Searching for the near- extinct Bengal tiger
by Beverley Olsen
our second trip to India but our first experience with the Indian rail
system. During our seven-week visit, we will take eight rail journeys
crisscrossing hundreds of miles of train track through central and southern
India. Our final destination will take my husband Frank and I to Bandhavgarh
National Park in search of the near-extinct Royal Bengal tiger.
“Chaya, Kaffe, Chaya” comes the familiar singsong of the train attendants who work the center aisle of our train coach. “Chaya,” I call out loudly, hoping to catch him before he moves on. ”Two please,” I say, as the Tea Walla pokes his head through the privacy curtain that separates us from our neighbor across the aisle. “Eight rupias,” he says, handing me the steaming Masala Tea — a favorite of mine. Sipping our hot tea, we settle back into our seats for the 850-mile journey. This thirty-hour pilgrimage from Chennai to the Tiger Reserve will take us through three states: Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh and is by far the longest of our eight-rail journeys.
The Indian Railway was built by the British in the middle to late 1800s and is one of the most extensive in the world, serving over 13 million people a day. The magnificent architecture of the railway stations, built in the Indo-Saracenic style, with its horseshoe-shaped arches from Moorish Spain, Islamic domes, and Victorian towers, stands as a “Legacy to the Raj”.
After exhaustive research — because that’s what I do — I decide on a four-day, three-night safari package with Tiger Tails Resort. The resort is one of four properties owned by Indian Adventures, and I have the good fortune to work with Dolores Verma. Working within my budget, she makes all of the necessary arrangements; booking the resort package, car transfers needed between the rail station and the resort, and train tickets giving us the 30% senior discount fare. Advance bookings are a must for trains that leave only once or twice a week.
Bandhavgarh National Park was once the hunting grounds of Maharajahs and is now home to the beautiful, endangered, Bengal Tiger. Located in central India in the state of Madhya Pradesh, the wildlife park has the highest density of tigers in India and boasts a high rate of tiger sightings. We hope it will live up to its reputation. Later we find out that during our visit, the tourist zone (105 kilometers) was home to some 120 tigers and 10 new cubs.
To reach Umaria, the closest rail link to the park, we must overnight in Jalbapur and wait for an early morning train. The next morning when we leave the hotel, it’s still dark. There’s one train a day from Jalbapur to Umaria — 5:30 a.m. We arrive in Umaria two hours behind schedule; not uncommon for India. No problem. Our youthful driver is waiting to drive us the 32 miles to the resort. Familiar with the road, he accelerates the jeep and fearlessly navigates the potholes that come flying at us like low flying missiles flinging us back and forth from one side of the jeep to the other. One hour later, we bump and bounce our way into Tiger Tails arriving just in time for lunch and an afternoon safari.
The Tiger Tails Resort is situated in a wooded area just two kilometers outside of Bandhavgarh National Park. I’m pleasantly surprised with our accommodations. Each individual cottage has an en suite bathroom with western toilet, ceiling fan and air-conditioning (a necessity in 90 degree plus weather). The décor with its tile floor and rock wall gives the room a warm country-like atmosphere. Our three-night Jungle Plan includes three meals, an early morning tea and all accommodations, plus a morning and afternoon safari. Lunch and dinner are served buffet style in the open-air dining room. The menu is Indian cuisine —chicken and meat curries, vegetable dishes, coffee or tea and an Indian sweet. Water, soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages are not included. Breakfast is À la Carte, but if you’re out on a morning safari, you‘ll take a packed breakfast in the jeep. A typical menu might be hard-boiled eggs (or egg sandwiches) fruit, and juice.
We ask several guests at lunch, “Have you seen any tigers since you’ve been here?” A German couple tells us, “ We saw a three-year-old female this morning”. That’s exciting! We can’t wait to try our luck.
After lunch, we climb into our safari jeep and introduce ourselves to our guide. Allywn D’Souza is 24 years old and was born in Goa of Indian and Portuguese parents. Before becoming a naturalist, he studied ornithology at the Bombay Natural Historical Society, “Hornbill House”, known as the largest non-government organization (NGO) in India engaged in nature conservation research. After completing his studies, he spent six months in a field study program at various properties of Indian Adventures throughout the Indian National Park System.
When we enter the park, Allywn tells our driver to head for the waterhole where the female was previously spotted this morning. In the distance, we spot a group of jeeps. We race toward them and as we get closer, we see people standing up inside the jeeps with their cameras out. Our driver jockeys the jeep around to the other side to get a better view and we catch our first glimpse of the Royal Bengal Tiger sunbathing on a rock high above the waterhole. We watch for at least a half hour, as she dozes, stretches, and not unlike your household tabby cleans herself with her pink tongue. It is quiet except for ithe whirring and clicking of cameras behind me.
Allywn hands me the binoculars, and I find my self-looking into a liquid pool of green eyes sparking off flecks of gold. Our naturalist tells me, “Because of their large eye openings, tigers gather more light than humans, and their night vision is about six times better than ours which gives them a huge advantage for night hunting.” Her camouflage coat—orange and brown in color with black stripes---allows her to blend in with her natural surroundings of tall grass and trees. The tip of her nose is pink and the backs of her ears are black with two white spots that resemble a pair of eyes.
Tigers, the largest member of the cat family, are solitary animals. The adult male can weigh up to 500 pounds, and his female counterpart as much as 375 pounds. Their razor-like teeth and sharp retractable claws — that can reach up to six feet — enable them to hunt and take down prey twice their size. Later during dinner—when we watch a naturalist film —we learn that each Bengal Tiger has its own unique pattern of stripes, and these are used by the national parks for identification.
We are thrilled with a tiger sighting on our first safari. We leave the park, assuring each other that if we’re not as fortunate in the next two days it will be O.K. The next morning the shrill sound of the alarm clock jolts us out of bed at 4:45 a.m. Dressing quickly, we have just enough time for a quick cup of hot tea and biscuits — the Indians use the English word biscuits for cookies. It’s still dark when we climb into our jeep and head out for the park.