Sunday, June 21, 2015

hunting tigers in the jungles of Rajasthan

 Most of us have read about "photo safaris", where you hunt after animals with a camera, not a gun.  That's not a sport for wimps; after all, if you are in an open jeep face to face with a big tiger, with nothing but a camera, that's not safer than having an elephant gun you know how to use. (My father and uncle did, though the grizzly bears just ran away from my uncle when he came to their territories in the West.) I was surprised to learn that on March 29 that we would be on a photo safari ourselves, in the big wilderness preserve of Rajasthan province in India.
Before Rajasthan, we had visited Delhi (New Delhi, old Delhi and regular Delhi) and Agra, which are all in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India.  On March 28, the Gate1 bus took our group to a kind of lodge hotel in the national forest in Rajasthan, the largest state by area.
   When people asked me for a two-sentence summary of "how was that tour?", I answered: "It was truly great and inspiring in the spiritual, intellectual and political dimensions, but my physical body had to cope with some distress."
Probably the distress was all due to some delicious lassi we had had from a respected street vendor before we got to the wilderness.  Though I had never had Imodium before in my life, I was glad our doctor recommended we take it with us. March 29 was when it was most needed.
    For a Gate1 tour, our group was relatively small, maybe 21 people or so. That was small enough that in the morning, Luda and Chris and I had the great privilege of riding in the small jeep you see above, with a driver and a naturalist guide, while the others rode in a much bigger open air jeep.
   The two pictures here are just two of the 400 picture files (pictures and videos) we have from that day -- jeep in the morning, and one of the tigers in the afternoon.
     There was no iron wall of anything like that separating tigers from the human town we drove through to enter the wilderness park. "But don't worry," they said, "it has been decades since a tiger came to town and ate anyone. The only cases of tigers eating people in recent years have been due to human fault, when people were stupid enough to hike up into this park. Still, we do get leapords coming to town quite often.   Mainly they come at night, to eat dogs or wild boars (both very common on these streets). If a small child wanders out at night, it is more likely to be eaten by a pig than by a leapord."
    Even before we entered the park, before we left town, we saw many other vehicles parked and looking up at a hill across the street, a wild natural place. I could not see the leapord myself, but Luda could; with binoculars and their help, even I could, and we have pictures. It was pacing to and fro on a high rock, looking down at us.
     The guide told us how the maharajas from Jaipur, ruling over all of Rajasthan, often came here for real tiger hunts in the old days. Jaipur was the greatest center of Hindu power in all of India, before Ghandi, at least for a thousand years, and we later visited the room of the Peacock Throne in Jaipur, from which the Moslem Moghul Emperors also ruled for many years.
       Human entry by road was controlled. The park is divided up into zones, separated by big chains across the dirt roads, and only guides and vehicles assigned to specific zones are allowed in.
        As we entered the initial road in the park... we could see old fortifications from TRajasthan history which they explained. More and more we could feel the jungle/forest we were entering...
What was most remarkable there in the morning was the feeling of peace.   We saw groups of various types of deer, and I wondered how the whole place could be full of such extreme calm, security and tranquillity, when these deer were out in the open where they would make excellent tiger food.
   Luda was concerned.. "Our zone is not at the center. What are our chances of seeing tigers out in this zone?" Guide: "Don't worry. We set the zones to have an equal distribution of tigers. Don't believe anything you hear to the contrary. After all, tigers have territories, and they naturally expand to fill all the territories available. In fact, we keep good track of these tigers now, and know who they are and where they are, in general." So tigers could be anywhere near us, right now... near these deer. So why the incredible thick aura of tranquility?
    Later, in the afternoon, the feelings changed. It became much hotter and drier... and of course,,... a lot of big cats come out at night. Tiger, tiger burning bright in the forest of the night, duh. All of our tiger sightings were in the afternoon... all but one, in the late afternoon.
   In the morning, as I wondered about tigers coming out at any moment to gobble this delectable food... suddenly I heard a really loud screeching "meow." (Mroow?) I thought...I jumped... but then... I had never before heard peacocks making such sounds, but that's what it was. We saw many groups of peacocks in the morning, as well as deer and monkeys.  The monkeys were eating bright red flowers off of "flame of the forest" trees; and so, for the first time, I understood better about the "mountain of fruit and flowers" in the Chinese classic book, Journey to the West -- the mountain of happy monkeys.
   That morning, I also did try to reach out in my mind to try to make contact with nearby tiger. I did get some impression... but all as you might expect and thus not veridical... pride, cynical thoughts about humans, happy to deal from a position of sleep, too much interested in resting to have much interest in the plentiful food nearby.  (Still, it wasn't until later in the day that I was so conscious of the night hunting aspect.)
    The ranger said they knew the tigers by name, such as "Much Li" (sp?), a tiger we had seen on TV. Would we get to meet that famous movie actress? "No, she is mostly retired now, in a different zone. She gets some kind of motherhood award, highest percentage of cubs that survived to adulthood. But one of her daughters liked her territory, and kicked her out of it.. just as MuchLi herself did to her mother years ago. " That was on a BBC nature documentary. The ranger went on to describe the BBC camera crew, whom he really enjoyed working with.

  I asked: "Aside from the BBC camera group, have you have more serious researchers come here and try to understand the tigers?" "No, not really. There is just one group of researchers I remember in recent years, from some new India ecology research group at the university... But they came to study the wild boards in the forest. There is money for wild boars, because the farmers are very worried about them, and also some people want to eat them," So we mentioned Ben and other folks hunting the wild boar in the US.

But... no tigers that morning. They bounced around frantically from one dirt road to another, looking for spoor and asking people in other jeeps what they had seen. There were two very brief tiger sightings that morning in our zone, as a tiger and her cub went to get water, but we never got close.
When we got back... I still wanted to thank the ranger and driver who had tried hard... but my stomach was acting up more and more. I ran back to our (very nice) room in the resort, past a swimming pool, a little bridge, and trees... and skipped lunch. (I lot 15 pounds and 2 inches of waistline on this trip.) Just strong tea and more Imodium.

We were the last back to the rendezvous in front of the lodge for the afternoon session. Since three people had dropped out, there was room for us on the big open-air jeep. However, as the last we got some idea of why they might have dropped out. Two people in the group, who were in most ways quite friendly, but had a real waistline problem, were very determined to occupy not only their seat but most of the one next to them. Chris and I offered the one good seat, towards the back to Luda.

And so... very son I felt like an incredible 3D commercial for Imodium. So sad that I could not record the whole 3D experience for their product! Only one part of my right side could be on the seat, as they jeep bounced and rattled all over on the dirt trails, and it was very hard to hold back from drenching the woman glaring at me to make sure I did not get too close.

But... very soon... a tiger. A very big male, just like the one I had pictured earlier. He was walking along the side of the trail, and looked closely at us. It seemed he sniffed a bit... and in the direction of fat woman and Imodium.. sniffed harder, looked disgusted, and just turned around to flash us and walk straight away (well, at about 30 degrees angle away from the trail.). Because it happened so fast, the most people caught on camera was his rear end. (For example, Luda had to struggle to get up from the back to get the picture at all.)

And then later... we saw one female adult far away from the side of the road. Lots of pictures, no movement.

And then... as twilight approached, we approached a female and two cubs, all big enough to move close but separately. The ranger said that Much Li had several tricks to get a high survival rate for her cubs. Since the main thing that kills tiger cubs growing up is larger male tigers, she would often bring her cubs close enough to human tourists that the big males would prefer to stay away. Suddenly, other jeeps saw what we saw... and a whole mass of them stopped... and the cubs moved especially slowly, in sight of humans. We have lots of pictures.

As we drove back, I wonder how the schedule of the tigers and schedule of their meals meshed. Do they hunt sleeping deer? Don't know.

Back at the lodge, our newfound friends, Irena and Paul, showed us the garden where the lodge grows most of the food they serve. Too at any of it. A good time to practice living off of water.

The next morning, we got on the bus for Jaipur.

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