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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Day 29 in Madhya Pradesh

When last my blog was done I was just arriving into Bandavgarh National Park. Here is a really beautiful park, with its tall sal trees, its leaves all beginning to turn yellow and fall like raindrops onto the forest floor with any breath of wind. The grasses are beginning to feel the drying heat and wilting in the warming sun, and the waterholes, which didn't get as much water last monsoon as normal, slowly evaporating into hardening muddy pools.

In the centre of this park is a huge flat top mountain, rising straight out of undulating hills, and upon it lies an ancient fortress of Bandav, at the height of its powers in the times of the Mughals, and the Emperor Akbar's wife hid here for a time from her enemies. Today it has all but collapsed and is overgrown with large peepal trees, their white tentacle roots engulfing whole buildings in their octopus like grip, slowly squeezing great architectural wonders back to dust, rock and rubble from whence it came. Last time I came we were allowed to walk its great length and along its battlements and through it temples and huge water tanks dug out of solid stone. Today because of the sheer number of Tigers who live within its bounds tourists are only able to move through it by vehicle and gaze out from its mighty escarpment to watch long billed vultures coming back from their daily scavenging, their grace in flight unmatched by their ugliness once stationary. We sat and watched from here some spotted deer, alarmed and barking, by a Tiger and her cubs far below in the valley.

Driving back quietly after a lovely but relatively uneventful evening game drive in Tala, the tourism zone of the park, we suddenly came across 30 vehicles in a line all peering into a small nala by the roadside. Here frantic waving and excited chatter engulfed us, ladies in saris balanced precariously on their vehicle roll bars, held up by their relatives with camera's clicking and Gypsy engines firing up and streaming in an uncontrolled and chaotic melee as a large male Tiger imperiously moved along the 'nala' or riverbed, quite oblivious to this maelstrom of activity going on all around him. Drivers adjusted their vehicles in jerk and frantic backwards and forwards movements to give their clients better viewing opportunities, and ensure juicy tips at the end of the drive. Through this chaos that is 'Tiger tourism' a path was ensured that the stately and unfazed male tiger could walk across the road not 5 metres from a double thick line of 6 cars on either side and continue with his task of putting down his urine markers to any challenger who would knock him off his new found territory. (infact his famous father B2 is the king here!)

I might not enjoy such pandemonium for a wildlife encounter but the Tiger seems impervious to the commotion.

My Tiger trail has sought to prove to myself, and hopefully to others, that bizarrely tigers today in India are basically only existing in any significant and sustainable numbers in areas, that have a good number of tourists visiting them - even if it can sometimes be akin to visiting the Tigers at Longleat. It does not mean that this tourism is ecotourism or even good tourism - I call it 'default' tourism - and it won't save Tigers without all the other requirements like large landscapes, adequate protection, quality intelligence and sizable prey numbers - but it's a critically important component in the battle to save forests.

This is not necessary because of tourists themselves, who often behave appallingly, but really the effects of tourism; the alternative employment and livelihood opportunities generated for local people, the enhanced protection as a result of tourism pressure on park personnel to maintain Tiger numbers, the media's and politicians prying eyes; while woodchoppers and poachers seek their produce in other forest areas not so well monitored, and cattle herders do not dare to enter for fear of penalties.

After 30 days trampling the forests of Madhya Pradesh outside of these 'tourist zones', through denuded and hacked forests, through cattle and goat infested landscapes, through teak plantations of the Forestry Corporation, and indeed through some parts of the so called core areas of Tiger reserves in India not visited by hordes of tourists, I am more convinced than ever that 'If it pays to have Tigers and other wildlife it will stay. If it does not Tigers will have gone already – or be gone very soon.'

This is the blindingly obvious reality of India's wildlife today.

I am now near Singrampur in the Rani Durgawhati Sanctuary (named after a famous Gond warrior queen) staying in a lovely rest house perched on a high hill, originally built by my travelling companion, Kapil sahib. It just so happens that it looks more like an expensive villa in the South of France that a Raj designed Forest rest house, giving us a somewhat more glamorous abode that our usual standards. That is why we even have the occasional electricity and hence the correspondence.

We spend 6 hours walking on the periphery forests of this sanctuary this morning and discovered Hyena tracks and a very fresh hole dug by a mummy sloth bear and her baby sloth bear, but few others signs of what until recently was a fine corridor forest with a number of Tiger - but today no more. This afternoon we spent two hours watching long billed vultures glide back to their steep escapement homes and chicks, from their scavenging far away, which is always real magic, compounded by thousands of common swifts darting around the cliffs as the sun went down. That when I feel very spoilt.

Time for bed - oh and the snake under my bed is another story for next time!

Written on the 8th February 2009

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