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India Part II: Crouching Tiger

(Quick note: You can see the first half of my brief trip to India here in Part I)

As a general rule of thumb, when you want to go see unique things in the wild, it takes a bit of travelling to get there.  This has been true of my nearly 30 hour boat trip to Guadalupe Island for Great White Sharks, as well as previous African adventures.  In the case of getting to the home of wild tigers in India, it required a rather mixed transport journey.

First was going to the airport in Delhi at 4AM, then the flight at 6AM on a prop plane for two hours to Jabalpur.

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From there, we loaded up in a not-so-four-wheel-drive car for a 4 hour trek on roads that ranged from nice highway…to downright nasty dirt roads.

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(Above recorded via the Forerunner 210)

But…like always, the journey was worth it.

I decided to stay near Bandhavgarh National Park at Mahua Kothi Lodge, which is from the same AndBeyond company that I went to Africa with for my Tanzania trip.  And like then, the place was just crazy nice for being in the middle of nowhere.

Here was our little home for a few days:

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While some folks get all serious in nice places…we don’t. :)  Well, actually, we tried to put on serious faces…but failed miserably.

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Of course, the real question is: How’s the food? (C’mon, what’d you expect from me?)

Awesome.

All Indian food every meal – and tons of it, crazy selection of amazing food.

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In the jungle…the mighty jungle

Once we were done eating our first meal, it was time to head out on our first ‘game drive’. No worries though, we weren’t shooting anything (aside from photos), that’s just what they call it on safari’s.

So we loaded up the 4×4’s and headed on out.

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The journey is on dirt and rock roads that ramble through the amazing Indian wilderness.

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Along the way you get to see a variety of different animals – from monkey’s…

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…to a bunch of different species of deer:

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Along with some huge wild boar (pigs), though they were always hard to spot and get good photos of.

While we did see elephants, they are no longer native to this region.  Instead, the park rangers use them to trek throughout the reserve and keep track of the tigers – essentially, the ultimate off-road vehicle.

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Our first game drive of the trip ended up without any tiger sightings.  A sign when you enter the national park reminds you this may end up being the case.

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And when you leave, a similar sign tries to up your spirits.

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The next morning though, our luck increased just slightly.  We managed to catch a glimpse of a tiger off in the bushes…but this was as much as we got (look dead-center in the middle of the photo)

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Later that afternoon though…we hoped we might luck out.  Given it was our last drive, it was our only chance.

Thankfully, after a bit of time waiting near the watering hole, one of the tiger cubs decided to peek out.

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Unlike your common house cat, he certainly wasn’t afraid of the water – but rather enjoyed playing around in it.

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After a bit of time he decided to go dry off.

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Thankfully, he soon came back with his sibling.  These two are about 16 months old – and seemed to enjoy playing around in the water together.

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You can say it now…’Aww…how cute!’

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But, after getting tired of us…they decided leave the party and head back into the wilderness.  Nothing to complain about here though!  We enjoyed the time we spent watching them.

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After leaving him, we stumbled into two more tigers along the way home.  Both amazing to watch in their grace as they strutted across the land.

Not all is well

As I often do in my travels – I try and show what isn’t typically shown by touristy magazines.  You may remember my stark views on the Pyramids in Egypt as an example.  Or perhaps my behind the scenes with Whale Shark Researchers.

And in this case, the photos to date in this post make it appear that you’re mostly alone out in the wild seeking the elusive tiger.

But that isn’t exactly always the case.  We found out quite quickly that this was unlike any African safari (and I’ve been on half a dozen of them).

To begin with, the national park has very specific hours you’re allowed to be in it – from 6AM to 10AM, and from 3PM to 5:45PM.  While the concept of ‘game drive hours’ isn’t new to even African safari’s, the middle of the day gap is.  While the goal of this gap is to allow the environment a break, what it actually does is create this:

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What’s this you ask?  Well, it’s 32 jeeps lined up to enter the park at breakneck speeds to try and get to the last known tiger sighting.  This is quite different from Africa in that you wander until you find something – enjoying the journey along the way.

Unfortunately, you can’t entirely enjoy the full journey because if you were to pull over or stop, you’d invariably have unhappy jeeps stuck behind you – angry that you’re slowing their progress.  And ironically, a move meant to help the tigers puts them in further danger as it forces the behavior of bumble-bee soccer.  And you don’t want to be in the way of a swarm of jeep bumble bees.

Of course, if you do indeed find the tigers – that leads to everyone jamming the site.  We’re talking literally up to hundreds of peoples on jeeps.

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This specific behavior is driven by the park’s rule that no communication devices be allowed…period.  No radio’s, no cell phones, nothing – by either drivers/guides or tourists.  Compare this to Africa, where drivers freely communicate information with other drivers using CB radio’s.  This allows the drivers in many reserves to ensure that only a few vehicles are present at any one time – basically, people taking their turn.  And once one vehicle is set, they radio to others to have them head on in.

Here, without a communication method, the only option is to swarm…and yell…and shout.

Eventually a park ranger would come along and cause more shouting.

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What was interesting is that night at dinner we got the opportunity to talk to a conservationist from Africa that has been doing work with the park on behalf of AndBeyond about some of the things we saw.

The core of the is to some degree that India just doesn’t have the experience in operating safari’s like Africa does.  Some of their well-intentioned methods actually cause more harm than good.

He did say there have been strides though over the last 12-18 months.  For example, up until this year, they actually permitted 120 jeeps at once in the park – as opposed to the current 32.  And while they changed this, they assigned ‘routes’ within the park, to try and create separation (a good idea in theory).  But instead of forcing drivers on a given route for the entire time period, they let them complete the initial assigned routes, and then roam freely.  This in turn simply leads to the aforementioned ‘How fast can you complete your assigned route…so you can go to the last known spot’ syndrome.

Again, strides have been made – and that’s good, but there’s also work to be done.

As noted – some drivers do obey the rules, and luckily – ours did.  We found our lodges drivers were heavily cautious when it came to any moves they made.  And while that did at times result in ‘good guys finish last’ – it also meant we left with a better impression of the park, and also left a smaller impression on the land.  For that, we are thankful.

However, don’t let the above deter you from going to the region or India Safari’s in general.

Go to India, take a Safari – but choose an operator who’s responsible.  How do you know?  Research your operator and choose ones that support the local area.  The majority of times these lodges are the same ones who operate responsibly within the park (aren’t reckless, don’t speed, observe the rules, etc…).

And most importantly – enjoy India’s parks as a whole.  Enjoy it for what you sometimes get to see see, but more importantly, the tigers you may not see.

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12 Comments

  1. Ray honestly this has become one of my favorite travel and food blogs too. Dont worry, I still read it for training material too, but your pictures and stories are way better than just about anything else out there.

    Reply
  2. It looks as though there are plenty of “meals on wheels” for the tigers. Did the guides speak of any negative encounters with the tigers?

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  3. RWJ

    Jealous Part II.

    Reply
  4. Wow, thanks for sharing all of this with us Ray! Looks like an amazing trip.

    Reply
  5. Tim

    Great work Ray.
    Sometimes just being in the habitat of the animals is as rewarding as actually seeing them. It is important that as many people as possible travel responsibly and employ honest and reputable guides so we can all try and see these great creatures in their natural habitat for many years to come.
    P.S. I am jealous as hell too

    Reply
  6. Cancelling my subscription to National Geographic. Just going to read your blog instead.

    Reply
  7. Ray, that was excellent. Really interesting to get advise on this type of tour operators while still testing new tech gadgets !

    Reply
  8. Thanks ..your topic beautiful ….. Good luck

    Reply
  9. RWJ

    Fun fact… Persons in favor of saving the tigers: Vladimir Putin, Leonardo Dicaprio, Malia Obama, and Rainmaker.

    Tigers have been in the news a lot lately. It’s cool that you got to see them wandering around the jungle. Great pics!

    Reply
  10. Awesome report, thanks Ray

    My next major holiday is to see Indian Tigers or at least look for them. Got the bug in Kruger this summer and saving like crazy to get to India in 2011…

    Reply
  11. Anonymous

    Last week I returned from a trip to India. We were in Delhi and Vrindavan. Your lodging is what I wished our accommodations would have been like in Vrindavan. We dealt with quite austere conditions, at least for us spoiled middle class Americans, but the locals considered it “very nice.” It’s all about perspective.

    Great photos. I had never considered how congested wildlife parks could be. Very interesting.

    Reply
  12. Anonymous

    All wild cats like the water. Fun facts to know and tell. House cats are never introduced to it, and are naturally afraid of it.

    Reply

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