The silence is deafening. Every muscle in our bodies is tightened, trying not to make a sound. The unmistakable noise from the alarm call of the barking deer breaks the silence, and we become even more alert. You will most likely be warned of the tiger’s presence before you actually see it. The forest works together to warn all creatures and all creatures listen. I can feel my heart beating, the adrenaline pumping, there it was, the alarm call once more. The jungle is silent, holding its breath, you can feel the tiger is close, there is stillness and all the animals are waiting for the king of the jungle’s next move. He could be just feet away without you knowing. If we could only catch a glimpse.
We sat in the jeep hoping and praying that the alarm call of the deer and the monkeys would continue, but the forest turned silent. All the creatures in the jungle were happy, except for maybe the humans. We knew the tiger was there, just ten minutes prior we had spotted a huge male tiger crossing the road heading towards our current location. The encounter was brief, he darted in front of the jeep’s headlights before jumping a six foot bank and disappearing into the dark forest without a sound. He took us by surprise as we had not even entered the park yet, and were sadly not prepared for a photograph. Countless hours had been spent during the past week in a bumpy dusty jeep hoping for this unique wildlife encounter, but until this morning no such luck.
It is estimated that around 60 tigers live in Bandhavgarh, one the highest populations in the world. Bandhavgarh was declared a national park in 1965, and has since been a major attraction for both westerners and locals for a chance encounter with the majestic Bengal tiger. Due to the amount of space that tigers need, especially the males, it seems that there cannot be enough protected forest. As you drive through India, you are surrounded by cultivated land as far as the eye can see. Nestled among the farmland are the ever shrinking pockets of remaining forest. Bandhavgarh is surrounded by 62 villages with the locals competing for space with the wildlife. It takes a continuous effort from both the locals and the forest guards to maintain the sometimes precarious relationship between humans and tigers. The only attacks that happen in the area are due to human error. Only a few weeks prior to our visit, a woman was attacked when she was illegally picking flowers (used to brew moonshine) inside the park boundaries. She stumbled upon a mother tiger with cubs; if a tiger is protecting its cubs or food, it will instinctively attack but will not eat the human. Interestingly enough, you get the sense that if accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, traversing the park on foot would be perfectly safe. You often see the forest guards bicycling around, completely at ease. While humans are rarely attacked, livestock often become easy prey for the tigers. If a cow is killed inside the park the owner will not be compensated as it is illegal to have your livestock grazing within the park boundaries. However if the attack occurs outside the park the owner will be compensated around $250. This prevents the urge to solve the problem by killing the tiger. There are also government relocation programs in place which generously compensate the villagers to move out of the park areas, thereby making room to expand the park. The forest rangers also give lectures and show documentaries to the local children about the precious wildlife living in their backyard. Another hugely successful program started by Bittu Saghal, Kids for Tigers, engages more than a million children in preserving the tigers. You can read more about Bittu and Kids for Tigers in this previous post. The only way forward is through education of the local children. We must educate the young generations before it is too late. In 2012 the Supreme Court put an end to the so called “Tiger show”, a controversial practice where the tiger is tracked using elephants where tourist cue up to see the resting tiger. This practice almost guarantees that you take home the perfect photo, at the expense of the tiger’s sanity. There is so much emphasis in the parks on seeing the tiger that it sometimes takes away the joy of exploring all the other aspects of the jungle. The captivating sounds, the endless varieties of other animals and the stunning vistas just to name a few. Most tourists we saw seemed disappointed that after weeks of game drives, they only got a brief vanishing encounter that they had waited so long to see. We feel that it is important for the park to understand that tourist value is also a crucial element for the tiger’s protection. Finding this balance between conservation and mass tourism demands tough choices. Whether you spot the tiger or not, Bandhavgarh is an exquisite haven that needs our protection. The tiger population is on the rise, but the constant pressure from poaching and the need for increased size of habitats is something that will demand ongoing attention. According to the latest counts, only around 1,700 tigers remain in the wild in India. India is home to 40% of the world’s tigers.