may be fierce, stealthy hunters, but the slightest drop of rain will send them scurrying into the bushes, their tails between their legs.

"You should have been here last week," says Aditya Dhanwatey, whose family owns the Tiger Trails Lodge on the fringes of the park. Tadoba's queen bee tigress, Maya, he tells me, was seen then and was hunting in clear view.

But the truth is tigers are in trouble.

Poaching remains a grave problem and as the human population grows, conflict is inevitable. In the midst of this, the cumbersome government initiative Project Tiger seems to be strangling itself with red tape.

Dhanwatey, though, sees a way through it. He has big ambitions to open India's first conservancy, managing tiger safaris on private land he hopes to buy from neighbouring villages.

A herd of spotted deer. Photo / Supplied
A herd of spotted deer. Photo / Supplied

"We already have tigers coming to our watering hole," he says, pointing to a collection of TV screens in the dining room, all connected to camera traps.

Crucially, a conservancy would enable greater freedom for game drives and, by giving employment, would incentivise communities to protect wildlife.

So far, Dhanwatey is making great progress. Maharashtra now has the relevant legislation in place and a search is under way for funding.

For now, we have to play by the rules - something that doesn't come naturally to my guide, Paul Goldstein, a restless wildlife photographer and campaigner, who is rarely satisfied.

Pacing up and down outside the park's Khutwanda Gate, a five-minute drive from the lodge, he curses furiously until dithering, bleary-eyed officials arrive with keys at 6am.

Once inside, we rattle along bone-shaking roads.

Wrapped in half-light, stripped white eucalyptus trees loom like spectres above a mist of brown, brittle grass. Two startled sloth bears bundle across our path, followed by a family of wild dogs wearing hazy early-morning halos.

There's no radio communication in the park, so we split off in different directions, searching for pug marks and dividing time between watering holes - the best place to try and find hot, thirsty tigers.

Tadoba is arguably one of the most progressive parks in India. In 2012, when the Indian government ill-advisedly banned tourists from core tiger areas, Tadoba defiantly stayed open. The Forestry Department has also shunned a zoning system, meaning all visitors can enjoy the available space.

Goldstein obviously has faith in the park. He's been guiding tiger safaris for more than a decade, previously in Bandhavgarh.

"Anger and frustration, that's what drives me," he admits. "Tigers are still dying; we're not winning."

We return to the lodge, dusty orange faces glowing brightly.

The following day, we schedule a meeting with Shree Bhagwan, the state's chief wildlife warden, to discuss improvements in the park.

Sitting beneath the shade of a teak tree, Goldstein hammers through his suggestions, drawing a plan in the sand for improved access routes. Bhagwan nods in agreement.

Enthusiasm renewed, it's time to find our tigers, who are most likely on a sambar or gaur kill. Tadoba has an excellent prey base, part of the reason there's a healthy tiger population.

And today, Maya and her cubs have been found. Tugging at a kill, every muscle in their bodies flashes with brilliance.

Over the next few days, we watch cats paddling in the water, staring at their reflections and snoozing in the sunshine. A jungle cat furtively skirting a watering hole is a bonus.

No matter the distance, coming eye to eye with a tiger is overwhelming. Time and time again, I ride a rollercoaster of awe, fascination, anger and sadness. I quickly understand why Dhanwatey and Goldstein have chosen such a difficult battle to fight.

As we drive back to the lodge, black, swollen rainclouds gather overhead. Another storm is brewing. It won't be the last.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to Delhi.

Details: The Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is a protected Tiger Reserve, with the most visible tiger sightings in Maharashtra State.

TigerTrails Jungle Lodge is adjacent to the entry point in the park.

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