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Into the Bush

Bandvargarh National Park, India

semi-overcast 104 °F

One of my favorite things to do on trips is see wildlife in their native areas. Zoos contribute a lot to society by teaching people about animals in order to further conservation, but while zoos are undoubtedly important for these efforts, I think there's nothing quite like seeing animals in their natural habitat. In South America, I witnessed penguin chicks emerging in Tierra del Fuego. In Africa, I saw lions, rhinos, wild dogs, elephants, and a plethora of other animals in the vast Kruger National Park. My first trip to Asia allowed me to bathe and feed elephants who were rescued from the abuse of the carnival industry. Australia gave me the opportunity to get up close with sharks, potato cod, clown fish and a host of other wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. For our trip to India, I wanted nothing more than to see a tiger, but I knew it wouldn't be easy.

The first challenge in going to see tigers is the logistics of actually getting to the park. Since we were in Hyderabad, there were no direct flights. We had to do one of the following:
1. Take an 18 hour train to Jabalpur and then drive another three hours,
2. Take a 12 hour drive directly from Hyderabad to the park, or
3. Take a flight to Delhi then on to Jabalpur for a three hour drive.

The second challenge is permits. The Indian park system only gives out a limited number of permits each day. They give out 11 car permits for three zones, and the zone you get is entirely at random. This is advantageous since we wanted to see Tigers and not just other tourists. However, Indian VIPs (government ministers, mayors, etc.) are given priority, and you don't actually know if you are going to get a permit to go on safari until the evening before.

The third challenge is actually spotting a tiger. There are only 65 tigers in the park, and they can be incredibly elusive. One driver told me that an individual he worked for had gone to another tiger park for nine days and had not seen a single tiger. My colleague, Rasool, and many of Danielle's coworkers had flatly told us that we wouldn't see any tigers. My hubris in hand, I was determined to prove them wrong.

We elected to take the third option to get there, and after landing at Jabalpur's tiny air strip, we hopped into our hired car for the three hour drive to Tala. Tala is pretty much a wide spot in the road with only a few hundred inhabitants, but it lies at the foot of the famous Bandvargarh National Park. This is where I hoped we would see a tiger during our three day stay.

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Disembarking

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A truck on the road to Tala. Since Indians drive on the left side of the road, it's typical for cars to honk to signal a pass on the right (or flash their brights at night). All the honking can seem jarring at first, but you start to realize that it's just the way for drivers to communicate back and forth.

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A typical motorbike with the male in a collared shirt and female in a beautiful sari

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Welcome to Tiger Country

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Did I mention it was hot?

The first day started at 4:45 in the morning as we sleepily meandered towards our awaiting, open-air SUV. Our driver and guide began tracking Tigers almost immediately, but the cats remained elusive for the duration of the five hour safari. We got to see many interesting animals including peacocks, spotted dear, and monkeys, but the big cats were always one step ahead of us.

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Going on safari!

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Fresh tiger tracks spotted

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And fresh tiger marks on a tree (aka scratch post)

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And the subsequent gaggle of cars that resulted

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A commuting peacock

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A monkey, suspicious of his new observers

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Well, not for long at least

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A baby monkey looking on

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Spotted buck

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The canopy

The second day started much as the first had, 5 AM departure, rumors of tigers from park rangers, but drives to various areas turned up nothing. We actually sat for an hour with the other open air vehicles waiting for a tiger to materialize out of the bush. We waited and saw a jackal run by, a family of monkeys play with one another, and a few boars root through the weeds. After an hour of waiting at the rumored spot, still no tigers.

We cut our losses and had breakfast, we had been on safari for a cumulative time of 8.5 hours and we had seen a lot of other cool animals but no tigers were to be found. Danielle stayed positive stating that we would see one eventually, and I was like a child who didn't get the big toy. "I'm skeptical," I groused. The guide asked us to finish our breakfast because another sighting had occurred. I wolfed down my potato curry, and we were back on the hunt.

I knew this time was different because the guide told us sternly when we got in that it was very important to "hold on." He wasn't kidding. We reached about 40 mph on some of these roads, about double the speeds that we had traveled before this sighting. That may not sound fast, but when the car is completely off the ground because you are going over dirt roads at such a high speed, it definitely feels thrilling.

Still skeptical, yet adrenaline pumping, we came to a screeching halt in front of three other off-road vehicles that had made the pilgrimage. And then, the King emerged:

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The king emerges

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The cars that didn't have a driver as good as ours

He sauntered up to within 15 feet of us, and suddenly, that 8.5 hours of searching had all been worth it. Seemingly perplexed by all the vehicles, but nonchalant, he walked across the road into the bush again. Our driver quickly floored it. His knowledge of the road system became immediately apparent as we tore down the dirt road on the way to the next spot he might emerge. Within 5 minutes, the Tiger emerged again.

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This act continued one more time until the Tiger finally crossed the road once more to disappear into the bush. The ride was absolutely exhilarating, and the two flights, 3 hour drive, 8.5 hours of searching had led to a wonderful moment (or three) with the true King of the Jungle.

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Satisfied with the sighting, Danielle decided to skip the last two safaris of the trip in order to catch up on work-related tasks. The third safari allowed me to see a lot of neat birds up close, but it didn't compare to the grandeur of seeing the male tiger. Afternoon safaris are hotter, and it's less likely that you'll see animals come out of the caves or their other cool resting places.

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Spotted dear eating

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A stork on his perch

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An eagle getting some shade

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Roller scouting his next snack

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Me in the afternoon sun

On the last safari, the guide heard within 40 minutes of entering the park that tigers (plural) were spotted in the open fields. Our car sped over to the spot and saw as the tigress and her two cubs slept about 150 feet away. It was tough to capture on film since I use a rudimentary camera, but I was able to see a lot of their activity through binoculars.

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Who's interrupting my nap?

The amazing part came when the mother got up, followed by her two cubs in tow. I was able to get some great shots of the two cubs walking together, and it felt like the perfect moment to conclude our journey into the land of tigers.

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Mom waiting for her cubs

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The first cub emerges

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And both go off to join Mom

Posted by mbeymer 23:27 Archived in India

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