Tuesday, September 11, 2007

India: cat stories in Kipling country

India: cat stories in Kipling country
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 07/09/2007Page 1 of 3

One slow train ride takes Robert Cowan from the tigers of Madhya Pradesh to the lions of Gujarat.

"Mal, mal," the mahout commands again, with more kicks. Against its better judgement, the elephant edges forward a foot. The tiger puts its ears back. Another foot... its eyes narrow.

Just one of the two dozen tiger sightings that Robert Cowan had in Kanha, Madhya Pradesh
We're now less than 10 feet away, and thanks to the slope and the size of the elephant, my head and the tiger's are exactly level. Eyeball to eyeball, but only one of us is armed, or rather fearsomely teethed.

The elephant nudges forward a few more inches, but it's too much for the tiger. It opens its huge jaws and lets us know, with a spine-chilling snarl, that the consequences of not backing off immediately could be pretty nasty. For us.

The elephant wisely decides that retreat is the sensible option, but not before I notice that this old cat has lost one of its fangs. In times past, this handicap might have been enough to turn a tiger into a man-eater. Would it again? Judging by the evil gleam in the eye locked on to mine, quite possibly.

We are deep in the sal and bamboo forests of Kanha, in what is, in tourist terminology, part of Kipling country in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh: the hills where The Jungle Book was set. Kanha has two advantages over some of its better known rivals.

The biggest, of course, is the abundance of tigers. An Indian government survey earlier this year reported that, with 90 tigers, it is one of only two reserves in India that still has a sustainable population.

Puzzlingly, the most recent tiger census, by the Wildlife Institute of India, estimates that the whole of Madhya Pradesh has just 45 tigers left. Yet in two days in the park we had a dozen sightings, though no way of telling how many individuals we saw.

Can the numbers have fallen so sharply in a few months, especially when my guide, Pradeep, boasted that Kanha hadn't lost an animal to poachers for more than a decade?

You can see why. Besides the constant patrols of the park rangers (tribals recruited not only for their knowledge of the hills but also to give them a financial stake in the preservation of the park's chief asset), an extensive scientific study monitors the tigers night and day across the reserve, through the use of radio collars and tracking devices.

The rangers also use the radio collars to locate the lie-up positions of a tiger or two after the night's hunting is over.

Elephants are brought up at dawn so that visitors can get close to the tigers. In four drives, two at dawn, two at dusk, I must have had a dozen sightings. In the evenings, I saw tigers stalking purposefully through the long grass.

In the chill of early morning, there was the gap-toothed oldster on the rock, others lying up under trees, and - pure magic - a young adult male sitting in a stream, a look of utter contentment on his face, oblivious to our intrusion.

Such a large tiger population, of course, requires an abundant supply of food, and the hills teem with different species of prey: chital, sambhar, barking deer, nilgai, the very rare barasingha, or swamp deer, which Kanha saved from extinction.

And other predators, too. As we drove back from watching the tiger on the rock, a large pack of dhole, the fox-red Indian wild dog, kept pace with the Jeep, bounding among the trees on the side of the track, keeping in contact with their peculiar whistling calls.

Kanha's second great advantage is that one train journey (and a couple of taxi rides) links it to that other largely ignored treasure of natural India, the lion reserve at Sasan Gir, way out on the west coast of Gujarat.

The Jabalpur-Veraval Express is a ponderous beast, taking 30 hours to cover the 1,500 miles between the two parks, but it is the only train in the world that lets the keen nature watcher view the two biggest cats back to back in the wild.

The Asiatic lion used to range all over western Asia, right up to the borders of Greece. Slightly smaller than the African lion, with a more pronounced bobble at the end of its tail and a distinctive skin fold down the belly, it is now extinct apart from the 360 or so left in the deciduous forests of the Gir hills.

The jungle is less broken here than at Kanha, there are precious few meadows or clearings, so spotting the wildlife is more difficult. Shapes are seen through the trees, and it takes intense scrutiny before the shape materialises into a definable creature.

The first drive, as far as lion are concerned, draws a blank. There was a she-leopard with a cub, numerous different types of deer and birds, a jackal and a four-horned antelope... so a blank with considerable bonuses.

The next morning expectations are low: fog hangs heavy on the park, even the peacocks seem dismally grey in the dawn mist. But no more than half a mile into the reserve the Jeep turns a corner and there sitting nonchalantly on the track in front of us is a lioness.

She seems as curious about us as we are about her. She gets up and ambles towards us. The driver puts the Jeep into reverse and we go back a few yards. She keeps coming, we keep reversing. From the mist shrouding the trees another shape appears. A second lioness joins the first in the track, identical in height and markings: presumably her twin sister.

Both are now coming towards us, not so much ambling any more as marching with menaces. The driver switches off the engine and the two lionesses come to a halt 20 or so yards away.

They stop, yawn, lie down, lick each other, do all those displacement things that cats do, but all the time watching us keenly. Then one is off back into the trees. As we discover a minute or two later, it is a pincer movement: soundlessly, she emerges on to the track a few yards behind us. Both eye us intently.

Is the one in front licking her lips? Are they sizing us up for breakfast? The guide is reassuring. Lions never attack anyone in a Jeep, he says softly. But the driver switches on the ignition anyway... Just as things get tense, the sound of tyres on gravel comes from down the road and another Jeep appears around the corner.

The lioness in front, her disappointment showing, ambles past and joins her sister behind us. Together they disappear into the trees. We sit silent for a few minutes waiting to see if they will re-emerge, but in the distance there's the alarm call of a barking deer, and it's clear that the pair now have other matters on their minds.

We drive on, a mile or so down the track catching a glimpse through the trees of a shaggy male drinking at a water hole. Sadly, the sound of the Jeep reversing for a better view is enough to chase him off.

Sasan Gir, until this year, had been one of the more notable success stories in big-cat conservation in India. The lion population, which hit a low of just over 20 animals in the early 20th century, had been increasing steadily and the state government was looking at the possibility of creating a second reserve in Gujarat.

The bad news - catastrophic even - for these last remaining Asiatic lions is that their existence seems to have just come to the attention of the poachers who supply bones to the illegal Chinese medicine trade.

The poachers, having stripped bare some tiger reserves and reduced the total population in the wild to as few as 1,300 animals if the latest census is to be believed, have realised that lion and tiger bones are almost indistinguishable. Between February and May this year, eight of Sasan Gir's lions were snared and killed.

At a stately average speed of just 50 miles an hour, the long ride on the Jabalpur-Veraval Express is a bottom-numbing experience, but the thrill of seeing lions and tigers at either end makes it entirely worthwhile. Better not leave booking your ticket too long, though...

On the hunt for big cats

I travelled independently, with the arrangements, including all the train bookings, made through the astonishingly efficient S D Enterprises of Wembley in north London (103 Wembley Park Drive, Wembley, 020 8903 3411).

At Kanha, I was booked into the Krishna Jungle Resort. The company’s driver met me at the nearest station, Jabalpur, and took me to breakfast at a sister hotel in town – with, thankfully, a room to get washed and changed in – before the three-hour drive into the hills.

The camp itself is a couple of miles outside the tiger reserve, the rooms in a series of sparse but comfortable lodges based around courtyards.

There’s a swimming pool and a dining room (but no bar, though alcohol is available), and the price of £70 for a double room includes all meals and two safaris per night stayed.

At Sasan Gir I stayed in the tented Lion Safari Camp. If only someone had been there to meet me at Junagadh, the nearest station to the reserve . . . First, I had to find a taxi (there were only autorickshaws at the station), then an interpreter to tell the taxi driver where to go.

But the camp itself was very pleasant: the tents large and comfortable with a separate bathroom attached at the rear. Again all meals were included in the price of £93 a night, but the safaris had to be paid for separately. Two dawn safaris came to almost £50. Gujarat is a dry state, so there was no bar.

A 21-day, go anywhere first-class Indirail travel pass costs £113.


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