Hidden tigers

In 1894 Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book was published, partly set in what is now Pench national park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The story tells of Mowgli, a man-cub raised by wolves, and his adventures with various bears, elephants and a mongoose called Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. But the star of the story, and the film which followed, is undoubtedly Shere Khan, a ferocious, crotchety tiger.

Little has changed in the past century, judging by the approach to modern-day Pench at least. The occasional roadside Kipling references – “Visit Mowgli’s Den Café!” – are far outnumbered by images of large, orange cats. We pass signs for tiger tours, tiger hotels and tiger restaurants; the effect leaves little doubt what visitors have in mind.

India has 42 tiger reserves, with Pench among the more popular. It is conveniently located just a few hours’ drive from the city of Nagpur, which in turn is just a short flight from Mumbai. More importantly, an estimated 30 to 35 tigers prowl its 758 sq km. A friend returned triumphant from a trip the previous weekend, having seen two.

Yet while my partner and I travel to Pench in hopeful spirits, there is an anxiety, too. Tigers invite superlatives – the king of the jungle, nature’s masterwork, and so on – but they are solitary, elusive animals, and I have heard many more stories about fruitless attempts to spot one. To improve our odds, we have booked four drives into the park, as part of a short stay at Baghvan in a luxurious safari lodge run by India’s Taj group.

We arrive mid-morning, too late for the first excursion (which leaves at 6am), but providing plenty of time to poke around the premises. The property is small, but beautifully designed, with just a dozen private bungalows hidden in their own small patch of jungle, set back from a central dining area, swimming pool and spa.

The Taj lodge at Baghvan

The rooms pointedly have no televisions but do come with characterful teak furniture and a charming blue Rajasthani tiger-motif table. We also discover twin showers (one outdoor) and a machan, a second open-air sleeping area upstairs, protected only with curtains and mosquito nets. Yet even in such plush surroundings, the literature by the bedside makes no promises: big cat sightings are far from guaranteed.

In Kipling’s day, estimates put India’s tiger population at 40,000. Today it is roughly 1,700, according to official figures, a decimation wrought by habitat destruction and poaching, the latter helped along by demand for tiger parts from Chinese medicine.

Hunting played a part too, as I am reminded before our trip when flicking through a biography of Fateh Singh Rathore, India’s most famous “tiger wallah”. The conservationist died in 2011; he campaigned for the animal’s preservation for half a century but also planned occasional shooting trips for important guests.

The most infamous came in 1961, when Britain’s Prince Philip found himself pilloried for killing a tiger (only months before becoming the head of the World Wildlife Fund).

The few thousand tigers to survive this era of aristocratic brutality – hunting was banned in the 1970s – soon took on special significance. India’s remaining population is equal to that in the rest of the world combined, making the country the world’s tiger tourism capital but also the central front in an increasingly desperate battle to save the species from extinction.

This sense of crisis deepened last year, when India’s Supreme Court banned tourists from all tiger reserves to ensure the animals would not be disturbed. Convoluted politics lay behind the decision but it was widely viewed as a mortal threat to the delicate economics that underpin the country’s preservation efforts – by which tigers attract tourists, and tourist revenues pay for tiger protection.

The ruling was lifted in October but guidelines from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) called for a reduction in the proportion of the reserves that tourists would be allowed to visit. At Pench, access was narrowed from 36 per cent of the park’s “core” area to 20 per cent, and, in order to avoid overcrowding, the number of vehicles allowed to enter each day was halved. The controversy seems set to continue; the federation representing the Pench safari lodges is now mounting a challenge to the NTCA guidelines.

Despite the best efforts of Waseem Kasim, an amiable naturalist provided by Taj, our own first drive through the park is pleasantly uneventful. We toddle around in the evening sunlight, cooing over the park’s numerous spotted deer and black-faced langur monkeys. There are scant signs of tigers but we return contentedly enough four hours later, ready for the Italian supper cooked by the lodge’s chef.

Sitting outside later in the trip, I mention the Supreme Court decision to Kumwar Singh, the lodge’s operations manager. “Park employees, villagers, vehicle owners, tourists, this ban affected everyone,” he says. “The other side says the tourists are harmful, that they annoy the tigers and that they are throwing out plastic and so on. Even though it’s not true, at the moment this anti-side is winning.”

It is a view shared by others concerned with the species’ preservation, including Will Travers, the chief executive of the Born Free foundation, a British-based conservation group which in March will stage what he calls the “largest tiger awareness event ever” at St Pancras station in central London.

“Humans can definitely be part of the problem, but also part of the solution,” he tells me, after we return from the park. “I don’t think anybody wants to see loads of people in jeeps surrounding harassed tigers, but at the same time if you don’t have the type of tourism that brings in serious resources, you are making visitors scapegoats for the failures of tiger management more generally.”

We see little evidence of such troubling behaviour during our visit, but Pench does have a reputation as one of India’s better-managed reserves. Its tiger population has increased in recent decades too, as part of a major national conservation effort called Project Tiger, launched in the 1970s.

Others have less happy records, however, notably Panna, which caused a national scandal in 2009. An audit revealed the park to have fabricated some two dozen animals; a mixture of poaching and corruption meant it actually had no tigers left at all. Although the debate over India’s recent ban focused on fixing problems inside the parks, attempts at preservation must look further, according to Belinda Wright, a Calcutta-born conservationist who now heads the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

“There is too little intelligence-led enforcement of rules in India,” she says, speaking by phone from another tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh. “Also, nobody was really rapped on the knuckles for what happened in Panna, for instance, so we need more accountability too.”

She also points to a range of other issues, in particular land use adjacent to reserves – even well-managed areas can become surrounded by hotels or other developments. This creates what she calls unconnected “islands of conservation”, whose biodiversity will prove unsustainable in the long term.

Tourists on a drive through the park

There are problems within the parks too, as Kasim explains when we head out the next morning. Tigers are nocturnal, making dawn prime spotting time: we leave in darkness, with blankets, hot water bottles and hand mufflers to fend off the chill.

Creating a safe habitat means fending off poachers and displacing villagers, he says, shouting to be heard against the wind as we rattle off into the park. But tigers also require space, meaning even well-run parks find it hard to increase numbers much – and hence why India’s tiger population is probably only just holding steady, despite years of expensive conservation efforts.

If more are born, the result is often a fight for territory; the losers (if they survive) leave, and must fend for themselves outside the area protected by the park. “Sometimes I feel these animals are cursed,” he says, with an air of genuine sadness. “At least lions hang around in packs and help each other. Tigers need so much space; they just can’t live together.”

Such gloomy thoughts are banished a few minutes later, however, as Kasim spies fresh paw prints (called “pug” marks) on the road ahead. Suddenly elated, he speeds up, and we follow the trail down the road, convinced a first sighting is imminent.

As the freezing air rushes by, Kasim yells back to explain that tigers often walk on the roads early in the morning, to avoid getting their paws wet on the morning dew. Then he stops the jeep suddenly, killing the engine.

The thick forest around us is silent. Our hearts racing, we listen out for “alarm calls” from other nearby animals, alerting each other to the tiger’s presence. One rings out in the distance; the engine comes back to life, and we career off down the track to follow it.

Minutes later we stop at a dry river bed, and cut the engine again. Kasim explains in a whisper that one of the park’s female tigers often sits near this spot, with her cubs. We listen intently, as the morning light comes up around us. Using binoculars, I peer hopefully through the dense vegetation, and find myself almost willingly hallucinating tigers in the distance. Far-off logs take on feline form, while tree stumps seem suddenly to exhibit distinctive, symmetrical orange-and-black stripes.

Yet despite our wait, nothing emerges and we trundle off reluctantly, to try our luck elsewhere. It is a pattern that sadly repeats itself on subsequent drives: we hear the odd alarm call but the tigers keep themselves well hidden.

The trips are relaxing and enjoyable nonetheless, and we see a fine array of other wildlife. Four enormous muscular black bison appear in the morning mist, alongside various jackals, gigantic local deer, and even a solitary darting mongoose, to remind us of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

Even so, by our final outing we begin to feel a touch sorry for Kasim, especially when he tells us of the pressures that come with his job: “Ninety-five per cent of guests are just all about tigers, tigers, tigers!” he says at one point, with a rueful smile. “If I tell them something I know about a tree, they aren’t really that interested.”

Back at the lodge, the staff offer consolations: apparently there were no sightings anywhere in the park during our stay. December also turns out not to be the best time for tigers: April and May are better, we are told, when the summer heat thins out the vegetation, and thirsty animals spend more time out in the open, by the waterholes that dot the park area.

Such disappointments do not put us off, however, and over another fine dinner on our final evening, we discuss a possible return next year. Later that evening, we opt to sleep outside in the machan, and I fall asleep to the soft hum of the jungle outside the curtains, to dream of tigers, walking close to the side of our jeep.

James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent

James Crabtree was a guest of the Taj Baghvan Safari Lodge (www.tajhotels.com), which costs from INR 23,000 (£274) per person per night, full-board and including safari drives

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