The hidden spirits of Terai: Inside India's Dudhwa National Park

Deep in the remote forests of northern India’s Dudhwa National Park, the elusive tiger stalks in the shadows. But can our writer break his ‘big cat curse’, and finally spot a tiger in its tracks?

8 mins

The tigers of Terai move like spirits through the trees. Both revered and feared as myths and man-eaters they prowl unseen through the wind-rattled stems of sugarcane fields and the deep sal forests. Yet for all their stealth there are whistleblowers who would give them away.

So it was when a guttural bark stopped us in our tracks. “Common spotted deer,” said Amith Bangre, hearing the call and hastily performing a U-turn in our safari vehicle. “It’s been spooked by a tiger.” Sunset was due. We’d spent the afternoon in Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary, part of Dudwah National Park in northern India, looking for tigers.

Terai's common spotted deer (Shutterstock)

Terai's common spotted deer (Shutterstock)

With the deer’s distress call the forest hushed meditatively quiet. No more woodpeckers headbanging away like hyperactive glockenspielists as Kishanpur fell under the thrall of Durga the warrior goddess’ fearsome striped steed. Yet when a roar came it was from a less-anticipated source. Human not feline.

“It was behind us,” Amith stammered. “I saw the tiger’s tail disappear into the jungle.” I saw nothing and so my big cat curse prevailed. I’d previously failed to see Indian tigers, had a poor track record with African leopards, and South American jaguars proved equally elusive. My three-day quest to see a tiger quickly became an all-consuming obsession.

Animal arc

Jaagir Lodge, Mark's Terai accommodation (Mark Stratton)

Jaagir Lodge, Mark's Terai accommodation (Mark Stratton)

Inside Jaadir Lodge (Mark Stratton)

Inside Jaadir Lodge (Mark Stratton)

Just south of Dudhwa, monocultural sugarcane fields have encroached deep into the Terai. Amid them is a driveway of lychee trees that leads past a grandiose entranceway of Corinthian columns and onto a gravelled forecourt of royal palms fronting Jaagir Lodge. White-washed, art deco, with a terracotta-tiled veranda roof and ornate Indian motifs this 1940s colonial creation is eclectic eye candy.

Once a private residence used by British governors as a jungle lodge, it reopened, recently restored to its former glories. My bedroom was certainly sizeable enough to hide a tiger, perhaps behind the turquoise blue fabric armchairs or under the four-poster bed. From my room it was a short walk to the restaurant to dine with resident naturalist, Amith Bangre, over a vegetarian thali.

Full-bearded and stocky, the 32-year-old South Indian’s passion for wildlife is as fierce as a vindaloo. He began working in conservation aged 16 when he first encountered  tigers in Karnataka. He dislikes crowded cities. “I’ve spent 330 days in the jungle over the last year,” he said as we planned forays into three of Dudhwa National Park’s tiger sanctuaries. The reserves are part of a nationwide network of some 50 sanctuaries that have helped reverse the decline of Indian tigers since the government’s initiative, Project Tiger back in 1973.

Amith said the ‘official’ estimate around Dudhwa is roughly 100 tigers. “I’d be surprised and happy if there was half that number,” he declared. But despite the successes of Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary’s forest conservation, these big cats are still being persecuted.

Read next: 10 top spots to see India's tiger in the wild

“Recently I found one dying in a snare,” Amith told me. “It was the unhappiest moment of my life. But I saw two tigers yesterday. You will find the experience here very different to sanctuaries like Ranthambhore (in Rajasthan) where 10 vehicles might be watching one tiger. These forests are remote and parts of them inaccessible so sightings are very special.” “We leave tomorrow at 5am for Dudhwa,” he announced, before departing for bed.

Yet what a magnificent place to look for them. The Terai Arc is a 34,000 sq km alluvial lowland mosaic of forests and swamps incised by the south-flowing Yamuna and Ganges rivers issuing from the Himalayas. Much of it is located beneath southern Nepal’s lower foothills but I would enter it from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to Dudhwa National Park’s seldom visited tiger sanctuaries.

Hosting rare biodiversity, the region, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has some 500 tigers plus elephants and greater one-horned rhinos yet its landscapes are under increasing pressure from human encroachment and climate change.

I reached the Terai from Lucknow via a six-hour taxi ride south with a driver who dribbled mouthfuls of bright-red pan (an after-food mouth freshener made from betel). Lunch was sugary masala chai at a roadside stall with battered vegetable pakora straight from a pan of sizzling ghee.

Making tracks

Out on the trail in Dudhwa National Park India (Mark Stratton)

Out on the trail in Dudhwa National Park India (Mark Stratton)

Bleary-eyed next morning I mechanically shovelled down a cinnamon pastry and we left in the cold dark. I wrapped up in a poncho with a flask of citrusy tea in the open-roofed vehicle. Sugarcane quivered like porcupine quills in the pre-dawn fuzziness while smoke from burning cowpats rose from within otherwise darkened villages.

An hour later, we were entering Dudhwa National Park as the early sunbeams diffused through a skulking mist to star-burst through the sal forest canopy. Sal is a valuable timber tree of the Lower Himalayas and between ramrod straight stems rising 25m high, silhouetted hornbills glided with measured wingbeats. Dudhwa gained recognition as a tiger reserve in the late 1980s due to the efforts of conservationist Billy Arjan Singh.

This former hunter-turned-gamekeeper championed India’s big cats throughout his lifetime and reintroduced both tigers and leopards into Dudhwa. He did so against a history of tens of thousands of tigers being shot during colonial times by big game hunters across India. Near Satiana Gate Amith showed me where a Nepalese rajah hunting on elephant back had been mauled by a tiger.

A wild peacock in Dudhwa National Park (Shutterstock)

A wild peacock in Dudhwa National Park (Shutterstock)

The gate is named after the act of sati, self-immolation by fire, performed by the rajah’s wife on his funeral pyre. Shortly we reached the park headquarters and while Amith collected game-drive permits I said hello to some very underemployed safari elephants. These domesticated elephants carry visitors to see another star in Dudhwa’s firmament, Asian one-horned rhinos.

These vulnerable rhinos roam wild here albeit within an anti-poaching enclosure encompassing 25 sq km. In India they’d been blasted into extinction by poachers by 1885 then reintroduced in Dudhwa a century later largely from Nepalese stock and after steady breeding now number 33. It’s rare to see wild elephants yet they were the reason I wouldn’t see any rhinos and why the safari elephants, including a youngster who shovelled down a banana from my lunchbox, were underemployed.

“Three big wild tuskers broke into the rhino enclosure trying to mate with these safari elephants and the wardens can’t get them out so it’s closed,” explained Amith, as I visualised being pursued by five tonnes of oversexed elephant.

Amith said he’d never ride one to see the rhinos. “My mother worships the elephant-god Ganesh so would never forgive me if I sat on one.” We soon picked up the tiger tracks he’d seen the previous day but they quickly went cold. “There are two ways we track tigers,” said Amith. “They fear no predators, so they use the sandy vehicle tracks to get around and leave pawprints. And we are alerted to them by their prey emitting distress calls.”

Kishanpur Tiger Sanctuary, idea for Dudhwa tiger sightings (Mark Stratton)

Kishanpur Tiger Sanctuary, idea for Dudhwa tiger sightings (Mark Stratton)

He also showed me territorial claw scratchings on a fig tree made by a big male tiger reaching 2m above the forest floor. “They try to make themselves seem as large as possible to scare away rivals,” he said. I felt sufficiently intimidated to wonder how safe the forest workers we saw walking through the forest are.

“It’s very unsafe,” said Amith. “Two or three people are killed every three months by man-eaters, particularly when the sugarcane is tall.”   On that first safari the tigers lurked unseen in the shadows, probably asleep. So we drove back to Jaagir Lodge for lunch where the chef’s coffee panna cotta left me wobbling with joy before driving a further 90 minutes south-west to the 227sq km Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary.

Inside Kishanpur’s boundaries, the savannah was being burned by local villagers. “You know why they burn it,” Amith fumed rhetorically. “To improve pasture for cattle that they do absolutely nothing with.” “Holy cows,” he tutted. “There  are even politicians who want to  replace the national symbol of the tiger, with a cow.” His eyes rolled skywards to Shiva’s celestial abode.

Kishanpur’s gnarled waterlogged forests feature wild blueberry  trees amid a canopy that arches  over the vehicle tracks like cloisters to form otherworldly half-lit  tunnels of greenness grazed by abundant spotted deer.

Despite missing Amith’s fleeting disappearing tiger tail I found ample consolation in the biological richness of loose-limbed langur monkeys, a wild peacock that fanned its feathers like a poker player’s card hand to woo his peahen harem and swamp deer up to their haunches in viscous bog: their rufous sodden fur smouldering at sundown, 12-tined antlers resembling skeletal trees shorn of leaves. This IUCN red-data listed species has evolved webbing around its hooves. “They can literally walk on water,” commented Amith.

Rare finds

The red jungle fowl can be spotted in Terai (Shutterstock)

The red jungle fowl can be spotted in Terai (Shutterstock)

We tried for tigers again the next day at Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary on the upper Ganges floodplain, leaving with lunchboxes of curried potato-stuffed parathas. Amith was still seething over yesterday’s narrow miss.

“I had a crazy dream last night that a tiger was in the jungle laughing at us,” he sighed.  Katarniaghat is another outlying sanctuary of Dudhwa, and Amith believed 20 tigers inhabit its dry golden-hued savannah, swamps, and flooded forests that border the River Girwa.

Upon arrival we picked up a local spotter, Mohammed, who’d seen two leopards fighting the previous day yet hadn’t seen tigers in a while.

We made two game drives, morning and late afternoon, straining to hear distress calls and failing to find tracks. Throughout the day we saw India’s largest antelope, a male nilgai with its blueish-grey coat, and shuddered at fat-headed mugger crocodiles. As for red junglefowls, I couldn’t take them seriously.

“That’s a chicken, escaped from a farm,” I complained. “No, no,” insisted Amith. “It’s the chicken.  The mother of all chickens.” Yet a truly sublime boat trip on  the River Girwa fully justified the wildlife sanctuary’s logo: ‘Where rare is common’.

Of 18 species classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered across Dudhwa’s network, few are as primordial in appearance as the Ganges river dolphin and gharial.

Within minutes of chugging out on a small boat around uninhabited mid-river islands the freshwater dolphins were arching out of the Girwa. They’re challenging to photograph, unpredictably surfacing then diving leaving behind concentric ripples. Yet one dolphin swam beneath us revealing the long slender snout of this more-or-less blind cetacean that feeds by echolocation.

A gharial in Dudhwa National Park (Mark Stratton)

A gharial in Dudhwa National Park (Mark Stratton)

They have disappeared from much of a range that once spanned Nepal, India, and Bangladesh’s Ganges-Brahmaputra Meghna and Karnaphuli-Sangu river systems. A decaying sign by the river said they numbered 2,500 to 3,000. “There’s probably only 1,000 left now,” said Amith. “They need unpolluted waters to fish and much of their river network is now too dirty for them.”

Similarly slender-snouted, and basking nearby on chocolate coloured riverbanks, are antediluvian gharial crocodiles. Several inert adults sunbathed impassively unaware they face extinction. Their long fish-catching snouts are so slender you could (ill-advisedly) cup your hands around their nozzles, barbed with over 100 teeth.

They’re so ancient they evolved away from other crocs 40 million years ago yet now fishing, damming of rivers, and agriculture has reduced their population to a perilous 250 or less. As thrilling however as these possibly ‘last chance to see’ encounters were, I was aware two more safaris had passed and tigers still eluded me. Amith trusted his judgement and decided we should return to Kishanpur on my final day.

Closing in

Indeed next morning’s hunt commenced with a bang bigger than an old Raj colonel’s blunderbuss. Amith spotted tracks at 6.45am.

“They’re recent because they’re on top of the morning dew,” he said before we found fresh bark scratches. “A tiger is close,” he predicted. This spoor proceeded to a radial junction with six options, all of which Amith frantically scanned but somehow our quarry had melted like an apparition into the jungle.

There were no distress calls to guide us just the piercing pings of racket-tailed drongo birds, while tellingly the tiger’s preferred meal, spotted deer, grazed insouciantly. Lunchtime passed and we made one final attempt in Kishanpur, driving circuitously for several hours until we parked up before sunset and prayed to Ganesh, Durga, whoever, for a whistle-blower to come to my rescue.

As daylight waned I told myself I should be grateful to have lived colonial dreams of yesteryear in an opulently lovely lodge where I ticked off several endangered species in forests that belonged in Kipling’s Jungle Book.

Seeing is believing

Amith Bangre in Kishanpur Tiger Sancutary (Mark Stratton)

Amith Bangre in Kishanpur Tiger Sancutary (Mark Stratton)

However – and I promise this is not a contrived ending – a hot shower of liquid suddenly splashed down on the vehicle. We looked skywards and laughed. Tension broken. A langur monkey was urinating on us. “We’ve been blessed for a sighting,” roared Amith, soon to be clairvoyant.

At 5.30pm a whooping peacock was followed by wailing langurs now pissing themselves with fear. Amith jammed hard on the accelerator.  “Jim Corbett (another hunter-turned-conservationist) said the  best call to detect tigers is a langur,” he whooped over the cries of the still-panicked peacock.

With great intuition he took us to a junction of two paths. At 5.37pm, a hair’s breadth from darkness, a 170kg tigress strolled onto the track from the undergrowth. She was 75m away yet her markings glowed like licks of fire in the darkening forest tunnel. Breathing fast with excitement I fired off photographs.

Unhurried and uninterested the tigress never once changed her stride. She crossed the track and all I could think to do was fist-pump Amith. Then as stealthily as she’d arrived to brighten my world and expunge my big cat curse she was consumed like a restless djinn or genie into the chiaroscuro shade of the sal tree forest.

The trip

The author travelled with Cox & Kings.

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