There are today more tigers living in captivity than in the wild. It is common and easy to go to a zoo and gaze at one of the world’s most beguiling creatures. But the wild is a whole other game.
Not only are there few places to actually spot one of the planet’s 2,500 – 3,500 remaining wild tigers (including the 1,400 that live in India), a tiger is also a master of camouflage. So if you do go to tiger country you are often disappointed.
Sunset at Bandavgarh national park
It is with all this in mind that I became mildly obsessed with spotting a tiger in the wild. Having grown up in a room painted by my mother where a tiger peeked out at me from the bushes, I knew I could not live in India and never try to play hide and seek with its most famous animal.
Everyone I asked told me that despite the many national parks here that hold (or claim to hold) tigers, there was only one place to go: Bandavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The saying goes: at other parks you are lucky to see a tiger; at Bandavgarh you are unlucky if you don’t. It boasts the world’s densest population of tigers and that sounded to me like as good a shot at seeing a tiger that I would get.
A baby spotted deer in Bandavgarh
So we drove the long distance to Bandavgarh (it is truly in the middle of nowhere; as far from a major city as it could possibly be) and staked out a place at the Treehouse Hideaway, an incredible hotel that places each room up in a separate tree. We were inhabiting nature and ready to see tigers.
On our first safari – which began bright and early at 6am – we were filled with excitement and anticipation. Our hotel’s quiet but very knowledgeable naturalist, Banu, assured us we had a very good chance to see tigers over the next few days, but insisted we keep patience. I had a million questions – did the tigers ever do this or that? Did they go to this or that place? Do they come out at this or that time? Banu calmly answered almost every question with, “Sometimes,” as if trying to underscore the unpredictability of these gargantuan cats. He explained that we would know if a tiger were around by the alarm calls of the forest’s ubiquitous spotted deer and monkeys.
Adult male spotted deer and monkey in Bandavgarh
We drove along in our jeep, slowing down at watering holes and other known spots where the tigers lived. I sat with my eyes peeled at every moment despite Banu’s insistence that he would know when a tiger was near. I wasn’t taking a chance – I stared into the brush and scanned every inch I could, hoping I’d perhaps see a flash of orange. But it was to no avail. We didn’t even hear an alarm call. We came back after four and a half hours of searching feeling a little less sure of the tigers’ presence.
But by our second safari, later that afternoon, we were once again excited. Banu tried to explain to us that even though the safaris start at 3pm, we wouldn’t see a tiger until at least 4:45pm. None had been spotted sleeping in the open (and in this heat they rarely do anyway) so we’d only get lucky once they woke up later and perhaps started moving around looking for water. I still kept my eyes active looking at every potential spot below a tree or amidst the brush where a tiger could be napping.
Tiger scratches on a tree
We marveled at tiger scratches up on trees that reached twice as high as any human hand could. We passed the time by enjoying the forest’s other magnificent animals – bright birds, playful monkeys and even a rare jungle cat. But as we continued to drive in we saw a few other jeeps parked at a clearing. We all stood up, hoping this would be our glimpse of a tiger. But a forest ranger informed us that we couldn’t see them – a mother and her cubs (and by ‘cubs’ I mean two year old tigers as large as their mothers) were sleeping around the river bend. Tourists are (understandably) not allowed to ever get out of their jeep at Bandavgarh, so we would have to wait and hope they would come out. It was only 4:15pm.
Looking for tigers that never came
All the waiting jeeps
We waited as more and more jeeps stopped and waited with us – there are no radios in Bandavgarh so if one jeep sees a tiger its only luck of the drive as to whether others see it. But usually once one car is stopped a whole gaggle will stop as well. And by 4:45 about a dozen cars were waiting – we felt lucky we had arrived early and had a prime spot. But it wasn’t meant to be, once again. The tigers did not emerge and we had to get out of the park by 6:15 – a time that greatly frustrated Banu because he believed the tigers would emerge around sundown. We were a full day in and had seen no tigers.
A beautiful flying Indian Roller
On our second morning we groggily met our tranquil leader Banu who, though still subdued, seemed more excited than usual.
A fresh tiger pawprint
Tiger tracks had been spotted earlier that morning in the Zone we were assigned to (each jeep is randomly assigned a route to take so that the cars are distributed evenly). Banu informed us that the tracks were from earlier in the morning and would help us know exactly where the tigers were. We drove in and quickly spotted the tracks – we drove along the tracks to the spot where they led into the forest. We heard alarm calls – this seemed to be the moment. We waited, but nothing stirred. As the day wore on we moved around, tracking more alarm calls, but it appeared we were waiting in vain – the forest hid the tigers and they were not coming out.
A peacock in Bandavgarh
By that afternoon, for our fourth safari I had begun to feel nervous. We only could do one more safari after this one and it was starting to seem like after hours upon hours in a jeep we were not going to find any of the tigers. It felt like a mirage – were these tigers even here? My optimism was clouded. We started driving and once again, Banu said there wasn’t a chance until later – and that we should keep our hopes tempered because our Zone held very shy tigers who did not come out regularly. So we slowly drove around, Banu searching half-heartedly, as we killed time. We saw new species – Sambar deer and a jackal – and I was beginning to accept that maybe this wasn’t my time to see a tiger in the wild.
Tiger sitting up
But as the sun set and we started to drive back towards a watering hole, we saw a crowd of jeeps in the distance – Banu stepped on the gas and we stood up in anticipation. We parked as everyone took pictures, but I couldn’t see it. I suddenly realized that all my scanning had been absurd. A tiger was sitting at the watering hole, but it took quite a bit of energy to see him even in the open – his orange striped coat was an impeccable camouflage. I couldn’t have seen him quickly driving past. But there he was now – a two-year-old male cub, enjoying the late-afternoon sun and undisturbed by all the faces watching him. He was as magnificent as I had imagined and seeing him after all that time searching truly put into perspective the amount of territory tigers cover and their unpredictable wildness. As he stood up to walk away it was incredible just to see him move.
Tiger standing up
We thought that was it, but a few moments later we heard more alarm calls and sure enough, a different tiger came up to perch.
Tiger lying down
This one was from the same batch of cubs, but a female. Banu mentioned how lucky we were – in a few months, when these cubs at two-and-a-half, they will fight over territory and then most will leave the area to begin their adult lives. We were catching them in their last season. We sat and watched as she lay down, yawned and relished in the day. When she got up to move on I felt incredibly lucky that we’d had such a clear and varied sighting. Many people are lucky just to see a tiger through the trees, when they see them at all. Here we’d had two fully open tigers moving around and standing in plain view.
It was the perfect ending to our safaris – we’d played hide and go seek but the tigers had always remained in control. We’d only found them when they let themselves be found, a testament to their control over the land they have inhabited for innumerable generations before jeeps started searching for them. We’d come to Bandavgarh and avoided being among the unlucky.
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