Tuesday, February 16, 2010
On our recent pilgrimage to India, my husband chose an adventure that was one of his holy dreams – to go on a tiger safari in Rajasthan. He wanted to tour the national park, and sway his considerable luck toward sighting the near-extinct Bengal tiger. We had twenty-four hours to rollick about in a sunset and then a dawn safari, amidst bedding down in the luxurious Aman-I-Khas resort, served up with the most gracious hospitality we have ever experienced. (I’ll write about the joy and challenges of abundance in a future post.)
On the first safari, we met our knowledgeable guide, who had spent a lifetime in the Park, and who showed us how to spot crocodiles, nilgai, and sambar by the watering hole, lompar monkeys in the oldest banyan trees in the world, leopards in the dry grasses, and peacocks and parakeets by the walls of a tenth century fort. Ranthambhore is most famous for the tiger, which lives in the dense rocky bushland flowing with streams and lakes. But it is not a land separated from history – temples of Ganesh, Shiva and Ramlalaji are here, and as they have been doing for nine centuries, people bring their devotion to these stone faces.
A limited number of jeeps and guides are allowed into the park each day, and the visitor’s route is determined by lottery. Even though one’s assigned zone can’t ever predict a better chance at a sighting, the skill with which a guide spots a paw print in the sand, or the speed by which a driver bounces the jeep up a rock outcropping can determine the visitor’s fate. I laughed uproariously when my television-raised man shouted into the wind after a wild rip over a cliffside and down into a valley, “It’s just like an episode of Daktari!” We were thrilled to experience the chase that first sunset ride, and arrived back at our camp to warm cloths and cold limeade.
The next morning, with a hot water bottle on our laps, we left in the dark with hopes to meet the tiger on our final journey. A few minutes into the trip, I looked down and saw the imprint of a pad and claws in the dirt. A roar up a mountainside, and there appeared T 17, daughter of the famous Tigress, called “Lady of the Lake,” or Machchali, who survived despite her parents being taken by poachers.
T 17 is known as the most dominant tigress of the reserve, as evidenced by her stealth saunter in any direction she feels like moving, despite the tight territorial zones of the tigers of Ranthambhore. At first we thought she had moved past the jeep, and then our guide swung the wheels down the trail, and she came over the ridge directly toward us.
“Stay quiet and do not move,” our guide said as he slowly reached for his camera. This glorious Tigressa, the largest of the species, moved within three feet of our bodies, and then sprayed a nearby tree with her urine, marking her territory. I later learned that she was pregnant, and that her cub would be taken to live in a nearby park, in a reintroduction effort. “You do not know how rare this moment,” said our guide, and I trusted his word, yet I wouldn’t understand how extraordinary such a visitation might be, especially to future generations, until we learned about the impact of the Chinese New Year.
The Year of the Tiger may usher in more devastation for the near-extinct species, whose decline continues because tigers raise significant amounts of money in China and Tibet, where it is believed that their bones and teeth can cure certain ailments. Despite claims by the Chinese government that it is discouraging such use, India’s Wildlife Protection Authority has evidence that trade is rampant. Recently, India discovered their tiger, the country’s national symbol, had dropped in population by more than 60% in five years, driven by poaching and human encroachment into tiger habitats. Today 1,400 tigers are left in the wilds of India, 3,500 internationally, compared to 100,000 one hundred years ago.
A villager in India can earn double their yearly wage by killing a tiger. In 2005, the Namdapha reserve in Arunachal Pradesh was swept clean of all 61 tigers by the Lisu tribe, who set up camp inside the reserve to hunt. The reserve continued reporting a large tiger population to its government, and to the World Wildlife Fund, whose support under Project Tiger has been one million U.S. dollars, a scandal that has been widely reported in India. Similar events happened in Sariska and Panna reserves.
Project Tiger in Ranthambhore was also in chaos just a few years ago, when villagers grazed their cattle too close to the reserve, and poachers laid siege to its animals, reducing the population to 26 tigers. These days the world is watching Ranthambore, whose camera traps, staff patrols, and savvy supervision --including tribal negotiations to offer jobs, education and housing in exchange for identifying poaching rings – has improved conservation management. Still, tribes whose own land has been encroached upon by big dams and large scale mining, and the rampant bribery amongst politicians in India makes it challenging to survive in these forest and farm dependent communities.
Because we have lived in Banff National Park, and those mountains remain our soul home, we are aware of the delicate balance between animals and humans in protected regions. Rather than become a hindrance, tourism can support conservation, through educating humans about fragile species, and about how one is expected to act in a wilderness environment, as well as support a growing economy.
India is the home of the tiger. The tiger leads all other species in its ecosystem. When it roars, the Bengal can be heard for three kilometers. In this Year of the Tiger, lets let this roar be heard around the world.