Archive for the ‘tiger sanctuary’ Category

Spotting a tiger at a wildlife sanctuary is a matter of chance. On a good day you can see one or more and on other days none. At Ranthambhore we had feasted our eyes on a tiger just 15 feet away that posed for us for over an hour. But one cannot get so lucky every time. Guides who show you around can also be good or bad. But what do you call one who falls asleep and leaves guests to fend for themselves for those five hours? That’s what happened to us at the Mukki zone at the Kanha sanctuary on April 24.

We drove around Kanha first through Mukki and tried to figure out the sights and sounds on our own. Secondly, waiting for a tiger to make an appearance can, sometimes, take up to an hour if one hears the calls. Our friend Santosh didn’t want to wait more than five minutes at any spot. He seemed more interested in rushing us through the forest! At one point we heard the growls of the tiger a few feet away initially, and after a few minutes because the deer had stopped calling the guide decided to push off, even as I requested him to wait a while.

But apart from this unpleasant episode, the fortnight (although a topsy-turvy trip because our bookings had to be rescheduled for extraneous reasons), was a refreshing change. I remember what the late editor SD Wagh used to say when he took leave -‘if I see one more newspaper I’ll vomit’! While I don’t feel so strongly I did need a break. Working thirty six months without a holiday does take its toll and I was desperately in need of one. We drove through tiger terrain in Nagzira, Pench and Kanha and were fortunate to see the cat.

The reserve at Nagzira is also looked after by the forest department but it was a lovely place. Our rooms were right in the middle of the forest and through the night one could hear either monkeys or deer warning the inmates of tigers or leopards in the vicinity.  Here too we spotted a tiger walking in front of us. This guy was a bit shy because as he heard the jeep he ran off into the jungle. This was the same animal that lunged at a jeep with a pesky woman in it.

Before coming to Nagzira we also visited Navegaon sanctuary but calling it a sanctuary is a misnomer. It is maintained by the Maharashtra Forest Department and is in a state of disrepair. The rooms are in terrible condition with latches missing on toilet doors and furniture that looks like it has seen better days. A lot of guests were couples on two-wheelers who seemed to have come from the village for a ‘quiet’ afternoon in one of the rooms. And except for hundreds of simians and some deer there wasn’t anything else to admire. The staff, however, were very helpful and courteous.


When we reached Kanha National Park on April 23, we first stayed two nights at the Muba Resort.  It’s a cool place in the buffer zone of the forest. Very hospitable and friendly staff and since we were the sole occupants it was fun! An entire group had just checked out so the staff was a little relaxed and friendly. They have TT and snooker tables, and a badminton court of sorts. And, thankfully, no TV sets in the rooms.

The tiger in Pench. Clicked by junior.

The tiger in Pench. Clicked by junior.

We entered the Park through the Mukki Gate. This was where we met our ‘sleepy joe’ guide Santosh. In four of the five allotted hours – we left an hour early in sheer disgust – the guide didn’t really do what he was being paid to do and made our driver look for any tell-tale signs of the big cats, while he nodded off frequently in the rear of the jeep! He was the first to grab his food when we stopped for refreshments and then disappeared. He insisted we look at a baby python, which he heard about from a fellow guide. Incidentally he missed the reptile even though it was lying in the open as we drove past it! My wife told him coldly that she was used to them as they were a common sight in her hometown in Bihar. But he was adamant. We were told later that other tourists had also complained about the guy but the Madhya Pradesh Tourism officials refused to act against him. I was told that he also showed up under the influence of liquor on occasion and is supposed to have joked to some that the reason he wore dark glasses was to ensure tourists did not catch him nodding off.  Except for the day at Muba, this part of the Kanha trip was a let-down. Also,  there had been a thunderstorm on the previous day and the animals had relocated to safer climes.

The deer and the fawn

The deer and the fawn

From there we moved to the expensive Bagheera Log Huts in the Kisli zone of the same Park for the next two days. I am told that by this yearend they are moving this resort out, since environmentalists feel human habitation in the core zone disturbs the animals. Till then, enjoy the sight of deer, fox and other animals loitering outside your room! Also while you sit outside your rooms enjoying the breeze, listen to the monkeys and deer warning of danger lurking in the vicinity.  Apart from that, the food and service is average and the breakfast they give tourists for the safari is rubbish. The two safaris we took were also disappointing in terms of the fact that we didn’t spot any tigers even though they were in the vicinity. We did spot quite a few interesting birds, of the feathered kind and clicked a deer feeding the fawn right in the middle of the track.

The night before (April 27) we left Kanha we calculated the distance between Kanha and Pune, as estimated it to be around 800 kms. It was a gross miscalculation. When we left Kanha at 6 am on Saturday morning we thought of stopping for the night near Aurangabad because we knew we would be there around 6 pm and we could cover the rest of the 200-odd kms to Pune the next day.  We knew we would be able to maintain just a 35-45 kmph speeds. We finally reached Aurangabad at 8.45 pm and after getting some dinner packed we debated whether we should stay the night there or move on. However, the excitement of getting back home spurred us on. Unfortunately it took us an hour to get out of Aurangabad because everyone there, it seems, had decided to get their children married on that Saturday, so all the roads were blocked! We also missed a turn and ended up again on the road to Jalna!

At around 10.45 pm we stopped at a food mall about 50 kms outside Aurangabad, to get a coffee. I was chatting with one of the staffers and he said I would reach Pune by 2 am. I think that’s when I felt wave of exhaustion come over me! I had been behind the wheel for close to 17 hours and the thought of driving another three hours, made me feel even more exhausted! My wife asked me if I could drive up to Ahmednagar, and immediately went online on her mobile and checked up about hotels there. She called Yash Palace Hotel and booked a room. There were occasions when I thought the dividers had disappeared and would brake suddenly because I thought there was a vehicle in my lane! Strangely, by the time we reached Ahmednagar at around 11.30 pm I felt better and by the time we checked-in while I was exhausted the wooziness had completely disappeared. I guess, in retrospect it was a wise decision to stop for the night. When we reached home early morning on the next day on Sunday, April 28, we had covered 3187 kms from April 14-28.

Most of the roads we drove on in both states were okay except a few. The roads in Nagpur were wide and well maintained. The city is charming and I am wondering why our city planners can’t do something about the mess that is Pune. The stretch after Nagpur up to the Madhya Pradesh border en route to Pench is a mess. Once we entered MP from Nagpur en route to Jabalpur, the road was a revelation – four-lane most of the way and superbly made. The only disturbing factor was that at various points suddenly the four-lane became two-lane because the NHAI had still not got total clearance from the environment ministry! And to make matters worse there are rumblers at these points and no indicators to warn motorists. At night, especially if it rains, it could be disastrous. So watch out.

The second terrible stretch is of 120 km from Balaghat to Baihar en route to Kanha. Attempt it only if it’s the last option. We were guided there so didn’t realise it till we were in the middle of it. There is no road, just huge craters for almost 60 kms (most of them on the ghats) on which you can only travel at speeds of 10-20 kms per hour. Anything faster and you risk serious damage to your vehicle and yourself. There are other better routes from Seoni or Mandla.

It was an interesting fortnight without any newspapers, news channels or even access to mobiles except on occasions. In Jabalpur, where we stayed with relatives of my wife I spent three days doing absolutely nothing and the folks were really quite understanding. We did go to the famous India Coffee House but besides that did nothing else. At Pench and Kanha, apart from the odd safari, the rest of the days were spent doing nothing. I should do this more often…but now back to the grind!

“If you see a tiger at Ranthambhore you’ll be lucky,” were the words we heard from a lot of people, before we left for our holiday. Now whether that was supposed to be sarcasm or sheer honesty, I don’t know. But with the dwindling numbers of tigers being hotly debated, we wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bit of both in that comment.

I was hoping and praying that the visit to Ranthambhore would not be a repeat of the one to Dandeli Tiger Reserve where we didn’t spot one big cat and had to be satisfied with deer and bison! So when we set off from Chittorgarh that morning, it was with a silent prayer! Once we reached the highway, we were on our way to Kota from where we would be driving to Sawai Madhopur, which hosts the Ranthambhore wildlife sanctuary, another home to the fast dwindling species of the striped cat.

On the highway, what we realised once we had gone a little over 100 kms was that we had not spotted a petrol pump since we left Chittorgarh. I guess we never realised that because we were once again on a dream of a road, all the way to the outskirts of Kota. Off the NH 76, once we were on the outskirts of Kota, we travelled on a dirt road for around 15 kms till we reached Kota town from where we took the road to Sawai Madhopur.

After checking in to RTDC’s Vinayak, a quick lunch and a siesta we were driven to the Ranthambhore Wildlife Sanctuary, where we hoped to see the elusive tiger. After a fruitless search of over an hour, during which I nodded off, we landed up at a watering hole. Suddenly there was a hush, because just 15 feet away from us was this magnificent striped cat, lolling in the pond. It looked at us and then turned its face away disdainfully. Our Canter moved closer to the animal and we were worried it might walk off, but it stayed put. For close to 20 minutes we were clicking away.

Then it emerged from the water, gave us another look and sauntered off into the thicket, marked its territory by raising it hind leg (!) and disappeared. It was then that everyone broke into excited chatter. When there are just 1400 odd tigers left in the country and around 38 in Ranthambhore, we considered ourselves lucky to have spotted one. Before we left we were to see one more, but not so up close.

But as far the tigers go, once was never enough and the next morning we set off again. This time there were a lot of fresh pugmarks our forest guide saw but no tiger. I decided I had had enough, so stayed back in the hotel. My wife and son set off again in the afternoon for some more tiger spotting. They got lucky, because in another zone, across the lake, a tigress oblivious to the humans observing her, was playfully slapping a monkey around! They saw a herd of deer too.

But tigers are not all that we experienced. There’s a hotel in Sawai Madhopur which gave us the creeps. The night before we left Sawai, we decided to have dinner out and drove to the hotel. The gates of the hotel were closed and when we were allowed in, we had to drive in pitch darkness towards the hotel. On the way we saw a Nilgai running alongside our car and got quite excited.

As we drove up the winding road, I saw the silhouette of the hotel and it sent a shiver down my spine. It reminded me of Norman Bates’ Motel in Psycho. It was enveloped in darkness, and there were no lights outside or in the hotel. We pushed our way into the Reception area, and stood there also in the dark waiting for someone to greet us. Someone was talking on the phone in a room and he just stared at us, refusing to get up. Then we saw a tired looking, old man come shuffling along to meet us.

“Do you have a restaurant?” we asked and were shown a room again enveloped in darkness.
“Can we get something to eat?” was our next question.
“If you order the food, we’ll make it,” said the old man very mournfully as he advanced toward us.
We turned and fled.
“You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave…”

Back at our hotel, we narrated our experience to the manager and he laughed loudly. He told us about a friend of his who wanted to celebrate his wedding anniversary at ‘Bates Motel’. The manager tried his best to dissuade the friend but the chap was adamant. So he booked a room. The friend and his wife checked in one evening and were out of there in 30 minutes flat, terrified of the dark, and the absence of any guests. Of course, during season time, you wouldn’t find a room here or in any of the hole-in-the-wall ‘hotels’ we saw in this little town.

No tigers, but lots of monkeying around...

The hotel manager told us another interesting story about how tourism was the only means of survival for the people of this town. According to him there were more Maruti Gypsys in Sawai Madhopur than at an Army Command post! The villagers competed with each to buy these vehicles, not realising that fewer vehicles meant more trips to the Sanctuary for each of them and more business. Since the government did not allow more than 20 vehicles at one time into the jungle and each trip took three hours, most of the guides could only make two trips a day. So, the 150 odd vehicles usually had to wait for more three to four days before getting a second chance to take tourists into the sanctuary. Since most of the vehicles had been purchased on loans so, unknown to outsiders, a majority of the guides were living a hand-to-mouth existence.

During the off season they struggled to make ends meet and to make up for their losses, they charged exorbitantly during season time. Since these safaris were booked online these guides blocked the seats and literally sold them on the black market for anything from Rs 1000/- upwards depending on the demand. Hotels chains like the Oberois, where guests paid almost Rs 50,000 a day would have to shell out a whopping amount for the safaris. Interestingly enough, we were told that off season was the perfect time to see tigers! We paid Rs 4500/- for three trips into the Sanctuary during off season, so I guess we were lucky!

Interestingly, this misconception also helped them when it came to finding a suitable match for their sons! Outsiders seeing four Gypsys parked outside a house thought the family must be really rich and readily gave their daughters in marriage! Reality struck home later, but by then it was too late. Mixing with the rich tourists – both Indian and foreigners – also made these guides look at life through rose-tinted glasses – which, in the long run hit them hard.

It was an eye-opener for us on how these forest guides survived the cut throat competition. We left Ranthambhore the next day for Ajmer.

A colleague, who recently went to Bandhavgarh (ref the picture) which hosts a tiger reserve , asked me why I didn’t write about wildlife and the diminishing numbers of tigers across the country. To be honest, while I enjoy going on excursions and spotting animals in the wild, I am no expert on tigers. But, I also know that one does not have to be an expert on the subject to realise that this magnificent animal is a diminishing breed.

When we went to Dandeli last May, the forest officers told us that there were just a dozen tigers and elephants left in the jungles there – and it’s called the Dandeli-Ambika Nagar Tiger Sanctuary! Why? Because Veerappan and his goons, killed most of them. Veerappan is dead and gone, but tigers continue to be killed. When most State governments are more concerned about their own survival, why would they care about the tiger’s?

The fact is that you and I can’t do much to save the tiger. One can give up everything and move into the jungle to protect them from poachers. But how many of us will be willing to do that? Which brings us to the people whose job it is to protect the tiger – the government .

How concerned they are about saving the tiger and other form of wldlife can be seen from the fact that anyone ( that includes poachers, film stars and ministers) can just drive into a forest reserve and gun down wild animals. And the government will make the right noises and forget about it. You can have all the inquiries and court cases, but it’s still one tiger less in this country.

When we went to Dandeli we saw very few forest guards inside the sanctuary. Mind you, the entire forest is almost 500 sq km so to protect it would take a sizeable number of personnel. Would any state government be interested in hiring more people to do that?

Just click here and you’ll see that the last time the site of the Wildlife Institute of India was updated was in 2006! The tiger population then was 3642. The Wildlife Protection Society of India’s website states that as of February 12, 2008, the tiger population is 1,411.

Does the government care? The figures above tell us quite clearly, how much it does!