Tiger tracking on foot in India (Vineet Radhakrishnan)

Tracking tigers on foot in India

Tracking tigers on foot is a thrilling new twist on the usual Indian safari – whether or not you actually see stripes

William Gray | Issue 118 | February 2011

I think the tigers heard us coming. Brittle, plate-sized teak leaves shattered beneath our feet as we scrunched through the tinder-dry forests of Satpura National Park. We might as well have been walking on poppadoms. I wasn’t sure whether our noisy progress would scare away any big cats in the area or ring their dinner bell. I hoped it was the former.

Our park ranger seemed only to be armed with a two-litre bottle of water.

“If a tiger charges, never turn and run – they’ll treat you as prey,” explained my guide, Anante Erickson, an enigmatic 26-year-old naturalist and the manager of Forsyth’s Lodge, where I was based for a week. “In most cases they’ll run away.”

I won’t keep you in suspense: we didn’t see a tiger. Not even a whisker.

Disappointed? I hope not. You see, strange as it may seem, I hadn’t travelled to Satpura with the sole aim of seeing tigers. Sure, it’s a national park and one of India’s acclaimed tiger reserves, but the stars in stripes are so elusive here that even Anante has rarely seen one.

So why, you may ask, is Satpura suddenly stamping its mark on India’s safari circuit? What is it about this little-known park (a three-hour drive from Bhopal in Central India) that’s beginning to lure a steady trickle of visitors? After all, an Indian safari is, first and foremost, all about spotting tigers isn’t it? I mean, who goes to Churchill if not to see polar bears, or to Rwanda without gorillas firmly in their sights?

Whether it’s Africa’s big five, a top predator or a cute-and-cuddly, wildlife tourism cashes in on a relatively select group of species – the ‘must-sees’, the ‘last-chance-to-sees’, the ‘have-you-seens’. Trouble is, many of our favourite wildlife travel pin-ups are either becoming increasingly scarce or you have to pay a hefty premium to enjoy the privilege (gorilla-tracking permits are a chest-pounding $500 per person).

Satpura intrigued me because it bucks the trend. It almost plays down the tiger. A sign near the park entrance prepares you for a likely non-sighting: ‘You may not have seen me, but I have seen you,’ reads the slogan beneath a fading image of a tiger staring through peeling paint.

Rather than persisting with the blinkered view that an Indian safari without a tiger sighting is some kind of failure, Satpura has done something rather special and unique. Largely inspired by Hashim Tyabji, the enlightened owner of Forsyth’s Lodge, it is the first reserve in India to offer the full Indian safari experience: game walks, boat trips, elephant-back rides, birdwatching ambles, nocturnal hides, visits to local communities and, yes, jeep safaris – but not the seat-clutching rally circuits you often get in other more-popular parks where drivers seem hell-bent on getting a tiger tick for their clients.

Pausing for a break in the crispbread forest, Anante and I crouched next to a game trail scribbled with the haphazard graffiti of a foraging troop of langur monkeys.

Somewhere nearby there was a clatter of leaves as an animal took flight. “This is how wildlife should be,” Anante whispered, tipping back his hat and mopping his brow. “Not used to people. Even the monkeys; you stop, they look at you and then they’re off.”

Sweat bees ran dizzy circles through the beadlets of perspiration bubbling on my arms. It was only an hour after sunrise, but you could almost sense the forest cringing in the heat, the ochre patchwork of the leaf litter smouldering with scarlet petals shed by the flame-of-the-forest trees. Monkeys were partial to the flowers, said Anante, and the petals were also used as a dye during Holi, the Hindu festival of colour.

Anante began weaving through the forest, stopping at each new variety of tree we encountered, patting its trunk and divulging snippets of bushlore. Soon we’d notched up dhwara (used in the construction of bullock carts), amla (the Indian gooseberry, high in vitamin C), saja (the termite-resistant crocodile-bark tree) and mahua (India’s so-called ‘booze tree’, whose fermenting yellow fruits can send sloth bears woozy).

This was hardly the lush, vine-draped Jungle Book of my childhood imagination, but I still felt like Mowgli, wandering wide-eyed through an Indian Eden. I even glimpsed my very own Baloo. Anante found the sloth bear’s paw prints stamped so freshly in a patch of sand that we could make out the wrinkles on its soles. A stealthy half-hour’s tracking was rewarded by a distant blur of lolloping black fur. Anante was ecstatic. “If you don’t walk, you don’t know the jungle,” he said with passion.

Almost immediately, his six-foot frame dropped to its haunches. “Look at this,” he said, “porcupine dung. See how it forms a chain, like a poo necklace.”

From the moment Anante started waxing lyrical about animal faeces, I knew that I had found one of those rare guides who finds wonder in even the most basic of nature’s offerings. “Enjoy the smallest and you’ll be rewarded the biggest,” he told me as we strolled back to the park’s headquarters.

Like most Indian national parks, there are no lodges within the boundaries of Satpura. After signing out with the rangers, we took a small boat across the Tawa Reservoir on Satpura’s northern border, and from there it was a five-minute drive, bumping through a dusty kaleidoscope of rural Indian village life, before we reached Forsyth’s Lodge.

Scattered through 18 hectares of indigenous woodland, the two-year-old property is a model of eco-tourism, with 12 stylish mud-walled cottages, a rainwater harvesting system and a strong drive to employ and train locals as wildlife guides.

It was named after Captain James Forsyth, an officer of the Bengal Staff Corps who, in the mid-19th century, became one of the first Europeans to explore Satpura. In 1871
he wrote a classic book on the region, The Highlands of Central India, in which he described Satpura’s rugged hills, gouged by monsoonal ravines (or nullahs) and cloaked in teak forest. It was, he noted, a haven for tigers.

The following morning, Anante and I explored the hills on foot, boulder-hopping along the dry riverbed of the Sonbhadra Valley. Estimates put Satpura’s tiger population at 40, but Anante isn’t convinced. He says if there were that many in the 524 sq km park he’d be seeing more signs of them.

We began searching for pugmarks in the sun-cracked mud that framed dwindling pools of water in the riverbed, but our attention was suddenly diverted by a salvo of rose-ringed parakeets hurtling overhead towards a stand of Indian plum trees further up the valley. We watched them flicker through the trees, pulsing green and blue like Christmas lights, their ratchet squawks echoing across the valley. Langurs skittered over the rocks below them, while a peacock strutted his stuff on a nearby boulder.

The longer we looked, the more we saw: a gaur, or Indian bison, standing at the forest’s edge, fixing us with an impassive gaze before turning tail and crashing out of sight; chital, or spotted deer, drifting like smoke through the shadows; a giant Malabar squirrel streaking – chestnut, cinnamon and black – through the treetops.

Later that afternoon we rode elephants deep into the forest, shouldering aside seemingly impenetrable thickets of teak and scaling ridges of tumbled basalt. It was a far cry from the so-called ‘tiger shows’ that take place in other tiger reserves, where tourists are taken on elephant-back for their allotted time with a tiger that has been located and loosely corralled – or ‘kettled’ – by other park elephants and their mahouts.

Somehow it hardly mattered that, in two hours of pachyderm off-roading, we saw little more than a family of mongoose. I still felt tiger eyes boring into my back – just as adrenaline fizzed through my veins whenever we set out on a walking safari. The tigers were there: that’s what mattered.

Even during our boat ride on the Tawa Reservoir, where we drifted silently past 4m-long marsh mugger crocodiles and watched spoonbills, storks and egrets tiptoe along the muddy riverbanks, you only had to lift your gaze to the dragon-back Satpura Range to picture a tigress lying up there somewhere, hidden from view in a secret cave.

The closest I came to seeing a tiger was on my final day. Anante was leading me on foot across grasslands peppered with blackbuck. We were casting for spoor – wild dog or sloth bear – when Anante pointed out a single paw print: a rough, weathered impression preserved in mud that had been baked hard since the monsoon rains.

I almost wished we hadn’t found it.

There was something disquieting about the hard, grey imprint. It reminded me of the fossilised tracks you sometimes see in museums; it was as if a tiger had walked this way long, long ago, and had since faded from memory.

“In ten years there will be none.” For once, there was no charismatic smile on Anante’s face. If his gloomy forecast, and that of other tiger experts, comes true, something of the wild spirit of places such as Satpura will be snuffed out. The loss of the tiger would also wreak untold havoc on the ecological balance of national parks scattered throughout India and come to symbolise a conservation defeat almost
too depressing to imagine.

But would it signal the demise of the Indian safari? Satpura had shown me how a low-key, intimate and ‘non-tigercentric’ approach to experiencing India’s wild places could be richly rewarding. There’s no getting away from the fact, however, that Indian safaris tingle with the possibility of seeing a tiger. Take that away and you strip the forests of some of their magic.

No other animal has the same effect. Earlier in the week during a game drive we encountered a leopard – a beautiful young male, one blue eye, one brown – lying beside the track. He contemplated us for a moment, then stood, stretched and slinked away. It was a superb sighting – cameras purred and Anante’s smile flashed.

And yet, an hour later, when we heard the sudden alarm calls of langur monkeys and spotted deer, the forest instantly became supercharged with tension.

The animals has probably just spotted a leopard or a wild dog, but I couldn’t help an image forming in my mind of a tiger melting into a forest gilded by late-afternoon sunlight, the dry leaves of teak trees crackling like poppadoms beneath its paws.

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